Modern is if you win.
Note: The following paper belongs to an ongoing work in progress and owes much to discussions in the framework of the research project "Der auktoriale Diskurs in vergleichender Sicht" at Zentrum für Literaturforschung, Berlin; see www.zfl.gwz-berlin.de/projekte/auktorial/default.htm. Thanks especially to Klaus Städtke and Ralph Kray.
The lack of a comprehensive and systematic cultural history of "the European concept of the author" is still frequently lamented. Yet it may appear questionable to some whether such a history, conceived as the history of the concept, could be meaningfully written at all. It is improbable that literary studies will manage, in a convincing manner, to focus the multiple and fairly well-researched complexities of historical findings and theoretical models (such as: inspiration, competence, authority, individuality, style, intention, copyright) in a single new 'author concept'. An analysis on different levels may promise to be more plausible: on the level, for instance, of those discourses in which constellations of 'authoriality' are being produced, and in which the appearance of an author concept is then only one feature among others. The question thus reframed addresses the conditions for the emergence of this concept, the socio-cultural management of the distinction between 'author' and 'masses', and the historical necessity of author concepts (not exclusively) for literature and literary studies.
It is by now a widely shared opinion that the 'death of the author' proclaimed by Barthes (and before him by Blanchot and Bataille) means no eschewal of authorship as such but merely of insufficient epistemological or other conceptions of authorship. In comparison to the finality of this farewell to authorial claims of authority, Michel Foucault's analysis of (one or more) fonction(s) auteur appears more sophisticated. Here it is not so much the disappearance of authorship but its strategic discursive reconfiguration in different historical constellations that is of interest. For Foucault, the death of the author is a thoroughly paradoxical event, because it is a permanent one: "un événement qui ne cesse pas" (Foucault 1994, 796). Similar to Friedrich Schlegel's concept of irony, which is defined as a "permanent parabasis" (Schlegel 1963, 85), this event cannot even be observed as an 'event' in the normal sense of the word, but, if at all, only as a miracle - yet as such it would no longer belong to the range of literary studies but to that of theology. Indeed, the analogy to Nietzsche and the 'death of God' is clearly present also in Barthes and his "Auteur-Dieu". It is no accident that the author, who resides within the text's transcendence, beyond its boundaries, who is unreachable in his anteriority and therefore in a way God-like, has invited religious comparisons. He is concealed, situated "within or behind or beyond or above" what he leaves behind as his 'work' (Joyce 1968, 219). It is this concealment and unreachability that invites the reader to speculate and frequently to become, more or less involuntarily, a Feuerbachian, a 'humanist' in the older, theological sense of the word. This is borne out by what the German anglicist L. L. Schücking wrote in 1919 about the history of interpreting Shakespeare: "Many tried in vain to find out what his [Shakespeare's] own opinion was. Some, after ardent study, contented themselves with the result that: he is hidden behind his works, as God is hidden behind His creation. But there were quite a few who now created the god in their own image" (1927, 1; my translation, IB). Even systems theorists, who otherwise tend to think of the author as nothing more than an "address", more or less "tormentable" (Peter Fuchs), sometimes use christological metaphors in this context. For instance, Niels Werber and Ingo Stöckmann grant the author nothing less than "a polycontextural resurrection" (Werber/Stöckmann 1997).
But when confronted with the mass-like proliferation of authors, one is driven to ask how and for whom an author, or even 'the' author, can still become an event in modernity? When the difference between the author and 'everybody else' has collapsed in such a way that authorship can no longer expect a particular prestige or distinction - something already stated and lamented by Melville in his mid-nineteenth-century novel Pierre; or, The Ambiguities -, then the empirical multitude, the great mass of authors will quasi-automatically have as a consequence the 'disappearance' of the author, whose performativity (as an 'event' or in the sense of an Emersonian 'representative man') is now far from guaranteed or self-evident. What is now needed is a surplus of energy to be invested in the staging and presentation of authors in the media, in order to secure a successful marketing of faces and signatures.
