Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Authors Present and the Experience of the Past

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Authors Present and the Experience of the Past

Article excerpt

Since the so-called cultural turn in literary studies in the United States, the exploration of the literary field in the wake of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's work in France, and the growing impulse to contextualize literature by relating its texts to larger discourse networks, what could previously be treated as "literary" questions seem now to require framing in terms that are insistently and explicitly social, historical, economic, and political in nature. The question of the author is certainly one of these no longer purely literary questions. Treating it must thus involve developing ways to understand the mechanisms and practices that serve to institutionalize the literary through the mediation of other practices, fields, and forces.

Becoming an author in the eighteenth century certainly did require negotiating a complex set of factors that together determined the condition of authorship. Thanks to decades of fine-grained analyses, such as those of Robert Darnton, we possess detailed descriptions of the cultural arenas in France and Europe in which aspiring writers--and not a few devious hacks--sought recognition as successful authors. Yet the thicker these descriptions of a particular sphere become, whether they involve the "real" world of the printing industry, for example, or the more imaginary one of the republic of letters, the more the empirical mode seems destined ultimately to bypass, or worse to occult, the very object that provides access to and an understanding of that context, namely, the text. Examining the question of the author in eighteenth-century France is important, for the author's early modern emergence helps us understand better the development of literature as concept, practice, and institution, as well as its location in and contribution to a broader intellectual field. But if we return to the question of the author via an interpretive mode, the empirical-historical, that underreads or misreads the text, and thus that skirts the question of interpretation itself, we ultimately may be on unsteady ground when it comes to stating just what "becoming an author" could have meant.

To avoid this risk, we can approach authorship as involving a double mediation consisting of both history and discourse, the implication of one within the other, and the one's determination by the other. Thus phrasing the question of the author and authorship in literary and cultural-historical terms must also account for the textual practices through which authorship took discursive form. Conversely, a discursive understanding of texts in which the question of authorial subjectivity is posed cannot neglect the relation between subjectivity and history. To focus exclusively on either a historical perspective or a discursive one is surely to misapprehend important features of eighteenth-century authorship. More significant perhaps, such an exclusive focus avoids the thornier issue of whether the historical can ever be excluded from the discursive, and the discursive from the historical. To decouple historical understanding from discursive understanding is to risk a double misapprehension both of history and of discourse, a misprision that fails to account for the reciprocal work of these two forms of literary and cultural understanding, each of which aims to explain, respectively, the workings of history and of discourse. The question then becomes one of imagining a way to write a genealogical history of authorship that could account for this double mediation of history and of discourse. Here follows one hypothetical version of such a history.

The eighteenth century marks an important moment in the long history of authorship in France, a history determined by the complex interplay of social practices, cultural institutions, historical forces, and discursive forms. This history of authorship extends from the medieval auctor to--and likely beyond--the so-called death of the author popularized a half century ago by Roland Barthes and the "author function" formulated by Michel Foucault (partly in response to Barthes). …

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