Friday, 8 April 2016

Theory readings #2 "The Death of the Author"

Two years ago I wrote two pieces under the headline "Theory readings" and now it is time for another one. The first piece was a general introduction and the second one was about Robert Warshow and "The Gangster as Tragic Hero". This post is about "The Death of the Author" which, although only about books and writing, is frequently cited within film studies and is required reading at universities around the world among students of film as well as of literature. (I first read it in my first year as a film student.) It was first published in 1967 in the American journal Aspen in the same issue that had Marcel Duchamp as a theme, an artist with ideas that to some extent coincided with the ideas expressed in "The Death of the Author."

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The article is particularly directed towards literary criticism since it has been, it is argued, "tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions" and that any meaning in a piece of writing has always been "sought in the man or woman who produced it." A brief history about this idea of the author is also provided. It "is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism, and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual." This, it is added, was "the epitome of culmination of capitalist ideology." The author has been given the same relation to a text as a "father to a child" and this must stop because, according to the article, this idea that meaning comes from an individual is a myth. A text has no originality and no identity, "writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin", it is "where all identity is lost." Writing is instead "a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression)" and it is instead language itself which produces meaning, and "calls into question all origins." Instead of containing "the 'message' of the Author-God" the text is made up of quotations, a summary of earlier writings "none of them original" which "blend and clash."

Consequently "to decipher a text becomes quite futile." Positioning an author and give this person creative control is to "close the writing" and to give power to the critics and their efforts to interpret the text to find is true meaning, something which does not exist. There is "a structure" but "there is nothing beneath," no "ultimate meaning." Critics have been concerned with "discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyché, liberty) beneath the work" and by finding him thinking they have explained the text in question. But this "we" must no longer do. There is no meaning to be found and ultimately, and satisfyingly, "to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostates - reason, science, law."

Instead it is the reader who matters, not the author. The reader, who is "without history, biography, psychology", is where everything coalesce. This is where all the quotations come together and meaning is formed, in the act of reading. A "text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination." Therefore "to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."

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One of the benefits of "The Death of the Author" is that you can interpret it in any which way without ever being wrong, as it denies the existence of meaning in a text itself and instead puts all meaning with the reader. Yet it is unclear how literal it is to be understood. Already the brief sketch of the history of the author is peculiar. If the author emerged during the Middle Ages it is hardly "a modern figure", as the Middle Ages were some 1000 years ago. Neither can the author be associated with capitalism then, since capitalism emerged much later, after both the Middle Ages and the Reformation. But when and where the author first came about as a concept is not something we will be able to answer, and it is of no importance for this discussion either.

If the argument in the article had been that in order to evaluate or analyse a novel we should not focus on the person who wrote it but consider a variety of aspects, such as political, economic, generic, then it would be fairly conventional and very much typical of its time. Context and norms matter and should naturally be considered. But "The Death of the Author" goes further than that, as it removes the writer completely from the text and considers her irrelevant. And the text is not just cut off from the writer; it also seems to be cut off from any context, from "society, history, psyché, liberty." This kind of reading however seems to be both impossible and weird. Especially since the reader apparently has no personality, being "without history, biography, psychology," a contextless person reading a text created in a void. It is not just the author who has been killed off here but everybody; everything except the text. (God too is killed off since, by refusing to give meaning, we also "refuse God and his hypostates - reason, science, law." I have no need for God but it is not clear however why God would be related to reason and science, and neither is it clear why we should want to refuse reason and science.)


Another radical idea is that the literary text is only structure and "nothing beneath." The point might only be that there is nothing biographical about the writer to be uncovered, but it does sound like a denial of the concept of allegory and that symbolism is impossible. This is what would be radical. And by following the article's line of thought it would not be possible to say that a text is, for example, racist or misogynistic since the text itself has no meaning, the reader creates the meaning, and consequently the writer would be without responsibility and cannot be blame, or charged with hate speech or libel.

