Mar 282017


The concept of “Death of the Author” in lit circles just means that once an author has put a work of fiction out into the public, the work speaks for itself, and the Author doesn’t get to speak for it. If a reader can make a case for the Star Wars prequels portraying Padme and Obi Wan carrying on an affair, and point to in-text support of this, then the author’s protests that “This is not what I intended” don’t really mean much. Whether or not they intended it, it’s in the text. As the old joke about the rabbi’s goes, his is just one opinion*.

(*for those unfamiliar, the joke being that five rabbis are arguing with one novice rabbi about scriptural interpreation, and all five disagree with him. They tell him “It’s five and against one, surely you can see you’re wrong!” and he says “Even so, I know I’m right! I call upon God himself to side with me!” The voice of God booms down from the heavens “The kid’s right, actually.” The five older rabbis confer with themselves for a while, then finally turn to the young rabbi and say “Ok, so now it’s five against two!”)

It’s not unlike highfalutin Fan Theories, come to think of it.


Not too long ago I discovered my interpretation of an old Neil deGrasse Tyson quote was wrong. He’s famous for observing that the more educated some one is, the less likely they are to be religious, going through categories of increasing education and showing decreasing rate-of-belief, until he ends up at the elite scientists at the NAS having a belief rate of only 7%. He then went on about those 7% for a while. My interpretation of his point was “What is wrong with these 7%? Until we can find out what’s going on with those 7% of scientists, we can’t truly fault anyone else, cuz if those 7% can get bamboozled, so can anyone.”

Turns out what he actually meant was “Look, even 7% of the most elite scientists in the country have religion. So until you can convince even those 7%, you can’t say that religion is entirely wrong.”

Which, wow. Boy was I way off!


I was raised Jehovah’s Witness. They have a hymnal book and everyone is expected to sing a couple, as a congregation, at every major meeting (Of which there’s two per week). One of the songs contains the lyrics

Kiss the Son
Lest God be angry,
And you’ll perish in the way

There’s two ways to interpret this. The most obvious is as a threat. You should “Kiss the Son.” If you don’t God may be angry, and you’ll perish (be killed).

The less obvious is an injunction against hypocrisy. If someone “Kisses the Son” merely because they are afraid that God will be angry, then they’ll perish anyway. It is important to actually mean it and really love Jesus, rather than just going through the motions because you’re scared of a threat. Yes, it requires that one assume an implicit “If you” at the beginning of the verse, but people assume implicits all the time. (Like the assumption that #BlackLivesMatter ends with an implicit “Too”)

For as long as I was religious, I clung to this second interpretation. I knew, even then, that it was a bit of a stretch. It was my personal interpretation. I didn’t share it with anyone, because I was scared they would tell me that no, it really was supposed to be a threat. Even back then I couldn’t accept a hateful, wrath-filled god.


Nowadays, even though I realize my interpretations in both cases were factually incorrect, I stand by those interpretations. I take the principle of Death of the Author and extend it to further domains. Meaning is where you find it.

When NdGT laid out his progression of disbelief and drew attention to the final 7% he made a hell of an observation. He demonstrated was that there is something seriously wrong with humans, to the point that even 7% of the most elite scientists in the nation can be snookered by religion! And I do not care if that is not the point he intended to make. It is the most important point that this line of thinking leads to, regardless of his intention. Death of the Author.

When the Jehovah’s Witnesses used poetic language to threaten their listeners, someone coming from a background of “God is Love” and “Hypocrisy is Bad” can interpret those lines to say “Don’t be a hypocrite, it won’t help you anyway.” If one assumes that “God is Love,” it is the only consistent way to interpret those lines, regardless of what their intent was. Death of the Author.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Interpretation of facts or statements in a light other than that which they were first presented in has lead to some pretty fascinating insights and advances by humanity. It’s what much of Copenhagen Interpretation vs Many Worlds comes down to, right? (Yes, I know, both sides are now furious at me.)

So long as no one tries to quote those people to misrepresent their true position, I think this practice should be embraced. Don’t attribute an intention to anyone unless they’ve publicly declared that intention themselves! But feel free to borrow and interpret things in a way that is beneficial as long as it is consistent with observable reality. (Or in the case of religion, any which way you want, since religion doesn’t have anything to do with observable reality anyway).

V – the caveat

Just be careful about this in your personal life. I found myself interpreting the actions and statements of someone close to me in the most positive way possible for a long time, for emotional reasons. This led to a distorted view of reality, and really bit me in the ass once that view was abruptly corrected. Someone’s intentions don’t particularly matter when you are in the abstract world of interpreting data. They matter a hell of a lot when you entangle your life with someone and much rides upon their disposition and intentions.

  4 Responses to “Death of the Author in extended domains”

  1. I agree that whatever insights you draw from a video, or a quote, or a piece of poetry, are potentially important and interesting regardless of whether or not they were intended. But quite often the intended interpretaions will prove more important.

