Mellon Seminar Reflection 3: Is the author dead?

This week we studied some of the structuralists and post-structuralists. One of the effects of these 'movements' is the promotion of the claim that the author of the text is of little or no consequence. Roland Barthes called this "the death of the author." He and others located the meaning of the text in the audience or reader, and thought that the quest for authorial intent was at best secondary, but in fact useless.

Being the pragmatist that I am, and an author myself, I find this proposal (as 'sexy' as it is) to be untenable. There are authors, and authors have intent, they write for multiple reasons, and they each have very specific cultural and historical contexts which are all over the things they write. It is possible to retrieve this information, although it must be done critically and carefully.

That said, I also want to say that it is equally true that meaning becomes the possession of the possessor. The text, once 'published' takes on a life of its own, and interpretations develop that may or may not have anything to do with authorial intent. These ways of reconceiving the text over and over in historical time belong to communities of people, and their view of the text reflects their own culture, history, memory, and crises. They also reflect interactions with others who are using the same text, although with differences of opinion about what it might actually mean.

I also want to emphasize that there is not necessarily a disjuncture between authorial intent and the first interpretations of the text that might exist. For some reason we have assumed that there is, seeing the early interpretations of the text as 'late' when compared to the author, and therefore of no consequence to our understanding of the composition of the text itself. Being a writer myself, I really question this. When I write something it is being written as part of a conversation that already is in play. So I am not originating the discourse. I am participating in it and am hoping to influence it. So instead of assuming a complete rupture between what is written and the first interpretations of it, perhaps we need to explore the earliest conversation about the text and investigate how what is written fits into it?

I know. This is different, very different. It is different from the usual approach which has attempted to give meaning to the text as modern people read and impose that meaning, so we have ended up with mainstream accepted interpretations of Paul or Mark or John that are nothing more than reflections of post-reformation theology. And these are posited as the author's intent. And the ancient conversation about the text is ignored as secondary and irrelevant. What is backwards here?

Even though I don't agree that the author is dead or secondary in the field of meaning and interpretation, I close with a quotation from Barthes which impressed me as gorgeous in its acknowledgment of the reader's power, a fact we must integrate into our new historicism (for which I yet have no name).

"We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single 'theological' meaning...but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture...In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a person without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only the someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted."