||[W]e know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth [of the author]: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.|
The quote today is taken from a classic postmodern article called, The Death of the Author, by Roland Barthes. Barthes does not mean to call our attention to the physical death of a particular author or authors in this article.
What Barthes wants to do is to call our attention to the way in which our postmodern culture no longer glorifies the author. In place of the venerated author, we now have the venerated reader. By "author" Barthes means not the human being who penned the manuscript, but a fictional character who we imagine once claimed the ideas that float through our minds when we read a text.
But whose ideas are they really? Barthes quotes this passage from
Then, Barthes asks, "Who is speaking thus?" Is it the hero of the story saying this? Or Balzac himself? Or is it some disembodied romantic psychology speaking? One cannot tell. Writing, Barthes tells us, can disembody the voice. We do not know who is speaking. "No doubt," he continues, "it has always been that way." When someone writes a story, or publishes a work, we typically cannot tell exactly who is speaking.
I think of Plato. Who could have influenced western culture more than Plato? Yet none of us know what Plato really thought. With trivial exceptions, all we have of Plato are the words he put in the mouth of others. That is, we have Plato telling us what Socrates thought, or what Protagoras thought, but not what Plato himself thought.
And it is more often that way than you may think. Pick up any text, and notice how much time is spent in that text telling us what others think, summarizing the literature, paraphrasing, and no doubt partly inventing the meaning in the texts described.
What the author thinks and feels about something, then, is often a mystery. And, "No doubt," as Barthes tells us, "it has always been that way."
But so, too, we have always imagined it differently. That is, somehow it has always seemed that, unlike the rest of us, the author never dies. Don't you feel that illusion? Doesn't it seem to you that a published work of an author sustains her voice, long past the author's physical death. Haven't you sometimes picked up a book by a famous author, and said to yourself, "This author is speaking to me across the ages?" Twenty-five hundred years after Plato wrote, for example, we read his words. Yet, even so, most scholars agree, we have no idea what Plato believed. What he wrote was a blur between what others thought and what he thought they thought.
Barthes explains this illusion saying, "It is the langauge that speaks, not the author..." In other words, the words that authors leave us act on our minds, inspire us, provoke us, but the author's intentions are inevitably long lost.
But, perhaps, after all, that is not such a loss. What would be
a greater tragedy would be for the text to lose its power to excite our
imaginations. And this power, the power to provoke and excite, inspire
and encourage, lives in the language itself, not in the author.
The author is like any artist. She creates a work which feels to
her to be full of her heart, but once it is created, it stands on its own,
divorced from the life of the author. We know little of Shakespeare,
but look how his writing lives in the soul of our culture? Look at
a Van Gough's painting, The Starry Night, for example:
Is the purpose of your glance to divine the intention of Van Gogh, the artist? Or does the art live for you because of its ability to awaken something inside you, something almost magical? Perhaps the artist's name is useful to help us locate another copy of the work? Or even to find works of a similar style. But it is the hubris of the artist if he imagines that his own heart can be discerned by descendents of readers, or, even, what his private intentions will be of much importance to her readers.
Barthes tells us, "No doubt, it has always been that way." However, he also tells us that it is more that way today than it has ever been. In the modernist past we create a myth of the author, imagined the author larger than life. But, today, we feel the "Author diminishing," he says, "like a figurine at the far end of the literary stage."
What we cherish, today, is not the glory of the author, not the ability of the author to transcend the limits of human mortality, but instead the wonders in the experience of the reader. Not all those who look at books, of course, have the talent yet to read in ways that enhance their experience, to find the treasure in the reading that nourishes the germinal ideas of tomorrow, ideas perhaps that the author never intended. Hypnotized by the myth of the author, as a culture we have neglected developing the artistry of reading. Dazzled by the vision of the author, too often we have imagined readers to be simple, passive sponges. Barthes wishes to remind us that the reader's experience is central. The text's unity, Barthes tells us, is provided by the reader, not by the author -- for every text worth reading brings with it multiple rich interpretations, multiple visions.
"To give [such] a text an author," Barthes tells us, "is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final [meaning]." When we pretend that the value of the text is simply what the author once intended, we close off the flowering of the textual vision. Nothing is more modern than to pin the meaning of the text in the author's personal intentions, the intentions of authors who have died. Nothing is more postmodern than to let the treasure of the text be measured by its ability to spark our imaginations, imaginations unfettered with a need to obey the intended meaning of the author. "In this way," Barthes continues, "literature"...by refusing to assign a 'secret', an ultimate meaning, to the text ...liberates ...an activity that is truly revolutionary..." When we readers refuse to let the author confine the meaning of the written text, we liberate that text to inspire ideas that we have not yet had.
