Intent is Important

Original Citation:
Miles, Adrian. “Intent Is Important (a Sketch of a Progressive Criticism).” Journal of Digital Information 3.3 (2003).

An archive of all the essays that made up the special issue on hypertext criticism, that this was a contribution to, is available at http://journals.tdl.org/jodi/article/view/117

Intent Is Important

This is a short piece about hypertext criticism that I wrote for an issue of the Journal of Digital Information that was dedicated to hypertext criticism. The editors sought (and received) brief pieces from a variety of contributors. In this brief essay I argue for the materiality of hypertext as a necessary part of interpretation while arguing that the intent of the work is the work for itself, not to be confused with the intent of the author, reader, narrator or whatever.

Intent is Important (a sketch for a progressive criticism)

A no doubt apocryphal story about the original writers of “Cahiers du Cinema” – a famous and at the time of its founding revolutionary cinema studies journal – was that they were only allowed to write about films that they liked. The rationale for this was that it was easy to write about what you didn’t like, and that in responding to what you did not like you did not need to ‘listen’ or pay attention to the film, that it would only ever be writing as ressentiment. Similarly, to write about something you did like was understood to be a more difficult and productive undertaking, in attempting to locate and describe why you like something you’re required to affirm and make visible what may not be immediately apparent. You have to ‘listen’.

Now while this may have been a useful procedure in the 1950s it is much more difficult to accept such a view of critical practice in 2002. Or is it?

I’d like to propose that it does actually offer a viable methodology, as long as some romantic and idealist assumptions are suitably redressed for our late postmodern times. It would be reasonable to believe that those of us engaged in critically writing on specific hypertexts do wish to affirm something about hypertext and the text’s we’re confronting. Even where the critical writing may be thought of as negative there is still some sense in which the work is an effort at affirmation. For instance, it may be a way of illustrating a particular agenda for what hypertext ought to be, or more simply to provide examples for theoretical claims about hypertext in general.

However, it doesn’t have to be as complicated as this, and certainly to institute a progressive form of hypertext criticism some simple tenets could serve us well. What I have in mind is the rehabilitation of intent for critical practice where this practice is specifically engaged with the interpretation of hypertext works – as opposed to more abstract theory.

(This rehabilitation is, I suppose, not very far removed from Gadamer’s (1976) argument for the importance of recognising prejudice as a proactive or productive force in our engagement with the text as an Other. )

Intent is not to be confused with the intent of the author – Barthes (1977) and Foucault (1977) shared the shovel in well and truly burying the author some time ago – but it is to recognise that there is an intent in the work to the extent that the work intends to do something for an Other. This Other includes other works, the readers it requires to realise itself, and even its own material conditions. The work means, and we need to give this some imperative force, that is to recognise that the work demands to mean something and that this demand to mean is a demand made in and of itself. Not the author, not the reader, but the work.

Such an approach could be misunderstood as a naive hermeneutics, and if so I would radicalise this by recognising that the intent of the work is, literally, the works and so it is, if you prefer, a posthuman hermeneutic. What this means in practice is very simple and is really only making literal the general claims of poststructuralism, claims that hypertext criticism seems to have been well able to adopt in general discussion of hypertext in the abstract, but has resolutely struggled with when engaging with specific titles.

For example, poststructuralism demonstrates forcefully the way in which we are subjected to language (leaving aside the problem that poststructuralism tends to treat language as the gestalt for all other systems, which is plainly inadequate and wrong). As we use language we think we are in charge, we get to choose our words, sentences, and certainly in vernacular English there are an infinite set of possible utterances available to us. Now, while we get to choose which words, we don’t really get to choose, as individuals, what words get counted as words. Nor for that matter do we have much say over what they mean, hence the problem that everyone has, all the time, in struggling to say what they mean. But again, it isn’t as complicated as that. An example I often use with my students to make this concrete for them is the following word game, which only really works with native speakers of English. It goes something like this: “what rhymes which shop and you buy at the butchers?” The class answers “chop!”. I then ask “What do you do at a green light?” And pretty much without fail the class answers “stop!”. It usually takes a little while, but someone eventually realises (though often I have to point the error out) that no, you’re not supposed to stop at green lights. The point? That there is a material logic to language that completely overruns, subverts, and corrupts logic as reason. It is easy and trivial to do. Reason, that grounding of ego and subjectivity in self assured centredness, is not the ruler we think it is.

In the context of hypertext criticism what is required is the recognition that when we are interpreting and critiquing a work there are similar material elements (inevitably multiple) that inhabit the work, and that while there probably cannot be right or wrong interpretations, there can certainly be better and worse. The better critiques are those that are able to identify, that is to show, what different material elements are present in a work – authorial intention could certainly be one, but only one, of these – and what they appear to be doing. Again, what they are doing is up to them, that is I am arguing that we ought to think of the work (and not it’s ‘producer’) as more or less being like a psyche in its own right and so subject to consideration in the same terms. What we interpret when we do hypertext criticism then ought to be the work, and once we recognise the work as an intending entity in itself it becomes unproblematic to acknowledge that it will, for instance, have its own unconscious, its own bits that it doesn’t know about or understand.

This has been the hallmark of deconstructive practice where the so called ‘deconstructive turn’ has always been to show how a work which thinks it is logically coherent and whole, in fact contains within itself the very terms, ideas or material expressions that render this coherence complicit with what it thinks it does not need, nor know.

