Thursday, October 17, 2019

Roland Barthes' Death of the Author

In a way the original question about a sentence from Balzac's Sarrasine is the most interesting part of "The Death of the Author."  Barthes asks who is speaking the sentence: the hero, Balzac as expressing his philosophy of Woman, Balzac as expressing literary ideas on femininity, universal wisdom, or Romantic psychology.  It is not surprising that he next says that we will never know.  But then he tells us that "writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin."  There is no real support for this throughout the essay.  Certainly the Sarrasine example by itself is not sufficient.  Mainly he tells us that some modernist writers (Mallarme, Valery, Proust, Brecht, all notable authors) are suspicious of the author, that the author is somehow associated with capitalism, that linguistic theory somehow compels us to accept the thesis (although there is nothing about the idea of performatives that excludes authors who do the performing), and so forth.  

Barthes replaces the author with the scriptor, and then says "the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing" and further "there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now."  This is just mythology.  The scriptor has no empirical or phenomenological presence.  We cannot find him.  To be fair, though, one can take the text as standing on its own without any causal roots or history.  This is a methodology that can be useful.  But note that the scriptor is not even needed metaphysically.  If all there is is the text eternally already written then why posit a scriptor WHO DOES NOTHING? But if Barthes is just trying to convince us that writers should never complain that their hands "are too slow for [their] thought" and that they shouldn't bother to polish their productions, this just doesn't seem like good advice.

One can agree that the text does not have "a single 'theological' meaning" without accepting the rest of what Barthes says.  Why should anyone accept that the text is "a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash."  Surely originality is common.  It is only great originality that is rare.  Sure, there are passages in any text that refer back to earlier times or have been used before in other contexts.  The idea of many writings blending and clashing in one writing is a pretty idea, but how can it be spelled out?  Similarly, to say that, "the text is a tissue of quotations" is just to make a clever metaphor.  Some texts probably are tissues of quotations.  Most are not.  To say that they all are is hard to translate into something that makes sense.  One might say that when Barthes says these quotations are "drawn from the innumerable centres of culture" this explains it.  To be sure, we can trace many influences.

Is that all that is being said here?  Not at all, since Barthes actually cuts off the text from its history.  If the writer's "only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them" then how do we distinguish a writer who really does this (i.e. a typical plagiarist) and one who does not, who really does, for example, rest on one idea, i.e. defends a thesis.  Barthes rejects the idea that the writer expresses himself, for "the inner 'thing' he thinks to 'translate' is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, in words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely..."  I agree that it is naive to speak of expression in terms of translating something inner.  It seems unfounded however just to assume that whatever is expressed is just some internal dictionary.  

Barthes replaces the author with the scriptor.  This being "no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt..."  Why should we believe that?  Why throw out my entire internal life and replace it with a dictionary that, by its nature, only consists of words?  What is that motive for this erasure?  We often think of Barthes as a kind of humanist, but he seems more intent on making us into language machines without souls.  

Again, why should we believe that "life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred"?  How can we be serious that events of life are just imitations of an internal dictionary?  I can understand, again, that Barthes thinks it a myth to believe that we can arrive at a final answer to the question "what is the meaning of X" and yet we do find answers to that question, ones that work well, have elegance, fit the data, and so forth.  

Barthes' motive may be clearer when he says, "To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish a final signified, to close the writing."  But what if it isn't?  To say that a text has an author (no need for the sly capital A) is to impose a limit on the text (it does not have another author, for example) but it is not necessarily to impose a final signification since there are many possible interpretations for whatever an author might say.  This leads me to believe that Barthes is just laboring under a false dichotomy, or committing the black or white fallacy.  

He goes on to attack criticism.  Of course, if there were a final meaning or explanation for every text then criticism would be a science, and that cannot be so.  And of course if criticism were just a matter of "discovering the Author ....beneath the work" then it would be overly limited.  Gadamer also opposes this idea, although his replacement, the fusion of horizons, makes much more sense than Barthes.  I agree that it is naive to believe that when the Author has been found the text has been explained.  But explanation is a complicated thing and, at the very least, one cannot leave out the author when explaining a text.  Nor can one leave out "society, history, psyche" or the historical search for liberty and justice, as Barthes does when he incorporates these into his idea of Author.  The best one can say for Barthes is that he suggests one methodology.  For example, when he says, "everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered" this is a rule one could follow with some possible success.

One is tempted to see the entire essay as just a symbol for the rebelliousness of the 60s, for example when he says "by refusing to assign a 'secret,' an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases - reason, science, law."  Well, first, refusing God is all fine and good, but it is not at all clear what refusing reason, science and law would even mean.  It is also fine to refuse to "fix meaning" but what exactly would it mean to fix meaning?  I go the library and see a long shelf of books on Nietzsche.  Would fixing meaning be a matter of refusing to publish any more books on Nietzsche?  Or would it be to simply accept one book on Nietzsche, one that contains all of the fixed interpretations of all of Nietzsche's writings.  Who would do that?  How would it happen?  In short, fixing meaning is not really a problem since it doesn't really happen, or only does happen in limited contexts (as when the professor insists that the meaning is this and you have to remember that for the exam).  

