Authorship almost died in 1967.
Roland Barthes tried to kill the author with his The Death of the Author (1967)
The text certainly went through a change in 1967, too—one could easily mark this as the year when songs, media bites, and video really began to replace the text as communication in wider western consciousness.
In 1967 the Beatles as a band disappeared into their album, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, their last hurrah before John Lennon’s heroin-and-Yoko Ono addiction and the Beatles’ final breakup a year and a half later.
The Beatles started a trend of bands “disappearing”—Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in the early 70s did not appear on their album covers; photos of band members standing in meadows were replaced by mystical art. The “concept album” replaced individuals playing mere lists of songs. Individual song writing credits were no longer prominent, compositions simply came into being as part of a process from group efforts. I remember sitting on the floor as a kid, listening to the blasting, electronic, sound-effect enhanced, swirlings of a Led Zeppelin album and thinking four guys were not making this music—something else was. My naivety was short-lived—but it was a wonderful experience.
The ego of the singer/songwriter did not go away, nor did individual identity in pop music—not by a long shot. And if one listened to a Pink Floyd album, one could still hear a definite group of individuals playing their individual instruments—the band did not go away any more than the author—or the author’s intention—did.
Media bites, songs and video did not reduce the importance of the charismatic individual—they enhanced it.
In the universities, they may have been saying Homer or Shakespeare were really many people.
But this was more a history issue (given we knew so little about Homer and Shakespeare) than fundamentally asserting authorship was plural—or didn’t exist at all. The average poet today knows more about Eileen Myles than he knows about Homer.
Automatic writing was first given prominence by William James under the influence of nitrous oxide—James, Emerson’s godson, would later teach and influence the young Modernists at Harvard, such as Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot.
But Man’s ego was such that the author could not really be killed.
But there was something exciting about saying the author was dead, of being the author of that idea.
To say the author is dead appeals to all sorts of mass political movements who hate and fear the individual or the lone genius for all sorts of reasons—the foremost, jealousy: hating the genius author because one is not a genius author oneself; secondly, conservatism: hating the genius because the genius successfully breaks rules; thirdly, radical politics: the authorial genius is a “patriarch” to be overthrown; fourthly, New Criticism: famous for “the Intentional Fallacy;” fifthly, Linguistics: Mallarme’s “it is language which speaks;” sixthly, the Yale School of de Mann—the criminal hides where no authorial accountability exists; and seventhly, dionysians: no author in the blur of pure, nitrous oxide, sensation.
In a corrupt society, blame gets passed around and hidden: no accountability, a death of the author, and that death is the death of society.
The death of the author supposedly “liberates” the text, as if “the author” were a tyrant, and the text, an oppressed people.
It’s too late to resurrect the author in the minds of those who would kill him. What I would like to do is add a radical thought of my own: let’s kill the text, too.
The target of many ‘kill-the-author’ advocates, such as Derrida and Rorty and…well, there’s too many to count—was Plato. That’s because the divine Plato, with wonderful common sense, pointed out that a speaker is alive, but a piece of writing is dead. A speaker must convince with his whole being, and, by being alive, has a context which dwarfs the self-created context of the text. If the text lives, it is because the author is alive in it—if we must doubt the existence of one of them, we should doubt the text.
This is not to say a living person cannot speak ill, or lie, or that a text cannot express beautiful things, but all things being equal, which is more real? And why should we kill what is more real?
A text is created by an author not just in the time that it takes to inscribe the text, but in the time (years) it takes the author to become the author who is then able to write that text.
We all understand this truism: If the author is feeble-minded, the text will not be strong, if the author is a genius, the text will be strong. (But introduce nitrous oxide or LSD into the equation, let both the feeble-minded and the genius take LSD, and things become a little different, a little more equal, perhaps.)
The text is the impression left not just by the author, but by the maturity and genius of the author in the context of that author’s existence. Nor is the text merely inscribed; it is authored during the inscription process itself, as revisions, backtracks, erasures, additions, and revisions occur during the time it is inscribed. Nor does this does take into account the blueprint created by the author before the text comes into being, and again, this blueprint is the result of who the author is and what he has thought: it is not merely a moment’s impulse, even if the flash of conception occured in a moment.
Finally, when the text is read, the inscription takes place again in the reader’s mind, an impression not of the text, but of the author, for we do not say a footprint is the impression of a footprint.
A footprint is not produced by a footprint; the author produces the effect on the reader.
Nothing comes between the author’s intention and the text, for a text (never finished until it is finished) is a slave to the author’s intention.
But all sorts of things come between the text and its reception by the public, so many things, in fact, that it can be easily seen that the text is part of the author to the author, the genius and his text are practically one, whereas to the public, the text hardly exists at all.
We all know the phenomenon of people saying they have read a book when they haven’t, but what of reading a book and then forgetting most of it, even as we confidently announce, “I’ve read that book.”
We all know that most books become bestsellers because readers are reading what other people are reading—this is how empty texts sometimes have windows of popularity. The text in question is not of real concern—only that others are reading it, and no one knows really what it is they are reading and most realize part-way through they are not enjoying it at all. There was merely some aspect, unrelated to the quality of the text itself, which invoked enough curiosity to push it over that threshold of ‘people reading a book because others were reading it.’
What sort of existence does the text have in this case?
Texts that have real effects on people are often divisive books that have a positive effect on a one part of a population in exact ratio to the negative effect they have on the other.
If two contrary opinions are generated—wild praise on one hand, and sheer disgust on the other: where is the text, in that case?
Where is the text in the various reactions and differing opinions and misreadings of it?
Where is the text when eras pass away and tastes change?
Where is a text when different political factions fight to destroy it on one hand, and canonize it, on the other?
If a genius authored the book, and time passes and tastes change, what remains, then, of the book’s greatness, save the intention of the author, still able to impress the reader—despite all the changes. What essentially remains, if not the author’s blueprint and the genius of the author?
Where is the text, if it has no unity?
Where is the text, if it contains empty spaces, and weak, topical impressions, and unconnected details? These sorts of texts tend to have random parts which take on importance depending how they are perceived by myriads of readers; where is the text, then?
Where does a text exist if it is a pile of fragments, or perceived as a pile of fragments, or if the text is too long to read at one sitting?
We may point to peeling wallpaper as a thing, just as we can point to any writing as a thing—but the various shapes of the peeling wallpaper in any given area of the wall exist not as the wallpaper, or the wall, or the thing.
Only in the intention of the author is it possible to sort out the mysteries of the contingent universe, the universe of endlessly slippery texts and endlessly slippery perceptions.
The author never died, nor is intention ever a fallacy.
The universe of texts and perceptions is confusing, and therefore not holy.
Authorship is holy.
Textuality has interest only by the merit of an author’s intention.
This comes down to pure, physical science: no text can be discussed, because no text of any length can exist as a whole in the mind; at best we can discuss what we feel is the gist of a text, but finally it is only our faulty memory of what we believe is the gist of the text—filtered through all the imperfect influences and political opinions that others have of the text.
This is why poetry exists—to make it somehow possible, through the quantum of sequencing, aided by the mathematics of music—to hold an entire text in one’s mind.
What is the quantum of poetry? Has anyone dared to ask?
In reality, only the author’s pure intention, which is the author’s being, which is being, itself, communicating itself one-on-one with the reader’s being— exists.
In reality, the text does not exist.
The author exists.
The book does not.