The Rebirth of the Author

Roland Barthes's famous prediction about the death of the author has come to pass, but not because the author is nowhere, but rather because she is everywhere.

Indeed, the author has grown and multiplied in direct proportion to academic dismissals and denunciations of her presence; the more roundly and confidently the author has been dismissed as a myth, a construction, an act of bad faith, the more strongly she has emerged. The recent surge in personal websites and blogs -- rather than diluting the author concept -- has helped to create a tyrannical authorship presence, where the elevation of the personal and private to the public level has only compounded the cult of the author. We are all authors today. We are all auteurs. We are all writers. We are all filmmakers. And we are all theorists, because what we make theorizes itself.

Perhaps it was all a mistake, a terrible act of misreading. Rather than a serious deconstruction of the author concept, perhaps Barthes's essay "The Death of the Author" was ironic, a close relative of Pop Art. After all, while "The Death of the Author" achieved its widest circulation in the U.S. in its 1977 version in Image - Music - Text, it is perhaps lesser known that the essay had appeared previously in English in the Fall-Winter 1967 issue of the avant-garde magazine Aspen: "each issue came in a customized box filled with booklets, phonograph recordings, posters, postcards" and even a Super-8 film.[1] Contributors included Andy Warhol, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Hans Richter, Susan Sontag, and others. Barthes's essay -- translated by Richard Howard -- appeared in a double issue (the Minimalism issue) which explored "conceptual art, minimalist art, and postmodern critical theory."[2] 1967-68: a serious time shaken by violence and protest, yes, but also a time of great experimentation and humor and absurdity. The pleasure of death; jouissance that has been lost as career academics used Barthes's essay, stripping it out of its playful dimensions, its at once urgent and resigned manifesto-like quality.

The problem, now, is easy to see. Whereas Barthes (and others including Horkheimer and Adorno, Andrew Sarris, Marshall McLuhan, Robert Ray, Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, Lester Bangs, Dick Hebdige, Antonin Artaud, Richard Hell) offered theories in language that was playful, slippery, aphoristic, and often poetic, the academics who subsequently applied their theories often did so in prose that was deadly dry, pedantic, serious, stripped of the slippages and humor that made readers want to believe. While scores of academics over the years have gloomfully attacked Andrew Sarris's Americanized auteur theory (first published in Film Culture in 1962 as "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962"), they did so by turning their backs on the lively, self-deprecating qualities of his prose, as evident in lines like "What is a bad director, but a director who has made many bad films?" [3] or in lines where he directly addresses the reader, such as "Dare I come out and say what I think it to be is an élan of the soul?" [4] Such moments of excess style stand in stark contrast to the deadly serious, rationalist rhetoric that has infected so much writing in the humanities as the aesthetic dimensions of academic writing -- especially in North America -- have been ignored for decades as a surplus with no value. If, as Craig Saper has noted, "[I]n the academy, auteurism was considered passé at best" [5] in the wake of poststructuralism, then in erasing the very personality of their own writing style film scholars and theorists demoted themselves to a level of invisibility and even obsolescence. Generations of graduate students trained to strip all traces of bourgeois personality from their prose awake now to find that they have no audience for their ideas, because their ideas have no expressive confidence.

And yet, there is a gradual return to the pleasures of the text, not as something to be studied merely, but performed. In his preface to a collection of essays by Malcom Le Grice, Sean Cubitt demonstrates in his opening paragraph an approach to writing that recognizes that beauty and power in prose need not be something to hide:

Have we already forgotten? Why we got into this in the first place? How it was that the moving lights, the washes of colour, first brought us to this world and thanked us, with their generous presentation of themselves, for being there with them? Has the memory faded so radically of those first inklings of beauty, scattering in all its ungraspable ephemerality across our skins as much as our eyes, beams traversing and dragging into motion muscle and bowel, as music drags us to dance? From a politics of renunciation through an aesthetic of minimalism to a phenomenology of ecstasy, Le Grice's films return us to a primal encounter with the physical power of our first perceptions. [6]

Does Cubitt's prose here teeter dangerously close to nostalgia? Perhaps, but this is a risk that pays off; his preface is a sort of high-speed relay between content and the rhetorical framing of that content. Like Dj Spooky -- whose writing is aphoristic and unexpected, as in lines like "We have machines to repeat history for us" [7] and "Sampling is like sending a fax to yourself from the sonic debris of a possible future" [8] -- Cubitt recognizes that humanities-based academic prose is better served by avoiding the deadening safety and boredom of so much writing in the social sciences today.

