Adventures in Authorland: or Rethinking Intellectual History and the Death of the Author
Copyright © Jim Loter, 1995
"Come, we shall have some fun now!" thought Alice. "I'm glad they've begun asking riddles — I believe I can guess that," she added aloud.
"Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?" said the March Hare.
"Exactly so," said Alice.
"Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.
"I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least — at least I mean what I say — that's the same thing you know."
"Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "why you might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!"
The above bit of dialogue from Alice in Wonderland is a gross simplification of the questions ultimately posed by this paper. Alice's conception of the relation of linguistic ontology to authorship is aligned with the position furthered by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels in their controversial article "Against Theory" — namely, that textual meaning is equivalent to authorial intention. The twentieth-century Mad Hatter who opposes Alice is the legacy of critics who, after W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, would label her statement (and, subsequently, Knapp and Michaels' claim) variously as an example of "The Intentional Fallacy." Furthermore, in European canons of thought, the question of the author's relationship to his or her text has been conceived around a focal point of the author's symbolic disappearance. In 1968, Roland Barthes joyfully declared "The Death of the Author," and, later, Michel Foucault questioned the very term "author" through a critical genealogy of the term's usage. The author — in European and in Anglo-American theories — has thus alternately grown and shrunk throughout (primarily) the last century or so and is never the same author at any point.
In The Death and Return of the Author, Seán Burke offers a helpful outline of the "Prehistory" of the question of authorship as it played out in Europe. He divides the major lines of thought into two camps: the Phenomenologists and the Structuralists. Foucault, naturally, is placed in the second camp (along with Barthes and Derrida) and is instrumental in catalyzing the transformation of that rigid school of thought into the more liquid and diverse field of post-structuralism. He calls this latter trajectory, "the easier and more hospitable theoretical path leading to the announcement of the death of the author" (10). This "path" can be understood, according to Burke, as a break (or divergence) from the influence of Husserl and Sartre — the latter especially being a strong intellectual presence in France during the 1940's and 1950's. Sartre's phenomenology "extended the notion of a free subjectivity beyond philosophy to literature and politics" and resulted in "an environment within which the idea of the subject held the same ascendancy as language has occupied for the last quarter of a century" (Burke 11). After the triple impact of anthropology, psychoanalysis and linguistics upon the arena of intellectual thought in the mid-1950's, the erstwhile phenomenologists began questioning the very concept of the Subject that grounded their philosophical inquiries. The "linguistic revolution" induced by the works of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, and Saussure "threw down a direct challenge to the central and founding role of consciousness, whether registered in terms of Cartesian certainty, Husserlian phenomenology, or the doctrine of individual freedom outlined in Sartrian existentialism" (Burke 13). One result of the shift from Phenomenology to Structuralism, it should be apparent, was the questioning and subsequent dissolution of the author in European discourse.
Burke's study further divides the authorship battlefield into Continental (Phenomenological/Structuralist) and Anglo-American lines of thought, but the latter — exemplified in its extremities by "The Intentional Fallacy" and "Against Theory" — receives surprisingly short-shrift in his study. But despite his brief treatment of these two Anglo-American texts, it can be shown that the two lines of thought (Continental and Anglo-American) are not as mutually exclusive as traditional accounts of intellectual history may have it. In fact, it can be seen that the Continental line can be rethought as actually culminating in (rather than opposed to) the kind of New Pragmatism found in "Against Theory." Rather than claim, as Burke does, that "between these two positions there is little or no compromise," (140) I will demonstrate that the radically anti-humanist construction of the institution (or "function") of authorship by Foucault (inspired by Nietzsche) provides the ground for the startling and controversial claims offered by "Against Theory."
Thus, I have two concerns: 1) to demonstrate that the two essays which hitherto have been conceived as the veritable bookends of the Anglo-American authorial intention debate — Wimsatt and Beardsley's "The Intentional Fallacy" (anti-intentionality), and Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels' "Against Theory" (pro-intentionality) — do not oppose each other on any significant point; and 2) to argue that the hyper-rational, legalistic, polemical, and seemingly-reactionary revisionist argument of "Against Theory" actually proposes a model of authorship that is not necessarily contradictory to the Continental school of theory, especially the works and writing of two of the most celebrated radical "irrationalists" of the last 150 years: Nietzsche and Foucault. In so doing, I suggest the division of critical schools of thought into "Continental" and "Anglo-American" camps is a problematic that must be rethought.
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was going to get out again. (11)
In 1946, Wimsatt and Beardsley's essay "The Intentional Fallacy" cleared a path for a less-Romantic, more hermetic kind of poetics called New Criticism. Their piece takes issue with the New Humanist practice of appealing to biographical information about a poet's life to better understand the allusions, language, and meaning of a work of textual art. Catherine Belsey explains that New Criticism rose as a movement against the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century belief of "expressive realism" which, she claims, "was the product of the fusion of [the Aristotelian concept of art as mimesis] with the new Romantic conviction that poetry ... expressed the perceptions and emotions of a person 'possessed of more than usual organic sensibility'" (Belsey 8). Wimsatt and Beardsley challenge such assumptions and declare: "the design and intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art" (3). The poem, they maintain, " is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it" (5). Meaning, they claim, lay in the words themselves — in the history of conventional uses of language, the semantics and syntax of the poem itself (10).
