The “Intentional Fallacy” and the “Affective Fallacy” of Interaction Design?

This post is a speculative exploration of an interesting position. I do not present it as my considered position; rather, I am just trying to think through some interesting thoughts. I encourage people to engage with me on this via comments.

The gist of the issue has to do with what we take to be the primary “way in” to understand and evaluate interaction designs. What I am interested in is how seriously we (as researchers, practitioners, users, and members of society) should seek to understand and factor in the intentions of the designers who made them and the felt experiences of those who use them. Such intentions and felt experiences may include cognitive states, affective states, assumptions and values, predispositions, aspirations, and so forth.

The alternative view that I wish to explore dispenses with such subjective qualities and seeks meaning only in the qualities of the artifact itself. Representing this approach, I will work with a seminal pair of papers in literary theory called “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy” by Wimsatt and Beardsley, as my primary sources for this position, though I will also explore what it means to apply this work of literary theory to design (since literature and design seem to be two different sorts of thing). Again, this is all very speculative and playful for now.

I. The “Intentional and Affective Fallacies”

Both papers were first written in the 1940s and revised and republished in 1954, so they are hardly the cutting edge of literary theory and in fact pre-date the Grand Theory movement in literature in the 1970s and 80s (e.g., deconstruction, feminism, postcolonialism, Marxism, etc.). They are generally grouped with The New Criticism, a modernist movement that set itself in opposition to traditional literary approaches that fundamentally looked to the author as the primary source of meaning for a work (e.g., the expression theories of the Romantics, which were developed in the philosophical writings of R.G. Collingwood and Benedetto Croce). The New Critics rejected expression theories and instead sought to direct critical attention to “the text itself.” In doing so, they also rejected “affective” theories, that is, criticism that begins with the private subjectivity of the critic, for example, her or his emotions, imaginative activities, or even physiology (e.g., Emily Dickinson’s “goosebumps”). The following quote summarizes both positions and is from the introduction of “The Affective Fallacy”:

The Intentional Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its origins, a special case of what is known to philosophers as the Genetic Fallacy. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological causes of the poem and ends in biography and relativism. The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results, (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemological scepticism…. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome of either Fallacy, the Intentional or the Affective, is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear. (AF, p. 345)

There are several points that should be made about this quote.

First, its scope of inquiry is the standard of criticism, that is, the primary criterion by which we judge poetic merit. It is not about accounting for how poets produce poetry, and it is directed at the public appreciation of a poetic work, and not towards creative writing pedagogy or something similar. I say this to stress that Wimsatt & Beardsley are not suggesting that no one ever has a legitimate interest in authors or readers, but rather that they argue that “the text itself” should be the primary criterion of critical judgment.

Another point worth mentioning is the authors’ fear of “relativism,” which they argue is the unwanted consequence of both the Intentional and Affective Fallacies. The relativism argument hinges on the third point, which is another distinction, that between the public and the private. Relying on the distinction in Speech Act Theory between speaker’s meaning and sentence meaning (i.e., what the speaker is trying to express versus what the words actually mean in everyday language, respectively), Wimsatt & Beardsley see the poem as public and objective in the sense that it is an object in the world and both comprises and is open to inspection using public resources, such as language. In contrast, on their theory, authorial intention and reader response are both private and subjective, and because of these, both intention and response are inaccessible and idiosyncratic. I should stress that Wimsatt and Beardsley do acknowledge that historical facts about authors and historical facts about literary reception can contribute to a critical judgment about a poem–they just want to rule out either candidate as the [primary] standard of criticism, because they want to focus critics’ attention on the work itself.

II. Implications for Interaction Design

What makes all of this interesting, of course, is that in HCI and interaction design today, we have a field that is committed to more or less the opposite of Wimsatt & Beardsley’s position.

I’ll begin with HCI’s focus on intention. In HCI research, we generally take papers more seriously than we take designs. At CHI, Papers and Notes are the most prestigious track, getting the most serious and rigorous reviews, while Interactivity and the Video Showcase tracks have much less rigorous standards and less prestige; the latter are also not archived in the same way as the former. Through these papers and notes, in the name of scientific transparency and replicability, researchers articulate their intentions, their own literary biographies, their creative processes, and their reflections on them. Outside of research, we often treat designers as romantic geniuses (witness the cult of Steve Jobs, but also the way we valorize the founders of Google or Facebook and their life stories). And if we are honest, we do a little bit of this inside of the research community as well, though hopefully not so crudely. For example, a recent paper at DIS methodologically recognizes (but also, I would argue, celebrates) the autobiographies of some of the HCI research community’s superstars: Bill Gaver, Greg Abowd, Saul Greenberg, etc. (Neustaedter & Sengers).

As for HCI’s focus on affective response, that is, the “results” of the design, well, I hardly need write this. Mainstream research in user experience, user engagement, and aesthetic interaction predominantly focuses on diverse ways of collecting data to gain access to the private subjective experiences of users–physiological sensors, Likert scales, behavioral tracking, interviews, eye tracking, EEGs, and the list goes on. We model this data and propose how user’s psychological needs, aesthetic preferences, and emotional reactions all contribute to higher level design judgments. On this view, good designs are designs that have been judged by users to be good, and these judgments have been made for diverse reasons that can be explained by cognitive psychology. In short, the very notion of “human-centered design” is predicated on what Wimsatt and Beardsley inclusively label (and reject), “affective response.”

III. The New [HCI] Criticism?

Now I turn to the most speculative and playful part of this post. What would happen if we imagined The New Criticism of Wimsatt & Beardsley and applied it to interaction designs?

Let me start with a quote to clarify some of Wimsatt & Beardsley’s interpretive predispositions.