More than anyone else, it is Jean Baudrillard who has pointed the way out. "As for ideas, everyone has them," he has written. "What counts is the poetic singularity of the analysis. That alone can justify writing, not the wretched critical objectivity of ideas. There will never be any resolving the contradictoriness of ideas, except in the energy and felicity of language." [9] Like the author, the auteur will not die. In fact, rather than discrediting the auteur theory by demonstrating that, in fact, movies are made by many people, DVDs and other forms of cinematic deconstruction only further strengthen the auteur theory, as everyday viewers see and hear from previously invisible film workers (editors, production designers, special effects designers, cinematographers, screenplay writers) who are themselves auteurs. Thus, a writer like Charlie Kaufman nearly displaces directors Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry as the auteur behind Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), while cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle looms as the "author" of such films as The Celebration (1998), 28 Days Later (2002), and Dogville (2003). Whereas in the past Orson Welles's cinematographer on Citizen Kane (1941) -- Gregg Toland -- would have been relatively obscure except to film scholars and historians, industry insiders, and die-hard film buffs, today Dod Mantle is known not only to people in these groups, but also to more casual film watchers, who, because of mediums like the Internet Movie Database and other websites, DVDs, and the proliferation of cinema studies classes, are deeply literate about cinema. Rather than extinguish once and for all the auteur, the rise and hegemony of digital technologies and culture have only reinforced the author concept, and have in fact helped to create new forms of authorship that are being acknowledged in the broader public. A recent article in the New York Times -- "The Powers Behind the Home-Video Throne" -- begins: "When Steven Spielberg directs a movie, he gets final cut. But the last word is more likely to come from Laurent Bouzereau. Mr. Bouzereau, 43, is barely known to the world at large. But in the clannish, status-obsessed corridors of Hollywood, he has a growing reputation as Mr. Spielberg's personal DVD producer, one of perhaps a dozen players who have mastered the young art of turning the video edition of a film into a sui generis event." [10] As what was thought of not too long ago as mere bonus, extra, or supplementary material begins to equal and in fact take precedence over the so-called "feature presentation" of DVDs, a new auteur develops as someone whose narrative contributions threaten to overtake the pallid, homogeneous films now buried in hours of special features. [11]

In the face of the digital code, there is an effort to reassert the viability of hermeneutics, of interpretation. In "Metadata's Impact on 'Artistic Intent,'" in American Cinematographer, Debra Kaufman explores the growing concern among cinematographers that in our digital, paperless era, details and records about how and why they arrive at the decisions they make about how to shoot scenes are being lost. Kaufman quotes Jim Sullivan, chief technology officer of Kodak Entertainment Imaging Services, as saying that "When you disconnect the image from a known medium like film and go into the digital world, you end up with integers in a computer that mean nothing. . . .They're just storage locations. They don't carry any interpretation with them about how [the footage] was captured or is meant to be displayed." [12] When Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg published the Dogma 95 "Vow of Chastity" in 1995, it was only appropriate that they should sign their names -- as authors -- to the document, which had as one its rules, "The director must not be credited." [13] And yet, denunciations of authorship have always tended to strengthen the cult and authority of those doing the denouncing. In fact, it was Barthes who called the author into being and whose denunciations helped create the conditions for the dictatorship of the author in the digital era.

