There’s a pseudo-debate that I’m actually interested in which boils down to Death of the Author vs Authorial Intent. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to anime but since this is an anime blog and it’s what I know best. I figured we might as well stick to that medium.

In the past, I have generally advocated for a Death of the Author type of stance when considering anime and really most forms of media. But I know from my comments that not everyone agrees with me. Quite a few of you believe soundly in Authorial Intent, especially those who create their own content and have put a lot of thought into that intent.

do you think their tops are super warm or their legs are freezing?

Let’s define a few terms first. Very briefly and not completely accurately, Death of the Author is a standard of media criticism that says that what the author meant or intended shouldn’t be considered when taking in a particular piece of media. A less intimidating way to put it is: in the end, only audience remains.

On the other hand, Authorial Intent states that an artistic or creative work remains first and foremost the creators. As such the correct interpretation is the one the author had when creating the work. It is their work, they should know what it’s about.

To be fair, I don’t completely disagree with the theory of Authorial intent but I do think it severely limits media criticism and discourse. What happens with you run into an author like Yoko Taro for instance, that categorically refuses to disclose his views on his own works because he believes his audience should find their own meaning. Or what about all the art by unknown artists, or artists that have been dead for centuries and did not leave behind any details of their intent?

It’s not impossible to piece together some purported intent by analyzing the author’s social-economical situation as well as personal circumstances and figuring out what is most likely to influence their work and philosophy. But that’s going to be supposition.

and we all know what happens when you assume

Let me give you a random example: Gurren Lagann. I love Gurren Laggan. I thought it was a dense knot of analogies dripping with meaning. Every story thread, minor plot point, character and even visual choice had a deeper point to make. The show left me in awe and I wrote what I could about it after trying to scrape together my scattered thoughts and heart.

On the other hand, my friend Lumi thinks that “Gurren Lagann is not a smart show. It isn’t even a particularly original story nor is it that well-animated.” he goes on to say that he really likes it nonetheless because it’s fun brainless action nonstop.

Basically what bothers me about Authorial Intent is that one of us would necessarily be wrong. We have two almost mutually exclusive takes on the same show. So what does that mean? If the director comes out tomorrow and says it’s just about robots going POW, does that mean that everything I felt about the show and all the influence it had on me doesn’t exist anymore? That meaning suddenly evaporates? Or what if they come out with these elaborate existential dilemmas coded into the scenes, can Lumi no longer just wave that aside and enjoy the wild ride?

At the same time though, Death of the Author never sat completely right with me either. For one, I do enjoy finding out what a creator’s influences and motivations are. That’s because I think it adds value and context to the work. It’s not completely irrelevant and can change the audience’s understanding of a particular piece of media.

they better all have the exact same takeaway!

This idea of denying someone’s say in their own creation is kind of mean and I think it still limits us, just in a different way.

Then I hear the term Aggressive Reading. Now I don’t know if this term actually exists. I heard it used by YouTuber Curio but when I tried to find it defined elsewhere, I came up empty-handed. Granted I didn’t try all that hard. As soon as they described it, a light bulb went off. I realized that it was what I was missing. It is possible that I misunderstood as I will admit that I tend to put YouTube videos on in the background as I do other things, but from what I gathered, Aggressive Reading is when audiences make an effort to become media literate by considering all the messaging, themes and context of a piece of art, including what the author intended, in order to derive their own meaning from it.

As such, Aggressive Reading doesn’t deny Authorial intent but it also doesn’t allow that intent to completely negate the individual experience of the audience. And that’s it. That’s what I want. I like that.

aww yah! I found an obscure expression for an abstract mindset

So even if Hiroyuki Imaishi and Kazuki Nakashima come out tomorrow and explain that Gurren Laggan is actually just a reimagining of Neon Genesis Evangelion because the studio wanted a sequel… Lumi and I aren’t both forced to completely reevaluate our takes on the series. Which is good because it means a lot to both of us in different ways. But we can also go, really? Eva? Maybe I should rewatch Gurren Lagann!

I am therefore no longer a disciple of Death of the Author, I now aim to be an Aggressive reader. I do wish there was a less intimidating term for it. As such, when I review anime, I will consider the author’s intent, the messaging, the political climate but ultimately, what I’m gonna share is my own experience. And considering I do drinking games, my experience is usually pretty chill and happy if not entirely coherent.

And so in conclusion, rewatch Gurren Lagann! Or watch it for the first time. It’s super deep and full of truly touching philosophical musings and also kind of dumb and just a colourful action fest!

29 thoughts

  1. “Death of the Author” is really a nonstarter for me. If the intent of the author is irrelevant, what is the point of writing?

