September 4, 2012

Applying “Agent/cy” to “The Death of the Author”

Although Friday’s class was not my first encounter with “The Death of the Author,” I feel that it was not necessarily any easier to understand the second time around. Though the premise is simple -- the author must be evicted from the picture for the reader to construct his own meaning within the story -- it is still challenging for me to grasp that it is possible, and beneficial, to sever an author from his writing. It is similar to appreciating a Van Gogh painting only for its artistic quality. Of course, the painting is lovely. The brush strokes are practiced and precise. But isn’t what really makes this piece of art so special the fact that it was painted by Van Gogh? If the painting was created by an unknown artist, and hung above the couch in someone’s living room, it would not have nearly as much of an impact as it would if we are aware of its origins. I think the same often goes for an author and his writing.

This brings up the question of agency, or agent/cy. The dilemma between the two is defined in our notes as “tension between ‘agent’ -- one who acts or has the capacity to act, often as a representative of someone or something else -- and ‘agency’ -- the condition or state of being that includes power, or the ability to do something.”

Can a writer really let his writing be his agent? I suppose the writing has the capacity to act by projecting its ideas onto the reader, but who is it representing if the writer is meant to be dead? With no one to represent, the writing has no choice but to represent itself. On the other hand, the writing itself may possess agency. It has the power to touch the reader; they may laugh, they may cry, they may learn new things, all because of how the writing is telling them to respond. However, the writing did not give power to itself. If it was not for the author, the writing would have no rhyme or reason. Barthes says on page 875, “It is language which speaks, not the author.” To me, this cannot be. The author manipulates the language to speak in a way which gets his point across, and which portrays his feelings on a given subject. Therefore, while the writing may speak to some people in a slightly different way than others, it still represents the author’s voice. The author is the one that has the power. He has the ability to sway readers in one way or another, because he is the agent of himself.

1 comment:

Catalina said...

Nicola --
I think the example you give involving a Van Gogh painting is interesting. Is it really the origin of a painting that makes it special? Van Gogh is famous because of the art he produces because his art is executed with talent. Wouldn't it follow that we should blindly appreciate his art because of the talent it exudes rather than his status as an artist? Van Gogh isn't a celebrity who is famous just for being famous; he has actual merit, and this merit is found in his art. 250 years from now, we won't be appreciating Paris Hilton's paintings because she is famous, we will be appreciating an artist because his paintings speak to a multitude of people.

So is a painting the agency through which Van Gogh is communicating? Or is the painting the agent itself? After all, you are communicating with the painting when you form a relationship with it, not Van Gogh. In this case, the "author" of this text is literally dead. So is Van Gogh speaking to use from the grave, or are his swirls of color on a canvas speaking to us?

Concerning art, some people find it lacking rhyme or reason. For example, Salvador Dalí 's surrealism would once have been seen as absurd -- after all, everyone knows that clocks don't melt all over the dessert. Now, though, many can see the merit in this style of art. I do not agree with Barthes that "[i]t is the language which speaks, not the author." (875) Instead, I think it is the listening of the reader which allows the language to speak, for many times the attention and analysis of a reader gives a text cultural significance where the work of the author alone wouldn't suffice. Many times an author's work isn't recognized until after their death -- their text outlives them to a time where it can be better appreciated. Whether this is interpreted as being "ahead of their time" or not properly responding to the exigence of that time period, the text most certainly brings fame to the author, not the other way around.

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