Laura Ritland wonders if Barthes could be woke
In the U.K. last January, an interview by Oliver Thring for the Sunday Times with poet and scholar Sarah Howe failed amazingly. In a social media pattern that’s become depressingly familiar more for what it reveals than its grapeshot-like techniques, Tweeters pointed out the sexist and racist tendencies of the article: the weirdly creepy fascination of the interviewer with the author’s interior decor, her marital status, her intelligence—the standard paparazzi one finds in literary publicity articles, but loaded with the subtle prejudices assigned to authors who happen to be women and/or people of colour. (Katy Evans-Bush’s article for The Guardian says it all.)
Like bathroom mould or chicken pox, the attitudes expressed in the Times article aren’t unusual—look closely and you find them everywhere, maybe even incubating inside your own head. A crisis of faith then ensues. What to believe about authors? Where to train our eyes? The Times’ saving grace was to publish one of Howe’s poems beside the interview. At least we have the poem, Twitter echoed. In times of crisis, there is always the work itself. The text, above all, offers us somewhere to look.
I think of readers’ responses to the Sunday Times interview as the knee-jerk reaction to bad publicity—the way a gopher retreats to its hole when threatened. But maybe I speak for myself. In my undergraduate studies, I consumed a steady diet of literary criticism that told me texts mattered more than the biographies of the people who wrote the texts. I read Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author” in a classroom overlooking the sea on the West Coast. The pale, brick-shaped volumes of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and the clean, erasable whiteboards of a university were what I knew best. Embarrassingly, I believed these things were absolute.
“To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing,” Barthes states in “Death of the Author.” Written in the 60s, as a challenge to his peers of the academic establishment—whom I picture as a group of crusty men with a fondness for pipes and “biographical” readings of literature—the essay argues that the popular conception of the “author” incorrectly confuses a work of literature with a person—“his life, his tastes, his passions.” We might think of Van Gogh’s paintings as his madness, Alice Munro’s short stories as her southwestern Ontarian life, Ziggy Stardust as David Bowie. This way of treating art is wrong, Barthes says. We should think of literary works as “texts” detached from their origin. They are not indexical of a person’s life, but complete-unto-themselves, composed of “multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual dialogue, parody, and contestation.” It is a space “ranged over, not pierced,” and “disentangled,” not “deciphered.” Who writes a text does not determine what it means.
This all seemed absolutely true to me at the time. Beliefs will usually seem true if you stay anywhere long enough to support their validity. The problem was: all my authors were dead.
Two years after graduation, I’m in a crowded Toronto bar, and the room is elbow-to-elbow thick with Authors. Authors having drinks. Authors appraising other Authors’ looks. They all look pretty much alive. I feel like a failure because none of the Authors will talk with me and therefore I am not a real Author. Barthes did not tell me what to do with the body and its nerves, I think with dim indignation. I can barely understand a word the readers at the mic are saying because my heart is doing something incomprehensible with my blood pressure. The room’s dim, and there’s not enough space for everyone here, and several people have told me I look unwell. What gives?
When I was in my early teens, my brother and sister and I raised live hermit crabs in a saltwater tank. We had mistaken them for empty shells while beachcombing at White Rock and my parents thought, for a reason then unfathomable to us, it would be crazy to drive two hours back in heavy traffic to return them to the beach where we had found them. We decided to try to keep them alive in a repurposed fish bowl. We read up on how to properly salt and oxygenate the water. We fed them fish flakes. And it all worked, until one day we went on holiday and someone forgot to turn on the aerator. When we returned, the water in the tank had turned black, which is apparently what seawater looks like when the oxygen’s depleted. Only a few of the strongest crabs survived, competing to breathe on the bare inches of rock sticking above the waterline.
In recognizing writers as human beings who are “alive” rather than “dead” extensions of a text, how do we begin to understand literary works in a different way? If to “die” means not a Barthesian execution of the Author, but rather the very real possibility of a spiritual death of a creator, can we really read texts the way Barthes encourages us to? A living conception of the Author means something different than a Barthesian idea of a dead Author. It means identity and text aren’t so divisible as Barthes perhaps wished them to be.
