Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Birth of the Death of the Author: Uncreative Writing circa 1968

We live in a great age of literary unoriginality.  It comes in many forms, from the mildly sordid and deceptive kind we've seen in prominent poetry plagiarism by C.J. Allen, Christian Ward, and David R. Morgan, to the highly-theorized and honest kind Kenneth Goldsmith and Marjorie Perloff discuss in the context of poetry, to the grand claims for the novel-as-collage put forth  by David Shields.  Advocates of unoriginality should feel a certain satisfaction, then, in acknowledging that the idea of unoriginality is itself something quite long established, and that there is little new in our golden age of the unoriginal.

One could make a strong case for tracing the origins of contemporary unoriginality back to Roland Barthes' great essay of 1968, "The Death of the Author."  The essay seems to present us with a crime scene: the author has been killed.  Who did it?  Of course there is no real corpse, only the death of a certain idea of the author as a personality that can be referred to as the explanation of the text, the owner, the source, and the little god from whose head the poem or novel or essay sprung fully formed.  This figure, born with the rise of the modern bourgeois subject, was killed by a conspiracy of murders, chief among whom was Mallarme (his weapon: a belief that language was more important than the individual author), followed by Proust (wielding books in which the distinction between author and characters dissolved), and a gaggle of Surrealists (bristling with armaments, most of which had to do with the subconscious mind and the disempowering of the ego).  These conspirators were aided and abetted by modern linguists, who were happy to load their weapons with the latest munitions from the structuralist armories, including the explosive notion that the subject as not a person with agency so much as he was a mere function of linguistics.

When this gang had killed the author, Barthes tells us, they replaced him with a new figure more to their liking, someone Barthes calls the scriptor, whose only power is to mix and mingle pre-exising kinds of writing.  As the great conspiracy took hold, all the authors were killed and replaced with scriptors.  They looked the same, and had the same names, but they were entirely different creatures than the authors they replaced.  When we wanted an explanation of the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien the author, we looked to his life, saw his experiences in the first world war, and concluded that the terrifying battle scenes, pathos of comrades facing destruction, and sense of an overwhelming, continent-wide doom came from the author's own experience of war.  Not so when we looked at Tolkien the scriptor.  His novels made sense as the mingling of pre-existing modes of writing—as the coming-together of saga-literature, Norse mythology, Beowulf, and Victorian realism (no one in Norse mythology has to pack a lunch the way Tolkien's hobbits do).  The same process occurs across the canon of literature, as authors are replaced by scriptors: individual life-events cease to signify, and the Frankenstein-like stitching together of literary bits-and-pieces takes center stage.  All writing becomes rewriting, or even recycling, in the brave new world of the scriptor.

But what if the real crime scene here didn't involve a murder, but a theft?  What if Barthes weren't the originator of the modern idea of unoriginality?  What if he stole it from someone else?  I'm not talking about inheritance, here, although there is a long tradition of writing about the text as something the author doesn't create ex nihilo (think of Plato's Ion here, or Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent").  I'm talking about the possibility of flat-out robbery.

Consider the facts, ladies and gentlemen of the jury.  Consider that in 1967, a year before the appearance of Mr. Barthes' essay, the novelist Italo Calvino wrote in a letter "For the critic, the author does not exist, only a certain number of writings exist."  Consider a later letter, in which he elaborated on the topic, saying "The living author, I believe, can never be taken into consideration.  To be able to study a writer, he must be dead, that is, if he is alive, he must be killed."  Consider, too, that Mr. Calvino knew Barthes—indeed, in the period leading up to Mr. Barthes' essay, Mr. Calvino was known to attend regularly Mr. Barthes' lectures in Paris.

It's intriguing to think of Barthes' grand theory of unoriginality being, itself, profoundly unoriginal.  Sadly, though, it's not so likely a case of theft as it seems at first glance.  When we look at the context of Calvino's remarks, it is clear that he's talking about the author as someone who is either ignored by scholars, who act as if he is already dead, or as a figure who disappoints readers after they've formed an image of him on the basis of his books.  His phrasing is as bold as Barthes'—and it is not inconceivable that the French critic pinched a good phrase from the Italian novelist—but his ideas are much more conventional.  Barthes' essay on the death of the author may present us with an exquisite irony: that there was considerable originality in the most powerful modern theory of the unoriginal.


  1. Barthes and Kristeva both avowedly developed their concept of "intertextuality" from Bakhtin. Moreover, the notion that "language speaks" is already present in Novalis' "Monologue" not to mention the notion of the essential sociality of language and hence of thought and selfhood is articulated as early as Christian Wolff. Arguably, the whole thesis (if it can be called that) of the death of the Author or of the Subject has seemed to lack an awareness of its historical precursors if not genesis as well as a sufficient dialectical sophistication at least in its reception if not "original" articulation.

    1. Sure. Barthes builds on a lot of things, most of them avowedly. As I noted above, he sees the death of the author as something initiated by many hands, including Proust, Mallarme, and Breton & Company. What I mean is that the real originality of Barthes is in the framing of the concept in terms of a dead author. Calvino looks to be talking about the same thing, and uses some similar terms, but is really on about something else.

