Postmodern Spoon Theory

At this year's Modern Language Association conference in snow-bound New York City, session S729 focused on queer readings of comics, with the inevitable arguments over whether people were reading too much into things, drifting from canon to fanon, etc.  (Yes, they do talk about fanon at MLA, it's part of literature.)  I wasn't there, it's not even remotely my academic field, but a friend live-tweeted the session and I figured it'd be a good springboard for what will hopefully be a short essay on literary criticism.

Make no mistake, when I first heard about deconstructionist litcrit from friends in college who were literature majors, I scoffed.  They tended to scoff too.  Authorial intent no longer mattered?  Texts should consider only the reader?  It just seemed like the sort of thing sore losers would make up..."The author himself refuted my analysis, so I'll start a school of criticism that explicitly tells authors their opinion doesn't matter!"

With age can come a mellowing of strident stances, and so it has in my case when it comes to deconstructionist literary criticism.  Oh, there's still a lot of stupid in there, but any analysis tool is going to be abused by people with agendas or without a clue (or both).  I've seen quite a bit of that in science, after all.

(The years have not
been kind to this toy.)
And so, here's yet another attempt by someone outside of literature academia to justify why "Death of the Author" isn't a total cop-out.  Or, rather, how the general ideas behind deconstruction are useful and important without having to completely ignore the author.

I have a Quik bunny spoon that my parents sent package labels away for when I was a kid.  It's long enough to let me stir stuff while keeping my hand from being directly over boiling water but short enough to eat with...a great utility spoon for someone who'd rather not wash a lot of dishes.  But a few years ago I discovered it also worked better as a backscratcher than any purpose-built backscratcher I'd ever owned.  The designer of the spoon probably didn't even consider that use, and certainly didn't specifically design it to be a backscratcher...and yet I find it very useful in that role.  The bunny-ears end is just edged enough to scratch effectively through shirt fabric, but not so sharp as to actually damage shirt or skin.

In essence, the interaction of object and user resulted in an unintended but definitely valid application.  Any of you who use tools on a regular basis probably have at least one tool that does that for wasn't designed to do a thing, but it does that thing really well for you.

And that, near as this outsider can tell, is the core behind text-and-reader analysis.  Just because the author didn't intend some meaning in their story doesn't prevent the reader from finding it.  When the person experiencing the creative work (henceforth "reader" even if it's not a book) interacts with that work (henceforth "text" even if it's something like a movie), new meanings can be created.  Valid meanings.

To clarify, this is not the same as "headcanon," in which the reader makes decisions about the content of the world described in the text.  Let me give an example that was brought up in the MLA session: the transformation of Steve Rogers into Captain America as a metaphor for an Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB) transman transitioning into physical maleness.

"This should also cure that bad case
of Yaoi Arms you have, Steve."
A headcanon would be that "Steve Rogers" was really a skinny and flatchested woman passing as a skinny guy.  Professor Erskine's process didn't just make Steve a physically perfect specimen, it also changed his female body into the correct-for-Steve male body.  That's the stuff of fanfic, there's no support for it in the text.

A reader could quite reasonably see it as a metaphor for transitioning, though, especially if they were an AFAB man who needed a personal hero to inspire him to go ahead with living as a man.  The writers did not intend that particular metaphor, they probably intended "child growing up into a man" as the metaphor, as was much more obviously done with Billy Batson/Captain Marvel.  Authorial intent didn't even come close to transgender issues.  But the text, once released into the wild, acquired additional meanings with every new reader.  That's the power of "text and reader" analysis, the new meanings that are generated by each reader, independent of the meanings the author intended.

Where things tend to go overboard is with the extreme "Death of the Author" idea, that says that only the reader-generated meanings matter.  That tends to sound "sore loser" to the casual non-specialist, and leads to derision heaped upon deconstructionism.  But you can accept the idea of reader-generated meaning without abandoning authorial intent.  In a well-written story, you should be able to figure out the interaction between author and text, as well as your own interaction with the text.

Better to have "Demotion of the Author" rather than outright death: the author's statements are not the last word on the meaning of a text.  This is especially true when the author's statements seem self-serving, or the author is blind to some of their own assumptions.  The classic "a product of their times" excuse that is made for obvious racism or sexism in older works, for instance, is a case of meaning the author might have put into the work without intending to.  Yeah, you can go overboard even on this milder level, drawing shaky or even baseless conclusions about the author based on the text, particularly with the benefit of hindsight (i.e. whenever something major is revealed about an author, all their old works tend to get analyzed for indications of that something, claiming that even if they didn't consciously know that about themselves, it was coming out in their work).  But it's still a useful way to think about texts.

Ultimately, the author creates the text, putting in meanings both intended and unintended.  But then it goes out into the wild, and there's no guarantee anyone will find the same meanings.  As long as the author is competent, everyone should share the same facts about the fiction, but not necessarily the same understandings.  Metaphors happen.  Not only is there a spoon, it might also be a backscratcher.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), long time online reviewer of comics, post-toasties-modernist, occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.
Postmodern Spoon Theory Postmodern Spoon Theory Reviewed by Dvandom on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 Rating: 5
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