I've been thinking about intent and interpretation, in communication and art especially, seeing a lot of things popping on my friendlist and journal related to the same thing.
Writer's intent is why people like thecorbie
think there might be a case against fanfics
Intent is something that might be or might not be gotten, with a responsability that may or may not be rested on the writer, as per mithrigil
's question here
Intent is what shippers who ship a non canonical pairing are entirely disregarding when they ship still, as per a_white_rain
. (NB: spoilers for Avatar the last airbender's final at this link)
Intent of deconstructing the "Nice Guy" was probably part of what Dr Horrible was about, as curtana
points out here
, but which I've seen a lot of people misinterpret as a genuine nice guy whose manpain is oh-so-tragic. (NB: spoilers for Dr Horriblle at this link)
Intent is what doesn't really matter when people say they hadn't mean to be racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, ableist, elitist... if this is what is read by the people who have the best reason to complain of it. Intent, there, is only a way to claim their own priviledge, very often.
In terms of information, when we communicate, there is
1/ what we mean to say, what we intent
2/ what is actually said, in words, in text, in ink on the page, lines on the paper
3/ what is heard and understood by other people, how they interprete it, text and subtext - which is of course as multiple as there is different people.
2/ the text does not have intrasec meaning. There is a platonician ideas tied to it, of pure meaning, of true message. Information is only information because it's interpretated by someone with a brain and there is always always
variations, minsinterpretation of intent within it. Because context is something that always infer on the interpretation, and nobody's got exactly the same context at the same time.
1/ intent I think doesn't matter all that much. In our culture, perhaps because of its moral value under Christianism, intent tends to be extremely valued in terms of responsability. However intent is something way to fickle to judge by : first because we don't know
other people's intent, we just have to trust their word for it (in which there is yet another pitfall of misinterpretation), second because people may not know their own intent entirely, third because regardless of intent harms can be done as a result in any case. Also, for all of that, it is rude and disrespectful to presume of someone else's intent. It also shifts any discussion of blame from discussion of action/text to discussing a person themselves, which is offensive and often results in wank much more quickly as a result.
So we're left with interpretation.
Are all interpretation equal? Are some more legitimate than others? What makes one interpretation more legitimate than any other? And who's to blame for possible unfortunate (racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, classist, elititist, etc.) interpretations?
For all that all interpretations are in parts subjective, I don't think they are all equal. If you've spent any time in fandom, you'll have noticed that some extremely extravagant interpretations are sometimes brandied (with or without seriousness). For all its subjectivity, any interpretation is still based on the text, so there are criteria to judged how acurate to the text it is. (No, I'm not going to go at length about the tools to judge that accuracy.)
However the nature of an interpretation also matters. Not all kinds of interpretation pretend to accuracy. Some are merely humouristic (crackful parodies and the like) for example.
Narrative interpretations as in fanfics are also something very different. They don't usually pretend to accuracy (since they're obviously not the original author). Narrative interpretation's legitimacy is based on its own artistic worth. Is it a compelling interpretation. Does it lend itself to a complex, rich, aesthetically-worthy story? This is what gives a fanfic, as interpretation, its legitimacy - the sheer richness of a culture of narrative dialogue and artistic creation.
Likewise with shipping. Historically the biggest backlash against specific non canonical ships (Harmony in Harry Potter and Zutara in Avatar the last airbender) have been because some of their shippers were pretending to some kind of accuracy. I don't think there's anything wrong in itself to make the pro Zuko/Katara interpretation a_white_rain
mentions in the link above, however if such an interpretation is done while saying it is more accurate than any other interpretation there is a problem.
Of course some fanfics do
work as criticical interpretations - only done in narrative form. They function as a meta commentary pointing out gaps in the text, or exploiting specific themes. (Some works as a commentary of other fanfics too! Ongoing dialogue that it is). When that is done, accuracy becomes again a criteria.
So what about the moral responsability? Who's to blame for dodgy interpretations? Well if an interpretation pretends to accuracy, and can judged as mostly accurate in consideration of the text, then the responsability sides more on the author's side. If an intepretation pretends to accuracy, but is mostly not accurate with the text, then the responsability is more on the side of the reader. If the interpretation doesn't pretend to accuracy, the author's responsability wasn't ever called in question in the first place.
This is not taking context in consideration, and context matters, does it ever.
First, I've been talking about what an interpretation pretends or does not pretend, but that pretension isn't always made explicit. That is to say, for example, most fanfic writers know they are not pretending to accuracy and know that most of their readers used to fanfics know this as well so they don't usually bother spelling it out. Which, I think, is in parts why outsiders seem to be much more worried about misinterpretation due to fanfics and mistaking the writer's intent for the fanfic. However a lot of fanfics do have a tradition of disclaimer, usually done in terms of "therse characters and settings are not mine". Close enough for me but I haven't been an outsider for a long time.
Second, of course, there's how context infers any unfortunate interpretation. Having a story where a lesbian dies and her girlfriend goes crazy isn't in itself homophobic. It is because there's a history of the very same trope being used overwhelmingly any time lesbian characters are featured, and because of the history of institutionalized homophobia that has been going for a long time in Western culture. So in terms of responsability the quest is, is the context from which the text originated is similar enough to the one from which this interpretation is done? At least it seems to me that this way that can work.
Done now. I hope that wasn't too anvilicious.