The Heart of the Maze

Moonset over Ithilien

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Sorry for the mess, but extensive cutting and pasting took place!
White Fans Against Racism

Sorry for the backtrack--I'd wait until TNH edited her journal and put stuff back up, but who knows what will be there (and on a quick skim of one screen capture, I didn't see my comment which came pretty late, I think).

BACKGROUND: Nellorat made a comment in the thread at TNH's journal (which I am completely paraphrasing here relying on my memory: if she has her original text in an email, she's free to post below, but I want to say right now, memory! Not perfect!) wondering if there was scholarship (my term--I think) about analyzing various people's (speaker's?) intents, similar to the literary theory of convergent evolution (which I'm not sure I know of, but would guess it's something about similar literary forms or conventions happening in different places? Wild guess) where (my interpretation here) two statements that had the same form (i.e. words, syntax, etc, my interpretation remember) were not the same in intent (i.e. one would be racist, one not).

My reply was:

I have done a good amount of work as an academic with critical race feminism, intersectional feminism, and a range of other work including sociolinguistics, and I have not seen anything on sorting out "intent" or claiming that there must be a huge observation of "observed behavior
including other things said."

What there is covers pretty much most of the main points made by a number of posters in this discussion concerning racism as socially constructed,as systemic, as operating through venues of privilege and assumption, and the difficulty of dismantling/changing such systems.

Those writings may exist--I cannot possibly know all the work in all the scholarly disciplines--but the whole "intentionality" issue is fairly well debunked in a number of disciplines.

And as a feminist and a queer, I don't give those people (mostly men, and mostly straight) who come out with sexist, misogynistic, and queer phobic commentary points for intention. As a white person, I don't expect my "intentions" to excuse me when I say racist things (which I have done and
do and will do).

Their reply was:

Subject: Re: < lj user="lavendertook"> here

the whole "intentionality" issue is fairly well debunked in a number of disciplines

Definitely including mine (literary criticism), but I not only can't see a way to avoid it in real life, I don't think I'd want to. That is, by the way, one reason why I used "intent" rather than "intentionality."

I have to say that when in real life I encounter potentially stigma-based statements that gore my own oxen, I do infer people's intent based on what else they do and say, and I think it's a key tool that I would hate to give up. (I can give examples, if that wouldn't be seen as making it all about me.) If I don't know the person well enough to have that kind of context, I usually try to ask instead of assuming.

Actually, since a lot of my articles are about sf/fantasy/horror authors that I do know, or come to know if they contact me, I have very real professional issues about how to include statements of writerly intent in my analysis--throwing the info out as less informative than another critic's insight seems wrong, but taking it as Gospel is right out, too. So far, I feel I've walked that tightrope pretty well. It's been most useful when I think I might see influences--asking is easier than culling their correspondence and library records (as I have to do with dead
writers) and better than finding out too late that the writer has never even heard of that work.

I had no chance to reply because, LOCKDOWN!

So: Nellorat's reply to a comment I made at Zvi's about posting at TNH (it was a flip comment at zvi's)

I wish you'd continued that discussion, for a couple-three reasons.

1) I'm amused that pulling academic rank is going on on both sides, but I
hope I made clear that I'm not ignorant of the problematic nature of

2) I'm not necessarily talking about academic writing, but also just
people discussing whether and how intent makes any difference at all in
their feelings. As I said there, "I have to say that when in real life I
encounter potentially stigma-based statements that gore my own oxen, I do
infer people's intent based on what else they do and say, and I think
it's a key tool that I would hate to give up."

3) Believe it or not, my main interest beyond intellectual exploration is
not as a wounded white person, but as someone who wants to learn for my
own life. For instance, I found the queer response to "a queer gene" was
a lot more sophisticated and was much more useful than the fat-acceptance
community's response to "a fat gene," and I learned from that. I was
assuming there was already good stuff out there regarding this concerning

I did not want to threadjack at Zvi's, not to mention I KNEW this would be long, so here's my reply to Nellorat:

1. I am not sure if you are accusing me of pulling academic rank: there has been a great deal of discourse around that issue in part because Emma Bull and Medievalist privileged their academic/intellectual/literary cred from the start in dismissing Avalon Willow's points about Bear's novel (points which, btw, as a number of us keep saying, Bear agreed with as a valid response from a reader). If you backtrack in my journal, I became involved in the discussions primarily because of how offended, angry, pissed off, frustrated I was to see a specific type of literary methodology (one among many, and not the most privileged in the academy) being used against fans of color, period, full stop. In academic discourse, if I'm going to weigh in on an area of my expertise, I need to give some background since not everybody knows me; in TNH's journal most people did not know me.