    If art is a conversation, “Death of the Author” means we are both just making up our own meaning about what the other person is saying rather than actually trying to understand what the other person actually is saying. Communication is impossible without accounting for the other guy’s POV. That explains most of modern politics, I guess.

    But art is not even a conversation. If intent is disregarded, what passes for “conversation” is little more than gossip between casual onlookers. Not a big fan of it.

    Except maybe if the intent of the author is just to entertain and/or be paid. Then the author can be dead to everyone but accounting. That pretty much covers 90% of literature.

    1. Well there are a ton of works wheere the author’s intent isn’t known and the author isn’t around anymore. Heck, there are tons of works where we don,t even know who the author is making and discussion of intent pure speculation. That makes it difficult to always interprete a work by putting the author’s intent first and foremost.

      1. That’s OK. If the intent can’t be known for certain we can argue over it. If the author refuses to say or says for us to create our own meaning, that’s OK too. But to say the intent doesn’t matter is more than a bit narcissistic.

      2. In one respect this mirrors in the realm of constitutional law. “Death of the Author” here means the constitution means whatever I think it does. That, in turn, is invested with whatever works best for me. I find that a frightening concept.

        “Original intent” is much more akin to what one would call aggressive reading. “Strict construction” is taking the words at face value according to the definitions and grammar of the day. I tend to the latter camp because it enhances civil liberties and provides stability.

  2. That’s interesting, I hadn’t heard of the term aggressive reading before. It does seem like a good middle ground. Otherwise, I’d definitely be all in on Death of the Author. I always felt that the overall message behind an anime or any kind of media is what you take away from it even if it wasn’t intended. I also use that if an author says something about their work retroactively.

    For example, in Demon Slayer the author confirmed after season 1 aired that the main characters don’t actually use elemental effects and those are purely visual for the audience. To me that doesn’t make sense because I feel like we have seen hard evidence of elements actually being incorporated to the attacks. So I would disregard that or in RWBY there was an interview where they explained that two villains (The wolf twins) were actually masterminds but in the show they get like 5 minutes of screen time before being outsmarted and defeated.

    So it’s cool trivia but I feel like anything that isn’t made clear in the actual media is fair game to just disregard. Maybe One Piece is an allegory to how the world is always changing but to me it’s more about just reaching for your dreams and making friends along the way. I just think consuming media is a really subjective experience and it’s cool to hear about what the author/creator envisioned but I don’t think it would really change my view much at all. It does give more incentive to rewatch/reread something to see if you notice the hints though so that’s where the aggressive reading would come in I suppose.

    1. I had no clue Demon Slayer weren’t elemental attacks. I wonder why he would specify that. Maybe there’s some upcoming story arc that doesn,t make sense if the powers are elemental?
      I think that for works that are still being released, the most useful part of knowing an author’s intent is trying to guess what they’re going to do next.

  3. I agree with you that this is a pseudo-debate inasmuch as it represents one of those either/or arguments that ought properly be a both/and consensus. I think both sides of this “debate” are equally spurious. Attempting to divine an author’s intent assumes that authors have a deliberative intention at the outset of the creative process, as opposed to, say, a vague outline or set of concepts they want to engage creatively and see where the exercise takes them. This is so obviously not the case, as is attested to by the reflections of many creative people themselves. And even in those cases where an author does make an apparently definitive statement of intent, subsequent reflection often leads to the admission that their own intentions or purposes changed course over the duration of the creative process. In other words, a bit like observer’s effect, the very process of creativity has the result of altering, not just the subject of creation, but the objective source of that creativity.

    Likewise, the idea that all that is important is the audience interpretation of, or reaction to, a creative artefact assumes that creators operate in a void, without either their own ideas, thoughts, impulses, and motivations, or, indeed, without any external influence operating on them throughout the creative process. That is quite clearly nonsense and is, i a sense, an expression of modernity’s tendency toward relativism and the idea that autonomous individuals create their own “equally valid” “truths”. Even the most reclusive of creators operate on the basis of their own experience, and experience is, by definition, a function of interior reflection and external stimulus – even if that stimulus is the experience of isolation itself. Moreover, the very fact of creativity implies at least a monologue – but more often, a dialogue – between the creator and the exterior reality in which they find themselves. This is not a neutral process in which the author brings nothing to the table – even from the standpoint of Christian theology, God’s creation “ex nihilo” was done with purposive intent.