I would like to suggest that, while there might not be an "ultimate meaning" in a novel, there is still some meaning emanating from it, which comes from the way it is written and that whoever wrote it had a particular idea that she wanted to put across. This might have been more or less successful, and the result might be more or less comprehensible, but it is still there and a factor to consider.

The question as to whether a given literary text is original or unique depends upon your definition. No text is completely unique, as they all resemble other texts, but neither are they all the same, at least not those that are authored. So to some extent each text, each book, is actually unique, and this is precisely because they have been written by individuals who are all also unique and have their own voices.

If the writer ceases to exist when putting pen to paper, does that mean that the same thing happens when you write a letter? That as soon as I start to write about what has happened to me these last two weeks, those things that happened to me are no longer related to me personally but are just part of the general discourse, and whatever I wrote in this letter is completely unrelated to what I wrote in my previous letter, two weeks ago. That anybody, really, could have written these letters. That would be absurd. A letter is not the same as a book would be the obvious counter-argument, which is true. But how much of a difference is there? If I were to collect the letters written during one year and then edited them so that they become one long narrative, and then publish them as a book, would that book still be unrelated to me and the ideas and intentions and biographical aspects behind the letters would no longer be of any relevance, and considering them would be a fallacy? If so, why?

Most books are of course not based on letters, and many are mass-produced and standardised, but in "The Death of the Author" no distinction is made between different kind of books, or different kinds of writing either. Judging by the arguments in the article, it is the very act of writing that makes the writer superfluous.

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Some seem to think that "The Death of the Author" made it practically impossible to argue about authors and auteurs, since they do not matter, and possibly do not even exist. But that is not tenable, Artists, writers, directors do exist, and they have ideas, beliefs, feelings and memories, and all of those things go into the work they create. That is not a romantic fantasy, that is a banal observation about the real world. Friends of "The Death of the Author" often speak unfavourably about "romantic notions about the artist" but how many are there who actually believe in a supreme creator untouched by her context? There are a lot of positions to take between the two equally suspect ideas of "the death of the author" and "the self-sufficient genius", but while I have encountered many who think that writers and artists do not matter I have never met anyone who thinks writers create masterpieces out of nothing.

It is possible, and perfectly legitimate, to read and analyse, say, The Namesake without taking its author Jhumpa Lahiri into account, just as it is to watch and analyse Et avoir (ou pas) without acknowledging Laetitia Masson, but is anything really gained by that? To discuss a book or a film as part of something larger, as part of an oeuvre even, might help in appreciating the individual work. Too much focus on autobiographical readings can be tiresome and trying the "explain" a text by drawing parallels to a writer's childhood are more often than not tenuous, yet disregarding the writers completely seems like an unnecessary restriction. This is probably why so few actually do disregard the writers. They are there, they exist, and consequently they are included when the work is discussed. There seem to be no relevant reasons to dismiss them on principle.

You might think it arrogant for a critic to claim "the writer does not matter, only me, the reader." Instead I would humbly prefer to think of the act of reading as having a meeting with the writer, alive and well.

"Girl With a Book" by Alexander Deineka

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I have noticed that when "The Death of the Author" is reprinted in anthologies it is usually said that it was first published in 1968, but that is just when it was first published in France, the year after its original appearance.

Image-Music-Text, the most famous collection of Roland Barthes writings, translated by Stephen Heath, also includes "The Death of the Author".

2 comments:

  1. A curious article, which I'm not sure I understand completely. It proclaims that everything is nurture (miljö) and nothing is nature (arv)? That a text in a certain context could have been produced by anyone within that context? And that a text read in a certain context would be understood similarly by anyone in that context? The complete abandonment of the individual? If that is the case it sounds a bit too extreme for my taste.

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    1. No, it's not that everybody would understand a given text the same way, each would have a different understanding. The individual writer is certainly abandoned but regarding the reader, well, it's more complex.

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