The Death of the Author, and The Birth of the Reader

To illustrate how a writer can write something unintentionally that later fits into a broader context, I’ll look no further than my own essay that I wrote at Cornerhouse in July 2007:

I came here with the intent to carry on with my musings on self-identification and categorisation. I spent the most fulfilling half an hour on the train spilling the words out on the lined pages of a reporter’s notebook, where I’m now continuing with this. Henry Miller – and with him many a writer – would call this “dictation”. It’s this wonderful state of things when you feel as a tool in someone’s hands who, somewhere afar, is whispering these words into the tip of the tool, and they pass at the speed of light to land in your head to be heard and discovered” (Exercises in Loneliness – IV).

As you can see, I was aware of Henry Miller; but I wasn’t aware of the passage quoted below. In spite of knowing of the ideas spelt out in Barthes’s famous essay, I never read the essay itself – until recently.

For him [writer], on the contrary, his hand, detached from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin — or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, that is, the very thing which ceaselessly questions any origin… […] The writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original; his only power is to combine the different kinds of writing, to oppose some by others, so as never to sustain himself by just one of them; if he wants to express himself, at least he should know that the internal “thing” he claims to “translate” is itself only a readymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum. […] Succeeding the Author, the writer no longer contains within himself passions, humors, sentiments, impressions, but that enormous dictionary, from which he derives a writing which can know no end or halt: life can only imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, a lost, infinitely remote imitation” (Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author).

The Death of the Author was published in Aspen in 1968; Exercises in Loneliness-IV was written in one and half hours in 2007; and Barthes’s text was read by me in May 2009. It is evident, however, that I, without precise knowledge of his work, shared the same mystic vision of a writer as a tool with which Language expresses itself.

Although I share most of ideas expressed in this essay, I am not overly enthusiastic about it. As a writer, I can certainly state that when I write I write. As I said before, most texts are written as they are – possibly, the case of George Orwell wouldn’t be my case. And when I write I don’t think of coherence: most of it arrives naturally; the gaps are noted and filled in the process of editing. Moreover, judging by my own texts, I know that I cannot impose a single reading on them. And if I cannot do that, how can a critic or a reader?

What is interesting about The Death of the Author, of course, is that it spoke of writers who by 1968 were long dead. I find fascinating the idea posited by Umberto Eco: that, in order to translate a text correctly, we need to discern and understand the intention of the text and the intention of the author. And what is reading if not translation? Given that Shakespeare probably didn’t think that the world would live much longer after his death, the readings of Hamlet infused by Freud’s psychoanalysis are very daring translations. However, as Zizek pointed out in his talk on Wagner, it is necessary to re-read or newly translate a work of art, to breathe life in it for new generations. In case with Hamlet, there is a bigger chance that Shakespeare’s contemporaries would fathom our Freudian reading of the tragedy, than for us to step into the shoes of Tudor-Jacobean Englishmen and to understand, exactly why Shakespeare composed what he composed in the way he composed it.

Paul Ricoeur said he preferred reading a text as if the author was already dead. To me, this simply states the obvious: the desire of Ricoeur as a reader to abandon the living author as a reference point. I cannot find a fault with it, for the absense of reference point is precisely what transforms a non-critical, unattentive reader into a precocious analyst. Thus, the first problem I find with Barthes’s essay is that it proclaims the birth of the Reader but doesn’t tell us who the reader is. I’d argue the reader is an existing or prospective writer – for it is only the person who understands the making of a text that can dissect another’s narrative.

What I often notice in practice, however, is that the birth of the Reader and the death of the Author are married to make an excuse to 1) a reader’s infusion of a text with his/her personal experience and views, and to 2) an author’s (=physical body who wrote a text) withdrawal from critical discussion of their text and hence, from responsibility for having said what was said. Another problem that boggles my mind every time I read a text in Russian is grammar. It is OK to think, together with Heidegger and Barthes, that Language speaks with us – but how does this explain the fact that some texts are more accurate than others? The question is not about typos or omitted commas, for this can happen anytime; the question is about literacy in general.

After all, The Death of the Author, now that I read it, is a wonderful example in itself of how a text is appropriated by its readership. Suffices to say, if it took me as a writer years to read this text, there are doubtless writers out there who never read it. All of us, however, as the beginning of this post indicates, willingly operate from the same premise: that we aren’t in control of the text we’re making. What is curious is where we proceed from here. For me, the next questions we ought to ask are: 1) what is the role of the writer as his/her own reader? 2) when we put our name to our work, why do we do it, and what do we expect from this action?

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