Tuesday, August 26, 2008

High Body Counts in Critical Theory

Or, The Death of the Author, and the Critic, and, Well, Pretty Much Everybody

So, today in one of my classes we did a Roland Barthes hit-and-run, the kind of discussion where we touched on a point here and there without getting into the meat of the essay. Now, I’ve never been a fan of his ubiquitous
manifesto (1977, I think?), but not being able to get into it in class left me rather unsatisfied. So this may be a bit of a rant. For those who would rather not (re)read it, the essay goes something like this (but is much longer and more complicated and lacks my amiable tone and asides):

The voice that we hear as we read a text is often mistaken for the voice of the Author, but it is actually so many different voices, layered over one another (characters, narrators, and the various voices of the writer), that it is impossible to distinguish a single voice of the author. Since the author has no distinguishable voice, it is impossible to point to an interpretation and say, "this is what the Author intended." Thus, the traditional critical approach ("the Author encoded a meaning in this text; the Critic deciphers it") is rendered useless. This end to the myth of the Author’s… well, authority, is what Barthes means by the "death of the Author." Thus rendered obsolete, the Critic subsequently succumbs to a somewhat less publicized death in a garret somewhere. Tragic.

Writers, have you been under the impression that you have intentions or your work has a meaning? Nope, sorry, guess again. Since the language you use, the phrases and the ideas, are just borrowed from what you’ve read, heard, seen, and learned from the world around you, there isn’t actually any such thing as "self-expression," and you can’t control the innumerable meanings that are consequent to your use of language. Nice try.

By the way, this new way of thinking about writing is "properly revolutionary." That’s because to deny there is one fixed meaning in a text "is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law." *

So, if a text is just a mish-mash of recycled meanings and images and ideas with no unifying meaning, and the author is dead, what comes next? Well, next we have the reader, who acts as a sort of receptacle for all these ideas. But the reader must be impersonal in order to comprehend all the elements and potential meanings of the text without limit or prejudice.

And I have to quote his conclusion in its entirety, because… well, just because:

"The reader has never been the concern of classical criticism; for it, there is no other man in literature but the one who writes. We are now beginning to be the dupes no longer of such antiphrases, by which our society proudly champions precisely what it dismisses, ignores, smothers or destroys; we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author." [emphasis mine]

First of all, I think Barthes must have been a scientist in a past life, because he removes his subjects from their messy human contexts and dissects them entirely in the abstract. I suppose he’s trying to pursue a sort of pure theory or something. (What’s up with that, Humanities people? Why do we buy into this idea that our work needs to be framed in the language of labs and theories in order to seem legitimate? But that’s probably a rant for another day [or another writer- I know Twist has some experience in this area].)

Anyway, after all that trouble to sound scientific, it’s rather jarring when he leaps into this rousing speech at the end. It leaves me with the vague sense that I’ve been challenged to join some sort of battle. But, like an outsider watching Don Quixote posture against his imagined enemies, I really can’t tell what all the saber-rattling is about, or what the real point of all the theory has been.

I do understand what he’s getting at. Traditional criticism is based on a misguided distribution of power. The Author isn’t the source of Truth, and the critic’s job is not to decipher the meaning of a text. Meaning happens in the reader.

The problem is, his ideal reader is an impossible theoretical construct, impersonal and capable of comprehending all meanings. S/he does not exist. Barthes’s revolution does not privilege the reader (the real person reading); it privileges the text. "It is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality… to reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘me’," he writes. Language is the only variable in his equation capable of pure existence; the text is only space in which all its potential meanings can be held, because it has not been limited by the intentions, assumptions, and prejudices of actual people.

And, since I’m not much for lab work, actual people are the ones who really interest me.

*This acknowledgement that these principles have implications for existing power structures is as close as Barthes gets to practical application. There is a lot of potential for applying his ideas about authority, criticism, the role of the reader etc to the politics of the literary canon, among other things. But he doesn’t go there; he remains firmly planted in the abstract.


DocHoc said...

LA, let me ponder this for a bit. Ugh, literary theory makes me quiver.

