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Barthes, Foucault, Bennett and Sontag

Chapter 4: Literary Issues, Especially the Role of the

1. Barthes, Foucault, Bennett and Sontag

Since I am arguing for a return to a contextualized reading based on the author’s own background, it is necessary to position this thesis in relation to literary theories which have pushed away from author-based, biographical approach. In later years, literary theories arising from psychoanalysis, feminism, postcolonialism, queer theory and others have re-stressed the author-work nexus, but they had to do that in response to models by people like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. The key work in this movement, of course, is Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’. Although this influential essay was only seven pages long, whole books have been written since, in an attempt to explain the meaning of Barthes’ words and their implications for literature, reading and writing. I will trace some of these interpretations, including, as Barthes himself does, some historical context to them and Barthes’ thinking. A great help in making sense of all of this, is Andrew Bennett’s The Author (2005). Bennett starts with an investigation of the word ‘author’ and the entry of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, that

suggests that the common-sense notion of the author involves the idea of an individual (singular) who is responsible for or who originates, who writes or composes, a (literary) text and who is thereby considered an inventor or founder and who is associated with the inventor or founder of all nature, with God (with God-the-father), and is thought to have certain ownership rights over the text as well as a certain authority over its interpretation (Bennett 2005, p 7).

Bennett goes on to quote historian Martha Woodmansee, who argues that an “author”

is “‘an individual who is solely responsible – and thus exclusively deserving credit – for the production of a unique, original work’ (Woodmansee 1994a: 35)” (Ibid).

Bennett labels this definition of authorship “Romantic” or “modern”, associated as it is with the “implicit assumption that the author of a work is in control of that work, knows what it means and intends something by it, that she delimits and defines its interpretations” (2005, p 7-8). It is this premise that Barthes attacks in his essay, insisting that “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”

(Barthes 1977, p 142).

It was the “polemical aggression embedded within” the title of Barthes’ essay, which “prompted a sense that Barthes was issuing a death-threat or indeed that he was engaged in an assassination attempt”, Bennett states (Bennett 2005, p 10). Still, Bennett claims that Barthes’ “declaration may seem to be relatively uncontroversial”

(Ibid), especially considering the difference between speech and writing. Speech is there in the moment, impossible to separate from the speaker. “Writing remains, it lasts after the person that writes has departed”: “writing can be read after the absence, including the radical absence that constitutes death, of its author” (ibid). Therefore,

“on one level at least”, “the assertion of the ‘death of the author’ may be seen as giving no more than proper recognition to the nature of writing” (2005, p 11). Of course, Barthes’ premise is far more radical and fundamental than that: the questions he raises “subvert long-held beliefs concerning the priority of the human, of

individuality, of subjectivity and subjective experience; and he challenges

conventional conceptions of the institution of literature and the nature and status of the literary work” (ibid). Barthes’ intention is to “[abolish] authorial voice, [eliminate]

voice as origin and source, voice as identity”, and the “principle of a certain unity in writing” (Foucault 1988 (1979), p 142). “It is language which speaks”, Barthes declares, “not the author” (Barthes 1977, p 145).

It is important, Bennett argues, to position Barthes’ writing within the context of its time and place. Writing after Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God and

“within the context of Marxist, psychoanalytical, structuralist and poststructuralist transformations and deformations in philosophy, linguistic, anthropology and literary and cultural studies of late-1960s French intellectual culture” (2005, p 14), this was,

Bennett claims, “revolution in the head” (ibid). For Barthes, concepts such as God and the author were inextricably linked, “the author as kind of presiding deity, the Author-God” (ibid), the be-all-and-end-all of a text. It was this unmoveable authority that Barthes objected to: “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 1977, p 147). Only if we accept that “we know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single

‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God)” (1977, p 146), can the reader – which also includes the critic – be free to interpret the text as text. “In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered”: there is no “secret”, no “ultimate meaning”, and to acknowledge this “may be called an anti-theological activity”: “truly revolutionary, since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” (1977, p 147). Ultimately, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (1977, p 148).

