Excerpt: 'The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time ' by Jane Gallop


Detail of St. Jerome, Carravaggio, c. 1605-1606


Several years ago, I found myself reading a book just a few months after the author had died. [i] The recent death lent a poignancy to my reading, and I thought to myself, “this book is haunted by the death of the author.” And so it was that, in response to this particular reading experience, a set phrase from literary theory — “the death of the author” — popped into my head. It is a familiar slogan, efficiently and evocatively representing the poststructuralist dismissal of the author, signifying polemically that the author does not matter, only the text – that we should not care about the author. Yet in my recent experience, what had become a theoretical cliché suddenly took on, as it were, new life. While “the death of the author,” as poststructuralist catch phrase, signified a way to rid the text of the author, I found that the author’s death could make the reader think more not less about the author. 

I am far from the first to have had occasion thus to hear new meanings in the overly familiar phrase. It could happen any time someone schooled in literary theory is faced with an author’s death. For example, in a 1989 article, responding to the fatwa calling precisely for author Salman Rushdie’s death, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak cites the poststructuralist “death of the author” and wonders how we are to read it in this situation.  Mentioning that the phrase has “become a slogan,” Spivak tries to reopen its meaning.[ii] While Spivak’s cogent rethinking of “the death of the author” lasts only a page before she goes on to her reading of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, I dedicated my most recent book to the opening up of this poststructuralist slogan, to bringing into literary theory other seemingly more anecdotal meanings of the phrase.

In the 1980s, the phrase was widely used in the American literary academy, referring to a general current coming from France, from poststructuralism, from newly theoretical literary studies. “The death of the author” was controversial — under attack both by older style humanist critics and by newer political assaults on the exclusivity of the canon. Researching the phrase’s usage, I discovered that critics who use it generally refer the reader to two articles on the question of the author, by and large to only two articles –one by Roland Barthes in 1968 and the other by Michel Foucault in 1969. Barthes and Foucault were such big names in our star-based reception of post-structuralism, and different enough from each other, that this confluence of two articles was able by itself to represent an entire theoretical trend.

In February 1969, Michel Foucault presented a paper in Paris entitled “What is an Author?” that historicizes the concept of the author by examining the diverse ways the concept has functioned in different historical moments.[iii] Although this paper is almost always cited as a source for “the death of the author,” it actually relegates that topic to one and only one of its more than three dozen paragraphs. Wanting to go back and reconsider “the death of the author,” to get beyond the theoretical slogan, my research consistently suggested I look at two short French texts from the late sixties. Reading those two articles, I discover that it is really not even two but to a single text we should turn. 

I go back to Roland Barthes to see what he meant by the catch phrase and also to get a fuller sense of his theory of the author. In Barthes’ writing about authors, we find actually two deaths — the abstract, polemical death of the slogan and a moving, more bodily death of the mortal author. I attempt to connect the two deaths, to think the abstract theoretical death along with the real loss of the author. The title of my book, “The Deaths of the Author,” is meant to refer to both the literary theoretical concept and the real life drama, to make it impossible to think about either separately, to insist we think them together.

I discover that, far from a simple dismissal, for Barthes the death of the author actually institutes a relation in which the reader desires the author. For example, in Barthes’ 1974 book The Pleasure of the Text I found the statement “The author is dead but I desire the Author.” This statement gives us a fuller picture of Barthes’ theorization of the author.  This striking statement professes his perverse desire for the author he nonetheless knows to be dead. I call the desire in this assertion “perverse” to connect it to the celebration of non-normative sexuality that is central to The Pleasure of the Text. In this declaration of desire, however, what is literally perverse is carried by the conjunction “but,” by the stubborn unreasonableness of desiring despite the knowledge that someone is dead.  Focusing on Barthes’ relation to the author not only provides a more nuanced, less abstract understanding of “the death of the author,” it also allows us to read the high literary theorist as at the same time a perverse, even queer, desiring subject. This is a reconsideration of the death of the author in the era of queer theory.

My return to Barthes opens up the theory to a more nuanced, affective understanding of the reader’s relation to the author. Yet even with its addition of poignancy, mortality, and desire, the author’s death in Barthes remains a theoretical death. I turn to Jacques Derrida to consider a much more personal relation to the author’s death, a reader’s mourning for a dear, departed author.

In the first memorial essay Derrida ever wrote, a 1981 text on his friend Roland Barthes who had died the previous year, Derrida lays out three possible relations a reader can have to the author: 1) “authors dead long before I read them,” 2) “authors living at the moment we read them,” and 3) “upon the death and after the death of those we have also ‘known,’ met, loved, etc.” (76-77). Derrida finds the first two relations relatively easy; the third is the one he finds intolerable — the relation where someone passes, moves from the category of the living to the dead. What is really troubling is neither the living nor the dead author but precisely what we might call the death of the author.

While Derrida never mentions Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” in this piece, I nonetheless find in Derrida’s memorial for Barthes a contribution to the theorization of the author’s death. This essay written in response to the death of his friend combines the personal sense of loss with a more general theory of the author. Derrida entitles his 1981 memorial “The Deaths of Roland Barthes.” I want to suggest how Derrida’s memorial essay can be read as expanding on, twisting and pluralizing Barthes’ infamous little 1968 essay.

