It was Roland Barthes who proclaimed ‘the death of the author‘. This is a big tangle of a concept. Some of it refers to demolishing the myth around a (patriarchal) font of author-ity, the idea that a writer simply transparently ‘transmits’ a content which originates in the writer’s authorly ‘essence’. Rather, what is written or not written – the discourse, the text – has its being not in the author’s intentions but in the writerly act itself wherein many layers of meaning float among and into each other. It is in the text, not the author (or reader), that meaning resides.
Barthes, of course, was one of the (devilish to some) prophets of literary theory, forever merged with the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Althusser. This movement itself is a discourse, one that attracted acolytes and severe critics, the latter ‘anti-theory’ texts themselves bound up in discourse. By discourse, I mean that the ways of representing ideas (in texts) are inseparable from the historical moment, the culturally represented prisms of power (ideology). Discourse is a way of living, perceiving, thinking. When an artist challenges dominant discourses (in the same way Barthes et al did) she or he will ‘be found’ by textual acts of resistance. Hence we are afforded parody, irony, (Bataille said “It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form. ” This is the arresting first line of his shockingly titled The Solar Anus).
The whole thrust of theory is to remind us of flux. In semiology, the ‘science’ of signs, Umberto Eco being the most popular exponent, we are asked to remove our addictive clinging to the notion that words or any other signs refer to fixed entities in the world. They don’t. They can’t. In one way this is easy to see. We can write an opera about unicorns if we so desire without worrying in the slightest about our libretto referring to ‘real’ things. (Doubtless critics may see the operatic text as symbolic or allegorical. Indeed, all of us if explaining a single ‘thing’ will resort to saying “It is like … something else).
When we think of our ‘reality’ we tend to attach to a word or sign a direct and simple connection with something in the world that is fixed and independent of other things. Yet, semiology suggests, our use of language is something akin to creating a dream world. Words only can exist in relation to other words and the relationship is too complex to imagine. If a word is a ‘signifier’ (its sound, its written form) it has been thought of as being ‘attached’ to some ‘signified’ – some object, some chunk of ‘reality out there’. That’s our normal way of thinking. Yet semiology suggests that all of our signifiers are ‘floating’. They combine with each other (to produce meaning in a text or in a conversation) but should be seen as ‘floating’, never ‘attached’ to anything. Words, like any signs, are not labels but autonomous elements in discourse production.
We only need some everyday examples here. In all our lives we know somebody who is stubbornly dogmatic about their views, proud of their independence of thought. What they are attached to is a configuration of signs which they insist refer to some ‘objective’ reality. Atheist semioticians have some fun pointing out that God is a mere floating signifier of nothing, that all the millions of words in theology are but playing around with signs, sophisticated crossword solving. Where we run into big problems is when the more primitive aspects of humanity combine with commitment to particular sign configurations. The concept of ‘the nation’ is possibly innocent – something that can be pointed to in an atlas (itself a sign system). It can and sadly does thicken and become the trumpet call to war and other horrors. This is because, something we have largely forgotten, is that most of our use of words is to do with rhetoric – to persuade, seek or offer confirmation etc.
Of course, all this raises big questions too complex to discuss here. If words are empty floaters, how can we know the real. Kant is the most famous philosopher to conclude that we can never know reality ‘as it is’ but only through human conceptual features. Plato’s cave, also, demonstrates the strength of a tradition of thought that suggests we only ever see shadows of reality. Seeing words as shadows, or floating, or disconnected with reality has led more than a few to nihilism such as poor Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
From earliest written materials to the present day though, there has been an intuitive impulse to regard words and language as barriers to understanding. Knowledge, be it Vedic, Buddhist, Moslem, Christian, Jewish, whatever, is somehow achieved by ‘transcending’ language. ‘Words, words, words,’ said Hamlet wearily as he ghosted upon the weed garden of his life. No such transcendence in the blueprints for revolutions, advertising, politics. A word is what a word is. As Gradgrind said in Hard Times (accidentally parodying the later Wittgenstein’s error),
“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
Back to writing. And reading. We are both interacting with a text, not each other. The text is the only thing we have in common. Open to certain ways of reading, the text will change repeatedly as it unfurls its layers, as images resonate (inside and, importantly, outside the text).
There’s something that’s more vital than all of this. What I may call myself, me, my mind does not exist. It’s as close to experience of universal flux as we can get to admit that. I’ll leave it to one of my favourite writers, Fernando Pessoa, to float with signifiers and know we can never be fully aware of ourselves, life or others – not just other people but every single ‘thing’ we encounter each day. In his lovely sonnet, he suggests reader and writer, you and me, can never bridge what’s not a linear distance in any case but clouds of ever-shifting experiences to a large extent beyond our will.
Whether we write or speak or do but look
We are ever unapparent. What we are
Cannot be transfused into word or book.
Our soul from us is infinitely far.
However much we give our thoughts the will
To be our soul and gesture it abroad,
Our hearts are incommunicable still.
In what we show ourselves we are ignored.
The abyss from soul to soul cannot be bridged
By any skill of thought or trick of seeming.
Unto our very selves we are abridged
When we would utter to our thought our being.
We are our dreams of ourselves, souls by gleams,
And each to each other dreams of others’ dreams.Fernando Pessoa