In "Against Theory," however, New Pragmatists Knapp and Michaels explicitly state that textual meaning is identical to authorial intention; that "a text means ... what its author intends" (13). The futile function of literary theory, they state, is "to solve — or to celebrate the impossibility of solving — a set of familiar problems: the function of authorial intention, the status of literary language, the role of interpretive assumptions, and so on" (11). Theoretical problems are thus illusions; they are the incoherent results of fundamental mistakes about the nature of language. Language, Knapp and Michaels maintain, is inherently intentional; in other words, a meaningful sign (signifier/signified dyad) is only a meaningful sign because it has been produced by a conscious agent — the author. Sounds or marks that resemble language but are not produced by human agency (such as the "speech" of a parrot, a cloud formation, a "word" in alphabet soup) are simply meaningless sounds or marks that only resemble signs or language. Knapp and Michaels contend (following Saussure) that neither signifiers nor signifieds can exist in isolation from each other; there are only meaningful signs (signifier/signified) or meaningless sounds or marks. As long as a theoretical gulf exists between meaning and intention, theory can neither succeed nor fail; if the gulf is closed (as the authors insist it should be) then it demonstrates that "the whole enterprise of critical theory is misguided and should be abandoned" (Knapp and Michaels 12).
"The Intentional Fallacy" and "Against Theory" have been subject to much critique with a mind to refute their extremist claims. Colin Lyas' "Anything Goes: The Intentional Fallacy Revisited," observes that Wimsatt and Beardsley argue for a method of criticism that involves no inference or recourse to any context outside "the work of art itself" (Lyas 291). Any extra-textual material is, according to the authors, not part of the text in question; and since criticism is supposed to speak about the meaning of the text, such material is irrelevant. Lyas, however, expresses (justifiable) doubt as to "whether any attributions of properties are interpretation free and inference free" (295). In other words, there is no such place as "outside of context"; Wimsatt and Beardsley's argument is, therefore for Lyas, untenable. On the other end of the spectrum, the debate over the New Pragmatist essay "Against Theory" reads like a debate over the nature of Anglo-American criticism itself. The feedback from the essay inspired the journal Critical Inquiryto publish the original article and some relevant responses in a book (aptly named) Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism. The strongest attempt at rebuttal came from the central figure of neo-pragmatism himself, Richard Rorty. Rorty questions both the argument of "Against Theory," and the declared alignment of its authors with New Pragmatism. Instead of troubling the field with questions of meaning and intention, Rorty argues,
one should follow W. V. Quine, Donald Davidson, and Jeffrey Stout in saying that the question "What is the meaning of a text?" is as useless as the question "What is the nature of the good?" Pragmatists are supposed to treat everything as a matter of choice of context and nothing as a matter of intrinsic properties. (Rorty 134)
For Rorty, then, the argument is not only wrong, it is irrelevant to the goals of pragmatism.
It seems quite apparent that "The Intentional Fallacy" and "Against Theory" are at polar opposites — that they are, respectively, the black and white pieces of a critical chess game in which there has reigned stalemate for 50 years. Precious little, however, has been done to explore these essays in terms of each other. In The Death and Return of the Author, Seán Burke does, however, compare "Against Theory" and "The Intentional Fallacy" and he situates them (somewhat) historically. He mentions that the two pieces "are more striking for their similarities," but he lists only two incidental ones: the fact that the articles were each co-authored, and that they were both written in the name of something "New" — respectively, New Criticism and New Pragmatism (Burke 138). Even with a more concrete example, Burke only manages to see that
both articles maintain that it is fruitless to inquire into an author's intention, that there is never any need to step outside the text in search of an author: on the pragmatist case, because what the author meant is everything that the text means; for the New Critics, because what the author means cannot find its way back into his or her text. (Burke 139)
Moreover, according to Burke, this aspect of the two arguments results in the field of literary criticism "simplified in one of two antithetical modes" (139). Burke writes further, "Between these two positions there is little or no compromise, and the question of intention has rarely been distributed in terms of a middle ground" (140). In Burke's remaining study of the Continental school of authorship, these two Anglo-American positions — alike, for him, only in their extremity — are marginalized in favor of the European post-structuralist "middle ground" on which he situates Derrida, Foucault and Barthes. This "middle ground," however, exists only as a function of the two boundaries he describes; and the difference (read: non-concurrence) of the Continental and Anglo-American lines of thought are, perhaps, not so distinct as we have been led to believe. What if these boundaries and mutually exclusive lineages were illusory? Or, rather, what if they overlapped to such an extent that they contained no space at all between them — they ceased to be boundaries?
"The race is over!" and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking "But who has won?"