The poem is not the critic’s own and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is about the human being, an object of public knowledge. (IF, p. 335).

Applying this as set of guidelines, we would look at a given interaction design as follows:

  • As a public artifact (that is, something that has public existence external to the individual subjectivities of designers and users)
  • As embodied in a design language, which is also accessible to the public
  • As an object of public knowledge and public use

The sort of evidence we might look for to support a critical judgment about an interaction design is on this theory “direct textual evidence,” that is, aspects of the design itself. This presumably would include more or less straightforward objective issues such as user interface, input and output schemes, functionality, etc.

More subtle, and more interesting, is the fact that this would also include issues of publicly available meaning or significance: connotation, style, and a range of “objective” qualities such as material, composition, and presentation.

Material issues include not only what it is made out of (physically and virtually), but also the public knowledge of the existing uses and meanings of these materials and how the design leverages, exploits, furthers, and/or misconstrues these uses and meanings. For example, it might extend to notions of production value or craftsmanship, as judged by public standards of the same.

Compositional issues include part-whole relations and matters of structure and organization. These might include the composition of visual objects, of common behaviors/uses, of inputs and outputs, of visual or logical hierarchy, of the construction of virtual “objects,” etc. All of these would be further judged by their situatedness within a publicly known and understood tradition of such compositions, e.g., whether this is a copycat interface, is truly original, reflects a nuanced improvement, completely changes the operative mental models, and so forth.

Presentational issues include the specific and concrete means by which an object is presented to our attention. This includes issues of style, of ordering, of point of view, and of narration. Style involves “the constancy, or consistency, in the way an individual, or a group, treats the formal elements of … a visual culture” (Barnard, 173). Operating systems, platforms, and software collections (e.g., Adobe software) all have styles, but so do ATMs and GPS systems. These styles often participate in broader stylistic conventions, such as the cool science fictional style of Microsoft Surface. They are also significant: the ascendancy of Facebook over the (then) functionally similar MySpace was partly attributed to Facebook’s cleaner, more professional visual stylings. Video games carry forward many conventions of storytelling, including point of view, narration (i.e., the distinction between what happens in a story and the telling of that story, including what order the events are told in, which ones are focused on, etc.).

The New Critic also sees these issues as coming together (ideally) in what they refer to as an organic unity, which refers the way that the different elements, compositional strategies, presentational strategies, materials, contents, connotations, and even internal ambiguities and tensions all come together in a grand coherence. Such a work achieves the unity in variety that has long been considered a key indicator of the aesthetic work. The functional, stylistic, material, and formal coherence of the Apple ecology seems to exemplify The New Critical “organic unity.” (Though one might add that this unity is not always a good thing, such as when Apple products refuse to work with non-Apple systems and services for no other reason than Apple’s desire to fleece its own customers in aesthetically pleasing ways.)

IV. Reflections, Criticisms, and Limitations

Wimsatt & Beardsley’s account obviously would encourage us to play down designer intentions when it comes to judging interaction designs. The basic argument here is that a poem should be judged as aesthetically successful independently of whatever the poet intended or planned to do. This view is easy enough to motivate: sometimes we are accidentally successful, and sometimes we fail in spite of our intentions. Inasmuch as we judge a work on its success in relation to publicly accessible resources and criteria, Wimsatt & Beardsley’s approach seems almost commonsensical–no one will judge a design good because a designer merely intended it to be good.

And yet surely intention is a more important criterion for evaluating a design than it is for poetry. That is, design seems more fundamentally intentional than art, such as poems. After all, when we are frustrated with a design, we ask, “what were they thinking?!”–surely an appeal to intention. There is a distinction in literary theory that might be useful here, and it is the difference between the actual-historical author and the implied author. The former is (or was) a living person, with thoughts, feelings, intentions, etc. The latter is what a reader can infer of the author based on the text, that is, the author inscribed in the text. Consider the following excerpt:

After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people. (1.4)

Based on patterns in language (e.g., grammatical violations, contractions, use of colloquialisms), the nature of the reasoning, and the bluntness of its presentation, we can infer much about the speaker here, without needing any privileged access to his private consciousness. That is, the implied speaker is present to us in the public language of the text; the historical speaker and his private consciousness can be much more elusive. (The quote, incidentally, is from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.)

So it would seem that in judging a design, we should likewise be able to infer much about its design intentions, without reference to the private thoughts of the actual designers. Keyboard shortcuts in Adobe products are intended to improve the performance of power users; the standardization of keyboard shortcuts across programs are intended to improve the learnability of these keyboard shortcuts (and perhaps to build commitment to the brand). We do not need to interview any Adobe designer to find out what was intended, and we certainly don’t need to interview anyone from Adobe before we form judgments about whether such design features are good or not.

Another key difference between poetry and design is that most poetry (and modern Western art in general) has an explicit author/artist attached to the work, but much design does not. Who wrote The Great Gatsby? F. Scott Fitzgerald. Who designed the Adobe Acrobat 10 for Mac Export Wizard? Uh, hmm. In a way, this seems to be an argument in favor of Wimsatt & Beardsley’s position. Conversely, Wimsatt & Beardsley’s position doesn’t seem well equipped to handle insights regarding patterns across a given creative designer’s or artist’s oeuvre. When we say, “a Hitchcock film” or “how Hitchcockian!” we are referring to an individual’s style across works. Jonathan Ives’ name is attached to a whole generation of highly successful–and visually, interactively, and technically coherent–Apple technologies. Or perhaps Wimsatt & Beardsley’s position can be used to explain such patterns or styles: are not those Hitchcockian or Ivesian features publicly accessible, inscribed in a series of objects and articulable as a style? And again, how much access to the private consciousness of Hitchcock or Ives do we need to perceive, appreciate, and/or judge this style?

