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The Death of the Author
Transcript of The Death of the Author
Nam June Paik.
Roland Barthes' Big Idea
"The Death of the Author" is the single most important essay in contemporary literary theory--it has been a constant reference point for more than fifty years.
Barthes expects an audience familiar with French literature. We aren't that, so we're going to skip his allusions and examples and just move directly to his ideas about
, and about
What is an author?
Barthes' answer is: a myth.
Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body [which is] writing....As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively...the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins. (142)
We have been saying: people write to prove, develop, and sustain their own identities, and to record their own existence.
So Barthes' ideas contradict almost everything we've read together.
There are actually three arguments combined in this essay:
a structural one, an historical one, and a radical one.
The author is a fiction that we use to explain where writing comes from.
"It has always been that way" (142)
Barthes suggests that writing has always required the death of the author to come into existence.
"The author is a modern figure" (142)
Barthes suggests that we have invested increasing energy in the myth of the author during the "modern" period--the period of the discovery of the "individual."
"To give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth" (142)
Barthes suggests that writing, and along with it, the reader, should be freed from the false idea of the author.
What is a text?
Barthe's answer is: a space of possibilities.
Above all, a text is not a container for "meanings" which are born in the mind of the author, placed into the text, and which then appear again in the mind of the reader.
Note that this claim means
three things at once:
The text is
not a container
The text is
should not be
We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single . . . meaning, but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations. . . (146)
In this new situation,
Barthes replaces the word "author"
with a neologism: "scriptor."
. . . [the scriptor's] only power is to
, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as to never rest on any one of them. (146)
What is a reader?
Barthes' answer is: a place.
"A text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and
that place is the reader
, not . . . the author.
[A] text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that
who holds together in a single field all the
by which the written text is constituted. (148)"
I like this work for us this week because it suggests a system
operating continuously without anybody.
At the same time,
you will note that the "audience" can become involved in this system,
and can even see even see itself within the system.
Also, like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Paik was Korean-American.
Also, like Paul Auster's "Ghosts," this work is in part about surveillance.
Let's propose that Auster's novella "Ghosts" is an allegory of what Barthes describes as
"the death of the author."
: a story with a second distinct meaning partially hidden behind its literal or visible meaning. . . . An allegory may be conceived as a metaphor that is extended into a structured system. In written narrative, allegory involves a continuous parallel between two (or more) levels of meaning in a story, so that its persons and events correspond to their equivalents in a system of ideas or a chain of events external to the tale.
Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms
If "Ghosts" is fiction about fiction, then we can call it
Metafiction is a key property of
BLACK: an author
BLACK'S writing: a work
BLUE: a reader who gathers information
by the end
BLACK: the author as myth
BLUE'S REPORTS: the text
BLUE: the reader whose freedom is the author's death
at the beginning
You're supposed to tell me the story. Isn't that how it's supposed to end? You tell me the story, and then we say good-bye. (190)
This is the old theory of authorship:
But as it turns out:
He read the story right through, every word of it from beginning to end...Black was right, he says to himself. I knew it all by heart. (191)
Black and Blue confront one another at last. Black speaks:
Something strange is happening to Blue's writing....
Words are transparent for him, great windows that stand between him and the world...he tries to fashion a coherent whole...[but] it's as though his words, instead of drawing out the facts and making them sit palpably in the world, have induced them to disappear . . . . For the first time in his experience of writing reports, he discovers that words do not necessarily work, that is is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say.
Fragments of Mirror
Embedded Story 1
How does the story of Gold's case develop the themes of Auster's novella? (pp 139-140)
Embedded Story 2
How does the story of the skier's father develop the themes of Auster's novella? (pp 148-149).
Last class I proposed that Theresa Cha's writing explores a conflict between two theories of writing:
writing as communication,
and writing as a mark.
Interpreting Cha is not about deciding which theory is true.
What clashes in Auster,
And how does it end?
"Where he goes after that is not important....Anything is possible, therefore.
prefer to think that he went far away, boarding a train that morning and going out West to start a new life. It is even possible that America is not the end of it. In my secret dreams, I like to think of Blue booking passage on some ship and sailing to China. Let it be China, then, and we'll leave it at that. For
is the moment that Blue stands up from his chair, puts on his hat, and walks through the door. And from that moment on,
know nothing." (192)
Cha was a reader of Barthes and would have been aware of
the death of the author.
So we need an interpretation of Cha's works that offers two contradictory ideas. Instead of trying to resolve this contradiction and produce a single idea of what her work is about, we will try to show that there are two sets of ideas in her work that interfere with one another.
These are the two ideas:
1) Writing is communication from one person to another.
2) Writing is not communication; writing is a mark.
What potential relationships do these three words have to one another?
