Few literary-theory ideas have been so abused as “death of the author.” Maybe any literary theory that enters the popular consciousness will be dumbed down, but “death of the author” has found a particularly ignominious niche, as a talking point in the Great Booktube Debate: “Is it still okay to re-read Harry Potter?”
Now, we at Antilegible don’t think it’s okay for anyone to re-read Harry Potter. But wherever you stand, it has nothing to do with “death of the author” — first and foremost, because “death of the author” is an interpretive framework, and not a set of moral guidelines about whether it’s acceptable to read books by Bad People.
I’d like to take a little of your time to dig the term back out. First of all, because I can’t let them do this to my man Roland. But secondly — here’s the carrot — because “death of the author” is a delightfully prescient description of what makes a Twitter shitpost.
Viewed “scientifically,” we might say that a book is a thing that is produced by an author. From there, we might ask: what caused the author to write this particular text? In this attitude, to “understand” a book, the gold standard would be to see how X characteristic of the author determined Y feature of the text. Think of how David Foster Wallace’s fiction is often read as an extension of his personal battles with addiction and eventual suicide. Or, think of the very contemporary (and very divisive) rise of autofiction, and the criticism thereof.
Enter Roland Barthes. His counterargument: if you consider what you do when you read, you’ll quickly find out that it’s not much like this at all.
I could explain it, but heck, let’s just look at the first paragraph of “Death of the Author” and see what he has to say:
In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, speaking of a castrato disguised as a woman, writes this sentence: "It was Woman, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive fears, her unprovoked bravado, her daring and her delicious delicacy of feeling." Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story's hero, concerned to ignore the castrato concealed beneath the woman? Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain "literary" ideas of femininity? Is it universal wisdom? or romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know […]
His point is that any attempt to attribute text directly to the author, or even one of the characters, is inherently artificial. In fact, when we read, some sentences can’t be attributed. And yet we have no problem with that — in fact, if we aren’t paying close attention, we might not even notice it. We keep reading right through it.
If you’re not on board yet, here’s a practical test, a contemporary example, from Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. Try reading this, and consider whether each impression you get from the text can be definitively attributed1:
Lila Mae remembers from an Institute class on elevator marketing that Arbo spent millions promoting the Smooth-Glide in the trades and at conventions. They were the first to understand the dark powers of the bikini. On a revolving platform festooned with red, white and blue streamers, slender fingers fan the air, summoning the contractors hither. The models have perfect American navels and the air is stuffy in the old convention hall. A placard overlooked for red-blooded distraction details in silver script Arbo’s patented QuarterPoint CounterWeight System. Has this ever happened to you? You’ve just put the finishing touches on your latest assignment and are proud as a peacock to show off for your client. As you ride to the top floor, the Brand X elevator stops and refuses to budge. You won’t be working with them anymore! Say goodbye to sticky, stubborn counterweights with the new Smooth-Glide Residential Elevator from Arbo. Over two million Arbo elevators are in use worldwide. Going up?
A bald head girdled by loose curls of red hair appears at the door’s window. The man squints at Lila Mae and opens the door, hiding his body behind the gray metal. He leaves it to her to speak.
“Lila Mae Watson,” she says. “I’ve come to inspect your elevator.”
It has probably already occurred to you that the end of the first paragraph (“Has this ever happened to you?” and so forth) is assuming some Voice of Advertisement. But I have some more questions:
Who is the source of the following sentence, which is conspicuously in the past tense? “They were the first to understand the dark powers of the bikini.” Is that Lila Mae thinking? some fragment of Lila Mae? the Arbo advertisement? the otherwise unobtrusive narrator? Colson Whitehead?
When the man squints at Lila Mae, is he checking her out? Do we think that because of the luridness of the preceding paragraph? If so, do we need to somehow retroactively partially-attribute it to him?
When Lila Mae says “I’ve come to inspect your elevator,” is this an implied challenge to the man’s masculinity/phallus? If so, should we attribute it to her intention? the man’s perception? a cultural code from this alternate universe, where elevator performance connotes sexual performance?
I hope you see that these questions are undecidable. So, then, if we can’t attribute even these tiny pieces, why do we think we can do that with the whole text?
Now here’s the fun part. This indeterminism — what Barthes called the “polyvalence” of the text — is exactly what you see in Twitter shitposting.
Who is saying this? Is this Roon’s sincerely-held belief? (It’s not.) Are we supposed to imagine a guy who thinks this? Is this an impression of Paul Skallas?
Or consider one from the master:
This has the cadence of satire, maybe targeting the sort of person who is too quick to excuse old racist media as “the product of its time.” But if you try to read it that way, it actually Does Not Compute. So, like: what is this? Who is the imaginary “guy” who is being satirized? What voice is saying this?
Does there have to be an answer?
It’s come from an unlikely corner, to say the least, but I think these tweets are evidence of the continuing appeal of Barthesian polyvalence. For Barthes, a polyvalent text was a “readerly” text, in which any reading necessarily becomes entangled with the reader. What contemporary example do we have that’s better than poasting?
Brave new world.
Some context, for the curious: Lila Mae is a Black female elevator inspector in an alternate universe where elevators are super important. She’s the first Black female inspector in her department; it’s, like, sort of 1950s/60s New York (although Whitehead never explicitly says).
For added fun, you can consider whether any of this information is operative in the passage I’ve reproduced here.