Authorship, intentionality and intelligent design

Jason Mittell's picture

I’ve been thinking a lot about authorship lately, in a range of ways. Most practically, two long-gestating essays that I authored have come out in print – “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic” is published in the beautifully put-together book Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, and “Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies)” in Reading Lost: Perspectives on a Hit Television Show edited by Roberta Pearson. Both essays have been widely-read already on this blog – in fact, the two draft versions of these essays are far in a way the most popular posts I’ve written. Perhaps it’s just due to their sheer length triggering more Google hits, but I think it does speak to the possibilities of blogs as sites of scholarly dissemination beyond just random thoughts.

Speaking of random thoughts, be warned that the rest of this post is going to take you deep into a rabbit hole linking narratology and metaphysics:

I have been further mulling Battlestar Galactica while listening to creator Ron Moore’s final podcast. Moore’s podcasts are amongst the most enjoyable television paratexts, especially for people like me who are intrigued by “how the sausage gets made,” as he puts it. In the podcast, he directly addresses the rationale for the opera house sequence in the finale (I’ll be vague enough to avoid real spoilers if you’re behind in the series). He admits that when the writers first devised the opera house vision back in season 1, they had no plan for what it would ultimately mean. They continued to build the mythology of the opera house each season, making the visions more elaborate and involving more characters, but never knew precisely what it meant. The revelation in the finale that dramatizes the vision was conceived quite late in the writing process of season 4.

Moore has always embraced this “making it up on the fly” approach to writing serial fiction, deflecting criticism that plots should be better planned out as stifling creativity. In the final podcast, he expands on this, suggesting that the important issue is not how or when the plot was planned out, but that in the end it “rings true”: “the only thing that mattered is the end result, what was on the screen.” He goes on to highlight how this process provides freedom for discovery and surprise in the writing process, and thus the resulting product is richer than a carefully planned puzzle.

This ties directly to my essay on Lost, and even more to fellow contributor Ivan Askwith’s essay, “‘Do You Even Know Where This Is Going?’: LOST’s Viewers and Narrative Pre-Meditation.” Askwith lays out in excellent detail the way that fans’ expectations for narrative planning and premeditation are established around the more puzzle-driven series Lost. The key claim that Lost’s producers have repeated is that they never pose a question without having an answer planned out.  I refer to this urge in more vague terms while discussing the sense of unity constructed by the series in my essay:

More than just the unity of a continual narrative, Lost’s aesthetics value a perceived purpose motivating its narrative whole. The story’s unified scope and shape follow a design, and much of the aesthetic pleasure offered by Lost involves viewers attempting to parse out the rationales behind the show’s storytelling. At times this sense of purpose links directly to authorial intention, as typified by some fans’ cultish devotion to Lindelof and Cuse’s podcasts, Comic Con appearances, and media interviews, citing producer commentary as divine proclamations from TPTB (The Powers That Be). But the show’s unity is not always tied to the specificities of authorship, as many fans recognize the collaborative nature of television writing and the shifting involvement of key production figures like J.J. Abrams, David Fury, Drew Goddard, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach. Rather, the motivation behind Lost’s unity stems more from the assumed sense of purposefulness that seems embedded in the narrative design at the level of text more than its actual process of creation. When fans lose faith in the show, underlying doubts are often triggered by a sense of disunity stemming from the fear that the show is ‘made up as it goes along,’ rather than carefully planned out in advance. For me, one of Lost’s great pleasures is the sense of faith in its narrative design and purpose that the show manages to instill. Some of this faith stems from extratextual consumption of interviews, podcasts, and the like, but more often it is the recognition of thematic and factual continuities that attest to a master plan, or at least more advanced planning than typical of series television.

Looking back at this claim, it would seem that Moore’s approach to plotting would lead to unsatisfying storytelling, as I know for sure that there was no master plan in place. However, I found both the opera house revelation and the explanation of the significance of “All Along the Watchtower” to be quite satisfying moments of narrative payoff, despite them not being premeditated parts of a unified whole – both were questions first posed without answers in hand.

This difference in storytelling strategies is in part tied to the distinct narrative pleasures of the two shows – Lost is much more mystery and puzzle-driven, while BSG is more invested in a broader sense of place and worldview. But I think it does highlight a key element of narrative comprehension that I’m trying to explore in my larger project: the difference between authorial intent, textual intent, and implied authorship. So let me take a brief detour into narratology.

