Monday, October 24, 2011

The Death of the Author 2: The Author Dies Again

(Sorry, I couldn't resist playing with the cheesy sequel intro.)

Roland Barthes argued for the exclusion of the identity and intention of the author in literary criticism in "The Death of the Author," published in 1967. Twenty-one years earlier, W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley touched upon the same argument in their 1946 essay, "The Intentional Fallacy."

Wimsatt and Beardsley view a literary work ("poem") as independent from its creator, who, after bringing the work into being, loses all authority over how it is received, interpreted, or criticized: "The poem is not the critic's own and nor the author's (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public (Wimsatt and Beardsley 812).

"Once the Author is removed," writes Barthes, "the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish with a final signified, to close the writing" (Barthes 877). Here is where the critic may find a shining moment, in the discovery of the Author.

These arguments overlap into a seeming call for literary individualism. Wimsatt, Beardsley and Barthes oppose the imposition of meaning onto readers. If every nuance is provided for them, what is left for readers to conclude on their own? Since the 40's and 60's, however, their wishes have not, it seems to me, come true. Consumers and books, plays, and film are popularly content with being told about art, as is evident from the high demand for author interviews, printed scripts, and DVD commentaries. We live in such a time when the author's intention is readily available, always, and absorbing the intention of the author is the easy way to think about art.


  1. Vanessa-

    Fantastic post! I'm glad you didn't resist the cheesy sequel intro; it drew me right in. I especially liked how you constructed your last paragraph-- not everyone is as dexterous with punctuation.

    It seems to me that the argument is, given modern media and interviews surrounding songs, books, art, ... the author is not separated from their work as Wimsatt and Beardsley say (p. 812). Or maybe the work belongs to the public and they give it back or demonstrate the true significance of an author as one who (initially) chooses certain significations (and styles and emphases and media) and eliminated others... (Bedford, p. 33). Maybe consulting the author isn't just laziness, it's a sign of respect.

  2. I completely agree that the removal of author intent and commentary is seemingly unavoidable in modern popular creative works. This leads me to wonder if there is somewhat of an elitist tone to Wimsatt and Beardsley's piece. They barely acknowledge prose writing, focusing on poetry. They mention the distinction between artistic and moral critique, and perhaps this is where the difference lies. Artistic critique calls for a removal of the author intent while moral critique requires more of an explanation. They write, "But we maintain that (2) need not be moral criticism: that there is another way of preserving and whether, in a sense, they "ought" to have been undertaken, and this is the way of objective criticism of works of art as such, the way which enables us to distinguish between a skillful murder and a skillful poem"(812). Murders require justification while poetry need only be; or at least this is how I interpreted the passage, but I think it applies to the function of author commentary.

  3. This post really does raise the question about the definition of an artist an and author. Some would call the two one in the same, while others would claim they are completely different.
    The two statuses each come with their own set of intentions. While they are both creators of something, I envision the artist and author to exist in a sort of Venn Diagram world, where differences are spanned with some similarities.

    As Vanessa mentioned about Authors' growing commercial presence, it would seem more and more difficult to follow Beardesly and Barthes, simply because many authors have become distinguished and widely popular; almost like celebrities.

    J.K. Rowling, for instance, will never ever ever be able to write another piece of work without her readers thinking about Harry Potter. It's just downright impossible. She is labeled with this particular work which she will carry as long as she exists.

  4. Vanessa, Annie, and Gabe: This is too fascinating a conversation for me to sit out. And in fact, it reflects another conversation that occurs a little further up on the blog, I think initiated by Gabe and responded to by Chris.

    I really want to challenge some of your ideas here, just to help us suss them out more critically.

    Why do Wimsatt and Beardsley focus on poetry? I think the answer is pretty simple in that they are responding to axioms that other critics have put out. Since those critics have promoted (or condemned) "personal" or "psychological" approaches to interpretation, it is likely that W & B are using those axioms as a site for refuting them. We might look at the rest of W & B's book to see what they say about prose.

    In terms of Rowling's inability to write without her readers thinking about Harry Potter, isn't that variable according to several aspects of episteme -- i.e., what is circulating at the time, where they circulate, who knows about them, who has access, who doesn't, etc.? Or am I misunderstanding your claim?

    Here is why I am pushing back against those claims, just a bit: I'm not sure we can make either of these extremes--that in modern discourse the role of the author has either become unnecessary or that it is necessarily omniscient.

    I don't think that McCloud, or Satrapi, or Longinus, or Wimsatt and Beardsley, or even Barthes, for that matter, are arguing for a diminishing or removal of the author or an absolute ignorance of authorial intention.

    Even McCloud's argument that the vacuousness of icons (or the minimalism in his comics) strengthens reader identification by providing a site for amplification does not necessarily mean that the writer's role is diminished. So my challenge to us is, what becomes of the writer's/author's role? In what ways does it transform? In what ways does it still have, or no longer have, agency (either artistic, or literary or creative agency)? Relatedly, what value does intentionality have for all of the agents in the discourse (writer, reader, critic, immediate audience, distant audience, etc.)?

    -Prof. Graban


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