Unlike most living authors, I have at one point been dead. I don’t mean that at one point I was composed of nonliving stardust floating in the ether rather than organic meat parts. I mean that for a considerable period I was dead and living in tiger heaven, then in hell with the hungry ghosts. Surely, if anyone is entitled to argue for the “death of the author” it should be yours truly. I wrote much of my best work while dead, as a matter of fact, and met my lovely companion Mr. Harold Zo while technically lifeless. All the same, I notice that most people compose works of literature while alive. Dead people don’t tend to have the time or energy to blog, or the creative spark you need to make a splash in the literary world. I suppose a dead person could be a critic, but no one would want to read the ramblings of a sedentary subterranean layabout, now would they? Even less so if it was just a pile of ashes or worm excrement writing.
It might seem trite to argue against a popular theory like the “death of the author” by simply asserting the obscure fact that all of our great works of literature were composed by the living. Rest assured, if I appear glib it is only because I have a nagging toothache in my front left canine and I don’t see Roland Barthes doing me any good on that score.
With that introductory blather safely stowed, allow me to double back and address the video you may or may not have watched. PBS’ Idea Channel is a video portal on Youtube that functions as a kind of Intellectualism 101, perfect conversation fodder for those who want to dip their toes into complicated issues like semiotics and literary theory without having to read anything. Their production values and editing are more professional than the normal Youtube flock, and the content is snappily written and delivered with punchy sound effects and computer graphics intended to provide some levity. When Idea Channel put out this video on Neon Genesis Evangelion and the death of the author, I was initially trepidatious, for reasons I hope you will grasp. It’s difficult to make sense out of Derrida in a human lifetime–much less a tiger’s lifespan–and I tend to think, having read some of his work, that it’s not worth the effort for anyone except academics. Yet, in five minutes, the video manages to do a competent job at both presenting a text, in this case the aforementioned anime, and put forward a decent argument for why it might support Barthes’ and Derrida’s frameworks, if they should be so called.
At the same time, I am extremely skeptical of this so-called death of the author, as you have already gleaned. Soon it will be time to expand on what I mean by saying that I am skeptical of the theory because authors have to write when they are alive. First, however, it’s worth looking at Barthes’ original presentation of the idea in his essay entitled, cleverly enough, “The Death of the Author,” published in 1967. Though I believe this is not a theory that gives us powerful tools for understanding a work’s meaning and significance in a social and material context (more on those two aspects later), there is a good reason why Barthes argues that it is necessary to assert the death of the author. The last line of the essay is one of the more famous passages: “We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”¹ There is an end in mind, namely to reassert the place of the reader, the consumer of the text, rather than its producer, as the primary creator of meaning for the text. Earlier in the essay, Barthes makes the religious and political significance of his pronouncement more clear:
In precisely this way literature (it would bebetter from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases-reason, science, law.²
This text takes some work to unpack. Barthes asserts that the belief in a transcendent Author who bestows an eternally fixed meaning into a text from above is akin to the belief in God. Taking the modernist and atheist project to new limits, he not only believes to reject the myth of a divine creator is necessary to free humankind (note he calls the liberation of readers from fixed meaning “revolutionary”) but that it is also necessary to reject the creative human subject. After all, the creative, productive human subject is that which modernism makes it its duty to emancipate. Reason, science, and law are here lumped in with God and, in the name of giving birth to the reader, are tossed out. This anti-totalizing project, descended from Nietzsche with the help of semiotics and other sociological discourses about language and culture that were emerging in the 1960s, is obviously hostile to any theories that might enmesh a certain text in a time and place, recognize a text as embedded in a living material reality. Instead, what Barthes does is wrest the text from God/Author’s cold dead hands, plant it firmly, and punt it into the stratosphere. Texts, in this analysis, live on a floating and idealistic plane where their only significance is that which the privileged individual reader or critic finds it. It’s a realm with no history, no real material whatsoever. It’s, oddly enough, both free-floating and firmly anchored in an eternal present.
