Gavin Miller has a written a fascinating article,"The Apathetic Fallacy," in the April 2010 issue of Philosophy and Literature. Following up on the arguments made by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels in "Against Theory," Miller argues that the humanities are plagued by a wide-ranging — and harmful — taboo against speaking about intentionality and subjective epistemology. Our main mistake, he contends, is that we mistake objective ontology with objective epistemology. Because we aspire to be scientific, we dismiss arguments that rely on introspection and fear the consequences of accepting "first-person warranted claims" (a fear first expressed by advocates of behaviorist psychology). This leads to absurd readings of texts, such as Fredric Jameson’s famous Lacan-inspired misreading of Bob Perelman’s "China," which allegedly exemplifies the schizophrenic breakdown of signifying chains under conditions of late capitalism.
Let me share my favorite paragraph of Miller’s essay, an example meant to illustrate the limitations of Lacanian psychoanalysis:
The ethics of the Lacanian “unconscious” are, I believe, less than benign. The interpretative practice that Fink describes seems indistinguishable from the hermeneutics of abuse directed at Barack Obama for his 2008 campaign comment that “you can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.” This remark was meant as a metaphor for Republican policy, but was interpreted by the Republicans as a reference to Sarah Palin’s candidature for Vice-President. The “pig” in the metaphor, they insisted, was Palin, who had earlier joked—with implicit reference to herself—that the difference between “a hockey mom and a pit bull [terrier]” was “lipstick.” Had only the Republicans been more Lacanian, they could have added that Obama’s repudiation of this interpretation indicated his pre-analytic investment in a specular image of wholeness and self-identity.
This example neatly expresses the crux of Miller’s argument, revealing both its strengths and the questions it begs. Miller is in essence asking, what kind of loon would blame Obama for calling Sarah Palin a lipstick-wearing pig? George Saunders might say this kind:
So, when Barack Obama says he will put some lipstick on my pig, I am, like, Are you calling me a pig? If so, thanks! Pigs are the most non-Élite of all barnyard animals. And also, if you put lipstick on my pig, do you know what the difference will be between that pig and a pit bull? I’ll tell you: a pit bull can easily kill a pig. And, as the pig dies, guess what the Hockey Mom is doing? Going to her car, putting on more lipstick, so that, upon returning, finding that pig dead, she once again looks identical to that pit bull, which, staying on mission, the two of them step over the dead pig, looking exactly like twins, except the pit bull is scratching his lower ass with one frantic leg, whereas the Hockey Mom is carrying an extra hockey stick in case Todd breaks his again. But both are going, like, Ha ha, where’s that dumb pig now? Dead, that’s who, and also: not a smidge of lipstick.
A lose-lose for the pig.
As the political blogger Adam Serwer has recently argued, the American right has increasingly taken up the mantle of identity politics — "an identity politics which perceives persecution, and possible extinction, for a culturally constructed usually white, conservative, ‘real American’" — embracing the politically correct tendencies formerly associated with liberalism. More and more, I would add, it is the left (more so even than liberalism) that is opposing identity politics, trying to make connections, to disrupt the absurdist malfunction of reasoning that Saunders represents in the form of his narrator’s damaged discourse. Which is not to say that Saunders doesn’t also reinforce some hoary culture war stereotypes — his satire was, after all, published in the New Yorker, and seems to complain that supporters of Palin aren’t merely wrong, but stupid. My minimal point, though, is that the apathetic fallacy Miller discusses is a bipartisan affair on the American political scene.
But is there no defense we might mount of Saunders’s narrator’s misinterpretation of Obama or Jameson’s misreading of Perelman? I am certainly a fan of referring to intentionality in critical arguments I make. I’ve spent a considerable about of time in archives this summer and during previous summers looking for evidence to justify my various critical claims, on the assumption that authorial intention matters. But isn’t the common confusion of intended-meaning with what we might call significance, well, significant?
And, if we are to speak of the ethical dimensions of how we use language, to what degree should we hold someone responsible for the significance of the words they use? To what degree is it valid to judge the success of art in terms of its effect on its consumer? It seems hard to maintain that intention should always trump significance. Aesthetic responses are, to different degrees, grounded upon our appreciation of the nonsemantic qualities of speech, as Amy Hungerford points out on her recent study, Postmodern Belief. We frequently treat the nonsemantic — the aesthetic, cultural, social, historical — as though it were a kind of meaning or had the force of meaning. Whole artistic movements have been built around such conflations. Should we simply banish or ignore these movements? Judge them as failures because they get their theory wrong?
This sort of confusion is at the heart of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, a novel that revolves around the "politically correct" misapprehension of intention. Coleman Silk, a classics professor at Athena College, is punished as racist for using the word "spook" in reference to two absent black students, despite the fact that he meant the expression to have no racist meaning. He was merely referring to the ghost-like absence of his students, he explains. And yet Roth is too cagy to simply come out on the side of intention, against significance, though his sympathies pretty clearly lie with Silk. After all, Roth might have constructed his parable of political correctness run amok without also making Silk someone who is passing for white and as a Jew. This plot development exposes some of the limits of grounding critical analysis in the investigation of intentionality. Can Silk "intend" himself white? Clearly, Silk doesn’t think so. He believes that his blackness is a function of who he is, not what he means or what he does. Otherwise, there would be no such practice as "passing." As Walter Benn Michaels has pointed out, without a sense of racial essentialism, a "passing" Coleman Silk would simply be white because he is taken as white.
But if blackness isn’t what Silk does, but rather who he is, then he shouldn’t be able to submit his blackness as evidence that he is not racist, at least not if he believes that it is only his intentions that ought to count in judging his language. His blackness is, because he understands himself to be passing, definitionally not a function of his intentions and meanings. So, paradoxically, Silk is submitting his blackness (who he is) as evidence that he could not be making a racist statement (what he means), despite the fact that being who he is by definition has no meaning if intention is what really matters. It only has significance. Ergo, Silk must be saying something like, "As a black man, I am alive to the significance of racist words and phrases. It is therefore reasonable for you to assume that I would not use words with a pejorative significance. From this set of facts, you can reverse-engineer my intention and my true meaning."
So even Silk must rest his self-defense on the notion that there ought limits to what one can say — he implicitly accepts these limits, tacitly claims to be very much aware of them — regardless of one’s true intentions. Though he avoids the apathetic fallacy, his difference from his persecutors is one of degree, not kind. Silk continues to believe, as the administration of Athena College does, that you are obliged to confront common or public interpretations of your words even if those interpretations don’t express your real intention. Just as one cannot defend oneself when breaking the law by claiming not to know the law — "I shouldn’t be fined because I didn’t know I was supposed to curb my dog!" — one cannot disown the significance of one’s language. This in no way is meant to be a judgment about what specific consequences should follow from violating these socially determined limits, only to say that Silk seems to be on the same page as his enemies.
Bringing this discussion back to "The Apathetic Fallacy," I find myself agreeing with Miller that we should not commit the apathetic fallacy — we should not discount subjective epistemology or confuse objectivity in epistemology with objectivity in ontology — but I do feel we should also guard against the false belief that in not committing this fallacy we have excised the responsibility that we have for our words (both their meaning and their significance). Miller doesn’t seem to hold to a strong version of this view, but in the Manichean cultures that have defined literary study over the last thirty years, and here Michaels can be deemed as guilty as those who he often rightly disagrees with, swinging too far the other way is a… significant risk.