So perhaps the reasoning expressed in “The Intentional Fallacy” does have prima facie plausibility for judging interaction designs.

How about the applicability to interaction design of Wimsatt & Beardsley’s position on the Affective Fallacy? Maybe I’ve been in HCI too long, but I’m struggling with this one. For one thing, it seems to me that today’s social science is better at sussing out “private” feelings much more capably and usefully than Wimsatt and Beardsley allow. For another, the majority of interaction designs are intended (ahem) for commercial use today and in the near future. A practicing interaction designer is less likely hoping to surrender her- or himself to Tradition (as T.S. Eliot characterizes the true goal of the great poet) but rather is trying to make something that works, that is generally pleasing, that is commercially successful, but not something that is timelessly aesthetic in some noble and abstract and its-OK-if-y’all-realize-my-greatness-after-I-die kind of thing. Interaction designers would probably agree with Woody Allen: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

At any rate, here is where I am ending up as a result of this thought experiment:

  • Wimsatt & Beardsley’s argument in favor of analyzing artifacts as publicly available objects with publicly available purposes, communicative elements, etc., seems reasonable and relevant for interaction designs. Indeed, I personally am inclined to think that the appropriation of literary (and other aesthetic) analytical vocabularies to critically interrogate artifacts could enrich interaction design as a discipline. 
  • Wimsatt & Beardsley’s argument against authorial intention seems plausible but a little bit troubling as applied to interaction design. The “implied designer” hedge definitely takes much of the sting out of their position.
  • Wimsatt & Beardsley’s argument against affective response seems categorically to invalidate pretty much all of user experience research. I can twist my head in pretzels on this one, but I don’t think I’ll make any headway with it. Systematically obtained knowledge about how users actually experience interaction design is too valuable a resource to throw away. (On an interesting historical note, text-centric theories of the middle 20th century–the New Criticism, structuralism, and semiotics in particular–did all eventually give way to “reader response” and “reception theory” perspectives, as one can easily see in the careers of Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes.)

So that was fun. Write a comment and tell me what I got right and wrong….

V. References

Barnard, M. (2001). Approaches to Understanding Visual Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Neustaedter, C. & Sengers, P. (2012). Autobiographical design in HCI research: designing and learning through use-it-yourself. In Proceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS ’12). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 514-523.

Wimsatt, W.K., and Beardsley, M.C. (1954). The affective fallacy. In D. Lodge, ed., 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader (1972). London: Longman, pp. 345-359.

Wimsatt, W.K., and Beardsley, M.C. (1954). The intentional fallacy. In D. Lodge, ed., 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader (1972). London: Longman, pp. 334-344.

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About jeffreybardzell

Jeffrey Bardzell is an Associate Professor of HCI Design and new media at the School of Informatics and Computing and an Affiliated Faculty of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University - Bloomington. He specializes in the aesthetics of software interfaces, amateur multimedia design communities, and digital creativity.
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25 Responses to The “Intentional Fallacy” and the “Affective Fallacy” of Interaction Design?

  1. Reblogged this on Interaction Culture: The Class Blog and commented:

    Reblogging from my main blog … but the ideas began in my readings/preparations for this class.

  2. Gilbert Cockton says:

    D: All of these

  3. Casey M Addy says:

    It’s readings like this that make me miss going to school. For me, the most thought provoking part of this post relates to the designers intentions, and evaluating the implied designer. In larger organizations, what I have found is that there is a notion of the communal designer, and the interaction designer plays his/her part in the commune to build a consistent interaction to the outside world. Are we judged based upon how the individual blends away and into the commune? Are we judged by the commune to see how much we are not like the commune? I’m not too sure on how this theory can answer these questions, but the thoughts they produce can help make for better reflection and help us to augment the data we get from user studies to help make the design go in the “right” direction (if there is a “right” – or maybe it is a left). At any point, it is some good food to make us take one more step as to what we are doing and changing the world around us.

    • Thanks for commenting! Your point about the “communal designer” is highly relevant in a practical sense and also conceptually very interesting. How a person enters this communal designership is an interesting question, as is the likelihood that designers will nonetheless wish to differentiate themselves even within the constraints of this communal designer. And other than some very extreme examples (maybe Oulipo?), it really has little analogue in poetry or the arts.

  4. 1. We definetly need to put more attention to the details of the artefacts, we put out. There is a “how” and we need to criticise and reflect upon detailed design decisions. HCI is not a design dicipline inthis respect. A lot of lofty talk, not much attention to detail – very crude designs now and then. And no culture to discuss on this level. So if the “intentional fallacy” is able to divert a bit of attention to the object itself, and related debates about aesthetics (in a normative sense), this would be helpful to increase the quality of technology.

    2. The affective fallacy is no fallacy given the result IS the product. When we think of the experience is the actual product (and not the mediating technology as product) then the experience becomes subject to criticism?!

    • Regarding (1), well obviously I agree with you. One thing that literary studies developed in the 20th century was a fairly nuanced vocabulary to distinguish among different sources of evidence for intentionality–that inscribed directly in the work, that implied by what is inscribed, that which is visible across works by the same artist/author, unconscious and ideological “intentions,” as well as biographical details. I don’t think we in HCI as yet have this vocabulary, and so I think one way to move the conversation forward in our discipline is to explore some of these issues. Originally, this post was only going to be about the Intentional Fallacy, but the essays make such a pairing that its almost easier to understand them together than it is individually.