At last the Dodo said "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes." (40-41)
It is on the definition of the author whereupon both "Against Theory" and "The Intentional Fallacy" are sorely misunderstood and on which they agree. In Signature Pieces: On the Institution of Authorship, Peggy Kamuf poses, "How can one be sure that the authors [Knapp and Michaels] do know what they mean by their word 'author'?" (180). Kamuf plays up the "irony" that the barrage of contradictory and confused critical responses from the theoretical community to this essay indicates that additional "meanings" have inadvertently (perhaps unintentionally?) risen beyond the control of the "authors" Knapp and Michaels. "No 'author,'" she continues, "... can get to the controls or get the last word" (Kamuf 180). The fact that even their own essay is open to multiple interpretations, therefore, points Kamuf to make a case similar to Wimsatt and Beardsley's that the "poem is detached at birth" from its author and eludes any future attempts to control its meaning. She claims further that it is Knapp and Michaels' "mistaken use of the term 'author' at a critical juncture in their demonstration [which] triggers the aporetic chain reaction and implodes their invention" (181). This alleged mistake occurs during Knapp and Michaels' discussion of the "Wave Poem," which I will summarize.
In an example designed to demonstrate the impossibility of imagining intentionless meaning, Knapp and Michaels create a hypothetical situation in which the reader encounters a series of markings written into the sand on a beach. These markings resemble the first stanza of a poem by Wordsworth. In order to interpret these marking, they claim, one must first assume that an intending agent (an author) scratched them in the sand. If, by chance, a wave crashes up onto the beach, erasing the first stanza but replacing it with the second, Knapp and Michaels argue that the reader now has more evidence to "count [the marks] as nonintentional effects of a mechanical process (erosion, percolation, etc.)" (16). In this second case, the markings only resemble words; not being words, they are meaningless. But, the authors continue, suppose that upon identifying the markings as a freak occurrence, a submarine surfaces from the sea, six lab-coated scientists emerge, view the "poem" with binoculars and scream, "It worked! It worked!" This incident provides new evidence for the intentional creation of the markings and, hence, meaningfulness. In other words, the markings were intended by a human agent to communicate a thought.
Admittedly, the hypothetical situation is absurd; and Kamuf, in addition, identifies it as a crucial point in Knapp and Michaels' argument — a crucial point which undermines their argument. The point of contention stems from the authors' use of a Wordsworth poem. Kamuf attacks Knapp and Michaels for failing to include Wordsworth in their elegant little equation. According to Kamuf, Wordsworth's poem is a set of "hypercoded marks"; it is "a well-known poem" (186). The lyrics that appear in the sand, however, are ontologically reduced to mere evidence of a scientific experiment in communications for which, she observes, "any kind of iterable mark could have served as well" (186). The reduction of Wordsworth's poem to merely an expression of the success of a twisted scientific experiment is unfounded, Kamuf asserts, and indicates that Knapp and Michaels do not understand the term "author." "The imagined empirical 'fact' of this particular act," she contends, "would tend to empty the poem of all meaning ..." (186). Irrespective of the correctness of Knapp and Michaels' overall argument, however, Kamuf's critique seems to miss the main point of their essay. The confusion lay in the fact that nothing about Knapp and Michaels' arguments suggests anything about the particular meaning of any text. In other words, they are offering a claim about meaning in general (ontology) and not offering an interpretive method (such as hermeneutics, historical scholarship, etc.). Kamuf's concern with Wordsworth, therefore, is only a concern because nothing Knapp and Michaels write can be used to help their hypothetical reader understand the poem better or worse than he [sic] could (or couldn't) already. In fact, we can say the example is designed to demonstrate that what literary studies has always called the author is a Romantic construction of a creative genius whose words take on a meaning all their own via poetic inspiration. In "Against Theory," Wordsworth's ontological status is reduced to the same level as a half-dozen wacky scientists on a submarine. In response to this act of iconoclasm, Kamuf pleads almost desperately: "If it were not Wordsworth who 'wrote' the poem on the beach, how can one speak of another 'author'...?" (184). Thus it is true, per Kamuf, that Knapp and Michaels misunderstand the author, but they misunderstand it intentionally [sic] with a mind to eliminate the undue control a Wordsworth, say, can have on the essentially arbitrary field of language.
But is not eliminating the omnipotent control of the author the same goal as Wimsatt and Beardsley's? Wimsatt and Beardsley explicitly state that their rally against the critical practice of appealing to the author's intention for poetic evaluation "is a principle which goes deep into some differences in the history of critical attitudes" (3). But that their project is directed against a particular (Romantic) conception of the author comes across in the next sentence: "It is a principle which ... points to the polar opposites of classical 'imitation' and romantic expression" (3). The critical practice they repudiate proceeds along "the way of biographical or genetic inquiry;" in short, it is a search for the particular origins of the text — the influences, thoughts, and drives that inspired the historical person of the author. According to this method, write Wimsatt and Beardsley, a critic performing an exegesis of Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," would wonder if the poem's reference to "mermaids singing" was an allusion to John Donne. The first impulse of the older critic, then, would be to call up T. S. Eliot and ask him "in the spirit of a man who would settle a bet" (18). But this Eliot is no longer the "oracle" of old — the self-aware, self-actualized inspired Poet in whose words Truth is transparently revealed. The alternative method, Wimsatt and Beardsley suggest, is for the New Critic, solely on the basis of the words in front of him or her, to inquire "whether it makes any sense if Eliot-Prufrock is thinking about Donne," although this line of inquiry "may have the disadvantage of providing no certain conclusion" (18).
