“What is an Author?” Foucault asks before promptly answering that it is purely a ‘function’, separate from the work; not quite as dead as Barthes’ author but not quite as involved as Freud’s “creative writer”. Yet Foucault’s “author-function”, like much of his theoretical creations, seems to exist purely to lead us away from any dark philosophical forests that such a question may send us wondering into. The prickly issue of ‘identity’, for example, which is very much the house made of sweets at the centre of our tenuously metaphorical wood.
The ancients had the handy dilemma of Theseus’ Ship to summarise this notion of identity. Theseus, being an all-out hero of the Herculean mode, went out travelling the Mediterranean, getting into fights and generally being a nuisance for a number of years. In each battle a part of his ship would be hacked off or burned and thus needed replacing. Upon returning home and pulling his ship in at the harbour, Neptune dredged up all the parts of the ship that had been replaced and made another, identical ship out of them that sat in the port next to the other one. Which one deserves most to be called Theseus’ Ship?
It’s a question very much in the Platonic mode – tempting us to consider the “form” or “Idea” of the ship as either initial or final product of a work (voyaging). Interestingly, we can ask the same questions of many of the great Renaissance paintings. Is a Raphael actually a Raphael? He certainly didn’t paint all of it originally, having a collection of apprentices eager to chip in. Since then, each of these works has been constantly re-painted by restorers too. Empirically it’s doubtful if a single brush-stroke of the great masters’ still exists on canvass.
Yet surely this is a case of over-materialisation of art? We don’t demand that every Dickens novel be hand-written by the man himself; it’s the ideas that count. But whose ideas are these then? Are they the artists, or are they the wealthy patron’s that demanded the paintings in the first place? Pindar’s Odes were written solely to celebrate athletic victories, so his mystical “artistic inspiration” existed purely in reproducing something that everyone hearing the poem has already seen in reality. In fact, such “artistic representation” (Spivak’s “re-presentation”) could be seen to “authorise” reality (as political “representation”) by elevating it to the notion of “form”.
Whilst dealing with authorship and authorisation, it would be lax of me not to comment of Hollywood. The reliance upon marketing demographics means that the producers are very much the “authorisers” of the films. The Kubrick-esque “auteur” doesn’t write the film (like his French “auteur” namesake) but simply exerts a single-minded control. Such authorship then relates directly to authority – the director’s authority extending even as far as how the characters are “written” in the actions of the actors. Indeed, in the process of group creation in general the “author” seems to relate directly to the “authority” in charge; in commenting on the myth of great singular inventors I also reached something like this conclusion.
To change tack, I was alerted to an odd case the other day by a friend of mine. Vonnegut’s inimitable character Kilgore Trout (himself based on Theodore Salmon) was used as a pseudonym by another writer. So now we have a novel by an author-character that Vonnegut authored, who is actually a different author entirely – an author who then got in trouble for presuming he had the authority to author as this character-author. The only way we can resolve this dilemma is by forgetting entirely the concept of the “author-function”… lawyers 1 – literary theorists 0.
But compare this situation to that of the goodly parson Yorick. First appearing as a bit-part character in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, in which he is widely seen to represent Sterne himself, to the main character of A Sentimental Journey that is also by Sterne but here Yorick is distanced from the author as a fully-fledged character of his own. This would perhaps represent an interesting parable of how writers develop truth into fiction; splitting off elements of the Ego that eventually begin to grow into miniature Egos of their own. It would… but that Sterne released a collection of his own sermons (perhaps the most authorially-direct form of writing possible) under the name of, alas, poor Yorick! Who is speaking, dear structuralists, who?
“What does it matter who speaks?” answers Christine Brooke-Rose. I guess it doesn’t, but in an era of late-capitalism where ideas are worth more than anything physical the “author” can be seen, not in the question of “who speaks” but in “who owns that speech”. Von Trier’s The Boss of it All is a great film for demonstrating the effects of deferred authority and how without ultimate authority one cannot be deemed ultimately responsible (“just doing my job mate”). Perhaps by killing the author, the responsibility of literature is in the reader? But once we start to blame ourselves, paradoxically, doesn’t “authority” return straight back to the “author” - only the author is now liberated from the threat of responsibility?
