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The Transitive Author

Author: joe

Sunday, 08 June, 2008 - 21:00

I've had (this isn't meant to sound as confessional as it does) Roland Barthes on my mind recently. Earlier in the year a student quoted some of him at me in an essay, and I'm afraid I don't think they really grappled with the sense of the text (note I'm not saying they 'interpreted it incorrectly'!) - it was more of a quote-shoe-in to tick the theory box. But the quote - a line I've often glanced over and left behind as I engage in the tmesis of excavating a Barthes text - has kept coming back to me in the form of the question I wrote on the student's paper - 'What do you think Barthes is getting at here?'

Barthes opens The Death of the Author with some introductory questions which help to frame his exercise - he wonders, when a writer writes, whose is the voice? A question that arises because, according to B., writing is 'the destruction of every voice [... writing ...] is the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the identity of the very body writing'. Fine. I love this, and the rest of the essay explores this counterintuitive insight so interestingly that it has made its way into every cultural studies curriculum that ever made a student's life misery. But I find myself returning to the start of the second paragraph - which our friend the student earlier quoted:

No doubt it has always been that way. As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.
 
[The Death of the Author]

Leaving aside the discussion of the historicity of the 'idea of the author', and the Foucault debate, and all that, I'm persistently drawn to, and dwell on, that word: intransitively.

To narrate a fact intransitively is to narrate a fact no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To narrate a fact transitively is to narrate a fact with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality.
Write with purpose, with an object.
A subject acting on an object.
To narrate a fact intransitively is to speak no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak intransitively is to speak without purpose, without object.
 
[Joe's head, a lot, recently]

Of course, I can understand that B. at this point heads off into his own particular intentional use of 'intransitively' - that is that 'the claim to decipher a text is ... quite futile'. Indeed, the entire business of dwelling on 'what Barthes is getting at' has a bottomless irony which peered into too long gets quite vertiginous. But I am a human being - indeed, I am an impure thinker - and when addressed by a speaker, even if it is across the sea of the 'starred text', the chasm of decades and the incommensurability of two different native tongues, I first reply: 'what do you mean?'

So the word 'intransitively' follows me around. The author speaks without intention in the way that the dead speak to the living - either through the reconstruction of the memories of the living, or in the cynical charlatanism of the medium/critic. But I read transitivity differently (as, I think Barthes would agree, is my right). To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality. To speak transitively is to not only want to change the world, but to attempt to do so. I saw a quote by Hunter S Thompson on, of all places, a Facebook profile, which captured that intention:

Although I don't feel that it is at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I'll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in the sudden outbursts of frustrated violence.
 
[Apparently this comes from The Proud Highway]

But even when writing is not a valve for pent-up rage, who pretends to speak without the intention of changing the world? A dissertation I marked recently also indirectly stabbed at this idea: do documentaries effect social change? Of course it is an impossible question to answer, but it provokes the thought that the documentary form covers a spectrum of approaches - and the approach that pretends to 'reflect' reality, and offer an 'intransitive' factual window onto reality is only the most dishonest form.

A colleague of mine recently gave a seminar on his work. Trevor Hearing explores the documentary film form as a way of engaging in scholarly work - to use film-making both as a research tool, and as a way of communicating academic knowledge. It forces recognition of a dialectic between film and text - the practice of visual 'story-telling' versus the abstract, supposedly 'factual', textual form, and this reveals the hidden values of each. The very things that Trevor's films are made of are human actions and interactions and their interface with the documents, visual, textual, and filmic, that human beings by their very productive nature leave behind them.

But again, what Trevor's stimulating and fascinating work illuminates is the dishonesty of that peculiarly academic practice of writing papers in which the author 'disappears'. The stock comment to write on student essays is often 'try to write less subjectively - be more objective...' - or - 'try not to write in the first person...' what other perspective do we actually expect people to write from? Where is this mythical third person position whence the academic writes? In fact, the academic paper is a worked and reworked artefact, painstakingly laboured over by a human being, in a chair, with a tilting head, and a breathing, aching body. That disappearing 'I' is a fiction. If Trevor's film had so many edits as that supposedly free-standing, evidence-based, objective - intransitive - academic paper, the cuts would leap out of the screen and reek of manipulation. The emphasis on, not the disappearance of, the author is what makes Trevor's film so much more meaningful.

One of the strange ironies of knowledge is that the practices and the discourses are so often at odds with each other. Science stakes a claim to be a 'descriptive' practice - that is, its methods produce descriptions of the world - reflections if you will. This is at the heart of the scientific claim on truth - that language can be bent into a form that faithfully describes and corresponds to brute reality - that language can be made intransitive but faithful. Actually, the real products of sciences are the world-changing technologies that every minute break the human connection to the past. And these extensions of man are made precisely because that linguistic practice is so very transitive, so very laden with rhetorical, persuasive action, discursive power, intention. With our knowledge, constructed as it is from experience and language, we act irreversibly.

I seem to have used Barthes' Death of the Author to argue in favour of the reappearance of the author. Blimey. But then, he is dead.

Categories: barthes, author, post-structuralism, knowledge, transitive, intransitive, writing, truth, science,
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