It is clear at this point that "Against Theory" and "The Intentional Fallacy" are addressing completely different problems (but not the different or "antithetical" problems Burke identifies [see my page 8 above]). Whereas Knapp and Michaels are concerned solely with issues of ontology and have no pretensions to offering a critical or evaluative method, Wimsatt and Beardsley have nothing but such pretensions. The overlap does occur, to a certain extent, if we consider that both articles are addressing themselves directly against Romanticism. The New Critics (formalists, essentially) are out gunning for the Intending Author because they believe everything a critic needs to know about the poem is on the page. The author, they maintain, has never been able to control or manipulate his or her poem after it is written. Thus, for the New Critic to maintain loyalty to this obsolete and mythical author is more than futile, it is irresponsible, hypocritical, and in bad conscience. Knapp and Michaels, on the other hand, want to equate meaning with authorial intention, but indicate strongly that even in so doing there is no reason to believe that the intention can be more or less objectively available in practice. Ontologically, any interpretation is an interpretation of the author's intent, but, practically, no given interpretation has more or less theoretical claim to truth than another — or, rather, no method can absolutely guarantee a correct reading, but no method can objectively prove that a reading is not correct. Wimsatt and Beardsley discourage phoning Eliot and asking him about his poetry because that gives him too much control and credit; Knapp and Michaels would argue that calling up Eliot is simply one way among other potentially valid ones for gathering interpretive evidence. Both pairs of critics, therefore, dislodge the author from any special, metaphysical importance in the game of textuality.
"But I'm not a serpent, I tell you!" said Alice. "I'm — I'm a --"
"Well! What are you?" said the Pigeon. "I can see you're trying to invent something!" (78)
Foucault himself provides a nice segue into the upcoming foray. In "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," he writes:
If interpretation were the slow exposure of the meaning hidden in an origin, then only metaphysics could interpret the development of humanity. But if interpretation is the violent or surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which in itself has no essential meaning ... then the development of humanity is a series of interpretations. (86)
This passage is especially relevant because of its dual focus on both history and interpretation. The intellectual history I am at pains to redesign (however slightly) in this paper is both a history rising from interpretation (per Foucault) and a history of interpretation. The main characters in this story are both indelibly caught in and obsessed with the subject [sic] of interpretation. Therefore, what I describe is not a history of the practice of interpretation that rises organically through the evolution of ideas to climax at the pinnacle of Reason. Rather it is a history comprised of interpretations of which this endeavor is but one intervention, one "violent appropriation." The raw materials, as Foucault stated above, have "no essential meaning."
One of the greatest single influences on Foucault was, undoubtedly, Nietzsche; and the one work of Nietzsche's that addresses the concerns of authorship, language, and meaning most directly is probably his 1873 essay "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense." In this essay, Nietzsche asks, "What is truth?" and answers with perhaps one of his most famous declarations: "a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which were poetically and rhetorically heightened, transferred, and adorned, and after long use seem solid, canonical, and binding to a nation" (250). Language, above all, does not reveal truth — in fact, Nietzsche propounds "language is not a logical process, and the whole material in and with which the man of truth ... works and builds, stems, if not from a never-never land, in any case not from the essence of things" (249). Nonetheless, Nietzsche keeps a space open for "the liberated intellect," the man for whom "that enormous structure of beams and boards of the concepts [is] ... just a scaffolding and a plaything for his boldest artifices" (255). Is this "liberated intellect" the intending author whom we seek? We can infer from his treatment of truth and its relation to the subject and to language a starting point, at least, for investigating the role of the author in modern intellectual history.
The salient idea to establish at this point is that Nietzsche's view does not exclude any "essence of things," only that through language we have no direct knowledge of these essences. This point is made clear in Nietzsche's discussion of concepts as differentiating principles. "Even our distinction between individual and species is anthropomorphic," he writes, "and does not stem from the essence of things, although we do not dare to say that it doesnot correspond to it. For that would be a dogmatic assertion and as such just as unprovable as its opposite" ([my italics] 250 ). In other words, the status of the real outside language is preserved simply because it cannot be proven not to exist. It is language, however, which prevents the "rational man" access to a space outside of the binding dichotomy between truth and lies; it is "the legislation of language [which] enacts the first laws of truth" (Nietzsche 247). Nietzsche, thus, recasts the struggle of truth versus lying in a new (extra-moral) framework of rationality (which subsumes the truth and lies) versus the "terrible powers ... which run counter to scientific truth" — irrationality (Nietzsche 254). The author, therefore, must be a creation only of the rational side of things — capable of telling both the truth and the lies, with no more access to the "essence of things" as any other "rational man." In the empty space of agency opened up by Nietzsche's essay, a decidedly anti-Romantic author steps in, rationalized by the very fact that he uses "language ... the structure of concepts" (Nietzsche 254).
