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a chapter excerpt from


David Colosi


Umberto Eco and ‘Other’ Folks



That which we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.”
 Ludwig Wittgenstein -
Those things about which we cannot theorize, we must narrate.”
 Umberto Eco -


Over the past half century, literary theory has undergone a Copernican revolution - or two.  Trying to guess which walnut has the ball under it – is it the author, the reader, or the text? – will depend on when, where, and to whom you’re talking.  But, just as Nietzsche predicted after announcing the death of God, still today many people are not ready for this revolution to take place.  For those still holding the pre-Nietzschean world view, God plays the central role in their lives, and the lives of humanity.

Poststructuralist theorists, like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes, leading the pack of a host of academics, have repeated the announcement of the death of God, and added the deaths of Man, the Subject, the Author, and, from many art critics, Painting, to boot.  Just as it took several years for Copernicus’ theory of the sun-centered universe to set in the global encyclopedia so too should we expect these more recent propositions to take time before they are established as common encyclopedic knowledge.  Although it may be impossible today to find someone still arguing for the earth’s place at the center of the universe, it is not uncommon to find folks1 who place the Author, Man, and the Subject at the center of the philosophical universe.

In 1968, when Roland Barthes coined the new episteme in his essay of the same name, “The Death of the Author”, he ended by saying, “…the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” [Barthes, 148]  Six years earlier, in Italy, Umberto Eco published his Opera Aperta (The Open Work), and laid out a theory of modern aesthetics that favored works of art which allowed for multifarious readings.  In an open work an interpreter/reader could follow different paths and never exhaust the potential readings.  Joyce’s Finnegans Wake became Eco’s premiere example of an open work which elicits unlimited semiosis.  The reader, for Eco, like Barthes, took the center of the interpretive universe.

This displacement of the sovereign author – or the author’s intentions as the sole validation for interpretation – did not begin with Eco or Barthes but, as Seán Burke historicizes, “with the romantic revolution and the eighteenth-century philosophical and aesthetic discourses upon which it drew.” [Burke, Authorship, xix]  Barthes, Foucault, Derrida and Eco cite Mallarme as one of the movement’s earliest precursors.  But it is mainly from Structuralist and Poststructuralist theorists that reader-oriented theory finds its place at the center.

For many writers, artists, and critics, too, this ‘sending out to orbit’ of the Author became something to contend with.  Was this pessimistically framed ‘Death of the Author’ a liberating or a debilitating force for writers and artists engaged in defining and practicing their own poetics?  For some, the theory becomes an obstacle, jamming production, while for others, who choose to abandon or ignore the theory completely and get on with producing, it is no obstacle at all.  Yet still there are others who want to continue to produce works with an understanding of the theoretical positions of the day in order that their works can participate in those debates instead of become disregarded as nostalgic, dead, or motivated mainly by commercial concerns.

This reckoning with primarily white male French theorists from artists and writers parallels a similar reckoning from Feminist, Gay and Lesbian, and Postcolonial movements.  Does the Death of the Author, announced at the moment of the authorization of voice in the international Civil Rights Movement revolving around May ‘68, jam the flow of production; do these “new” voices proceed in disregard for these theories; or do they integrate and try to speak critically from within, or “dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools”?

The focus of this essay will be to examine the impact the discourse of the Death of the Author has on those who are subjected to it, as well as the benefits such a theory has for those who announce it.  These will include both the makers of – in their traditional distinction – aesthetic/creative works as well as the makers of scientific/theoretical works.

In the first half of the essay I will examine the case of Umberto Eco, and the way in which he writes his way back into authorship.  In the second half, I will look at the impact – benefits and consequences – on the larger field.  Eco suits this study well for the following reasons: 1). He has been an active contributor to theorizing the roles of Readers/Interpreters and Texts over that of the Author since his work in aesthetics in the early 1960s; 2). while he is advancing these theories, he also begins, (contradictorily ?), to produce novels and develops as an Author; 3). of his contemporaries, he is one of the few who has moved from being a theoretician of aesthetics, as well as one of interpretation, on to becoming a producer of aesthetic works which serve as examples for his theories; and lastly, 4). he conflates the categories of the ‘creative/aesthetic’ and the ‘scientific/theoretical’ at the same time as he tries to distinguish them.

