Monday, January 20, 2003

Art, Artists and the "Author Function"

Sorry for the light blogging of late. First there was the media firestorm and now my tenure case is tomorrow. So at this time tomorrow I'll either have a guaranteed job for life or I'll be fired. I don't think I'll sleep much, though I'll pass the morning waiting quite well by taking my daughter to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. If you haven't been, you should: they're a great, old fashioned set of museums all linked together.

Anyway, I thought that it might be interesting to begin a continuing series (which I already started in the post below about Beowulf line 1382) about the ways that some Post Modern ideas are actually better illustrated (and even make sense) in light of medieval literature.

Today The Author Function. The "author function" is associated with both Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault (the flip side is the "death of the author" essay that every English student is force to read two or three times during his or her trip through purgatorial required theory classes). The basic idea of "death of the author" is that reading to try to find out 'what the author is trying to tell us' is impossible and foolish, since author's themselves aren't always sure and even if they were they might lie and anyway, if the author just wants to tell us something, there are simpler ways than writing a sonnet.

The "author function" suggests that there is a value put on an artifact if it is associated with a particular artist that goes beyond the intrinsic value of the artifact. There are lots of good Modernist examples, especially from surrealist and dada art, but there's a better example in medieval literature.

At some point after Chaucer's death, some people wrote up some additional tales to fill in the "missing" Canterbury Tales (if you look at Chaucer's original conception, laid out in the General Prologue, there would be a lot more tales than there are in the completed work). Of these pseudo-Tales, the one that was considered the best, and which lasted the longest, was the Ploughman's Tale. This was probably written in the fifteenth-century (remember that Chaucer died right at the end of the 14th century) and for various political reasons dealing with Lollards (which are interesting, but which always make my students' eyes glaze over), it was appended to the Canterbury Tales right next to the Parson's Tale (the Ploughman is the Parson's brother).

This work was printed as part of the Canterbury Tales in William Thynne's 1542 edition of The Canterbury Tales dedicated to Henry VIII. Presumably other authors who were influenced by Chaucer's work read this Tale and commented upon it. It was, for a while, part of the literary tradition.

Then, when scholarship had become good enough to recognized the Ploughman's Tale as spurious, it was deleted from the Canterbury Tales and is no longer studied as part of the Chaucer canon. This deletion raises some important questions. Is the Ploughman's Tale a good piece of literature independent of Chaucer's authorship? Should it be included in the Canterbury Tales since, for a while, it was part of the tradition? If it's a crappy tale, but later on we discover that it is by Chaucer, does it become un-crappy?

Let me give another more modern example: There's a line in Moby Dick about a "spoiled eel." Critics went on and on about the meaning of this beautifully poetic phrase and how Melville was, well, you can imagine what a genius he was to have combined these two words. Then a textual scholar found out that this was simply a printer's error for "coiled eel." Not particularly poetic, and many a thesis was now invalidated. The question arises, then, how much of the "genius" that we perceive in art is due to our reverence for an author so that we accept lousy work or non-sensical statements from him because he's an author.

I think this problem is at the heart of the ACD vs. others debate on other blogs (links via Andrea Harris). If you allow in the facts (and they are facts) that often what genius we attribute to authors is due to accident or later error (Michelangelo's Moses has horns due to a translation error), then you have to accept that a lot of definitions of "greatness" are very contingent on what critics say and have said (the horror). The evil Stanley Fish takes this idea as far as it can go (in a demonstrative rather than logical sense) by noting that aesthetic interpretation is based upon "interpretive communities" : if you can convince enough people that something is "good," then it's good. There's nothing intrinsic about it.

This is the ruling paradigm in the arts today, and I don't like it. Not because I can't follow its logic, and not because I hate its political ramifications, but because there seems to be some intelligent middle ground that can be staked out. I'm hoping that my work with meme-theory, as well as more recent work in psychology of perceptions, will help to provide us with a new starting point to dicuss these issues in a way that involves a lot less of the appeal to the author function and much more to finding some way to logically and empirically characterize aesthetic effects in a cultural context.

P.S.: Mozart wrote a piece of music, K. 522, A Musical Joke that's probably based on transcriptions or memories of his pet starling's songs. K. 522 is not usually considered one of Mozart's triumphs, but does that make him less or more of a genius for creating it? Is it possible that our "author function" for Mozart is getting in the way of us simply recognizing a not-so-great piece of music and instead over-analyzing so that we convince ourselves that it's great?

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