Why did the hipster cross the road?
–To get to the other side…BEFORE the chicken!!!
Plan for class
- “Death of the Author”
- Barthes’s “Novels and Children”
- Knoblauch Ch. 4 and 5
- Myths…time permitting
Barthes’ “Death of An Author”
I have two translations of an important part of Barthes’s text. The first is from the copy, translated by Richard Howard, I put on Canvas, and the other is from Barthes’s Music-Image-Text (1977), translated by Stephen Heath:
- 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. (p. 4, Howard translation)
- We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” (p. 146, Heath translation)
What else can we say about this essay? How about “Death of a Martian”?
- p. 2: “The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions.”
- p. 4: The author’s “hand, detached from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin—or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, that is, the very thing which ceaselessly questions any origin.”
- p. 4: “Quite the contrary, the modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text; he is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing, he is in no way the subject of which his book is the predicate; there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now.”
- p. 5: “Once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.”
- To impose upon a text…
- p. 5: “this is because the true locus of writing is reading.”
- Remember, there is no distinction (for us) between reading and interpreting. Even stop signs are interpreted…
- p. 6: “we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.”
- p. 6: “The reader has never been the concern of classical criticism; for it, there is no other man in literature but the one who writes.”
I assume Barthes believes men and women and trans and non-binary individuals can be authors.
Barthes on Rhetoric
Previously, I assigned two books from Barthes but have settled on “Death of an Author” and the essay “Novels and Children,” which comes from the book Mythologies, a compilation of essays he wrote and published in 1957 (1972 is when the English translation came out).
What can Barthes teach us about rhetoric? He has an example on p. 136, and on p. 150, he identifies what he means by “rhetoric“:
- “a set of fixed, regulated, insistent figures, according to which the varied forms of the mythical signifier arrange themselves….It is through their rhetoric that bourgeois myths outline the general prospect of this pseudo-physis which defines the dream of the contemporary bourgeois world.”
Some other words to define:
- physis: nature
From Greek: the material we can sense in the cosmos.
- anti-physis: what we can’t sense (but we think we do)
- pseudo-physis: ideologically real
A few terms to define from the preface:
- bourgeois: characteristic of the middle class.
- petit-bourgeois: belonging to the lower middle class.
- semioclasm: the destruction of signs (that, specifically, aren’t useful).
- sublimate: (via psychoanalysis) to modify an impulse (e.g., libido) into a more culturally appropriate action or activity.
Key quotations from the preface:
- p. 9: First theoretical framework is “an ideological critique bearing on the language of so-called mass-culture.”
- Second theoretical framework is “a first attempt to analyse semiologically the mechanics of this language.”
- p. 11: Barthes’s motivation for Mythologies is “a feeling of impatience at the sight of the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up reality which…is undoubtedly determined by history.”
- p. 11: “myth is a language”
- p. 12: a paraphrase of a paraphrase: things repeated are culturally significant.
- p. 12: “I cannot countenance [definition #3] the traditional belief which postulates a natural dichotomy between the objectivity of the scientist and the subjectivity of the writer, as if the former were endowed with a ‘freedom’ and the latter with a ‘vocation’ equally suitable for spiriting away or sublimating the actual limitations of their situation. What I claim is to live to the full contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth.“
“Novels and Children”
Those of you in the New Media class last spring probably remember this discussion…My 2021 SEACS presentation has some additional details.
Barthes identifies gender reproduction in Elle magazine’s decision to photograph female novelists alongside their children. He argues this is what patriarchy (unconsciously…although many would easily argue this is overt sexism) expects: Women can work, but they have to fulfill their “natural” role as mothers.
Nancy Pelosi, first Madame Speaker of the House
Take a look at these images of Nancy Pelosi and the fact that she had been surrounded by children when she took over the position of Speaker of the house (1/4/2007):
- Gavel Raised High (Getty Images)
- Another image (Getty Images)
- On House floor with grandchildren (Chronicle)
- Holding baby on House floor (Cook)***
- Search results page (Getty Images)
What might Barthes say about the choice of children surrounding her?
From where does female power come?
Notice the background when John Boehner takes over as Speaker of the House, 2011 (there used to be more readily available online). Then, Paul Ryan takes the gavel, 2015.
***Yes, there is a picture of Boehner holding a baby when he takes over as Speaker, and there are pictures of children in the audience when Ryan takes over. But to not recognize the OVERWHELMING presence of children during Pelosi’s first time taking over as Speaker of the House is willfully ignoring the gendered message that was just as obvious to Barthes in the 1950s.
