by Charles Scott Combs, Film Studies
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003
Though I teach Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” as an illustrious example of how criticism broadens our regard of fictional works, the essay threatens to plunge class thought and discussion into an abyss. Rather than liberating us from the confines of what only an Author determines to be important in a work of literature, the essay tends to bring out skepticism in my classes: “Does that mean we can claim whatever we want?” or “Why do people write books then?” The problem I face is the temptation students have to read Barthes’ criticism (and the majority of criticism in general) of god-based meaning (conventionally attributed to the Author) as an overly-simplified polytheism of reader pleasure.
More than anything after teaching Barthes, I have suspected that students miss their authors, that Barthes threatens to undermine their sense of the importance of individual artistry, and that more than a few students in any class are writers themselves who are now being told that they are, so to speak, dead. My goal, then, was to make sense of their need to have their liberation movement as well as their authorial design. Student reactions for some time proved to me that criticism belongs in the hands of those who read, and that all writers are readers themselves. But now I wanted to give them a sense of how the Author and the Reader co-exist and need each other.
So this year, during the class preceding Barthes, I asked each of them to write down anonymously what they believed to be their first memory. I took each sheet of paper, full of someone’s description of a memory, and at home that night chose a specific phrase or sentence from each offering, typing the phrase into a word document, one piece of memory per line. Deliberating as a poet, I reordered the lines into a new arrangement. I made 40 copies, and after the next class’ initial discussion of Barthes’ essay (garnering the familiar skepticism from students) I passed out the poem (enclosed with the essay) and we read it aloud. I didn’t even have to ask for their feedback.
Nothing could have prepared me for what took place. The first student reaction set the pace: “I understand exactly why you’ve done this.” Though already this comment had confirmed the significance of the creative role of author, I pressed them all on this exaction. Over the course of 30 minutes, the class read and reread the poem before them, the one that each of them had contributed in creating, as each of them was a mortal participant with personal memories. I asked them: “So, who is the author of this poem?” In answering that question, one student noted how the individual lines of the poem flowed so well as a whole, even though each of them emerged from a separate individual. Students began to analyze the poem as an abstract creation before them, pointing out transitions they thought particularly evocative and attributing them to me. Though able to admire the work as an extension of my will, each student wanted his or her fragment to participate in its overall design. Some students who couldn’t recognize their own memory fragment felt left out. I told them that I would gladly relinquish my role as Author if they thought it would liberate their role as Reader, but my relinquishment mirrored their own as each student saw his or her own mortality combined with someone else’s. The substance of their memory had become a poetic device of an Author who had not only spoken for them, but had literally used their words.
In general, I suggest that group-based works of art are important objects of analysis in classes where analysis is key, because they transform writers into readers.