TERRY EAGLETON. Literary Theory: An Introduction – Anniversary Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Pp. 240. $18.50. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8166-5447-5.[1]

ROBERT BURNS, HUGH RAYMONT-PICKARD (eds.). Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Post-Modernity, 274-318. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000. Pp. 380. $69.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-0631-2137-9.

HAYDEN WHITE. “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory.” In History and Theory 23, no. 1 (Feb., 1984): 1-33.

MICHEL FOUCAULT. “What is an Author?” trans. by Robert Hurley et al. In Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, edited by James D. Faubion, 205-222. New York: The New Press, 1998. Pp. 528. $24.05. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-56584-558-9.[2]

ROLAND BARTHES. “The Death of an Author,” trans. by Richard Howard. In ASPEN: The Multimedia Magazine in a Box, no. 5+6, item 3: “Three Essays: Essays with post-modern perspectives” (1967): 1-6. UbuWeb. Web. Accessed November 5, 2015.[3]

The selected readings for this week deal with “New Criticism” in the field of literary theory during the twentieth century. As Eagleton summarizes, during a moment commonly known as the linguistic turn, “the very meaning of ‘literature,’ ‘reading’ and criticism” underwent “deep alteration.” This meant that philosophers began to think more seriously about the hidden functions of language and structure as culturally “self-referential” objects, that is, objects that were defined less by their proposed content than by the “deeper structures of belief” they signified.

In the readings, scholars from the linguistic turn argue that both authorship and narrative structure are contrivances that distract from a secret reality: only the biases of contemporary cultures determine the meanings of texts, and these cultural biases are evident only in the “coded” language of discourse. Ultimately, this critique of language led scholars to suggest that the field of history itself was contingent upon the fickle needs of a contemporary culture. As such, they imaged a future known as “post-history,” where history ceased to exist because the culture no longer required it to function.[4]

In “The Death of an Author,” Barthes criticizes literature, and contemporary literary theory, for positing the figure of the author as the origin of a text and the focal point of its critical discourse. For Barthes, the “Author-God” is a modern invention based upon the false belief that an individual person can create an original piece of writing by conveying a special, internal truth that only he or she possesses. As he decries, “to give an author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.” Put differently, the idea of the author limits the possibilities of a literary work’s interpretation, particularly because critics are encouraged to ‘explain’ the ‘ultimate’ or ‘secret’ meanings of a text simply by ‘discovering’ facts about its author. An example might be explaining Das Kapital through a discussion of Karl Marx’s life.[5]

But Barthes believes the meanings of a text are not found in a biographical or psychological investigation of its author. Rather, they are found in “the reader,” who experiences these meanings in their relationship to the work’s often-coded, cultural material. To Barthes, texts are not the products of individual people called authors; rather, they are the products of culture, described as complex “tissues of citations, resulting from [a] thousand sources of culture.” Since the reader is the ultimate destination for these cultural symbols, he or she should be the sole focus of literary theory. Instead of concentrating on Marx’s life, a critic should concentrate on how Das Kapital’s cultural symbols, embedded in its language, are received by its audiences. If critics continue to believe that an individual author is the sole origin and explanation of a text, then the author-figure (rather than the discourse) will continue to be endpoint of literary analysis. For this reason, Barthes states that the “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.”[6]

In his response essay, “What is an Author?” Foucault laments the prominence of the author. However, he does not agree that the “author-figure” can be cleanly extracted from literary theory. He examines the functions of an author’s name in discourse (i.e. a conversation or a way of speaking) to suggest that an author is much more significant than Barthes has claimed. Instead of a mere collector of cultural symbols, or a conceit that buries the potential of “writing” under the guise of “literature,” the author-figure is an “ideological product.” His or her name performs a classification role because it is attached to a constellation of words which comprise the boundaries of a discourse. For example, “Marx” is attached to a grouping of words associated with his work. Some of these words might include “class,” “capitalism,” “proletariat,” “bourgeois,” or the titles of other books Marx wrote or books commonly contrasted with his material. To Foucault, these connotations are embedded in the author’s name. When the name “Marx” is invoked, these connotations are recalled, and the boundaries of discourse are re-asserted. This is what Foucault calls the “author-function.”[7]