- Of course, times have changed, which is why during the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton avoided being associated with children…
Knoblauch’s Chapter 4: “Objectivist Rhetoric”
As with his other chapters, Knoblauch isn’t trying to get you to adopt a particular rhetorical lens for how best to argue the meaning of meaning. Although I think he wouldn’t find magical or ontological rhetoric accurate guides to truth, we should consider his descriptions as the ways meaning is conveyed. Objectivist rhetoric, which he claims is related to scientific methods and understanding, as the name implies, is objective; however, objectivity may have to be qualified…
- p. 79: “Objectivist rhetoric is comprised of empirical inquiry, driven by a cycle of hypothesis and experiment, which leads to defensible assertions linked to previous, similarly tested assertions in a temporally evolving pattern of data-driven argument.”
- p. 78: “Scientific knowledge is not only cumulative but also, in its emphasis on self-critique, inevitably collective and public, an ever-ongoing task.”
- p. 82: “Objectivist rhetoric has become the dominant discursive theory of modern times, not only in scientific inquiry but in its applied derivatives, like medicine and engineering.”
- p. 86: “[John] Locke has effectively conceded that what we know of the world, indeed all we know, is our own language-based conceptions.”
- p. 87: Locke “seek[s] to distinguish between the more careful, hence more objectively reliable, language of science and the imprecise language of everyday use.”
- Consider the description of gold Knoblauch recounts from Locke on p. 86:
- “the quiddity or specific difference….of the substance named gold, Locke describes [as] ‘a body yellow, of a certain weight malleable, fusible, and fixed,’ all properties accessible to observation.”
- Now, consider the chemist’s definition: Gold (Au) is atomic number 79, group-11, period-6, block-d of the Periodic Table of Elements.
- Gold, the most noble of noble metals, is a primordial nuclide having 79 protons in the nucleus of every atom of the element; it’s relative atomic mass is 196.967 for its key isotope 197Au.
- p. 90: “Science is driven not by information, Popper insists, but by problems, questions, and points of view that prompt the search for information.”
- p. 91: “science cannot make direct, affirmative statements about the phenomena of the physical world.”
- Science or scientific claims can be falsified, meaning there must be a way to make a statement not true.
- Another way to think about this is burden of proof. For those making claims that aren’t scientifically falsifiable, the burden of proof lies with those making the claim, and they can’t shift that claim to others.
- Imagine this: I fly around in a Magic carpet, but you can’t see it because I make it invisible. You don’t believe me? Prove I don’t have this magic carpet. It is nonsense to believe that I’m right about the magic carpet just because you can’t see it.
- p. 94: “The emergence of objectivity as a scientific value has come only and necessarily at the price of the emergence of subjectivity, leaving skepticism, not faith, as the dominant motif of scientific exploration.”
- p. 97: “the objective presupposes the subjective so that we can, as a result, achieve no absolutely reliable knowledge on the basis of empirical method.”
- Objectivist rhetoric’s “central claim to authority is its commitment to ‘the facts,’ yet it can never escape,…the human derivation of those facts.”
Knoblauch ends the chapter explaining how a qualitative inquiry, which might seem contradictory to objectivist rhetoric, fits into the definition. Balenky et al’s Women’s Ways of Knowing (1986) privileges narrative and interpretations, “tolerat[ing] ambiguity and uncertainty as features of healthy intellectual relativity” (p. 100). By interviewing and interpreting the stories women provide, the researchers “conclusions represent plausible readings” (p. 102).
- We should consider intersubjectivity, which is more community-valued ways of knowing. A group sharing a perspective, while not objective, isn’t strictly subjective. Within the group’s ways of knowing, intersubjective perspectives are shared.
- Consider the ways in which academic research is filtered, promoted, and dismissed by discourse communities. If a community (and the hegemons of that community–for instance, journal editors) values particular stories over others, its gatekeepers will privilege interpretations or even specific subjects of inquiry over others.
- If your research doesn’t “fit” with their preferred ways of making meaning, it won’t be valued and, therefore, published.
- A critique of this would be that non-universal, non-empirical methods of gate keeping don’t have to have objective and/or consistent explanations of what is valid or invalid.
- Even if one story can’t falsify another story, one can choose to dismiss an interpretation by claiming “I consider this interpretation to be correct…” However, that interpretation and your interpretation aren’t mutually exclusive, so they can both be plausible, both be valid.
