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Beyond the author’s intent

Twitter’s reasons for permanent banning Donald Tr*mp acknowledge a way in which post-modernists (an attribution that virtually no post-modernist claims, so pardon my short hand) anticipated the Web’s effect on the relationship of author and reader. While the author’s intentions have not been erased, the reader’s understanding is becoming far more actionable.

Twitter’s lucid explanation of why it (finally) threw Tr*mp off its platform not only looks at the context of his tweets, it also considers how his tweets were being understood on Twitter and other platforms. For example:

“President Trump’s statement that he will not be attending the Inauguration is being received by a number of his supporters as further confirmation that the election was not legitimate…” 


The use of the words “American Patriots” to describe some of his supporters is also being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the US Capitol.


The mention of his supporters having a “GIANT VOICE long into the future” and that “They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” is being interpreted as further indication that President Trump does not plan to facilitate an “orderly transition” …

Now, Twitter cares about how his tweets are being received because that reception is, in Twitter’s judgment, likely to incite further violence. That violates Twitter’s Glorification of Violence policy, so I am not attributing any purist post-modern intentions (!) to Twitter.

But this is a pretty clear instance of the way in which the Web is changing the authority of the author to argue against misreadings as not their intention. The public may indeed be misinterpreting the author’s intended meaning, but it’s now clearer than ever that those intentions are not all we need to know. Published works are not subservient to authors.

I continue to think there’s value in trying to understand a work within the context of what we can gather about the author’s intentions. I’m a writer, so of course I would think that. But the point of publishing one’s writings is to put them out on their own where they have value only to the extent to which they are appropriated — absorbed and made one’s own — by readers.

The days of the Author as Monarch are long over because now how readers appropriate an author’s work is even more public than that work itself.

(Note: I put an asterisk into Tr*mp’s name because I cannot stand looking at his name, much less repeating it.)

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