Again: I do not know if you intended to insult me with the "pulling rank" comment, but that has the potential to be insulting. The reality that academics are simply overly specialized in some very narrow field limits what sort of stuff I'd be willing to say about academic discourse in some areas (huge swathes of the past). So I was saying: here's what I've done, here's what I've studied, I'm not aware of work that does what you ask about, as I understand it, but I don't think it does exist.

And I don't make the distinction you seem to do between 'real life' and writing or literature. I'm not sure what you mean there: face to face conversation vs. writing?

2. When you say you're not necessarily talking about academic writing, what do you mean? I took your request to ask if there was work out there, since a number of us have been referencing a number of critical race theorists in multiple disciplines. I have training in New Criticism/Structuralism, the traditional areas of literary studies but because of my critical race feminist work, I read a lot of work in philosophy, sociology, and linguistics, not to mention history. Many of those disciplines are based in the social sciences and linguistics, so they don't only deal with 'literature' but with other types of writing and utterances. And on the internet, everything in this discussion is a text, written, complemented at times with graphics/pictures, but not "spoken." The huge distinction you make between "intent" and "intentionality" is not one that I see: they seem two ways of saying more or less the same thing. And sociolinguistics, which is not about literature, does not acknowledge intent: in fact, there's on-going evidence that when linguists ask people to talk about what they said, what people report saying and intending to say differs wildly from what was recorded and transcribed (granted, errors can always creep into the process).

I have to say that when in real life I
encounter potentially stigma-based statements that gore my own oxen, I do
infer people's intent based on what else they do and say, and I think
it's a key tool that I would hate to give up.

How do you do that? I'm not being sarcastic: I am curious.
I can see making judgments based on who is saying X: if a friend says it, most people interpret it differently than if their boss says it, or a stranger, but what if you don't have that past history with people? A lot of the people in this discussion are talking to each other for the first time, in a complex transtextual (LJ, blogs, and no doubt behind the scenes email and IM) atmosphere, and there's not that much "else" that people do or say.

In the context of this imbroglio, when some people say they are judging intent, it seems as if they are much more likely to be stereotyping (I am *NOT* saying you did this; I don't know, I haven't read enough of what you posted). I do believe that to some extent that was done by mac_stone and medievalist (setting aside the hate mail Mac was getting). Medievalists claim that the readers of color were orcing, trolling, and blog-whoring I think falls totally into this category of stereotyping. My characterization of Mac's tone as hysterical is another example of such stereotyping. (And knowing how freaked out I was when I first met New York city natives--and me a quiet little Idaho girl--I thought they were full of rage and yelling at me until I learned their "language," I am VERY VERY VERY leery of anybody claiming the ability to discern intent in speech given all the various dialects in languages, all the complex types of non-verbal communication, etc.)

So maybe that "inference" can be done--but I find the whole process dubious (while acknowledging people often do it, but that's nothing new--people like to claim lots of things that don't necessarily get supported by the evidence--we're just people).

3. I can give you whole academic bibliographies on critical race theory; sparkymonster's delicious list (linked in my links list) can give you good stuff about race on the internet.

I'm just saying, from what I know, nothing will help you with the idea that it's possible to "read a person's minds or emotions" or intent in the way I interpreted your request to be asking for.

Small note: I don't do or read much "influence based" scholarship, so the whole idea of worrying about whether reader X has read Y or Z is one that goes straight over my head--my main work tends to be more socio-historical (context) and linguistically based (the hilarious thing here is that stylistics is close reading to the umpteenth power, but has nothing at all to do with what people usually call "close reading")

OTOH, I can point to a whole bunch of Tolkien scholarship where they quote his letters or essays about how he hated or loathed or disliked and wasn't influenced by X text (some of the time he was apparently joking!) right next to the list of textual evidence from his work and the source text showing that yeah, the influence crept in.