I can totally understand the whole death of the author thing, but death of the reader? I don't know that I can put my mind around the meaning only coming from the language and text itself; too much is involved in individual interpretation--leaving the text relatively meaningless until interpretation is set in action.

I mean (now you got me thinking), the question would have to be: can a text stand on it's own? But how can a text BE without a reader and the subconscious and conscious (sp?) interpretation that is taking place every second? Wouldn't the meaning of the text change every second and with every different reader as well?

Hmm..I've never done much study on this stuff, so I'll be interested to hear Twist's thoughts.

Although, I do remember talking about Roland Barthes in American Romanticism once...all I remember is that he was hit by a bus and killed, lol.

Rhetorical Twist said...

My whole comment got erased! Damn it!

Reader's Digest version of my eloquence:

1. LA--you know me too well.
2. Humanities people should not have to frame their research within another discourse in order to get taken seriously (under the misguided notion that there is actually such a thing as "objectivity" in research and that's what makes "good" research).
3. The notion that the author can have no intention or meaning in the text is all well and good for someone coming from a place of privilege, but it has serious ramifications for minority groups, many of whom are just now able to use language for empowerment for the first time.

It sounded so much better the first time around. Stupid, %#@$* internet connection!

Tina said...

I appreciate your response to my emailed comment and I can see, if I squint really really hard, that perhaps there is some value in this if only in its contribution to scholarly discussion, debate and navel gazing. But for Pete's sake, we have TV now people...(just kidding - put DOWN that brick.)

I thoroughly enjoyed reading DocHoc's and Twist's comments, which are, of course, brilliant and excellent. No surprises there. And I laughed like crazy at DocHoc's mention of Barthes's death-by-bus. I'll bet he never saw it coming because his head was too far up his a**.

(So much for scholarly discourse. Apparently I'm just not cut out for it.)


Lady Audley said...

DocHoc- That's *exactly* the problem. The text on its own might have the *potential* for infinite meanings, but if no one actually reads it, none of those meanings enter the discourse. Really, they're as dead as the author until a reader does something with them.

Twist- Wow, I didn't know you came in a "Reader's Digest Condensed" version ;-)

RE Framing- No kidding. I still have that grant proposal on my computer. Perhaps I'll post an exerpt or two...

RE Privilege- That's something that came up in class, actually- that at the same time Barthes was killing authors, feminist scholars were trying to *find* the female authors neglected by tradition. Bet he wasn't happy about that...

Rhetorical Twist said...

Actually, after I posted the condensed version I thought, "actually, this is probably better than my rant which was about half as long as the original entry..."

Lady Audley said...

Mom- You know, we won't *actually* hurt you if you cause trouble in the comments. Probably ;-)

And your point, RE the value (or lack thereof) of this stuff is really exactly what I'm saying. (You're not getting a good sampling of the potential of critical theory here; I'll have to send you some better stuff.) Barthes *is* navel-gazing, making this a purely theoretical discussion without a real "so what" at the end. As DocHoc and Twist pointed out, it falls apart once you put people into the equation. And, IMHO, the people are the important part.

Me said...

Twist doesn't just come in a Reader's Digest condensed version, she IS a Reader's Digest condensed version.


Teacher Poet said...

And while we're in this vein, don't read JOHN BARTH either. You'll be at the end of *your* road before his. In fact, you'll also probably be incline to homicidal thoughts toward the narrator in the _Floating Opera_ as well. My apologies to Mr. Dr. Bear, but I cannot stand Barth.

DocHoc said...

LA: Just so you know, you had me on a rant about Barthe all day. And when I awake tomorrow, I may still be ranting, lol.

Mother LA: Glad you enjoyed Barthes "tragic" death. I probably laughed as hard as you did when it was brought up in class :)

Teacher Poet: Oh, you didn't. You just *HADDDDDD* to bring up the OTHER Barth. Haha. I have to say, though, Barth is wayyy better than Sukenick--now, that man can be hit by a bus too! But I'll always be amused at how Barth "lost" me in "Lost in the Funhouse" with the whole the-sperm-is-swimming-to-the-egg chapter. Hmmm...I totally thought it was some guy dying and seeing the light of heaven.

Oh I can be so naive sometimes...