There’s an interesting debate going on about the Scottish Gaelic language (as apposed to the Irish). Here’s David Mitchell’s opinion www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvlQXPNwrqo. As a comedian/Oxford graduate, Mitchell does a good job of portraying the bourgeois ‘in-the-know’ attitude with a good mix of utilitarian common sense and a philanthropic view of diversity, all united with the comedian’s knack for cutting through the empty verbiage. If you need an example of why this is the dominant hegemonic attitude within Britain then all you have to do is browse the far less insightful opinions expressed in the comments beneath.
However, if we stand back from this specific debate (back into the space where a navel-gaser like me feels most comfortable) then we find that the Gaelic language debate is simply one extension of a far wider debate on language that’s been going on for over a hundred years. Is language in the speech or the writing? Saussure says the speech, but Latin still clings on as a workable academic language despite lacking a single native speaker. On the other hand, if all native French speakers disappeared for a thousand years would we still say “parleyvoo” or, more likely, end up pronouncing it “parlez vuse”?
Bertrand Russell, the pretentious quoter’s friend, raises an interesting point that we cannot ever really know whether man developed speech or writing first. People have presumed speech came first partly through underestimating the written (albeit pictographic) cultures of tribespeople perceived to be “less developed” and partly, like Rousseau, by judging culture to follow the model of young children who learn speech before writing. Yet even in the child analogy we can see how a pre-speech child will signify demands equally with sound symbols and physical symbols. If we expand this to the great apes (as our nearest evolutionary buddies) they can communicate using quite difficult concepts in captivity via pictographic machines, without ever pronouncing a single “mama”.
How does this affect the Gaelic language though? Well, if language is indeed as Mr Mitchell says it is, communication, then how could we account for the Gaelic, or English, language in the first place? Yes my examples are a little trivial but the key point is that the Saussurian model of language has been proven time and again to fail – like modern “information theory”, communication cannot exist without elements of “noise”, and why would pure communication produce “noise”? Derrida suggests that this is a product of writing being not so much related to communication as to wider images, ideas and intangible traces. As Woolf says, “we’re dealing only in savours”.
An example of how this non-communicative element of language operates could be seen in a comparison of the two traditionally opposing language representations – hieroglyphic/ideogrammatic (eg/Chinese text) and phonogrammatic (eg/ English). The English language, in the tradition of Latin and Greek, writes its words using the spoken syllables whereas Chinese constructs ideograms composed of four elements, expressed through imagery, and are meaningless out of context. As communication, English prospers, yet all its great poems are long, drawn out affairs compared to Chinese poetry. The inherent mystical ambiguity of Chinese language can be harnessed effectively in short bursts where even the great novels of the west eventually find that words fail. To see how close the English language can get to Chinese poetry its worth checking out Ezra Pound’s Cantos – though I can’t promise you’ll enjoy the experience.
So overall, language isn’t merely a means of communication, it’s a network of thoughts policed in such a way as to suggest a Jungian collective unconscious at work. Hegel could only have written Phenomenology of the Spirit in German, Sartre his Being and Nothingness in French, Locke his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in English. The real Gaelic question is whether people think with the language, not just think ‘in’ the language but think ‘with’ it? Is it used to construct people’s world perceptions? A language needs to be operated with to produce cultural difference, so without a base of speakers dating back to a certain time of cultural homogeneity then a language can be seen to fail in its task. Just as Irish and Welsh managed to turn away from extinction by invoking a spirit of cultural renaissance with ancient forgotten classics to discover, so must Gaelic spread interest in its own productions rather than simply its means. The Irish word for ‘arse’ may have certain philosophical implications but until you’ve read of the battle between Cu Chulainn and Fer Diad then its importance can’t really be understood.
What am I doing this for? Why is a blog? As far as I’m concerned it’s a space where I can keep note of thoughts, theories, idle rambles, etc. At the very least it’s a useful exercise to promote chemical continuity, lubricating neurones and all that other behaviourist crap. The underlying message of most of it being that theorising the world is a fundamentally flawed operation from the standpoint of what would conventionally be called truth so we might as well enjoy the fallacy, throw in some variation every once in a while. I like to think of myself as an alternative www.kadir-buxton.com – although admittedly I am less likely to advocate slapping the mentally ill…
The question of interpretation is an interesting one though, especially in the field of literature. In writing about the “author function” (to replace the flesh-and-blood-author who Barthes killed), Foucault describes the “founders of discursivity” as those writers, like Marx and Freud, that made possible certain types of discourse (Marx – dialectical materialism, Freud – psychoanalysis) that needn’t follow any of their own axioms at all. I can see his point, but then where is the line drawn? He draws it at the founders of genre, perhaps proving the arbitrariness of his own distinctions (one of Foucault’s great recurring tricks), but surely that’s the point here? Isn’t this “discursivity” simply the syntax without the semantics, the tools without anything to fix, the question to which 42 is the answer?
