Friday, November 28, 2008

The Practice of Reading

Surely the most unfortunate line that Roland Barthes ever wrote is the one that concludes his essay "Death of an Author": “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” Endlessly quoted, yet so poorly understood. I don’t know how many readers have read this as a slogan that what is important is not the literary work itself (and by extension the work of art) but what the intrepid reader – the intrepid graduate student – does with the text. Thus, while the “author” is cast aside as a useless or outmoded concept, the reader affirms himself or herself as the true creative source – or, more precisely, destination – for a text’s meaning. (One consequence of this: a shift from “difficult” modernist texts to an emphasis on the artifacts of popular culture, to be pillaged at will. Why does this occur? Precisely because it is believed that creativity is now the art of the beholder. The text is secondary to its usage.) Let’s not forget that the “death of the author” was meant to signal the death of the sovereign subject, i.e., the belief in the author as the punctual source for a text’s meaning. It was meant to question the fallacy of the intentional subject – whether this subject is understood as an author, a critic or a reader.

Barthes statement, it seems to me, should always be accompanied by another, this one by Maurice Blanchot: “What most threatens reading is this: the reader’s ability, his personality, his immodesty, his stubborn insistence upon remaining himself in the face of what he reads – a man who knows in general how to read” (emphasis added). What Blanchot valorizes here is not the reader but the act of reading, and what this act means for both the author and the reader, each destabilized by the same experience (or event). This, I would argue, is fundamentally Barthes’ point as well, but his inability to resist a stylistic flourish led him, and several generations of students, down the wrong path. Reading is an encounter between oneself and another. What is affirmed is neither the author nor the reader, but the act that binds one to the other. Blanchot: “To read is thus not to obtain communication from the work, but to ‘make’ the work communicate itself. And if we may employ an inadequate image, to read is to be one of the two poles between which, through mutual attraction and repulsion, the illuminating violence of communication erupts – one of the two poles between which the event comes to pass and which it constitutes by its very passage.” These two poles are the author and the reader, and the event occurs in the (anonymous) passage between them.

Giorgio Agamben makes a similar point in a recent article "The Author as Gesture", which revisits Foucault's essay on authorship. At one point, Agamben considers a poem by César Vallejo. He asks, where does the thought or sentiment expressed in the poem come from? It would be a mistake, he says, to assume that the thought or sentiment first existed "in" César Vallejo, who then diligently transcribed this pre-existent idea or emotion. Rather, "this thought and this sentiment became real for him, and their details and nuances become inextricably his own, only after – or while – writing the poem." This thought or sentiment cannot therefore be said to originate within the poet, but it is equally wrong to suggest that it in any way belongs to, or should be attributed to, the poem's reader. The thought or sentiment emanates from neither; it comes from elsewhere. And yet it only exists because, once upon a time, there was a writer who sat down to write a poem, and then, some time later, a reader who sat down to read it. "The place of the poem – or, rather its taking place – is therefore neither in the text nor in the author (nor in the reader): it is in the gesture through which the author and reader put themselves into play in the text and, at the same time, are infinitely withdrawn from it."

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