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Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Death of an innocent misconception

Class Note, 15th July, 09 (I M.A English)
A discussion on Plato’s REPUBLIC had barely ensued, when with the customary tendency to float away that comes with being a man of many thoughts, Mr. Pinto typically steered us from poor Plato and into the field of Psychology. Opinions were exchanged about that discipline, judgments were made (some fair some not) and then a question was raised trying to connect Psychology, the study of the mind, to Literature.
“Don’t we, as Literature students, also study various texts with the hope of understanding the mind of the author behind the text?”
In response, there was a laugh from the man of Literature himself. Not unkind laughter but more like an “I’m sorry, but I’m going to now slowly and systematically disabuse you of all your sweet notions” sort of laugh.
Exit: Plato’s ‘Republic’
Enter: ‘Death of the Author” – Roland Barthes.
Barthes made famous the notion of doing away with the Author, the idea of the text as a site of free play or pleasure, and differences such as those between ‘work’ and ‘text’, and ‘writerly’ and ‘readerly’ works of art. The idea that it is not the Author who is primary but the reader.
He talks of the problem of the subject, insisting on viewing an author or persona as a grammatical rather than a psychological subject. The well known formulation of this problem occurs in ‘Death of the Author’ (1968), a phrase which has come to be associated with both Barthes and structuralism just as the phrase ‘God is dead’ had been attributed (accurately/ inaccurately) to Nietzsche (it had first occurred in Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology’???).

Barthes begins the essay by quoting a sentence from Balzac’s novella ‘Sarra Sine’: ‘This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility.’
He throws open the question, who is the speaker of the words? Is it the hero of the story, or Balzac himself drawing on his experience of women? Or is he professing literary notions of feminity? Or is it universal wisdom?

His answer is that we can never know because “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 writing.”
Even in the present, says Barthes, our studies of Literature and Literary history are “tyrannically centered on the author.” The newer modes of criticism (by which he presumably means phenomenological and psychoanalytical criticism), he claims, have often consolidated this obsession. Recently many writers have challenged this centrality of the author. Mallarme recognized that it is “language which speaks, not the author.”

At this point, a small experiment was conducted in class. We were asked to take a blank sheet of paper and follow Mr. Pinto’s instructions carefully and write a poem (or just about any thought that came into the head). We were asked not to think and just go with the flow of our thoughts. When he instructed us to write the first line, we were to write it and move on to writing the second line only when he said so. Like this we jotted down our thoughts in twenty lines and discovered that even though our initial lines seemed a little constructed and structured (it was inevitable that some of us would cheat and not follow the instruction of ‘don’t think too much’), as we were writing the last 12 lines or so, it was indeed our language which was guiding us into writing and not our preconceived thoughts, ideas or plans of writing according to a theme/ purpose/ objective.

Proof of this is in the impromptu writing of Rungkan, ‘Apple’, of my class. This is what she composed during our experiment and it is dedicated by her to Mr. Pinto:

There is a man who comes
Nothing in hands, but books
And knowledge in brain
He is neither mad nor bad
He asked me to write
Something that he named it ‘poem’
I took my pen jolt down something strange and meaningless
Nothing I understood what he said
He is not mad but I’m running mad
Because I know nothing about writing
That he said and claimed as ‘poem’
Stanza, octave, and rhythm all these I have learnt
But I don’t know where to start
And how to end
So I start making fun of myself
Writing this poem…
First time in my life ‘English Poem’
Is it a poem? I still know nothing
Whether it is poem or not
Then he stops before my poem starts…
( :) Surely, this deserves an applause?)
The removal of the author transforms the modern text. Previously, the author was conceived as the past of his own book, the preexisting cause and explanation. In contrast, the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text…there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written HERE and NOW.

Hence we can no longer think of writing in the classical ways, as recording, representing, or depicting. Rather, writing is a “performative” act in which “the enunciation has no other content (contains no other proposition) than the act by which it is uttered – something like the I DECLARE of Kings or the I SING of very ancient poets.”

In writing, the modern scriptor traces a field with no origin, or at least one which has “no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.” What’s more, a text can no longer be viewed as releasing in a linear fashion a single ‘theological’ meaning, as the message of the “Author-God”. Rather, it is a multi dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The writer has only the power to mix writings.

The demise of the author spells the demise of criticism: deciphering a text becomes a futile endeavor: “To give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.”

Barthes concludes by pointing out that the multiplicity of writing – its drawing from various cultures and styles – is focused and unified in one place: the Reader (not the Author). A text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.

Yet, Barthes cautions that the humanism we have rejected via removal of the author should not be reintroduced through any conception of the reader as a personal and complete entity. The reader of which Barthes speaks is a reader “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, the reader, like the author, is a function of the text. In this sense, the birth of the Reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

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