“Foucault? We pronounce it ‘F*%£ off.’” – A blog post about session 3 of ‘Libraries and Publishing in the Information Society’ – module #INM380 at #citylis

We covered a lot last week, including a discussion about the past/present/future of professional journalism (thanks to the excellent Eliza Anyangwe) as well as to that of amateur journalism, which, as H.P. Lovecraft’s 1920 address Amateur Journalism: Its Possible Needs and Betterment demonstrates, is hardly a new phenomenon.

We also discussed Foucault’s response to Barthes’s paradigm-shifting 1967 essay La mort de l’auteur, in which the author [no irony intended] “argues against traditional literary criticism’s practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text” [Wikipedia].

As the Wikipedia article’s author(s) go(es) on to point out, Barthes’s title is a pun on Le Mort d’Arthur [irony presumably intended], a work compiled from the writings of many unknown authors, “with heavy reinterpretation by the editor, Sir Thomas Malory.” Ever since, English lit undergrads have had to religiously avoid the “intentional fallacy” (a term not coined by Barthes but in a paper by American academics Monroe Beardsley and W.K. Wimsatt) – the mistake of thinking that the author’s (separately) stated intentions should have a bearing on the interpretation of his/her work (or, at least, any more than anyone else’s should).

Foucault addresses this, in a lecture titled What is an Author?, by building a more sophisticated model of the author – one he terms the “author function”, in which interpretation of a text occurs within limits prescribed by and suited to our culture at any particular stage of its development, that at the same time prevents and illustrates our fear of the “proliferation of meaning.”

These question are brought to our attention in the social media age by Matthew Kirschenbaum in his excellent essay What Is an @uthor? (see what he did there?). Kirschenbaum introduces the subject by giving the example of Faulkner in the University (1959), edited transcripts of recordings made of William Faulkner’s classroom conferences during a stint as writer in residence at the University of Virginia for the preceding two years. And all this only a few years after Beardsley and Wimsatt. It still seemed to matter what an author might have to say when he was in the room.

Kirschenbaum goes on to recount his own experience in relation to the American author William Gibson – a futurologist if ever there was one – and today’s equivalents of the reel-to-reel tape deck, YouTube and Twitter. Old canards such as, the inventor of cyberspace wrote on a typewriter…, didn’t know what a disk drive was…, didn’t have an email account…, have been discredited, not least through material on Gibson’s own website. His present day activity includes interacting with people discussing his works, either at his own book tour events, which find their way on to YouTube (see below), and via his Twitter account, to engage with a panel discussing his latest novel at a convention.

The questions this raises for literary criticism about what credit or status should be given to such authorial interventions are all the more difficult to dismiss as intentional fallacies by their very immediacy, even interactivity; not least because this sort of ‘meta’ analysis is the very stuff of Gibson’s works.

Yes, the text has primacy; but the text is multiple, layered, and all over social media as well as the page.


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