Friday, 27 November 2009

Roland Bathes: The Death of the Author

The last line of Bathes text is 'the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author' and it is the reader referred to in the first half of this sentence that this essay really focuses on NOT a call for the annihilation of the author referenced in the second (French theorist tend to utilise bombastic leading statements to grab the readers attention and shock them out of complacent common sense readings i.e ‘The Gulf War Did not Take Place’ Jean Baudrillard or ‘There is nothing outside the text’ Jaques Derrida). Having said that it is not difficult to see why a flamboyant celebrity theorist such a Barthes would promote the role of interpreter over the role of producer. When published in 1968 the standard academic approach to literature in French academia at the time was based on the presupposition that there was a real, singlar, and fixed meaning to a piece of literature and that this singular meaning was the one intended by an author who was fully conscious of this meaning and his (it was usually a ‘his’) reasons for producing such meaning. It was the readers role simply to unearth what this meaning was. To destabilize the above can be seen as a radical gesture given the time and context (though it had been somewhat predated in less ostentatius terms by Wimsatt and Beardsley’s essay ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ published in the United States in 1946). Barthes key points are:

• The idea of authorship is inherently unstable (a text always appropriates previous texts)
• The idea of an author is inherently unstable (the 'self' is a site of permanent flux)
• Authorial intentionality does not define meaning
• An authors personal history is not the key to understanding a text
• The
re is not a fixed true meaning hidden in a text waiting to be discovered
• The reader is the ultimate arbiter of meaning

These central ideas espoused by Barthes during this period were a general feature of all post-structuralist critique and were actually pushed further by Derrida. The idea that a texts meaning is never entirely fixed so is therefore open to multiple readings was not just a comment on authorship but ultimately an anti-theological attack on the idea of authority (author-ity) itself (this position can be traced back to Nietzsche’s
Death of God and is part of the general distrust towards meta-narratives that came to be known as post-modernism following the carnage of the second world war. This in turn lead to the vulnerability of theory to the charge of the type of nihilism and moral relativism that has lead to the emergence of religious fundamentalism). This position was the critical orthodoxy of the day by the 1980’s with the rise of critical theory and cultural studies in both Anglo-American academia and contemporary art discourse. It was then fashionable to dismiss the idea of universal values as hegemonic often leading to simplistic declerations such as ‘there is no such thing as truth’ and knee-jerk dismissals of any actual position being take as being authoritarian or even totalitarian. This line of argument taken to its absurd yet logical conclusion views the espousal of human rights as an act of fascism!

By the 90's in the context of contemporary fine art practice positions that challenged these assumptions became of interest whereby the simple restatement of these assumptions themselves was not. One of the reasons curator/critic Nicholas Bourriaud, for instance, rose to prominence was that at the time of writing the essays they came to be published as Relational Aesthetics in the 1990’s contemporary art had reached a point of postmodern inertia therefore it was seen as a refreshingly radical act to be taking an ideological position by promoting work that had a social (and unapologetic) agenda. Theory itself also began to look at a returned to direct political engagement and a return to universal or even transcendental values in the works of, for instance,
Badiou, Zizek and late Derrida. The artworks that have provoked the most passionate and engaged critical engagement in the last 15 years or so are works that contain a level of explicit social intentionality with various degrees of tension between the polarities of didacticism and openness. Artist who have produced such committed pieces include Jeremy Deller, Santiago Sierra, and Mark Wallinger all of whom have not been afraid to take a position (though this does not necessarily negate a level of ambiguity or even ambivalence in the works) and artist-writers such as Liam Gillick, Dave Beech have to a degree wrestled the agenda from non-practicng critics and theorist with practices that demonstrate a reflective awareness, socio-political engagement and an embracement of authorial responsibility. The days of Marcel Duchamp’s dumb painter are over.

PS.This text has been appropriated and re-posted at the Madame Pickwick Art Blog without attribution to me - how ironic…