At the beginning of this comment I said that the first part of the essay was the most interesting.  But then the conclusion insists that no one says the sentence.  Instead the reader is held up as opposed to the writer.  It is not at all clear how that gives us anything of value since the internal life of the reader would be erased along with the internal life of the writer.  

The value of this essay must come mainly from its point of inspiration.  Before it was read, people felt oppressed by the idea that the text must be explained by going to the Author's meaning.  Now however literary writers can be inspired by the idea that "a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation" and that all of this is focused on the reader, and not the author.  I am not sure why a dialogue between the reader and the author is no longer the point at issue.  But I can see it as freeing that the reader is allowed some more flexibility in reading especially in finding significance in the work that relates to his/her life.  But it gets silly when he says "quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination."  And then he admits that this is nowhere, that my talk above about relating to one's life is meaningless, since the reader is deconstructed too:  "this destination cannot any longer be personal:  the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted."  Wait!  Why do we even need a reader to do that.  The field that holds all of that together is called, guess what, "the text."  "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author":  but of course the reader born is a nobody.       

Hegel on Architecture and Sculpture

I had previously discussed Hegel's three stages of art in this blog here.

Hegel discusses sculpture both when discussing the classical from of art and when, in a section on the arts, he specifically addresses it.  The classical form eliminates the two defects we find in the symbolic form of art, first that the idea is presented in the symbolic work indeterminately or abstractly, and therefore, second, the relation of meaning and shape is defective and merely abstract in such art.  But classical art is "the free and adequate embodiment of the Idea," the Idea being elsewhere called the Absolute.  So its shape is particularly appropriate to the Idea.  Also the Idea here comes into "free and complete harmony."  I take it that since the Absolute or the Idea evolve in history through the action of humans, this means that the Idea itself achieves harmony in the classical form of art.  The classical art-form therefore completes the Ideal of art, which is the harmonious relation of concrete sensuous form and concrete spiritual content.  Hegel notes that it is not enough to have the content correspond with form (“external configuration”) since this would mean that "every portrayal of nature, every cast of features, every neighborhood, flower, scene" would be classical because of its form/content congruity.  But the content is different in classical art since it is the concrete Idea which is concretely spiritual. 

So, he asks, what in nature "belongs to the spiritual in and for itself"?   In this case the subjective Concept, the spirit of art, has found the shape appropriate to it.  This shape is the human form.  The Idea as spiritual assumes this shape when it proceeds to "temporal manifestation."  I take this to mean that the Absolute naturally arises at this point in the course of historical dialectic.  Now Hegel is well aware that artists who represent gods have often been accused of personification and anthropomorphism, and that it is often thought that such processes degrade the spiritual.  But art has, as its goal, bringing the spiritual to the sensuous, and so must engage in anthropomorphism: "Spirit appears sensuously in a satisfying way only in its body." The idea of “transmigration of the souls” is an abstract idea, which is to say that it is stuck back at the inadequate stage of the symbolic.  Hegel goes so far as to chide physiology for not seeing life as necessarily proceeding to human form as the only possible sensuous appearance for spirit.  [Is Hegel being crafty here?  After all, he sees the romantic as higher than the classical:  and so HE would not see the charge of anthropomorphism as inapt.]

Now the human body is not merely sensuous but is "the existence and the natural shape of the spirit" and hence it must be free from deficiency of the sensuous and “contingent finitude.”  But, for the correspondence of meaning and shape to be perfect, the shape purified.  And the spirituality involved cannot tower beyond the sensuous and bodily.  It must be expressible completely in human form.  Indeed, this is a defect which leads to dissolving of the classical art-form itself.

The romantic form of art cancels this unification of Idea and reality.  It reverts to the opposition of two sides found in the symbolic.  The classical form has achieved the pinnacle for “illustration by art,” and so its defect is the defect of art itself, since art takes spirit in a sensuously concrete form, the classical finding a complete unification of the two. 

And yet spirit's true nature is "infinite subjectivity of the Idea" which is absolutely inward.  So romantic art has a content that goes beyond classical art, and this idea coincides with God (in the Christian sense) as spirit.  So, for classical art, the concrete content is implicitly the immediate and sensuous unity of the divine and the human.  The Greek god is the "object of naive intuition and sensuous imagination" and so his shape is the bodily shape of man, and his power is "individual and particular." The individual viewer's inner being is implicitly at one with this being.  And yet he does not have this oneness "as inward subjective knowledge."  So knowledge of the implicit unity is the higher state.  This going from implicit to self-conscious knowledge is what distinguishes man from animal.  Similarly the nutritionist raises the process of digestion to a self-conscious science.  When man knows he is an animal he ceases to be one.

