I'm a bit surprised by how interested in authorial intentionality people are; I posted "Intentionally Omitted" primarily to clarify what Drout, Hodges and I were dancing around for the One Ringers. The comments have been interesting, especially as a window into how minds work when they are grappling with intentionality.
I wanted to address the issues raised by Chris of Nihil Fit in one of his comments. Chris wrote:
Although it may be the case that it is difficult to determine the author's intent, it does not follow that such a project is impossible, nor does it follow that the author's intent is irrelevant (a strong claim probably not intended by Nokes). Can't we infer something about intent from examining the original context/audience?
First off, let's give Chris points for cleverness in questioning what I "intended" in my post -- he made me laugh harder than anyone else that day. I do think, however, that the intent of the author is almost irrelevant -- i.e., it can tell us a few things about meaning, but those things are not extraordinarily important (more about this in a bit).
I find that, in general, epistemological concerns often result in unwarranted skepticism and even worse, metaphysical conclusions. [...] Just because we can't have Cartesian certainty about a matter doesn't mean there is no truth about that matter. We should apporach each work on a case-by-sace basis, asking what we can discern about intent, rather than embracing a paradigm that dismisses such concerns altogether.
My first post primarily dealt with epistemology and intention (for those of you playing at home, epistemology is the theory or study of knowledge -- basically how we know things). Chris is right to protest that Cartesian uncertainty tells us little about whether or not a matter is true (plus, as a medievalist, I'm not particularly beholden to de Cartes anyway).
Let's grant, though, Cartesian certainty. Let's say that scientists at MIT have come up with an Intention-o-meter (patent pending) that is able to detect and measure authorial intention to an exactness of four decimal points. We have absolute Cartesian, epistemological certainty, right?
Well, not really, because our Intention-o-meter (patent still pending) only tells us what the author intended -- it does not follow that the author's intention determines meaning for a text. In other words, even if I know EXACTLY why the author of Gilgamesh decided to make him 2/3 god and 1/3 man instead of some other fraction, it probably doesn't affect the meaning of the text significantly. I take from it the idea that Gilgamesh was more god than man, regardless.
Let me give you another example. The other day one of my colleagues was telling the tale of a freshman essay he received, describing a child afflicted with "Attention Defecate Disorder" [sic].
Now, I can state with reasonable certainty that the author intended to write "Attention Deficit Disorder," and simply made an error. OK, so why did I laugh why my colleague told me? Why did you laugh when you read it?
Because we recognize that meaning is not held in the author's intentions. The meaning of the text is that the child has some sort of bizarre disorder, perhaps an inordinate interest in scatology. If we challenge the writer, she's probably argue, "Yes, but what I meant to say was...", conflating the idea of meaning with intention. If meaning were actually held in intention, though, the phrase "Attention Defecate Disorder" wouldn't be funny; it would just be a spelling error. We laugh because intention and meaning are radically disconnected.
Of course, intention is not always completely irrelevant. I assume my colleague wrote a wry comment next to the error and proceeded as if the paper had expressed the idea correctly. Manuscript study relies often on figuring out scribal intentions by using errors in the copying of texts to determine a manuscript's geneology. Still, when we edit a text we often correct it -- the very act of correction implying that the meaning of the text can be disconnected from the author's intention.
Rather than belabor the point any further, let me simply offer an example of two very similar texts: Frankenstein and Dracula (the books, not movies). Frankenstein works best when Shelley know exactly what she is doing; Dracula works best when Stoker loses control of what he is doing and lets his anxieties take over.