Contrary to some academic opinions, rather than considering Eco a writer who abandoned his theoretical work for a more popularly acclaimed literary work, I will argue that Eco advances his theoretical work precisely by practicing the activity he theorizes.  In this sense he steps ahead of his contemporaries, and offers, not a nostalgic turn back to an author-centered universe, but an optimistic turn, without the metaphors of death, toward paving the way for the Role of the Writer after the Death of the Author.  By breaking out of the university and into popular culture, his work serves better to reduce the number of Ptolemaists and therefore embed these theories, along with all of the uncertainty and questions they carry, deeper into the global encyclopedia.

As a preliminary matter of clarification, in many essays about Eco, writers clarify, [Capozzi, 218], that they will be focusing on Umberto Eco as a model author and not as an empirical author – of whom they agree with Eco, “…should die so as not to trouble the path of the text.”  I will not make this claim, but instead acknowledge that the Umberto Eco I am concerned with is the empirical Eco.  In saying this, though, I will not be exploiting unnecessary biographical information to attempt to claim validity for a certain interpretation of a text.  My focus on the empirical Eco will instead be on him as a writer and producer of texts.  Unlike the theories of the Death of the Author, and Reader and Text-oriented theories, I will not be exploring a theory of interpretation, but instead a theory of poetics – one of and for writers/artists.  When I state the ‘role of the writer’ I will specifically distinguish between the role of the writer before the publication or public awareness of a text or work, and the role of the writer after that public awareness.  All interpretation theories discount or discredit any role for the writer/author/artist after the production of a work, and I agree with this position from the point of view of a theory of interpretation – that author is dead.

At the same time, aware of Eco’s theory of Model and Empirical Readers and Authors, I see the only responsible way to proceed is to recognize that my empirical Eco may only be another model, albeit a different one, and for that reason this distinction is necessary.



Starting in the Open Work, with the favoring of open works over closed works, the author is pushed out of the center of the literary universe with the reader/interpreter taking over that space.2  In The Role of the Reader (1959-1979), a collection of Eco’s early essays which document his turn from aesthetics to structuralism, reader-oriented theories, and semiotics, Eco, using more scientific language, reinforces his relationship to the author. 

Referring to a previously quoted text by Wittgenstein, Eco says the following.

“[W]ittgenstein is nothing else but a philosophical style, his Model Reader is nothing else but his capability to cooperate in order to reactualize that philosophical style.  […]In the following paragraphs I shall renounce the use of the term /author/ if not as a mere metaphor for <<textual strategy>>, and I shall use the term Model Reader in the terms stipulated above.  […] In other words, the Model Reader is a textually established set of felicity conditions (Austin, 1962) to be met in order to have a macroscopic speech act (such as a text is) fully activated.” [Eco, RR, 11]

We will find that these “following paragraphs” turn into books.

But as Reader Theory is flourishing in Phenomenology (Iser, Gadamer), in Deconstruction (Derrida and the American branch of De Man, Fish, Hartman), and Neo-Pragmatism (Rorty), Eco takes a step back.  In the introduction to The Limits of Interpretation (1990), and repeated again in Interpretation and Overinterpretation (lectures delivered 1990), Eco speaks of The Open Work.

“When those pages were written, my readers focused mainly on the “open” side of the whole business, underestimating the fact that the open-ended reading I supported was elicited by a work. …I was studying the dialectics between the rights of texts and the rights of their interpreters.  I have the impression that, in the course of the last few decades, the rights of interpreters have been overstressed.” [Eco, Limits, 6; Eco, I&O, 23] 

Eco’s second revolution – which, also, doesn’t originate with him – is to put the Text at the center of the universe and to leave the Reader to join the Author orbiting outside.  During this period he further divides the tasks of the Text, and the Reader and Author – now more carefully splitting each into model and empirical subjects.

“A text is a device conceived in order to produce its model reader.  I repeat that this reader is not the one who makes the ‘only right’ conjecture.  A text can foresee a model reader entitled to try infinite conjectures.  The empirical reader is only an actor who makes conjectures about the kind of model reader postulated by the text.  Since the intention of the text is basically to produce a model reader able to make conjectures about it, the initiative of the model reader consists in figuring out a model author that is not the empirical one and that, in the end, coincides with the intention of the text.” [Eco, I&O, 64]

The text, or – anthropomorphically – the intention of the text, is at the center.  The text elicits from the empirical reader (the physical person who sits and reads) a conjecture.  The conjecture consists of making a decision as to the addressee (model reader) of the text.  The model reader is constructed by the text, while the empirical reader reads.  The empirical reader plays the role of the model reader who in turn configures a model author (a postulate of the sender of the address).  The model author may share the same name as Umberto Eco, but it is only a character constructed by the empirical reader.  Therefore a Text is a staging of a conversation between a model author and a model reader.