But this movement from the implicit unity of divine and human nature to immediate and known unity is no longer a matter of the spiritual in the body of man but of "inwardness of self-consciousness." Christianity brings God not as individual particular spirit but as "absolute in spirit and truth."  It "retreats from the sensuousness of imagination into spiritual inwardness."  It makes the inwardness the medium and the existence of truth's content.  Romantic art, then, is the self-transcendence of art within art.
Hegel then says that art, at this stage, must work, not for sensuous intuition, but for “the inwardness which coalesces with its object simply as if with itself.”  It strives for freedom in itself, finding reconciliation only in inner spirit:  “The inner world constitutes the content of the romantic sphere and must therefore be represented as this inwardness” which is to say “depth of feeling.”  Inwardness triumphs over the external and manifests its victory in and on the external.  The sensuous becomes worthless.  Still it needs an external medium for expression.  The sensuous external shape is now seen as transient, as well as the finite spirit and will of the individual.  All that is contingent and is “abandoned to adventures devised by an imagination whose caprice can mirror what is present to it” as it can also jumble shapes and distort them grotesquely.  The external medium now finds its essence in the heart, and it preserves this “in every chance, in every accident that takes independent shape, in all misfortune and grief, and indeed even in crime.”  As I take it, this means that romantic art may be wildly avant-garde, as we later find in John Cage, Jackson Pollock, and  other late 20th century and early 21st century artists.  This of course is a replay of the separation of Idea and shape in symbolic art, but here the Idea “now has to appear perfected in itself as spirit and heart” and it can only seek union within itself.  This, finally, is “transcendence of the Ideal as the true Idea of beauty.”
When we turn to the specific discussion of sculpture we find it as part of an overall scene set up by the previous discussion of architecture.  Architecture exists characteristically at the symbolic level.  It involves "manipulating external inorganic nature" to express spirit.  The material of architecture is "matter itself in its immediate externality as a mechanical heavy mass" and its forms are the forms of nature in terms of symmetry, which he sees as a matter of abstract Understanding.  But architecture cannot realize the Ideal of beauty since concrete spirituality is not expressed.  That is, the material of architecture is not penetrated by the Idea.  Or to put it another way, architecture cannot express the Absolute.  Although Hegel is right about the importance of mechanical heavy mass in architecture, nothing else he says about it here can be true, and one wonders whether he ever seriously contemplated one of the great Gothic cathedrals that were readily available to him.  It is only by ignoring the masterpieces of architecture that Hegel can say that its fundamental type is the "symbolic form." 

However, he lightens up his relatively negative approach when he says "architecture is the first to open the way for the adequate actuality of the god, and in his service it slaves away with objective nature in order to work it free from the jungle of finitude and the monstrosity of chance."  Note that "adequate actuality of the god" refers to "the god" as within experience and as evolving within human consciousness: one might say it is the concept of god rather than God himself.  We are not talking about any real independently existing god. 

So the purpose of architecture is primarily spiritual and primarily a matter of creating a physical church, i.e. a place for worship.  Architecture "levels a place for the god" and builds a temple for "the inner composure of the spirit and its direction on its absolute objects."  In particular it provides a protected place of assembly for the congregation.  So architecture reveals "the wish to assemble."
But when architecture does "fashion in its forms and material an adequate artistic existence for" spiritual content it has moved beyond the symbolic form of art to the classical form, which is the higher stage.  It has transformed itself to sculpture.  Architecture is limited in that that the spiritual is only inner and is not synthesized or cognate with its external form.  Sculpture overcomes this limitation.

But when we come to sculpture we find that it needs architecture.  Architecture has prepared the place, the ground, for the activity of sculpture.  The paradigmatic sculpture is the cult sculpture within the Greek temple.  (And one could add that the statue of Jesus crucified plays a similar role in the Christian church.)  Hegel begins the discussion of sculpture noting that architecture purifies the external inorganic world, sets it in order symmetrically, and makes it into something like spirit.  Moreover it creates God's house, and that of His community. 

At this point we get a bit a mythology.  We have already seen that architecture has prepared a protective setting for the community of worshipers.  Now the god enters his temple "as the lightening flash of individuality striking and permeating the inert mass" breaking the symmetry of the symbolic form of spirit.  Sculpture's task is to spiritually shape something corporeal. 

So sculpture takes the classical art-form as its type.  In sculpture expression of the sensuous is the same as expression of spirit.   It only can represent spiritual content in bodily form.  And when this happens the spirit stands before us "in blissful tranquility," the form brought to life by the content.  So, instead of focusing on mechanical quality, mass possessing weight, and the form of the inorganic world (as in architecture), sculpture focuses on the ideal of the human figure.  Hegel picks up the idea of blissful tranquility again when he mentions the spiritual coming into appearance in "eternal peace and essential self-sufficiency."  This peace and self-sufficiency is shared both by the external shape and the spiritual content, which is shaped according to its "abstract spatiality."  He also stresses that the spirit is presented as compact and unified, not splintered.  Abstract spatiality means that variety of appearance is not emphasized, but rather unity and totality.