      I'm not sure who you think of as lacking an awareness of the historical predecessors of the death of the author. Surely not Barthes, who devotes quite a bit of space to listing predecessors. Surely not Perloff, who knows the history of the concept well. Shields? Goldsmith? Maybe, but I couldn't say for sure. Goldsmith knows his Warhol quite well, and I imagine he has a sense of the critique of artist-as-author thinking from that tradition. Shields I know less about.

      The real roots of various kinds of "death of the author" thinking run very far back indeed. We can see them, for example, in Plato's "Ion." So yeah, there's a long tradition. The particular formation of the idea in Barthes seems to me without exact precedent -- and what's new and exciting about it is the figure (the dead author) and the initiation of the scriptor as a figure for structuralist intertextuality. I mean, the reason we read that essay is the memorable compression of the ideas.

    2. That Barthes articulates his insight with characteristic brio is uncontentious; like Genette he combines the best characteristics of French thinking--conceptual vigor and sprightly wit. My contention, when it comes to historical background and dialectical sophistication, is that many of the problems that came to the fore with the advent of Theory, especially those surrounding language, meaning, subjectivity, and authorship, find their initial and arguably a more thoroughgoing treatment in the moment of their initial articulation, which was not in Saussure and the development and reception of Structuralism, but primarily in Jena Romanticism and precursor figures, such as Herder and Jacobi, whose remarks on Spinoza are uncannily like those of Derrida on Levi Strauss in "Structure, Sign, and Play" for example. Does Perloff remark this tradition; frankly, I don't know, but I doubt it. For example, an acquaintance with Schleiermacher's distinction between the grammatical and technical clarifies many of the faux-problems that flowed from the reception of Structuralist and Poststructuralist thought, including extreme understandings of the Death of the Author and Subject. My point is that a grappling with the issues Barthes' notion brings into a particular focus leads to a much wider and deeper context than is generally acknowledged or even known. Happily, translations of the work of Manfred Frank, and that of Andrew Bowie, and most recently Michael N Forster (among others) contribute to such a recontextualization of the problematics that continue to govern much current debate.

    3. I get the point about German idealist thinking, aesthetics in particular, as a tradition informing structuralism and what comes after (I've been teaching the history of critical theory for something alarmingly close to twenty years). I, too, like it when people understand this strand behind their thinking. I'm with Barthes, though, in seeing a lot of things informing developments, many of them coming from outside of the realms of philosophy or linguistics -- there are a lot of pasts, from literature, art, the shape of the culture industry in general, what have you -- for the death of the author, the critique of the subject, and all that, right?

    4. That the history of the problems that come to the fore with such furor post-67 or so in the Anglophone world is in fact complex is well-taken; as you write "there are a lot of pasts." On the other hand, and not to be contentious, there is an alarmingly marked uniformity in the reception of what has come to be called Theory, e.g. the conflation of word and sign or semiotic and semantic, that still reigns inertially (despite the forces and effects of dissemination) precisely due to the cultural-industrial/institutional conditions that give the (or 'tha' if you will) history of that reception the possibility of a concrete profile. Your own remarking "German idealist thinking" as, or so I take it, more-or-less synonymous with Jena Romanticism is a case in point, a categorization symptomatic of an identifiable and articulable history of reception, one under "deconstruction" (or, more properly, "desedimentation") since the 1970s in Germany (c.f. the constellation studies of Dieter Henrich and the Heidelberg School). That the history of these ideas is one that must be written interdisciplinarily is also well-taken, e.g., the periodicization of linguistic studies (Medieval, Renaissance, Augustan, Romantic, etc.) taking its cue from Art History (if Curtius is to be trusted). Nevertheless, it is arguable that one can detect a network of assumptions (scleroses) in the discourse of current debates around precisely authorship, subjectivity, language and meaning that calls for a radical relativization, at least along the lines I am arguing, in order to reveal deeper and broader possibilities of reflection, articulation, and action.--All that being said, I do hope my intervention here is not merely a perverse or, worse, obtuse reaction to your genuinely and generously sharing a new and striking insight into Barthes' now classic (which is precisely the problem!) formulation.

    5. The Venn diagram of Jena Romanticism and German Idealism would certainly have a broad swath of overlap, but I don't think I'd be willing to claim anything like total alignment, if that's what you're getting at. As for a uniformity of reception -- I take the point about institutionally conditioned forms of reception, but I'd hesitate to make the claim about uniformity myself, without seeing a pile of examples no one in their right mind would consider compiling for a blog post comment stream.

  2. Is it possible to appropriate concepts and yet still be original in composition of the text?

    For example, I researched the life of Plato, and worked up a plot, then write a narrative tale of his life in blank verse, in which I included in quotes as his speech a number of things he said from his dialogs. For example, I took the entire segment where he talks about the allegory of the cave, and instead of a dialog between Socrates and Plato's brother, I rewrote it in blank verse as a speech directly from Plato.