1) "audience": The idea of an audience suggests a performance, and therefore the co-presence of the performer and the audience. Writing seems to be communication.
2) "distant": Doubt creeps in. The audience is present, but it is far away--there is some problem, perhaps, with communicating over this distance.
3) "relative": Hope springs up! the audience is related--there is some connection between the performer and the audience after all.
But what kind of relationship is this?
Note how Cha's title's multiple meanings are enabled by the omission of elements. Although it is possible to parse these three words into propositions like the ones I've just described, Cha does not write these ideas down, at least in her title. Instead, the title is strongly paratactic--she presents discrete units, three pieces of vocabulary, without clearly asserting any particular set of relations among these ideas.
Let's track the alternation of the two ideas about writing through the rest of this first poem.
Writing and Voice
And then turn the page and see how these two ideas correspond to the contrast between writing and voice.
the space in the first line
hard enjambment on the / words
hard enjambment on the / voice
observe these features
Interpretation, particularly of contemporary literature,
does not mean finding out what single message is "behind" or "inside" a text.
Instead, it is an analysis of the ways in which the parts of a text interact or even conflict.
"Ghosts" ends with an "I" stepping in and pronouncing the text to be over. But when the narrator becomes a character, there is no reason to privilege the narrator's knowledge
The first-person narrator is part of the fictional world, rather than controlling it from above.
He becomes an element in the
, not unifying author.
Telling a Secret
audience distant relative (1977)
-is a piece of “mail art”
-comprises seven folded, printed cards and envelopes
-which were mailed by Cha to an art gallery
-and also includes a sound recording of Cha reading the text.
Cha's comment to a gallery in 1978:
“Please present these envelopes along with the contents. The audience who come to the gallery should be able to open them from the white envelope and read the contents, as if they were personally addressed to them, involving the same gestures that everyone goes through when one receives a letter….The sound taped should be played simultaneously."
Let's imagine the gallery experience of this text, as opposed to the reading-a-photocopy-from-a-pdf experience.
And then these questions:
1) Why mail these texts?
2) Why voice-record?
3) How does the text feel different, now that you know about its original form?
Like the ancient Romans, I really like imitation exercises.
I have prepared for you a card in the shape chosen by Cha for "audience distant relative." On this card I would like you to add a unit to her text, imitating her style and topics, as follows:
-a title (or whatever) on the "front"
-a poem (or whatever) inside
-on the back, tell me where it goes in the sequence. write one sentence about why.
"as a foreigner, learning a new language extended beyond its basic function as
....to a consciously imposed detachment that allowed analysis and experimentation with
other relationships of language
" (Cha, 1979)
This text takes up the very abstract issues in "audience distant relative" and interrelates them with the experience of exile.
Thesis: The experience of exile is interpreted as an event of becoming named. Acquiring a travel document names one, but at the cost of a more fluid, previously existing set of experiences or identities. Repeatedly this process is compared to being born--another moment when one acquires an official name.
So I have offered you a general topic idea about this poem. Here's the paper prompt.
In "Exilee," Cha combines the idea of the "death of the author" with the experience of exile. Rather than losing one's original identity when going into exile, the experience is understood as becoming more clear, more interpretable, more identifiable. How does the poem present the vague, plural, or disjointed experiences in its speaker's past, and how are they unified?
For a grade. Rubric:
It's like Cha = A
It's not like Cha = C
Didn't do it = F
The last paragraph
Black speaking to Blue:
"Every time I looked up, you were there, watching me, following me, always in sight, boring into me with your eyes. You were the whole world to me, Blue, and
I turned you into my death
. You're the one thing that doesn't change, the one thing that turns everything inside out." (190)
Blue's reply is to attack Black:
"When Blue's fury begins to abate and he sees what he has done, he cannot say for certain whether Black is alive or dead." (191)
Embedded Story 3
How does the plot of the film
Out of the Past
develop the themes of Auster's novella? (pp 158-159)
Let's Start on Page 54
makes a paper structure . . .
On a small piece of paper, write anything you want.
What do you think
about this work of art?
What does it make you
What does it think about you? What do you make it think about?
Turn your piece of paper over.
Write one question about Auster's "Ghosts."
What do you
want to know?
Writings that Clash
This DOES NOT imply that the text means whatever you think it means. Instead, it means that you as a reader are, to use Barthes' term, a "place where the
In other words: when you read, you can understand how the different parts of the text interact.
There is no reason to assume that this interaction is peaceful and
Is writing communicaation? Or is it just a mark?
Embedded Story 4
How does the story of Washington Roebling develop the themes of Auster's novella? (pp 147-148)
Allegory proliferates. Once you start reading one thing as another, it can be hard to stop. In "Ghosts," Auster gives us many opportunities to have this experience.
The text's overall structure and conflict
is reflected within it over and over again.