The Death of the Author; the Birth of the Voice


In my post DJ Spooky’s Remix Simulacrum I questioned the concept of an “authentic voice” in general, and the concept of a “remix” in particular:

“Given that the human history of ideas, progress, art, etc. is the history of remix, i.e. the unexpected association of different, seemingly unrelated memes, should “remix” be classified as an authentic voice or an unauthentic one?”

That post ended with only questions. I might have now a sort of an answer, which will be based on literary criticism, specifically on Roland Barthes “The Death of the Author”, as well as on our memory, or rather on our capacity to… forget.

In “The Death of the Author” (1967) Barthes states that “the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original”. Any text, therefore, be it an “original” or a “remix” is deemed to be the reincarnation of older texts. Let’s forget, than, the illusion of authenticity [, or of truth, or of reality etc.] – there’s no such thing.

Here’s an excerpt from Barthes:

“We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture. Like Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, both sublime and comical and whose profound absurdity precisely designates the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original”.


Yet I’d like to suggest a distinction between the authenticity of the text and the authenticity of the voice (leaving aside concepts of author, writer, speaker etc.). Indeed, the text is essentially unauthentic; the author is being dead, and the reader is, righteously, the new meaning-provider. Yet from all this destruction, I think that something new is born: the voice.

The Voice

Barthes continues the above quoted text with what can be understood as a minor observation on his part, but a one that I think is key to understanding the essence and the role of the authentic voice – that which tells an essentially unauthentic story:

“his [the writer, the dead author, the layman speaker] only power is to combine the different kinds of writing, to oppose some by others, so as never to sustain himself by just one of them”.

I’d like to interpret this last sentence as suggesting that authentic voices are those associating old texts in a certain way in a certain time for a certain society. And even if the last sentence from Barthes doesn’t say that, I’d still like to stick to this idea, and to maintain that this role of the authentic voice is of an extreme importance.

The authentic voice is that which reminds us of old, forgotten texts. What I’ll say now is not original, but it’s important: the past contains many answers for us, mostly in the form of unanswered questions (yes, I noticed the paradox). Faulkner has this saying that the past is never dead and that it is not even past. This insight, I think, is critical for our survival, for our progress. The right old question [or text in its broadest meaning] brought up in the right moment in the right context can change things. What Barthes cannot take from the dead author is his choice of the texts and of the moment and context of their reincarnation.

In other words, the role of the authentic voice is to bring up, to remind, in a certain point in time, some old texts so that the “reader” will start his/her process of creating meaning – actual, relevant meaning – around them. The authentic voice is the catalyst, the trigger of the whole process.

Remember (for future use): a society that cannot forget is a society that cannot remember.

4 Responses to “The Death of the Author; the Birth of the Voice”

  1. ecko4inc Says:

    “Today, the voice you speak with may not be your own” DJ Spooky

    “It is a fundamental law of all healthy criticism that it applies to a work the very principles which it itself employs in its own construction.” Lacan

    “To breed an animal with the right to make promises – is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man?… Forgetting is no mere vis inertiae as the superficial imagine…” Nietzsche

    I put these quotes side by side – remixed if you will – to try out an understanding of the Voice as you say. The DJ Spooky quote is more interesting the more it is repeated (a possible criterion for an authentic voice?). The Lacan quote is a good principle of literary criticism in the face of a lack of authenticity, an Author-God Function, guaranteeing the meaning of the written (-spoken) Word. (My god, my language is very formal – sorry, its been awhile since I spoke of these sorts of things!)

    The Nietzsche quote is just for fun…

    DJ Spooky could be interpreted in several ways. Today – as an eternal present, presently, or the actual date, as in today, as you are reading (hearing) this? Interpretation is no longer valid on the principle of authenticity as Barthes’ Death of an Author would have it (just going on your two quotes and my long-term memory of this excellent text), authenticity being a full and original presence, as opposed to a fake.

    I wonder if DJ Spooky – whose work I am wholly ignorant of – has ever heard (the voice) of Barthes? Regardless, judging from his appellation – “DJ” – I could conceive of DJ Spooky in the least everyday example of his quote, sampling other people’s voices for remixing purposes, as practiced by Burroughs and his friends (with all the potential to create a new voice etc, or in the words of Deleuze, a refrain).

    Today – on this day, February the Thirteenth – you have given Barthes a new voice upon my reading of your blog entry – even if I’m not understanding you correctly, properly, authentically IE hearing you, across space and time, your writing invokes the voice of conscience, brings to mind, makes a connection – for what is “critical for our survival, our progress” – another quote from an essay close to Barthes’, Foucault’s “What is an author?” wherein he repeats the words of Beckett – “‘what does it matter who is speaking,’ someone said, ‘what does it matter who is speaking?'”

    For the processes of individualisation in forms of accountability are what are at stake here, perhaps moreso today in the era of ‘control societies’ than in any others (see “Distributed in space, ordered in Time”). Many critiques of so-called “post-structuralists” deplore the lack of an authentic voice and I think you have given a nice reading of Barthes, applying the “very principles which it itself employs in its own construction” in the context of “today” IE DJ Spooky as a voice of the day, this day, this epoch, and remained faithful to the difference Foucault voices in “What is an Author?”:

    “There seems to be an important dividing line between those who believe they can still locate today’s discontinuities (ruptures) in the historico-transcendantal tradition of the nineteenth century, and those who try to free themselves once and for all from that tradition.”

  2. muli koppel Says:

    And when reading Foucault’s “What is Enlightenment?” I have found the echo of “What is an Author?” – and I realized that Foucault will never, ever give an answer to a question in the form of “What is __?”, at least not a direct one, but will go in circles, forever, because he had, I feel, an acute sensibility and respect for each Time capsule, and so each question in the form of “What is?” should be answered inside the Time capsule, thus respecting and honoring this drop of Time which merits its own, unique, answers, and by that – by answering those questions inside each Time capsule, I read Foucault as pointing out at what a human being is (a paradox, I reckon, for here we got yet another ‘what is’ question), and by that same reading I interpret Burroughs’ Control needs Time->Control Needs Humans->Death needs Time->Death needs Time for what it kills to grow in.
    What grows inside the Time Capsule?

  3. The Death of the Author; the Birth of the Voice « Remixing Cinema Says:

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