And how do you know people always remember whatever they might have been influenced by (read? heard about? etc?). That assumes some sort of perfect memory on the part of people that doesn't exist in my experience (although I'm assuming there are careful qualifications around all the use of statements of intent).

That area of scholarship clearly gives you a certain methodological approach and set of assumptions which, it seems, you might also carry over to other interactions via text. So does mine--they just happen, as far as I can tell, to be diametrically opposed.

First, here's from my comment you replied to:

I have definitely come to understand that "racist" can be used in a way that has nothing to do with intention, but not only is it not what the term has meant to me, it's a view that seems to me to have a lot of pitfalls.

Thinking about the pitfalls leads to a couple of genuine questions. Does the writing on this topic have a word for the equivalent of convergent evolution or its like in lit crit, similarity but not influence? And do any of the writings talk about sorting out different kinds of racism--which seems to me invaluable as a practical matter--based on intent (or, to put it another way, consonance with observed behavior including other things said)?

Now, to new comments:

"Convergent evolution" isn't literary theory but biology, here used as a quick metaphor for two things that may seem the same but really aren't even related. In other words, if it has spines like a hedgehog, walks like a hedgehog, and eats insects like a hedgehog--maybe it's an echidna. The similar thing I gave from lit crit was influence vs. similar tropes achieved in different ways.

I acknowledge that many people have put up good arguments for why intent doesn't matter to them, and I respect their approach, but not only is that a way I didn't think on my own, I still pretty much think it's not a way I want to think on my own. I can use the definition in discussions, as long as it's clear what definition we're working from.

While I didn't intend to insult when I implied you were pulling academic rank, I guess I did see an irony. I wasn't referring to your mention of areas of study at all (which I found just helpful), but the part I quoted, "the whole "intentionality" issue is fairly well debunked in a number of disciplines." I found that at best condescending--assuming I didn't know that, when I do--and actually a bit dismissive, like how then could it be worth talking about? If that wasn't your intent--for instance, if it was just, "you won't find it because it's not fashionable in academia"--then I'm sorry I misread.

Because as many purposes as avoiding questions of intent serve for academia, in fact in daily interactions with people f2f or on the phone or online or whatever (what I mean by "real life") we make inferences about each others' inner worlds and intentions almost all of the time. People who lack that ability suffer a handicap (though also stigma beyond that). From "is Mom going to feed me or not?" through "why is my boss looking at me like that?" we negotiate understandings of inner worlds and make tentative predictions. Yes? No? I don't want to lecture and condescend, but I honestly don't know if you don't agree, agree but think it doesn't matter, or what.

The difference between "intent" and "intentionality"--besides three extra syllables--then, I guess, would be that inferring the latter has to be philosophically justified or jettisoned, whereas inferring the former is an almost-universal function of the human psyche that serves very practical purposes and is a human way of reacting to the world that may precede language let alone philosophy.

Re: the academic issue. What you say makes perfect sense--I was rushing through, and I can see how it comes off as condescending! I usually come off the most obnoxious when I am rushing.

I agree people probably do the infer/intent thing every day: but I don't think we do it very well (and I may be saying this because I have never been able to read people--I don't 'see' expressions, I don't read body language--this has been confirmed for me by outside evaluators of my teaching who note clear indications that they see in my students that I do not see, time and time again. If people don't tell me something flat out, in spoken or writen words, I don't "see" it (well, a few friends who know me well can smack me hard enough non-verbally for me to catch a clue, eventually). But, no, mostly I do not spend a lot of time doing that (though I can spend a helluva lot of time analyzing what people SAY or WRITE, as you might have seen).

OTOH, if people could infer well, there would not be all the miscommunication, misunderstandings, everything that goes on day after day, in families and at work. That may be just my prejudiced view, but that is it. People get busy, people are self-centered, people do not in fact even listen to what is said or read what is written, and we just tend to blunder on.

I'd agree with you (and against some, perhaps) that constructing intent is absolutely crucial to fashioning an interpretation, whether it is of a written text or a face to face conversation, and this process of construction may well precede language or philosophy. What I find questionable is the way that speaking of "judging" intent seems to presuppose some correlation between that construction and the actual cognitive psychology of the speaker, which doesn't quite automatically follow.

