Resurrecting Barthes’ Dead Authors

I want to write this week about the very interesting piece we were assigned by Tressie McMillan Cottom, “More Scale, More Question: Observations from Sociology.” There’s a lot to digest here and I understand the scope of this article is about sociology’s sway towards quantifiable research and how that parallels what DH is driving in the humanities. However, I found myself writing my largest annotation yet in this class when I encountered the quote about a TV show I’m well aware of but have never seen:

For example, is a character on Grey’s Anatomy “black” because I interpret him as black, or because the show’s writers write the character as black, or because the actor playing the character identifies as black?

Tressie McMillan Cottom, “More Scale, More Questions: Observations from Sociology”

This reminds me of a discussion I had probably 15 years ago during my undergraduate studies as an English student. A professor asked the class for their favorite female characters across the literary canon. After some minutes of discussion, the professor — very ready for what names were brought up — asked us why so many of these characters were written by men and whether that is problematic. Is Caddy Compson of The Sound and the Fury truly a great female character or is she the male ideal of a great female character? As a college kid trying to sound smart for reading a cool book the summer before, I had brought up Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49 because I thought she was a fantastic heroine — quirky, funny, descriptively beautiful, and driven to get to the bottom of a giant, strange, and highly interesting national mail conspiracy. However, was she really a great female heroine or was she a male author’s idea of what other males might find as a great female character? In some ways, I may have had a crush on this fictional character — as she more closely aligned with what I was seeking in a college girlfriend than what a true heroine in a real society might look like (i.e., she’s no Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, etc). This concept has stuck with me since then, but the quote above really helped put it in new context when thinking about corporate “writer rooms” determining the characterization of a diverse cast of characters.

This concept reminds me of the famous concept of “Death of the Author” as presented by Roland Barthes — which posits the question as to whether the intent of the author matters. In Barthes opinion, as I recall, it does not. A text should be separated from the author’s intent to allow the reader to analyze the cultural phenomena that shaped the text. However, in the Grey’s Anatomy quote above, it is certainly pertinent to look at who the author is when analyzing the makeup of their characters. Can a white author write a great black character? That’s definitely a valid debate; and it’s hard to justify that it’s possible without knowing a lot about what research went into creating the character. And to complement the article in question, that research would hopefully entail a lot qualitative interviews with people similar to the character being shaped. Thus, come anywhere near a conclusion to that answer, I think we need to dig deeper into who the author is and what biases shaped the character in question. This, in some sense, digs up the many authors Barthes killed to see what biases and stereotypes they lived their lives by to see how “great” their characters truly are.