I Am the Author

walrusYour faithful blog committee moderates posts and comments on  a rotating basis.  I was  “on call” on Tuesday evening and, returning home in despair after a night at Miller Park,  inadvertently published posts by Professors Greipp and Papke under my own name. The mistake was fixed in the morning.

But I found the latter error intriguing. Here I was, ostensibly the “author” of a post regretting “dominant ideological prescriptions related to, respectively, autonomous individualism and the bourgeois market economy.” It was as if someone had replaced my bedside Edmund Burke with Jean-Paul Sartre.

But here’s the thing. I do agree – in a sense – with David’s point.

If, in the terms David invokes, the author is part of a “collective subject “whose work is “trans-individual” in that it is permeated by others in its creation, then it seems equally probable that it is permeable in the ways in which it will be understood. This should be so quite apart from whether someone else appropriates parts of the work and turns it to a different purpose. (I once heard Rage Against the Machine used as part of a presentation at a corporate board meeting.) The “established forms” and “reigning sentiments” that the author invokes may, even because of the creativity with which he invokes them, provoke responses other than those he anticipated.

Of course, many works benefit from the contribution of others and all authors work in a social context that contributes to what they say and how it is read. But beyond that, an author – or, for that matter, a musicial or visual artist – loses control of the meaning of her published work. Others may understand it or use it in ways that she never intended, e.g., Ronald Reagan’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the USA” as a patriotic anthem rather than an expression of irony and anger.

I don’t pretend to know what intellectual property law says about this. One can’t have a property interest in how someone perceives a work although one can, I suppose, have a property interest in controlling its use and exercise that interest in a way that hampers the manner in which the work itself can be used to furthers this unintended and undesired understanding. I guess that implicates, among other things, the concept of “fair use” and I have nothing to add to that.

But, as a matter of interpretation, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with reading a work or hearing a song in a way that its creator did not intend and, in fact, may categorically reject. My mother was a painter who always told me that a work of art (including hers) was not limited to an artist’s intent or interpretation.

On my personal blog, I occasionally post Sunday music videos (generally live performances) often around a theme and sometimes in support of some political or – more often – philosophical observation. (This post on theodicy was in honor of the beginning of my Law & Theology seminar.) Once in a while, a commenter, in high dudgeon, will say that Thom Yorke never meant that or Dylan repudiated his Christianity. 

I don’t care. They can point brilliantly to things in the world. But I get to say what it means to me.

Mom would be proud.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Peter Heyne

    Speaking of interpretations of an author’s work, I recall the opening to the (rather disappointing) 1986 film of Umberto Eco’s masterful medieval novel “The Name of the Rose,” which states that the film is a “palimpsest” of the book. *Note that a palimpsest [lit. ‘scraped again’, Gk.] is “[a] manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.” Amer. Heritage Dict., 4th ed. [I wonder how many viewers of the film, other than die-hard medievalists, got the erudite, if not obscurantist, reference…] Accordingly, as is not unusual (as Prof. Boyden remarked about P. K. Dick’s novel and “Total Recall,” etc.) the film was in many respects, other than medium of course, a different work than Eco’s book. Yet overall the book lingered beneath, not completely erased. [Contrast with ‘faithful’–or ‘slavish,’ depending on one’s view, I suppose–film versions of the Harry Potter series.] I see the same even with the many awful modern cinematic interpretations of Shakespeare (see, e.g., 2006 “She’s the Man”–“Twelfth Night” as the Bard meets Abercrombie and Fitch and soccer). At what point does an interpretation/appropriation, particularly onscreen, so completely ‘erase’ the source material to make any reference to the original odious (if not illicit)?

  2. Jessica E. Slavin

    Wow, what a delightful post and comment.

    First, Peter, I always feel like I have to respond when someone uses the word “palimpsest,” because that is one of my favorite words. My dad and I had a habit of trying to stump each other with difficult vocabulary when I was a kid, and we liked that one so much that we have continued to tell each other whenever we see it used, for years now. I will be emailing him a link to this comment!

    And, Rick, I really did not expect you to be a Beatles man?! That album cover also takes me back to my childhood and what my parents call the hippie-dippie days. Although I don’t actually like that song, I am the Walrus, much. I think it is one of those pieces of art that is best appreciated in some context that I don’t care to share.

    More seriously, though, I really like your last paragraph. I agree; each of us gets to say what someone else’s expression means to us. That understanding informs my own understanding of jurisprudence, and my belief that it is impossible that there could ever be one “correct” interpretation of a particular expression in a statute, regulation, or written opinion. Obviously, some interpretations are more persuasive to one’s audience than others. Does this post mean that you agree, in principle?

  3. Melissa Greipp

    I like your blog, Rick! Your point that nothing is “wrong with reading a work or hearing a song in a way that its creator did not intend and, in fact, may categorically reject” is right on.

