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On Authorship and the Spectator

On Authorship and the Spectator


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Published by: ColouredVapour on Jul 19, 2009
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Luke John Frost 1. Discuss the interrelationship between spectator/author in response to the following quote “...

the birth of
the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” (Barthes 1977:148)

Word Count: 1823

The Author, an Introduction Roland Barthes begins his essay “Death of the Author” with an anecdote. “In his story Sarrisine Balzac, describing a castrato disguised as a woman, writes the following sentence: 'This was woman herself, with her irrational fears, her irrational whims,her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings and her delicate sensibility'” (Barthes 1977:142). He continues with his quote from the book and then asks possibly one of the most important questions relevant to modern culture, a question that continues to be pertinent and a question with an answer that continues to shift and change over 30 years later. “Who is speaking thus?” is it the author, the character, wisdom itself?(Barthes 1977:142), Later he replies to his own question by stating “it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is [...] to reach that point where only language acts, 'performs', and not 'me'.” (Barthes 1977:143). He believes that the author is merely a conduit through which language speaks. What language is this? Culture, experience, and nothing original. Its voice vibrates through “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes 1977:146) and carries meaning from this font of all human knowledge. From this it becomes important to consider the relationship the Author has with the reader, the spectator. He is the guiding hand, the 'past' of the work and when kept in mind he is a sturdy rock which the spectator can cling to. Barthes views this as debilitating, therefore the author must be killed. If the author is the conduit through which language speaks (and holds no other importance after the fact) then the reader is the conduit through which language imparts its meaning. “..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” (Barthes 1977:148). Just like in the field of quantum mechanics, the observer (reader) by the simple act of observing collapses the waveform (meaning/traces/tissue) into a measurable quantity. The Authors Effect upon the Spectator

Foucault implies that even the authors very name can be a danger to the spectators experience of a work. Bearing the authors name in mind can cause a rift in the transcendental grasp of the authors supposed death. “...if we proved that Shakespeare did not write those sonnets which pass for his, that would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the authors name functions.” (Foucault 1991:107) If it turned out that Shakespeare was more than one person, or stole his works from another, it's wholly possible that with the author "alive", that is to say active within the minds of a spectator, the spectator would interpret differently any works of Shakespeare they may read. Why? He states that the authors name is like a link in the net of references, pulling together his other works and the opinion of the spectator of how the works relate and contrast, how they were critically received, the authors personality and his overall goals. “It would seem that the authors name, unlike other proper names, does not pass from the interior of a discourse to the exterior individual who produced it; instead, the name seems always to be present, marking off the edges of the text, revealing, or at least characterising, its mode of being.” (Foucault 1991:107). At times authors are perceived to implant themselves into the text and later “unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs.” (Barthes 1977:143). A selfish act which does nothing for the greater understanding of the spectator but acts only to imprint the cascade of their work (through the “multi-dimensional” space Barthes envisions) with their Ego in a vain attempt to grasp immortality. An interesting analogy to further explain the multi-dimensional space where a work is said to reside (in the minds of spectators) could be Richard Dawkins theory of memes introduced in his book 'The Selfish Gene' (1976). Memes are described to be “hypothetical cultural units passed on by imitation; although non-biological they undergo Darwinian selection like genes.” (Atran 2001:2). Whether or not the theory of memes works (or whether or not memes actually exist) is debatable but it is interesting to note the parallels between the concept Barthes introduces as the “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes 1977:146), with the theory of memes explored in the fringes of philosophy and science. The closest parallel to the 'tissue of quotations' proposed by Barthes and the theory of memes is summarised by the anthropologist Scott Altran with the quote “...memes seek to perpetuate themselves by nesting and nurturing in mind after mind.” (Atran 2001:5). On the concept of a 'work' and what a 'work' actually is, Barthes states that “...a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” (Barthes 1977:146). For writing to begin the author has to step outside of reality, 'disconnect' and let go of his Ego (Barthes 1977:142). The Author must die within his own mind for writing to truly begin, only then can the text be free of the tyranny of supposed meaning he imposes on it. With the Author dead and gone the spectator can view the text and its own internal voice in the “here and now.” (Barthes 1977:145). Returning to the issue of an authors name, Foucault eloquently summarises the concept of an author by examples such as “A private letter may well have a signer—it does not have an author” or “...a contract may well have a guarantor—it does not have an author.” and so on. (Foucault 1991:107/108). Trivial things such as these have no author, they are seen as having no great importance. The author function seems to come alive only in works of importance and begins to govern the existence and machinations of the Authors importance in the mind of a spectator when an obvious and definitive example of a 'work' comes to be consumed.