This is a game academics play all the time, especially in the humanities, and it’s even worse in fields that feign the scientific method, like technical communication and (some areas of) composition, where statistical rigor isn’t necessary until it’s necessary. For instance, surveying entire populations of FYC students in a single semester (or year) at one school to aggregate results for “assessment” is more respected than focusing on a single class or even several students’ work to relay interpretations of their stories. Neither are statistically viable for making generalized statements about the overall population of students, but aggregate data conveys the ethos of statistical rigor regardless of it’s ability to make assumptions beyond it’s sample size. The smaller class-based research that looks closely at students’ work can still provide lessons for readers through interpretation. Both approaches are valid research, but, intersubjective bias may prefer one over the other.
Knoblauch’s Chapter 5: “Expressivist Rhetoric”
Knoblauch traces expressivist rhetoric from sophistry to post-Enlightenment understanding of the individual subject (re)constructing their story. As with all these rhetorical discussions of the meaning of meaning, we don’t completely subscribe to one version; instead, we derive meaning (or make assumptions) situationally based on our ordering of experience and privileging of certain ideas. As an intellectual exercise, it’s important to create boundaries for describing the different types of ways meaning is made.
- p. 104: “sophistic rhetoric…conveys the view that discursive knowledge is subjective in origin,…meanings derive from autonomous acts of mind.”
- p. 105: not concerned with “objective reality independent of the perceiving subject,…but rather what…[it] means to the perceiving subject.”
- p. 105-106: we identify and argue the preferable through experience.
- p. 106: “Protagoras’s argument…lays the foundation for the commerce of ordinary life and demonstrates that public discourse, the ceaseless negotiation of conventional rather than absolute realities, is what makes ordinary life possible.
- p. 106: “The virtues of shame and justice are learned, are experiential, not abstract realities.”
- “The teaching of virtue is inseparable from the teaching of discourse.”
- School as virtue scaffolding.
- p. 107: “Persuasion does not depend on the timeless rational entailments of dialectic but on a speaker’s ability to identify and enunciate, in the social moment, the local and personalized appeals most likely to influence discussion in favor of the speaker’s agenda.”
- p. 108: “maturity requires an appreciation of intellectual diversity…forging pragmatic agreement out of the welter of individual opinions and prejudices.”
- Consider “opinions” as interpretations of reality and “prejudices” as tastes and convictions.
- p. 109: Michel de Montaigne “identif[ies] the mind as the source of meaningfulness.”
- p. 110: From George Berkley, “with respect to ‘things’ in themselves…their existence is entirely dependent on cognition, leaving only the mind as ultimately real.”
- p. 111: From Coleridge, the subject’s shaping “power imposes order on the materials of sensory awareness, modifying and synthesizing according to its own judgements of relevance, relationship, priority, and value.”
- “…acknowledging the actuality of what lies outside the mind while also establishing the priority of esemplastic governance principles of mind, in terms of which materiality is rendered humanly comprehensible.”
- p. 112: “primary imagination…organizes sensory information by its own principles in order to constitute, as a coherent world of meanings, our ordinary, everyday experience, including the familiar physical world…as well as the world of human life and institutions.”
- p. 113: “Ordinary language offers us the world of the everyday, while conscious, reflective discourse, when composed by superior minds, offers us new knowledge through figurative re-perception.”
- This distinction also holds for common, popular definitions of words like “rhetoric” and “deconstruction.”
- Perhaps we should turn to that page and read the quote in context and compare to Derrida.
- p. 115: From Langer, “Symbolization is a biological urge.”
- As an aside, notice Knoblauch’s use of the word “privilege” as a verb where he explains the difference between Coleridge and Langer: “she does not privilege the poetic” (italics mine).
- p. 117: From Langer, “Out of signs and symbols we weave our tissue of reality.”
- How about our tissue of lies?
- p, 117: “Symbolizing does not arise out of pragmatic necessity but from the continuing desire to construct an intelligible world responsive to human requirements.“
- p. 119: “Sophistic and romantic ideologies are, by contrast, intrinsically iconoclastic, relativizing truth and thereby rendering the social as a patchwork of competing claims for sovereignty while exalting values of personal expression, freedom of thought, individual autonomy, and the authenticity of personal voice.”
- p. 121: From Rorty, “The subject isn’t the site of language…but rather, no less than the object, a construction of language. It isn’t mind that governs language, but language that effects the composing of mind–a noun, not a place–with a meaning that merely allows us to imagine a place” (emphasis mine).
- “Effects” as a verb is important to consider from a typical use like “effect change,” which means causing something to happen as opposed to “affect,” which means making a difference. Subtle but important.
- p. 121: “essentialism, foundationalism, and universalism…are always mischievous by-products of metaphysical thinking.”