    This blog reminds me of the poem by Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I have heard that when Frost was asked what the line “And miles to go before I sleep” meant, he said in an interview that he was thinking of a literal interpretation of those words. (I wish I could verify this information, but I can’t find the original source.) And yet, readers of this poem have found many different ways to interpret those lines, and to find a variety of meanings in the entire poem. That’s the beauty of poetry, I guess.

    I am currently slowly reading my way through The Name of the Rose–I will look forward to watching the movie when I’m done with the book.

  4. J Gordon Hylton

    I too was disappointed by the film version of The Name of the Rose in 1986, and I had to go home and look up the word, palimpsest, to find out what it meant. The frequent critical comment, “The film wasn’t as good as the book” usually means that the viewer is familiar with the written story which he or she still see imbedded beneath the film version.

    Sometimes the director of the film is trying to improve on the original story–the Ridley Scott’s transformation of Philip K Dick’s “Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep?” into his “Blade Runner” is such an example. I’m not sure what, if anything, Scott owes to Dick in such a situation.

    However, most often, the director tries to retell the print story in film, often capitalizing on the audience’s familiarity with the print version. Usually this is doomed to failure because of the time-limitations of the traditional film–the story must be told in 200 minutes, tops.

    Once in a while the director pulls it off. My favorite example of this is Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) which captures the essence of the Fielding novel even though it deals with only a small part of the original story and makes changes in the part that it does use. Still, one comes away from the screen aware that one has seen the cinematic equivalent of the written original.

    It’s better when the director is dealing with a book that is out of copyright (as Tom Jones was in the 1960’s). Then the literary merits of the two works can be compared without worrying about what the director “owes” to the author.

  5. David R. Papke

    Rick’s description of how readers might create their own meanings for a text is very similar to what is known in literary circles as “reader response theory.” Authors cannot control the meaning of what they write. Different people can find different meanings in the same text, and, indeed, the same reader reading a work at different points in his or her life can find different meanings.

    This view of the “reading” experience is not limited to written texts, as the example of what President Ronald Reagan thought of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” superbly illustrates. I think Reagan really did hear the song as a patriotic salvo! Another example of a non-written “text” with multiple interpretive meanings is “The Godfather.” Coppola wanted it to be an indictment of America, with the Corleones representing bloodthirsty businessmen. Much to his dismay, viewers of the film liked the Corleones and even found them heroic.

    Jessica raises a good question that I have yet to hear Rick answer, namely, wouldn’t written texts such as constitutions, statutes and appellate opinions also inherently be open to variable interpretations? Can we intellectually control what the law says? Rick should be careful with his answer. He already briefly seemed a leftist when his name appeared on my “What Is an Author ?” post. He might now be flirting with the Critical Legal Studies’ position that law by its very nature is indeterminate.

  6. Richard M. Esenberg


    I do like the Beatles but on that fundamental question that rendered a generation, I was a “Stones man” (or, more accurately, boy).


    I do consider myself a PoMo conservative, but there is a difference in the interpretation of legal texts. Beyond the fact that most will not lend themselves to a variety of interpretations, their application involves coercion and, therefore, requires a source of legitimacy. In our legal culture, there is generally thought to be a point at which the text obtained society’s consent. To interpret the text to which the public consented in a way that it did not intend raises questions of legitimacy.

  7. Jessica E. Slavin

    Rick, I actually hesitated for a moment to use “Beatles man,” thinking that in reality you were a boy at the time. But “Beatles man” has a nicer sound to it.

    With regard to the response to David, I should probably just drop it (especially because I suppose you know what I am going to say) but I will play out my side of the argument anyway. I agree that since application of the law is backed by coercion the legitimacy of the interpretation of those words is key. That’s why I am so troubled by the, to me, unconvincing attempt to constrain the task of interpretation in the way that you seem to advocate. As I tell my students (and as Jim Chen made me realize when I was in his Legislation course as a first year (though I am not sure he intended to do so)), what can we mean when we ask what the legislature “intended” or what the public “intended” when a particular phrase or sentence was approved?

    You are right of course that oftentimes it’s clear what words mean, and thank God for that! But in the most important cases, it is not clear at all, so that there are, unfortunately, numerous legitimate ways to “interpret the text to which the public consented.” As I said in my initial comment, some interpretations are more persuasive than others. But, in many cases, we are left in the end with a choice among a number of interpretations that could deemed legitimate by the court. To my mind, failing to recognize that reality about our situation as human beings, imperfectly able to understand and communicate with each other, is what raises questions of legitimacy, by turning legal decisions into questions of faith or doctrine rather than actual interpretation.

    Or, in the words of Modest Mouse, “Language is the liquid that we’re all dissolved in…. Great for solving problems, after it creates a problem.”

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