I continue my inquiry into the memorial essay by turning to two memorials written by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Sedgwick’s essays belong very much to the same genre as those by Derrida: they combine personal mourning with intellectual work. Her 1990 “Memorial for Craig Owens” talks about an article Sedgwick is in the middle of writing, an article inspired by Owens’ work, an article she was hoping Owens would read. Speaking at a memorial service for Owens, Sedgwick in fact talks at some length about what a hard time she has been having writing her article. While I find such focus on her writing difficulties in this context a bit shocking — perhaps indecent — I also find it theoretically rich. Viewed from within the drama of writing, death takes on some particular resonances. While death is generally a reminder of the fragility of life, the story Sedgwick tells about her reaction to Owens’ death is about the fragility of writing, a fragility that has everything to do with writing’s temporal aspect. Thinking through death from within her writing practice, Sedgwick brings to light the haunted temporality of writing.

Sedgwick’s memorials include the explicitly perverse desire for the dead we found in Barthes’ writing along with the mourning and grieving we read in Derrida’s essays. Barthes could desire the dead but only abstractly and thus without grief; Derrida, on the other hand, could grieve his loss but only while feeling abashed by his own indecency. Both of Sedgwick’s memorial pieces were published in her 1993 book Tendencies, the book that is Sedgwick’s most self-conscious contribution to queer theory. The context of queer theory in the early 1990s – trying to affirm perverse, stigmatized desire in the face of AIDS and death – made it not only possible but crucial to articulate at one and the same time both desire and loss, both radical perversity and grief. 

While the temporality of Sedgwick’s first memorial is already haunted, it is in her second memorial, written a year later, that the temporality becomes particularly queer, downright indecent. The second memorial piece, originally delivered at an academic conference, is, according to Sedgwick, an “obituary” for Michael Lynch. This so-called obituary, however, was read at the conference in May 1991 while Lynch was still alive. By the time “White Glasses” is published (first in 1992, and then again in Tendencies in 1993), Lynch has died. Although a line is appended to the end of the essay giving the date of his death, the “obituary” is otherwise not revised. We can still read its peculiar (indecent) temporality as an obituary for someone still alive. In a 2000 interview Sedgwick states: “That’s the wonderful thing about the printed word – it can’t be updated instantly.  It’s allowed to remain anachronistic.” [iv]

Sedgwick chooses to “allow” her memorial for Lynch to “remain anachronistic” even before it is printed, when she could update if she chose. Instead of being, as most of us are, embarrassed by the queer temporality of the printed word, Sedgwick would embrace and celebrate it.[v] While a writer can revise and update if she chooses, the printed word is the province not of the writer but of the author. The printed word, necessarily anachronistic, is where the writer confronts her status as a dead author.

Where Sedgwick writes in the shadow of death, facing not only the loss of friends but her own diagnosis with a life-threatening illness, it is not death that forces Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak to imagine herself as a dead author; rather it is her attempt finally to write a book.

In a 1986 interview, Spivak talks about the manuscript she is then working on (this manuscript will be published thirteen years later as A Critique of Postcolonial Reason).  In this interview she speaks about the manuscript as if it is her first book. “I’m not a book writer… nevertheless I think the time has come to take the plunge,” she says.[vi] Up until this moment, she has been “an essayist rather than a book writer”:  we might understand this difference between “essayist” and “book writer” as the difference between writer and author. For Spivak, “the time has come” for her to be an author.

As our reference earlier to her 1989 essay on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses suggests, “the death of the author” is an idea she is thinking about during the period she is working on this book. In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Spivak cites Barthes’ infamous phrase in order to situate her own reading practice. She says the reading she practices, while including the kind of “deicide/parricide” represented by Barthes’ phrasing, always combines and offsets that author-murder with “complicity.” In order to explain the mixture of violence and complicity that constitutes the relation to the author in her practice of reading she writes, “Even if we question the authority of Marx, his ghost keeps (us) going” (p. 98).

Marx’s ghost is Spivak’s elaboration on, revision of, “the death of the author.” Spivak’s take on the author’s death does not deny that the author is dead, but it refuses that death any finality: the author is dead but his ghost keeps (us) going. Speaking as a reader, Spivak finds the author’s ghost enabling: he keeps us going.

While Marx’s ghost is a figure used to make a general point about authors, it is probably not coincidental that Spivak talks about the death of the author in the section of her book on Marx. Marx is not just one of the authors Spivak reads; he is a model for her as a writer. In the very last sentence of her book, Spivak compares what she is trying to do in her writing to what Marx did. As she brings her book to a close, thus putting her writing definitively in the past, she compares herself to the writer who exemplifies for her the dead author, the author as ghost.