But why, we may ask, can we not content ourselves with texts alone? For what purpose do we still need 'persons' - in howsoever fragmentary forms or conceptual remnants - to whom to ascribe them (or the coherence of their meaning-effects)? Time and again, the blank of authorship has been filled in with quasi-phantasmatic ascriptions, from concepts of 'intention' to Foucault's 'author function'. Apparently, the gap needs to be filled, even under the auspices of poststructuralism, systems theory, and 'polycontextural' contexts of observation. For one, the explanation for this may be an anthropological one. According to Karl Eibl, "the 'author' belongs to those genetically hardwired dispositions that are set in motion in aesthetic play, and he can function as a focusing agent for the precarious coherence of a literary text" (1999, 59). In other words: readers cannot bear the insecure referentiality of texts, especially those texts perceived as 'literary'. It is therefore necessary to establish a symbolic 'contingency filter' to embody and absorb "the irreducible excess of contingency over necessity" (cf. Zizek 1997, 134). The author is the institution to which this capability of absorption is ascribed, within the framework of cultural enactments - in, one would have to add, different historical figurations. The "master signifier" itself, according to Zizek (143), is void.
Such an approach promises a conceptual advance over the postulate of authorial disappearance on the one hand as well as over that of a 'return of the author' on the other hand (cf. Jannidis et al. 1999). What it deals with is no longer the 'renewal of a concept', but the more fundamental, perhaps more provocative, question whether a figure of literary and cultural history, in its historical manifestations, can be made legible as a 'concept', and how this could be achieved. Using key elements from cultural theory and the theory of fictions, the question addresses the relation of concepts in literary studies, especially concepts of narratology, to their embeddings and contingencies in the history of discourse. One would then need to examine figurations of authoriality as historically and geographically contingent, however internally consistent, forms of the probability to realise the representative claims of individual communicative acts, together with the risks and chances of their 'felicity'. It is an approach that aims at the edges of communication, at the specific life forms and language games in their socio-cultural embeddings.
One would need to formulate very different systèmes contraignants (Foucault) - a concept which could be used to break up the somewhat one-sided fixation of one author function to one specific local and historical time segment (as Foucault does) and to avoid epistemological simplifications (for example a linear sequence from premodernity via modernity to postmodernity).
Neverless, one can maintain that, in the European context, the necessity to authorise communication (above all in written form) has gained urgency since the later middle ages. It seems plausible that this development is connected with the invention and wide-spread use of the printing press in Europe and the ensuing proliferation of possibilities of communication, of making (and negating) statements. Increasingly, texts are taken out of their - apparently - secured context of use in more or less fixed patterns of interaction and disciplines of reading (e.g., the hermeneutic discipine of fourfold meaning in Biblical exegesis). A multitude of texts are being circulated, vying with each other for comparison, and one can no longer be so sure what to do with such a multitude. This embarrassment may very well be the origin of a number of new concepts and disciplines that have arisen in modernity (e.g., a concept of 'literature'; hermeneutic techniques; finally 'literary studies') and that progressively, through repeated practice, have rendered the initial problem invisible.
Such a problem arguably had not existed, or at least not to a comparable extent, in premodern times when the authority of rhetoric was still uncontested. The generalised topoi or 'commonplaces' that could be used and reused as required in various situations, were generally known and relatively stable, produced an "amplificatory effect" on account of their generalisation. These topoi, it has been claimed, did not yet indicate or presuppose any sense of an 'individuality' of their users (cf.. Luhmann 1993, 173f.; Lechner 1962, 1974; Curtius 41963). Als already occupied and defined places, they had granted the possibility of evident and stable orientations of meaning, "not by way of reference but by way of reverence" (Schäfer-Willenborg 1995, 239). The order of topoi and its spacial metaphors - Joan-Marie Lechner writes of a "metaphorical substructure of the places" (1974, 131ff.) - is said to have determined the order of knowledge even until the 17th century: "knowledge itself came to be conceived of [...] in terms of areas or containers with objects which somehow could be located in space and moved about from one 'locality' to another" (153). Rhetoric made use of such topical localities in order to reduce the complexity and possible confusion of knowledge and make it representable. This function can explain the authority of rhetoric which it maintained over centuries, its "suggestive power of indissoluble axiomatics" (v. Graevenitz 1999, 9). But the quesion how strong and performatively convincing rhetoric really was on account of this "suggestive power", or whether scholarship here becomes the victim of an optical illusion generated by exaggerated readings of certain historical sources, can only be answered by further detailed source studies in the history of rhetoric. There is no doubt, however, that this order, as far as it had its heyday in the middle ages, has come apart in modernity. The function of 'reverence' has been shifted from the topos used to the user who is seen as the originator, howsoever inferred, of communication. Communication is now increasingly in need of authorisation; it becomes individualised or 'authorable'. Because of its prolific spread, and because rhetoric is no longer a universally understood and universally applicable cultural technique, communication needs a legitimation of its origin. It finds this legitimation in the guarantee figure of the author, whose work, as a closed-off totality, is secured by his (more rarely: her) 'individuality', i.e. not least by the value of recognition provided in his/her name in the sense of Le style est l'homme même (Buffon). The meaning of the work is now said to be found in his/her 'intention', as it were, in the terms of speech act theory, as a promise of validity and authenticity.
