Hold Your Fire, Coz the Author is Already Dead


I’ve often used Borges’s wonderful little piece, “Borges and I” in classes, as a quick way into the debate on the death of the author.

If you’ve not read it, it’s worth taking a moment to look it over. Tackle Foucault’s essay, or Barthes’s for that matter, on much the same topic too, if you’re ambitious. It’s worth your while, I think.

For just who is that first person pronoun pointing toward, the one used at the end of the previous sentence? Is it me, the one writing this but who is long gone by the time you load this webpage? Or maybe it’s you, the reader, the only one present in that future situation I’m now only imagining as I write this — when, reading these lines on your computer screen, you conjure into existence this thing called an author, out of your own thin air?

All this came to mind twice in the last few days — first when I met someone in person for the first time, at our main US conference, just over a week ago, to learn that this scholar reported having written parts of his book with what he described as my voice in the back of his mind, warning him about making certain sorts of claims as he wrote. The other was when someone online alerted me that a new article in one of our field’s main journals contains a parenthetical, after the author makes a claim, that reads as follows: “(hold your fire, McCutcheon!),…”. The article doesn’t actually cite any of my work but I seem to be among the people against whom she argues.

Now, on one level this is a tremendous compliment: to learn that one’s work (and not oneself, right?), whether others agree with it or not, has been so routinized, by some of your peers, that it forms, what shall we call it?, the backdrop against which they make claims of their own. In such situations, one authorial voice, to whatever extent, animates someone else’s — but both voices are theirs, no? For I’ve never met either of these people and I have no idea what of mine they have or have not read.

Or how much their understanding of it accords with my own.

So I’m left to ask: who is this McCutcheon who perches on others’ shoulders and whispers in their ears?

This strikes me as a rather good example of Borges’s point: for we would be mistaken if we thought that I was speaking to that one writer or that I was being asked to hold off on any critique of the other; no, it was each of their ideas of me, formed from whatever degree of exposure they’ve had to things I’ve written — but things which they’ve read and understood as they saw fit. (Who knows if each of their versions agree with each other, in fact.)

The disjunction is a curious thing — between what Barthes termed the scriptor (if not a bot, then someone surely typed these letters into a keyboard, no?) and the author (who is presumed to have meant or intended something in all that typing, whose work comprises a corpus, etc.). In fact, hearing the one story, and then reading the other line, leaves me wondering if that earlier notion of animism was more correct than we might realize; for there seem to be multiple McCutcheons out there, wandering the earth, sticking their noses into other people’s business, while I sit here in Tuscaloosa teaching and attending meetings, or just flipping channels and walking my dog — oblivious of all the troubles my doubles are getting into.

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