The Death and Return of the Author by Sean Burke

I’ve been looking for a reliably concise account of postmodernist thought on the author. I’m not sure this book, from 1992, meets the bill, given that it occasionally wanders in and out of obfuscation, but it’s very close. Burke takes the overly simple summation of the positions ofRoland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacque Derrida on authorship – “the author is dead” – and attacks it in two ways.

One, none of the three authors really held such a position as it is commonly understood (especially by us postmodern-challenged Yanks) – that texts do not have authors, as there is no meaning outside of socially and historically formed language. Thus, the romantic concept of the inspired and powerful author, in a postmodern age, should properly bed termed deceased.

Such a position falls apart very quickly under any kind of sustained critique. One cannot very well claim there is no author and then accept book royalties, garner a reputation, cite other authors, critique someone’s oeuvre (“faith in the oeuvre is faith in the author,” as Burke says), hold a position, etc, as this critics did. Their author-is-kaput stance is better understood non-literally, as a kind of rhetorical, aggressive poking, or interrogation, of Western conceits of the romantic author.

Two, Burke suggests that the trio’s work really poins to a view of the author as important but not all important; that the intentions and biography of the author are not something to be dismissed out of hand, as a New Critic might, but they are not all-powerful, either. It is a critical mistake to think of the author as completely powerful or completely absent. Very late in the book, Burke gives a nice summary of this. “… the denial of an absolute authorial centre implies not the necessary absence of the author, but the redistribution of authorial subjectivity within a textual mise en scene which it does not command entirely.”

I like this quote for several reasons – one, the allusion to French school of cinema and the accompanying naiveté of the whole auteur concept is a fine metaphor, and two, it encapsulates the entire book as a pretty good, if overly long, deconstruction of deconstructionists. The self may be socially constructed, sure, and after jumping into the alphabet soup of writing, intent may be lost, but none of these three writers are denying that it gets a shot or that it should be dismissed out of hand. They might have been trying to do so, but even if so, their approach fails, just as Derrida pulls Rousseau apart in On Grammatology. The nature of discourse confounds authorial intent, even if you’re a Continental critic. Derrida’s critique of Plato and Rousseau, and Barthes’s vigorous attack on a nonexistent mimetical tradition, have the smell of rather wet straw men due to the failure of their intent to frame the tradition they’re pushing against.

Once again, surprise, surprise, a moderate position makes the most sense. Burke notes that Mikhail Bakhtin’s sensible position well predates the trio’s meanderings, in that the author need not be a God-author to be an author; the concept needs to be re-examined to avoid univocal conceptions from time to time, but destruction is a little over the top. In this light, Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida’s bold claims served a primarily polemical purpose in keeping the debate alive.

Burke’s book had me tapping in terms into Google every five minutes (‘lapidary’ cadences was one, and quite a bit of Nietzsche-related material in the Foucault section that I was unfamiliar with) so it took me nearly three days to finish the book off.

Perhaps the best of these digressions was when I tapped in a search for ‘Rousseau masturbation’ which led me straight to “Of Derrida, Rousseau, and Wanking,” a good, short presentation of Derrida’s arguments in On Grammatology by a philosophy professor. Among other things, he does some interesting biblical exegesis and favors the Farrier-Goulder hypothesis. That reminds me; I have been remiss in adding new links to the navbar since I rebuilt the site. Perhaps after the exam, I will take the horde assembled in my Firefox bookmarks and sort out the highlights.

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