What is an author? Or rather: how does the idea of “author” fit into an interpretation of a work of art?
Let’s begin by the obvious: The Death of the Author, by Roland Barthes, published in 1968, a famous essay arguing against intentionalism, or what we can call biographical criticism, i.e. interpretation relying on the author’s intentions, or what we know of the author’s life. For Barthes, on the contrary, the coherence of a text comes first and foremost from the reader, who provides its meaning to the text, the author himself being nothing more than the person who happens to write the text. This person, the artist, the facts of his social life or his opinions expressed outside of his texts, all this is trivial, only the work itself matters (although the context of its publication is still important). Analysis must then concentrate on the writing itself, on the style, because “the language speaks, not the author”. But then, what about my two articles on Spielberg, which tried to define him as an author? Surely I must think Spielberg is able to impose his will, or his intentions, on his creation, because what would be the point of analyzing his whole body of work if the fact that these movies were all made by an individual who goes by the name of Steven Spielberg is ultimately irrelevant? And, if we follow the logic of anti-intentionalism to its extreme, if we effectively kill the notion of author in interpretation, how can we even make the difference between a man-made work of art and a pile of garbage aimlessly thrown together by the wind, since both of them are created without intention?
Obviously, no need to go to this extreme, we just have to understand exactly what Barthes meant, which is more complex than what his provocative title seems to say. His main argument was quite irrefutable: how can we know, for sure, what are the author’s intentions? Surely, when an author writes a sentence, he does so consciously (I know I do), with a precise intention (his words are not coming out against his own will), but nothing can assure us that the intended meaning is the one the reader will perceive, or that the sentence means exclusively what the writer meant. If only the intentions matter, how can we account, in a review, of an intention that cannot be found in the final text? Some years before Barthes, William K Wimsatt and Monroe Beardley raised that same question in their seminal article, The Intentional Fallacy, published in 1946, the most important statement coming out of New Criticism, an American theoretical movement that dealt mostly with poetry, and which contended, like Barthes, that the writing is more important than the writer. For Wimsatt and Beardley, it is rather difficult, maybe impossible, to really know what are the actual intentions of an author, but even if we knew them, it can be misleading to use these intentions as a measure of the worth of an artwork: “One must ask how a critic expects to get an answer to the question about intention. How is he to find out what the poet tried to do? If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do. And if the poet did not succeed, then the poem is not adequate evidence, and the critic must go outside the poem for evidence of an intention that did not become effective in the poem.”
Much have been written recently about Far Cry 3, mostly about its story and its writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, who explained his intentions at large in an interview for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. It seems, though, that many critics didn’t play the same game Yohalem intended to make, like John Walker who conducted the interview for RPS, or Brendan Keogh at Unwinnable, who both seem to think the game is plenty of fun, but that it certainly doesn’t work as a critique of the genre. I haven’t played Far Cry 3, so I’m not saying they’re right (although I’m prejudiced enough to think they are), but since Yohalem was so vehement in his interviews, so keen to defend his perspective, I just want to ask him: who cares about your intentions? The game you described, the one you wanted to make, is apparently not the one the critics played, and unfortunately for you their experience of the game can only account for the latter. In his interview at RPS, Yohalem certainly advocates, quite arrogantly I must say, for a purely intentionalist reading of his script: my game is full of irony, so exaggerated and stupid, how can you miss the satire? My intended meaning is the only true interpretation, so listen to me because you’re wrong, you just have to look harder for the clues I left for you. At this point, it’s not even interpretation: if the only thing a critic has to do is find the author’s intentions, then Yohalem’s interview is a better piece of criticism than Jim Rossignol actual review, and critics, who are supposed to interpret an artwork from their experience of it, become journalists, looking for the factual intentions behind it. No need to even play the game, or see the movie: just ask the writer, or the director.In his piece for Unwinnable about Far Cry 3, Keogh wrote that: “the artist’s intent isn’t the be-all and end-all of what the artwork means, but neither is it to be entirely discounted. When we judge an artwork as either being a good or a bad piece of art, we are usually judging it in relation to what the author intended to do when they created it – or, at least, in relation to what we surmise are the author’s intentions from the artwork itself.” So we don’t need to declare death to the author until his work becomes formless, like my example of the pile of garbage in introduction; even for Barthes anyway, it’s always implied that an artwork is guided by the author’s intent, however to know them isn’t necessarily important, and certainly not sufficient. I would go further than Keogh, though, and claim that we can entirely discount an artist’s intent; in fact, we have to. For example, my interpretation of Spielberg’s cinema doesn’t revolve around what I assume are his intentions: I hope my reading is close to his real intent, and for the most part I think it is, but in the end it doesn’t matter. When I write a critic, I merely describe what I see, without a thought about what is or isn’t the artist’s intent; I just want to define the ideas that comes to me when I see those images. The value of Spielberg’s cinema comes only from these ideas, which form his perspective on the world; or rather, the value of Spielberg’s cinema as an artwork comes only from these ideas.