We’re at a moment in our literary culture when identity politics has reached a new intensity. The clouds have decanted hailstorms about the racialization of POC writing, race and gender equity in publishing, the distribution of literary capital, and so on. In this weather, Barthes isn’t so impressive, swinging like a joke dummy from the branches of our contemporary politics. It takes a particular kind of privilege to believe Barthes’s theories are practical; you have to believe, whether consciously or not, that you are capable of surviving death.
This is what’s weird about Barthes: at the heart of his theory there’s an unsettling decoupling between creator and work, person and product, which supposes that what happens in literature is at a remove from “real life.” To Barthes, literary texts are always and only a suspended world, a place of abstracted culture and floating representations, a fiction. This belief works really well when your authors are too dead to care how you read them. But transplant those ideas to the contemporary context of living writers and life-or-death publicity, and questions flourish: Can and should we ignore the identity of a living author when reviewing her work? How do we respond to an author whose work has been systematically marginalized or discriminated by the literary community because of their identity? How do we account for the fact that the social currency of certain identities affects how art becomes disseminated and appreciated? Should non-white writers write about POC experiences? A cisgender woman write about queer experiences? Why do some authors’ identities matter more to a particular person’s reading than others?
I don’t have definite answers to these questions. I simply want to put them forward, as many people and organizations have done. I can, however, summarize Barthes’s response to people who argue that authorship has a significant impact on how we read: he a) dismisses it as the case in point of thinking misguided by the false spectre of the Author; and b) argues that even if there is some figure of the Author apparent in a text, it’s just another fiction. Think Proust. Think metafiction. Think lyric, confessional poet. With these authors, Barthes tells us in “From Work to Text,” their “life is no longer the origin of the fictions but a fiction contributing to his work.”
But the problem with viewing authorship as contiguous with fiction is that it can presume authorial identity to be a superficial game without any ethical consequence on how we tell stories or relay aesthetic experiences. Hua Hsu cites a good (or maybe terrible) example of this thinking in a New Yorker article published last September, “When White Poets Pretend To Be Asian.” In the piece, Hsu discusses two cases where white, male authors adopted Asian names to popularize their work—in one case, landing the masked author rather inconveniently in “The Best American Poetry.” This fictionalization of ethnicity, Hsu writes, “ridicules the ambient self-doubt that trails most people from the margins who enter into spaces where they were never encouraged to belong. As though it were all just a game, meant to be gamed.”
Indeed, this is Barthesian logic ad absurdum: the game of playing ethnic other assumes that the Author is no more than another “character” within a text’s fictional landscape, that an Author’s social identity is “but a fiction contributing to his work.” If Authors are made-up functions, so this disturbing brand of thinking goes, what’s to say we can’t fictionalize our race too? These masquerading authors assume masks are easy when in fact they weigh on many of us as an unasked burden. Who gets to play the Barthesian Author? Who gets to believe their identity is a game?
Let’s consider that nerves and emotions are real things that affect my literary production and style. Many writers feel their skins are about as comfortable as wearing a suit of thorns. But when insecurity dissolves into self-obsession and internal criticism, leading to paralysis and bad work, the feeling is less a common cold than a deadly virus. Too many women and people of colour I’ve known have turned away from what they love with a sense of their own failure, or a sensible discomfort with the literary fame game. Alternatively, one might begin to pursue their craft with a kind of wounded obsession that ultimately despairs of its own fulfillment. This is the worst kind of literary death. It has less to do with the quality of one’s work than the kind of embodied conviction one brings to it.
The fact is this: anti-Barthesian crimes are committed by writers every day. These writers tend to think of writing as self-expressive. The belief behind these acts is perhaps intuitive: experience imprints itself on art; our stories originate from particular people and from such wildly subjective things as emotions. There is so-and-so whom I think about and so find myself wanting to write about. There is this-and-that thing I want to express about how I am feeling about the weather. Experience practically fits itself like an appliance to a poem-shaped, story-shaped socket.