The empirical reader, one who comes to a text with information, knowledge, and an ideological program (for example a reader of Foucault’s Pendulum who has read Michel Foucault, but who may not know of Leon Foucault), and the empirical author, who also comes to a text with biographical information (for example, Umberto Eco who played the trumpet in his youth, or who happens to, also, be a literary theorist, writing around the same time as Michel Foucault) both exist outside, and out of bounds, of any interpretation of the text.  An economical interpretation then can occur only between the model reader and the model author, based solely on the text.

Eco’s parameters for an economical interpretation come from Augustine.  The only way to check a conjecture, or interpretation, is to check it against the text as a whole, “any interpretation given of a certain portion of a text can be accepted if it is confirmed by, and must be rejected if it is challenged by, another portion of the same text.  In this sense the internal textual coherence controls the otherwise uncontrollable drives of the reader.” [Eco, I&O, 65]  These uncontrollable drives of the reader include the areas of excess which go into both the empirical reader’s and empirical author’s biography and personal interests.

So it is through this narrative strategy that the empirical Eco can separate himself from his text and that any writer/artist/critic can cut loose his/her text from his/her person.  Therefore the empirical author, writing under the consciousness and auspices of this theory, can metaphorically die, allowing his text to live, while continuing to write and flourish, culturally and economically, without getting jammed up by death announcements.  For the empirical Eco, this is a pleasant death, or, as Camus might say, a happy death.

Eco’s theory is optimistic and anesthetized of metaphors of death.3  It is scientific (by way of semiotic jargon) in its separation of tasks and aesthetic in its character construction.  By this point, it is no coincidence that he has himself become an established Author by way of both his theoretical works and his aesthetic works.  He begins The Name of the Rose during the same years as he is finishing A Theory of Semiotics.  The writing of Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language and The Limits of Interpretation overlap in years with Foucault’s Pendulum.  Eco is now thoroughly double dipping.

But the one instance when Eco uses a death metaphor, “The author should die once he has finished writing.  So as not to trouble the path of the text” [Eco, Postscript, 7], signals the point at which he begins troubling the paths of his own texts.  Eco’s habit of interpreting his interpreters and reading his own novels as a model reader begins with Postscript to The Name of the Rose and continues through Interpretation and Overinterpretation to the present.

Here he takes another look backward, as he did from Limits to Open Work, and offers the empirical author another chance.  Standing before an audience of five hundred in Clare Hall, Cambridge for his Tanner Lectures, the empirical Eco says,

“[I]n this dialectics between the intention of the reader and the intention of the text, the intention of the empirical author has been totally disregarded…. My idea of textual interpretation as the discovery of a strategy intended to produce a model reader, conceived as the ideal counterpart of a model author…, makes the notion of an empirical author’s intention radically useless.  [I]t can look rather crude to eliminate the poor author as something irrelevant for the story of interpretation.  There are…cases in which the intention of the speaker is absolutely important…” [Eco, I&O, 65-6]

Possibly to defend his own Postscript, or his appearance before an audience, Eco, as a good postmodernist, self-reflexively names, in his next lecture, four instances in which turning to the empirical author can be important: 1).  In everyday communication: inferences about the intention of the author of an utterance in a personal letter [Eco, I&O, 65-6] (or possibly from a teacher in a classroom, or from one’s parents or partner) are crucial in order to make it such that ‘no one gets hurt’; 2).  As a theoretical experiment (not one of criticism): when the author is still alive and the critics have given their interpretations of his text, it can be interesting to ask the empirical author how much or to what extent certain interpretations were anticipated.  The purpose of the experiment is not to validate or invalidate interpretations based on the sovereignty of the author but to highlight the discrepancies between the author’s intention and the text’s [Eco, I&O, 73]; 3).  As a model reader of one’s own text:  “There can be…a case in which the author is also a textual theorist,” as Eco is, when it would be possible to get from him two different reactions.  He can respond by saying either, “‘No, I did not mean this, but I must agree that the text says it.’  Or, ‘Independently of the fact that I did not mean this, I think a reasonable reader should not accept such an interpretation, because it sounds uneconomical’” [Eco, I&O, 73]; 4).  In understanding the creative process: other writers, curious about how and why the writer writes, may want to understand personal choices s/he made along the way. [Eco, I&O, 84-5]

It is by way of these four allowances that Eco rereads his own work and criticizes the interpretations of his interpreters.  This critical work, with the aid of his novels, further develops, rather than shies away from his theoretical work of the sixties and seventies.  In a sense, the only difference is that Eco is now making his own examples.