However, a progressive hypertext criticism does not need the arsenal of deconstruction to legitimate itself, it simply needs to recognise that the text is the entity under consideration, and that the text as an entity in itself is simultaneously entire and incomplete. It exists as itself but of course never does so without a complex set of contextual constraints and enablers. These include what we recognise as intertextuality and authorial intent but it also includes the material resistance of code, screen, interface, bandwidth and browser space, it might also include the recalcitrance of the hypertextual object to never quite be what it desires to be.

A simple example from hypertext will, I hope, indicate what I mean by all this. In Caitlin Fisher’s “These Waves of Girls” we find a hypertext novella with a complex, noisy, rather ungainly and at times unattractive design. (I ought to point out I was a member of the selection committee that short listed entries for the Electronic Literature Organisation’s inaugural hypertext fiction prize in 2001, of which “These Waves of Girls” was the recipient.) There is a Flash credit sequence that doubles as a recurring navigational screen, tiled images, embedded frames, and 404’s which produce a carnivalesque parody of what constitutes good design, usability, and a good read.

Is it ‘bad’ design? Probably. Is it bad code? Definitely. Is the author a bad web designer, naïve, or in command and ironically gauche? Who can tell from the work, and more importantly, at what point does her intention become significant or dominant to the critical analysis of the work? It could be that she fired up her wysiwyg editor and wove away, or it could be that she carefully considered the errors as a montage of attractions and oppositions. My point is simply that the work doesn’t tell us, and it is the work that matters.

Recognising this I would argue the critic is much better placed to then critique the inadequacies of the project as realised, by providing a context for these that relates to the work itself, rather than an a priori set of conditions that it ought to meet. I am, for instance, reminded of many low budget independent films where available lighting, sync sound, and single takes are the rule, producing work that is, compared to Hollywood, ‘unprofessional’. (Or the entire tradition of using untrained actors, for example most of the oeuvre of Kenneth Loach.) Yet we have the vocabulary and the ability to contextualise and engage with this work, and recognise that Hollywood simply does not provide the terms with which to engage with the work critically. More over, like the dribbles of paint in Pollack, the best of such work embraces these constrained conditions as a positive event in or for the work – they are not films that secretly wish they had a Hollywood budget but creatively, aesthetically, critically and theoretically place themselves against such practices. To misjudge this leads to bad criticism an an inability to ‘hear’ the work.

When confronted with a work such as Fisher’s I’d argue a viable critical methodology is to ask of the work why it wants to look like a teenage girls bedroom – or it’s webbed equivalent. Or more literally, let’s think of the work as how a teenage girl might see herself, where the 404’s become something akin to that obviously enormous pimple on your nose on the morning of the prom, and the sound files scattered hither and thither remind you of the Spice Girls covers you secretly sung. Then you might develop an argument as to whether it is good or bad work, but only then.

Alternatively, Ian Haig’s “My Favourite babe: Aquatic technology” offers a similar problem. This web based new media work offers very little in the way of contextual cues as to whether it is ‘art’, ‘satire’, or a sad boy’s hypertext dream (unlike Fisher’s which at least was entered in an electronic literature competition!). Examining the source code reinforces this as it displays all the worse excesses of wysiwyg generated code – multiple empty embedded table cells, division elements and font tags. However, keeping in mind what I have suggested, a viable critical approach here is not to accept that it is bad code, bad design and so bad work, but to have the necessary vocabulary to contextualise the work, and to be able to ‘listen’ to it in such a way that it can at least be interpreted rather than merely judged – criticised rather than reviewed.

This begs the question of which elements in the work ought to be ‘listened’ to, though the answer is usually all. This includes interface, textual, graphic and media content, code, site architecture, and any other properties that you wish to draw into your critical analysis. As a discursive object all of these obviously convey intended meanings and are available for interpretation, and I would suggest that some process of interpretation is required before, rather than alongside, normative judegments of whether the particular work is good or bad.

A preliminary approach then might recognise the repeated excesses of the work, expressed in its language, graphic design, repetition, subject matter and of course the code. So, rather obviously, it is at some level a work about excess, and this excess extends ‘inwards’ into the very role of code and its relatiosnhip to its visible surface (a relation of latent to manifest texts if you like) and outwards into the textual and media economy of the web, popular culture, and into the figure of Pamela Anderson herself. Indeed, “My Favourite babe” uses what could be called ‘internet English’, a creole that I would imagine being the sort of English you would learn and use if the Internet (just as popular music, television, and film before it) was where you taught yourself how to read and write. Now this is not yet a critical analysis of Haig’s work, but already key tropes are apparent around the themes of repetition, excess, popular culture, and the slippage between appropriation, originality, and the creolisation of ‘content’ online.

As “My Favourite babe” suggests, badness is of course here a deliberate and courted aesthetic, so any judgement about the work must acknowledge the nested series of contexts this invovles – the work succeeds in its badness so is it a good work, or is it a poor example of this electronic creole antiaesthetic? The question, or problem, only makes critical sense once a critical context has been determined for and by the work.

Did Ian Haig intend this? I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters if the object is to provide a critical idiom for these works. You can only read against the grain when you know how to find the grain.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Trans. Stephen Heath. Image–Music–Text. London: Flamingo, 1977. 142–8.
Fisher, Caitlin. These Waves of Girls. February 22 2001. www. Available: http://www.york.ca/caitlin/waves/. September 24 2001.
Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977. 113-38.
Gadamer, Hans–Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Trans. David E. Linge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
Haig, Ian. “My Favourite babe: Aquatic technology”. http://media-arts.rmit.edu.au:16080/Ian_Haig/babe/. 2002. August 22 2002.

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