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Tuesday, July 23, 2013


The Death of The Death of the Author

Okay, so I've been on holiday, I've been ill, and now I'm in the middle of a freelance project as well, so the ever-open maw of the blog has gone unfed for a while. In the name of providing some kind of content in line with the literary theme here, I'm therefore going to put up a couple of old essays on literary theory. (The first, this one, has been published elsewhere in a different form; the next, I never put up before. I'll follow it shortly, as this one isn't new: it'll be on Derrida and the concept of 'deconstruction'.) If the Opening Line posts are masterclasses in close reading, consider these posts a masterclass in very, very rough approximations of the ideas of famous literary philosophers.  


It's a slogan one seems to encounter on the Internet: 'The author is dead'. Some of the time it's said to defend an interpretation of fiction that contradicts the author's stated intention, but as often as not it's said to declare that an author has no business, or at least authority, stating 'facts' about characters in a book that's already finished and published - J.K. Rowling telling scriptwriters not to write the wizardly headmaster Dumbledore as heterosexual because she'd always pictured him as gay, for example. Google 'Rowling', 'Dumbledore' and "the author is dead", and at the time of writing this, you'll turn up a staggering 412,000 hits. This phrase is serious business. Sometimes it's even produced to state that authors have no right to object to fan fiction, as if the author were literally dead even though they claim to be walking around alive. Often it's said with great anger: Rowling faced a considerable fan backlash about that Dumbledore thing, and of the criticisms I read at the time, many of them seemed less about the character itself and more about the fact that she presumed to make an extra-book statement at all.* Rowling was actually bringing it up in the process of collaborating with an ongoing film project, of course, but even so, many people I read were outraged, as if she'd violated some principle - and that principle was most commonly expressed as 'the author is dead'. When I see people talking about the 'death of the author' online, frequently they seem to be arguing that the author needs to shut up.

And that's really not what the phrase means.

'The Death of the Author' - and please note the capital A - is an essay by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, written in 1967. In a way it's not surprising that its title is so often quoted counter to Barthes' actual argument, because the essay contains phrases like this:

As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs...

Barthes was not writing for a popular audience. Instead, he was an influential part of a critically significant movement - structuralism, post-structuralism and semiotics - which by its nature, by its fundamental design, resisted easy understanding and simple explanations. To explain Barthes in straightforward terms is, to some extent, to misrepresent him; however, I'm going to have a go, because I think it's time somebody tried to clear up this misunderstanding.

To begin with, 'The Death of the Author' is not an actual death certificate. It's a single manifesto that formed part of an evolving and discursive philosophical tradition, one that is still evolving and shifting today, and one that placed a great emphasis - in a very abstracted and rarefied way - on the notion of intellectual playfulness. To understand Barthes, it helps to understand his context, because here's the thing: Taking anything that any member of this tradition said too literally is a chancy business. Jouissance is the name of the game, the pleasure of saying something for the sake of saying it, and perhaps saying something different later. Structuralists were provocateurs much more than they were scientists. It's probably unwise to try to summarise this critical school, but to put it simply: the origins lie not in the study of literature, but in the study of linguistics. Structuralism approached language, as the name suggests, as a structure - but more than that, as an almost numinous phenomenon that was not so much used by individuals as acting through them.

The basic argument is this: language is in effect a fiction. The word 'chair' is not a chair; the signifier is not the signified. Instead, language is a system, one that an individual speaker does not originate and does not use with full conscious understanding; Marxism, which was fashionable at that time, argued that one's economic and social position determined one's speech and opinions, and structuralism tended to the belief that language itself acted upon people in the same way that a Marxist would say the economy did. (Though this is oversimplifying both Marxism and structuralism, I fear; complex ideas do not lend themselves to simple explanations.) Because we speak language, language speaks through us, and what we say is determined by the system of signs that acts upon us. It is, in short, a viewpoint that treats language as a force that tends to dominate free will.

