Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Author's Intentions

I intend to write for no more than 15 minutes here.

But did you know that after I'd gotten the M.A. in Linguistics and had done sociolinguistic research and had published some of it internationally, an outsider told me what I really intended?

A Ph.D. candidate in linguistics who was doing dissertation research on his own language, Korean, approached me to help him revise and edit his drafts. He was concerned with previously unexplained little particles (or uttered words) in Korean that were fairly rarely used and that had no written grammar. But he looked to one of my languages--to English--for analogies. And he asked me, rhetorically, "Why do you English speakers use Gestalt psychology as if intentionally?"

"Huh?" I said (thinking to myself, "Why don't you just ask me in plain English?")

My friend went on to explain, as an outsider to native-speaker English, what I a native speaker of English intended. When I intend to express something closer to me, I'll say things like "here" and "this," and keep my mouth a little more closed. But when I intend to express something further away from me, I'll say things like "there" and "that," and drop my tongue a little to open my mouth more. And I "intend to write" but don't always "intend writing"; and yet I "enjoy writing" but don't usually "enjoy to write." My friend told me then that I intend "field and ground" distinctions with my English phonology and my English grammar.

"oh" I said (wondering if this is what all my excitement about language had sounded like to my family, when I saw them yawning as I talked. But then it sort of dawned on me that I had become sort of a linguistic insider, which one of my daughters calls "nerd.")

I hope my point is this: author intentions matter tremendously if you are an insider or an outsider. And the outsider sees how "naturally coherent" what you intend seems to you. But the outsider can also see how naturally incoherent what you intend really is, how nerdy how boring how amazingly complicated.

Now some bullet points:
  • my staff here at the university coaches some Olympic athletes. Ha, what I mean by that is this: they teach them English. But I said that just because it's true and also because at least once in this post I intend to sound "cool" not nerdy.
  • but the tennis coach and the track coach and the swim coach -- all three of them -- confirm to me that the world-class athletes do not always see what they do, what they intend. They ask the student athlete what she thinks she's doing when she's won the trophy; but the video tapes sometime show otherwise. And the coaches sometimes tell the elite and the accomplished that they really shouldn't think but really should just do what they've trained their bodies to do. Outsiders to help them see.
  • People in 12 steps recovery groups need individual sponsors. Outsiders to help them see. Sometimes intentions are not really intentions.
  • A feminist researcher at a conference I attended earlier this year was declaring that Alcoholics Anonymous is sexist. Some of us who hate sexism, outsiders to her research, asked if AA really doesn't intend some discourse that is feminine? There's collaboration, there's disclosure, there's recovery, there's narrative, there's progress not perfection, there's reconciliation. "Yeah," she protested, "but there's the 'Higher Power' and the inherent hierarchy." So I've thought about that one a long long time. And have wondered whether there's not some intentional humility needed--but how does the researcher and the outside questioner of the research intend humility, if there is no one to be humble towards?
  • There's a discussion going on over at BBB on a song that someone wrote who is lamenting intentions of sleeping with someone else's wife and putting the husband of the woman in the line of fire in a war. Now the intentions in the writing of the song were to come clean. But it took an outsider, a friend named Nathan, to get the jerk to admit how selfish he'd been.
  • What's intended in the color of clean? Insiders may intend one thing, or do they outsiders?
  • In the same conversation over at BBB, it's become clear that the men intend a preference for euphemisms for the circumcised part when they question using euphemisms elsewhere. It's taken an outsider, a woman, to point that out.
  • One philosophy professor asks his Phil 101 students, when they turn in their exams, "Do you believe what you wrote"? It takes this question, right then, to get them to realize that what they intended to say on the exam for the prof isn't necessarily what they might intend when talking with their mother or their best friend.
  • The research I did asked people of various self-identified backgrounds to declare "Where the best English is spoken." Those who'd studied in former British colonies, under the English educational system, invariably said "Great Britain" is where the best English is spoken. Then the same individuals listened to speakers of English whose nationality they correctly identified; and when rating the best speakers, they did not rate the "British" speakers highest. It took the research instrument to bring out differences in the intentional answers of the individual people studied in the research project.
  • Does Aristotle intend sexism when he writes? Does Paul?
  • Does the translator always, really, intend what the original language writer intends?
I think I know what I intend to do with this post. But an intention is NOT always so singular. And I need you to read. So I end with one of my favorite quotations from Nancy Mairs. What do you think?

Publication of any sort is an intrinsically social act, "I" having no reason to speak aloud unless I posit "you" there listening; but your presence is especially vital if I am seeking not to disclose the economic benefits of fish farming in Zäire, or to recount the imaginary tribulations of an adulterous doctor's wife in nineteenth-century France, but to reconnect myself—now so utterly transformed by events unlike any I've experienced before as to seem a stranger even to myself—to the human community....lending materiality to my readerly ideal, transform monologue into intercourse.


Bob MacDonald said...

I backed up a little in the 180+ posts I had rushed through coming back from my short holiday - this one was worth looking at again. What a good layout - you have spread a table before us - what will we see and from which example will we profit?

I intended only love towards you, says the Lord - but you see only a threat. I intended to know you in life - but you see only death.

So I (Bob not that Other) can see why we are called to 'repent' - either to turn or return to that source that knows our deepest need that we imagine we know or that we imagine that Other does not know.

J. K. Gayle said...

Glad you had a holiday, if short. And am honored you'd stop by here. Thank you for your thoughts, for reading, and now for writing in return. You're helping me see more why, a calling of return to our deepest need, to have it, in imagined and in yet unimagined ways, met.