Spivak identifies with an author whose literal death occurred long before she was born.  What is at stake in Spivak’s relation to the dead author is not literal death, but something we might call theoretical death, the threat that Marx’s work will be relegated to the past, deemed no longer relevant.  Taking Marx as her model at the moment the world proclaims the death of Marxism, Spivak writes in fear of becoming not a literally dead author, but something possibly even worse, an author who while still alive is already a ghost — outmoded, obsolete, not present but stuck in the past.

A piece in The New York Times of October 17, 2004 opens: “With the death on Oct. 8 of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the era of big theory came quietly to a close.”  A few paragraphs later: “Ideas once greeted as potential catalysts for revolution began to seem banal, irrelevant . . . .   Deconstruction, Mr. Derrida’s primary legacy, was no exception… Today, the term has become a more or less meaningless artifact of popular culture.” This article in the Times, published a week after Derrida’s death, was entitled “The Theory of Everything, R.I.P.” [vii]

While far from the first declaration that theory was dead and ought to be buried, this one used the occasion of Derrida’s literal death to signify a much more total death.  The thinker is dead, and so his thought is dead too.  His era is yesterday; he does not speak to today.  This is precisely what I am calling theoretical death.  And in this Times op-ed piece we can see that people connect literal and theoretical death. 

A few weeks after I read this declaration of Derrida’s theoretical death, I received an advertising circular in the mail. On a sheet dated March 21, 2005, Continuum (a publisher) announced “a new series of books on major thinkers of today”: a series they call “live theory.” As of the circular, the first four volumes of the series were already out, and they were announcing a fifth one, coming soon, “out this fall” — Jacques Derrida: live theory.

Given what I had read a few months earlier in the Times, I was particularly gratified both to read that someone thought theory was “live” and to see Derrida among the “thinkers of today.” I kept that circular on my desk; I wanted to hold on to the phrase “live theory.” I imagine Continuum meant the series title to convey that these are “thinkers of today” and also to represent the fact that each volume “includes a new interview with the subject.”  But the phrase meant more to me. Taking it out of context, I felt it represented something I try to do in my reading of theory.

Sometimes reading the liveness of theory means attending to its moment, context, date, temporality. That is an important aspect of my practice of close reading, reading the temporal history of the text, the occasion, the revisions. This means treating theory not as what Spivak calls “once and for all,” but as a persistent ongoing practice in time. More often it means reading against the monumentalization of theory, the received versions – e.g., Barthes’ “death of the author” – so that the text, the thinking, can come to life again. 

It is this relation to the author’s theoretical death that brings us back to Barthes, back to where we began. Barthes, reconsiders the theoretical death of the author from the point of view of the reader. While a closer look at Barthes makes us see that the reader still has feelings for the dead author, the death remains theoretical. When we moved to Derrida’s mourning essays, we began to think about literal, personal death as part of our understanding of the death of the author. Reading Barthes and Derrida together, we move to a conception of the author’s death that includes both the theoretical and the personal.  The death of the author has become much more nuanced, meaningful and fraught, but it is still being approached solely from the reader’s perspective.

Sedgwick’s memorial writing shares with Derrida’s a concern with actual, personal death, but in her case the point of view is not so much the reader’s but the writer’s. Our reading of Sedgwick gives us a glimpse at how the author’s death shadows the writer writing, leaving its mark in the writer’s engagement with temporality. Following the track of that temporal engagement, we come to read Spivak’s drama of writing her book, finding in it yet another sort of encounter with the death of the author — this one like Sedgwick’s from the writer’s point of view, but like Barthes’ concerned with theoretical rather than personal death. Taken together, these four readings aim to revitalize the overly familiar “death of the author” so that we take it as both theoretical and personal — so that we can take a fuller measure of its moving and unsettling effects on readers and writers, on reading and writing.

Excerpt republished with permission of the Author and Publisher. Copyright © Duke University Press, 2011 


[i]   The book was Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect (Cornell University Press, 2004).  My reading of this posthumous book is entitled “Reading Brennan” and can be found in Jardine, Lundeen, and Oliver, eds., Living Attention: On Teresa Brennan (Albany, SUNY Press, 2007), pp. 107-115.

[ii] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Reading  the Satanic Verses,” reprinted in Outside in the Teaching Machine (Routledge, 1993), pp. 217-219 (originally published in Public Culture, Fall 1989).

[iii] Michel Foucault, “Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?”, Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie, 63, 3 (July-September, 1969), pp. 73-104.  The lecture was delivered on February 22, 1969 to the Société française de philosophie.  The lecture is collected in Michel Foucault, Dits et ecrits, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), pp. 789-821.  An English translation appears in Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 113-138.

[iv] “This Piercing Bouquet: An Interview with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick” in Regarding Sedgwick, p. 253.

[v] Recent scholarship has in fact claimed anachronism as a queer temporality.  See for example, Valerie Rohy, Anachronism and Its Others: Sexuality, Race, Temporality (SUNY Press, 2009).

[vi] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic (Routledge, 1990), p. 48.

[vii] Emily Eakin, “The Theory of Everything, R.I. P.,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 2004, p. 4.12.

About the Author:

Jane Gallop is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She is the author of a number of books, including Reading Lacan (1985), Anecdotal Theory (2002) and most recently, The Deaths of the Author.