But we postmoderns have our roots in modernist illusions. We are
just now emerging from our illusion that the meaning of the text was contained
in the author's intentions. Still, as Barthes said, as postmoderns
"[w]e are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer" by the myth
of the authors' intention.
Can we write and still deconstruct ourselves as authors? That's the question. Must the deconstruction be done entirely by the reader? That is, can we learn to write in ways that blur the boundaries between authors and readers? Write in ways that assist the reader in deconstructing our authorship? What would that mean?
It might mean, for example, that as authors we would learn to give our notes on our readings of someone else's text. This reading (if you want to call it that) would not be an unbiased echo of the original text. It would not pretend to be. Neither would it pretend to be an original text emerging in the author's mind without being grounded in the words of other writers.
Such a written reading would surely blur the distinction between author and reader. But, if this is so, it is so only so because, in our modern world, we have artificially constructed the author as writing an original text, a text that breaks with history to be something entirely new. And, what author has ever done that? What text has yet been written that was not, in some important degree, merely a creative revision of other texts? Other texts that remain anonymous not only to the reader, but also to the author? Think of the author of material that seems original as one who has forgotten the texts that were once inspiring. And the reader who thinks the text to be original as one who has forgotten, or never read, the texts that inspired the author.
But, if the author could give us her readings of other writers, this would help us deconstruct the tyranny of the myth of the author. It would also help deconstruct the tyranny of the modernist reader who demanded that the author give us nothing but true and unrevised readings or else original texts that were not nourished in the reading of other texts. In some sense, the tyranny does not belong only to authors. Readers who demand superhuman originality from authors are equally tyrannical, equally responsible, at least, for maintaining our cultural illusion.
Writing down our readings, paraphrasing and associating to those readings, would be one way to deconstruct the myth of the author.
But, there are other ways to deconstruct the singularity of the author. We might, in our postmodernism, actually learn to write collaboratively. Myself, I don't know how to do this yet, but I am learning. I am not happy with what I once heard Lynn Hoffman refer to as "committee-speak". Horrors! This is a recipe for writing uninspired text. Picture it. Each human being contributes a patch without design in a confusing mingle of bland ideas. Or, a group of authors sending a text around for contributions from each other and hating what is done to their own writing. Those of us who long to write in clear an evocative ways are inevitably offended by this idea. Too often it feels that careless editors squeeze the life out of our words, or smudge the color from the sparkling metaphor we found sitting in our minds one happy morning.
Committee speak does not hold my hope. Besides, with committee-speak writing, one must wait forever before all the contributors agree with the exact wording. Heaven help us if writing comes to that..
Still, I want to find some way to deconstruct my authorship. If not in everything I write, at least sometimes. And, collaboration stands as one way to deconstruct the author.
And, in the last week or so, in some of our imaginative projects here, I have gotten an idea as to how we might proceed. I am still unsure, still confused, but I see a faint light coming through
I am talking about the technique we are using to write the case of Elmer and Elaine. Don't dismiss the work we are doing here. I hope these two imaginary people are prototypes of what is yet to come. Moreover, I think they have already acquired living personalities. At least, I am coming to know them.
Yet, who composed Elmer and Elaine? Not I. Not any one author. These are fictional characters composed without a single author because the various contributions forwarded their suggestions of speech for the characters to the list, and then I edited them (or not), mingling my own creativity with theirs so that, in the end, there was simply no way to tell who was responsible for what word or idea.
Isn't it amazing? Doesn't that decisively deconstruct our authorship? And isn't it amazing that, under the circumstances, the characters Elmer and Elaine neverthless are coming to life? As they are? They are more living, I would say, than the life of fictional characters in novels because the story of Elmer and Elaine is never completely told. Elmer and Elaine may sleep through a day or two, a week or two, and then jump back to life with the pen of another anonymous contributor.
I need to think more about what is involved in deconstructing the author, how to do it better, but also how much, and when, to do it. Someday, perhaps, there will be a new form of writing called deconstructive writing. I hope I am part of that project.
And what we write will not be restricted to the fictional cases of people in therapy. At the moment, for example, I am composing a dialogue with Jerry Shafer on PMTH that promises to break another barrier in deconstructive writing. This will be a dialogue between Isan and Elis, two imaginary people we are constructing together to explore two different points of view on the advantages and disadvantages of using automated or machine criteria to make judgments. With the election conflicts going on in Florida, this dialogue is likely to be relevant to our times.
