When investigating the relationship between works of fiction (literature, film, TV shows, etc) and social issues like racism and particularly sexism, it seems to me that much debate involves judging the work in question based on *possible* interpretations, rather than those interpretations favored by the author or the average member of the public, which can lead to the work being both praised and scorned by people from the same camp. For example, one critic might say a story presents a strong feminist message because that story tells of a woman in the traditionally male role of a warrior using sword and stake to combat, say, evil male creatures emerging from a cave under the town, showing that a woman is equally capable of being a hero and in control of her life. Another critic might, of the same story, say that it is anti-feminist and sexist because it implies that the female warrior is only powerful because she wields a phallic symbol, and that violence is being justified against beings emerging from a womb-like cavity in the Earth, thus symbolically justifying masculine dominance over the female as well as violence dominance of man over nature. My question is this: Is there ever such a thing as an interpretation too far-fetched? If so, where does one draw the line? If not, what reason is there to take any such criticism seriously - whether as a writer, a producer, a parent or teacher, or a member of the public? Is there such a thing as a "wrong" interpretation, even if multiple interpretations may be "right"?

You have raised THE critical question at the heart of the theory of meaning, and one that is central to the philosophy of art. Also: Clever example! Roughly speaking, there are three main schools of thought on the matter. There are those who put primacy on the intentions of the artist or artists. So, if the story was intended to be what you describe first (feminist), then it does not follow that the work of art is a success, but it would follow that the meaning of the work itself is defined by the creators seeking to show women in a compelling, strong light and the success of the piece might be measured by how well (or badly) that intention is evident. Then there are philosophers who utterly repudiate intentionality and seek to focus only on the work itself. These philosophers sometimes allow for multiple meanings (and even allow that the meaning of a work might change from generation to generation) and sometimes not, appealing to the conventions of the art world to nail down the central meaning. And then there are those who seek to articulate some kind of middle path. Largely due to the influence of W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, a lot of philosophers in the 1950s through the 80s, have been (almost dogmatically) against appealing to the intentions of artists to settle on questions of meaning. Right now, however, there has been a revival of interest in atrists' intentions. I suggest one needs to appeal to artistic intentions (or what we presume to be the artist intentions) to some extent in weeding out which interpretation of a work of art is too far-fetched. That would be one way to avoid an 'anything goes' conclusion. But also there are natural and conventional practices that also can come into play. Your clever example is actually not entirely dissimilar to real cases. Thus, Aristophanes' (450-388BCE) play Lysistrata can be read as proto-feminist or a parody of women. But let me use a simple example. I can do a film or painting in which my dog might symbolize or represent all kinds of things like all dogs or animal companions but I think it would be very hard for him to represent Big Bang Cosmology, World War II, the novels of Balzak, the Auggsburg Confession, the Baltimore Aquarium, and so on --even if I announced my sincere intention that the dog had such a symbolic / representational role. Conventions simply would not allow me to stretch that far. Or so I suggest.

I, too, like your example! Let me add three comments to Charles' response above.

First, we can distinguish between several different interpretative communities. One of these are 'average members of the public' -- consumers of cultural products who have no specialist training in the area. Another would be professionals, those whose career has been devoted to understanding a certain area of cultural production. A professor of literature, for example, or a film critic. A third group, generally rather small, comprises the makers (the scriptwriter and director of your fantasy story, say). Now, we might want to think that these three groups should agree, or should tend towards or strive towards agreement. But there are good reasons to think otherwise. A Hollywood scriptwriter in the 1950s would have had to bury the left-leaning political message of his film under a thoroughly populist and conventional surface. You might even say that in such a case the author’s intention was precisely not to be understood, or at least not by everyone in the same way. Likewise, take a novel like Ulysses. Many people can read it, and enjoy it or get something out of it – but only a very few well-trained people will be able to see the complex and dense web of literary and historical allusions that Joyce uses. Does that mean that the book, and its meaning, ‘belong’ only to professors of literature? By no means. It only suggests that we may be wrong to think that somehow interpretations ought to converge among different consumers.

My second comment is that interpretations of the meaning of something don’t come from nowhere. There is probably nothing to stop someone from thinking that Charles’ dog represents the Baltimore Aquarium. But that person, if asked ‘What makes you think that?’, would probably have to decline to answer. What we are asking for in that question is evidence, a set of references to the conventions of symbolism, or to the author’s biography, laid out in such a way as to make the interpretation compelling. In other words, interpretation of meanings is not a private and spontaneous event, but is rational and communicable. In your example, the problem is that both interpretations seem to be rational. Further debate would have to look at the particular film in more detail: for example, what exactly does this female character do and say? It may be impossible to decide the issue, but that does not mean that there are no generally useful criteria for what counts as evidence of an interpretation.

Third, the search for the ‘meaning’ of something is a relatively recent way of thinking about art or literature. Plato and Aristotle, talking about literature, hardly mention what we would normally call the ‘meaning’. They are concerned about what kind of thing it is, where it comes from (is literature based on knowledge?), or what effect it has on a reader or viewer. It is only within the past century or two that, somehow, we all decided that the main thing to be said about a cultural product was its meaning. Are we sure we are right?

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