Authorship redux: On some recent and not-so-recent work in literary theory

Philosophy and Literature 32 (1):pp. 191-197 (2008)
Abstract
Did Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, or other "poststructuralist" theorists writing in the wake of May '68 come up with any good ideas about authorship and related topics in the philosophy of literature? The three volumes under review have a common point of departure in that broad question, but offer a number of contrasting responses to it. In what follows I describe and assess some of the various perspectives on offer in these 700 or so pages. The short answer to my initial question comes at the end. Carla Benedetti's book was first published in 1999 in Milan as L'ombra lunga dell'autore: Indagine su una figura cancellata. Professor of Italian and Theory of Literature at the University of Pisa, and Recurrent Visiting Professor at NYU, she clearly shares some of Foucault's basic assumptions about authorship: "It is the reader or viewer who transforms the artist's selections, which in themselves may even be random or compelled, into subjective choices endowed with intentionality: that intentionality that is capable of providing meaning and artistic value to what we are viewing or reading" (p. 12). Benedetti contends that such attributions are a necessary part of the literary and artistic discursive formation of modernity, and she persuasively demonstrates that the author has not "disappeared," in spite of what Barthes and others may have thought or wished. According to Benedetti, authorialism, or the thesis that artistic value can only derive from original authorship, is the product of a modern ideology. She contends that a self-reflexive, late modernist train of thought generates a highly problematic relation to authorship and such related notions as genius, novelty, and creativity. More specifically, Benedetti finds a Batesonian double bind or paradoxical injunction in modernity's incessant demand for an extreme form of novelty. As soon as something innovative has been done, yet another innovation is desired. Not only does it become harder and harder to make a radically new move in the game, but the entire pursuit appears to be hopeless. Although Benedetti does not say so, the key thought was neatly captured by Oscar Wilde when he quipped: "Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly." To be old-fashioned is abhorrent, yet to try to obey the injunction to be "absolutely modern" is to risk becoming old-fashioned in a hurry, so failure seems inevitable. One of the constitutive myths of late modernity has it, then, that artistic activity must be recognized as authorless because it is impossible to create some sort of fundamentally novel work of lasting value. For those in the grip of this unsound thought, it seems necessary to conclude that the writer-no-longer-author must be recognized as an essentially uncreative epigone. Benedetti comments rather sweepingly, "All that poststructuralist thought speaks of, in its multifarious elaborations, is merely our supposed irreversible impossibility to create" (p. 202). She links Derrida's rejection of the possibility of decisive epistemological "ruptures" to the same late modernist mythology. Benedetti concludes her book by saying that the late modernist mythology conflates one kind of novelty with the new in general. This distinction sounds promising, but is not developed any further, and this reader was left wondering how the putative crippling error of a vast artistic dispensation could be revealed by means of a distinction between two kinds of newness. I also wonder whether her diagnosis probes deeply enough into the sources and nature of the modish sensibility that leads perversely to the Last Year in Marienbad syndrome. Not everyone is equally interested in trying to be dazzlingly innovative and fashionable; some who do have this inclination manage to produce excellent works of art; and many artists active in the period in question have not worked with the assumptions Benedetti criticizes. Whatever one thinks about Benedetti's Foucauldian premises about authorship, her book is highly informative, engaging, and replete with astute comments on a wide range of European literary and artistic movements and critical trends. With a keen eye for significant detail, she writes elegantly and discusses many fascinating examples, including interesting, lesser-known Italian ones. A variety of perspectives on authorship are presented..
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