Rather than treated as separate, in other words, person and text are seen as relational and generative. One might get historical and call this thinking Romantic. But there are radical developments of this school of thought in our current social context. We understand that our identities are influenced by who we are in a distinct society and culture; our expressions, likewise, emanate from and react with this framework to constitute a text’s value and meaning. I am not just an Author. I am a Woman. I seem to be Not-Very-White. No longer is it true to talk about writing as if it were anyone’s, blown to us from the sweet vistas of anywhere. Writing must carry the weight of a host of modifiers preceding it: Asian-Indigenous-Afro-Hispanic-American-Caribbean-Latino-South Asian-Diasporic-Etc.-writing, women’s-queer-gay-LGBTQ-transgender-Etc.-writing. A major objective of these distinctions, speaking with gross generalization, is to insist that our differently experienced views of the world change our writing in significant ways. And this postmodern dream feels true, in a way that bespeaks how the world really is changing. It lends itself to the idea that one’s difference leads to a different way of seeing, and that these views might expand ad infinitum into galaxies beyond our awareness.
So. Out Barthes. In Po-Mo identity politics.
But that’s not quite it either.
When we treat writing as primarily self-expressive, we open the door to the problem Barthes was so determined to keep out: identity becomes the determinate of a text. This means, in a very minor way, I might I think more about appearing to be a good writer rather than the work I should be doing. It can mean taking well-meaning and accurate criticism in a workshop overly personally. In a major way, it might mean I’ll spend time obsessing about how I am representing myself, my gender, and ethnicity, to others. Enter the critics who look to a writer’s interior decor, her marital status, her race, her social standing, her education. Enter the Sunday Times-type reviews who make it a big deal you happen to be a woman and/or person of colour. We limit a text by making the Author its perimeter.
But these are surely readers’ problems—it’s those people who wish to categorize you as that writer of this ethnicity and/or gender which attaches you to that style, genre, and set of ideas. We can only hope they will revise their tokenistic thinking or go extinct. But, fact aside that we all participate in the shifty act of reading others, I also worry about how this hyper-consciousness about identity gets under our skins in more fundamental ways. In Morgan Parker’s essay “Tokenism May Cause the Following Side Effects,” poet Roberto Montes states that “[i]t is toxic to young marginalized people to attempt to make their marginalization who they are.” When we’ve absorbed an idea of our self as the marginalized Author—beyond simply acknowledging the odds stacked against us, to acting according to how those odds dictate us—we don’t free so much as limit our writing. Do we like the tanks we’re put into? If we don’t, can we live without them?
We are heading full-on into a big philosophical question of this baggy, culminating essay, and it’s going to shatter into paradox in zero point three seconds in part due to this writer’s own crisis in contemporary thought. In the transition from thinking of texts as separate from Dead (read: excised) authors to a life-or-death model of writing arising from Alive authors, how much is meaning contingent on one’s subjectivity? And how do we relate to, interact, and converse with others if we are each lodged in our own identities? The body we write from does matter. That body, both real and politically-inflected, influences how, why, and what we mean. It’s getting past the body only mattering to believing that when I write a sentence, another person perhaps totally unlike me will understand most of it, however slantwise or involutedly it finds its way to that other person’s mind. I’d like to think that despite my determination, by my social context, someone will pay attention to what I’m saying. I’d like it even better if it’s someone I don’t expect to.
Wouldn’t an ethical idea of authorship strike a balance between self-expressive and Barthesian writing? Wouldn’t it seek to stretch and weave between the two entrenched views? It would be something political and subjective that would allow us all to dream more widely. It would value aesthetics and truth. It wouldn’t just think of Authors as Alive, but keep them totally and vibrantly living to transform how we understand our texts. It would crack open the tank, drive hundreds of miles, return us to the sea. Such a theory, I want to believe, could change everything.
LAURA RITLAND’s poems have appeared in places like The Maynard, The Hart House Review, CV2, The Malahat Review, Arc Poetry Magazine, and Maisonneuve. She is the recipient of the 2014 Malahat Review’s Far Horizons Award for Poetry, a graduate of the Masters in Creative Writing program at the University of Toronto, and a current interviews editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts.