Thursday, November 02, 2006

Reading: Graveyard of the Author?

Reading: Graveyard of the Author?
Azadeh Pourzand

Reading “Death of the Author” (1977) by Ronald Barthes- the brilliant literary critic in France in the ‘60s and 70’s- brought a few questions to my mind in terms of the concept of the author and the consequences of his/her death in the process of reading a text. Barthes writes about the inevitable loss of identity in writing a text. He argues that the author is a modern figure constructed by our contemporary society. He argues that once the text is written, the author has no longer any say in it. While these ideas strike me as very fascinating ways to look at a piece of literature, I am still hesitant to abide by this way of reading in which the author is to be forgotten.
As Barthes writes, “As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses itself, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins” ( Barthes, 2). In a way it seems that Barthes argues for the independence of the text from its creator which then makes the process of reading a much more liberating experience. In the process of reading introduced by Barthes, the author diminishes as he/she produces the text. Barthes describes writing and writes, “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (Barthes, 2).
This is while Helen Cixous- a feminist Algerian-French literary critic- writes “The Laugh of Medusa” (1975) in which she orders women to write. She writes, “Women must write her self…Women must put herself into the text-as into the world and into history- by her own movement” (Cixous, 733). In her essay she puts a strong emphasis on the need to have more texts written by women through which they could collectively destroy the historically-constructed image of the woman as a weak and suppressed figure.
Cixous especially emphasizes on the importance of including body in writing of and by the woman. She writes, “By writing her self woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her…” (Cixous, 737). In writing about the relation of the feminine body to the text, she reminds us of the importance of the concept of individuality in women’s writings. Cixous believes that it is by writing that women could exit the previously-established sphere of repression and marginality.
Looking at the above-mentioned essays by two prominent post-structuralism critics leaves me with uncertainly in terms of evaluating the productivity of a reading during which the author inevitably has to die. On one hand, the concept of the text being independent of its author and his/her identity could lead the reader towards a liberating reading of the text. On the other hand, treating the author as a non-existing source could destroy the concept of representation and empowerment embodied in the text by the author.
It seems to me that Cixous as a feminist literary critic believes that by producing uncensored texts, women could overcome the under-representation and suppression that has been imposed on them throughout the history. She urges women to write and by the act of writing liberate themselves from the constraints of the old image of the woman and of femininity. She strongly believes that there is a close connection between the text produced by the woman and the body. Cixous writes, “To write, an act which will not only ‘realize’ the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being…”(Cixous, 737). Therefore, as a literary critic she is prescribing writing as a form of personal and public liberation for the woman.
Now, my question would be: How possible and productive it could be-in different contexts of writing- to remove the author from the text? It seems to me that this question becomes especially important when we are to read the texts of authors who one way or another are/have been the marginalized members of the society. From what I understand as post-structuralist readers we are expected to leave aside the author from the process of reading the text. This removal of the author, in my opinion, could produce a different meaning of the text. While, I do not think that all texts should be read autobiographically, it seems to me that abandoning the author altogether from the process of reading leads to underestimating and even forgetting the voice of the author.
This discussion reminds me of the some of the dilemmas that I am experiencing for my senior honors in which I am looking at a few memoirs and third person narratives written by Iranian women both in Iran and in exile over the past five years. In reading these primary texts I am specifically looking at the issue of self-representation of the women/female protagonists of these works. In the ones that are explicitly memoirs, the presence of the author, her stories, her feelings and her experiences are present throughout the text. The third person narratives that I am using for this project, too, could well be autobiographical novels.
In a way these works of literature evolve around that one name on the cover of the book and that is the name of its author. Since they are called memoirs and arguably autobiographical narratives, however, I am comfortable with the idea of focusing on the voice of the author. However, after having read these texts about the death of the author, I have started to question the ways in which I never cease to be very conscious of the author’s voice in my reading of these texts.
Let me put it this way, in my reading of these texts, not only that I do not remove the author from the text; I in fact, puts extra emphasis on the author and their authorship of the text. This is while these texts and especially the narratives could be easily read without having the author in mind. They could be simply interesting stories of a female-figure in Iran. Therefore, my choice of the way I am reading them could, in fact, have an impact the meaning that I receive from the text.
For instance, in one of these narratives written in Farsi we read about the story of a young woman who attends the police school in Iran. The story is in third person and there is no indication of the author throughout the book. However, knowing that the author has attended the police school at a certain age in her life has really changed my reading of the text. There are many passages in which we read Tarlan’s , the protagonist of the novel, feelings and fear: Tarlan wants to say that since she has come here, she has lost so many relations. Her relation with this place, her relation with this cover, her relation with order and humans…” (Vafi, 27, my translation). Or further in the book we read, “She feels that something is getting closer and closer to her very slowly. She starts to write. Her heart is beating happily” (Vafi, 123, my translation).
Having read about Barthe’s idea of the death of the author and reading Cixous piece about the woman’s writings and thinking about my own project on Iranian women’s narrative, the question that asks myself is: Do I care about the fact that a fictional character like Tarlan only in the context of the text? Is it Tarlan who has decided to write? Am I allowed to explore the idea of the relation between Tarlan and her author, Fariba Vafi? Or should I just consider Tarlan’s author and the factors that have inspired her to write a text non-existing and removed from my experience of reading the text?

My Professor's response to what I wrote:
Azi—I think that Barthes does seem to go off the deep end about authors, but maybe it makes more sense when we realize he is talking about the AUTHOR. This being is for him purely mythical, a source which is finally mystical, who we endlessly try to decode but in some way remains beyond us. Thus the reader is rendered relatively insignificant, because the can have only one relation to the work, through the AUTHOR. But barthes does leave us a loophole, because the writer (or scriptor) remains. And while his interest does focus on the destination of writing, the reader, the writer remains a possible object of investigation. But the writer would be on a level of equality with the reader, a complex, composite figure who is coming from a particular web of circumstances, ideologies, and texts. While the AUTHOR always knows what he/she means, the writer is, even in relation to their own work, like the reader, just another destination—they will have to read in order to discover what they meant. And what the meant is in part not only the affect of the text, but the matrix from which it came. What one loses in this formulation is the search of authenticity, the hope for a undivided significance to emerge from the text, but in a sense this opens up the text to travel from one situation to another. We can certainly study the writer, even explore their relation to the text; we just can’t unequivocally appeal to them as an authority as to meaning.


At 6:14 AM, November 28, 2006, Anonymous Mehdi Purmohammad said...

very wishes for you. Please send the Farsi translation of the essay if it is available.


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