First, let me attempt to reconstruct a twitter conversation for you.
Cuchlann The writer of a work may be dead, but as the work implies a reader, so, too, must it imply an author.
Cuchlann @lelangir no, it still implies an author. It had to come from somewhere.
Cuchlann @lelangir what is said still implies an author different from another. Also, it’s theoretically better: it’s either that or a null.
I’ve been giving a lot of thought to literary studies lately. I finished my MFA thesis (and thus, if no surprises are waiting for me in the wings, I am finished and have an MFA); with the thesis out of the way, I was free to start worrying about my dissertation years before anyone would expect me to. So I’m reading for it now. Woo.
Anyway. The reading, the conversations, the free time, they’ve all come together to lead me to a new perspective on this thing we do. The preceding conversation is simply an outgrowth of that. I was once described by Daniel as someone who gets the “dead author thing,” and I believe I still do. I just have a new perspective on it, and some other things.
The twitter conversation was sparked by my reading of a piece by Stanislaw Lem called “Todorov’s Fantastic Theory of Literature.” The short version of how I came to it goes this way: The Kitty Meister wrote her term paper on Lem, and checked out a book of his essays (translated from Polish, obviously). I, meanwhile, started Reading Gothic Fiction: A Bakhtinian Approach by Jacqueline Howard. In the introductory theoretical chapter she references Todorov and adapts his theory of the fantastic. I got interested in Todorov, whom no one had heard of before — a professor of mine who always seems to have read everything (who will also come into this story again later) hadn’t heard of him. Last week Kitty Meister handed me the Lem essays and pointed me to the Todorov piece. So I read it.
Oh dear. Lem is, ah, less than pleased with Todorov. He opens the essay by quoting a French writer, Pierre Bertaux, who wrote,
At one time it was hoped that the beginnings of a formalization of the humanities analogous [to that of the "diagonal" or "formalistic" sciences] could be expected from structuralism. Unfortunately it appears today that precisely the loudest advocates of structuralism have let it degenerate into a mythology — and not even a useful one. This chatter that is now called structuralism has apparently dealt a mortal blow to that rudimentary scientific beginning. (209-10, insert Lem’s)
Essentially, the structuralists didn’t pull off their goal, and later adherents, not noticing, have made a morass of useless conjecture. This isn’t unique to structuralism, or even the study of literature.
In short, structuralism was meant to make a science of the study of literature. It didn’t work. “Structuralism,” Lem writes, “was to be a remedy for the immaturity of the humanities as manifested in their lack of sovereign criteria for deciding the truth or falsehood of theoretical generalizations” (211). This may sound familiar, at least in realm of discussion. Lem then proceeds to tear Todorov apart. Some few bits of the essay are pertinent to our discussion still.
For instance, Lem claims the act of “classification,” that is, of proscribing what is, say, fantastic and what is romantic, what is realistic, et cetera, creates a “feedback loop.” “To describe limitations on creativity thus amounts to drawing up a self-defeating prognosis. What could be more tempting than to write what theory prohibits?” (214) Every entry into discourse alters the discourse. If you say X is impossible in physics, your colleagues are honor-bound to go out and try their damnedest to prove you wrong. The same is basically true in any field. The thing is, in art, nothing’s really impossible, just not yet done.
I’ll take this moment to deal with “dead authors.” I’ve read Barthes, as most of you know, I’m sure. I like the standpoint of the author as dead, in the sense that the author has no input on the work once he or she stops actively creating it. However, that is no longer the only way the dead author conceit is used. It is now often used to efface the fact of a piece’s creation from its own history. Instead, many writers on the topic replace the author with the culture that spawned the writer. Fine, as far as that goes. However, there’s a dilemma there: if you truly believe the “author” is “dead” — that is, gone from the equation — and you replace the person who wrote the book with the culture that created the person, then the culture is “dead” as well. It doesn’t come into the equation in the same way the individual does not.
The fundamental use of the author’s death is to exclude the Word of God. The text must stand for itself (so, if you have the urge, visual artists, to stand next to your paintings in the gallery and explain them, go fuck yourselves).
Structuralism attempts to interpret the text independent of the author’s intent. Great! I love it. I preach it to my writing classes. Keep in mind, though, that even that is one way of interpretation. Looking at the author’s intent is just as valid, I simply believe the problems inherent in killing the author are less important than those inherent in keeping him or her around.