It’s a puzzle that has troubled the deepest tragic minds from Oedipus to Hamlet yet even outside the Hellenistic west the theme constantly reappears. Luo Guanzhong’s Three Kingdoms describes how the evil dictator Dong Zhuo was lead to his death past innumerable signs that warned him of his coming doom yet thanks to the quick thinking of his fellow traveller (Lu Su, I think, but can’t quite remember) his worries are calmed with false readings of the portents that replace their obvious menace with great promise. Of course the flag pole that carries your personal flag being snapped off at the head doesn’t mean you’re soon to be decapitated, Dong Zhuo, it simply means you’ll get a new flag when they soon make you emperor! Etc…
A similar instance is dealt with hilariously in Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel as the bawdy Panurge tries to predict if his future wife will make him a cuckold. The arguments, portents and oracles all seem to point in both directions, or neither, and the debate drags on throughout much of the book. Needless to say, the thought that it might depend on who Panurge marries never occurs in Rabelais’ festive universe, in fact, no actual woman is ever brought into it. Much like that other great Renaissance classic, Don Quixote, the very act of interpretation seems to amount to the making of giants from windmills.
Yet it’s not only oracles and portents that demand our interpretative powers, the dilemma exists on the Saussurian plane of what our very language signifies. In Australian aboriginal society the speaking of a dead person’s name is forbidden, often demanding new language to develop to fill the hole made by the forbidden sounds that the name relates to. It may seem mad but we find the same thing operating throughout all political dialogue here in Britain. If an unpleasant savour has attached itself to the signifier of “profiling”, for example, the government will try its best to create new jargon to replace it; the hope of course being that they shall find a new word that they solely can dictate the meaning to, carefully screening any inherent racism within the emotive dialectics of national security and patriotism. Witness the same in reverse where the “freedom of speech” argument is made to defend hatred in order to invoke the spirit of human rights within the context of aggression.
Yes, it’s all very well saying that there are “founders of discursivity” and then there are the rest of us, lolling around in homogeneity, but even an illiterate member of the BNP knows the importance of phrasing nowadays. Indeed, for every Marx or Freud that seeks to open up discourse and enable interpretation, there’s a million others seeking to form a language so non-descript that the thought of interpreting it any other way than the obvious doesn’t even occur. When Orwell predicted Newspeak he demonstrated this potential for language to dissuade interpretation, however, his writer’s faith in language meant he couldn’t situate that phenomenon within English itself. Indeed, as I see it, anyone who was poised to be a truly revolutionary writer in this era would need fragment not only language, but the word itself. Plus it would be nice to see something interesting happening in literature again. A little obscurity is good for anyone; it’s only publishers that are unaware of that.
Workers of the word unite! You have nothing to lose but your readership!
An apple fell on Newton’s head, now we have a theory of gravity. Edison flew a kite in a storm, now we have the light bulb. Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands and now we understand evolution. These sentences say a lot about how we view scientific progress. You’ll notice that in none of these sentences does the first clause claim to cause the second clause (through use of “therefore”, for example) yet immediately the two things are linked. The fact that the Newton-apple story was a myth made famous through Voltaire, electricity was well known long before people like Edison utilised it, and that Darwin’s books came out many years after his Galapagos trip don’t really matter; what’s important is how we automatically search for individualistic narrative to explain scientific discoveries.
But then who would want to be a scientist if they realised that the myth of the great inventor was just that, a myth? The recent film about Darwin wouldn’t have been half as interesting if it had shown him cutting up worms for twenty years with all the methodical precision of true experiment. No, the film makes him into some renegade scientist with 24 hours to save the world and, most importantly, use his super-evolutionary-theorising-powers to combat racism. It’s a lovely twist, especially for anyone that’s read The Descent of Man.
