roland-barthes (1)

What is an Author for?

Roland Barthes

The Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Renia Sofia in Madrid is the controversial home of Picasso’s Guernica.  Controversial, because Picasso asked in his will that the painting be housed at the Prado, but at the smaller Renia Sophia Guernica lords over the rest of the collection like a fat black spider, dozens of preparatory drawings and photographs of the mural in progress forming its cradling web. During my first trip to the museum I avoided this lair until I had explored the rest of the collection, but I was aware of its presence and was poised to enter when I noticed Alexander Calder’s Homage to Picasso’s Guernica.  In it, two pieces of wire are bent to form a cross that is composed of text; the word “Picasso” forms the horizontal axis and “Guernica” the vertical.  The tiny homage, not much bigger than the palm of a large man’s hand, is crowned with colorful ribbons on its top.  It made me laugh, the sort of quick laugh that shoots out of your nose because it is so unexpected there is no time to open your mouth.

Calder is an artist whose work has never inspired prolonged contemplation on my part; his sculpture’s fun disposition has always suggested to me that I receive it with a similarly light touch.  I have thought of Calder most often at museum gift shops and among faux-modern tchotchkes at Ikea.  Picasso I have never held in reverence for the opposite reason—to do so would almost be embarrassing, like saying the Mona Lisa was your favorite painting.  After seeing Homage to Picasso’s Guernica I wondered for the first time about Calder’s relationship to the playful nature of his own work.  Was he envious of Picasso’s status as a brawling god of artistic genius?  Did his homage have malice glowing in its center, or was the gesture of his work what it claimed to be, a friendship bracelet for the older artist?  As a token of respect the sculpture is pithy and fey; by invoking the name of a hero and his masterwork on such a diminutive scale — with limpid construction and cute materials — an equation is made between the two works that can’t flatter both.  As if carving his crush’s name in a heart on a tree, Calder has linked himself to Picasso, but while his position should be supplicant, its very inappropriateness makes it aggressive.  The homage was absurd and if not naïve, then possibly barbed.  It completely usurped my experience of Guernica.

This way of thinking through the meaning of a work, where the artist’s relationship to the object suggests what the audience member’s should be, is famously characterized in Barthes’s Death of the Author as not only irrelevant to the meaning of a text, but potentially abusive to it.  Barthes makes a case for Mallarme, Proust, the surrealists, and linguistics as beginning to unravel the authorial fallacy, creating a trajectory which builds momentum as it moves from these precedents, to the moment of his essay, to the imagined future.

This future we can now check against our present, a present that is one of human-interest stories—the girl who fell down the well, the celebrity caught misbehaving.  Usually when an author makes the news, however, it is case of a very specific sort of human-interest story: the faked autobiography.  I first began to pay attention to this phenomenon when JT LeRoy, the former prostitute and homeless drug addict turned best-selling author at 19, was outed as Laura Alberts, the former porn writer and sex phone operator turned literary prankster at 40.  JT had been an art world darling, attracting celebrity supporters of the likes of Dennis Cooper and Winona Ryder, but this did little to shield Alberts from the public outrage, and eventually successful lawsuit, brought about by the revelation of her fictionalized identity.  Then came James Frey, whose top-selling, Oprah’s Book Club-recommended memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was revealed to have several embellished details, like just  how long Frey had spent in jail.  His subsequent fall from grace brought him so low as to be publicly chastised by a “disappointed” Oprah while a guest on her show.  One day alone, March 3, 2008, brought two such stories to The New York Times—the fabrication of Margaret Seltzer’s memoir, Love and Consequences, and Misha Defonseca’s Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years.  Misguided or not, with the public outrage over these cases of “deceit” (as if art could be anything but), the prevalence of identity politics, and the branding of persona, we are certainly not in an era that has lost its interest in the identity of the author.  Read in this context, the declarations made in Death of the Author feel as pre-ejaculate as the many death-knells that have sounded for painting. Rather than mourn our current fixations as hopelessly retrograde, it seems a more useful question to ask why the author Barthes described as grave-bound still exists.  Just what are we using him or her for?

Barthes locates the modern notion of the author (and thus also the artist, two terms that I use somewhat interchangeably as they both mean individual creator) as a product of “English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation,” and finally as a “result of capitalist ideology.”  Capitalism and Christianity have certainly led to the exalted position the individual creator now holds in our culture, but it is perhaps premature to merely trace the contemporary idea of the individual to the Enlightenment and thus the author/artist to the unique capacity for genius the individual has in our current imaginings.  This narrative links the artist with the entrepreneur and inventor, all figures of capitalist lore.  It would follow from this assumption that the death of the author would be the death of a relationship between maker and creation that is uniquely a part of our consumerist society. Perhaps, but what Barthes doesn’t address is that this is not a normative relationship in capitalism.

