The Death of the Author
Historians and Citation
Why should journalists, or anyone else, cite historians explicitly? “Many historians,” Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz writes in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “have become familiar with the feeling of anonymity as their work gains attention from the news media.” The historians at the center of the article – Danielle McGuire, Heather Ann Thompson, and James Downs – all evince a concern about the theft of their labor, about the hours, weeks, months and years spent in lonely archives poring over long forgotten evidence. For instance, Downs notes the way in which various journalists, in the wake of the 2016 Pulse nightclub mass murder in Orlando, recounted the “untold” story of a 1973 arson attack at a gay nightclub in New Orleans. The problem was that this was not an untold story – Downs had recounted it in his 2016 book Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, which was made possible by extensive, time-consuming, patient archival research. All historians like McGuire, Thompson and Downs want is simple citation; recognition of their work. It’s not all that much to ask. Historians do in fact spend long, lonely hours researching and writing books and articles that we expect to be little-read, only to find, years later, an article uncovering the very story we devoted so many years to telling.
But maybe, in the larger politics of knowledge and at a moment in which the crumbling edifice of liberalism has produced the monstrous forms of neoliberalism and resurgent fascism, it is too much. Perhaps the question is not how best to recognize the labor of the historian. Instead, we might ask how to constitute knowledge that tends toward a critique of the system under which we live, knowledge that forsakes the individual in favor of collective emancipation. Perhaps we should be done with individual authorship, and with the proprietary claim to knowledge that so often accompanies it. We should, then, attend to the ethics of giving voice, which in the act of recovery always risk simply consolidating the proprietary determinants of the author at the expense of the ultimately impossible act of recovery.
Not so long ago, the author – the seemingly indispensable figure, the one being so-vigorously defended by these historians – was under threat of erasure. In his famous and influential (but perhaps not influential enough?) essay “What is an Author?” the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault wrote, “The coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences.” The author and individualization are clearly linked through a kind of nominalism – a body of knowledge reduced to the individual author.
Foucault was not alone. Another quite famous iteration of this critique came from Roland Barthes who, in “Death of the Author,” wrote that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, oblique, composite space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body of writing.” Barthes also identifies the emergence of the author with that of the individual, and is, if possible, even more caustic about it than Foucault. “It is thus logical,” Barthes goes on to say, “that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.” We might add here that it is also logical that history, that continued bastion of positivism and publicity, is the discipline making this claim for the inviolability of the author. And yet, Barthes suggests that this figure has been under erasure, in favor of language itself. “Having buried the Author, the modern scriptor… traces a field without origin – or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself.” Given historians’ concerns with finding a reading public – more than any other humanities or social science discipline, history imagines that there is a general reading public “out there” just waiting to find well written works of history – it is Barthes closing line that is, perhaps, the most damning: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”
The feminist theorist and poet Denise Riley follows from this emphasis on discourse and language over and against the Author to suggest that all writing is a form of plagiarism. “Your status as originator is vacuous; you are a ‘writer’,” Riley writes, “only insofar as you consent to struggle with what has already been carried to you from the underbelly of words and sounds and as you skirt the mined field of involuntary plagiarism, where nothing is ever for the first time.” Again, language is there before us. For historians, that language that is there before us is often associated with the archive in all its unruly messiness. It is the archive that makes us – our pasts and our futures; our work – possible at all. We are all plagiarists of this field. So what makes journalists different? Especially when they constitute a genre within a discourse, a genre that makes and repeats knowledge, but not on the terms of the discipline of history? What, we might ask, makes history originary? And what are the ethics and politics of such a claim?
If this offers a brief genealogy of a critique of the author, it leaves us, nonetheless, with a question: Why should we want to get rid of the author? Why should we oppose claims of originality? Why, that is, resist the seductive lure of the author championed by the historians in the Chronicle essay, who simply desire recognition; as Downs puts it, “this is just encouraging journalists to say, ‘Wait a minute. Where did this information come from? How do we know this history?’” The simple answer is that the author is bound up with authority, and while a simple refrain of “fuck authority” might not be enough, I think we should at least be wary of the authorial imperative, of the ownership it implies. Our proprietary imaginary is our problem, and even in left and radical imaginaries, proprietary sensibilities always end up rearing their heads somewhere at some time. Indeed, in other domains historians have been quite aware of the problems associated with the proprietary sensibilities of the liberal individual, so why does the author seem to escape this critique?