With the potentialisation and virtualisation of writng (Luhmann 1993b, 354, 356), there is an increased uncertainty as to whom the responsibility for the meaninful contents of writing, the authority over its possible readings, may be attributed. As is well known, the complaint about the 'masterlessness' of the written word can be traced back at least as far as Plato - who, paradoxically, uses the medium of writing to voice this complaint:
Once it is written, any utterance circulates everywhere, equally among those who understand it and among those for whom it was not intended, and it does not know whom to talk to and whom not to talk to. And if it is insulted or meets with undeserved criticism, it always needs the help of its father; for of itself it is neither able to protect nor to help itself in its own right. (Phaidros 275e)
Communication, especially when it no longer takes place among people who interact directly and orally, demands a marked origin, an addressable author, a sanctioned signature. With mechanised printing and massive distribution of texts, the problem becomes more acute. The name of the author assumes the legitimising function of the 'father' who guarantees the work's unity. In modernity, the act of reading is then - perhaps this is a compensatory countermove - conceived in analogy to the discursive model of oral interaction: "la lecture de tous les bons livres est comme une conversation avec les plus honnêtes gens des siècles passés qui en ont été les auteurs" (Descartes, qtd. in Proust 1992, 255). To this conception one can add the image of books as good companions, which is developed by Ruskin in the late 19th century and which Proust refutes in his essay "Journées de lecture" by pointing out the radical difference in temporality which underlies the communicative functioning of literature. For Proust, reading becomes a solipsistic, reflexive act: a communication of the self with itself ("travail fécond de l'esprit sur lui-même", 257) - similar to the concept of writing as 'soliloquy', established by Lord Shaftesbury in the 18th century (cf.. Shaftesbury 1981, 84).
Even in the present, in the electronic age and the epoch of virtuality, one can observe a rather strange trend: In parallel to the boom of electronic media, the number of public readings by poets and novelists is increasing. Apparently, the 'physical presence' of authors is regarded in higher esteem than ever before. Of course, this too is a media strategy, but it does secure an effective form of marketing. The 'authentic' signature of an author, although it is "only a small islet compared to the former empire of handwriting [, ...] is one of the most favoured destinations in contemporary tourism" (Müller 2000, BS 6; my translation, IB).
Once the construced nature of author-figures has been sufficiently recognised, literature quite soon - already with Cervantes, for instance - discovers the possibilities of playfully masking, staging, concealing, and simulating the authorial 'zero position' (cf. Iser 2001). But this increasing consciousness of fictionality also brings with it quite real consequences as regards the authority of literary productions. In the 18th century, such figures as the 'man of letters' or the 'poeta doctus', who used to be personal embodiments of the unity of knowledge regimes and literary production, of sociability (or 'politeness') and aesthetics, largely lose their obligingness and persuasive power as social 'topoi'. The guarantees of success, the 'cultural correlatives' (K. Ludwig Pfeiffer) for such roles of writing and thinking are discontinued. This is accompanied by an enhanced reflection, in the novel as a genre, of the chances and risks of authorial authority. Authorial 'play spaces' are being probed and established. Their fictionality is now to a large extent a conscious fact, but they are nevertheless (as it were refracted on a higher level) employed to pursue didactic intentions or goals of social reform (Swift, Dickens, Trollope). Now the so-called authorial point of view becomes legible as a strategy formulated in the novel in order to compensate the loss of authority of literary communication. Similar developments can be observed in 19th century poetry, for instance in Tennyson: gestures of authority are employed and even intensified in order to cover up their increasing ineffectuality (cf. Berensmeyer 2001). One can hardly speak of self-deconstruction in these cases, rather of the 'as if' of an illusory, even though temporarily quite successful self-construction. Even the highy modern and highly differentiated literary play with either the disappearance (Beckett) or the overly marked placement (Federman) of authorial markings in literary texts still participates in or partakes of this historical background of the history of communication in modernity as a (discourse-) history of the compulsory legitimation of communication.
At present, one can only speculate whether the Internet or other contemporary media arrangements inaugurate a return to 'premodern' forms of a metaphorisation and anonymisation of knowledge and its spatial representation, which would resemble, if only in a more mobile and fluid manner, the old order of topoi as indicators of knowledge and aids of argumentation; or whether this new order will develop into something radically different in its systematicity and its boundaries. What is needed, so much seems certain, now as before, is less true meanings than correct links. On the other hand, nothing seems to be more important on the Internet than the presence of names and signatures in the right, the decisive places.
