As is widely acknowledged, I know a thing or two about hermeneutics, and in particular the interpretation of literary texts. And, given the procedure followed in the effort linked in the preceding sentence, one might justifiably think I had at least some sympathy for the valorization of the critic/reader seen in, for instance, Victorian theorists of plagiarism (Recommended ) and, say, "What is an Author?", as well as the extremely moderate pushback evinced by Nehamas in his "The Postulated Author". Let us consider the last-mentioned, its moderateness and the question of its satisfactoriness, as a jumping-off point for much aimless rambling.
Nehamas is writing against a "radical pluralism" in interpretation according to which any two are equally good, or at any rate, neither of any pair is a more accurate recovery of the real meaning of the text. (One might be better than another for other reasons.) But at the same time he wants to resist the idea that what we're about when we interpret a text is just the recovery of the meaning that was—as it were—put there by an act of intending one meaning over another by the author. (Or: that the author meant something by the text, and we recover that—the thing the author meant.) The rejected position as characterized is pretty extreme, I think—the author is supposed to have performed an act of meaning. (All the worse if the author is supposed to have performed an "original" act of meaning, if that means that the author isn't beholden to his language—which seems to be the position that Barthes, for instance, argues against.) Against the first opponent Nehamas insists, quite rightly, that it won't do just to say, when confronted with one interpretation, "of course there are other possible interpretations, too, you know"; if one wants that to have any teeth, it must continue: "for instance, this one, which I am about to lay out …", at which point one can actually compare the two and see if they are plausibly matched competitors. Against the second he acknowledges that even the most banal, surface-level meaning is not simply there to be given to the reader but is itself also the product of an interpretive process. A summary part of the way through (pp 140–41):
Just as in scientific explanation there are no data immune to revision, so in literary criticism there are no readings impervious to question. But the fact about science does not show that apparently competing scientific theories are incommensurable and that therefore we cannot judge between them or that each such theory concerns its own distinct world. Similarly, the point about criticism does not show that different interpretations of a text are, even if apparently incompatible, equally acceptable or that a text has as many meanings as there are interpretations of it. Readings are neither arbitrary nor self- validating simply because they are all subject to revision. Newer readings are always guided by the strengths and weaknesses of those which already exist; and though this process may never stop, it is not for that very reason blind.
And a bit later on (p 144): "Meaning does not therefore reside in texts independently of all interpretation, there to be discovered once and for all or, if we are not lucky, to be forever lost; but this is not to say that it is fabricated. The critical monism which I advocate is a regulative ideal and identifies the meaning of a text with whatever is specified by that text's ideal interpretation." Ah! An ideal interpretation! Now we will see, perhaps, what it matters who's talking, or why it matters that we take it that some particular one be talking, or, finally, why it, literary meaning, isn't just fabricated. Or perhaps one ought to emphasize things differently: why it isn't just fabricated, but is in fact governed by a regulative ideal, an ideal that Nehamas then goes on to describe—how we move from reading to reading, and how we can't. Here, if he's going to differentiate himself from Foucault, is where things will get interesting. But I can't see how he does it.
Like his predecessors Nehamas differentiates between an author and a writer; shopping lists of Faulkner's had a writer but not an author (they would not be considered to be "by" Faulkner, for instance); for Nehamas the author is a postulate, something which allows him to say that "Meaning therefore depends on an author's intentions even if a writer is not aware of it." (145) without falling into the second of the rejected positions. The "author" is just the locus of the intentions assigned in interpretation, so there's no harm in saying that meaning depends on an author's intentions (we might think to capture the priority better by saying that an author's intentions depend on meaning, but I can't see that it matters much). "The author is postulated as the agent whose actions account for the text's features; he is a character, a hypothesis which is accepted provisionally, guides interpretation, and is in turn modified in its light." So far so good; nothing here with which Foucault would need to disagree, as far as I can tell, anyway; being the locus of authorial intentions is a leading function of the author.
But wait! There's more! The author isn't just an organizing principle postulated by the reader to be the "meaner" standing behind the text. The author bears some relation to the writer, though the precise relation is a bit obscure. On the one hand: "the postulated author [must] be historically plausible; a text does not mean what its writer could not, historically, have meant by it. For example, we cannot attribute to particular words meanings which they came to have only after the writer's death." (145). On the other, "in constructing the author of The Metamorphosis, we shall have to consider his close relation, perhaps his identity, with the author of The Castle" (147)—perhaps his identity? Maybe Nehamas just means this: perhaps we'll have only to consider KafkaM's close relationship to KafkaC, but perhaps we'll have to consider the identity of the two, without disputing that in either case they are identical, but it sure reads as if the identity of the writers doesn't necessarily lead to the identity of the authors. Which might lead one to wonder: if my interpretation of The Metamorphosis can ignore features of Kafka-the-writer as revealed in a study of The Castle, then why can't it ignore things that Kafka could or could not historically have meant? (Perhaps we learn that Kafka was unaware of something to which I think he's alluding in The Metamorphosis by looking at manuscripts of The Castle. If the author of the latter is the author of the former, then, for Nehamas, that sinks my interpretation—but if the two are merely closely related, well!)