*hands you 10,000 PlatinumPoints*

That was what I was trying to fumble my way to: yeah, people can try to *construct* intent but that no guarantee that their construction/evaluation/judgement of intent/meaning is anywhere close to anything. Dang, I need a rest.

Thank you.

Actually, I agree with both of you more than it may seem. One reason why I love an interactive medium like LJ--even a sllooooowwwly interactive medium like zines/amateur press associations before home computers--is that it allows further refinement by questions and replies. Did you mean this? No, something a bit more like this.

I guess--influenced both by post-modern approaches and by 17th-century creative skepticism--I find "true intent" as something we can never fully grasp (even for ourselves) but still worth trying for, as some whole areas can pretty much be ruled out by counter-evidence, more accurate frames of reference are introduced, and so on.

Also, I don't see that, as human beings, we have much choice. We're constantly trying to construct the inner worlds of others, which seems to me an inevitable human trait and also a necessary life skill. Yes, there is absolutely no guarantee! I've been with one partner about 27-28 years, and I still find myself surprised at a wrong inference on my part--not just misconstruing one statement in a discussion, but a deep and long-standing way I thought my partner thought, and I was wrong. Still, those get fewer and fewer, in fact declined in number pretty quickly; if there wasn't some kind of correlation between what's going on and what I infer, I'd think that wouldn't happen.

Also, in practice, a lot of the inference can be somewhat far off but not cause any real problems; then they can be refined over time, with more input (most definitely observing behavior as well as listening and asking). Always no guarantees, but often good enough.

Btw, by non-academic writing, I'm thinking of that which is more likely to grow out of the movement, which I think of as having a more practical focus on what does and doesn't work. In fat studies, I mean more Shadow on a Tightrope or the zine Fat!So? as opposed to Susan Bordo's work. Maybe second-wave feminist writings as opposed to gender writings now like Judith Butler. I that helping any? If I knew names in the field of race. I wouldn't have to ask.

Anyway, yes, intent, inferred from what else I know about the person and from subsequent conversation, does matter to me, does actually make me less angry (or more).

One comment of mine copied over from the tnh post: "Do you really want to eat that?" is almost two completely different questions, depending on whether the person knows I'm fat-accepting and diabetic or assumes I want not to be fat. It's like they sound the same but they're in two different languages & the meaning of each word isn't even the same.

How do I know which is intended? Sometimes I know from past history with the person; sometimes I can tell from body-language and speaking tone. Often, I try to hold reactions in abeyance, and I ask. Yes, I have long, earnest conversations, part trying to express my view and part range-finding as far as where I think that person is coming from. Yes, I can always be wrong, but I try to get data and have an open mind, making as few assumptions as I can. I guess part of the process is that I make almost-subconscious guesses as to the various possible next reaction--as I start reaching some tentative conclusions about the person's views, my expectations grow more specific, and then I confirm and/or adjust my tentative conclusions based on that input.

It occurs to me that not only is this basic when I respond to a remark that may be sizist; it's also essential in deciding to come out about living in a triad or not & then discussing that topic.

The part I absolutely can't explain is how finding out (to my satisfaction) that there was little or no ill intent makes me feel better emotionally. To me, it's just not the same utterance. It's not an echidna but a hedgehog, and what a relief!

I really think that my literary criticism has a lot less to do with my approach than that both stem from my personal inclinations: get all the data you can and use them creatively but carefully. And I know for sure that my approach in this discussion mostly has to do with what has worked for me when confronting stigma. Which was mostly home-grown: there isn't much on fat studies now, and there was almost nothing when I began in the 1980s. (And don't get me started about the sparseness and low quality of writing about alternative households that don't include GBLTs--or maybe even that do.) I don't think I'm so dim as to assume that what works for me works for everyone, but I also had my own set of definitions and issues; I listened as well as I could, and in many cases--I still feel, though I'd be happy to be wrong--my approach was dismissed as a result of cluelessness rather than hard (though possibly wrong & always developing) thought resulting in a different approach.

As far as actual literary-influence tracing, I think your comments are all spot-on.

I can make a connection with what you say about tone with non-verbal language cues (discussed in great detail by Suzette Haden Elgin in her work on "verbal self defense,"): some linguists say 90% of meaning in English is carried in non-verbal cues (so if I equate "meaning" with "intent", we can maybe agree). It's just: meaning as a single focus "intent" for a statement vs. larger issues of intent/intentionality, makes more sense to me. (With the qualification that a speaker/writer can have lots of intentions underlying meaning that they are not conscious of or do not even remember the next day).