The role of the writer then, after a work has been published or otherwise made public and has become interpretable, is to remain silent except for the above named inquiries.  After all, to repeat, the Death of the Author, by all accounts, is a theory of interpretation.  But these four moments of contact with the empirical author also coincide with specific questions the writer/artist may ask him/herself while in the process of creating a work.  Number 4 becomes part of the educational process.  And the theoretical experiment expressed in #2 is often useful such that the artist/writer can better understand #4, and therefore further develop his/her own poetics.  While #3 regards mostly a theory of interpretation, #1 is the open question that all writers/artists continue to ask themselves: ‘On an everyday practical level, how can I make my ideas, feelings, and expressions communicable through the forms with which I have chosen?’; or ‘how can my form be my content, and vice versa, in the way that I would like it to be?’; or said more simply, ‘Is this what I want or ready to present to my interpreters?’

From Eco, as writers, we only know that the role of the writer is: 1).  to make a text open, not closed [Eco, OW, 1959]; 2).  to implant the text so it can produce model readers and model authors [Eco, Limits, 1990]; 3).  to write by using a collage or a textile of other texts [Eco, Postscript, 1980, Name, 83]; and, if we look back further, 4).  to use “Form as Social Commitment” [Eco, OW, 1962].  To find the role of the writer, possibly it would be more productive to begin by looking at Eco’s theory of aesthetics, which predate his interpretation theories.  But, if we want to learn how to write aesthetic works, why not study the novels; and if we want to know how to interpret, study the theoretical work; and not vice versa?  This is the touché of Eco’s works, which playfully and intelligently ask the reader to look in both directions.

But are these divisions so strict?  Is it only possible to learn how to make aesthetic/creative works by studying aesthetic/creative works?  If one can develop scientific/theoretical works by studying aesthetic/creative works, why can’t one learn to make aesthetic/creative works by studying scientific/theoretical works?  Are the two modes of production all that distinct?  In other words, can the theory of the Death of the Author be used towards a practice of poetics?

Since Eco has an answer for every query, I will turn to it first.  In his reply to the participants at the Tanner Lectures, Eco comments on his apparent bipolarity.

“I understand that, according to current opinion, I have written some texts that can be labeled as scientific (or academic or theoretical), and some others which can be defined as creative.  But I do not believe in such a straightforward distinction. […] There is not some mysterious ontological difference between these two ways of writing […] When I write a theoretical text I try to reach…a coherent conclusion, and I propose this conclusion to my readers.  If they do not agree with it, or if I have the impression that they have misinterpreted it, I react by challenging the reader’s interpretation.  When I write a novel, on the contrary…I realize that I am not trying to impose a conclusion:  I stage a play of contradictions.” [Eco, I&O, 140-141]

A creative text, then, as an open work, rather than didactically imposing a conclusion, allows contradictory conclusions to challenge the reader’s interpretation, blur the prejudices of the author, and, through the ambiguity of the language, create an impalpability of a final sense. [Eco, I&O, 141]

We can see then, in postscripting his novels, and in his habit of interpreting his interpreters – even in the four allowances offered above – that Eco ‘challenges his reader’s interpretation when he has the impression they have misinterpreted’ in the same way whether the work in question is a scientific one or a creative one.  Even so, it is important to remember that, in both cases, he does so still only as a model reader.  But, since Eco makes this reversal and challenges the interpretation of an aesthetic/creative text with the criteria for challenging a theoretical text, can’t it be possible to write an aesthetic/poetic text with the approach of a theoretical text?  Although from the other direction, Eco also has an answer for this.

What appears to be the final breakdown/breakthrough on the question of the empirical author is his essay of 1996, How and Why I Write, written after The Island of the Day Before.