One difficulty is the unclarity in what "its writer could not, historically, have meant" comes to. In many cases we have only general historical facts to go by. (I claim that word X means Y in this Elizabethan poem. You respond that the word isn't attested in that meaning until 100 years later. We can't very well ask anyone to explain what the word means in the context of the poem. But even this lexicographical argument is only so strong: words are used in a given sense prior to being attested in writing in that sense (and we're often wrong about the earliest attestation; lots of words in the OED are being antedated, thereby robbing Shakespeare of many first uses—which he had because people looked to Shakespeare first), and if you claim that the word isn't attested with meaning Y in the relevant period, I'll claim right back that it is—right here, in this poem.) But not always. Suppose that Larkin comes to me—suppose its the early 1980s, too—and says "I meant no such thing by "fuck you up". I meant that your parents do you harm, not that they beget you by means of a fucking." Well, could he, historically, have meant that they beget you by means of a fucking, your mum and dad? He didn't mean it. The words were available in that sense when he wrote, so someone could have. Nevertheless, someone might allege (Nehamas, following the Nietzsche of Life as Literature, might allege!) that Larkin couldn't have. But even if we agree that in whatever sense is relevant Larkin could have, we might reasonably ask what difference that makes, if we also agree that he didn't.
The difficulty here is this: why do we have to attend to what a writer could historically have meant? Suppose we're discussing Sonnet 73, and I claim that "choirs" is a metaphor twice over: it's a metaphor once for the branches in which the birds once sang, and, punning on "quires", for the sheets of paper on which he once wrote his poetry. You might resist this interpretation by claiming (falsely, in fact, but let's pretend, arguendo, truly) that "quires" is a newcomer to English. Why does that scupper my interpretation? If the answer is that the truth of your claim indicates that Shakespeare-the-writer couldn't have meant the pun, what of it? We are agreed that interpretation is not the recovery of what was meant by the person who wrote the text.
Now it is true, as a matter of fact, that we are not likely to accept my interpretation if your claim is correct. No matter how interesting an interpretation is, it is unlikely to satisfy us if we think that it couldn't describe what the writer was up to; we have to consign it to the bin labelled "pretty to think so". (Or not; after all, this is part of the reason we are confident in rejecting the claim that Poe was talking about Princess Di when he asked "Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?".) But that, again, is something that Foucault can acknowledge. The concept of an author isn't useful just because it serves as the locus of intentions for a text, it also embodies "a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction" ("What is an Author?", 119). And he acknowledges (on the same page) the utility of this limitation:
It would be pure romanticism … to imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state … I think that, as our society changes, at the very moment when it is in the process of changing, the author function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemous texts will once again function according to another mode, but still within a system of constraint …"
Nehamas, it seems to me, is describing a system of constraint, a system that limits the interpretations that we find satisfactory or even minimally acceptable. But I have a hard time seeing why the methodological strictures he lays down amount to anything more than a description of what happens to be current critical practice, rather than guidelines that any interpretive practice would have to be beholden to, lest they produce interpretations that are simply wrong. And any justification of those strictures would, I think, be very difficult for him to pull off, without falling into the writer-as-meaner paradigm.
One ought to ask what our interest in literary interpretation is. Here is an interesting case. It seems to me that the "author" whose death Barthes announces in "The Death of the Author" is not that dissimilar from the artist whom Danto portrays, distinctly more positively, in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: someone to stand apart from and behind the work, making it mean what it means, such that it forever more has that meaning. (Which is why if you said, pointing to a red canvas, that it depicted the crossing of the Red Sea (the Israelites having already crossed, and the Egyptians having been drowned), you could be wrong—that red canvas is actually that clever bit of Moscow landscape, "Red Square"—even though they're visually indiscernible, they've been given different meanings by their painters.) Suppose we take such an attitude not only to visual artifacts but, with Barthes' foe, written works as well, and consider what happens when someone quotes Richard III: "now is the winter of our discontent". That utterance is verbally indistinguishable from (part of) Shakespeare's text, yet note: we either have to say that the utterer has, though he has made no mistake regarding any individual word he has said, misquoted Shakespeare, or that he has not said anything at all yet—because in the play, "is" is an auxiliary, not the main, verb. If someone says "now is the winter of our discontent", he's using Shakespeare's words, but in a significance of his own. (Or anyway: not in Shakespeare's significance.)
