In 1968 French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes wrote an essay entitled "The Death of the Author". In this essay he presented us with the question of which is more important, the meaning of the author or the interpretation of the reader. It was his argument that assigning an author to a text (any text) was "interpretive tyranny", that the reader was being 'told' how to interpret the meaning of the text. Instead, Barthes offered that the author should be ignored or otherwise separated from the text and the reader should be free to then interpret the text according to his/her own experiences and beliefs.
Although Barthes' essay was not a defining moment in the development of the paradigm known as "Postmodernism", it was often cited as an example of the thread that called for a re-evaluation of the existing power structures in our society. Yet, even that is interesting since defining what postmodernism actually is has never really been reduced to some acceptable consensus. So a recent article by Alan Kirby, an English literature professor, proclaiming, "Postmodernism is dead. Wail and rend your clothes. Postmodernism is dead. The tyrannt us vanquished." How interesting. We never could define what it was, but whatever it was, it's dead. Okay, but has it been replaced by some new paradigm?
Ever so kindly, Kirby has indeed offered a new paradigm. Well, for those familiar with Barthes perhaps not so "new". Kirby observes that one of the threads of postmodernism was that the individual was somewhat powerless, sitting before the 'spectacle' of culture as it unfolded and unable to obtain answers to questions about what constituted "reality". The 'new' paradigm describes that individual as the one who is actually conditioning the cultural product. That does sound a little like Barthes: the audience defines the meaning of the text, not the author. How does Kirby support this thesis?
"Pseudo-modernism includes all television or radio programmes or parts of programmes, all 'texts, whose content and dynamics are invented or directed by the participating viewer or listener..."
He adds that the terms "viewer" and "listener" have become obsolete because in various programs individuals are doing more than just listening as they vote by telephone or internet, thereby contributing content to the program. In particular he cites the program "Big Brother" which, Kirby contends, would "not exist materially if nobody phoned up to vote its contestents off. Voting is thus part of the material textuality of the programme - the telephoning viewers write the programme themselves." There are a number of shows here in the US which would fall into the same category. Then, there are the so-called reality shows, like "Survivor", in which the 'author' and the 'audience' are combined in each participant. But the "pseudo-modern cultural phenomena par excellence is the internet". The individual creates the 'story' by "inventing a pathway through the cultural products which has never existed before and never will again". The individual controls, manages, runs and makes up his/her own involvement with the cultural product. Internet pages do not have "authors" in the sense that anyone knows who wrote them or, in many cases, even cares, Wikipedia is a prime example.
"In postmodernism, one read, watched, listened, as before. In pseudo-modernism one phones, clicks, presses, surfs, chooses, downloads". It is like a "return to the infantile playing with toys". The 'real world' is taken away and one creates a "weightless nowhere" in which he/she is the text and there is "no other time or place". "You are free".
Let us grant that Kirby, as a literature professor, has certainly demonstrated some literary license, but what about his message? Is the author dead? Has the audience/participant become the new 'author'? Is there a change to what a "text" is and how it is constructed? And how, if at all, does this impact our interpretation of what "reality" is? Is it (reality) 'out there' written by some unknown author to be interpreted by us or is it something inside us that we write as we experience our creations?
Okay, I'm puzzled. If I create my reality, why the devil am I paying taxes? I must not be a very good author. Well, maybe you can help me rewrite my text. See you at the next meeting.