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.
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.
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.
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.
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!