    On your Star Wars prequels example, imagine if that fan theory became widely supported before the release of episode III. Then, the creators of the films say “no, that’s not what we mean”. This is strong evidence that you won’t see the pattern continue and might see contradicting evidence.

    Or, in your religious poetry example, if Jehova’s Witnesses were even close to correct about God, the author of that verse probably knew more about the subject than you and the difference is extremely important if you don’t want to perish. Similarly, if I write a safety manual which says “The liquid is inflammable; cover any nearby flames”, the difference between interpreting this as “The liquid burns intensely, so if you use it near a fire make sure it can’t spill into the fire” and “The liquid does not burn; if something catches fire nearby, cover the burning object in liquid to smother the fire” could save your life.

    I think this is a more general version of your point in part five. If a piece of communication (fictional or not) conveys any information about reality (it does; if nothing else, it tells you about the contents of related works, as in the prequels example), using the unintended interpretation is likely to get you less of that information.

  2. I love the idea of the death of the author. It lets me claim Warhammer 40K space marines as an inspirational example of personal determination and persistence.

    Although that raises a question, I’m not obsessively familiar with the entire Warhammer 40K canon, it’s possible that there is some stuff that strongly contradicts my beliefs. How much of the text has to support an interpretation before it can be considered valid? If the author isn’t, in fact, dead and makes a statement that a given interpretation is incorrect, could that statement be considered a part of the work’s canon and therefore invalidate the interpretation?

    In any case, I think if you’re taking a particular interpretation for your own edification then yeah, the author is dead as a door-nail.

    Finally, I have to commiserate with the pain related to religion. So many things that were said by leaders and sunday school teachers in my youth were understood very differently by myself because I took it all too literally. If you’re telling someone to discard their own judgement and trust your counsel even if it seems like a bad idea, there had better be absolutely no ambiguity in what you’re saying.

  3. Just because someone doesn’t actually understand what they are saying or the implications it doesn’t mean they didn’t say it. I am interested by the intent one might have but that doesn’t stop me from seeing it as irrelevant. Maybe NDGT thinks he was making the point he was trying to make but I don’t think he was. I am not sold anyway. Neil can interpret things with his imagination to his hearts content but I don’t see why I should care. I am certainly inclined towards siding with you and thinking that if 7% of our best and brightest are still broken in the head then as a species we have some serious growing up to do. I don’t care if NDGT points at the proof we are broken and call it a reason to stay open minded about religion. That only demonstrates that he is broken in the head too. If anything his interpretation is self defeating and actually evidence against humans being sane.

    I do not like the whole idea of things being ‘implicit’. #Blacklivesmatter doesn’t have an implicit ‘too’ in my book. I see that and I see and I just think to myself ‘of course Black lives matter’. I don’t see why people always want to add and subtract to the words of others. Why does someone claiming Black lives matter have to be a comment on anything else. This kind of imaginative interpretation is a great way to end up thinking things which do not actually fit in with observable reality. Best to remain skeptical and focus on what you observe rather than use your imagination to infer.

    I am not sure what the ‘joke’ about the Rabbi’s is trying to say. I know what it does say. It says that the 5 Rabbi’s in question were charlatans who had no interest in communing with God despite the fact that they publicly professed to be religious men. Is that supposed to be funny or is it supposed to mean something else? I wouldn’t know and I am only interested out of curiosity.

    Never let someones intentions or claimed intentions distract you from what they are actually saying. If you apply that ‘rule’ then you are never bound by anyone else’s interpretations of things and you are in the best position to play the ‘why do I think I know what I know’ game.

    I’m sorry that you had a negative experience due to your putting a positive spin on someones actions and words. This is only more evidence that having your own interpretation can lead to things not working out. Trying to see what is really there and what is really being said should always be the first priority.

    • >#Blacklivesmatter doesn’t have an implicit ‘too’ in my book.

      A group of (basically) political trolls started acting as if the slogan meant “ONLY Black Lives Matter” and it had to be pointed out to them (over and over, and they still pretend not to get it) that the point is that “Black Lives Matter” is a reaction to the common perception that black lives *don’t* seem to matter as much, so rather than reading an implicit “only” at the front, it’s more correct to read an implicit “too” at the end.

      >I am not sure what the ‘joke’ about the Rabbi’s is trying to say.

      It is supposed to be funny. I guess there’s a certainly level of cultural familiarity that is required to get the humor, which is hard to communicate in a comment. I realize that’s a crappy answer, and I’m sorry, but I don’t have the energy to spend two hours writing up a post about it, and since I’m not actually Jewish I’m not the best source anyway.

      > Trying to see what is really there and what is really being said should always be the first priority.

      Often, yeah. But it shouldn’t stop one from finding deeper lessons and meanings where going beyond the intentions can produce value.

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