On a quick side note, I find it curious that, for all his lofty rhetoric about restoring the place of the reader, even using very visceral birth imagery, he also manages to argue, “Yet this destination [the reader] cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.” In other words, not only is the author dead, but the reader, for all intents and purposes, is as well.
While this idea is meant to prevent the arrogant Critic from discovering some metaphysical “secret meaning” within a text and pass it down to the laypeople as authoritative, I believe it ends up putting the critic in an even more enviable position than before. Now the critic need not even try to parse through layers of a text, understanding biography and history and how the author’s social class and ideology condition our reception of the text. A pox on that! Instead, the critic is able to find pretty much any meaning that makes grammatical sense and can be supported by the critic’s own theoretical presuppositions, without any deeper analysis of where those presuppositions might have originated and whether they accord with reality or not. Literature is detached from flesh, blood, and dirt, which means that it can be easily abused and manipulated by critics who are more clever than disciplined (see Slavoj Žižek’s terrible review of 300 and an online comrade’s takedown of it if you are so inclined).
This is the problem with erasing the producing subject, as well as with simply doing away with universal categories and maintaining that everything is only an atomized particular. One is unaccountable to the class character of reality, the way that social context and history shape a work’s creation and its reception. Evangelion makes a perfect example. It’s perfectly reasonable to say that Hideaki Anno is not a somehow Godlike creator of a work which perfectly expresses his individual intentions. Rather, it is conditioned by global capitalism, by the economic situation in Japan when it was created, by Anno’s membership in a certain social class, by his vocation as an artist. On the reception end, it became a massive cultural phenomenon because it clearly resonated with a certain disaffected but materially privileged section of the Japanese, and was exploited to its maximum by companies because it could make them a quick profit. Its narrative does not have a simple, universal, and unlock able meaning; in fact, it probably has a number of contradictions. While captive to a capitalist ideology because it was produced in a bourgeois society, it nonetheless has a clear warning about making human beings into disposable tools. At the same time, its bleak sense of apocalypse never transcends the individual, makes the individual psyche the centre of its narrative, and understands our current oppressed situation not as the result of a historically contingent capitalist mode of production that can be transcended through revolutionary activity. Instead, the solution is simply to seize control of our own lives, stop relying on others to define our precious identities, and recognize that we shouldn’t be so selfish and cowardly because we hurt others.
When I say that the author can’t be dead because people write when they are alive, I mean that a living person is a body caught up in certain relations of production, conditioned by ideology, forced to write or make art to sustain themselves and thus forced to commodify their work. A person lives in a certain social situation. It’s not as though authors are able to impose a unified meaning. But all art reflects a definite social and material reality, while also helping to reproduce or counter hegemonic ideologies that help to reinforce that material reality. Thus a Marxist theory of literature can certainly agree with Barthes’ essay that the author is not some God spinning meaning out of fine gold and bestowing it on humans. What I can and must reject, however, is the notion that we need not create responsible criticism, that we can imagine that all of the world is text rather than understanding that text is part of a real world. When we see contradictions in a text, that is not indicative that it supports any reading, but that it is reflecting real contradictions in the world.
Art, as I have argued crudely in the past, should be at the service of human emancipation, participating in the class struggle on the behalf of the oppressed masses and not giving the ruling class ammunition to further mystify and oppress. For this, we need to know who we are accountable to, namely real human beings. Both authors and readers do have histories, biographies, psychologies, and cultures. These are the inescapable facts of living as social beings. It’s totalizing because the ruling class is unified and total. The oppressions are total, and so our counter-hegemonic art and literature needs to be total as well. What we need is not to abandon unity or universality for a blizzard of separate and special snowflakes. It’s what is necessary for criticism that is not just clever and self-aggrandizing but criticism that is in service to artists, humble before the people, and placed in the service of revolution rather than suspended in the air, arguing over meaningless theoretical minutiae without regard for the real struggles going on below.
1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 1967.