    • Regarding (2), let’s say that I am very constructively provoked by this claim:

      the result IS the product. When we think of the experience is the actual product

      I understand where you are going with it, and in some ways I am very sympathetic to it. It calls to my mind Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, later Umberto Eco, and so forth, whose work led to revelations about the “performance” of the act of reading as the text itself.

      The reservation I have is that on such a view, as Wimsatt & Beardsley write, “the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear” (AF, p.345). Obviously, I am not willing to argue that the “true” locus of meaning in an interaction is in the artifact. Such a position is problematic enough about a novel or a painting, and when interaction (in the sense we use the term) forms the purpose and basis of the artifact and its use, the position becomes almost absurd.

      But your assertion that the product is the experience also sounds reductive to me. It is idealistic (in the sense of German Idealism, not in the sense of hopeless optimism) and is comparatively weak on issues of materiality and craftsmanship.

    • What’s motivating much of this is our sense of the ontology of a “product.” It would be interesting to attempt to articulate a product ontology, and perhaps then to compare it to the ontology of a “work” or of a “text.” We might make headway in such an inquiry.

      • Why must it be an either or? Why can’t we design an “experience”, but at the same time understand that it is created through the object. It does not make much sense to separate both. Any change in the object (if crucial, and only if crucial it is worth criticising) will impact the the resulting experience. Otherwise it would not be worth the hassle.

        Maybe the texts you are using operate on a “false” assumption: An assumed dichotomy or separability of things and experience (maybe still inspired by the seeming objectivity of the natural sciences or a behavior-oriented psychology) … for me (and certainly not me alone) both are related. How can you interact with something without having something experienced in the end? How can you design something without anticipating this moment? On what basis can one decide whether this feature, interaction or material is right, without any idea of the consequence? Even if you design for “ambiguity”, you are anticipating a certain experience … Let’s say, the experience you hoped for does not happen. One could now argue that your object is “bad”, because it fails to deliver the INTENDED experience. This would be a criterion for a critique – I am often not so very impressed by some design-oriented, even well-known people in our field, which write papers about experiences they intended, but which did not happen, but the stuff THAT happend is so good anyway. Hey, where is the design here? If that then is the “intentional fallacy”, I think it would be even dangerous to not care about intentions. A step further, say the experience is exactly as intended. So for example a cool designer thought it is really nice to spice up a party with some competition and designed a music voting system instead of providing a sensible DJ. This can be subjected to critique as well. But this is a completely different type of critique. The first is just a bad design, not able to deliver what was intended. Reject! The second is more difficult. I would go into a heated debate about how AWFUL I find the designer’s vision of people and parties. This is not the way, it should be. But there is no right or wrong here. Just argument, taste, incompatible notions of our future. Maybe one of the discussants has the compelling arguments and convinces others. But not more. We need these two levels in interactions as well. You cannot despise of a record because it is death metal. But “bad” death metal is a different story. So when is death metal bad? When is does not deliver a death metal experience, I would say.

        To me it, is hoplessly old-fashioned to believe only in the material and to insist on being someone who perfected the rules of giving form but leaves it to the people out their to put in meaning. Today, we design meaning and objects/situations etc. are only means.

    • It’s very difficult to reply to your post because there are a lot of different sorts of arguments in it. I’ll begin with the easy:

      To me it, is hoplessly old-fashioned to believe only in the material

      Of course! I stated this position in the original piece and again in my second comment to you.

      Here is the part where I have a hard time understanding you. You wrote each of the following:

      [1] the result IS the product. When we think of the experience is the actual product (and not the mediating technology as product)

      [2] Why can’t we design an “experience”, but at the same time understand that it is created through the object. It does not make much sense to separate both.

      To me, these two statements seem to be in conflict with each other. I can readily agree to [2] but have a hard time with [1], because [1] implies to me that you are yourself embracing a divide between object and experience, but that instead of valorizing the object (as Wimsatt & Beardsley do), you valorize the experience. The second quote and your point about how objects, intentions, and experiences are all inseparable all suggest a different position, one with which I am already inclined to agree.

      Regarding your example of the design that was successful, but not in the way it was intended: It’s hard to see a successful design as a failed design to me, but it’s not so hard to see the designer as having failed. Here is where (I think) the notion of “implied designer” can be helpful. Let’s take a hypothetical example: I design A to be used as 1, and A1 turns out to be a failure, but users discover A2, which never occurred to me, and that is useful. It seems reasonable to me to say that the actual historical designer (i.e., me) has failed from a design standpoint, but that the implied designer of A2 was in fact successful. This approach allows us to see that A2′s success can be rationally explained and that there is a story of intentions that can explain A2, it’s just that this story is hypothetical or contrafactual. But we need this precisely to account for products whose purposes and uses have been appropriated or developed emergently in ways the designer did not or could not have anticipated. (I’m thinking of steampunk as an example here.)

      As for the role of the Intentional Fallacy in this example, it’s important to remember its scope. Wimsatt & Beardsley position it as a way of thinking about what the primary critical criterion ought to be to support aesthetic judgments of a poem. They are not interested in creative writing pedagogy in this context or anything like that. Now, you say that it would be dangerous to take this position, because it would prevent us from understanding the failure of the actual historical designer (me in this example) and his processes, intentions, etc., all of which led to failure. But I would say that your argument (which is perfectly reasonable in its own right) is actually out of scope for Wimsatt & Beardsley, because they are critiquing the design (A) once it is out in the world, where it (in the form of A2) has in fact enjoyed (albeit accidental) success. As researchers trying to understand design cognition, or as scientists who care about methodologies of knowledge production, we might care very much about hypothetical me’s failure as a designer, or we might want a postmortem on A1 to analyze how our thinking or processes or methods went wrong, but that’s not the scope in which Wimsatt & Beardsley are operating.