“When I defended my dissertation on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, I was struck by an observation by the second member of my committee.... [H]e told me that I had presented all the phases of my research as if it were a detection story, noting even the false paths, the hypothesis that I later discarded, while the mature scholar consumes these experiences and, in the last version…only allows the conclusions to be made public.  I had recognized that my dissertation was precisely as…described…, but I did not think it was a problem.  [I] became convinced that this is the manner to “tell” every research.  I think I proceeded accordingly in all of my subsequent work.” [Eco, How and Why, 285]

Just as earlier we saw Eco defending his aesthetic/creative works as if they were scientific/theoretical, now we see that he writes his scientific/theoretical works as if they were aesthetic/creative works.  And when we remember that all of his fictions – often labeled Historiographic Metafiction – utilize, if not teach, historical and theoretical information, we see now that scientific/theoretical/aesthetic/creative works are fully conflated – their techniques and approaches interchangeable.  By way of their common manifestation in ‘writing’ they make an equivalent claim to narration, fictionality, and truth.  Wouldn’t the very nature of Language itself – with all of its gaps and flows with thought, truth, and order – always already constitute contradictory conclusions that challenge the reader’s interpretation, blur the prejudices of the author, and create an impalpability of a final sense?

At first glance, Eco’s essay, “How and Why I Write”, seems to trump all of his previous theoretical work which denied a voice to the empirical author.  For the first time, Eco gives us a brief autobiography from childhood to the present tracking his life as an author and a writer.  But in the same way in which Borges writes “Borges and I”, and splits the authorial self such that we cannot determine which is which, so too does Eco realize that writing an autobiographical statement will not renege on his theoretical work.  The model author still does the speaking; the empirical author still lives happily in a “lovely apartment across the street from the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.” [Procter, 29]  His authorial voice is fully liberated, and Umberto Eco has written his way back into authorship, by way of, rather than in spite of, the discourse of the Death of the Author.

Finally, I can return to Eco’s positing, on the jacket copy of The Name of the Rose, “...that which cannot be theorized, must be narrated.”4  Rocco Capozzi, as well as Peter Bondanella,5 interpret this to mean, “…through the intertextual echo of Wittgenstein our author is really saying: that which I have already theorized now I must narrate.” [Capozzi, 228] I am critical of this interpretation though, based on a more economical reading of the text.  My doubt begins with the phrase “our author is really saying…” where Capozzi seems to have found the true and only intention of the author.  But what he overlooks in order to find what he is looking for is the grammatical negative of the sentence – ‘what cannot be theorized, must be narrated’.  The Wittgensteinian source also uses the negative as the turning point of the sentence – ‘what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’.

According to this interpretation, narration is subordinate to theory and its dissemination.  Where, by contrast, in the very nature of the sentence, Eco offers narration a voice to say something other than that which theory speaks of.  Capozzi posits narration as a means to repeat only what has already been theorized and not as a form in which to say something of its own.  I would suggest, on the other hand, that Eco is, by way of narration and aesthetic writing, finishing his theoretical work by bringing it to Practice.  Theory, in other words, is only half of the project.  Eco’s work can only be complete through the polyvocality of Theory and Practice.

What Eco cannot theorize, and therefore, in theory, passes over in silence, is and has been the Role of the Writer.  This is spoken through narration and through the practice, and practicing, of aesthetic production.


PART II: CONSEQUENCES AND PROFITS:  ‘Other’ Folks and the ‘New Philosophers’

Now that we have seen how Eco writes himself back into Authorship, and have looked at the example of someone on the inside working his way out, what about those on the outside either trying to work themselves in or trying to steer clear all together?  What influence has the discourse of the Death of the Author had on others who were subjected to it, and what have been the benefits of such a theory for those who announce it?

Eco’s early decision to shift from traditional poetics to Modern poetics paralleled a similar decision making process by Feminist, Gay and Lesbian, and Postcolonial critics.  As David Robey, in his introduction to the Open Work explains:  since traditional forms of expression conveyed conventional meanings, and conventional meanings supported the conventional world view, supporting modern works, with their new forms, constituted a denial of the conventional world view. [Eco, OW, xi]  Eco’s celebration of the Modern open work became a way of using form to express social commitment.  “(A)lthough open works are not the only kind of art to be produced in our time,” Robey continues, “they are the only kind that is appropriate to it; the conventional sense and order of traditional art reflect an experience of the world wholly different from ours, and we deceive ourselves if we try to make this sense and order our own.” [Eco, OW, xiv]

Feminists, at the same time, experienced a similar relationship to a ‘world view wholly different from their own’.  They too were faced with the decision to work with conventions from the inside to try to implement change or to come up with a ‘modern’, or characteristically woman-centered, form from which to start anew.  Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in The Madwoman in the Attic, discuss this situation by characterizing the male writer as exhausted and trapped by his precursors, bound by a long history of conventions, while female writers, able to turn away from those conventions, experienced a Renaissance of sorts.

