For some time now we have been trapped in a debate around authorial intent—that is, does the author get the final say on what a text says? Or do they merely get a voice just like the rest of us, albeit a persuasive one, in the enduring discussion around and interpretation of a particular work.
I simply cannot get on board with the argument that we ought to allow an author to declare what a particular text means, to issue an authoritative proclamation and to put all debate to rest, by mere virtue of holding the creating hand.
The rejection of authorial intent is not as a radical as it first may seem. It does not seek to reduce the role and value of the author, nor does it seek to invite the chaos of interpreting the text in unrealistic or unsupported ways. Rather the stance is a realistic one and one informed by our contemporary understanding of psychology: we do not always (ever?) know our own minds perfectly. Our subconscious, the part of us that fuels our creativity, is as much a mystery to us as the contents of any closed and opaque system. We may get glimpses into our subconscious from time to time, in dreams and the like, but to say we know it as well as we know the back of our hand simply cannot be true. And yet this hidden force shapes our thoughts in general and specifically shapes our creative and intellectual work.1I do not mean to suggest there is a meaningful distinction between creative and intellectual work, I was only trying to be clear with the scope of the subconscious’s impact in our work generally.
It follows, then, that if we do not know our mind, at least not completely, how can we possibly ever put our hand on our heart and say anything definitive about what our work might mean? At best we can perhaps state our superficial intentions for what we hoped the work to mean. It will forever be an open question as to how successful one was at achieving this goal.
If you find the above psychology argument perhaps a bit murky, then I have a decidedly more practical objection to authorial intent: the inevitable gap between conception and execution. One may wish to have intended the melting cheese sandwich as a powerful metaphor of climate change, but if one is a terrible writer, does the meaning still prevail? Can it be fairly interpreted from the text? Or is a new, alternative or even contradictory meaning now possible to interpret instead? It is surely the latter. The author’s technical and creative strengths and weaknesses create meaning entirely unintentionally, and these meanings may clash, challenge or reject the author’s intended meaning. Consider the awful way cisgendered male authors have historically written female identifying characters. Or consider the work that is intended to be a satire on racism but ultimately just reads as simply being racist itself. How can we resolve the gulf between execution and conception if not by rejecting any attempt by the author at making authoritative statements around meaning and purpose, and instead focus on the text itself?
We can and in most cases should consider anything the author has said about their work, just as we should consider what the work actually says. Of course, considering the author’s context and other works may also be useful in interpreting and understanding a text. But it is a mistake and a dereliction of our intellectual curiosity to allow the author to be definitive on the matter.
Moving from theory to praxis, we see the enduring harm and danger of authorial intent in video games which refuse to feature accessibility and difficulty options, such as those most famously made by Japanese auteur Miyazaki-sensei (creator of your Dark Souls and Rings of Elden and so on). These games feature incredibly difficult systems, dark, spooky settings and very little (to no) accessibility and difficulty options.2Difficulty and accessibility are two separate concepts—a game can be quite difficult but feature excellent accessibility options (and vice versa)—but they are closely related in that they both ultimately enable more people to explore (and therefore interpret!) a particular work.
Often the stated reason for the omission of what is otherwise considered best practice in game design is the desire not to compromise on a particular authorial vision. Miyazaki-sensei clearly has a view on how one should experience and interpret his texts and consequently attempts to force players into a very narrow, pre-defined relationship with these texts. In short, it is an attempt to control the experience and control meaning in a way that strikes me as incredibly old-fashioned and quite hostile to the idea of player agency.
If a work is strong enough, as I sincerely believe Miyazaki-sensei’s works are, it does not require a very specific and prohibitively narrow interpretation or experience to be successful. In fact, completely the opposite! The obvious example is Shakespeare: his plays are transcendent works no matter if they are performed on a dusty historic stage or turned into a film, or song, or music or perhaps even a fun meal. The desire to force a single monolithic experience on others is perhaps the truest expression of authorial intent, and creates the clearest reason why we ought to resist the idea.
We should continue to challenge the idea of authorial intent. While a lot of us reject the idea on a conceptual level, we do not always reject the implications of the concept. Too often do we fall into the easy trap of pretending an author has all the answers, and consequently allowing them to define the ideas and experience. Instead, we should turn our gaze inwards and ask ourselves what a particular work means. This is the path to a richer way of engaging with media and the way to developing our own critical voice.
- 1I do not mean to suggest there is a meaningful distinction between creative and intellectual work, I was only trying to be clear with the scope of the subconscious’s impact in our work generally.
- 2Difficulty and accessibility are two separate concepts—a game can be quite difficult but feature excellent accessibility options (and vice versa)—but they are closely related in that they both ultimately enable more people to explore (and therefore interpret!) a particular work.