In Barthes’ way of thinking, the death of the author generates freedom for both the writer of a text and its reader. It “[liberates]” readers “from the oppressive control of authorial consciousness”, while the author, “[redescribed]” by Barthes as

“‘scriptor’”, can now perform as “an agent of language”, without having to worry about “‘intentions’” (Bennett 2005, p 15). If Barthes’ intention is to eradicate the author, according to Susan Sontag he cannot help but leave a vestige of the old concept intact. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes writes that “in the text, in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure […] as he needs mine” (Barthes 1975, p 27).

Sontag even insists that much of Barthes’ work “is devoted to portraits of the vocation of the writer” (Sontag 1982, p xvii) and argues that Barthes models his ideal writer on Gide: “supple, multiple; never strident or vulgarly indignant; generous […] but also properly egotistical; incapable of being deeply influenced” (1982, p xviii). There seems to be for Barthes, therefore, some sort of organising subject behind the text, if not the author (as institution) then maybe the writer (as interpreter or user of

multiplicity of language and intertextuality). In his engagement with Barthes’ essay, Michel Foucault extends Barthes’ project and turns writing into a machine-system:

“while Barthes asks ‘who is speaking’, Foucault asks another, even more fundamental question: ‘what does it matter who is speaking?’” (Bennett 2005, p 19). Where

Barthes focuses more on author and reader, Foucault concentrates on writing itself,

“sensing the danger”, Bennett reasons, that “arguments designed to challenge an

author’s privileged position will in fact tend to work to preserve that privilege and, as he puts it, ‘suppress the real meaning’ of the author’s ‘disappearance’ (Foucault 1979:

143)” (2005, p 21). “God-like, the author becomes, precisely in his absence, the fount, the origin of all meaning” (ibid).

The way Foucault does this, notably in his essay ‘What is an Author?’, is to question what happens after the death of the author. The challenge, for Foucault, is to

“locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, to follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings that this disappearance uncovers”

(Foucault 1988 [1979], p 200). “It is not enough,” Foucault reasons, “to declare that we should do without the writer (the author) and study the work in itself. The word

‘work’ and the unity that it designates are probably as problematic as the status of the author’s individuality” (1988 [1979], p 199). To understand how writing and authors came to be determined in the way they were, Foucault suggests the necessity of a historical investigation. In doing so, Foucault introduces the concept of the “author-function”, which is linked, he claims, to four attributes. Firstly, there is a legal aspect, connected to the way ownership (of a text) has been viewed historically. Then there is the issue of what types of text have, over time, “required attribution to an author”

(1988 [1979], p 202) and what that means. Thirdly, the author-function “does not develop spontaneously as the attribution of a discourse to an individual. It is, rather, the result of a complex operation which constructs a certain rational being that we call

‘author’” (1988 [1979], p 203). Therefore, he reasons, there is a big difference between “the author” and “the real writer” (1988 [1979], p 205), in much the same way as there is a distinction between “the author” and “the fictitious speaker” in his text (Ibid). In explaining the importance of his theory, Foucault states that he realizes

that in undertaking the internal and architectonic analysis of a work (be it a literary text, philosophical system, or scientific work), in setting aside biographical and psychological references, one has already called back into question the absolute character and founding role of the subject. Still, perhaps one must return to this question, not in order to re-establish the theme of an originating subject, but to grasp the subject’s points of insertion, modes of functioning, and system of dependencies (1988 [1979], p 208-209).

It is not just that we need to examine the ways the text is “determined by […]

subjectivity” (Bennett 2005, p 27), like “the biography or the psychology of the author” (ibid); it is important to look at the workings of subjectivity itself. In

Foucault’s words: “It is a matter of depriving the subject (or its substitute) of its role as originator, and of analysing the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse” (1988 [1979], p 209). This has been taken as a cue to disregard actual author/biographical context, but clearly it does not completely demand this. Although all of this implies, Foucault writes, that “I seem to call for a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author” (ibid), he also warns that it would be “pure romanticism” (Ibid) to “imagine a culture in which the fictive would operate in an absolutely free state, in which fiction would be put at the disposal of everyone and would develop without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure” (ibid). It seems Foucault wants his readers to question not so much authorship (a book being written), but the author as somebody that is “a figure of singular achievement” (Birns 2010, p 62).