      Finally, I want to reiterate that inasmuch as I am doing a thought experiment, I am trying to stay faithful for Wimsatt & Beardsley, but again, I cannot underline enough that I am not seriously championing their position out of the box as a way of thinking about interaction design. Partly, I want to evaluate where their thinking can be productive and where I think it is a dead-end. Interestingly (to me), even though the Intentional and Affective Fallacies are intellectual twins, two implications of the same argument, I find one of them intriguing (Intentional) and one of them a total dead-end (Affective). I would not have predicted that result.

    • You wrote of death metal,

      So when is death metal bad? When is does not deliver a death metal experience, I would say.

      One challenge pointed out frequently in philosophical aesthetics (especially George Dickie) is that we have a tendency to conflate classificatory and evaluative art claims. In other words:

      [1] X is art.
      [2] X is good art.

      Oftentimes, when we say [1] we also mean [2], and when we aren’t willing to predicate [2] of something, we won’t predicate [1] of it, either. For example, people will say things like “Rod Stewart isn’t music.” Clearly their meaning is that Rod Stewart’s music isn’t good, but the statement literally denies that it is even music. I have even known people to go so far as to assert, seriously, that Rod Stewart cannot even be categorized as “music” and instead can only be categorized as “entertainment.” (I don’t endorse this latter position–I’m just raising it to illustrate Dickie’s point.)

      So back to the death metal example. It seems to me that the following two statements are not the same, and that [4] is slight more accurate.

      [3] Death metal is bad when it does not deliver a death metal experience.
      [4] Death metal is bad when it does not deliver a good death metal experience.

      The problem with [3] is that it does not account for the situation where death metal delivers a death metal experience, only it’s a bad one. (In other words, it seems to conflate the classificatory and evaluative senses of “death metal,” a sentence I never thought I would get to type, so thanks for that!)

  5. Prelude:

    I’ll begin with the easiest as well. I wrote: “To me it, is hopelessly old-fashioned to believe only in the material.” You told me: “Of course! I stated this position in the original piece and again in my second comment to you.” Just to correct the potential impression, I wouldn’t read what you write. Sometimes people (read I) write sentences intended to re-assure themselves (read me), which should not be confused with proper communication

    The contradiction:

    You wrote:
    “Here is the part where I have a hard time understanding you. You wrote each of the following:
    [1] the result IS the product. When we think of the experience is the actual product (and not the mediating technology as product)
    [2] Why can’t we design an “experience”, but at the same time understand that it is created through the object. It does not make much sense to separate both.
    To me, these two statements seem to be in conflict with each other. I can readily agree to [2] but have a hard time with [1], because [1] implies to me that you are yourself embracing a divide between object and experience, but that instead of valorizing the object (as Wimsatt & Beardsley do), you valorize the experience. The second quote and your point about how objects, intentions, and experiences are all inseparable all suggest a different position, one with which I am already inclined to agree.”

    I guess this is a thought figure with a classical name attached to it I can’t find right now, but let me explain in my own words. It makes much sense to be aware of all parts of a whole. Especially, if we talk about design, where we manipulate parts to create whole. A poem consists of words and letters. A chair of legs and material and connections between parts. While I can take a look at some aspect in isolation (and can still learn from it), I can be nevertheless aware of the fact that parts together “emerge” into something carrying more meaning than can be deduced from the parts in isolation. It makes sense to distinguish between thoughts, emotions, and action, but at the same time modern psychology would acknowledge that all these parts are heavily intertwined and that these relations are at the heart of being human. Sometimes concentrating too much on one part may lead to wrong conclusions. But it is still valid to think about parts and wholes, isn’t it?

    The fallacies:

    “Regarding your example of the design that was successful, but not in the way it was intended: It’s hard to see a successful design as a failed design to me, but it’s not so hard to see the designer as having failed. Here is where (I think) the notion of “implied designer” can be helpful. Let’s take a hypothetical example: I design A to be used as 1, and A1 turns out to be a failure, but users discover A2, which never occurred to me, and that is useful. It seems reasonable to me to say that the actual historical designer (i.e., me) has failed from a design standpoint, but that the implied designer of A2 was in fact successful. This approach allows us to see that A2′s success can be rationally explained and that there is a story of intentions that can explain A2, it’s just that this story is hypothetical or contrafactual. But we need this precisely to account for products whose purposes and uses have been appropriated or developed emergently in ways the designer did not or could not have anticipated. (I’m thinking of steampunk as an example here.)”

    I fully agree. My example is a failure of the designer not the design. And in fact, many wonderful discoveries were accidental. But we still should strive for “control”. We should not make the accidental the method. We should not just put something together and subject it to people’s appropriation. We need to take responsibility and this is only possible when we accept that we are responsible for any effects. Even those we did not anticipate.

    “As for the role of the Intentional Fallacy in this example, it’s important to remember its scope. Wimsatt & Beardsley position it as a way of thinking about what the primary critical criterion ought to be to support aesthetic judgments of a poem. They are not interested in creative writing pedagogy in this context or anything like that. Now, you say that it would be dangerous to take this position, because it would prevent us from understanding the failure of the actual historical designer (me in this example) and his processes, intentions, etc., all of which led to failure. But I would say that your argument (which is perfectly reasonable in its own right) is actually out of scope for Wimsatt & Beardsley, because they are critiquing the design (A) once it is out in the world, where it (in the form of A2) has in fact enjoyed (albeit accidental) success. As researchers trying to understand design cognition, or as scientists who care about methodologies of knowledge production, we might care very much about hypothetical me’s failure as a designer, or we might want a postmortem on A1 to analyze how our thinking or processes or methods went wrong, but that’s not the scope in which Wimsatt & Beardsley are operating.”

