Saturday, January 19, 2008

Does the artist exist?

So today I got involved in this discussion with my girlfriend's roommate, who in fact used to be a friend of mine from college. Back at Wooster, we had met each other in two different classes, the first being "Comparative Sexual Poetics," in which I read Genet for the first time, and "Postwar German Cinema" (I have a memory of watching "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" in that course, but I think everything else was post-war). At any rate, so we get involved in this discussion and I pulled out this point that I have made repeatedly over the past ten years, about how the artist does not exist, doesn't matter, forget about intentionality (intentional fallacy), etc. So then I start actually thinking about this.

Of course, this line of thinking came to me originally from reading Genet, I think. I was wholly charmed by the line at the end of The Thief's Journal, where he writes: "This book does not aim to be a work of art, an object detached from its author and from the world, pursuing in the sky its lonely flight" (267). If you know his work, you know that much of it is autobiographical and that yet much of it is fiction, as it labels itself to be. These supposedly contradictory categories inspired a senior thesis in which I tried to elaborate the relation of these categories. Perhaps my conviction that the artist does not exist was meant to, in one fatal coup, resolve this "dilemma."

In short, I was an adherent of this group of radical intellectuals who praised the nightime god of "the death of author." We met in a space where we could not use our own voices, where our identities were continually varied, and in which we were not allowed to look at one another (we sat in a circle of chairs all facing outward, passing notes). We praised, instead of the author, the integrity of the work of art. We fetishized the thing itself. Yet, from the beginning, this kind of formalism is inadequate. The language of the text depended upon the grammar of the spoken word, of the heritage of the language's employment and its institutional regulations.

And moreover, when I teach John Donne's "Satire 3" on religion, Donne's own personal history and the state of England at the time enriches quite dramatically the sentiments expressed there. For that matter, when I read any work, its history seems to be a fundamental condition for how it is understood (which does not mean, although Kyle and I have argued about this, that I exclude the interpretive possibilities supposedly ahistorical). What is more, we know that the work, in Genet's case par excellence, produces the writer. So if we were to then get rid of the author, wouldn't we be eliminating one of the more beautiful effects of the work?

In philosophy, the author only seems to produce problems. We start trying to judge what the author meant to say and we do research around the series of an author's works. In philosophy, the author-function, as Foucault puts it, is quite important. Likewise in film, although auteur theory has been dead for some time. But I will continue to treat the works by the Coen brothers distinctly from the class of other works that aspire to the levity of the former. The author serves as a useful node for articulating boundaries and lines.

And yet, the author-function's most distressing effect seems to be in the intentionality that is pursued there in interpretation. I've clung to this point like a barnacle (nice phrase no?). And yet, from a psychoanalytic perspective, wouldn't the intentionality-function itself be something useful, adding a dimension to our interpretation? What do we have invested in the author/intentionality-function? It seems important. Like freedom. Which is all I have wanted to dissolve, since I was a wee glimmer in the eye of a young southern girl at a religious function.