Therefore it will hardly do to speak of a disappearance of authorial markings; and yet this is done again and again, as if the Internet and the forms of 'hypertext' it provides were the realised utopia of a freely circulating, poststructuralist écriture. The pathetic formula of the death of the author, used positively or negatively, is nothing more than just another commonplace in these self-descriptions of cultural critique, by now a very banal topos that is cited again and again in an apocalyptic manner. The incantation of this ending, so much at least can be gleaned from Barthes's polemical essay, is equally a topos of 'modernity' as is the contrary apotheosis of the author as master of the work, in analogy to God the Creator (cf. Fohrmann 1985).
The (more interesting, more demanding) problems lie elsewhere. One realises rather quickly how, beyond a comparatively unproblematic everyday understanding of authorship, wide vistas of "highly problematic acriptions of functions and a complex history" open up (Bogdal 1985, 273). In the context of this long history, Barthes' "Death of the Author" and the reactions it met with can no longer be read as the final instance in a history of (the demise of) subjectivity, as the ultimate farewell to the 'authorial subject' as a hermeneutic control figure and a pseudo-divine instance of textual unity par excellence. Rather, they now appear like the chronicle of a death which is announced but which never comes, in spite of all attempts at euthanasia. That is what this proclamation has in common with some other "metropolitan aphorisms" (Spivak 1993, 104) in late(r) modernity, the end of history for example or the more closely related death of the subject.
After the end of the great narratives, itself by now, since Lyotard, a ubiquitous aphorism, the wide-ranging claims to global validity and long-term attention made by 'grand' theories and 'big' explanations no longer sound convincing. The intellectual half-life of theoretical fashions and their "rituals of accreditation" (Uwe Japp) has decreased, the cycle of their equally ritualistic slaughterings has accelerated: deconstruction, feminism, new historicism, postcolonial theory, and so on. In this context, to talk about the death of the author was one sign among others of the 'economic', if not unavoidable, decline of universalist metanarratives that make grand statements about their validity (cf. Lyotard 1986, Fischer 1992). Such metanarratives are now "replaced by a number of smaller outlines with more modest claims to validity" (Fischer 1992, 9). Following this trend, one had better give up on the claim to a single history of the European concept of the author and turn instead to the history of its progressive forms, to reconstructing its 'stock market price' (Ernst Jünger). Faced with the complex web of authoriality, there is still much to explore in the interrelation of ideas of authorship with issues of authority, control of meaning, and the authorisation of communication in historically divergent contexts (for instance in ritualised societies without written traditions compared to those with a differentiated literacy, e.g. the Athenian polis; societies with widespread print culture as compared to those with a widespread 'new orality', etc.). What would have to be more closely examined is the chances for gaining distinction with which authorship is connected - as opposed to a mass of individuals who are not authors; the collapse of this primary distinction in the 18th century because of the sheer mass of authors; finally, in Romanticism, the shift of this distinction into a context of communication which is perceived as purely 'literary', so that 'originality' - as a breaking of rules - is valorised positively, until such rule-breaking itself becomes the rule. The 19th century reacts by a shift to a moral valuation of rule-breaking and rule-abiding, including the re-patheticisation of otherwise already fictionalised markings and maskings of the blank of 'authorship', while at the same time 'authorial' discourses migrate into literary criticism and ultimately into the emerging academic treatment of literature. The genre of literary biography, and later the discipline of narratology, cater for redescriptions of an 'author image' which, in literary production itself, has long since lost significance and effectiveness.
Yet what needs to be stated is that even in the contemporary order of knowledge, in the epoch of a more modest and sceptic treatment of representative claims for theory in the humanities, where its has become extremely rare for any communicative act or publication to gain the performative power of a cultural event (cf. Pfeiffer/Kray/Städtke 2001), that even nowadays potentials or needs of authority still exist - perhaps one can say they survive in quasi-energetic forms. These are by no means abolished, but rather shifted away from demands made from inside (a) theory to those levels of humanistic discourse which are not strictly theoretical, but operative, functional, or institutional: They move away from internal constraints of consistency towards external, more 'ephemeral' effects of plausibility or evidence (cf. Berensmeyer 2000). It seems paradoxical, but hard to refute, that even a concept like Gianni Vattimo's 'weak thinking' needs to compete with other discourse options and theoretical offerings. For, quoting an 'authority' in the older sense: "the existence of authority does not depend on one's being for or against it" (Gadamer 2000, 42; my translation, IB). "The thing with authority", Gadamer quotes Habermas, "is really tough". One is inclined to agree.