    Yeah, yeah. W&B is certainly a well discussed argument. And I have this feeling that everything to support or criticize this position was already said. And that we reach a point, where I simply don’t know enough about all the details of the argument. So, here is just a hunch. In my work I use a lot of examples of artifacts I found, which make a certain point in MY discourse. I don’t care whether this is what the designer intended. I simply wrap a new story around the thing. I re-interpret, remix. So I might end up appreciating and praising something for something, which is only in MY head. This I find legitimate. But not for criticizing a paper, for example. I simply hate all these reviews, where colleagues don’t judge what is there and what my intentions were, but reject because they would have wrote the paper differently. The same with artifacts. I want to be judged based on my intentions and notions as expressed through the object, not on the basis of other’s intentions. Now, W&B would (maybe) solve the question by reverting to rather formal criteria, trying to discard intentions and results at all and to appreciate the thing as it is. If that would be possible, it might be good. But I isn’t. Because lower level features have no meaning without references to higher level intentions and experiences, values and beliefs. It is simply impossible to have an opinion on the Eiffel Tower without referring to one’s own biography. Be it an interest in modernism, engineering, French culture, or a long gone lover. Things without meaning are simply not there. Psychologically.

    Rod Stewart and minimal techno:

    You wrote that I wrote of death metal,
    “So when is death metal bad? When is does not deliver a death metal experience, I would say.
    One challenge pointed out frequently in philosophical aesthetics (especially George Dickie) is that we have a tendency to conflate classificatory and evaluative art claims. In other words:
    [1] X is art.
    [2] X is good art.
    Oftentimes, when we say [1] we also mean [2], and when we aren’t willing to predicate [2] of something, we won’t predicate [1] of it, either. For example, people will say things like “Rod Stewart isn’t music.” Clearly their meaning is that Rod Stewart’s music isn’t good, but the statement literally denies that it is even music. I have even known people to go so far as to assert, seriously, that Rod Stewart cannot even be categorized as “music” and instead can only be categorized as “entertainment.” (I don’t endorse this latter position–I’m just raising it to illustrate Dickie’s point.)

    So back to the death metal example. It seems to me that the following two statements are not the same, and that [4] is slight more accurate.
    [3] Death metal is bad when it does not deliver a death metal experience.
    [4] Death metal is bad when it does not deliver a good death metal experience.
    The problem with [3] is that it does not account for the situation where death metal delivers a death metal experience, only it’s a bad one. (In other words, it seems to conflate the classificatory and evaluative senses of “death metal,” a sentence I never thought I would get to type, so thanks for that!)”

    But Jeffrey, I thought I meant [3] rather than [4]. But this is a tricky one. Let’s talk about minimal techno rather than death metal. A producer of minimal techno has a certain situation in mind when creating a track. People dance. They are euphoric. It is loud. The DJ needs to be able to create a set, to adapt to the situation. Minimal assumes that in an “impoverished” repetitive sound environment every tiny variation becomes amplified. Those people think about the best way to drop an offbeat high hat. Sometimes not more happens over 6 minutes. They ponder about baselines and bass drums. Now: A minimal track is a minimal track when it is referring to the discourse of minimal. When it takes up fundamental developed principles; builds on a shared value set. This is the classificatory part. So when somebody tells me s/he is producing minimal techno, but not for the dancefloor, I am not so sure, we are talking about the same thing. In the category of minimal there are wizards, there are masterpieces, there is average, there is sh … not so good material. And, quite naturally, there is a discourse about “good” and “bad”, but always in relation to the self-selected category. So isn’t it all quite easy? Let’s say, you design a technology to create the feeling of closeness over a distance. Through this you self-selected a genre. This genre has a discourse and you need to show how your thing relates to this. If it doesn’t relate and you refuse to tell us why you don’t relate to this discourse, but still insist that the thing is for feeling close, it might be perceived as “bad”. You can save it by telling “Hey, this is all irony, don’t you get it” (the post-modern variant) or you can reclassify (“I am only interested in the underlying technology”) and the thing becomes re-evaluated. Often people transfer notions developed in one discourse to others – they overgeneralize. But this is silly. One cannot and should not compare a sweaty night out in a pumping club with an evening in the opera. I know what I like better. I know for what I would argue for, when it is about a night out. But I would never assume that Opera is “bad” just because it is not minimal techno. So is this what Dickie meant? Call my naïve, but I don’t think that people who say “Rod Stewart is no music” really mean that Rod Stewart is no music. They simply say: to all the poor Rod Stewart fans out there. I totally despise of your average tastes, your lousy, small-minded idea of what music is and what music could by. Of all the stuff in the world, why should anybody waste precious time for THIS. It is not meant as an evaluation of the music at all. It is an evaluation of people engaging in this experience. It is exactly the debate about the “right” experience, I was referring to earlier.

    • NOTE: This comment has been edited since it was first published. The main points haven’t changed–I’ve just expanded on them a little bit for clarity.

      Well, once again I am led to the boring conclusion that you and I mostly agree, albeit with some nuances, and that serious disagreements are more apparent than real.

      You wrote:

      So, here is just a hunch. In my work I use a lot of examples of artifacts I found, which make a certain point in MY discourse. I don’t care whether this is what the designer intended. I simply wrap a new story around the thing. I re-interpret, remix. So I might end up appreciating and praising something for something, which is only in MY head. This I find legitimate.

      This is fundamentally compatible with W&B’s position in Intentional Fallacy. And my own position, for that matter.