Foucault, thus, addresses the question of this rational formulation of the author. The obvious point of entry into Foucault's world vis-ŕ-vis authorship is through his "What is an author?" essay. This is not obvious simply on the face of it, however. It could be argued that Foucault is writing in direct response to Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author," which appeared just two years before "What is an Author?" Under Barthes' formulation, "To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on the that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing" (Barthes 147). The death of the "Author-God," then, "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" (Barthes 147). This post-structuralist Nietzschean act of theocide, for Barthes, has the benefit of restoring to prominence the multiplicity of language and the dominance of the reader in the process of interpretation. Barthes declares, "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author" (148).
But one is left to question whether this Author-God is not merely a straw-deity evoked to heighten the force of Barthes' proclamation. Indeed, Burke himself asks this of Barthes, and concludes that "Barthes himself, in seeking to dethrone the author, is led to an apotheosis of authorship that vastly outpaces anything to be found in the critical history he takes arms against" (Burke 27). Ultimately, according to Burke, "Barthes's Author is a metaphysical abstraction, a Platonic type, a fiction of the absolute" (27). It is, in Burke's eyes, the work of Anglo-American criticism — especially New Criticism — that scores the monolithic facade of Authorship as Barthes conceives of it. "There is no question," Burke writes, "that [New Criticism's] injunctions such as the intentional fallacy, and the edict that criticism should limit itself to the 'words on the page' sufficed to thoroughly distance their activities from any form of theocentric auteurism" (Burke 25). This approach, Burke continues, may seem "tepid ... by comparison with the work of French structuralists and poststructuralists" (Burke 25). It is this very tepidity, however, that I wish to explore — this seemingly banal and gauche space of intersection between the Continental and Anglo-American lines of authorship theories.
It is this space that Foucault, likewise, wishes to explore in "What is an Author," though, characteristically, the structure of his argument is not drawn in such an obvious pattern of comparison. The catalyzing force behind Foucault's piece is that
criticism and philosophy took note if the disappearance — or death — of the author some time ago. But the consequences of their discovery of it have not been sufficiently examined.... A certain number of notions that are intended to replace that privileged position of the author actually seem to preserve that privilege and suppress the real meaning of his disappearance. (103b)
The two "notions" Foucault announces he will investigate are actually the two concerns of "Against Theory" and "The Intentional Fallacy" respectively. Foucault's essay actually asks two questions — "What is a work?" and "How does one interpret a work?" — which roughly correspond to the two concerns of the seemingly antithetical "Against Theory" and "Intentional Fallacy" essays. As we have seen, these two essays are actually driven by the sole desire to topple the Romantic author from his throne, but they differ in their relationships to interpretive method. In a sense, the separate goals of Knapp and Michaels' and Wimsatt and Beardsley's — the question of textual identity and the question of critical evaluation, respectively — are fused by Foucault in his essay. Therefore, "What is an Author?" occupies a strange ground between "Against Theory," and "The Intentional Fallacy" in that Foucault's essay marks the point of transition from that one into the other, and vice-versa. I shall examine each of his "notions" in turn.
"The first is the idea of the work," Foucault says. "What is a work?" (103b). The unity of some object called a "work" (or, in our case, a "text") depends not upon some metaphysical characteristic of language, some innate property of the "words themselves." But before any criticism can occur, the object of that criticism must be established with some criteria. A critic cannot usefully declare that everything that can be empirically proven to have been written by an individual counts as a "work." Foucault's own philosophical mentor serves as an apt example of this dilemma. "When undertaking the publication of Nietzsche's works, for example, where should one stop?" he asks (103b). Foucault is also concerned that in the world of the now-deceased author, a new formalism will arise. "It is not enough to declare that we should do without the writer (the author) and study the work itself," he states (104b). Therefore, although the complicated history of Nietzsche, for only one example, rules out biographical inquiry, the task of identifying a work still cannot be done "solely from the grammatical features, formal structures, and objects of discourse" (117b). Where is the unifying principle to be found? After the layers of biographical inquiry and formal properties are stripped away, do we discover only an empty core?
No, answers Foucault. After all other possibilities of securing meaning — of identifying a group of markings as a text — are exhausted, the only recourse is the author. "The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning" (Foucault 119b). For a discourse theorist such as Foucault, "ideology" takes on a somewhat neutral connotation. In the "Truth and Power" interview, Foucault states:
The notion of ideology appears to me to be difficult to make use of .... [L]ike it or not, it always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth. Now, I believe the problem does not consist in drawing the line between that in a discourse which falls under the category of scientificity or truth, and that which comes under some other category, but in seeing historically how effects of truth are produced within discourses which in themselves are neither true nor false. (60a)
In relation to our question, this definition of ideology indicates that the "ideological figure" of the author is not an oppressive construction designed to mask the real or true textual meaning; nor is it a space for absolute rational authority to reign. Rather, the author grows, transforms, and mutates under the pull and pressure of that body of contingency called "history." The question of the author is no longer "Does he exist?" ("Is he True?" or, in Foucault's own words, "Who really spoke?" [119b]); rather, it is "How does the category function?" Under the current (historically specific) understanding that there exist "texts" and that these texts have "meanings" that a "reader" can "interpret," then the author is that "by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction" (Foucault 119b). The author, in all his various forms, guises, names, and places, is that which gives textual identity to raw material.