Scholars such as C.B MacPherson and Amy Dru Stanley, among others, have excavated this logic whereby the individual coheres around the theory and practice of possession – possession of property, of persons, of knowledge. What, we might ask, do historians want to possess? To what end do they want to possess it? The history of the liberal individual is, of course, also coincident with a system of racial hierarchy, which manifests itself in the contours of liberalism. Addressed in various manners, one of the most useful and influential formulations is the title of George Lipsitz’s 1998 book, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. Is the authorial position advocated by these historians bound up in the possessive investment in whiteness? Does it matter that this claim is being made in reference to scholarship about predominantly marginalized subjects? In the Chronicle essay, Danielle McGuire, herself an historian of African American women’s history and the Civil Rights movement, suggests that this anxiety marks her scholarship. “‘You do what you can to hold onto it, the parts that are yours to hold onto,’ she said. ‘And then there’s also this tension, too, you know. I write black women’s history. Do I have a right to even claim any of it as a white woman?’” This is the essential point – possessive investment, a hallmark of both the author and the individual, inevitably structures this approach to history.
It is from within the pincers of this dilemma that I wonder what we are to do with this current insistence on recognition and citation. Because on the one hand, under the regime of (neo)liberalism and intellectual property, the only thing to do is claim ownership. But on the other hand ownership, authorial or otherwise, may well be the problem and not the solution. What does it mean to own the past, even if one has expended massive amounts of labor excavating, preserving and analyzing it? How does a perceived ownership of this past cut against the aims of various works of scholarship?
These questions have long been bound up with the ethics of the archive itself – what does it mean to speak for someone else, or to presume that one could? Despite evincing awareness of precisely such concerns, McGuire has explicitly framed her own work in this way, tweeting of historians that “We find the lost; make visible the disappeared and we resurrect the dead.” However, writing on marginalized subjects, speaking for those supposedly without a voice, is a fraught and, in the end, impossible project. The moment we presume to speak for the voiceless we do not, it seems to me, resurrect the dead, but rather consolidate the desire for power of the academic voice. Which is to say, that moment of speaking-for is precisely the moment we enact a colonizing imagination – a sense that one inhabits the consciousness of a subject of whom we simply have some textual remain. If the anxiety among historians is that journalists speak for them, where is our anxiety about speaking for the archival traces that cannot simply be recovered? As Marisa Fuentes puts it in Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive: “Our responsibility to these vulnerable historical subjects is to acknowledge and actively resist the perpetuation of their subjugation and commodification in our own discourse and historical practices.”
There is, however, another way of thinking about knowledge and citation. This concern that journalists recognize the work of historians through some practice of citation operates under the guise of shoring up the individual author – it follows from the anxiety borne of the unrecognized author. We might, however, take citation for what it is – not simply a recognition of other work, but an essential undoing of the historian/author. When we turn to the footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies that mark most academic works, we should see not only an apparatus for the recognition of others, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the laying bare of the fantasy of the individual author. In those citations authors becomes what they are – a loose assemblage of other people’s works, reorganized and reassembled to make new meanings. The author, then, is not some heroic individual recovering and resurrecting lost people, but rather a point through which a collective body of knowledge gets filtered into something both new and old. Citation should not recognize us; it should, instead, undo us.
This critical tradition, which called the author function into question, is one that the contemporary humanities insistently try to forget. It would not be a stretch to say that historians have long been trying to avoid or ignore this critical tradition so as to ward off its critiques. Perhaps this unrecognized resistance continues because this critical tradition (potentially) offers us a world without authors, without intellectual property claims, and quite possibly, even without individuals. The author, the individual, and intellectual property are, in various complicated ways, bound up with the regimes of (neo)liberal capitalism and white supremacy. This is not difficult to see.
The imperative here is neither simply to accept journalistic practices – which have myriad, well-documented problems – nor to embrace authorial retrenchment. Rather we must imagine knowledge otherwise, beyond authorship, ownership, or citation. And we should be aware of the conditions of the contemporary moment. The catastrophe that is the contemporary neoliberal university makes precarity the condition of life for most in the academy and thus the material conditions of authorship each day become more and more of an impossible fantasy. And yet, at the same moment, as scholars of color and queer scholars are pressing insistently on the hegemonic whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality of the university, to call for an end to the author and citational recognition might seem counterintuitive. But that proprietary notion of the individual author has long been bound up with race, gender, sexuality, and class. What might be possible if we viewed knowledge as the collective cut into the body of liberal individualism? In other words, let’s leave this world behind for an unimagined future, even if we are not and cannot be recognized there. If our aim is not just documenting the past, but also a political and ethical act tied to undoing the lineaments of the present through an engagement with the past’s irreducible difference, then it is time to continue to cite but to be done with the author.
Brian Connolly is Associate Professor of History at University of South Florida. He is the author of Domestic Intimacies: Incest and the Liberal Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (Penn, 2014). He is also an editor of History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History.