“[W]omen writers participate in a quite different literary subculture from that inhabited by male writers…the separateness of this female subculture has been exhilarating for women.  In recent years, for instance, while male writers seem increasingly to have felt exhausted by the need for revisionism…women writers have seen themselves as pioneers in a creativity so intense that their male counterparts have probably not experienced its analog since the Renaissance, or at least since the Romantic era.  The son of many fathers, today’s male writer feels hopelessly belated; the daughter of too few mothers, today’s female writer feels that she is helping to create a viable tradition which is at last definitely emerging.” [Gilbert and Gubar, 159]

Alice Jardin, in “‘Feminist Tracks’”, also discusses how feminist literary critics are faced with the similar decisions of whether to write about ‘men’s books’ or to write about ‘women’s books.’ [Jardin, 180]  To write about men’s books would serve to work from the inside and change the conventions, whereas to write about women’s books would establish a literary canon and create new forms with a new center which speaks to women.

Barbara Christian, in “The Race for Theory”, discusses the same decision making process by feminist and postcolonial literary critics.  For her, the decision is whether to pursue or reject a specific literacy which dominates the academic world.  It is only through a knowledge of the works and discourse of the ‘New Philosophers’ (who she leaves unnamed) that one can enter the academic work force or otherwise have a voice in literary discourse. [Christian, 148]  By learning the language of those in power, feminist, gay and lesbian, and postcolonial critics can “speak truth to power,” as Edward Said would say, from the inside; or, by rejecting the “new” philosophy and -phers, as Christian does, one can speak of other cultures and create new canons.

Reina Lewis, in “The Death of the Author and the Resurrection of the Dyke”, although concerned with canon construction, like Christian, and Gilbert and Gubar, tries to develop a more integrative approach for using the theoretical achievements of the sixties, including the Death of the Author, to which the lesbian feminist movement had also contributed.

“Lesbian literary criticism, in keeping with other projects of rediscovery (for example, Black and women writers and artists), tends to return to liberal humanist ideas of the subject.  It is all very well being told that the sovereign controlling subject is dead, but for groups who were denied access to the authoritative reading and writing position the first time round, there is a very real need to occupy it now.  [W]e want role models, we want to feel part of a cultural tradition, to know that we have a history of creativity, one that speaks to our experience and concerns.  But…can we construct this history without reneging on the theoretical developments to which we too have contributed?” [Lewis, 19]

Lewis’s project is to find, instead, a lesbian cultural tradition that opens up possibilities, by, in addition to writing lesbian subjects back into history and literature, also questioning the nature of that subjecthood. [Lewis, 21] She is wary that the defensive position of lesbian studies which would turn away from theory to canon construction will leave lesbian criticism “caught in the quagmire of positive images.” [Lewis, 27] Like Catherine Stimpson, Lewis also

“...sees the desire for positive images and a singular identification as retrograde, and argues that such ‘formally staid’ qualities of the lesbian novel are politically dangerous.  Lesbians who ‘struggle against hostilities of the larger world can find comfort in the ease of reading’ positive images which, rather than motivating them to articulate their experience and rebel against repression, may give a false sense of security and encourage inactivity.” [Lewis, 27-8]

By questioning that subjecthood, along with making up for lost time by using the conventional forms of literature to create a canon, lesbian writers and critics must also explore non-traditional forms and more aggressive images and models, in order that straight readers cannot so easily “retreat from the challenge of ‘unfamiliar and despised material.’” For Stimpson, this emphasis on positive images perpetuates the hegemony of the traditional heterosexual literary order and constitutes the lesbian project then as dangerously reactionary. [Lewis, 28]

Although Christian wants to follow new paths and promote the critical work of writing overlooked writers – like Gloria Naylor and Alice Walker – into literary canons6 and ignore the “New Philosophers”, she also wants to work from the inside to break down their hegemony as they influence academia.  Why else would she write, “The Race for Theory”?

