The Birth of the Author

In 1967 Roland Barthes announced the “The Death of the Author.” His assertion was that all authors are collage artists, merely stitching together previous utterances, whether from speech overheard or from the texts of the past. All writing, according to Barthes, “is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin.”  One should note that critics in this era were fond of pronouncing all manner of things to be “dead.”  Neitzche’s God suffered the most dramatic of these deaths, but Barthes too caused a stir of his own.

Barthes is, I believe, correct in his assertion that the text’s source (the Author’s voice) “is not to be located; and yet it is perfectly read; this is because the true locus of writing is reading.” At least, it’s correct if we assume that his premise, that a “a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other” is correct.  Then, it follows that “there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author…but the reader.”  However, his larger conclusion that “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author” might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Ultimately, Barthes may have been chastising critics for their cultish search for the Author within the text, a premise that fails on many levels, the least of which is the belief that “the explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has produced it.” In constructing the locus of meaning within the Author, the author not only maintains a privileged position of interpretive power, but the critic is also granted this power by extension, which leaves the reader on shaky ground.

Barthe’s role in the establishment of the post-modern voice created an unfortunate posture in the Western literary canon of the 20th century, one which we are only just now moving away from, one where the author, “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.” I don’t doubt that it was necessary to move away from the ideological underpinnings of modernism and the New Criticism, which required the idolization of the Author, but removing any obligation on the part of the Author to generate meaning creates an untenable situation.

Writing and reading are both communicative acts. Implying a back and forth, which up until recently took place in a very abstract and theoretical domain since it’s hard to argue with an inanimate object (though I’ve done so).  The book as an object stops with the reader, and any relationship the reader has with the Author is abstract.  At least, this is the case until we see the emergence of the socially constructed texts of the internet. Some works (like blogs specifically), if they are published by a living author and published in a space where commenting is enabled, the acts of meaning-making and criticism take place in the footers and margins of text and due to their sheer proximity, become part of the text. Should an author choose to interact with his or her readers the text then becomes Wikified… a collaborative document.

In other cases where a previously published text (a book-object) has been transferred (via photocopy, digital reformatting, or other) the meaning generated by the text can be, in some cases, wildly transformed:

‘I wonder,’ he said to himself, ‘what’s in a book while it’s closed. Oh, I know it’s full of letters printed on paper, but all the same, something must be happening, because as soon as I open it, there’s a whole story with people I don’t know yet and all kinds of adventures, deeds and battles. All those things are somehow shut in a book. Of course you have to read it to find out. But it’s already there, that’s the funny thing. I just wish I knew how it could be.’  -Michael Ende, The Neverending Story

I remember reading this as an adolescent and being swept away by the possibility that I might be able to enter into the imaginative space of the novel and that imaginative space was somehow localized in the actual text (a space that actually plays a role in the novel as well).  But I imagine what this story might be like if my son were to read it on the iPad, a narrative space that is far more fluid than a book-object, with permeable boundaries. Would my son have the same response to this passage as I did?

A story like The Neverending Story isn’t “locked away” anymore.  A work of fiction is no longer relegated to the static pages of a book, but instead is a nebulous narrative that flexes and bends as the medium does.  The text itself changes shape as the orientation of the reader does. Think about the iPad’s orientation feature, or the changing shape of a window in a laptop screen; the word “book” in the digital realm is almost a misnomer. The fact that so many people call electronic devices “Readers” is interesting to me.  Linguistically, I think it’s no mere coincidence that the human Reader and the electronic Reader have the same name. The human Reader is entering more and more into the narrative space itself, often changing the narrative itself (which, I would remind you is what happens to Bastion in The Neverending Story).

Let me make clear that I’m in no way prophesying the Death of the Book. I have a house full of them and I doubt that will change.  However, it’s certainly necessary to think of the roles of Author and Reader as something rather different in digital spaces than it is in printed spaces. Contemporary publishing platforms allow for allusions of a new sort; the traditional definition of the allusion is a figure of speech that points outside the text itself at historical events, other literary works, myths, or works of art in order to generate meaning within the text. Hyperlinks and embedded media perform the same function as allusions (strengthening webs of meaning and calls to the Tradition), but they are not figures of speech.  They are figures of another sort, perhaps “ellusions.”

Yet what does any of this mean for the Author or Reader? I think the reconstruction and democratization of narrative spaces (democratic in that many voices create a larger, governing voice) allows for each of us to be Authors. Which means that even the least of us have an opportunity to bear the weight of careful storytelling, meaningful dialogue with an audience, and both the preservation and subversion of older, book-bound traditions. This privilege, up to now, has been highly mitigated by publishing houses, economics, and class concerns.  As for those of us who are educators, I think we have to pay attention to the narratives that are emerging around a text (and I use that term loosely since more and more, narrative is as driven by image and sound as it is by actual linguistic text) as much as that which emerges from the text itself.





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