But to read more of that dialogue you will need to check PMTH NEWS next
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Whichever you want, you can write me and tell me, by clicking
This will send a post to me, Lois Shawver. Tell me of your interest. If you are looking to join us, also give me a little information about yourself that tells me how you fit the profile for joining the PMTH online community. And, in either case, .tell me that you got the idea to write by reading PMTH NEWS.
If you read PMTH NEWS regularly, you know that we have established the
practice of developing imaginary characters on PMTH.
At that time we engaged in quite a long series of exchanges that we called "imaginary therapy". The imaginary therapist was played by several different people, while I played the role of the two clients, Jack and Jill. Jack and Jill went through six imaginary therapy sessions and also had the benefit of a reflection team, which is a quite innovative and, I believe, postmodern style of doing therapy. (Click here to see the transcripts of the entire imaginary therapy project with Jack and Jill.)
Please keep in mind that Jack and Jill, and all the characters that are referred to as "imaginary" are fictional characters. Moreover, although the imaginary therapy was done by real therapists, their work was not "therapy" in the usual sense because no one was conceptualized as a client. It should be thought of as an exercise in postmodern imagination .
Our technique of working with imaginary characters has evolved somewhat. What was distinctive about the first case, that is the Jack and Jill case, was that Jack talked a lot more than Jill did and the therapist had to manage this situation with some artistry. Otherwise the issues that brought Jack and Jill to therapy would have been usurped by the issue of Jack not letting Jill talk. I believe anyone reading these transcripts will see the issue and many will gather some ideas as to how to work with clients when one client out talks the other.
Myself, I think I learned most from the sixth session. In that session, the therapist asked the two clients to act out their issues with a bit of mime. (See especially lines 30- 45.) This seemed to me to open up remarkable possibilities for these particular clients. What they couldn't say to each other with words, they could say with mime. I saw this as a move of postmodern imagination because it invented a non-traditional way of doing things when traditional ways were not working. Mime got around the problem that Jill could not express herself well in a session with Jack talking over her. Good postmodern moves, Lyotard says, (PMC, p.16) break out of the knee-jerk reactionary kind of response to find something more innovative.
But, still, I was not satisfied with the technique created in the Jack and Jill case. Most important, I felt that people, including myself, were too identified with the characters we were creating. For one thing, when one person was writing all of a character's lines, no one else got a chance to contribute. For another thing, it was too easy for us to invest our egos in the character's lines. When people in PMTH (or readers of PMTH NEWS) responded with other ideas about how things should be done, the criticism had the potential to make people feel attacked. Therefore, I began to feel that it was this aspect of our postmodern imagination that needed to be addressed and changed. We needed to decenter and deconstruct our personal and individualistic involvement with the characters so as to give us room to be more imaginative.
These considerations were in my mind as we began to work with two more imaginary characters, Frank and Fran, and so Fran was written collaboratively by a variety of people.
In the case of Frank and Fran we did not have a therapy session.
We simply had a short twenty-four line dialogue. (Click
here to read that transcript and an article about it.) The challenge
was to find ways for Fran to de-escalate an ugly dispute that would have
taken place if Fran used a knee-jerk reaction to Frank's initial complaint.
In other words, the challenge was to use our postmodern imagination to
restructure their conversation and make it not only more satisfying in
the moment but also more capable of creating new and more interesting turns
in the relationship. Otherwise, if Fran had made a reactional
countermove this would have only worsened the dispute because, as
Reactional moves simply lead people in circles. In contrast, paralogical moves that destabilize routinized responses give us the ability to create new paths out of the impasses that imprison us.
In the Frank and Fran dialogue, Fran was played by one author, Ed Epp, but Fran, who voiced the de-escalation techniques, was written collaboratvely. Numerous PMTH conversationalists contributed their comments and I edited those comments without adding content or information in my edits. The result, I hope, was the deconstruction of our identity with the fictional characters.
Because we were not only inventing Frank and Fran, but inventing the technique for writing Frank and Fran, more came out of our project than just some good ideas about how to de-escalate a dispute. What I felt was most exciting about the construction of the Frank and Fran dialogue, in fact, was the deconstruction of ourselves as the authors of Frank and Fran.