It is now easy to see (I hope) how Foucault's conception of the author intersects with Knapp and Michaels'. For the latter, it is important to understand that in their equation [meaning = author's intention] "meaning" refers to "textual identity," and "author" does not refer to the Romantic author-God, but, rather — in a more Foucauldian sense — "the complex operation which constructs a certain rational being that we call 'author'" (Foucault 110b). In Knapp and Michaels' own words, this formulation becomes: "The object of all reading is always the historical author's intention, even if the historical author is the universal muse" (103a). In so declaring, however, they are quick to point out that:
To insist ... that the object of interpretation is always a historical intention is ... not to justify or even to recommend the pursuit of historical scholarship .... Since it provides no help is choosing among critical procedures, the idea of intention is methodologically useless. (104b)
But what of method? After a critic determines thatthe meaning of a text is the same as the author's intention, how does he or she embark on the journey of discovering what that meaning is?
This brings me to what I identify as Foucault's second question: "How does one interpret a work?" After addressing the problem of identifying a text in the absence of an author (an impossibility), Foucault observes: "We try, with great effort, to imagine the general condition of each text, the condition of both the space in which it is dispersed and the time in which it unfolds" (104b). There are various methods for imagining this space and these methods each favors the concept of writing — a concept which "should allow us not only to circumvent references to the author, but also situate his recent absence" (Foucault 104b). Broadly speaking, these methods fall under the twin rubrics of "the critical and the religious approaches" (Foucault 104b). Both approaches characterize writing (even language) itself as a pre-given, pre-existing structure of conventions and forms with meaningful potential. Foucault contends:
Giving writing a primal status seems to be a way of retranslating, in transcendental terms, both the theological affirmation of its sacred character and the critical affirmation of its creative character. To admit that writing is, because of the very history that made it possible, subject to the test of oblivion and repression, seems to represent, in transcendental terms, the religious principle of the hidden meaning ... and the critical principle of implicit significations, silent determinations, and obscured contents. (104b)
Clearly, observes Foucault, "this usage of the notion of writing runs the risk of maintaining the author's privileges under the protection of writing's a priori status" (105b). In other words, far from eliminating the authority of the author, as these theories claim, they simply declare his death and proceed unaltered with the new god of writing.
In what manner should a critic approach the text? Literary criticism, Foucault suggests, is still tangled up in many of the same methods that dominated the field at the beginning of the century. He writes:
Modern literary criticism still defines the author the same way: the author provides the basis for explaining not only the presence of certain events in a work, but also their transformations, distortions, and diverse modifications (through his biography, the determination of his individual perspective, the analysis of his social position, and the revelation of his basic design). (Foucault 111b)
Critics, therefore, still construct a rational being called an author in order to discern in accounts of his or her life "a 'deep' motive, a 'creative' power, or a 'design,' the milieu in which writing originates" (Foucault 110b). That this sounds like exactly the type of criticism that met with Wimsatt and Beardsley's scorn should be of no surprise. "There is criticism...," they wrote, "and there is author psychology.... There is danger of confusing personal and poetic studies; and there is the fault of writing the personal as if it were poetic" (Wimsatt and Beardsley 10). Rather than eschew this approach of rebuilding the author's biography through textual traces on the grounds of its being merely a non-scholarly method, Foucault argues that this method, like any other, has the habit of excluding other practices from consideration. Even if the author-as-function is necessary for the existence of the meaningful text, Foucault stresses the real author and his [sic] life's story have no more or less privilege as any other criteria in constructing the truth about a text. With an understanding of the author function, then, the aforementioned modern critical definitions are not necessarily supplanted or superseded.
In this section, we have seen that Foucault's concerns in 1969 derive from the same desires as Wimsatt and Beardsley's in 1946 and anticipate Knapp and Michaels' arguments in 1982. In the former case, Foucault wishes to topple the practice of biographical criticism and, consequently, the Romantic author from predominance in the field of literary criticism; but unlike the New Critics, he leaves open biographical study as simply one, albeit incomplete, option for discovering the process of the author function. In the case of the latter, Foucault observes that the "author" is a function of a certain historical manifestation of rationality and, therefore, is a necessary component to even speak of the identity of a text under this ideology. Though he certainly stops short of Knapp and Michaels' pragmatic equation of textual identity and authorial intention, and neither does he whole-heartedly embrace Wimsatt and Beardsley's total elimination of the author's intent, Foucault's post-structuralist work nonetheless introduces some undeniable intersections into the so-called Anglo-American tradition that hitherto has been conceived as more-or-less separate.
"Please your Majesty," said the Knave: "I didn't write it, and they can't prove I did: there's no name signed at the end."
