Jane Gallop, The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time, Duke UP, 2011.
“The death of the author” has long been a theme in literary theory. First posed by the French intellectual Roland Barthes in 1968, and then followed by another Parisian giant Michel Foucault the following year, the phrase became something of a rallying cry for Anglophonic literature critics intent on displacing the writer at the expense of the reader. The author is dead, long live the reader!
But as intellectual fashions come and go, the anti-humanism of these luminary writers and their legion followers has been itself displaced, itself subject to a kind of death. Barthes and Foucault are long dead (1980 and 1984), as are many others of the post-structuralist generation of 68 (Derrida in 2004, Baudrillard in 2007). In her wonderfully human take on the subject, Jane Gallop re-examines not only this well-worn critical topic, but the actual deaths of some of these critics. How do we read, and write, in the wake of the author’s literal death?
After a lucid introduction to those two groundbreaking papers, Gallop begins with a look at Barthes, noting that, having grandly declared the author dead in 1968, Barthes was already looking for its “friendly return” in 1973. Though the author (or rather capital A Author) as institution is still dead, Barthes has moved on to framing the author as desirable. Gallop argues that this surreptitiously revives the old theme of the author’s immortality – now the author achieves immortality by being able to touch bodies after death. This chapter works well, focusing on the erotics of Barthes’ work and showing how the author continues to exert a kind of a force on the reader.
Gallop then moves onto the extended piece of work that constitute Jacques Derrida’s eulogies. Derrida wrote many eulogies for many of the other writers of his generation, including Barthes, Emmanuel Levinas, Paul de Man and Sarah Kofman, which were later collected in English in 2001’s The Work of Mourning. For Derrida, writing about the death of a friend is an important ethical duty, fraught with dangers. To write of the dead friend as though writing about just another author one might study is a kind of obscenity, and yet a necessity when such a friend is an author. The work of mourning and the work of writing are irrevocably tied up in one another. To resolve this ethical challenge in some fashion, Derrida turns to quoting the words of the deceased themselves. Gallop takes Derrida’s delays, and evasions (he knows it is indecent to write about his friends, and yet) as something of a model, “a composite of the personal sense of loss with a more general theory of the author.”
After this , Gallop turns to perhaps the most moving chapter, on queer theorist Eve Sedgwick. Sedgwick wrote two eulogies for gay men dying of AIDS, the first on Craig Owen, an author she had known casually, and the second for her friend Michael Lynch. The second, “White Glasses,” was begun when Lynch was believed to have only several weeks to live. “Four months ago [. . .] I thought this would be an obituary for Michael Lynch” and “I thought I was healthy.” By the time it comes to deliver the paper, Lynch has made a miraculous recovery and Sedgwick herself as been diagnosed with cancer – the two are in a space in between diagnosis and death. But in one final dramatic twist, by the time paper is published, Lynch has died and Sedgwick in remission.
Gallop notes that instead of revising the paper into a eulogy as originally intended, Sedgwick publishes the paper as delivered, with merely a footnote . And so Sedgwick embraces the ephemerality of the word, by publishing the paper from the in-between space rather than the closure of death. In a powerful concluding sentence to the chapter, Gallop states that “the printed word, necessarily anachronistic, is where the writer confronts her status as a dead author.”
And lastly, Gallop turns to the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak’s sometimes frustrating opus, Critique of Postcolonial Reason: A History of the Vanishing Present, a much-delayed, much-revised book whose footnotes narrate the journey of the author to print. The present is always vanishing for Spivak, the book always disappearing. This is the least engrossing chapter (and interestingly, the only chapter on an alive author), perhaps because it engages largely with the marginalia of Spivak’s work without really addressing her broader theoretical concerns as with the other authors. Nevertheless, Gallop provides some insight into Spivak’s often elliptical, self-referential, style.
This is all weighty stuff, but Gallop showcases the marvelous ability to write a book about death, literal and metaphorical, without becoming too bogged down in either jargon or maudlin sentimentality. She deftly summarises the stakes of each conversation, easily steering us through the sometimes densely written post-structuralist theory, allowing each voice to speak – “to live” as she puts it in the introduction – while adding her own glosses on the material. Her method focuses as much on anecdotal asides (a method honed in 2002’s Anecdotal Theory) as the canonical, allowing us new glimpses into some critical classics.
Though it is sometimes hard work sorting through this potted history of the last forty years of literary theory, Gallop has provided us with a profound look at what it means to read and write in the face of human mortality. Highly recommended for students of literature and literary theory.