OK, you mean activist writings for a more general audience rather than academics for academics, I think--that gets complicated because many (in this case, going with the author I know best, and not implying that only African-American authors are writing about race) black writers in academia purposefully avoid the denser jargons of academia as a philosophical stance (bell hooks for example refused to use footnotes in her books because the people she was writing for did not read books for footnotes--she also refused tenure some years later when offered). Also, some of the activists (I'm thinking Trinh T. Minh-ha, a Vietnamese filmmakers and critical race feminist) can write incredibly poetic/dense/convoluted prose.

I can share the names of some of my favorite writers with you--the ones whose work I read in academia but who came out of 1980s activist movements by feminists of color/womanists: I mentioned bell hooks above (the small letters are intentional--Gloria Watkins publishes under her grandmother's name); there are also Gloriz Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga (This Bridge Called My Back, a collection of writings in all genres--essays, poetry, memoir, fiction--by lesbians of color. Barbara Christian and Barbara Smith. The wiki entry on Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press gives the basics about the first press owned and run by women of color:

As a fat woman, I've followed some of the development of fat studies from afar (I'm also trying to spend some time on disability studies) -- but I'm not famliar with the authors you mention (or not immediately--but then I have a terrible memory for names). And maybe I'm just old and grumpy, but while I can certainly see your point about "Do you really want to eat that," I'm afraid that I would not make that much distinction--anybody who says that to me is likely to get their head snapped off.

I did not follow the conversation enough to make any judgement about how your comments were received--other than to build on your idea of how people judge individuals based on what they know of them.

We also judge an individual based on our past experiences of other similar (or on the internet perceived to be similar) experiences with people who have said similar things--and I think that's just as much a part of the human psyche (though usually I avoid talking about the human psyche because I'm not sure I believe it exists--I am very resistant to a lot of psychological stuff) as the process you describe. That is, part of what we use to infer intent/meaning about individuals is based on our experiences with similar individuals in the past.

That's one reason that I almost never talk about feminism with men in my offline life: the first ten or fifteen years I wa a feminist, I did feminism 101 (and my F101 differed as I developed as a feminist) with men. I don't do it any more. Cannot be bothered. So I'm sure quite well meaning men might try to talk to me and say something that, had it been fifteen years ago, might lead to me trying to talk them through stuff. Now I'm likely to make a snarky comment and move on because I figure i have better things to do with my time (specifically and in the context of academia, mentoring and working with women--and not just at my institution--passing on the mentoring that women did for me). (This does not apply to my students who happen to be men, btw, but to colleagues, strangers on the internet, etc. My students are my students, period.)

More later to both parts--I feel both listened-to and informed, and I'll get back to it soonish (my spouse K. is having surgery tomorrow, which I'm guessing will give me either a lot more or a lot less time online).

Just one quicky--

And maybe I'm just old and grumpy, but while I can certainly see your point about "Do you really want to eat that," I'm afraid that I would not make that much distinction--anybody who says that to me is likely to get their head snapped off.

I'm moderately old (52) and plenty grumpy, but when I was diagnosed with diabetes--before age 40--I felt I had to be able to sort out the sizism from issues of nutrition and exercise. The whole process is so the opposite of easy, but in many ways literally my life is at stake. I was lucky to have over ten years of fat acceptance under my belt (so to speak) and have sorted out a lot in that time.

Another statement that can mean three almost completely different things, that I have encountered as each: "You can't be married to two people." This can be condemning (if there are three of you, it's not a marriage, even if you say it is), incredulous but open (that's just not included in my experience), or a simple statement of fact about the law.

Your comment about judging individuals based on similar or perceived-to-be-similar situations--yes. Overgeneralizing--for instance, where there are contradicting data--is something I really, really try to reduce the amount of in my own interactions, and I guess I do feel that someone who reduces the amount of it is both a better reader and a better net citizen. But it is, as you say, almost inevitable--and as your example in the final paragraph shows, it can even be valuable and adaptive, something I need to remember.

I'm following up some of your suggestions and sparkymonster's links--thanks.