The Authors Funeral So what role does the spectator play now that the Author is dead and the burden of 'disentangling' a text rests with us? If the Author is dead then who is qualified to take his place? No one singular person needs to it seems, nor can they. The mantle appears to be collective, a pearl of the 'centres of culture' embedded in each of us through our ongoing experiences. Over time it has become clear that Barthes' prediction has steadily picked up more and more weight and that modern media (from journalism to art, entertainment to academia) has unlocked this “multi-dimensional space”, the “...immense dictionary from which he [the author] draws a writing that can know no halt.” (Barthes 1977:147) like no other before it. User Generated Content (UGC) has become a corporate buzzword. Every company wants a slice of the pie, every company wants to exploit the creativity of the masses and reap the benefits while giving back very little in return. “Imagine a music industry which, instead of investing in a single massive star called Elvis, distributed ten thousand stars, all recording for a dollar, in totally different styles, all appealing to small, highly self-concious cult in a fragmented society.” (Momus 1991). It was here in the music industry that one of the first instances of truly user generated content began to crystallise into reality. A good example of this phenomena could be the iTunes store where artists who have recorded their own material can sell their wares and achieve popularity. The internet can be said to be one of the most (if not the most) powerful tools at the disposal of these liberated spectators. “As well as professionally produced material being offered free, the public has also been allowed, indeed encouraged, to make its content available to everyone.” (Deloitte 2009). Websites such as youtube.com bypass the concept of an established author figure whereby its users upload their own content free of charge. In reference to this form of UGC the consultancy firm Deloitte comments “Typically, amateurs who submitted their content have received little or no compensation.” (Deloitte 2009). With no monetary incentive, millions of people per day still persist with their uploading of videos with no publisher, editor or peerreviewed buffer in-between them and the spectator. A paraphrase of Warhol in 1968 “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” springs to mind to explain this otherwise rewardless act. The phrase was updated by the Scottish songwriter and blogger Momus to reflect the changing times when he said “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people.” (Momus 1991). He ends his essay surrounding this idea with the apt line “The King is dead. Long live the peoples!” (Momus 1991). Though he uses Elvis to talk about the past successes of the record industry, the King sounds remarkably like the long dead Author. Conclusion The philosopher Alexander Nehamas supports and summarises Foucault's (and indirectly Barthes) study of the author figure in his essay “What An Author Is” with the following - “The author is not a person at all, but a “function” or “figure” which emerged, in connection with literature, only after the Renaissance.” (Nehamas 1986:685). The spectator looks to the author as a force of guidance to explain or otherwise rationalise their work. In their minds the author takes on the “function” that Foucault describes and Nehamas supports. “...it is to ask of them a certain type of question and to expect a certain

type of answer.” (Nehamas 1986:685). With an author present in the equation between spectator and text he acts as a buffer. “The Author confides in us.” (Barthes 1977:143) Nehamas introduction to Foucaults way of thinking in “What and Author Is” clearly states that pinning a work with an author figure with the explicit intention of deciphering its message and reasoning “is an impossible goal which leads us in the wrong direction.” (Nehamas 1986:685). Foucault himself states that “It is a very familiar thesis that the task of criticism is not to bring out the works relationships with the author, nor to reconstruct through the text a thought or experience, but rather to analyse the work through its structure, its architecture, its intrinsic form, and the play of its internal relationships.” (Foucault 1991:103). Through this he refers directly to an idea of Barthes introduced a year before in 1968 in the essay “Death of the Author”. The spectator can only truly understand and question the “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes 1977:146) when the author has 'died', has been abolished as an entity of worth. “...the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” (Barthes 1977:148)


Atran, S., (1991). 'The Trouble with Memes: Inference versus Imitation in Cultural Creation' Human Nature 12, 4 (2001) 351-381 - http://jeannicod.ccsd.cnrs.fr/documents/disk0/00/00/01/ 23/ijn_00000123_00/ijn_00000123_00.doc Barthes, R., (1968). "The Death of the Author", Image, Music, Text (published 1977). Great Britain: Fontana Press. Costs of Providing and Using Free Content. 2009. Deloitte Media Predictions 2009. [Online] Available at: http://www.deloitte.co.uk/TMTPredictions/media/Rising-cost-of-free-onlinecontent.cfm [accessed 15 April 2009]. Foucault, M., (1969). "What is an Author?", The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault's Thought (published 1984). New York: Pantheon Books. Nehamas, A., (1986). "What An Author Is", The Journal of Philosophy (Eighty-Third Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division) 83 (11): 685–691 Pop Stars? Nein Danke!. 1991. [Online] Available at: http://imomus.com/index499.html [accessed 18 April 2009].

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