The “author-function” creates unique challenges for literary theory. Critics cannot so easily replace a name like “Marx” with a discussion of the “work” Das Kapital or the activity of “writing,” like Barthes suggests. Any attempt to destroy the author’s name will either run the risk of “maintaining the author’s privilege” through a discussion of his or her act (writing), or it will mire criticism in an equally problematic word to define (work). Neither of Barthes changes are solutions to Foucault. Likewise, Foucault calls it “pure romanticism” to believe that the reader can replace an emphasis on the author. He states that fiction cannot “be put at the disposal of everyone…without passing through something like a necessary or constraining figure,” (the author).[8]

Despite these criticisms, Foucault agrees with Barthes that the author is understood poorly in contemporary society. He is neither an “indefinite source of significations that fill a work,” nor an exceptional individual who precedes a work and determines its meaning. But, since Foucault recognizes the consequences associated with dropping an author’s name, he does not recommend the “death of the author.” On the contrary, he recommends only the death of the “author-function.” Like Barthes, he looks forward to a time when critics begin interrogating discourse rather than the identity of a work’s creator. Both the authorship and structure of a work can be used as tools for Foucault, but the end goal should be to understand the discourse they are both taking part in—its uses, its modes of existence, and its rules about who is included and who is not.[9]

The author was just one literary convention up for debate during the linguistic turn. Another convention was narrative or storytelling. There are many schools of thought which argue that narrative structure is theoretically hostile to the discipline of history. Specifically, “those who would transform historical studies into a science” see narrative modes of representation as failures. Scholars from the Annales school, for instance, label narrative as “dramatizing,” “novelizing,” and distracting from impersonal demographic forces that actually move history. Scholars like Braudel see narrative as an outdated structure that, like nineteenth-century realism, pays undo homage to political history. Likewise, many structuralist, linguistic, and post-structuralist theorists interpret narrative history as “fiction in disguise,” or ideology on par with “literature” as it is opposed to “science.” Some describe narrative history as a “cultural delusion” based on the false belief in a single, omniscient consciousness that can look out on the world and describe its meaning. They challenge the professed objectivity of historical narrative, asking whether history is different from fiction or imagination. These criticisms draw from a broad scholarly base, including thinkers like Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva.[10]

Why were linguistic theorists so hostile towards narration? Well, to put it simply, they saw the language of narration as an arrangement of modern cultural objects. These objects had meaning only to the present; the “real events” they tried to describe did not actually exist, and any attempt to use current language to place order on a “real” past was contrived. For example, to Lévi-Strauss, historians depended on an artificial arrangement of chronological codes to delimit narrative boundaries. A survey of the US would span several centuries, with decades or generations as chronological codes. By contrast, a survey of the US Civil War may be broken in smaller codes—individual years or even months. For Lévi-Strauss, only myth, with emphasis on universal and primal binaries, could resolve narrative’s problem of imposing arbitrary chronological codes onto an historical past. Meanwhile, for Barthes, each reader could not help but project his or her own cultural codes onto their unique experience with an historical narrative. For this reason, narrative did not provide any objective ground for interpreting “reality.” All interpretation rested solely with the reader. Overall, these are just two of the ways linguistic theorists reframed narrative as a “theological proposition” that should be relegated to the domain of literature. Pretending there was a “real” past was no better than pretending there was a “real” author behind it. An historian was not a “collector of facts,” but an arranger of cultural signifiers whose meanings had only contemporary value.[11]

Ricoeur and White were two scholars that came to the defense of narration in history. While they agreed history does take the form of a novel—and that form is narration—they said that it did so for a noble purpose: in order to convey a figurative, allegorical, symbolic, or metaphorical truth about the human past. To White, narrative served an essential function in the discipline of history. It transforms “a list of historical events that would otherwise be only a chronicle into a story.” It does not perform this function to propagate a lie about “reality” but to express a truth that the “non-narrative methodologies of the physical sciences cannot.” Here White provides an example from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Marx’s “judgment” that the ascension of Napoleon III in 1848 was enacted as a “farcical” version of the French Revolution of 1789 was a poetic claim based on narrative. The claim could not be tested by methods of the physical sciences. Rather, it was evident only in the way Marx chose to unfold the historical narrative. For White, narrative was necessary for history because it served an “imagistic function.” It “grasped together” elements of past situations (i.e. facts) into a meaningful whole or plot.[12]