- p. 123: “Ironists are aware of themselves creating themselves and are, to that extent, liberated from the illusion that, as fixed identities, they have neither written their stories nor have power to ‘redescribe’ them.”
- Neither their identities nor their stories are fixed
- p. 124: Rorty believes “once we abandon the idea that words mirror transcendent reality, we can also escape the ‘idea of finding a single context for all human lives,” the belief in an ur-biography to which we are all condemned to aspire but without hope of success.
- Time permitting, we’ll discuss the idea of an ur-text or ideal text with which teachers construct to grade student papers.
- pp.126-128: The writer-hero and strong, revolutionary poets are the heroes of liberal society.
- Can we still have a writer-hero after the death of the Author?
- p. 129: “The hallmark of the expressivist story of the meaning of meaning…has been the privileging of the subject” (emphasis mine).
Expressivism in Composition Pedagogy
Although I don’t know how accurate my following assumption will be, I don’t believe Knoblauch chose “expressivist rhetoric” without some connection to expressivism in composition that dominated the 1970s and 1980s FYC classroom. In response to the formulaic, rule-driven approach to Current-Traditional Rhetoric that was common in FYC classrooms post-WWII, expressivists (Peter Elbow and Donald Murray are the major figures) advocated writing as a way to convey one’s ideas, and this act was necessary for intellectual growth.
Expressivist pedagogy privileged the student-writer’s self expression over the pressures to conform to Standard Edited American English and rhetorical strategies favored by other disciplines.
More on Myths
This will be time permitting. As with most of our topics, it’s non-controversial and perfect for discussing at any family gathering.
- Ideology: prevailing cultural/institutional attitudes, beliefs, norms, attributes, practices, and myths that are said to drive a society.
- Hegemony: the ways or results of a dominant group’s (the hegemon) influence over other groups in a society or region. The dominant group dictates, consciously or unconsciously, how society must be structured and how other groups must “buy into” the structure.
- myth: 2. a. “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially: one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society” (Merriam-Webster online)
- Leslie Fielder’s definition–“Myth is a narrative structure of two basic areas of unconscious experience which, of course, are related….In other words, myth is a form of racial [national, social, regional, etc.] history–a narrative distillation of the wishes and fears both of ourselves and the human race” (Dick, p. 188).
- [myths] tap into our collective memory,” our unconscious.
- “Myths are ultimate truths about life death, fate and nature, gods and humans” (Dick, p. 189).
As members of a culture, you share and reproduce dominant ideology. That doesn’t mean you “buy into” EVERYTHING. We are herd animals and our institutions wouldn’t exist without social cohesion. The goal of a class like this is to get you to recognize the ways you privilege knowledge. We all have biases, but college-educated citizens in a (pseudo-)democracy should be able to think critically and recognize how and why they believe what they believe instead of assuming they believe what they believe because it’s absolute truth. Scrutinize your assumptions.
Pause on that definition of myth for a moment. What makes what is essentially a lie (or maybe a partial truth…distorted to fit an agenda) a “popular belief or tradition”? Consider the following myths about American culture:
- The American Dream
- “First in Freedom…” 1775
- “All men are created equal…” 1776
- “Land of the free…” 1812
- Paul Bailey, one white male’s perspective on slavery…2016
Referring to slavery: “We need to get over this, folks. All of us do,” he said. “We need to get over it. It’s done, it’s over, it was 200 years ago. We made mistakes. We’ve done stupid things.”
Now, we’ll turn to another myth that’s closer to home (North Carolina) but historical. Jesse Helms was a US Senator from North Carolina from 1973-2003; he retired in 2003 after his fifth term ended. He had a rather peculiar reign in Washington where he fought tooth and nail against racial equality. Helms never won huge margins of victory, but he always won his Senate races. And he was a master of playing on racial tensions.
The above video plays into the fears white people–again, not all white people–had about Affirmative Action, specifically, and racial equality, generally. Besides the rhetorical move of “racial quotas” vs. “affirmative action,” Helms allows white people to see themselves as victims, which allows racial myths, such as “African Americans are stealing our jobs,” to further be implanted.
The above ad came out in 1990, so you might wonder why still talk about it? Isn’t this a post-race America? Well, this myth is alive today. I heard a version of it from a woman who claimed her father’s job (as a white man he felt it was his) was given to a minority. Here’s the story…
Next week, we have Derrida’s (refusal to take) Positions. It’s an easy read, so enjoy!
Dick, Bernard F. Anatomy of Film. (5th ed.). Boston: Bedford, 2005.
Barthes, Roland. “Death of the Author.” Music-Image-Text, trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill & Wang, 1977: 142-148.