Although what is being negotiated here seems to be about the 'tough' aspects and the 'solidifications' of communication (cf. Kray/Pfeiffer/Studer 1991), authority and validity can yet be captured in terms of pragmatism and game theory as discursive, emergent products. Even though 'tough', they can still be observed as the results of certain determinations and decisions which are not obligatory but contingent. Thus they are temporary results of performances which might have taken a different shape and which, this much is certain, will change again in the near future. This may not suffice to console Habermas, but it will have to do in the meantime, or while we are waiting for Derrida's 'democracy to come'. Like any game, this too is subject to a certain set of pragmatic and historical framing conditions (of action, behaviour, and negotiation in the 'real world'). This game, as it were on the edges of communication, can be described by constructivist, systems-theoretical, pragmatist orientations, and perhaps better thus than in terms of subject-centered theories - even if the subject for them is not more than a gap never to be filled, for instance in post-Freudian psychoanalysis: Lacan, Kristeva, Zizek, or in spectres of media and performance theories which are based on anthropological dimensions of experience (cf. Pfeiffer 1999, Kersenboom 2000).
"Only two can play this game": at least two players are necessary, one who signs and (at least) one who countersigns in order to set the game in motion. Already in its 'ur-scene', it thus presents itself as irrevocably social: communicative and contingent, but in any case real. The permanent reconstitution of edges knows no limit. It can go on forever, at least theoretically. The determination on the one hand is that of one who makes a discursive offering, who posits a proposition , and on the other hand of one who reacts to this offering, who needs to produce follow-up communications and needs to make a decision. You need one who has written and one who reads. What this decision looks like will become the decisive condition for possible follow-up games : because it actualises certain possibilities while potentialising others.
Both determinations underlie a pragmatic dimension, a certain set of (historically modifiable) rules of the game. Out of this pragmatic dimension the game of 'authoriality' is constituted: a game of signatures and the power of signatures (cf. Derrida 1972, Kamuf 1988). Signatures are inescapable because they mark responsibility for any decision taken; i.e. they offer the possibility, if necessary, to revise or retract a decision. The game of authoriality is a game in and about institutions "where evidence is lacking" (Blumenberg 1981, 110). "What is is basically about", according to Hans Blumenberg, "is not to encounter opposition" (119; my translation, IB). It is about the chances for communicative offerings to resist refutation or negation. Henry Sussman (1997) has tried to describe such temporally and spatially limited orders of cultural knowledge-spaces and relations of meaning with the concept of the aesthetic contract. The validity of this contract can never be made 'waterproof'. Institutions follow rules which, just as the institutions themselves, are never outside history. How the game can be played is dependent on the history of previous moves. Its rules are preliminary: they do not pass beyond the threshold behind which a law or a truth are hidden. They enable operational approaches to what is constituted in this game as their materiality; in this circular process, empirical observations and theoretical models condition one another recursively.
Thus the constraint of decision-making is always also productive and motivating for modifying follow-ups. One can only escape from the territory of the undecidable by making decisions; only by employing power (here: the power of signature), i.e. by realising one possibility while at the same time suppressing others, can freedom be gained (cf. Laclau 1996). The search for generally valid criteria or a normative principle would lead to an infinite regress; on the other hand, a decision that would not have had to pass through the "ordeal of the undecidable" would not be a free decision but merely the programmable use of a calculation (cf. Derrida 1996). Thus one is not constrained to stand immobile in front of a transcendental unreadability, like Moses in front of the promised land, but one is enabled to enter the adventurous country of readability. In this way one would also have new stories to tell; for any text, seen from this vantage point, is always simultaneously unreadable and readable, understandable and unintelligible, perfectly transparent and absolutely intransparent. Without this fundamental undecidability, no reading as a singular act, as a unique moment, would be possible. Because the decision rests exclusively in its own terms, it is at the same time radically contingent and absolutely necessary. It is 'hegemonial' (Laclau): it is one decision, but it is at the same time this decision, and therefore irreducible. On the edges marked by this decision is constituted - again and again - what, in modernity, can claim authority and validity as communication.
Barthes, Roland (1994) : "La mort de l'auteur". In: Barthes, uvres complètes, ed. Éric Marty, Bd. 2. Paris: Editions du Seuil. 491-95.