In the spirit of these voices, and since we have already conflated historical and narrative writing, and since one way that critics try to work from the inside to break down structures is to create alternative narratives, it may be productive to suggest an alternative history to the discourse of the Death of the Author.  By most accounts, Seán Burke’s included, the history of the Death of the Author is plotted along the following progression: from biographical positivism’s insistence on authorial biography; phenomenological humanism’s and Sartean Existentialism’s attachment to subjectivity and consciousness; Structuralism’s break with the subject through the centrality of Language; Russian Formalism’s focus on the literariness of literature (concerned with Literature only); New Criticism’s eyes trained at only the words on the page; Poststructualism’s drive to annihilate the author, subjectivity, consciousness, truth, knowledge, and universals (opening the field to include with Literature, also, Philosophy, Psychology, Sociology, and all fields); and, finally, to Neo-Pragmatism’s resistance to, and cry for, the end of theory. [Burke, Death, 8-19]

Is it not also possible, though, to read the discourse of the Death of the Author as a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement which moved into Identity Politics?  For decades – centuries – woman, gay and lesbian, and non-white writers had been hoping for a literary criticism that begged the question, “What matter who’s speaking?”, since, if one was black, gay, or female s/he couldn’t speak or be published.  Wasn’t George Eliot begging the question when she chose her pseudonym?

As Christian notes about the rise of theory: “...that [kind of] language surfaced, interestingly enough, just when the literature of peoples of color, of black women, of Latin Americans, of Africans began to move to the “center”” [Christian, 151].  With the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s paving the way for the movements of affirmative action, multiculturalism, and cultural diversity that would appear in the 1990’s, what better time to play ‘hide and speak’?  If attention was turning to these “new” voices, to the extent that they would be heard in both the university and workplace, the positions of the white males tenured there were soon to be in jeopardy.  By announcing the Death of the Author and replacing a subject-centered universe with a discourse-centered one, the Western-trained white male academic could abandon his identity when it served him least.  Is it a coincidence that at this time he would announce the Death of the Author and now himself ask the question, “What matter who is speaking?”

Another related trend from this period that has resulted in the profit of the theorists who promoted it, also centers around Roland Barthes.  With the birth of the reader, and the fading of the genius, also came an opening up of the field for cultural interpretation.  Taking Barthes’ Mythologies (1957) as the prime example, without forgetting Eco’s Diario Minimo7 (1960), as well as the rise of Andy Warhol and Pop Art, the field of interpretable works expanded.  The products of artists/writers now had to share the same critics and theorists with kitsch, Pop, or everyday products.  Barthes chose both wrestling and Sade; Eco chose Charlie Brown and Finnagans Wake; and John Berger chose Walt Disney and Francis Bacon. 

Pierre Macherey’s ‘artist as cultural producer’ had now been replaced by the ‘artist as product producer’ equal in the field with other producers.  On the other hand, the critic, theorist, curator, and editor become ‘cultural producers’ when they choose from the wide variety of products available from both High culture and Pop in order to interpret culture.  This opening of the field may be the thing to truly kill the artist/writer.

And, as Christian also notes, “Now I am being told that philosophers are the ones who write literature, that authors are dead, irrelevant, mere vessels through which their narratives ooze, that they do not work nor have they the faintest idea what they are doing; rather they produce texts as disembodied as the angels” [Christian, 152], so too have the products of the critics and philosophers come into competition with the works of artists/writers.  Christian is concerned that critics now interpret other critics and the artist/writer is left out.

Christian also draws attention to the way in which the Death of the Author constructs artists/writers as mere intentionless and unmotivated machines who produce works.  This conception of the artist – as an innocent – functions to the benefit of the critic.  An artistic work, conceived in this way – by one who doesn’t think, devoid of the intention of an author – can be regarded as a virgin text, or pre-colonial land, which, in the mind of the critic, waits only for the spritzing of seeds in order for it to mature.  For the thinking artist/writer, this is one of the consequences of the Death of the Author and the hegemony that s/he seeks to break free from.  Eco’s text-centered theory is, in this sense, more ‘artist-friendly’.

One last way in which the theorists who announced the Death of the Author benefited from doing so is in their currently accepted status as ‘superstar’ Authors.  They too have been incorporated by, both capital and cultural, hegemony.  As Authors of discourse, as Foucault calls them, their names dominate the university, both in the classroom and the bookstore.  Just as the Conceptual and Earthworks artists in the 70’s, like Joseph Kosuth and Robert Smithson, had to manifest their works in the gallery system in order for them to be seen – which therefore defeated their philosophy – so too have Christian’s New Philosophers had to reincorporate themselves into the discourse they sought to bring an end to.  A return always follows an announcement of death.