Heidegger has two terms that become useful at this point: ready-at-hand and present-at-hand.  Ready-at-hand is the state we usually encounter an object in, it is there for our use and we don’t examine it beyond the purposes for which we employ it.  The present-at-hand object is looked at or observed rather than used: it is the state we encounter something in when it is broken and no longer functions with purpose.  One way of looking at an art-object is as an object that is created to be present-at-hand—it has the option of forsaking function or even decoration for just being: a tool made broken, to lie there in obstinance.  The normative consumer object is ready-at-hand and not only do we not think about its object-hood, we also don’t think about who made it or how.  If the industrial revolution alienated the producer from his or her production, it certainly did not eliminate the need to link people to objects of their making.  Art is a space for a non-alienated production, one in which a person is held responsible for their activity as a creator and what that activity as they define it means.  If the relationship is extreme—so much so that an artist’s work is often referred to by the artist’s name, rather than the work’s title—this seems less an argument for this relationship being intrinsically capitalist than proof of its being so marginalized that limited appearances are romanticized to potentially grotesque proportions.  This desire to understand an artist’s work through their person is so great that the artists whose processes have most closely mimed familiar mass production, like Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, have become some of the most scrutinized personalities in the recent history of art—as if our desire for a personal link between the artist and their work is so great that it demands added focus on these artist’s personas to make up for the cold distance at which they place the artist’s hand in their practice.

This is the author Barthes wants dead and if I believed such a death would liberate text in the fashion he describes, I would want the same.  His post-author age is one in which literature and by inference art, is free from static meaning and only part of a larger framework of all texts.  Barthes tells us that this multiplicity of texts, each open to interpretation and explainable only by relationship to other works, exists in the mind of the reader.  Recognizing this is described as properly revolutionary.  Like many a revolution though, I wonder if Barthes isn’t substituting one tyrant for another and creating a false dichotomy out of our poor writer and reader.  It is not just readers who interpret work through imagining its author.  We all play the role of writer and reader, and not just in the literal sense of having written as well as read, but also in having participated in each act while supposedly engaged in the other.  When we read we go through a constant process of interpretation—creating links, filling in holes in meaning, and imagining alternate or further possibilities as we go along—much like a writer.  When we write we are responding to all we have read, carrying within ourselves the larger frameworks of texts that Barthes gives only to his reader.  Writers, too, imagine an audience.  I am imagining you right now.

This suggests a relationship limited only by fantasy and better characterized by enmeshment than hierarchy.  The reader-turned-writer has its own genre even, fan fiction, which has become, with the advent of the internet, no longer a marginal form but a cultural norm.  Revisionism has never had so many outlets—in such an environment, the rewrite is a given.  Perhaps new media’s blurring of the author and reader is an absorption of one role into the other that is death enough? But in the era of the social network, participation is a marketing strategy—the death of the author creates a space, not for the writer, but for the corporation, for the institution, the state.  This does not mean it is an artist’s job to merely assume our cultural role as authors without question—we can feign ignorance of that role, flagrantly revel in it, willfully misread it, exploit it, or attempt to subvert it.  But understanding why such a role exists, and has continued to exist, seems a first step towards using it with intent.

This brings me to a second point in my travels, this one less glamorous than the trip to Madrid. While recently waiting in line at a greyhound bus station at a midpoint between New York and Pittsburgh, I found myself the unintended audience for a conversation between two fellow passengers.  The duller and blonder of the pair said of her first trip to New York and subsequent visit to the Empire State building, “What’s the big deal?  I mean it’s just a building.”  My immediate response was defensive annoyance—what architectural feats had this woman performed, I wondered, to give her the right to be so dismissive?  On second thought, though, I had to concede her latter point — the Empire State building is, after all, materially just a building.  Calder’s Homage to Guernica is just wire and ribbon, and Guernica, paint.  Only the powers we have granted them through weaving the dual narrative of history and context make them something else: a deal, big or small.

What are history and context other than the places where objects intersect with people? Barthes’s model of the liberated reader ultimately suffers the fate of all essentialism: it mirrors that which it purports to refute.  An object without an author easily becomes a fixture of capitalism; this describes most of the objects we are surrounded by in our daily lives.   Understanding the role of the writer and reader relationally, however, is a model for both the dysfunction of human interaction and its potential reward.


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  1. Robert Boyd

    Isn’t the reason we cared about the specific authors you discuss because they represented the things they wrote as true when they were, in fact, fiction. If they had been presented as fiction in the first place, they would have been much less interesting in the first place. The issue with their work is authenticity. Because we believed that JT LeRoy’s story was real, it was interesting. As fiction, not so much. Truth–or what we believe it truth–has an irresistible pull, perhaps because we live in a world of surfaces, mirrors, simulations and simulacra.

  2. Colleen Asper

    I realize for many that is the case. I find the fact/fiction division always everywhere complicated, but most of all in narration. I, for one, never read JT LeRoy’s Sarah with the assumption that all or even anything it described literally happened as such and enjoyed it nevertheless. But I will defer to M. Nourbese Phillip’s here: “Fiction is about telling lies, but you must be scathingly honest in telling those lies. Poetry is about truth telling, but you need the lie – the artifice of the form to tell those truths.”

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