Problem is - people need reasons for things. Newton was recognised as a genius and so was his good friend Locke, but the real hero of eighteenth century development was the Royal Institute and the growing ideology of liberalism that permitted it. Yet even that reading plays along with the humanistic idea of “progress” that meets almost universal approval these days. Indeed, the idea that “more science = more good therefore history = progression” enjoys an unquestioned status nowadays similar to the existence of God in the middle ages. Ironic really, since ‘humanism’ has somehow become synonymous with atheism…
Although, as I’ve written about before (maybe last week even) people need to believe in something – especially if we take “belief” in Hume’s sense as meaning the concept of “meaning”. Humanistic progression is a handy narrative for injecting meaning into all things material. Reading this blog right now you’re probably thinking that the very blog form itself is a totally new medium (public diary) dependent upon new technologies (internet) and is thus a result of progression. But it’s not a product of progression; it’s a product of development. ‘Progression’ suggests a forward movement towards meaning and, dialectically, a phenomenology of increasing “goodness”, in the most theologically loaded way possible. ‘Development’ is self-contained and therefore references each separate ‘development’ as an individual completion of a self-imposed task. You develop a new type of sandal, you succeed and sandal design has become ‘more developed’ through diversification, sandals have not become more progressed for this would insinuate a perfect sandal.
The narratives that are drawn from materiality (the sort that call themselves ‘science’ and by doing so give it a bad name) extend even to the most subjective of enigmas – the mind. Of course, it’s easy to dismiss the weekly Telegraph article that tells all the middle-class parents how their children are superior to the poor kids ‘genetically’ and how greed is good according to ‘evolution’, but it goes even further than that. The IQ test, for example, is the equivalent of judging someone’s overall athletic ability by measuring every aspect of how they play table tennis, and then inferring that if they aren’t very good at table tennis then they should go work at McDonalds like the rest of the wrist-thickies. I’ve never taken an IQ test and never will… the project defeats itself. The greatest irony being that Einstein, someone who all high-IQ kids have to worship as a product of the individual worship I mentioned previously, was yes, indeed, rather poor at academia early in life.
Basically, at heart, the entire premise is designed to return privilege into the social hierarchy in an age where the traditional aristocratic bollocks has gone from tragedy to farce. Browsing the television the other night I found a programme about a “boy genius” with a billion-point IQ who had read War and Peace at the age of ten. The genius deigned to read us some of a novel he himself was working on… obviously I was on tenterhooks to find out what this superior being had to offer to a mere mortal like me. So he read it, and guess what, yes, it was shit. The kid couldn’t write for toffee and the way he spoke showed he was obviously thick too. But then he was ten and that’s how ten-year-olds are supposed to be. He had clearly only read War and Peace because it sounded like something that a ‘smart’ person would do and his parents had been told he was ‘smart’. Interestingly though, it did almost prove a theory that William Godwin advanced in his revolutionary Eighteenth-Century tract An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice when he was talking of aristocratic privilege – he said, if I see in a child the ability to become an epic poet, do I teach him how to write or do I award him all the prizes he may one day attain and then await the masterpiece? Indeed, if a child is told that they are a genius will they be likely to continue as they did before they knew or, more likely, will they become a mix of pompous arrogance and overwhelmed terror at their new found responsibility.
In conclusion then, life is meaningless and if you are ever under any impression at all that you are special then not only are you certainly not, but you’re also a dick. Of course, if it turned out I actually had a high IQ then I’d be trapped inside my own theorising and this would have been a hopeless attempt at educating the brainless cattle that make up mankind. Within weeks I’d no doubt be part of a Plato-esque meritocracy in which the high IQers write endless awful poetry whilst the low-IQers slave away in the acid mines until they grow plump enough to be processed into soylent green… Good thing I’m thick then.
If we follow the logic that asexuality is the ability to reproduce with yourself then atheists are indeed aptly named, for the majority that I have met share the same belief that they themselves are Gods. The desire that atheists have to be taken seriously reaches levels of hysteria that surpass even political or academic debate (possibly because all these debates are humanity’s attempt to shout itself into existence). I mean, I don’t believe in sport, I think its just a lot of people running around whilst other people invest both their money and their vain hopes in the movements of round objects through space… but I don’t think anyone is stupid for believing in it. On the contrary, I’m often envious of their capacity for faith.
