Showing posts with label raymond picard. Show all posts
Showing posts with label raymond picard. Show all posts

3 Sep 2013

On the Death and Attempted Resurrection of the Author

The School of Postmodernism by Vittorio Pelosi (2009)

The conflict between traditional forms of literary criticism and postmodern approaches to the text is best captured in a work by Roland Barthes entitled Critique et Vérité (1966). In this short but brilliant book, Barthes responds with style to an aggressive and vulgar attack upon his reading of Racine by the classical literary scholar Raymond Picard. 

For Picard and his supporters, it was crucial to uphold not only their own interpretation of the 17th century dramatist, but to defend the wider truth and glory of French culture from a perceived philosophical assault by a number of new critics of whom Barthes was the best known. Contrary to Barthes, Picard argued that there are objective truths about an author and indisputable facts about a work of art on which everyone who has attained a certain level of education can manage to agree: thanks to the inherent certainties of language, critical consensus is both possible and desirable. To deny this and to contest the author's consciously exercised control over their own work (thereby dissolving the issue of intent), is to threaten this consensus of meaning.

Further, it brings into question the subject's ability to understand themselves and their world with any real confidence or certainty: things are simply no longer as clear cut as they used to be. And for traditionalists and positivists like Picard who value clarity above all else, this cannot be: not only should language strive for transparency, but sentences should be as concise and precise as possible; free from any difficult or unnecessary jargon. In this way, language reflects and furthers common sense - i.e. a form of knowledge that its adherents claim to be perfectly neutral and perfectly natural; free from all prejudice or ideology.  

Obviously, Barthes finds all this absurd. He points out how bourgeois ideology is characterized by its refusal to accept itself as an ideology and by its claims that its values and truths are universal (even whilst conveniently coinciding not only with common sense, but also a traditional middle-class model of good taste). For Barthes, those critics who believe that certain things can pass unquestioned (or go without saying) are simply upholding the status quo and the orthodox certainties not of language, but of the Academy.

Ultimately, such critics read badly because they fail to think either in a material manner (in terms of objects) or in an abstract and symbolic manner (in terms of ideas). Thus they are unable to comprehend how language might move beyond being merely communicative in a narrow, functional manner and become a medium in which people can construct new thoughts and images. Picard and friends, who devote themselves to defending the self-evidently Good, True and Beautiful - not to mention what they term the specificity of literature - succeed only in condemning life to an empty, sterile silence and reducing art to sheer banality.

Still, you might be thinking, this is all a long time ago and the new critics eventually won the day. Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, et al all had their work fully assimilated into intellectual culture and the death of the author was widely celebrated across the critical landscape - so why go over all this again?

Well, unfortunately, there are those working today to resurrect the author, or at least dig up and dress up the corpse. Vittorio Pelosi and his fellow Intentists have decided in the name of a new idealism and a new humanism that the reader's interpretation must again give way to authorial intention; that this is what determines the genuine value and meaning of a work. Thus it is that the war against stupidity continues and although Pelosi's poorly executed canvas entitled The School of Postmodernism (2009) reproduced above is "intended" to ridicule and belittle the figures depicted (including Barthes), it only makes me love them (and dislike him) more.