Read Roland Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author in Image, Music, Text making your notes in the usual way.
Barthes begins this essay with a quote from Balzac’s story Sarrasine, a description of a woman (who is a man, a castrato playing the part of a woman). Barthes questions who is actually giving us this description. Is it the character in the story, is it Balzac (based on his personal experience), does it come from ‘literary’ ideas on women, universal wisdom or romantic psychology? He puts forwward the idea that Balzac is just reproducing ideas that he cannot claim to be the originator of. Indeed the the moment we start to write about something, our subject is lost to us. The moment we begin, we lose the true connection with our subject – even that with ourselves.
Though he only uses the word ‘myth’ in the last sentence of this essay, to him the notion of the author as a creative genius is myth, we should be recognise their skill with language but no more.
Barthes points out that we have recognised this in the past – i.e. when history, information and stories were narrated by a nominated person and while he may have been admired for his speaking skills he was never considered ‘genius’.
Only from the Middle Ages, when the belief that genius came from within rather than was bestowed upon man, when society “discovered the prestige of the individual” (p143 (Barthes and Heath, 1990) has such importance been attached to the author.
Barthes complains that in ‘ordinary culture’ what we care most about is the author – and we explain the work by examining the person who produced it – we believe it to really be about him or her.
“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us”. (P 143 Barthes and Heath, 1990)
Barthes mentions the French poet Mallarme, who took the emphasis away from himself and on to the language itself – he made an attempt to ‘loosen’ the ‘sway of the Author’. Mallarme’s poetry uses the sound of the words themselves, thus putting the reader in the driving seat. He also mentions Paul Valéry, another French poet who worked in similar ways to Mallarme, questioning the position of author and stressing the linguistic. Valéry believed that using the writer’s ‘interiority’ as a way of understanding literature was ‘pure superstition’. Finally Proust is also credited with taking the emphasis away from the author and ‘blurring’ the ‘relationship between the writer and his characters’ . (“Writing narrator, remembering narrator, and remembered past perceiving selves, all would coincide in the consciousness of a unified, fully awake subject called “Proust” who speaks every moment of his first-person narration” Reid, J. (2010). Proust, Beckett, and narration. 1st ed. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.
Surrealism too has contributed to the ‘desacrilisation of the image of the Author’. While it can’t place language itself at the centre, it plays with us, never quite giving us what we expect – the meanings of its signs are not what we expect.
Enunciation is an empty process – it functions very well without need of the speaker.
Barthes describes the traditional relationship with author and book as paternal – the author existed before the book came along, he “thinks, suffers, lives for it”. The ‘modern scriptor’ only exists however as the book is actually read. Consequently writing cannot be considered an act of recording or depiction anymore – it only really exists when it is spoken.
Barthes warns that a writer can only ever be an ‘eternal copyist’ he will never come up with anything original. He can only ever use words that already exist, and can only be explained through other words, and so on. He ends up drawing not from his own feelings but from an immense internal dictionary. The author is actually the language itself. The writer, just like a copywriter might, is simply using the code of language to craft their work.
If we give a text an author, we limit the text, it stops at the point that we know all about the author. Removing the author frees the text and gives endless possibilities to how it is interpreted. There is no longer a final meaning to the text that revolves around the author. Consequently when we change the status of the author this way, criticism becomes a waste of time.
To Barthes, it is the reader that matters – but only in so far as how he reads the language – it depends on his own social and cultural references: “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…” (P168 Barthes and Heath, 1990)
With the author removed, the reader can interpret the text his own way: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the Author”. (P168 Barthes and Heath, 1990)
Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1990). Image, music, text. 1st ed. [London]: Fontana. Sourced online at Art Theory
Rose, G. (2016). Visual methodologies. 1st ed. Place of publication not identified: Sage Publications.
Read Michel Foucault’s essay What is an Author? making notes in the usual way
This essay begins by making a point also made by Barthes – that the notion of ‘author’ only came about as the idea of the ‘individual’ came about – the ‘privileged moment of individualisation’ when individuals were considered genius for their works (in any area) and comments straight away that ‘even today’ (late 1960s) we consider the author and his work the most important facet in the history of a concept, literary genre or school of philosophy.
[It’s necessary to understand what Foucault means by ‘discourse’ : Sturken and Cartwright describe Foucault’s ‘discourse’ as “a body of knowledge that defines and limits what can be said about something… a group of statements which provide a means for talking about a particular topic at a particular moment”. (Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices Of Looking. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print. P94)] They could also be called texts, or even books.
Foucault reminds us that applying an author’s name to a discourse turns it in to something that is read in a certain way and will be given certain status depending on the culture of the time. The name of the author is not confined to the actual, physical person who produced the work and who is now independent of the work, but is something that is always present, that permeates the text.
However not all discourses have this relationship with the author. Where it does exist, Foucault terms it ‘author-function’. He provides four features of texts which create author function:
Where discourses are objects of appropriation. Foucault points out that originally discourse was not considered a type of product but an act, and if used in a transgressive way (for example blasphemy) the originator would be sought out for punishment. Somebody needed to be held responsible – in this way the idea of ‘ownership’ grew.