With that attitude - a philosophical viewpoint that is not fundamentally about art but about language and culture, and that treats art as an example of how these phenomena function rather than as a separate case - you can see where the attitude towards artists is tending. If we are largely determined by our linguistic context, then any artist is a person through whom culture speaks rather than an individual speaking for themselves ... but before one gets too excited about this and starts running around insisting that artists have no right to take any credit for anything, it should be pointed out that in this philosophy, everybody is determined by their cultural context. (Even, perhaps, the critics making this argument. In which case, one can question the legitimacy of what they say in an entirely impersonal manner, or indeed consider their pronouncements symptomatic of their cultural position rather than authoritative, and you can go round and round that carousel until you're dizzy. And that's before you even factor in the presence of the translator if you're reading the essay in anything other than the original French.) The artist is 'spoken through' by culture, but so is the reader. Understanding culture and language being a difficult feat that requires much education to even begin it, what we're seeing is a certain school of criticism assuming an almost priestly role as interpreters of a quasi-divine force.

So, to Barthes. It's important to remember that his essay was addressed to a narrow circle - critics and academics - who could be relied upon to understand the philosophical context he spoke from: it's an easy essay to misunderstand precisely because he used a lot of terms to mean something other than their conventional, common-sense interpretation. What was he saying?

To summarise the essay: Barthes begins by asserting that within a given text, one cannot conclusively know whether any given sentence is the opinion of the character or narrative voice saying it, the author as an individual, the author assuming a public role, 'universal wisdom' or anything else - in other words, one cannot confidently identify what the author thinks based on their writing because the writing is not the author. (The sign is not the signified, remember.) He then goes on to blame 'French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation' for what he sees as the modern tendency to treat the author of a work as the capital-A Author: the figure whom critics must study to, he argues, a destructive degree. To quote one of his simpler sentences:

The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice.

He goes on to discuss the way different critics, authors and artists have dealt with this issue, but his fundamental contention is that criticism-as-biography is limiting.

And that's basically what 'Death of the Author' means. Not death of the author as individual; it's important to note that the examples he cites - Balzac, Proust, Mallarme, de Quincey, Baudelaire, Brecht, Flaubert (the author of the cited Bouvard et Pecuchet), the Greek tragedians, and Tchaikovsky and van Gogh too - were all, at the time of publication, literally dead, mostly of them for decades at the very least. They were not present to make any kind of assertion about their work. They were gone, and all that was left was the text; when Barthes asserted

Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I...

(and note that he's explicitly speaking 'linguistically' rather than artistically, historically or personally), he was in a strong position to speak of the author as a linguistic phenomenon because that was all that was left of the authors he chose to illustrate his arguments.

So if someone argues that, say, an author shouldn't get to control their copyright because there's no such thing as originality and uses the phrase 'death of the author' to substantiate it, or that an author, being 'dead', shouldn't make post-publication remarks about their books, one needs to remember that Barthes was saying nothing at all about the conduct of authors. Any actual behaviour from the authors he mentions was a matter of historical record, not social interaction. And, too, his take on originality was heavily linguistic: when, for instance, he states that 'the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original', one needs to understand that to Barthes, there was no such thing as originality in writing because there was no such thing as originality in speech: one does not originate words, so any word one ever says is inevitably a quotation. He is not using the word in its common sense of 'unusually dissimilar to whatever has come before', but in an absolute sense: unless one invents an entirely new word, every word we speak is not, linguistically, original. And even if we invent a new word, we build it from phonemes that precede us ... and also, if this new word is to have any meaning, concepts and systems of meaning will already be part of the cultural-linguistic context that lives through us. There's really no getting away from it: speakers and language, to a structuralist, are almost analogous to computers and code, and we can't say anything without the code defining how we operate. This is, as I said, a philosophy not of art but of language; it's difficult to refute, but at the same time it reduces the concept of originality to such an absolute state that it's also difficult to apply in any common meaningful sense.