I think that where the misunderstanding lies in the big Godgate scandal boils down to a lack of agnostic theologising. When Jung looks at religion and spiritualism as a process of the human psyche he loses none of the sublimity of religious debate, possibly as he was a Christian, whereas science goes the other way with its recent hunt for the God gene. Yet neither of these things will change the debate in any significant way. Atheists will see a God gene as proof that a God is a result of evolutionary needs (using the word “meme” over and over as if it’s some great achievement rather than gross oversimplification) whereas Christians will see it as proof that God built us to worship Him. Like all materialist/behaviourist attempts to outflank philosophy/psychology it follows the same redundant lines as Descartes’ belief that the soul was attached to the body via the pineal gland.
In short, God exists as an idea. The interesting question from this perspective is what this idea is. Surveys (therefore questionable) have recently shown that half of Americans believe in the actual Devil with the big red horns and the actual God with the beard, as seen in Hollywood films after the invention of colour sparked a mass of “epics”. It goes without saying that this couldn’t possibly have been the God and Satan of Paradise Lost, for example. Perhaps Freud’s none-too-credible Moses and Monotheism would help to describe this monotheist trend in a Daddy God as the ruthless familial lawmaker. The extent to which this idea has now expanded is why we see people referring to God as a She, thus pointing out that God as a He would make just as little sense.
Monotheism, in the Christian-Jewish-Muslim variety, comes with a whole set of presuppositions that aren’t at first obvious to those living in monotheist cultures from birth. The ancient’s Gods had little to do with morality, authority, infinity or even caring about humans at all. That God = infinity and God = existence of Heaven and therefore must be worshipped is not what it has always been assumed to be: an innate idea. As Bart Simpson asks, “Could God microwave a burrito so hot that God Himself couldn’t eat it?” he is essentially saying the same thing as Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason, that God cannot make 1+1=1; God, if it is a being, must be limited by a priori logic just as we are. Of course, this problem would never arise with Jupiter or Mars.
The relationship that the ancients had with their deities is an interesting one when considering the nature of the divine. The role of Aphrodite was initially that of a self-created deity formed by a drop of sperm into the sea after Chronos had his balls cut off (or cock depending on where you are in Greece) and as such she was a chaste mother figure reminiscent of the Catholic’s Holy Mary. Eventually she became the goddess of insane love, Venus, possibly thanks to the increased heterosexuality of the Romans. Yet finally, she became the goddess of motherhood once again, and forsaken as “beastly” in favour of Artemis, the virgin huntress. The logic here, following Petronius, seems to be that sex can only be beautiful, and therefore enjoyable, once separated from the animalistic act of reproduction. Sexual attitudes and the nature of Gods are thus clearly linked, as are other attitudes if other examples are looked into.
Yet, rather than follow of quasi-Reichian mode of viewing Gods as mechanisms of repression, I always prefer to return to Jung. His “archetypes and the collective unconscious” form a clear outline of the operations of libido/psyche and its effect on theology. The stereotypical atheist who believes in the pseudo-sciences of chiropractics or nutritionists is a clear, if comical, representation of how the “drive to faith” exerts itself. This would perhaps explain the atheist’s hysteria I mentioned earlier…
Following this Jungian notion of “psychic energy”, I’ve recently been pondering the rise of alchemy and astrology in the dark/middle ages. Perhaps it would be fair to see in it the development of polytheistic tendencies in a newly monotheised Europe? The special resonance such practices had in the pagan Germanic areas and polytheistic Roman empire compared to the monotheistically two–thousand-year-ahead middle east would demonstrate such an overflowing of “psyche” from the trinity-model. That alchemy is now seen as a forerunner to modern sciences like chemistry would point to the continuing homogenification of psyche into the monotheist model and the emotive connotations now connected to “scientific fact” (watch QI for example) may thus result from this “overflow of psyche”. Psyche is then synonymous with “meaning”; meaning as the emotive trigger of certainty that we all experience when 1+1=2 but no longer necessarily when we talk about the existence of a God.
Like all of these blogs, I undertake it without hope of being in any way correct. It is in the nature of theories to exist always as theory, never as fact, and that is why we’re so much more willing to believe them. I believe the spirit of knowledge should always be towards entertainment, for when the day comes that gravity stops working and no-one has any clue as to why then at the very least, all previous theorising would have been worth doing for itself. In fact, do yourself a favour and worship a God that no-one has believed in for a couple of millennia, I’m sure They’ll appreciate it, and if Grace does exist I’m sure they’ll be far more ready to help you out than Jesus. That guy must be swamped.