The Author (of The Daily Bonnet) is Dead?

A few years ago I went to a speech by Salman Rushdie in Winnipeg. As I recall, the first thing out of his mouth was “the author is not dead.” The reference, of course, is to the fact that he had survived the fatwa that was declared against him by the Ayatollah of Iran in 1989 for writing the novel The Satanic Verses. (The fatwa is actually still in place, though it seems Rushdie’s days of hiding in fear are, thankfully, long over.)

But more than simply a reference to his own very literal survival, he was also alluding to the famous 1967 Roland Barthes essay “The Death of the Author,” in which Barthes argued that interpretation of a text should be focused on individual readers, rather than on the intended meaning set forth by the author herself.

Since I began writing The Daily Bonnet, a Mennonite satirical news site, I’ve seen this concept in action. Never before has my writing been as public or as widely read as it is now. The sheer volume of readers means the range of reactions is diverse. I didn’t know how people would respond when I first started it. I’m a Mennonite, and I definitely have a self-depricating sense of humour, but would other Mennonites enjoy being satirized? I would say the answer is overwhelmingly yes.

It’s true that not everyone likes it. I have received some criticism, but, to be honest, I’m actually surprised how limited that criticism has been. Perhaps the harshest response was when I was told to “drink bleach,” but beyond that one Facebook message that, I assume, was sent during some degree of intoxication, the overwhelming majority of the responses have been positive and I’m very grateful for that. It seems us Mennonites are not nearly as uptight as some people like to believe.

Still, satire is complex. There are layers of meaning, and just because a reader gets a joke, doesn’t mean they necessarily get the joke. On a recent post, one reader said,”this is not funny,” while the very next commenter praised it as “hilarious!” and another said “this is the funniest one yet.” So, which is it? Completely unfunny or totally hilarious? I can only write based on my own instinct, and people can only respond based on their own. I can’t possibly please everyone with every post, nor am I even intending to.

Whether it’s funny or not is not as interesting, though, as the meaning people assume that a text has. What I find most fascinating is how some people will project their own meaning onto the text and make assumptions about what my intended meaning is. I am not surprised by this; I’ve written a lot before. However, with The Daily Bonnet I am reminded of this strange phenomenon on a routine basis. Some will say, “Oh, I get your point. You’re saying….” etc. Or “I disagree with what you’re saying because…” Both of these response are not actually responding directly to anything I have written, but rather, what they interpret me to have written. You could almost say they arguing (or agreeing) with themselves.

Some will account for this using social notions of privilege, and indeed, anedoctally, the vast majority of the people who have demonstrively presumed to know exactly what I mean by what I’m saying have been white men. (I have very rarely seen this reaction from women.) But, of course, I myself am a white male, though perhaps the readers don’t all know this. I suspect that psychological factors such as narcissism and personality traits also come into play.

In the end, I respect Barthes’ notion of subjective interpretation, but what I’ve described here goes well beyond the scope of reader-response criticism. When we say “the author is dead” we mean that my (as a reader) response, and my reaction, and my engagement is more important than what the author intended with the text. Fine. However, we cannot say that my reaction equates to the author’s intention. I’m telling myself this because I’m sure I’m as guilty of it as anyone. We each bring our own perspective to a text, which is fantastic, but we cannot presume that this perspective is an accurate evaluation of the author’s intended meaning. It is our interpretation alone, not the author’s.

If the author is dead, then let him remain so. If the author is dead, then this peculiar penchant to force an interpretation onto the author, if I can be excused for using this metaphor, appears to be more than a little necrophilic.

(photo credit: Fronteiras do Pensamento/CC)

6 Comments

  1. Jordan Ross

    Always great to read engagements with Barthes. If I’m following your argument, you don’t quibble with the fact that the author ‘dies’ when a text is published, but rather, with un-self-conscious readers who don’t realize that their own consequent ‘birth’ as interpreters means they can’t resurrect the author and pin their own interpretations onto him or her. In other words, they are free to interpret all they want, but doing so creates a plurality of meanings of a text, which in turn undercuts the authority of any single interpretation (from author or reader).

    And yet.

    I feel that you’re still wanting to hold on to a bit of a privileged position as an author. You don’t want them to psychologize you, but you seem quick to psychologize your readers, employing terms like projection and narcissism.

    Readers’ understandings of a text can be just as nuanced as the author’s intentions in writing that text. To psychologize is the opposite of what Barthes wanted us to do with texts: to see them as social and political entities. Of course, readers shouldn’t presume to know your intention, But whether their engagements with your articles feel fair or unfair, they are not so much disagreeing with something “I have written,” but with a free-floating text, a cocktail of signifiers and signifieds.

    I guess I’m just saying, don’t sell your readers too short.

    But then who gets to say what a Daily Bonnet satire is really and truly about? Barthes might say that’s the wrong question to ask, because it’s still obsessed with finding fixed meaning in a text.

    In his famous essay on the death of the author, Barthes said, “…writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. 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…We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God)”

    Reply
  2. Jordan Ross

    Aaaand I accidentally hit a key and it published. Anyway, the end of the quote is:

    “…but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.”

    Reply
  3. Andrew J. Bergman

    So perhaps it comes down to the choice of language. The un-self-conscious reader may use the language of “the author said such and such…” unaware that the author is saying nothing, and the reader is saying everything. This reader may not even be intending to actually presume to know what the author is meaning, but this language may be the only that they know. In other words, they’re not aware of reader-response language, so their entire discussion of a text always involves what “the author” is or isn’t saying.

    I also recognize that I am reading the reader’s comments and these comments are just as much a text as anything I am writing. They are interpreting me, and I am interpreting them. So my comments about narcissism and priviledge apply as much to me as anyone and I tried to allude to this when I later said, “I’m telling myself this because I’m sure I’m as guilty of it as anyone.” Writing or saying anything is inherently narcissistic.

    If all we are talking about is difference in language, then I think it’s less problematic. If, however, there are those who literally mean “the actual person who wrote this text” when they are talking about “the author” (and I suspect there are some who do think this way), I think this notion needs to be challenged. If I wrote a text, I have no more authority than anyone else to say what it means. My interpretation is of equal weight to any others (and perhaps you’re right that “what does it mean” is not even the correct question). But even if the author is dead, that does not mean that the person who wrote it ceases to be a reader as well. The author is dead, but that doesn’t mean that the author loses their voice as a reader or that others can speak for them. I can speak for myself, just as others can speak for themselves. None of us should presume to speak for any other.

    But as I was saying, all of this could be solved if the “author” was just never mentioned at all. Or, conversely, if when the “author” is referred to that I remind myself that they are not actually talking about me as a person. They have created their own “author” and are not, actually, talking to or about me. Again, narcissism rears its ugly head. I (as the person who wrote it) am assuming that they (as the reader) and referring to me.

    I think the Internet, which gives people direct access to writers makes this a bit more challenging. There isn’t the distance there once was, which made the death of the author more permanent. People will comment on Facebook as there is someone behind the curtain who will respond or should respond. As if this piece is a dialogue between the person who wrote and the person who reads it. I think Barthes would say the dialogue is internal and social, but certainly not between the reader and “the author.”

    Reply
  4. Jordan Ross

    Thanks, your comment does clarify a few things for me. Totally agree with your last paragraph about the internet.

    Personally, rather than saying all writing is inherently narcissistic, I’d search for a different way of getting that same essential idea across. E.g., All writing comes from a certain finite vantage point, and necessarily reflects the author’s social and political location. I’m just keen to hang on to the social and political dimension of Barthes’ thought, and not replace it with psychological terminology.

    Anyway, thanks for wading into the weeds with me.

    Reply
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