To White, the question of narrative’s role in history was about the role that the imagination should play in the production of human truth. He saw the value of historical narration as hurt by the prejudice of theorists in the social-sciences that “truth must be represented in literal statements of facts…and explanation must conform to the scientific model.” He countered by saying that a scholar could actually use narration to “produce an imaginary discourse about real events that may not be less ‘true’ for being imaginary.” Just because an historical narrative was based on an artificial discourse composed of contemporary cultural signifiers, does not mean that it does not express fundamental truths about the past and how the past should be understood.[13]

As the readings show, theorists of the linguistic turn questioned both the structure of history (narrative) and the origins of writing (author). Meanwhile, theorists also began to re-conceptualize the potential obsolescence of history. Not only were the author and structure of a given work artificial constructs, but the need for history itself was predicated upon culture. Scholars conceived of a “post-history,” a moment when narrative would continue to exist yet lose unifying power, relevance, and interpretive ability. Whether through a new episteme called “postmodern” (Michel Foucault); through a hyperreality brought on by mass media, increased technology, and the accelerated proliferation of cultural images (Jean Baudillard); or through the attainment of a liberal democracy (Francis Fukayama), contemporary culture would cease to need history.

In Literary Theory, Eagleton summarizes the most important lesson from the linguistic turn. As a philosophical movement, the turn demonstrated that word choice was not meaningless. Every word was intimately bound up in “the political and ideological history of our epoch.” If we examined words more closely, we would see that they are signs gesturing toward power relations. I am reminded of this fact every time that I hear a specific word, like “strong,” “hysterical,” or “bossy,” applied to a woman but not to a man; when I hear coded language, like “urban,” “street,” or “ghetto,” applied to a black person but not to a white person; or when I hear someone use labels like “conservative” or “liberal” without defining them, since the discourse is already in place. Perhaps these are obvious, but they provide lessons nonetheless. As historians, we can learn from literary theory by thinking about how words like these “fit into” and “reaffirm” conversations about race, gender, or politics in our society.[14] When we examine primary sources, we can contemplate three things: how a word was used in the time of our study, how it is used today, and how it might be perceived by the readers of our work. We can remember to ask, what old discourses was this word a part of and what new discourses will it touch upon when used again today?

Perhaps linguistic theory became an extreme over-corrective to realism, positivism, and empiricism. Instead of a document speaking for itself about the past, it was argued to say nothing at all, at least nothing written in a modern language the historian could understand. But what are we to do? After all, we can only write in the language of our moment. That is all we have. And if an author is only an arranger of ideas created by culture, well that is nothing to dismiss. Contrary to some, “culture” would have not have written Das Kapital without the hand of Marx. He had a choice in the matter, and that choice mattered, for better or worse. Lastly, the narrative structure has faults. As historians, we are all too familiar with them (where should our story begin? where should it end?) But, faults aside, narratives continue to move people, and that also matters. To some, it is all that does.

[1]Literary Theory was originally published by Blackwell in 1983. The 2008 edition is the third edition; the second edition was published in the year 1996.

[2]This piece was originally delivered as a lecture before a meeting of the Société, headed by the French philosopher Jean André Wahl, at the Collége de France on February 22, 1969. The lecture appeared in print that same year in the Bulletin de la Société française de Philosophie, 63, no. 3 (1969): 73-104.

[3]ASPEN was a three-dimensional, English-language American magazine published in New York by Phyllis Johnson of the Roaring Fork Press between the years 1965 and 1971. The article appeared the next year in a French-language periodical under the title “La morte de l’auteur,” Manteia 5 (1968).  It was printed again in a collected anthology of Barthe’s work: Image-Music-Text, 152-148, trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill & Wang, 1978.

[4]Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, ix, 7, 14.

[5]Roland Barthes, “The Death of an Author,” 4, 5.

[6]Ibid. 6, 4, 6.

[7]Ibid. 2; Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?,” 221, 210, 221, 211.

[8]Ibid. 208, 208-209, 222.

[9]Ibid. 221, 222.

[10]Hayden White, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” 1, 8-9, 13-14.

[11]Hugh Raymont-Pickard (ed.), Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Post-Modernity, 275, 278, 280.

[12]Hayden White, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” 20, 33, 23, 28, 27.

[13]Ibid. 33, 25, 33.

[14]Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory, 167.