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Is the Author Still Dead?

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The New Critics’ notion that poems are organically unified wholes was attacked by new critical ideologies because (1) it privileged the author as source, and (2) it bounded off the work from its socio-historical outside. With no notion of the whole, the new methods were able to cherry-pick whatever they wanted from the works they interpreted. Analyzing the logical flaws in these methods, in particular that of Foucault, Staten argues for a new critical discipline of “close reading” that treats literary works as functional, not “organic” wholes, made not by some genius author but by impersonal, socio-historically evolved technai—as for example the works of “Homer,” which were created by a long tradition of interaction among poets, performers, and audiences.

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  1. 1.

    Brooks, Well-Wrought Urn, 18–19.

  2. 2.

    Ransom, “Poetry,” 36.

  3. 3.

    Ransom did not mean by “logical structure” the kind of logical structure that Brooks rejected in “The Heresy of Paraphrase.” Brooks used the term casually to refer to the purported “content” of a poem that could be paraphrased in a logical proposition; but Ransom meant the whole evolving thought, with its logical connections, that led from beginning to end of a poem.

  4. 4.

    Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn, 28, 194.

  5. 5.

    Centrifugal reading received another major boost from Stephen Booth’s great commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets; an interesting case, because Booth actually stressed both logical structure and imagistic texture, and the former’s priority of structure over texture. But it was texture, predictably, that caught on.

  6. 6.

    McGann, Beauty of Inflections, 193–201; de Man, Resistance to Theory, 47–49. I have criticized McGann’s reading in close detail in Staten, “How Not to Historicize.”

  7. 7.

    See Greenblatt, “Introduction.”

  8. 8.

    At this point it’s necessary to re-state an obvious point that is continually ignored by critics of formalism: that no formalist critic has ever treated a text as, in Greenblatt’s words, “an iconic object whose meaning is perfectly contained within its own formal structure” (Greenblatt, “Introduction,” 4). Not even Wimsatt, who popularized the notion of the verbal icon, read poems this way; yet this characterization of formalism is practically universal. In fact, such a treatment is impossible in principle. Even a glance at Brooks’s readings shows that he is constantly bringing in various kinds of contextual knowledge (such as the sexual meaning of “die” in the Renaissance). Of course, Brooks was not a rigorous formalist, but even the Russian Formalists, who were very rigorous indeed, according to Boris Eichenbaum, quickly realized that individual works had to be treated in light of the history of works from which they follow.

  9. 9.

    There are two versions of “What is an Author?”: (a) the original 1969 version, published in the Bulletin de la Société Fraincaise de philosophie and subsequently in Littoral, no. 9 (1983): 3–23 (cited in text parenthetically as Littoral; available online at and (b) a 1970 version delivered at SUNY Buffalo (available online at There are significant differences between the two versions at the beginning and the end. The 1970 version omits the opening paragraphs of the 1969 address, and its final paragraphs have been substantially revised. I have not noticed any differences in the body of the argument. I cite the translation of the 1969 text by Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (cited in text parenthetically as Bouchard), and that of the 1970 text by Josué Harari (cited in text parenthetically as Harari). When neither Bouchard nor Harari is cited, translations are mine.

  10. 10.

    In original: “court, en quelque sort, a la limite des textes, qu’il les decoupe, qu’il en suit les arretes” (Littoral, 12).

  11. 11.

    See, for example, Booth, Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

  12. 12.

    Interestingly, in the 1969 version Foucault listed “Where does [the text] come from?” among the “new questions” he was proposing (Bouchard, 138); but in the 1970 revision this question is replaced by “How can it be used?” (Harari, 160).

  13. 13.

    He apparently had doubts on this in 1970, when he replaced this sentence in the 1969 version, “We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author” (Bouchard, 138), with a denial that he is calling for “a form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author.” It would be “pure romanticism,” he now says, to think that fiction could operate “in an absolutely pure state,” without need of a “constraining figure” of some sort (Harari, 159). In his usual way, however, he remains vague regarding what sort of figure this would be, or even what sort of constraint he has in mind.

  14. 14.

    I have attempted to treat art-making in terms of distributed agency in Staten, Techne Theory.

  15. 15.

    Lukács. Ontology of Social Being, 38–39.

  16. 16.

    Barthes, “Death of the Author,” 145.

  17. 17.

    Barthes, 146.

  18. 18.

    Barthes, 143.

  19. 19.

    Barthes, 144.

  20. 20.

    Barthes, 144.

  21. 21.

    Barthes, 147.

  22. 22.

    Nagy, Best of the Achaeans, 79. This book is, by the way, the most impressive work of literary scholarship I have ever read.


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Staten, H. (2021). Is the Author Still Dead?. In: Sridhar, A., Hosseini, M.A., Attridge, D. (eds) The Work of Reading. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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