MS 190: Authorship is the course website for the Fall 2006 Media Studies senior seminar at Pomona College in Claremont, California.
I found Barthes' idea of the reader as Author fascinating.
I'd never considered before what role the reader has in the authorship of a work, but in considering Barthes' article I find that everything makes perfect sense. Why is it that thousands of parents every year demand to have certain classic books banned from their childrens' schools even after generations of children have read them and not been (so far as I know) permanently scarred by the experience? It's not that these parents hare having a fundamental disconnect between the text and reality (though I'd probably prefer to argue they do), it's that the meaning they author and knit to the text is simply different, and somehow more threatening, than the meaning that everyone else understands the text to have.
The thing that I couldn't stop thinking about as I muddled my way through these readings was not so much about the abstract idea of whether the culturally mythical author transcends himself or his work transcends him, but rather about how any of this applies to cultural "works" and media today. One of the common threads shared by the three authors in their articles was that as we are hurtling forward through time, our culture is tending toward an ever-expanding definition of what constitutes "author," and that in that expansion, some element of "authorness" is being lost.
In my opinion, these references to draughtsmen or the struggle of photographers to gain recognition are interesting historical notes, but it seems like we have a much more urgent invasion of authorship to focus on--one that is more relevant to the moment we're in. This invasion is the inclusion of large companies--of entire industries themselves-- as "author bodies". I understand that the line between what could constitute a "cultural" work versus an "industrial" one is tenuous, but it simply does not seem right to me that whatever the status of the work itself that "The author of a computer program written while in the service of an employer has no rights whatsoever over the work; the employer becomes the author" (Nesbit 257) even if the employer has nothing to do with the work that is produced.
I see the obvious legal importance of protecting and determining authorhsip rights, but I just can't seem to care about the classification of objects as "art/culture" or "industry". I have lost all interest in discussing whether or not a work constitutes art or not (I blame it on "Mona Lisa Smile," the decidedly unartistic movie that insists on addressing this question with predictable and unispired discussion). Reading Molly Nesbit's article, I found her descriptions of the process and motivations behind this desire to classify and judge the value of products/objects far more engaging than the actual assignments of value. Who determines whether or not something constitutes art, and more importantly, why do we care so much?
Roland Barthes' article on the death of the author seemed an extreme stance to me at first - discarding the idea of authorship and claiming that writing is "the destruction of every voice, every origin." He asserts that the author engages in a destruction of identity when he writes. Rather than writing being a reflection (even a distortion) of the self, instead Barthes argues that it negates the entire concepts of identity and self. Literary analysis, and even more so media studies, tends to focus on this identity that Barthes claims does not pertain to the text. We have an obsession with uniting the text (or any work) with the person; it seems to be such a natural connection. We want to know everything about the author/director/musician so that we can reconcile this identity with his work; we assume that this context provides deeper understanding, but it simply informs one specific reading. We claim to understand the author's intent, a reading that trumps all others. But Barthes if we accept Barthes arguement that writing has no authorial identity, the author's intent is no longer pertinent.
Foucault describes one problematic aspect of an author's name. This is the fact that so much is attached to it culturally, such that when a new piece of information is learned, the name's meaning changes, although it in itself remains the same. This is the conflict of connotation versus denotation. Foucault's example is that, if we learned that Shakespeare did not write the sonnets and plays we thought he did, that would dramatically change how the name "Shakespeare" functions in society (122). The denotation/face value is the same; you still spell "Shakespeare" the same way. However, it is no longer synonymous with the ideas of high culture, romance, and the like. Foucault wrote this in 1977.
In his article "The Death of the Author," Barthes seems to say that the diminished role of the author in literature is liberating. It allows each reader to create his/her own truth, and reading is a creative process. However, hiding authorship can be denying ownership, which I find problematic. Throughout the article, Barthes uses the example of Balzac's Sarrasine, asking if a statement is made by the story's hero, by Balzac the man, by Balzac the author, or as a universal truth. In the end, Barthes decides, "No one (i.e. no 'person') says it: its source, its voice is not the true site of writing, it is reading" (54).
Yesterday, I watched Spike Lee's, "When the Levees Broke," and I must say that it was a really powerful film. It was really hard to watch the film with a critical eye, because it was so easy to get caught up in the incredible emotional magnitude of the stories told by those that lived through Hurricane Katrina. I must say that to do a critical review of the film requires at least 2 or maybe even 3 more viewings (and this is just the first half of the film).
I'd just like to share a scene from the film that made the most impact on me. It was when the people in the superdome began to start clapping, and singing in one voice, "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine." I found it incredible that despite their circumstances (no water, no food, no support from the government or from the state) they were able to find hope in each other through a song I used to sing as a child.
This is the traditional "getting started" blog post. More posts, with actual substance, will follow shortly.