Call For Comments: The Death of the Author and the Birth of the Critic

From Mav: In the last couple weeks, we’ve done a couple shows that have dealt with interpreting the non obvious sexual subtext in children’s media (Disney Princesses and Sesame Street Muppets). Obviously, we don’t think that those things are front and center. That’s why we said subtext. But that leads us to an obvious question: is it fair to just put our own interpretations on piece of media regardless of what the writers, producers, actors, artists or other creators intended?

Yes it is.

About a week ago, Wayne and I found ourselves in an argument about this with some other people on a  mutual friend’s Facebook page. The premise of the post was that the original poster was sick of negative behavior being excused on the part of protagonists in fiction  because the writer of the work said that the character isn’t supposed to be a hero to be emulated. During the course of this conversation, someone brought up the phrase “the author is dead,” to argue that a work is either problematic or it isn’t regardless of what the author intended and that we know simply by reading it.

However, that’s not quite what that phrase means. It’s something we say in critical studies a lot, but it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that the phrase was that much a part of the cultural lexicon. And so, I realized right away that we had to do a show on it. What does it mean, why do we say it and what are the ramifications? The phrase originated in an essay called “La mort de l’auteur” by one of my favorite literary theorists, Roland Barthes in his collection Image-Music-Text. Barthes contends that:

the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted. This is why it is absurd to hear the new writing condemned in the name of a humanism which hypocritically appoints itself the champion of the reader’s rights. 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.

But it probably isn’t immediately clear what that actually means. It’s not so much that Barthes is saying that the author’s intent with a work is unimportant. It certainly is. It’s more that he is arguing that the reader’s interpretation is equally valid… or moreover EVERY reader’s interpretation matters. That’s actually one of the central tenets of this show. The idea that Barthes is promoting is that we can’t say that any give work of art (image, music, or text… but other art will fit here as well) has any specific interpretation of meaning that is universal. Instead, he argues that meaning is created when the words the author created are consumed by the mind of the reader.

There’s so many ramifications to this. It’s why some may find a text inspirational while others may find the same text offensive. It’s why some may think a certain film is satirical and others may find it racist. It’s why some may find a song sad or poignant and other’s might find it joyous and exciting. The list goes on and on. It’s why criticism exists at all.

We want to explore it. We’re going to discuss Barthe’s article and how it informs what we think and how we think. Give it a read and give us  your thoughts (or just give them to us off the top of your head). What does literary/film/art criticism mean to you? How do you decide what you think of a given story or work? How do you decide its message?

From Wayne: We were discussing Batman: The Killing Joke in the store a couple of weeks ago, specifically the ending of it (I’m sure we’ll talk about this on the show). There are multiple readings of this possible, one of which is that Batman pushed the Joker off the edge of the building and kills him. A co-worker, who has been around comics for years, but who doesn’t really look into them very much after his initial reading, was stunned when I said this. Not only had he never thought this before, he had never heard it considered as a possibility. When I went into it, which I’m sure he gets very sick of me doing, he asked, “What does Alan Moore have to say about?” I answered, “It doesn’t matter what he has to say about it, it’s a valid interpretation.”

Now, that’s the of way of looking at it that ties in with Barthes. The very ambiguity of that ending is part of what I love about it. But, I do get his point as well. My interaction with a text (or comic or song or whatever), grows and changes as I learn more about the circumstances under which it was created. Recently, another friend and I were talking about David Bowie and he was simply interested in listening to the songs and interpreting them through his own lens. He didn’t care about what Bowie was going through at the time because it was, to him, all about the art. Barthes, again. I, on the other hand, can’t read enough about Bowie and his personal life and his influences and the books he was reading and the drugs he was taking and how all of that shaped his art. For me, this adds layers of meaning and an intertextuality I didn’t have when I first heard “Rebel Rebel” when I was 12. The song has changed for me because of all of that.

But then, that is still me interpreting all of this material in a way that might not have anything to do with Bowie’s intentions.

So we’re going to talk about these ideas. It probably doesn’t matter what we say though. Everyone’s going to read into whatever they want to.

4 Replies to “Call For Comments: The Death of the Author and the Birth of the Critic”

  1. Approaching Bathes’s essay as someone from a historical field (the nineteenth century) that is constantly fighting about how we do scholarship in the said field is interesting. To get at what I mean, here’s a rough sketch. On the one hand, there is a camp of scholars who are obsessed with uncovering the past in a historical sense (e.g. here is a Victorian object but it is stuck in its period and only matters in and of its historical space). On the other hand, many Victorianists are now interested not only in interpretation of the works beyond the historical author but also in how they can be linked to the present. To liberally borrow from Barthes, “Time, first of all, is no longer the same” when we think about texts from the perspective of readers. At the same time, however, a lot historical scholars may premise a good deal of their work on the idea that Mav says, “that meaning is created when the words the author created are consumed by the mind of the reader” but also read historical works alongside other historical documents or works from the same author. For example, Pride and Prejudice’s meaning could be illuminated by reading it alongside Austen’s letters, other novels, or philosophy written during the same time period.

    This takes me to another essay by another famous philosopher that wrote about the topic: Michel Foucault’s “What Is An Author?” Foucault’s essay brings up the problem of what is “the work [oeuvre]” of an author. How do we decide what matters and what doesn’t? The problem with interpretation isn’t just about the author but how we define what is work, Foucault says. Scholars may be interested in George Eliot’s journals or JK Rowling’s tweets, but how do they fit in with their fiction? Do they count as literature? Harry Potter and its fans are a good example of the problem of theorizing “work” that Foucault brings up. Rowling keeps adding to the Harry Potter universe with works like Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts, even illuminating characters like Nagini (as we saw in this past week’s Crimes of Grindelwald trailer). Can we read Harry Potter without taking these things into account? Can we read Harry Potter without taking into account the interpretations Rowling herself has given us in interviews and tweets outside official publications? (Of course, many far-right fans of Rowling’s certainly seem to believe that an author’s politics matters, claiming she has ruined the books for them given her anti-Trump stance.)

    In any case, Foucault and Barthes in many (but different) ways see the author as a limitation. Without the author, if we imagine new ways of reading, we not only get new interpretations but have new ways to interpret (although, in Foucault’s words, we also gain new constraints).

  2. Probably would come up organically but arguably the most topical example in pop culture would probably be Star Wars. Reading early drafts of Lucas’ original screenplay and listening to interviews it’s pretty obvious that his goal was always to revisit serial storytelling and play with special effects to challenge the medium. He knew the hero’s journey, knew film history, and fashioned a tale that worked for him. But the story itself was secondary, the logic an afterthought. What he gave the world was something beyond his control or purpose, and it has taken on meanings that end up being reflections of the audience, or today, the goals of the new gatekeepers at Disney. Lucas has been asked what he would have done, as if it would be the true sequel trilogy, and to some it sounds insane. Good or bad, Star Wars no longer represents original creators intent for sure.

    Side note, ‘Misery’ extreme circumstance of authors’ wishes don’t matter to a reader.

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