The question of intentionality is a debated issue among narrative scholars. A traditional approach has posited that the intended meaning of an author is the core meaning of a text, and that any interpretations should strive to unlock those intentions. More revised accounts suggest that authorial intent is unknowable and ultimately irrelevant to understand a text; rather, we should look at the systems of meaning within a text regardless of what they were “intended” to signify. Under this paradigm, a text does have intentionality (or encoded meaning), but it need not correspond with what the creator(s) intended to express.

However, I do think that the author still matters, and in cases like Lost and BSG we use the idea of authorial intent to guide our comprehension of the narrative. This is not “true authorship,” as conceived as the actual intent embedded in the creative process, but rather “implied authorship” – we imagine a creative force behind a text and attribute the narrative logic and meanings to that creator(s). It is an interpretive convenience, but we engage in it all the time – you read or watch a story and imagine the creator’s choices that led to the final textual form. Implied authorship emerges out of the intersection of a text and its reader/viewer, in our minds through the process of narrative comprehension. (Seymour Chatman develops this concept in his books Story and Discourse and Coming to Terms, although I’m taking his idea in a different direction.)

So when we watch the many images of the opera house throughout the run of BSG, we don’t just ask “I wonder what that means?” – we also ask “I wonder what they mean by that?” It is an implied and imagined “they,” but arguably essential to our understanding of the text. For some theorists, it’s an unnecessary fiction, as the text itself contains its own intentionality. But just as much of BSG is about people trying to understand what a higher power has planned for them, I believe that most narrative consumers similarly imagine a higher power of the author constructing the fictive world, and bestow omnipotent creative power onto the author. When the story works well, we praise the creator; when it fails, we lose faith. And certainly the online fan discourse vests a lot of power and time into imaging the author.

I quite liked the resolutions of the opera house and AATW narrative threads, and when watching the finale, I thought “so that’s what they meant by that!” But I also know that they didn’t really know what they meant at the time – the writers discovered the meanings of these sequences in the process of serialized creativity. Does that discount the sense of intentionality that I attribute to the implied author?

Ultimately for me, it doesn’t. I have written before about the importance of faith in the act of narrative consumption concerning both Harry Potter and Lost. What BSG crucially demonstrates is that faith is less related to the actual premeditation of narrative constructions, but rather the “truth” in the textual outcome that Moore alludes to. I believe that BSG offers narrative coherence not because they knew what they were doing beforehand, but because the outcome exhibits the illusion of a design – there is a plan, even if it didn’t precede its execution.

All of this ties directly into the thematic issues explored in BSG – the show is not only about the role of faith in leaders and higher powers, but it posits at its core that “they have a plan.” Throughout the years, I’ve wondered what that plan was – not the plan of the writers, but the plan of the cylons. Perhaps it was revealed through Cavil’s manipulation of the final five, or maybe it is still to be revealed in the aptly named forthcoming BSG movie “The Plan.” But the assertion that there is a plan leads us to try to connect pieces which may or may not be connected, imposing a logic of an implicit design at work even where we know that there was no plan in the writers’ room (and I’ve yet to fully figure out the cylon’s plan).

(Warning: going off the metaphysical rails here…) I think this tells us about a deeper logic that exceeds BSG, television, or storytelling. What we are talking about here is “intelligent design”: a complex fictional world that emerged as a coherent whole, despite the lack of a master plan. It is hard to conceive of coming up with an elaborate system without a blueprint beforehand, but that’s what BSG is – a work with sufficient complexity as to suggest that it could not have “evolved” on its own. Yet I believe it did – obviously there are “higher powers” of creators crafting the story, but not following a plan as much as exploring how the system adapts to its ongoing existence. BSG is an example of the storytelling process as an evolutionary system – and fan insistence on authorial planning and intentionality suggests that the psychological pull toward theism might be understood via implied authorship.

To complete the naval-gazing circuit, I do not believe that Ron Moore “intended” to make a work that argues for the logic of evolution over creationism at the meta-level of its own creative process. However, I do see it as a consistent and “intentional” interpretation of the show and his own commentary on the process of discovery and adaptation. And it speaks to how we can continue to have faith in things that we know to be ultimately untrue, like the myth of authorial intent (or divinity itself).

And this very blog post bespeaks that evolutionary creative process: I had no “plan” to dive into religion or metaphysics when I started riffing on Moore’s podcast. But hopefully the resulting ideas suggest a deeper logic and consistency, adding up to a coherence that implies intentionality and design. Or perhaps they read like the random rantings of a real-world Baltar. I leave up to you to decide which vision of this implied author you want to imagine…

Posted in Books, Narrative, Television, TV Shows Tagged: authorship, Battlestar, bsg, faith, Lost, The Wire

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Thu, 26 Mar 2009 23:33:03 +0000