Not all texts have always needed an author. Society doesn’t always demand that some texts have an author. Some texts have been in circulation so long they are simply accepted and the author is no longer important. Examples are fairy tales, jokes, folk lore. However in the Middle Ages scientific texts needed an author associated with them to be accepted as true. Over time this changed until today when we accept these texts based on the results we know to be true rather than the authority of the author. Conversely this was also the moment when literary texts were given author-function, when the idea of the author himself gave value to the literature and we believed the answer to the meaning of a text lay in the author himself.
Various criteria apply when a text is attributed to an author. Should a text be anonymous, uncovering the author is of utmost importance (our tendency is to always want to trace a work back to one person, as if it is the creation of that one person). However attributing a text to one person isn’t straight forward and various criteria need to apply. Foucault refers to St Jerome’s De virus illustrious (short biographical and literary notes on 135 Christian authors and written in 392) and points out that modern criticism still uses the same criteria: of quality, style, whether the author died before any mentioned events occurred and whether the author contradicts himself across texts.
The author function is not the physical person, it is the text that creates the author function. The text carries signs that refer to the author and all the things that are associated with him; ideas, methodology, works.
Foucault returns to the importance placed on author, the ‘privileges of the subject’ but turns the conversation around, asking instead what might happen when the author function is removed, and the discourse is freed from the author that is holding it back: “the author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning” P952
“the author is not an indefinite source of signification which fill a work: the author does not proceed the works, he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction” P952
Foucault yearns for a culture where discourse operates without the ‘restraining figure’ of the author, where is it not a question of communication from writer to reader, and where the individual existence of the writer does not matter. He summarises with a quote from Samuel Beckett: “What difference does it make who is speaking?” P953
Original text ‘What is an Author’ from pages 949-953 in Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood. Art In Theory. 1st ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2011. Print.
Dr. Mary Klages, Associate Professor of English, University of Colorado, Boulder. http://www.Colorado.EDU/English/ENGL2012Klages/1997foucault.html link Accessed 19th March 2017
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices Of Looking. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
Look at the work of Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman or another two artists whose work seems either to be derived from a reading of the two articles you’re read, or whose work is better explained in the light of them.
Sherrie Levine b.1947
An artist who first exhibited in the 1970s (not long after the Barthes and Foucault essays discussed above), Levine continues the same line of questioning, asking us to reconsider the idea of artist as the sole creator of a work, and the idea of authenticity.
Copy of Sherrie Levine (Untitled) After Edward Weston, 1980. Taken from Internet
Levine’s work involves re-photographing already known images, such as Edward Weston’s photograph of his son. Quite clearly ‘taking’ the image, Levine also put her name to it – Levine, after Edward Weston. In doing so she challenged his legal status as its creator and also that he was the sole origin of the image. The cropped male torso has a long history, going back to the ancient greeks and being copied in tern by the Romans. It already has so many authors – and this is what Levine is pointing out – so can Weston really call himself the creator of this image and take it for his legal own?
There’s another aspect to Weston’s photograph however. This is a photo of his son, and along with the boy’s mother, Weston is the origin. He is the creator of the referent.
At the same time, she’s having us question the value of the ‘original’ photograph. Levine did not make a copy from the original negative, she photographed a photograph. This has us ask questions about value. The negative can produce an infinite number of copies. Anyone can take a photograph. Anyone can take a copy from the internet. Levine’s work differs in that it was made from a different perspective and it has a different title. But where does the value come from and should it be any different to Westons? Does the ‘original’ have ‘aura’ – if so where does that come from and why? Is this down to the value placed on it by the museums and galleries? Can her idea, her concept have value, or does art have to be ‘stuff’, and original stuff at that?
The thinking at the time was that it had become impossible to be original, and that interpretation, or the reading, was more important than the creation. In making her copy, Levine did something original. However I wonder why she did what she did more than once?
If the birth of the reader is at the expense of the author is there still any of Benjamin’s ‘aura’ left?
Yes because ‘aura’ is created by the reader and not the author. Even an image is freely circulating and open to infinite interpretations will have aura attached to its original. We have a desire to get close to the original creative act and to understand its intention. In the case of Levine’s work, we don’t just want to know why she did it, we are interested in the creative process – did she borrow a negative, photograph the original? It is well documented that she photographed from a catalogue – we want to know this. We want to know about her as author. She has also given attention to the original, and that in itself adds to its aura.
Our society is motivated and impressed by money. Anything given wall space, column inches, great value will have aura.
Does any of this explain or validate the un-regulated nature of the internet?
The internet allows images, texts, music to be easily appropriated while also laying everything open to an infinite number of interpretations. Images can be seen in any number of contexts. It’s possible to say that no one cares about the author or his/her intentions. We take what we want and use it to suit our own agenda.
However witnessing the potential damage of ‘fake news’ has led to a growing awareness and accompanying unease at this un-regulation. Have we had enough of these empty images re-purposed ad infinitum? Will we begin to crave a deeper understanding, to look for the truth behind each image. To wonder why an image came about in the first place?
Does this invalidate the interest in the artist’s or creator’s intent at the time of making?
It piques the interest. It points a finger at the artist. In case of appropriation – why was this artist chosen? What is the deeper layer of meaning? We are curious creatures after all!