This distinction is important, because in a sense, we could say that, yes, when Spielberg wants to make an action set-piece like the convoy sequence at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, he can make one hell of an action set-piece, and in that regard Keogh is right: we have here an instance where our pleasure in the theater comes at least partly from an adhesion between what we perceive is the author’s intent (make an action sequence) and the expressiveness of this intent (it’s a thrilling sequence), but this efficiency, although important, has nothing to do with what art is. Art is not a communication exercice, where an artist has to adequately communicate his intentions to his audience: like I wrote before, it’s a perspective on the world, and the value of an artwork comes first and foremost from the value of that perspective, which is brought to us through the artist’s style, or his mise en scène. More to the point: the work of a true author, a true artist, will always display this personal perspective, by default, because an author’s style is always present in his artworks, even the failed ones, even when he fails to properly communicate what we can assume were his intentions (or, more often than not, when an unpredicted meaning comes out of a scene, like the racism in Far Cry 3, which wasn’t intended, I hope, by Ubisoft). So, am I suddenly trying to revive the author in order to preserve my love for some of them?
Not at all. When Barthes writes something like “The Death of the Author”, we need to understand which author, exactly, he wishes the death of: when interpreting a text, we have to dissociate the living person who wrote the book, the social author who has a life and opinions outside of his books, from the literary author that lives throughout his books. The idea of this division between two different authors comes from Marcel Proust, who first defined it more directly in his unfinished essay Contre Sainte-Beuve, that grew and evolved until it became his masterpiece, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, where this division of the artist functions as one of the book’s main structural device. For example, the narrator is enamored with a novelist named Bergotte, but when he finally meets him in one of Swann’s dinner, he cannot reconcile the Bergotte he knew from the books with the Bergotte he has in front of him. The same goes for Vinteuil, the composer who wrote the musical piece that Swann hears when he falls in love with Odette (Swann knows the piece was written by a man named Vinteuil, but he’s persuaded that it cannot be the same Vinteuil he knows, an acrimonious old man Swann thinks incapable of producing such beauty), or the unnamed narrator himself, who is not Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust, the French novelist born in 1871 with a name as long as his books are, even though la Recherche is partly autobiographical.
A quick glance at Proust’s views on aesthetics, which is quite close to mine, will prove helpful here: through its numerous comparisons, Proust’s style constantly reflects the interrelations between his narrator’s state of mind, the world around him and art. The artworks (books, music and paintings mainly) quoted by the narrator helps him get a clearer view of the world, or see it in a different way, inaccessible otherwise (like Swann who can only fall in love with Odette when he finds a look-alike in a Boticelli’s portrait, as if he needed the painter’s eyes to see the beauty in his future wife). For Proust, our self is largely determined by the world around it, so as the world changes (not necessarily in a radical way, the simple arrival or disappearance of a new object in our daily life suffice), or as we move in a new environment, our self changes also, and thus who we are change at every moment. Every time these changes in our self occur, an entire universe is destroyed, a way of seeing the world disappears. Our impressions, our emotions, our souvenirs, all are associated with the objects that surround us, as if they’re stored inside of them, and a simple gesture, an odor or a taste, like the famous madeleine in the tea, can awake our past, this lost universe (l’édifice immense du souvenir). Art, then, can capture those fleeting impressions and keep them alive for all eternity: an artwork is an object that stores the artist’s impressions, but unlike other objects, these impressions are made available for everyone. An artwork is the testimony of an artist’s sensibility towards the world. Or, in Proust own words: “The style is by no means an embellishment like certain persons believe, it’s not even a technical matter, it is – like the color for painters – a quality of the vision, the revelation of a particular universe that each of us sees, but that no one else can see. The artist gives us the pleasure of knowing another universe.” (in an interview for Le Temps, 13th November 1913, my translation) And that’s why art is so important: it can restore the world, by making it more complete, both the world and art being incomplete without one another.
The critic’s job, then, is to define an artist’s style, and as we can see, this has nothing to do with the artist’ intentions, because how an author speaks is more important than what he actually says (although the two are related, obviously, a matter I will return to shortly, in another article). We can now understand Barthes’ argument more clearly: the ideal reader isn’t concerned with the living artist; although knowing his opinions, or be familiar with an author’s life can be useful, a reader must stay inside the text, where he will find the only author that matters, in the language itself, the style. By ordering death to the author, Barthes wasn’t advocating a total relativism, where all readers’ interpretations are to be considered equal; on the contrary, he was asking the critics to come back to the text, the only objective point of reference for every reader. Quoting Proust in an interview, like I just did, can prove useful, because I used it as a reinforcement of a previous argument I made through the literary author (not that you should care, but it was my intent anyway…), just like a gamer could use Yohalem’s interview to validate his own experience if it happens to coincide with the writer’s perspective.
When it comes to videogames, though, it gets a bit more complicated: is such a concept of author, based on a personal vision, even possible in such an industry? How can the perspective of one individual find his way in such a collaborative effort? Cinema, also an industry, can give us an idea of how it’s possible, but the creation of a videogame, especially in the case of AAA games, is way more complex than the making of a film. And anyway, if the definition of the author I gave here is to be accepted, in order to use it in the context of videogames we must assume that they are an art form, which is not so obvious. But these are questions I reserve for next time.