Breaking News: The Author Lives

16 01 2009

Reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated. (How suitable to quote one of the all-time greatest authors in this context.) It still boggles my mind (which, I admit, is easily boggled) that anyone could have subscribed to the notion that a piece of work is only loosely associated with its author. But that’s what arch-post-modernist, Roland Barthes, posited.

Who wrote these? Who cares? Barthes doesn't!

Who wrote these? Who cares? Barthes doesn't!

But then again, it stands to reason that Barthes’ would suggest such a theory. He was a strong proponent of language being a fickle and malleable medium, and one that cannot be unshackled from experience or culture, whether that be the culture of the author or the reader. He was also writing in a charged time, with structuralism giving away to post-structuralism care of Derrida’s deconstructionism.

Oops. Look at what I just did… I just interpreted Barthes’ work by considering the context in which the author wrote it. Silly me.

But turning post-modernism on itself isn’t the only way to reveal its deep banalities – which disciples of po-mo somehow manage to hurl about while keeping a straight face. Cold hard science also weighs in to deconstruct deconstructionism.

Apparently not only does the author matter, but their genes as well. This is not necessarily new stuff. Just two posts back I linked to a fascinating book that takes a Darwinian approach to literature. But what is interesting is the angle this research takes in suggesting that literature “could continually condition society so that we fight against base impulses and work in a cooperative way.”

While I don’t doubt that literature does serve to encourage deep rooted notions of eglitarianism, I do wonder whether this interpretation might be arse-backwards. Is it literature that encouraged the spread of altruistic genes? Or was it the presence of altruistic genes that encouraged the authoring of literature with pro-social themes?

I suspect it’s the latter. But I only think that because of my personal beliefs about evolutionary psychology and social science. (Barthes apologists can ignore that last sentence.)

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