Taking off from Derrida, if writing is conceived as only a performance of itself, and can’t represent thoughts, expressions, or even discourse, then wouldn’t all writing, whether scientific/ theoretical/aesthetic/creative, be just writing?  In the same way Eco manipulates narrative according to creative and scientific writing styles, can’t we see Derrida manipulating language according to scientific and poetic styles?  If we see Eco as a novelist, can we see Derrida as a poet?  What else is the play between ‘allusion’, ‘illusion’, and ‘elusion’, in Specters of Marx, or the construction of differance if not poetry?  Christian may not be wrong when she says that the work of the New Philosophers has taken the place of literature.  But if we agree to this, we also have to recognize that the New Philosophers have taken the place of the Author, leaving the field such that no one has died, only others have profited.



Despite the conclusions I have come to about Eco’s work in writing himself back into authorship, or as to the consequences of the announcement of the Death of the Author, we are still no closer to determining the Role of the Writer in this Postauthor world.  We still don’t know what a writer does to perform his literary duty8; to speak from a politically conscious perspective without feigning apoliticality9; to speak with a responsibility for the Other10; and finally to make all of these motivations and intentions communicable through a work in the absence of an author.  We have not said what constitutes a successful work from the writer’s/artist’s perspective. 

Finally, we still can’t answer the questions common to most writers/artists that I posited earlier: ‘On an everyday practical level, how can I make my ideas, feelings, and expressions communicable through the forms with which I have chosen?’; ‘how can my form be my content, and vice versa, in the way that I would like it to be?’; or ‘Is this what I want or ready to present to my interpreters?’  Instead, we are now faced with two potentially debilitating, or liberating, questions: 1).  ‘since my intention is irrelevant to the interpreters of my text, why should I bother putting anything into it?’ and, 2).  ‘if the works I produce will be considered as carefully by the same critics and theorists as works made by non-artists/writers, then why should I attempt to do more than mechanically produce products for consumption?’  In other words, ‘why should I think during production?’

Is it possible for literary duty or social responsibility to override this apathy for, or temper this liberation from, having to do nothing?  If not intentionality and communicability, what guides the choice between writing war propaganda, on one extreme, or automatic writing, on the other; of writing like Dean Koontz or Umberto Eco; Anne Rice or Kathy Acker; Dave Eggers or Alice Walker?  These are the questions that concern the Role of the Writer.  Ultimately, the role of the writer and the answers to the questions above are determined by the individual writer/artist whether having wrestled with these theories or not.

The goal of pursuing the role of the writer is not to form a monovocal theory that would finally give all writers the ‘answer’ for what to do since the Death of the Author.  I agree with Barbara Christian that this kind of theory would be prescriptive and invariably exclude more than it would include; and, with Zoë Wicomb who says, “ think in terms of fixing an agenda seems both hopelessly reductive and dangerous.” [Wicomb, 14].  But can’t we consider further the role of the writer after the Death of the Author in order to continue to produce but also to retaliate against this world-view that alienates the writer/artist?



1I borrow this word from Barbara Christian’s “Race for Theory.”

2I use the passive voice to emphasize that an unsaid agent does the pushing.

3Compare with Bataille:  “The reasons for writing a book can be traced back to a desire to modify relations that exist between a man and his fellow-creatures. [...] At a certain point, the desire for human interactions that are perfectly clean and that escape general convention becomes a desire for annihilation.  [...] that which I desired to be for others excluded by being for me, and it was only natural that the use to which I wanted to be put by others... required that I cease to be,... that I die.” [Bataille, 11]

4Apparently this appears only in the original Italian, but both Capozzi and Bondanella cite it.

5See Capozzi, 228; Bondanella, 95-6.

6She knows that “writing disappears unless there is a response”[Christian, 156]

7In English, these newspaper articles appear collected in Misreadings, How to With a Salmon and Other Essays, and Travels in Hyperreality.

8“Along with all sensible people, I agree that the writer has a social responsibility.” [Wicomb, 13]; “Writers (especially American writers, weaned on the luxury of affluence and freedom) often disavow the notion of “literary duty” or “political consciousness,” citing the all-to-frequent examples of writers ruined by their shrill commitments” [Mukherjee, 26]; Eco also writes newspapers pieces out of a political duty, see Travels in Hyperreality, xi.

9 “All writing, whether it deals directly with the revolution or not, occupies a political position.” [Wicomb, 13]

10As in the work of Emmanuel Levinas.

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