“What difference does it make who is speaking?”
This is the last sentence Michel Foucault writes in his 1969 essay What is an Author? [Admittedly, he wrote it in French, which makes the title: Qu’est – ce qu’un auteur? and the question: Qu’importe qui parle?. They sound so much cooler and philosophical, don’t you think?]. In this essay, he postulates that literary criticism should not focus on trying to understand the work through analysing the author’s biography in extensive detail (as many critics have done and still continue to do). He calls this “man-and-his-work” criticism. Rather, it should examine the work and its use of “structure, architecture, intrinsic form, and internal relationships”.
Of course, being a philosopher, Foucault then goes into even more detail: ok, let’s focus on the work (oeuvre). What exactly is a ‘work’? What qualifies as ‘work’? If we rummage through piles and piles of Einstein’s notes (if I’m not mistaken, he uses Nietzsche as an example) and find a shopping list scribbled in the corner of a page, do we include that as part of his work?
In contemporary Internet terms: would a blog post by an established writer about their breakfast – with pictures! – be considered part of their work?
He goes on to talk about various things (like y’do). Here are a few:
- the author – starting with the author’s name and text/writing (in Foucault-speak: “discourse”) in relation to that name;
- literary criticism and its evolution from Saint Jerome’s principles of authenticating the validity and authorship of holy scripture;
- a comparison with the way we attribute theories and inventions to people in science, while for several years, for literary (“classical”) texts, there was never such questioning of authorship.
Another philosopher who contemplated the Author was Roland Gérard Barthes. In 1967, he wrote Death of the author [according to Wikipedia, the title was a reference to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and the concept of the Death of God], which has since been criticized, supported, shot down and rebutted in various forms and essays. For example: Sean Burke’s Death and Return of the author reclaims the importance of the author in literary criticism [although, to be honest, the title reminds me of this: https://youtu.be/HG3W37bxuqg ].
To be fair, Barthes didn’t eradicate the author completely (unless I totally misread the essay!). Instead, he simply pointed out that the creation of meaning lies with the reader and hence what the author is ‘trying to say’ isn’t really important, since the interpretation can change from one reader to the next based on their experience(s). He seemed to condemn the idea of a finite, fixed interpretation. I can understand and support that – allowing flexibility of ideas and plurality of voices and interpretations is a wonderfully democratic notion. But where does it stop?
Then, there’s the Intentional Fallacy. Predating both these texts by at least 20 years, [it’s from 1946], Wimsatt and Beardsley’s essay make the case that interpretation rests with the reader, and the author’s intention can neither be verified nor entirely rejected. Sure, they say, the historic context is important, but the author’s intention should be illustrated in his skills of literary composition – otherwise, he (or she) will have failed in their endeavour. I wonder whether it is important to mention that these two fellows specifically write about poetry while most other writings on the subject try to address all types of text (or, if you like, discourse).
Having read all this stuff, I’m curious whether they apply to our time at all; is the author really dead as a dodo? Admittedly, I’ve only looked at three essays (not even in elaborate detail!), so it’s possible there are entirely new ideas and philosophies coming to light. It’s equally possible that they’re just recycling old arguments (as we humans tend to do). Also, let’s not forget that these texts were part of a bigger picture, which branched out into proper scientific-style investigations in other forms like narratology.
Still, can such an idea even apply to the blogging and social media age? In an era where I can put out a blog post, receive and reply to comments in real time, and thus interact with my readers, is the idea of the death of the author dead?
Maybe someone out there, across the vast Internet, has an answer for us all. Then again, maybe it doesn’t make a shed of difference.
mrwolfglesga is an aspiring multipotentialite. He calls himself a “creative” as it’s an appropriately vague term for what he does (or doesn’t do). As a youngling, he wanted to be a cartoon. Obviously, that’s still a dream in progress.
Currently, he lives in Athens with his parents and Gunter, his artificial heart machine (namesake of the evil penguin from Adventure Time). Meanwhile, he studies long distance, occasionally writes for his (shambolic) freeform fiction webzine FreeFall, and blurts out his contemplations (well… rants) on existence on his blog and Twitter: @MrWolfglesga . He’s exhilarated to be featured on The Caffeinated Writer.
A link to the blog: https://whosafraidofbigbadwolf.wordpress.com
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