That priestly role is relevant here; he talks about the 'Author-God'. Since I am not a Barthesian I feel no obligation to leave Barthes the man out of the question, and I consider it worth pointing out that academics and criticism are competitive professions. Barthes is explicitly challenging what he sees as a critical orthodoxy (and for that reason, repeating 'the author is dead' as a new orthodoxy is doing his rebellious spirit no favours), which is to say that he's bidding for dominance against other critics. But he's also bidding for dominance in terms of the 'Author': when he concludes with a flourish that 'the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author', let's not forget where he's positioning himself here: as a reader. This essay may or may not be a convincing critical position - a healthy culture contains different schools of thought, and so it's to everyone's benefit if some people are convinced and others are not - but it's also a priest of linguistics taking aim on a rival faith. By appropriating the authority and kudos formerly attributed to authors, reader-critics stood to gain a great deal, and should not be regarded in the same light as a disinterested doctor seeking in vain for a pulse. The critic's profession is not to report on the battlefield but to out-duel your rivals.

Of course, you may prefer to take Barthes on his own terms, excluding consideration of Barthes the Author from Barthes the author. But if you're going to do that ... well, you have little ground for rejecting his assertion that 'I is nothing other than the instance saying I.' (In other words, the word 'I' is not a person, and any statement containing the word 'I' is therefore not to be taken as a clear representation of the actual person, or their thoughts, intentions or personality.) Which will, at best, problematise any sentence you write in which you use the phrase 'I think,' or 'I like,' or 'in my opinion.' In the name of consistency, if you want to consider the Author dead, you should probably accept that by writing anything you are rendering yourself equally dead, and your essay, post or comment is therefore equally open to any interpretation a reader chooses to put upon it - which in this philosophical tradition will necessarily include readings that are directly opposite to the meaning you intended and set out to destabilise whatever values you profess. (That's the original meaning of 'deconstruction', which I'll address in the next post.) According to the terms of structuralism, after all, you are subject to the system of language and cultural influence: if any language speaker is simply a conduit for language, that includes you. This is a major reason why structuralist and post-structuralist writings can be so dense and evasive: in this philosophy, the critic must be a gadfly, alighting and flying again, dodging in and out of the rules, engaged in a playful duel with the very concept of meaning. When language is seen as a system that acts through us, it cannot be our servant, and will do nothing so docile as obediently express the opinions we wanted to share. I said above that it can be dizzying when you think about this too hard, and the structuralist's common response is to start whirling too, to accept the absurdity of where this logic leads as an existentialist might accept an absurd universe, and to play the game. You can dance with language, but it's a fast and dangerous dance and you need to be light on your feet, and simple statements like 'This writer is wrong' are going to get their toes pretty thoroughly trodden on.

In short: if you're going to criticise the behaviour of a living author, or to argue that you see something in their text that they would personally deny, then that's perfectly legitimate - but citing Barthes is not going to help you as much as you'd think. Barthes was talking about something else, something altogether more abstruse ... and something that has, by now, started to drift out of critical fashion. Like every living discourse, criticism moves on, and Barthes was writing half a century ago: the new and exciting ideas of one generation become the tiresome orthodoxies of the next, and while Barthesian thought occupies an important place in the history of criticism, it is not its culmination and stopping point. 'The Death of the Author' is a contention, not a coroner's report, and a contention that takes for granted an attitude towards language and art that you might very well not want to sign up for. 

*If you were a person or read people who were angry for other reasons, fine, but we're talking about Barthes and literary theory, and the Harry Potter books are just an example, so please don't derail with posts about the rights and wrongs of them: this is not a fan board and I don't want it turned into one. I know most people are more likely to have read Rowling than Barthes and hence find her an easier topic to post about, but that's precisely why I'm explaining Barthes: to either point you towards him or, if you find his style too dense, attempt an explanation of him. Do a blogger a favour and stay on topic here. If everyone is good about this, I'll do an Opening Line post on J.K. Rowling later. (Assuming people would like to see one; let me know in comments. But derail with fan-chat, and you won't get one.)

Very helpful, thank you!

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