"If you didn't sign it," said the King, "that only makes matters worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you'd have signed your name like an honest man." (183)
The parallel histories of intellectual activity vis-ŕ-vis the problem of the author have usually been divided into the Continental and Anglo-American traditions. As we have seen, Continental theory of the last century has been predominantly a struggle to disturb the phenomenological conception of the transcendental subject. In terms of the author, this struggle has resulted in his so-called "death" at the hands of Barthes and Foucault. On the Anglo-American side, the influence of the anti-authorial New Criticism conserved a more functionalist lineage of empiricism and positivism. This tradition has only reluctantly investigated the consequences of Wimsatt and Beardsley's polemic. According to Burke, recent efforts by the New Pragmatists "have shown themselves strangely complicitous with certain aspects of formalist and textual thinking" (169). The approach of Knapp and Michaels, for instance, in Burke's eyes "serves as one more way of keeping authorial subjectivity in abeyance" (169). In general, "the Anglo-American tradition has turned away from the problems posed by authorship .... No attempts to consolidate, revise or redefine anti-authorial theory have been made, nor has any decisive and broadly-based interest been shown in the project of authorial renewal" (169)
In this paper, I have argued exactly the opposite. It is not that I view this essay solely as a "decisive and broadly-based" contribution to the argument; rather, I feel that profound misreadings of "The Intentional Fallacy" and "Against Theory" have tended to occlude the contributions to the author question that have already been madewithin the so-called Anglo-American tradition. Furthermore, I have tried to demonstrate that the Anglo-American tradition has more in common with the Continental line of structuralism/post-structuralism than has been commonly assumed. Burke claims that Americans have never been able to effectively deploy the ideas of the Continental theorists. He writes: "the death of the author has revealed itself as another casualty of the stammered and asymmetrical exchange between continental and Anglo-American thought" (Burke 162). Though it is true that the two sides of the ocean have seemedto have been at odds with each other since the 1960's, I believe that at an important and fundamental level, the two lines have converged on more than a few points over the years. The dissolution of the Romantic Subject (whether it is phenomenologically imbued or not) is the goal of both schools; both schools, likewise, have approached the topic variously through the role of the author. In Foucault we have what may be viewed as the ultimate rejection of the author as useful concept for criticism. On the contrary, Foucault's formulation of the author is entirely based upon how the author has been and can be used — how the author is a variable construction, but always a necessary part of any interpretive activity regardless of his specific deployment. With Knapp and Michaels, it seems as though the absolute power of the author-God is re-asserted with forceful conviction. If we understand this intending and meaning author, however, as a radically contingent agent who holds no more or less future control over the meaning he had once intended, then the fear of a New Pragmatic Totalitarianism evaporates.
In short, Burke claims that the quasi-Derridean concept of "decentering" has been adopted by the Anglo-American tradition "so joyously, so blithely because the centre has not been fully comprehended: the unsettling of centre is misconstrued as erasure rather that as displacement and relocation" (166-7). We can perhaps now argue that the idea that at least some facets of the Anglo-American tradition's misconstruing of the centre has been misconstrued on more than a few occasions. All of this is certainly not to say that there have not been misreadings, misapplications and misunderstandings of Continental theories, but instead that those occasions where there has been congruency need to be identified and resituated within the supposed twin, parallel lines of intellectual history. Such an activity, I feel, can have the consequences of reshaping the ways theories and critical practices influence and inform one another through history.
Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Image. Music, Text.New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 143-150.
Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London: Routledge, 1980.
Burke, Seán. The Death and Return of the author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1992.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Mount Vernon: Peter Pauper Press, 1940.
Dewey, John. "The Development of Pragmatism." Pragmatism: The Classic Writings. Ed. H. S. Thayer. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1982. 23-40.
Diggins, John Patrick. The Promise of Pragmatism: Modernism and the Crisis of Knowledge and Authority. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minn. P, 1983.
Foucault, Michel. "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History." The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. Trans. Josué V. Harari. New York: Pantheon, 1984. 101-120.
------(a). "Truth and Power." ibid. 80-100.
------(b). "What is an author?" ibid. 51-75.
Kamuf, Peggy. Signature Pieces: On the Institution of Authorship. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.
Knapp, Steven and Walter Benn Michaels. "Against Theory." Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism.Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: U of C Press, 1985. 11-30.
------(a). "A Reply to Our Critics." ibid. 95-105.
Lyas, Colin. "Anything Goes: The Intentional Fallacy Revisited." British Journal of Aesthetics. 23: 4 (Autumn 1983), 291-305.
Nietzsche, Fredrich. "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense." Fredrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language. Eds. Sander Gilman, Carole Blair, David Parent. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 246-257.
Rorty, Richard. "Philosophy Without Principles." Against Theory. ibid. 132-138.
Wimsatt, W. K., Jr., and Monroe C. Beardsley. "The Intentional Fallacy." The Verbal Icon. Lexington: U of Kentucky Press, 1954. 3-18.
