Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Death of the Author

I finally got around to reading Roland Barthes’ essay Death of the Author.

Why do I do this to myself? (The essay is short and I should be doing something else ….?) Well, yes. But why do I bother with yet another fashionable modern French theorist, I’ve never found it a rewarding experience.

And I didn’t this time either.

The first paragraph tells us that narrative Voice is not to be equated with any particular person, corporeal or otherwise. Well, yes. I have read lots and lots of novels, enjoying them to varying degrees: a process of enjoyment that does not require knowing any biographical facts about any of the authors.

Literary critics can get all excited about that biographical stuff. It’s a living, I suppose. But us ordinary readers entirely understand that the narrative voice is, in all the senses relevant to us as mere readers, freestanding. We probably generally don’t think about it much, but the fact that we don’t feel the need to engage in biographical research to enjoy a novel can be taken as a fair indication that we are cool with the freestanding voice thing.
Having portentously mentioned the bleeding obvious Barthes immediately wanders off into that look at me I’m so clever (death of the author indeed), this must be so profound because it’s obscure, rhetorical floridity that puts my teeth on edge:
... literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.
I am not even going to bother wading through that.

Second paragraph, we are introduced to the death of the author. Freestanding narrative voice = slain author. My, if analysis is so easy, anyone can do it.

Particularly if one follows it up with crap such as:
The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the 'human person'.
Wow, so all those medievals writing commentaries on Aristotle had no concept of an author. Poor old Christine de Pisan or Marie de France didn’t know they were authors, and neither did anyone else. And when the demos at Athens cheered Aristophanes' latest play, they never yelled out the Hellenic equivalent of author, author!

But uttering such utter nonsense does allow Barthes to inform us (using the word ‘inform’ extremely loosely) that authorialness is a product of capitalist ideology. Ah, definitive proof that is it bad then. And Barthes is a sound chap. (“Death of the author” indeed: who’s he kidding? Lots of folk apparently.)

Third paragraph celebrates all those cutting edge attempts to dethrone this terrible tyrannical Author in favour of properly demotic Readership.
In France, Mallarme was doubtless the first to see and foresee in its full extent the necessity of substituting language itself for the man who hitherto was supposed to own it.
Unlike all those lawyers who have been wrestling with when legislative intent is relevant, particularly in constitutional law, since, well, time immemorial probably. And how about those poor medievals, thinking law is custom and so thoroughly unauthored. Cutting edge theorists way before their time and they didn’t even know it …

It ends with another piece of florid it-is-obscure-so-must-be-profound intellectual rhetoric:
... linguistics has just furnished the destruction of the Author with a precious analytic instrument by showing that utterance in its entirety is a void process, which functions perfectly without requiring to be filled by the person of the interlocutors: linguistically, the author is never anything more than the man who writes, just as I is no more than the man who says I: language knows a "subject," not a "person," end this subject, void outside of the very utterance which defines it, suffices to make language "work," that is, to exhaust it ...
Yes, a sentence can have meaning without being attached to any biographical details or characteristics of writer or reader. (Apart from language competence.) You’ve said that already.

Fourth paragraph, is about why It Really Matters To Understand This:
The absence of the Author (with Brecht, we might speak here of a real "alienation:' the Author diminishing like a tiny figure at the far end of the literary stage) is not only a historical fact or an act of writing: it utterly transforms the modern text (or — what is the same thing — the text is henceforth written and read so that in it, on every level, the Author absents himself).
Well, actually, no. Either it is an inherent characteristic of texts that narrative voice is freestanding, and always has been, or it is not an inherent characteristic but has suddenly become one at some (unspecified) point. The first is true but boring, the second is dramatic but false. That’s the problem with trying to build profundity on the bleeding obvious: sooner or later, you have to make this move of transforming the trite-but-true into the striking-but-false.

But, hey, if Barthes has got you nodding along this far, getting you to intellectually jump the shark is no problem. You’re committed, after all. And will no doubt, if challenged, spend some effort "reading into" the text what is needed to protect it. Got to protect that intellectual capital, that you are sound and someone in good standing (and was never taken for a ride by an intellectual shyster).
Fourth paragraph, engage in the we are all such clever boys and girls, so we are smart enough to know … move:
We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the "message" of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.
No, we don’t know that, for if it were so, language would be impossible.

Obviously, it is entirely possible for different folk to “see” different things in a text. Particularly if it is sufficiently obscure. But language is not a random activity. If there were not some predictable commonalities in the meanings evoked by particular uses of language, then communication would be impossible. Obscure texts can have very limited predictable commonalities. One reason we praise a writer for clarity of expression is precisely that they are communicating more effectively (and, typically, imposing less burden on the reader). But those predictable commonalities mean that being contested is not a universal characteristic of text.

The fifth paragraph builds a mountain of indeterminacy out of molehill of variable clarity and personal response. See above comment.

The last paragraph starts with the astonishing piece of “new” information that plays often contain things that are clear to the audience but understood to be obscure to the characters. Well, there wouldn’t be much comedy, drama or romance without that, now would there? Often much of the fun of being a reader or viewer is precisely that you know more than the characters. (Getting the reader to turn their common sense off seems to be required to make Barthes’ essay “work”. Indeed, to the extent of forgetting what it’s like to be a reader.)

Barthes’ ends with a paean of praise to the demise of author-tyranny and the new dawn of demotic reader power. To which I can only say, I hope Barthes’ never accepted any sort of invitation based on authorship of Death of the Author. After all, he is a mere reader, like the rest of us, with no extra standing …

Barthes’ position on text—that the only point of production is consumption—is very economist of him. The analogy works quite well: goods and services for sale have creators and owners but the utility of the consumer is paramount. Barthes’, of course, does not deny that there are authors, merely that there are God-Authors who “own” the meaning of texts. No labour theory of value for Barthes!

That narrative voice cannot be simply equated with any biological person and readers bring meaningful baggage to texts are both obviously true. If literary critics forget either of these things, they are being silly.

But before one gets all excited about any allegedly profound implications from either aforementioned truth, it is useful to ponder a few things. First, why do we have first person, second person and third person? Second, why do we have a distinction between fiction and non-fiction? Third, why do we have the concept of the lie, and of perjury? Fourth, why does language happen at all?

Barthes engages in various rhetorical tricks to get readers to think him a terribly clever person, to think themselves terribly clever folk by agreeing with him, and to not think in common sense terms about their own experience of language and texts. Barthes claims that readers are where the “power” over texts does and should lie. I entirely agree that Death of the Author is an essay to emancipate oneself from.


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