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Jane Gallop, The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time

The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time

by Jane Gallop
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2011
184 pp. Trade: $74.95, paper: $21.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5063-7; ISBN: 978-0-8223-5081-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baeten

“The Death of the Author” is the title of a brief 1968 essay by Roland Barthes, which has become one of the most easy and often quoted slogans of postmodernism in literary and cultural theory.  Almost mantra-like this short-cut of postmodernist dismissal of the author and subsequent foregrounding of text, system, field and signifier, has been used over and over and again as a way of continuing the May 68 revolt against tradition. Its academic reception has systematically linked this text with Michel Foucault’s 1969 essay “What is an Author,” and it is not an exaggeration to claim that it has achieved the status of a truly classic essay.

Yet one thing is to recognize the value of a text and the concept it has put on the fore, and another thing is to really read it. The starting point of Jane Gallop’s book is that the easiness of the concept, which delivers a sexy and catchy meaning that we think we understand immediately, may have blocked our critical reflection on the notion as well as our reading of the very text that introduced it. The automatic coupling of Barthes’s essay with the one by Foucault, which despite its similar title hints to totally different discussions, suggests already that there is a huge gap between the deceivingly simple concept and the abyss that its close reading can reveal us. A stubborn practitioner of close reading, even in times like ours in which there seems to be no place left for this approach in academy, Jane Gallop delivers in this important book a twofold lesson. The first one is on the importance of close reading -and here the influence of Derrida, who transferred close reading from literature to philosophy and whose prestige has kept close reading present on the intellectual stage, is dramatically visible. The second one is on the meaning of the death of the author as a concept, but also as a practice –and here Gallop convincingly demonstrates that the significance of the concept cannot be reduced to its first reception in 1968.

In order to revisit the notion of the death of the author, Gallop adopts a method that is both extremely straightforward and tremendously subtle. On the one hand, she looks how four key critics, first as readers and then as authors, have actually used that very notion. What did Barthes for instance write on the author after having declared that the author is dead? Did he delete the concept from his theory? Did he enjoy or lament it? Did he return to the author? Did he contradict himself? Did he react to the discussions raised by the success of his essay or did he ignore them? The answers that Jane Gallop offers to these questions disclose painfully how lazy readers can be. For the death of the author is just a stepping-stone in Barthes’ thinking on the position and the role of the author, and this thinking did not end in 1968 –as we too easily accept it does. Instead of reading Barthes’s essay in relationship with general theoretical and ideological statements, Gallop reconstructs the various links that help see the gradual shift to a different approach of the reader, who becomes, according to Barthes, the object of an erotic dream by his or her reader. It is to the extent that we are aware of the author’s death, that it becomes possible to desire again his or her presence in the body of the text. Focusing on a very small set of well-chosen fragments in Barthes’s work, fragments that are read and reread from a wide range of perspectives (the rhythm of the sentences, the multilayeredness of the metaphors, the conceptual variations, the play with a permanently mobile intertext, the blurring of the boundaries between the text and its publication context, etc.), Gallop succeeds in revealing new meanings of an apparently worn-out concept, gradually opening the single death of the author, an event having occurred in 1968 and never really challenged since these years, to the steadily complexifying  plural of the deaths of the author.

The three other chapters that complete the new reading of Barthes, respectively on Jacques Derrida, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Gayatri Spivak, follow similar lines, as far as the close reading methodology is concerned. Yet they broaden the scope in two crucial respects.

First of all, it appears that the book is divided in two well-balanced parts, which coincide with the division of reading and writing. In the case of Barthes and Derrida, the death of the author is seen prioritarily from the viewpoint of the reader: What does the notion of the death of the author mean when the author I am reading is a departed author I knew? The example of Derrida, who has introduced in recent philosophy the “in memoriam” as a real genre, demonstrates the painful and ethically complex questions that are raised by this situation: Does one has the right to speak in memory of a friend while at the same time analyzing his or her work, and how to do it even if one is not allowed to do so, to quote the deceased friend, etc.? In the case of Sedgwick and Spivak, the viewpoint is more that of the reader as writer (even if Barthes and Derrida do reflect on their authorship as well, of course): How does the death of a friend, who is also an author, influences and changes my own writing, for instance when I identify with my friend as a writer, i.e. even if I realize that I am already dead myself?

Second, and this is where Jane Gallop’s close reading becomes intertwined with queer studies, the reflection on the death of the author does not only link literary theory with issues of literary ethics, it also forces to reconsider certain basic aspects of reading and writing itself. Most essential in this regard is the notion of ‘queer temporalities’, i.e. the refusal of traditional (linear and hierarchical) ways of thinking time and the praise of ‘perverse’ (i.e. non-canonical, non-systematic, non-quantifiable) approaches of time that tend to blur past, present and future, continuous and non-continuous time, slowness and speed, and eventually life and death: for instance Sedgwick reading an in memoriam for a friend dying of AIDS but not yet deceased or Spivak attempting at maintaining the continuously open and never-ending character of writing as a revolt against the deadening effects of the publication of a book. In both cases, Gallop proposes a very strong political interpretation of these queer temporalities, which she links with the defense of queer sexuality (for Sedgwick) and the haunting presence of  Marx, whose thinking seems condemned to final oblivion after the fall of the Berlin Wall (for Spivak).

It is a pleasure to end this review by stressing the immense stylistic and demonstrative qualities of this book. Jane Gallop is no doubt one of the best readers of her generation, but with The Deaths of the Author she proves that her writing is unprecedented: sharp, brisk, with a great sense of rhythm, utterly sophisticated and yet perfectly clear, from the very first till the very last sentence.

Last Updated 4 November 2011

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