Reader-response theories, still dominant in many academic circles, juggle with the notions of author and reader, turning the former into a ghost in order to acclaim the latter as a hero. With this, production becomes post-production. What matters is what gets out of the text, not what enters it: the outcome, and not the source. And so, we come to think of texts as finalized products: they have reached the stage where the writer has nothing of interest to say; now hush the writer and give the reader his/her right to act as a dictator.
|Source: Cronkite School|
From the viewpoint of this reader-response stance the text I read has no chance at reconstructing itself. I am the only force that deals the blows here, the only actor with a part. The author can only sit and watch, watch and learn, learn and apply. The author is him/herself a reader. In order to be capable of writing they need to train their reading buds.
True, true, true. But what of the rest? (The rest, which used to be the essence?) What about the point where the text is generated, where it comes to light? In other words, what about the author?
Fingerprints all over the text
With the emancipation of the reader, every reading makes a new text of the text laid here, in front of me; there's a personalisation of reading and a depersonalisation of writing. In this way, writing is gradually divested of its former spirituality. It is materialized, and radically so. Modern and postmodern texts, which engage in playfulness with the intention of presenting themselves to the reader as games, consider only the mechanics of production but not the metaphysics of text-making. But there must be something beyond the physical in every form of creation, in every form of making. Where, for instance, should we place the idea that generated the ‘product’? How to think about it in a way that gives it its due? Is it material too? Purely material?
There is, of course, the thought of a concept being nothing but a combination of all the concepts that preceded it, and from which this one, this current concept/idea that's crossing my mind, is only an outcome. Every text is an intertext (Genette). Every meaning is a foremeaning (Gadamer).
I place my hand onto a text (while I am holding the book, while I am following the linearity of the signs, while I am perusing), and the text will bear my fingerprints. What's more important, though, these fingerprints of mine will not be there forever. They are just as transitory as the fingerprints of another reader, or even better: as my own fingerprints at my second reading. Re-readings too are, you see, manifestations of the text’s plurality, of its incommensurable capacity to multiply its presence.
A dirtied text, a text soiled by the fingerprints of its many readers – this should be the subject matter for a true forensics of textuality. In it, the reader is a printer. A finger-printer. His marks cover the text to the extent that the text is no longer visible. The fingerprint becomes the text. But of course, the fingerprint is not the text; it is its abolition. At the point where the fingerprint can be said to be a text, it has become a text of its own. Not exactly a mirror of the original text, but a representation of it; i.e. a complication, a superimposition, an overtaking, a colonisation.
|Source: Try It Once|
The return of the precedent
But there must be something that precedes this fingerprint. Since the fingerprint is a mark, it requires a surface to appear on. Marks without surfaces are impossible to imagine. Written words without the paper, the screen, the hard-drive, are preposterous. Reading that is not of a text is an idea that hurts – because it cannot fit inside my mind. (My mind, the surface on which the idea is inscribed.)
Hence the axiom: reading requires a text.
In saying this – in agreeing that reading requires a text –, I am turning my attention to the precedent and, with it, start seeing through the seemingly unfair dominion of the mighty subsequent, His/Her Majesty the Reader.
If anything needs to be clarified before launching an Operation ‘Return of the Author,’ I have to admit the following: I do believe that a text is not an out-of-the-blue enterprise; not a miracle, not a muse's whisper in my ear, not a surprise impossible to explain. I don't want to say that a text is. Instead, I say that a text has been; it has always already been. When I read something I know (I must know) that this very text has existed as a potentiality before its coming to light; the way a child existed as an embryo: a physical virtuality, if I am allowed the oxymoron. The fact that it exists here and now is an indication that there has always been a potential for it to exist.
At the same time, I don't believe in the myth of the personal talent. If, as the common belief has it, you're born with it and you die with it, I’d say there's nothing exciting left in-between. And that’s a pity, because there would be no chance for the ‘untalented’ to grow into authors.
Although we need the humility to admit that authors are promoters of others’ authorships, the creator must not be completely dismissed, because if we do dismiss them we screen off all the work that went into the production of the text. And that cannot be done without discrimination. That cannot be done without establishing some (wrong) hierarchies.
Hunting and gathering are acknowledged types of work, just as much as code writing, for instance, is. The former presuppose seemingly reactive actions: you pick or shoot at something that simply exists out there, and for the acquisition of which you make little effort. The latter, however, because it lives under the sign of creativity, presents itself as proactive action: to write a computer programme one needs to take a leap forward, to produce something where no production was posed as inherently necessary (Creation is always surplus. We could live well with what we have. Mythologies speak of the Great Creation as a gesture of putting together things had in excess, things that the divinity could dispose of because it had too much of. Creating a new entity where there was no material need for it is equal to enacting the luxury of the aristocrat, of the god that sits fatted and content behind/before the starting point of creation.)
But there's something in hunting/gathering (in which, by the way, I see an apt metaphor for everything that’s conceived of as ‘passive’) that is also proactive, i.e. something that produces a surplus, and something that has the right to be called an act of creation. And that thing is the agency of the hunter/gatherer. At the end of the day, not everything is picked up for consumption. There is selection. There is choosing and weighing and deciding. There is a long process of pre-conception that shapes the conception proper.
Production is (and here's the gist of my gesture against the reader-centric attitude) not only post-production but also pre-production. Before the product there was a process. Before the pork chop there was a pig. Before the text there was labour. It is this ‘before’ that I think we need to be more careful with before discarding as irrelevant.
The agency of the text-producer is fundamental (in the sense of it standing at the very foundations of the created text). Since everything pre-exists in a state of potentiality, and every text predates itself, it is difficult, indeed impossible, to turn all possibilities into all outcomes ever possible. Impossible, as well as impractical. Some fanning and winnowing is required. Creation of this type is, I believe, dependent on an inductive logic. It needs initial searches and ponderings (later discarded, because an economy of production also needs to be considered) in order to form the basis of the text to come. The present text is not only the sum of all texts that generated it but also the sum of all the discarded, forgotten texts. The irrelevant has a word to say in the formation of a text.
Long live the author!
It is the author who does all this. It is in authorship that the gesture of creation finds its justification, since justification is demanded from an act that points towards a surplus.
Kenneth Goldsmith wrote an entire book in which not a single word was his. And yet, he is the author of that book. I don't see in this a sarcastic statement, or a negation of authorship per se but, on the contrary, an affirmation of the power of the author. If only to put it into simple terms, I might ask this question: Who, if not Goldsmith, would have bothered to collect all those texts and present them together, with the purpose of offering the reader a coherent object? Who, if not the author (changed as he may be, liberated as he may stand, relativized as he may appear) would be capable of this toil, of this transcription of signs into other/new signs?
The fact that Goldsmith has an explanation for his poetic art strengthens my belief that agency matters; that the death of the author must not be understood – as too many, unfortunately, do – in absolute terms. Yes, authors still matter. Yes, they still exist. Yes, they will never disappear – unless we cease to be signifying creatures. Which is, more than any other propositions of its kind, a truly ridiculous thing to say.