Friday, October 07, 2005

in praise of traces

From Nicholas Rombes, "The Rebirth of the Author" (courtesy of the blogosphere's greatest friend, who turns five yesterday):
Perhaps it was all a mistake, a terrible act of misreading. Rather than a serious deconstruction of the author concept, perhaps Barthes's essay "The Death of the Author" was ironic, a close relative of Pop Art. After all, while "The Death of the Author" achieved its widest circulation in the U.S. in its 1977 version in Image - Music - Text, it is perhaps lesser known that the essay had appeared previously in English in the Fall-Winter 1967 issue of the avant-garde magazine Aspen: "each issue came in a customized box filled with booklets, phonograph recordings, posters, postcards" and even a Super-8 film.[1] Contributors included Andy Warhol, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Hans Richter, Susan Sontag, and others. Barthes's essay -- translated by Richard Howard -- appeared in a double issue (the Minimalism issue) which explored "conceptual art, minimalist art, and postmodern critical theory."[2] 1967-68: a serious time shaken by violence and protest, yes, but also a time of great experimentation and humor and absurdity. The pleasure of death; jouissance that has been lost as career academics used Barthes's essay, stripping it out of its playful dimensions, its at once urgent and resigned manifesto-like quality.

The problem, now, is easy to see. Whereas Barthes (and others including Horkheimer and Adorno, Andrew Sarris, Marshall McLuhan, Robert Ray, Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, Lester Bangs, Dick Hebdige, Antonin Artaud, Richard Hell) offered theories in language that was playful, slippery, aphoristic, and often poetic, the academics who subsequently applied their theories often did so in prose that was deadly dry, pedantic, serious, stripped of the slippages and humor that made readers want to believe. While scores of academics over the years have gloomfully attacked Andrew Sarris's Americanized auteur theory (first published in Film Culture in 1962 as "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962"), they did so by turning their backs on the lively, self-deprecating qualities of his prose, as evident in lines like "What is a bad director, but a director who has made many bad films?" [3] or in lines where he directly addresses the reader, such as "Dare I come out and say what I think it to be is an élan of the soul?" [4] Such moments of excess style stand in stark contrast to the deadly serious, rationalist rhetoric that has infected so much writing in the humanities as the aesthetic dimensions of academic writing -- especially in North America -- have been ignored for decades as a surplus with no value. If, as Craig Saper has noted, "[I]n the academy, auteurism was considered passé at best" [5] in the wake of poststructuralism, then in erasing the very personality of their own writing style film scholars and theorists demoted themselves to a level of invisibility and even obsolescence. Generations of graduate students trained to strip all traces of bourgeois personality from their prose awake now to find that they have no audience for their ideas, because their ideas have no expressive confidence.

And yet, there is a gradual return to the pleasures of the text, not as something to be studied merely, but performed. (read more)

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