I simply cannot take it anymore. I’m here to correct the egregious mistake and to sew the wound shut. I am here to correct what you’ve heard and to tell you that it’s wrong. Then, I’m going to tell you why it’s wrong. 

My apologies. I didn’t preface this politely at all. Here’s the preface: it’s not your fault. After all, you live in a society. If you live in America, the society you live in is hungry (ravenous, actually) for the consumption and canonization of the individual.

Because the “death of the author” is not, as it is so very often misinterpreted and decontextualized, about the author’s disappearance. The death of the author is about the creator’s (the author’s) absorption into the art itself — the death of the author is really about the birth of the reader.

When anyone, man or woman, is accused of misconduct or bigotry or caught red-handed, the legions of fans scuttle to their defense as if the work they have produced is then somehow void by virtue of the offense. This is a missed opportunity, however. While the previously hidden aspects of any creator’s private or hidden life have been laid bare and the details might alarm or upset you, is this not a potential springboard for further and closer examination of the art?

As humans, we want to understand art through our artists. We want to understand writing through the person who did the writing; the person who wove with their hands sentence upon sentence until it was finished. For example, we thrive on the rags to riches tale of J.K. Rowling, whose writing hand must have seized up and clenched and ached from holding the pen for so long, as a single mother with a child in the background.   

As a society, we thrive on lending our sympathy to this person we will never know too well, but who we felt like we once knew because she wrote a series that in so many ways came to define a generation. We want to know the ins and outs of her poverty from well before she became famous and unbelievably rich, knowing she wrote her ideas for the world of Harry Potter in a dimly lit bar on a paper napkin. We’ve been conditioned to want to know the riveting stories behind her fictional worlds. 

At the heart of all this is how we seek to understand art through its creators while simultaneously yearning for the ‘completion’ of our understanding. We seek answers. What is often referred to as the ‘cult of the author,’ however, is actually very new. In the Middle Ages, imitation was rampant. It wasn’t a copyright violation: it was the way of things. Often, writing wasn’t attributed to a single source — this wasn’t unusual.

In his canonical, eponymous and by now-famous essay, “The Death of the Author,” the French structuralist and post-structuralist critic Roland Barthes recalls a line from Honoré de Balzac that speaks of the theater of the castrati. For the non-literary critic, let me briefly lay out why this is relevant. 

First, for the uninitiated. The castrati were boy singers who were, yes, castrated in search of art: The idea was to maintain their singing voices at their most feminine — at the highest pitch. This very fact is relevant due to how it layers the core of who or ‘what’ the castrato is inside of a rich history. Before the fictional castrato was taken away from their family, when or how did they learn of their tragically ill-fated gift? Did the castrati ever identify themselves as women? What of the agency of the castrato inside the line? What of the person who wrote the line (Balzac), thinking of the castrato? What do all of these indiscernible voices and sources of the knowledge inside the line bring to bear on that line? 

This approach runs counter to the idea that, for example, we need to directly ask Balzac what he was thinking when he wrote it. The death of the author precludes the direct interrogation of the author; it is instead about the performance of language and art inside the product itself, set free from that author’s control. At the end of the day, it’s about seizing the art from the producer.

To this end of seizing Balzac’s line from Balzac, Barthes runs through a list of questions about the purpose and meaning of Balzac’s line about the castrato. He asks the reader why they think the castrato is even there at all, embedded in the line. Is the line infused with a discussion of the femininity that concealed or occluded the castrato underneath? Or, does the line speak to the author’s philosophy of what it means to be a woman, as a man who wrote of being a woman who was once a young man? These questions are intricately layered and overlapped, materializing around the same words from the same line but with entirely different outcomes. The art presented in such a framework of removing the creator from the art presents a proliferation of possibilities and open questions.

To this same end, we might ask open questions concerning Woody Allen’s art: How many thinly veiled Woody Allens are reconfigured as separate characters in his films? How many of his alleged desires seem threaded into his plotlines? Soon-Yi, the adopted daughter of Allen’s former wife Mia Farrow, recently consented to her first-ever interview: What does it say that women of color are almost entirely absent from Allen’s films? 

If we are addressing the work of an academic, we might simply note that there is no representation of their acts in the work. We might ask unrelated or barely related questions: Is there classism in their work, and so a disregard for aspects of society that leaves holes in their scholarship? Do they eroticize what doesn’t bear eroticization? Is there nothing at all? Because the point isn’t to look for signs of bad behavior like a detective. The point is to dig and ask generative but ruthless questions without asking for the author’s consent or searching for intent directly through the author. 

The death of the author means we do not seek to “resolve” art through its creators. At the end of the day, the death of the author is about the consumer of the art. It’s about the consumption of art without ever stopping to ask the author what they want or what they wanted, at least not directly. The reader can ask themselves what they think the author may have intended, but such a reading or interpretation is still rigorously based on the art itself.

Here’s another example, to which Barthes was most certainly referring to someone who came of age during the rise of Nazism: If a verified Nazi produces a tome that does not even once speak of atrocity, the ‘death of the author’ concept then authorizes a thorough interrogation of why that is so.

The death of the author concept does not at all mean separating an artist’s bad behavior from their art, as if to erect a partition and cut reality away from fiction — each of which inevitably informs the other. The death of the author is about the death of the creator’s authority over their art. The death of the author does not preclude the author from being a scoundrel and still a brilliant artist — it implores us to ask more of the artwork while leaving its creator firmly in the past tense. 

This all boils down to how art, language and language as art are all, like gender, a constructed or built performance. 

This all boils down to our cultural reluctance to critique not only art but men who are considered to be indispensable as artists; as if such criticism should be reserved for either gender studies scholars or for the experts who get paid to criticize art (or to hypocriticize art, if that can be a word in service of my point because art critics are frequently capable of pandering to the individual and the status quo; as well as often guilty of pandering to egregiously unequal racial and sexual hierarchies deeply entrenched in society). 

We need to talk about our reluctance to take artists and academics of all stripes, but especially men, off of their pedestals for examination.

Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at hsierra@umich.edu

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