      You raise the issue of peer reviews, and that is somewhat complicated, since the whole point of all this is that perhaps we (in the HCI research community) are giving too much primacy to the historical/actual “author’s” intentions. Of course, I am hardly defending rejecting papers because the reviewer would have written them differently!

      This conversation (and a parallel one going on my class this week) is helping me see that there seems to be a crucial difference between my perspective in my role as a design researcher and professor on the one hand and as a design critic on the other.

      • Inasmuch as I am a design professor, I care very much about historical/actual intentions. It is very important to me, for example, that my Master’s students graduate from our program with the skills needed to do design (theories, methodologies, hard skills, etc.), that they have their own point of view as designers, etc. And in fact, all of that is even more important to me than their having killer designs in their portfolios (though, obviously that’s important too!).
      • Inasmuch as I am a design critic, I care more about the significance I interpret/understand of the work, as you put it: “I simply wrap a new story around the thing. I re-interpret, remix.” This is because artifacts in the world have a life and significance of their own that cannot be bounded by historical/actual intention. (Example: What did historical/actual Homer intend with The Iliad? In spite of its spectacular cultural significance in the West, we barely have any idea what he, if he was a he, intended.) And a critical understanding of a design should be more about its significance in the world than its instantiation of someone’s intentions.

      I think this distinction is important, because without it, it is hard to get both of the following:

      [1] The ability to recognize that sometimes designs are accidentally very successful or awesome, and we want that to happen, and we also want to be able to account for it.

      [2] Accidentally successful isn’t good enough for either my students or my colleagues in HCI. Their intentions, processes, methodologies, etc. all matter if we are serious about advancing our discipline.

      This may seem obvious in hindsight, but I at least had to work to get this level of clarity. (Unless and until I can number claims and discuss them analytically, I don’t feel that I have achieved sufficient clarity.)

      In a rush now (crazy couple of days), so deep thoughts on death metal and Rod Stewart will have to wait…

    • Now for the mimimal techno / opera example….

      I don’t think that Dickie meant to construct an argument where the claim “opera is bad minimal techno, because it doesn’t deliver a minimal techno experience” is something we need to think about. I would guess that, especially in such an extreme example, that he would say that this judgment is all but tautologous and hardly needs philosophical attention.

      I think part of what he is getting at is that there is often a tacit honorific quality to an art predication, and this can confuse us. We should be able to distinguish between a good and bad impressionist painting without resorting to saying that only one of them is “really” an impressionist painting. (I don’t have Dickie with me right now, so I can’t quote or paraphrase his argument with great specificity right now–sorry.) I really do have a friend, with advanced academic training in music, who seriously and literally claims that Rod Stewart isn’t music (actually, this “friend” says that David Bowie isn’t music, which . makes . me . shake . with . Achillean . raaaaage).

      But a better example might be the debate among goths about whether or not Marilyn Manson is really a goth. (Most goths seem to argue that he is not.) In this instance, it is actually quite difficult to tell who is arguing that he is not goth because they classify him in a different category (industrial, heavy metal, pop, etc.) and who is arguing because they just don’t like his music and don’t want what for them is an honorific–being “goth”–to be predicated of someone they don’t like or identify with. Of course, the popular media and mainstream generally do present Manson as goth, and this classification is neither honorific nor evaluative.

      In the fine arts, these kinds of issues come to the fore with a lot of modernist art. Many people say that John Cage’s 4’33” or a Jackson Pollack “could have be done by a kid, and so therefore can’t really be art,” even while their own children paint in “art” classes and they hang that “art” on their refrigerators. So people who speak this way are using “art” in two different senses, one evaluative and one classificatory. (To be clear: when they say Pollack isn’t really art, they are speaking evaluatively; they are not literally shocked that they see it in a museum or art book, the way they would be if there were a panda bear exhibit smack in the middle of MOMA; And when they say their children made this art in art class, they are speaking classificatorily; they are not seriously proposing that their child’s drawing of their house really ought to be at MOMA and not on their refrigerator.)

      So to bring this back to our discussion. The reason I don’t like your formulation [3] Death metal is bad when it does not deliver a death metal experience is that it leaves no logical room for a death metal experience that is a bad death metal experience–not because it is opera and therefore a bad death metal experience, but because it is a death metal band playing death metal to an audience that appreciates death metal in a death metal appropriate venue and it’s just not very good. And that’s why we need [4], rather than [3], in my view.

  6. Thomas Wendt says:

    I’ve thought about this a bit before (and ended up in the same ambivalent boat) in terms of Semiotic Engineering as a design practice. While it seems almost vulgar for SE folks to maintain that designing an interface is quite literally the physical manifestation of the designer’s intent, it starts to make sense in the context of broad definitions of design. If we’re really attempting to purposefully design a system, then of course intention is important (perhaps of the utmost importance). But at the same time, interfaces and even experiences are texts: can we really stamp an intended meaning on them?

    I don’t have any solid answers. But it’s great to see others struggling with these questions as well.

    • Thanks for commenting on this post, Thomas. My apologies–your reply got buried in my moderation interface and I didn’t see it till just (actually, looking for someone else’s, which isn’t there).

      I think the point you are making is compatible with where Marc and I eventually ended up. If we are analyzing an artifact in the world and interpreting/evaluating its value or contribution to society, then designer’s intention can in many ways be bracketed aside. But if we are talking about educating designers, or if we are talking about how designers think through their own actual processes, then of course design intention is very relevant and useful to understand.

  7. [5] “Death metal is bad when it intends to deliver a death metal experience but fails to do so”

    But what’s about:

    [6] Death metal is bad because it is about death

    Any thoughts on this ….???