    As for “aggressive reading”, I have never heard of that before – but from your description of it (and my apologies if I have misunderstood) it seems to be to be a species of “death of the author”, with at least some admission that audience interpretation is insufficient unto itself that in turn produces some intent to elicit what the author might have brought to the creative process. But that still, in my mind, leaves the initiative with the audience: it is their “purpose” or “task” to undertake the necessary work of interpretation sans any initiative on the part of the author. Any intent the author might have brought to the work doesn’t “break through” to the audience via the medium in which the creation is rendered: it simply lies passively within the work itself, waiting to be discerned and discovered by the audience through the “aggressive reading” process. On a spectrum of analysis, it seems to me that “aggressive reading” (again, assuming I have understood you correctly) is less a bridge between authorial intent and audience interpretation than it is a mid point between the two.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I think the “both/and” I referred to above is indicative of the fact that the “meaning” of any creative work is a dynamic interplay between what the author brings to their creation and how the audience receives that creative effort. The author impacts upon the audience both through their creation and its content, while the audience impact upon the creation through their response to its form and content and the meaning which their own experience assigns to what they receive. In the same way that creative output is both the product of experience and the changes/developments engendered by the experience of creation itself, so audience response is a product both of the audience’s prior experience and the experience of being on the receiving end of creative output. Neither has priority over the other; they might exist in different proportions at different times and places, but they never occur in the absence of the other. Creatives, afterall, are also members of the audience!

    PS: I love Gurren Lagann, too! It was one of the first anime series I watched via a streaming service, and I was blown away by its depth, complexity, and combination of poignant reality with off-the-wall adventure. Will have to watch it again someday…

  4. So I thought the idea of the Death of the Author is that the author’s intent isn’t any more important than someone’s interpretation. I could be wrong. I had heard that definition of it at one point. But that definition implies that the author’s intent does matter, it’s just isn’t the only thing that matters.

    That said, for a long time, I’ve been on the fence about the Death of the Author. I don’t think you can look at a book like The Great Gatsby divorced from when it was published and what the author appeared to have intended. But I also think I, as a reader, bring some level of baggage to it.

    I agree with the idea of a middle road between the two.

    1. When I read Barthes’s essay the argument was he the creator and the work were completely separate things and therefore the author’s intent and interpretation is no more important that the intent and interpretation of that same work of a random guy on the street. So if you consider the intent of the random guy on the street irrelevant than it should be the same for the author. So I guess it’s not completely irrelevant you just have to give it the same weight as everyone else that has experienced the work which on a practical level makes it not a useful tool for criticism.

  5. “It’s not impossible to piece together some purported intent by analyzing the author’s social-economical situation as well as personal circumstances and figuring out what is most likely to influence their work and philosophy. But that’s going to be supposition.”

    Unless it comes directly from the authors mouth… It’s ALL supposition. And that’s my big problem with Death Of The Author – it’s substitutes opinion (informed or otherwise) for fact, and then treats it as if it IS fact. There’s no “YMMV” caveat, no “this is just my opinion man”… This is doubly true if the person (usually a scholar) is of sufficient status. Their opinions will often become the default interpretation of the work (Until a new one arises, more in tune with the ever shifting current meta.)

    I guess I’m basically saying that beyond direct-from-the-mouth, there really isn’t all that much difference between “Death Of The Author” and “Aggressive Reading” beyond the former often deferring to others while the latter is more personal.

  6. I remember when I watched Serenity. I eventually watched it again with Joss Whedon’s commentary, and what he intended was slightly different from what I got out of the movie. In particular, the climactic scene where the protagonist reveals the truth of this government’s crimes. The horrors they have committed are practically unspeakable, and they did it all in the name of “making people better.” IE: forcing them to be good, obedient cattle. Their most skilled and dangerous operative talks about making “better worlds,” and “worlds without sin.” So when the truth is revealed, and an entire murdered world is unveiled, the protagonist says, “I’m going to show you a world without sin.”

    Whedon meant that to mean that sin is this outdated, outmoded concept. I took it to mean that the only world without sin is a dead one. Everybody has sin, after all, and that can’t simply be deleted without deleting the people. Even more, I understood that to try and force it, to force “goodness” and “morality,” will accomplish nothing more than to leave worlds ruined and empty with everybody dead. It’s a path to damnation, paved with “good” intentions.

    We all see things differently, understand things differently, and we all gain a different understanding when we go through the same events.

    To quote a scene from Lupin III: “Two men in prison look out the same bars. One sees the ground, the other sees stars.” Ah, but even that begs the question, what does the ground mean to the one, and what do the stars mean to the other?

  7. I think the best approach is to think about people in terms of a spectrum. This idea of authorial intent vs death of an author as a binary option feels too extreme. I’m willing to guess that pretty much everyone falls in between.