This process of constructing Fran collaboratively had a number of important advantages over the procedure of having individuals roleplay specific characters as we had done with Jack and Jill. For one thing, our new technique allowed more people to get into the process so as to pool their good ideas. But, for another, it allowed us to deconstruct the authorship of the characters.
Encouraged by how well the Fran part was constructed collaboratively,
I suggested that we try another similar project in which both parts were
written collaboratively. I am very pleased with how this new project
is going. If you want to read more about it, go down to the next
article on Elmer and Elaine.
Last week I told you about imaginary characters Frank and Fran. (Click here to read the Frank and Fran transcript and an article about it.)
This week I want to tell you about two new imaginary ch4aracters on PMTH that we are calling Elmer and Elaine. Keep in mind when you read about them that Elmer sometimes calls Elaine by the name "Ellen" when he is unhappy with her, And, when Elmer is feeling affectionate towards Ellen, he sometimes calls her "Li-li." These are all the same imaginary person, however, Elaine, Ellen and Li-li.
As with Frank and Fran, Elmer and Elaine were inclined to engage in a dispute. If they had let themselves react to each other in a kneejerk way, they would have simply had a fight. But, a group of PMTH conversationalists set about collaboratively to revise what Elmer said so that he could deescalate the potential conflict.
Both Elmer and Elaine's roles were written collaboratively by a variety of conversationalists on PMTH including, Riet Samuels, Val Lewis, Ed Epp, Helen Shoemaker and Katherine Levine. I, (Lois Shawver) served as the editor, weaving together contributions into a single transcript. You can click here to see the transcript. Again, all of these contributors are licensed therapists, psychologists, counselors, social workers and so forth, working together to find ways to de-escalate a serious conflict and resolve it.
Here is what has happened so far: Elaine has made her complaint that Elmer seemed hostile. Elmer has tried to de-escalating the potential conflict, but he also disclosed that he was feeling frustrated by Elaine's lack of sexual interest. Elaine made some excuses (check the click here to read more) and Elmer offered to give her a full body massage without engaging her in anything explicitly erotic. Elaine agreed and that body massage took place, ending, however, with Elaine falling asleep. (Remember, this is all imaginary, fiction.)
The next day, Elmer went on a work related trip. After a day of work, alone in his hotel room, he logged online to surf the web. What he found was an online therapy site. He had never done anything like this before, but he decided to try online therapy.
First, he complained to the online therapist about his situation with his wife. The therapist asked question and made a few comments. However, the therapy dialogue is still in process. The part of the session that has already taken place can be read if click here .
Watch for the next part of the transcript next month.
So, you didn't get to go to the HGI-Taos
Unfortunately, I couldn't
Traditionally therapists learn how to do therapy from a mentor who shows them the right way, or else from a book that defines one way to do therapy. This is a modern approach to teaching therapy in that it relies on an expert who presents method as a metanarrative. It suggests that there is one right way, and the student must choose one way or the other. Postmodernism looks for alternative ways of learning, ways that do not rely on the model of experts. Certainly some people may be more skilled than others, but this does not mean that they must present themselves as models of perfection. Each person can learn in an modality that allows them to have some ability to think creatively.
I believe the imaginary therapy that we did here with Jack and Jill opened up a more postmodern type of learning environment for therapists. We could pick up what we liked and could incorporate that in our own evolving techniques without our having to mimic the experts. I hope that I can collaborate with others here to expand the model that was developed.
On reflecting on the experience with Jack and Jill, however, I decided that we needed to deconstruct the practice of our constructing imaginary characters independently. I believe the practice of taking full responsibility for a character, even temporarily, helps to construct our modernist egos, mine included, so that we are personally credited or censured for the quality of the imaginary therapy process. In my view, this is part of what is wrong with the modernist approach to education. People can learn without such ego involvement in the training process, and I believe the environment for learning, the questioning and study of the process, is much enhanced without such personal ego involvement.
If we are to escape the modernist ego that takes each action as largely
a cause for censure or praise, we need to find ways to deconstruct
self. Don't fall into the trap of thinking such a deconstruction
means destroying the self. It means finding ways to soften the boundaries
of self temporarily. Many postmodern authors give us
clues how to do this. I am particularly fond of McNamee
and Gergen's approach
characters were being constructed in the future I would like us to have
a less modernist picture of the individual
Thirty-two prior issues of this newsletter, Postmodern Therapies NEWS (also called PMTH NEWS), are now available. You can reach a listing of all prior issues, together with the names of the articles in those issues, by clicking here.
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