    • Regarding [5] I don’t really understand what intention has to do with anything. Since you’ve granted a priori that it is death metal (and that’s the core of the problem right there), then whether or not someone intends it to be death metal seems superfluous, inasmuch as you are evaluating it relative to a death metal experience. Do you mean:

      [5a] A band that is trying to play death metal is bad when it does not deliver a good death metal experience
      [5b] A band that an audience considers to be death metal is bad when that same audience finds their music to be bad death metal

      It seems to me that both of these reduce back to my original :

      [4] Death metal is bad when it does not deliver a good death metal experience.

      Either way, the conflict is between the audience and the music, and I don’t think the band’s intentions (i.e., to be death metal or to be good death metal) has anything to do with it.

      Regarding [6], this is hard to answer because I don’t really understand the sense of the statement. Do you mean:

      [6a] Death metal is bad, because “good” death metal is not about death (i.e., the theme of “death” is excluded from the set of themes appropriate to the genre)
      [6b] Death metal is bad, because it is about death, and all things that are about death are bad (i.e., death metal is a member of the set of things that are bad when they are about death)
      [6c] … something else, that I just didn’t get …

      ? This one really confused me. And I just didn’t understand where you are going with either (sorry!).

  8. Ok Ok Ok Ok! Let’s not destroy the precious clarity whe had for a little time through rushed pre-dinner ramblings. I just wanted to highlight two things:

    1. To me there seems a difference between other-categorizing and self-categorizing. The audience classifies a piece as Death Metal and judges on the basis of THEIR standards as either delivering the experience or not. The “author” classifies his/her piece as Death Metal and through invokes certain standards. This is [5b] and [5a], right? I feel that ONLY when the second happens, a piece can be evaluated at all. In other words, when a Death Metal audience classifies a piece as Death Metal and finds it bad because it does not deliver a proper Death Metal experience, this is only to be taken seriously when the author wanted to deliver a Death Metal experience. But maybe this already exactly what [4] says, than I am happy to give in, OR it is even the intentional fallacy, I don’t know. It is like when I write a paper, deliberatly written in a lighter tone for whatever reasons and people tell me it is shallow or unscientific. It never meant to be. When they say its boring or hard to understand, I got a problem.

    2. Concerning [6]. Death is not bad per se. But one can be of the opinion that we should dwell more on the lighter side. Take industrial, such as Throbbing Gristle, the Survival Research Laboratory, SPK, Genesis P Orridge … is it really NECESSARY to stage performances where people maltreat dead pigs? Is it necessary to play around with live sex? Is it necessary to bodymod myself until I look like a copy of my partner (what GPO did)? Is it neccessary to bring computing to the homeless? Is it necessary to devalue action through automation? These are matters of taste of values of intentions of ethics of responsability. And this type of debate is necessary, isn’t it? There will be no right or wrong, but an exchange on norms and standards and viewpoints. And hopefully, there will be strong notions. We discussed it all structurally so far. Whether Death Metal or Minimal Techno or Opera or Rod Stewart doesn’t matter in the line of argumentation. But to me, it does. I It is hard to admire something for its virtuosity, when this virtuosity is used to “bad” end. Would I personally use all my knowledge on experience design to design a “torture experience”? Or a real “agression experience”? Industrial designers do this without much “thinking” – or let’s say “reservations”. Boss wants the new Audi to look agressive, yeah, great, I am just the designer. Let it be.

  9. Gilbert Cockton says:

    Life is so much easier as a historian. For centuries, the auteur was the only show in town. From Vasari’s lives of the artists into nineteenth century criticism, the only way into a work was via the author. Modernism changed all that, with its science longings and mistrust of relativism. Wimsatt and Beardsley are fairly late on the scene here. Elliot and Leavis were already focused on the text, and before this there are aspects of Proust, perhaps substantial, that elevate the text over the author (I read somewhere that Proust wrote to demonstrate the errors of contemporary auteur theory, but forget to make a note, pre-iPhone). So, by the time Wimsatt and Beardsley get to play over the pond catch up, the modernist position is well established (intentional fallacy), but reader response theory is emerging (affective fallacy). Wimsatt and Beardsley thus find themselves fighting on two fronts, against pre-modern auteur theory (an anachronism I know, it wasn’t called that then), and against audience response theories. Back on the clever side of the pond, Lukács 1916 Theory of the Novel is contemporary with TS Elliot and ahead of Leavis, and contains many elements of postmodern Grand Theory.

    Hence my answer: D/ All of These

    Jeff is there already in his writing on Interaction Criticism. We should consider all works in appropriate contexts, and be able to consider them through the lenses of the author/designer, the text/design, the reader/user and the context within which authors author and readers read. Wimsatt and Beardsley are central to the “my lens is better than your lens” tendency that come free with the high ground of modernism, its derided antecedents, and its provoked responses.

    There is no problem to resolve here, other than scorn for those who cannot appreciate that any world, as the philosopher Mary Midgley has so eloquently stated, islike “a huge aquarium. We cannot see it as a whole from above, so we peer in at it through a number of small windows … We can eventually make quite a lot of sense of this habitat if we patiently put together the data from different angles. but if we insist that our own window is the only one worth looking through, we shall not get very far.”

    If we rule nothing out a priori, we will never be at a loss for lenses a posteriori.

  10. Pingback: Putting people first » The “intentional fallacy” and the “affective fallacy” of interaction design

  11. Pingback: Intention and Interpretation | Inter alia

  12. john says:

    Simple question: William Kurtz Wimsatt was my great uncle. Teaching Abstract Expressionism @ Yale and making examples and comparisons to Jackson Pollock. Did they personally know each other? Were they friends?

  13. john says:

    let me know if anyone can dig up some facts about the above question.

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