In any case, despite the good intentions of post-humanist academics for whom the Author was symptomatic of a capitalist symptom to be cured, now we witness the viral spread of the author concept into the very structures of academic expression. Today, anonymity is a sign of guilt, or failure. As academics embrace the web -- and blogs and vlogs specifically -- as legitimate sites of knowledge creation and dissemination, then resistance to the author function withers. For wasn't one of the engines that drove the cult of the death of the author the secret desire by academics to be authors themselves? Not authors who wrote obscure articles that were inevitably consigned to the dark stacks of enormous libraries, but authors who tested their ideas in the public sphere, authors whose ideas mattered beyond the narrow handful of specialists who would pass predictable judgment on their work? Authors whose ideas mattered enough to be praised or damned? Confronted with the specter of the public sphere, academics are learning how to write again. The crisis of the scholarly publishing subsidy system portends an enormous shift wherein the discredited author concept is resurrected. Rather than the utopian dream of collective, collaborative authorship that many theorists first saw in hypertext and blogs, we see instead the proliferation of auteurs vying for public space in the public sphere.

Stripped of aura, of mystery, of distance, we are known today as mapped elements in a database. Surveilled, recorded, and marked, we are becoming the function of our components -- our decoded genes, the number of hits (hourly, daily, monthly) on our websites, our on-line purchasing histories. It is perhaps ironic that it is in the very forms of authorship that post-humanist critics strove to erase that we find our best chance of theorizing -- and resisting -- our own disappearance. Donna Haraway's ironic prediction -- "By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs" [14] -- has assumed the shape of everyday social reality. Is it any surprise that for every technological advancement that renders a more perfect, flawless reality -- whether it be classical Hollywood's invisible style, or new film stocks and lenses that offer a cleaner and sharper image, or the hyperrealism of high definition, or the clean, hiss-less ring of the digital code -- is it any surprise that these are always accompanied by countermeasures that preserve and introduce errors, mistakes, degradations of the pristine image? Whether it be Italian neorealism, or cinema verité, or experimental films by the likes of Stan Brakhage, or the rough, "amateur" look of the Dogma 95 films, or even the blurred, miniature movies of web cinema -- all these serve as an antidote to the very forms of perfection that we seek. The author is stronger than ever today because she reminds us of an identity memorable for its utter failures. And to be reminded of our failures is to be reminded that we are human.

Perhaps it was easy to dismiss the Author when there was so little at stake. But now, as we approach the time when it will be possible to lift the veil on our very own codes, we find that it is precisely in human authorship -- with its mistakes, its errors, its slippages, its ambiguities, its reversals and contradictions, its irrationalities, its surprises -- where we can reassert ourselves against the very destruction that once, because it was myth, we so eagerly desired.


[1] "Aspen: The multimedia magazine." p. 2.

[2] "Aspen: The multimedia magazine." p. 2.

[3] Andrew Sarris. "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962," in Film Culture Reader, P. Adams Sitney, ed. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000. p. 132.

[4] Andrew Sarris. "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962," in Film Culture Reader, P. Adams Sitney, ed. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000. p. 133.

[5] Craig Saper, "Arftificial Auteurism and the Political Economy of the Allen Smithee Case," in Directed by Allen Smithee, Jeremy Braddock and Stephen Hock, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. p. 33.

[6] Sean Cubitt, "Preface: The Colour of Time," in Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, by Malcom Le Grice. London: British Film Institute, 2001. p. vii.

[7] Paul D. Miller (aka Dj Spooky), Rhythm Science. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. p. 9.

[8] Paul D. Miller (aka Dj Spooky), Rhythm Science. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. p. 9.

[9] Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. Trans. Chris Turner. London and New York: Verso, 1996. p. 103. Originally published in French by Editions Galilée, 1995.

[10] Christian Moerk, "The Powers Behind the Home-Video Throne," The New York Times, 3 April 2005. p. 1.

[11] For a good discussion of the emergence of DVD "supplementary-ness," see Graeme Harper, "DVD and the New Cinema of Complexity," in New Punk Cinema, Nicholas Rombes, ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. pp. 89-101.

[12] Debra Kaufman, "Metadata's Impact on 'Artistic Intent,'" in American Cinematographer, December 2003. p. 1.

[13] For the Dogma 95 manifesto and "Vow of Chastity," see P.O.V. no. 10, December 2000, at

[14]Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. p. 150.

Nicholas Rombes is an associate professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he co-founded the Electronic Critique program. He is the author of Ramones (Continuum 2005), the editor of New Punk Cinema (Edinburgh University Press 2005) and is at work on the book Cinema in the Digital Age, forthcoming from Wallflower Press in 2007.