The literary text is out there and can be taken up again and anew in different ways by each new comer; one of the reasons to resist the view of interpretation on which we're just trying to recover what the writer put there is that it gets our interest in such texts wrong. (It also raises the question: well why didn't the writer just tell us that?) This isn't just another instance of my occasionally aired frustration with the idea that artworks are supposed to make statements, since sometimes we are interested in works, especially prose works, for some meaning or other. But those meanings can be as personal as you please. Perhaps they're prompted by the work, or perhaps it seems as if the work has now given us the words to express (or properly experience) something for the first time. But such a significance is one the work has for the reader, and it is not arrived by digging up what the writer is supposed to have left there.
In this respect literary works really do, I think, have some of the features that Pippin (and at least sometimes Nehamas) like to ascribe to intentional actions generally. Cavell in fact explicitly discussed the two together, in "A Matter of Meaning It" (apologies for the length of the quotation, I am writing this by the seat of my pants, you know):
On my interpretation of La Strada, it is a version of the story of Philomel: the Giulietta Masina figure is virtually speechless, she is rudely forced, she tells her change by playing the trumpet, … Suppose I want to find out whether Fellini intended an allusion to Philomel. If I ask him, and he affirms it, that may end any lingering doubts about its relevance. Suppose he denies it; will I believe him take his word against my conviction that it is there? In fact, my conviction is of the relevance is so strong here that, if I asked Fellini, I would not so much be looking for confirmation of my view as inquiring whether he had recognized this fact about his work. … [T]ake a stock example: you know that firing a gun is making a lot of noise, but only in special circumstances will make the noise be (count as) what it is you are intending to do. But perhaps that is irrelevant: "It is still true that anything you can be said to have intended or be intending to do is something you know you are doing. Either Fellini did or did not know of the connection with the Philomel story. If he did not know then it follows that he did not intend the connection. If he did know then that connection may or may not have been intended by him. In all these cases, what he knew and what he intended are irrelevant to our response. It is what he has done that matters." But it is exactly to find out what someone has done … that one investigates his intentions … There is a child asleep in that house; or terrified by noise; or the noise is a signal of some kind. Suppose he hadn't known. Very well, it can be pointed out to him; and now, should he go on firing the gun, what he is doing will be differently described. We might say: his intention will have altered. … SUppose Fellini hadn't thought of Philomel. How am I to imagine his negative response to my question—when, that is, I find that it doesn't matter what he says? Am I to imagine that he says, "No. I wasn't thinking of that," and there the matter drops? But one would not accept that even in so simple a case as the firing gun: he may not have thought of it before, but he had better think of it now. I am not aesthetically incompetent (any more than I am morally incompetent when I point out that a child is asleep or terrified)…" (Must we mean what we say?, pp 230–32; bolding added)
Some of this is, I think, confused—if I find out something new about the house next to which I am firing my gun, then I "had better think of it now" when I consider whether or not to keep shooting, and if I do keep shooting, I can't very well plead ignorance. (I might still plead double effect!) With respect to what is Fellini supposed to think of the connection Cavell points out? Whether or not to continue being the person who directed La Strada? His direction is in the past—and Cavell doesn't suggest that my finding out about the child in the house changes the character of the shots already fired. The intentions are a red herring in the retrospection of the action: I the firer can freely acknowledge that the shots frightened the child and that I executed the shots, without needing to acknowledge that I am at fault for frightening the child or that I did so intentionally. The shots and their actual effects in the world are in that respect independent of what I was intentionally doing.
How is it supposed to stand with La Strada? Cavell insists that he is not aesthetically incompetent, and puts that on a par with his not being morally incompetent either, but we needn't think that his finding a parallel to the story of Philomel in La Strada is like his finding a frightened child in the house. (It's significant that Cavell draws the parallel between aesthetic and moral competence, and not aesthetic and perceptual competence.) He discerns certain things in La Strada, and certain salient similarities in the story of Philomel, and he can present those even to Fellini, in such a way that even Fellini must acknowledge, or if not dispute, Cavell's case. (Even someone who finds a personal significance in a work of art ought be prepared to defend how he comes by that interpretation to someone else, even if neither party manages to convince the other. Otherwise we have a "feeble rejoinder, a retreat to personal taste" (WMM 91)—haven't we? "Well, I like it", shorn of an interpretive "because …".) And Cavell doesn't need to confront Fellini—or the shooter—with what he's discovered about the film or the house, though that might, admittedly, be satisfying.
If I am interested in a movie, or a literary work, I am probably not interested (except for academic reasons) in the attitudes of its writer. I am likely interested in what I can make of the work, and in doing so I need not take the writer's attitudes to be dispositive at all. I will care about the strength of the case I can make for the significance I find in the work—and so will take other interpretations and objections to my own into account—in that respect I will deploy the concept of the author as a unified locus of intention for the work. But why should I care, in principle, about the writer's intentions, or even what it's historically plausible for the writer to have intended? The text is there; I can take it up.
 Irrelevant for present purposes but that book contains a great quotation from E.F. Benson: "Indigestion is the mother of remorse; shellfish bring near to us the sense of sin."