21 June 2011

Intentionality

I'm not, it turns out, a big fan of talking about intent.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of spending a couple of hours talking to (noted, famous, influential) Ray Gibbs, who is, among other things, a leading metaphor scholar. He was in the UK for a couple of days to work with my supervisor and she had carved out a couple of hours of his time for me and one of her other students. An amazing experience, really, to sit around with them and pretend like I had anything to say about anything.

We got talking about intent and deliberateness which is an argument in metaphor studies right now: whether or not you can talk about someone deliberately 'intending' to use a metaphor. It came up in Spain, it came up yesterday, it's coming up in my research on impoliteness: however you cut it, intention in any real sense is impossible to recover. I say this in my literature review (subject to revision):
As Edwards shows in his analysis of police interviews, even when intentionality is the explicit topic of enquiry, what an individual reports about their intention is not entirely reliable, to say nothing of how others perceive the intent. To account for this, Culpeper (2008) employs Gibbs' definition of intention as the 'dynamic, emergent properties of interactive social/cultural/historical moments within which people create and make sense of different human artefacts' (1999, p. 17). In this sense, 'intention' is not a static artefact for the analyst or the speaker to recover, but dependent on and changing with user reports of their intention (and indeed, perception of user intent).
I'm too lazy to add the references, but Gibbs there is the Gibbs who was here yesterday: a funny experience when I was sounding off on intention and realised suddenly, saying outloud, 'Well, I mean, I cite you on this point.'

Anyway, during the course of the discussion, I made the point that when you intend to have a child (as I am thinking about child-bearing 90% of my day now), it is the result of actions that are perhaps not always meant to lead to having a baby. Everyone laughed, but my supervisor laughed in a particular way and said, 'Yeah, like you intended to have another baby' or something to that effect in relation to Mia, and in a way that made me suddenly cross. But we had intended to get pregnant: we had stopped using birth control after several serious discussions leading to a conscious decision to try to have a baby. Isn't that 'intent'? It certainly wasn't, as my supervisor seemed to suggest, an accident, a slip up, like I was a seventeen year old who hadn't worn a condom. I hadn't acted foolishly--the opposite, I had acted nobly. It was an intentional decision of love. I suddenly wanted to cuss and shout. I did intend this, goddammit: who are you, you of all people, to say that I didn't!

As I rode home, I realised how important common sense intention is in the real world, where we are always evaluating the intentions of others and telling stories about their intentions, based on our own biases, and coming up with all sorts of silly, non-empirical stories. In this case, my supervisor's perception of my intent is just based on her very limited perception of the situation, certainly not malicious, and it isn't of any consequence. Even if it was, how would I ever prove my intention? There really are only two people who know what 'actually' happened, and even what 'actually happened' is submerged in our perceptions of it, our stories about it.

I remember this from high school suddenly: someone was spreading a rumour that I was sleeping with my girlfriend, the worst of both worlds in the Evangelical community I was in, all the stigma of behaving poorly with none of the pleasure. Someone said to me at the time, 'Take care of your character and don't worry about your reputation.' It might have been, 'Let god worry about your reputation,' but the same point applies: you can control what you do, never the stories people tell about you. People tell great stories about you sometimes, they tell bad stories about you sometimes. You tell stories about yourself to try to make sense of what you do, you tell stories about others to make sense of yourself in the world. There are stories everywhere, all kinds of stories.
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