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.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...


I share some of the ambivalence you're articulating here about the death of the author, something I think we've discussed in the past.

As you point out when you mention that the "author" causes all sorts of problems in philosophy, there is a wholly pragmatic argument for the death of the author, namely that it opens up the text to all the sorts of play that the text invites but that are foreclosed by the intent of the "author ---" Of course, as you also point out there are pragmatic reasons to do so (although I'm not sure I agree with the suggestion that psychoanaltic discourse provides the best --- maybe this is because I come to post-structuralism more from phenomenology than structuralism).

Neither of those things, however, says much about the philosophical arguments for or against, which, I take it, go back to the origin of philosophy and to what my students seem to think philosophy is: A discussion of meaning?

Is meaning best grasped as a formal cause or a final cause? To declare the death of the author is, as you point out, to validate a certain kind of formalist discourse. But avowing this discourse doesn't tell us what happens to final causes (which Plato tended to conflate and which Aristotle ran together more often than not).

The briefest way to put the only answer I have been able to find that's acceptable to this problem (certainly the only one with the brevity required on the internets) is to say that formal causes are final causes tilted to the side (the author is dead, but pace Chet, it exists).

There have been a long line of mistaken philosophical concepts that have wanted us to take final causes seriously: the author, to be sure, but also the self taken in a wider sphere, and God and the good.

The philosopher, however, is content to restrict herself to formalism, even if such a formalism proves to be useless.

kgrady said...

I think there's an important distinction to be drawn between your complete refusal of the author's existence and the so-called death of the author.

And, so that I don't get accused of ahistoricism, I just want to clarify what I imagine I said in that conversation you recalled. My concern is that a certain mode of historical interpretation just makes historical events/conditions into the "author" of a text in the sense of a ground outside the text that offers its ultimate explanation. That is the real problem with the idea of authority, not the notion that someone actually wrote the text.

Doctor J said...

Although I like the "barnacle" turn of phrase, I don't think you can "cling to a point like a barnacle." Barnacles cling to you, not vice versa. Unless you meant you were taking the place of a barnacle... like a barnacle on the point to which you are clinging... in which case, very nice turn of phrase.

Per usual, I agree with Kyle here that the "so-called death of the author" is not meant to object to the fact that somebody actually wrote the text. (Funny how I can't help but appealing to the imaginary intention of the imaginary author of the "death of the author" claim.) And I also agree with Kyle that trying to replace the *actual* author-person with a set of historical facts--if those historical facts are meant to explain the text in the way that the author would--then it is just the same song, different verse. The point of the death-of-the-author craze all along was to "understand" the text as undecideable, that is, NOT "understandable" in any complete or final way.

However, I do think it's also important to remember that the author, unlike the text, does *actually* die, as does the artist. Authors and artists are bound by a kind of finitude that their creations are not. It's only *because* the author can and does "die" that we readers have real access to the range of possibile (aesthetic, literary, philosophical) experiences that we presume to have.

As someone whose "author" has recently "died," I can attest that this is no small point.

kgrady said...

You still haven't told us whether the artist exists or not.