Your perspective and the death of authority

Barthes - people would bootleg his 'banned' essays
Everyone has their own unique perspective. None of us can occupy the same space, with the same eyes, using the same brain, at the same time, ever. Power in society comes partly as a result of someone convincing you this is not the case and that their perspective is more valuable than yours. Their orders from their perspective, must be obeyed. A good leader hears alternative points of view but uses their own judgement to make the final call.

In English Literature there's no right or wrong answer when speaking about what a poem or a play means to you. It's all about your personal perspective and reaction to a work. People who went through the UK's "education system" in the 1980's, or later, will recognise this idea. Its origins lie in an essay called 'The Death of The Author' which, despite its influence now, was initially viewed as a very controversial piece. However, those who agreed with the premise, became almost evangelical and some used to hand out 'banned' photocopies of the essay on University campuses. The educational establishment's old guard likely saw it for what it was: a profound attack on the idea of authority.

"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. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture."

- Roland Barthes, The Death Of The Author

More than anything else Barthes pushes the idea that the final call regarding the meaning of a piece ultimately ends with its reader. As each reader is unique a text's meaning becomes multi-faceted and increases with each person it engages with. Books and fiction are set free by this truth but also are made distinct from "factual works" such as religious texts, news reports or legal documents. Barthes though does not add this proviso, it has been tacked on later by people who realise the full impact of this thought-bomb.

Although Barthes is speaking of fiction, something we generally say has been wholly invented, he also draws in the fact writers are clearly influenced by and 'borrow' ideas from others. To be original in fiction is to be the one who originates new things but even the best stand upon the shoulders of giants. It's impossible not to, we all use words others invented and ideas we don't claim to have thought up on our own. That some might frown at this speaks only to the fact that we've monetised the argument so inventing a fiction entitles you to something because it's "all your own work".

This debate is particularly vital in the online era, if you use an idea you found elsewhere are you "stealing" it or copying it or re-using it? Barthes' observations regarding the interplay of ideas once they're detached from their authors could easily be a description of the internet forum/twitter/facebook subculture. There quotes are fired off without anyone having read the original text and concepts are re-labelled and "borrowed" all the time.

That this forces ideas to speak for themselves is no bad thing, for too long people have taken pot shots at the reputation of those behind an argument rather than deal with the debate at hand. I disagreed with a good many of Thatcher's policies but fascination with her as a person meant those who opposed her ideas often lost by thinking the best way to tackle them was to insult her:

"I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left."

- Margret Thatcher

"The left" are still very much locked into this paradigm if the recent "Thatcher death parties" are anything to go by and, without question, it's still a prevalent "right wing" tactic. Show me a famous communist or socialist and it takes only google to find a piece from the papers telling you what a 'hypocrite' they are because they live in a big house/have rich parents etc.

The wider issue though is the fact that the words "Author" and "Authority" are linked for a reason, one obviously being the root of the other. When I was first told there was "no right or wrong" in English Literature I was thrilled, I thought it stripped teachers of their authority to tell me I'd failed. I was half right, there's still such a thing as a well constructed argument and without one you'll fare badly if you think Henry V is really about ice creams and stickle-brick.

Your unique perspective does not have to be at the cost of logic and clear thinking. Furthermore, the internet is what you make it, so you will be able to refine and articulate a personal point of view in a manner that was unthinkable when old media were your main source of news and information. Barthes' essay fits into this context, where the establishment's perspective is revealed for what it is: just another point of view. The important central truth revealed by the multiple perspectives avalilable online is that there is not in fact, just as in fiction, one single interpretation of any event or moment ever. So, as you watch the establishments of the world begin to crumble, understand what they have let from pandora's jar and remember this: the birth of the internet must be at the cost of the death of authority. 

Nick Margerrison

Don't just agree, RT!


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