    I think you pose fair criticisms to the authorial intent side as it is presented, but I’m going to guess people aren’t going around stating that there’s only one correct perspective for a given series. And on the other side, I think you can largely think agnostically to the author’s intent, but there’s always going to be a point where it matters. For example, the intent of propaganda media is probably fairly important.

    My approach doesn’t seem too different from this idea of aggressive reading, but I’d present it differently. For any given series, I will initially take what I see at face value, but any additional “intent” I can glean is just additional information to inform my experience. Missing something isn’t a big deal, and I can just value what I’m able to catch. And if it lines up with what the author intended, I think they’ve done a good job at presenting it for someone like me.

    1. That’s a good way to go about it. I tend to really enjoy shows that don’t make all that much sense at Face value, like Kyousougiga but I there is something to be said about just appreciating the initial impact of a work stripped of everything else.

      1. To be fair, I’m not saying that you should just take shows at face value. It’s more of a perspective that I would treat anything else you can interpret as a bonus.

        1. Oh yeah I got that. I was just enjoying the idea of taking something like Penguindrum at face value. I think it would in fact be very entertaining, if a little confusing

  8. Very cool post.

    Back in college, I had an argument with my literature professor. He said the author’s intent is everything. In order to understand a work at all, the reader needed to understand the author’s intent.

    He didn’t like it when I observed that reading the classics just got a lot harder, the authors being dead and all… Unless they left detailed instructions. Interestingly, I don’t recall any who did.

    I could see how a writer might want their view taken into account. I can see it, but I disagree with it. I just spent about six months writing a novel. If I ever publish it and if some poor soul reads it, do I expect them to consult with me to interpret it? Do I even expect them to wonder, “What did that Crow guy mean by yellow curtains? Are they cowardly?”


    I expect my prose to interact with the reader’s imagination. I hope it will trigger associations that make reading my book a rich and rewarding experience. If that happens, it will be because of what they brought to the party. From an interpretation perspective, I might as well be dead.

    Let’s put it another way. If I’m at a book signing, and a reader accidentally stops at my table, what should I do if they share an interpretation that I don’t agree with? What if the book touched them deeply and warmly in a way I didn’t intend? Should I rain on their parade? Tell them they’re wrong?

    Or should I celebrate another instance of art as community?

    Talk about prejudicial wording! But I just wanted to be clear: I’m in the Death of the Author camp.

    But just a request: Can we name it something else? It’s reminding me too much of my own mortality!

  9. I like this idea of “aggressive reading.” I’ve also considered myself to be more on the “death of the author” side of the argument, but I’ve had to reconcile that with my belief that “all art is political” – the product of the time and place in which it’s written and the biases and beliefs of the person/people who wrote it have an effect on the final product.

    I think ultimately I’m cool with believing in my own interpretations, but like having as much information as possible at my disposal to add nuance to those interpretations (whether they fundamentally alter them or not).

  10. :)) Man, I love how WHOLESOME everything you write sounds when read. The way I read your posts is by copy-pasting the content into a text-to-speech app and pressing play while I do something else \(•ᴗ•)/

    I always find myself giggling as the female robot voice reads ٩( ᗒᗨᗕ )۶
    It makes my day :))

  11. Oh god, the neon genesis discussion flashbacks… I don’t think there will ever be an answer to this debate but I just adopt postmodernism. Where everything is in relation to what you think and feel about the media and what the author says is just a guideline, not the rule-book. But otherwise nice post!

  12. What you’re struggling with here is an unstated assumption you’ve made that art is fully solvable. This would entail that there is a single “right answer” that should be found for each work.

    This is an unsatifying take, because history teaches us that art is at it weakest, if it can be called art at all, when it can be solved. Artists under regime orders would create works teaching exactly what the regime touted, often even using the tropes and symbols expected of them. Those are some of the more soulless creations, because there is a “right answer” right there behind them, so the art is mere packaging.

    You might have already heard that theatre exists once there is an actor and a an audience. The same goes for written/drawn art. It’s always a conversation between two people, the author providing a stimuli and the reader a response. The reader’s individuality can often be as important as the work presented.

    An additional consequence of this is that you can be a passive listener of another two people having that conversation, and glimpse new insights from that different collision of egos. And heck, if you read together with another person, that means there are more than two people involved in the conversation.

    The actual meaning of a work is a summation of its potential, or all the possible conversations as described above. This means that art is never fully solvable, as its truths will continue to develop and reveal themselves further as different people in different times and circumstances get to touch that work. Indeed, the greatest works surprise us hundreds of years after the superficial events described in them are no longer topical. And that’s quite far from the assumption of a right answer being there all along.

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