1 Burke is certainly not the only theoretician to make this distinction. In Sexual/Textual Politics(London: Routledge, 1985), Toril Moi divides the field of feminist literary criticism into "Anglo-American" and "French" camps. In the Preface, she explicity states: "The terms ... are not to be taken to represent purely national demarcations: they do not signal the critics' birthplace but the intellectual tradition within which they work" (xiv). Her caveat, however, reinforces the very problem with this divisive method. My point in this paper is that though intellectual traditions grow under different cultural influences on different continents, continuing to maintain rigid critical distinctions tends to overlook crucial intersections. In this paper, "Anglo-American" and "Continental" are Burke's distinctions.
2 Terry Eagleton stresses, somewhat contra Belsey, that the New Critical reaction was a political one rooted in the attempt of Southern intellectuals to break from the more-scientific Northern ideologies, and that poetry itself was still viewed on the formal level under the terms of "expressive realism" (46-47). On the question of authorship, however, Eagleton agrees that New Critics furthered the idea that whatever reality poetry does express, it does not express the divine inspiration of its creator.
3 If "The Intentional Fallacy" is an example of New Criticism, "Against Theory" aligns itself with New Pragmatism. John Patrick Diggins has claimed that pragmatism is "America's one original contribution to the world of philosophy" (2). Founded, arguably, by Charles Sanders Peirce over the mid- to late-nineteenth century, pragmatism is oriented against metaphysics and towards the understanding of practical experiences. Pragmatism eschews the notion that knowledge can be gained a priori, or before interpretation. Additionally, Diggins observes that pragmatism's shift in the latter half of the twentieth-century to "neo-pragmatism" was catalyzed by a paradigm shift in philosophy that reformulated the field as a linguistic enterprise. Now, he writes, "instead the world is the `prison-house of language' rather than the externalization of the soul, and philosophy becomes what can be thought in conversation rather than what can be believed in contemplation" (Diggins 474). "Against Theory," thus, introduces its argument into this conceptualization of philosophy. (Also see John Dewey's "The Development of Pragmatism")
4 See, for instance, Saussure's Course in General Linguistics, especially "The Linguistic Sign" (in Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology Ed. Robert E. Innis. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 28-46). Saussure writes of the signifier and signified: "The two elements are intimately united, and each recalls the other" (37).
5A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
6 No motion had she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
Knapp and Michaels note in a footnote to their own essay that the above lyric is an infamous example in theoretical arguments and has been used by E. D. Hirsch, among others, in Validity in Interpretation. (Knapp and Michaels 15). This example, then, was not chosen lightly, though it is highly problematic (as I will explain).
7 I say "irrespective of the correctness" of K&M's article because, as I see it, the arguments Kamuf forwards are not addressing the logic of the essay. Furthermore, as I mentioned on Page 6 above, I am not all that interested in proving or promoting the "Against Theory" position. What I do want is to demonstrate the issues at stake in the authorial intention/meaning debate, and set up K&M's argument in terms proper for my later comparison of their argument with those of Foucault's. Though K&M's article has been interpreted (and mis-interpreted) in many different ways, Kamuf's reading is unique for focusing on their formulation of the author.
8 Knapp and Michaels explicitly state at one point that "in discussing theory from the ontological side, we have tried to suggest that the impossibility of method has no practical consequences, positive or negative" (25). Likewise, in their "A Reply to Our Critics," the authors explicitly state: "nothing in the claim that authorial intention is the necessary object of interpretation tells us anything at all about what should count as evidence for determining the content of any particular intention" (101b). It seems to me that Kamuf, rather than address this claim, faults the authors for not providing a good method. A friend of mine has dubbed this the "Blaming George Bush for Not Being a Good Marxist" Phenomenon.
9 Burke misses the point that I will make in this paragraph about the two essays' respective concerns with ontology and method. Thus, though it is true that, in a way, they are "antithetical," they are not so in Burke's sense of the term.
10 Another interesting avenue for re-reading Nietzsche (though not an avenue for this essay) would be to examine "On Truth and Lying" in terms of American Pragmatist Charles Peirce's idea that the meaning of concepts is only known by reference to a future event. Nietzsche writes: "What, then, is for us a law of nature? It is not known to us as such, but only in its effects, i.e., in its relations to other natural laws, which in turn are known to us only as relations" (253). Likewise in 1873, Peirce wrote: "no cognition ... has intellectual significance for what it is in itself, but only for what it is in its effects upon other thoughts" (Peirce 357). Perhaps a more thorough investigation of Nietzsche in terms of Peirce can yield even more evidence of the fundamental intellectual identity of the Irrationalists and the Pragmatists.
11 The veil which disguises the terms "religious" and "critical" in this context is not opaque enough to prevent the terms "hermeneutics" and "deconstruction" from peeking through. Knapp and Michaels' second collaborative effort — "Against Theory 2" (Critical Inquiry. 14 [Autumn 1987], 49-68)-- explicitly attacks both hermeneutics and deconstruction for imagining a meaningful aspect of language apart from intention. In the first case, it is "convention;" in the second, "iterability." The argument is too complex to get into here, but suffice to say, if I wanted to, I could try to demonstrate the Foucault is actually saying the same thing.