Here’s the last bit that comes directly from Lem’s piece, and it’s what sparked the immediate concern over the author: Todorov, unsurprisingly, forbids talking about the author,
but if one is free to recognize, as Todorov does, that a text implies a reader (not as a concrete person but as a standard of reception), then in accord with a rule of symmetry one should recognize that it also implies an author. Both of these concepts are indissolubly connected with the category of messages, since a message, in information theory, must have a sender and a receiver. (228-29, emphasis mine)
For a few years now, since my first theory professor told my class about it, I have used a scale of textual direction — mostly in composition, as that’s what I’ve been teaching. I will use it in literature, and have used it without writing it directly when I taught poetry writing. Here it is:
- Implied Narrator
- Implied Reader
It approaches the same sort of concept Lem is espousing — that there is a reality of both a writer and a reader, both real people, but when discussing literature they aren’t all that useful to consider. The text, though, implies both a writer and a reader of some kind, more or less strongly, and those are important, just as the text might imply a genre (“A Modest Proposal” is a great example of this concept in action, as Swift takes advantage of every level of the scale).
Now I hope you’ll pardon me for making a sudden jump, but there’s a related topic of greater interest I wanted to tackle as well. It’s much more important, but because of its breadth I am (paradoxically) left with less to say.
Here it is: there is no such thing as literary theory.
I know, you want more. I can provide a little more. That professor I mentioned earlier (the one who seems to have read everything) said basically that over lunch last week. There is no such thing as literary theory. That doesn’t mean there’s no study of literature, or even a form of writing that is not directly based on literature but is still in the same realm — it means the word “theory” is absolutely the wrong one to use, and leads to wrong-headed ideas (like what I spent the post up until now talking about). A “theory” is essentially a scientific concept, that will be universally applicable or, well, it’s wrong. This is why quantum physicists and not-quantum physicists get into hypothetical fistfights. But anyway. Gravity, that’s a theory. If there were any one instance of gravity not working in the way it is predicted to work, a new theory would be required. That may sound drastic, but it’s the scientific norm. I read recently that a handful of scientists were actively trying to disprove Einstein’s theories of relativity, because it’s what good scientists do. It’s what Einstein, in his turn, did to Newton. No worries.
But when it comes to literature, that sort of thing is impossible, for much the reason Lem describes — I’m referring to the bit about writers who hear a theory and then go to disprove it. Let’s continue taking the death of the author as our example (I would remind you again, at this point, that I like the concept). Fine. It’s been around for a while. Suddenly, writers started to dick around with it. It might be virtually impossible to discuss Borges without talking about the man himself, not only because of the structure of his stories (though that’s a reason as well), but also because he’s often the main character of his stories — though the term “main character” might be a little misleading.
What about Nabokov’s Pale Fire? And House of Leaves? To a greater or lesser extent, both works toy with authorship, playing with what it means for the authors involved in both the fictional and real construction of the works to be removed from the equation.
As a tool to help avoid biographical criticism (Yeats was in X when he wrote Y, so it means Z) the death of the author is great. As a theory it doesn’t work. It’s never going to cover the bases all the time. No literary “theory” is going to do that. So “theory” is simply the wrong word.
I mentioned, over that same lunch, that “criticism” is the other common word, which I dislike because it implies to people who don’t live with it that the author of criticism dislikes the work being written about, which is almost always untrue. No one is going to devote their entire life to studying James Joyce if they hate his work. I wouldn’t be planning to write a dissertation on the Gothic in Science Fiction if I hated either the Gothic or Science Fiction. I don’t hate myself that much.
So, uh, what words are we left with? Someone at the table (I wish I could remember who — it was probably the professor) suggested “methodology.” Perfect! It works in the same way as the word “theory,” providing the same sense of “system of examining and thinking” without implying it is universally useful. Alongside that, a literary writer can use his or her methodology to write “analysis.” I am not as sure about the latter term, but it does stand as a better option than “criticism” for the reason I already provided. Now, I am likely to continue using the word “criticism” myself, as I know what it actually means to say and most of the people I deal with are comfortable with it. But I am a hair’s-breadth from adopting “methodology” instead of “theory.”
Lem, Stanislaw. “Todorov’s Fantastic Theory of Literature.” Robert Abernathy trans. Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. San Diego: 1984. 209-232