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The Death of an Author

By ITS Education Asia

Death of an author

French literary theorist Roland Barthes is perhaps best known for his 1968 essay, The Death of the Author. In this essay, he argued that since it is impossible for a reader to understand an author’s intentions, there can be no single correct interpretation of the meaning of a particular text. Instead, texts are open to a multiplicity of interpretations, which inevitably incorporate the reader’s own cultural experiences, knowledge, and prejudices. In the Internet age, a new phenomenon has emerged: the reader who not only produces his or her own interpretation of a text, but who consciously rejects the right of the author to reinterpret his or her own work. There are also more extreme Internet forums where readers seem to long for the death of the author!

This Internet phenomenon is most pronounced in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. World-building is a key part of these types of fiction: readers (or viewers, in the case of TV programmes and films) appear to be attracted to fully realised worlds or universes which allow them temporary respite from the harsh realities of their own world. Over time, these individuals make the transition from viewer/reader to ‘fan’. ‘Fandom’ brings with it a sense of ownership and entitlement that creates a very different dynamic between the author and his audience. An example of this is the present state of revolt among Star Wars fans.

Star Wars director George Lucas is one of the most successful film directors of all time. He established two immensely lucrative ‘franchises’ – Star Wars and Indiana Jones – the first of which provided the template for both family-friendly action blockbusters and movie merchandising. The original trilogies in each of these franchises are both fondly remembered by those who grew up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, with Star Wars generating a zeal equaled only by the fans of the other major SF franchise, Star Trek. And right now, the Star Wars zealots are in a state of revolt.

Why? Well, George Lucas has an unfortunate habit of tampering with his legacy. Most of the first wave of Star Wars fans was hugely disappointed by the prequel trilogy that was released in the late 90s and early 2000s. Many of these fans refuse to acknowledge the prequel trilogy, preferring instead to treat the original trilogy as a standalone series. Unfortunately for them, Lucas sees the six films as forming a continuous whole. He has therefore taken the opportunity to revisit the original trilogy and amend the films to fit his updated vision.

This process began in 1997, with the release of the special edition of the original trilogy on VHS. It continued with the DVD release in 2004, and has developed further with the recent Blu-ray release. Unlike other directors who have made the original theatrical cuts available alongside newer director’s cuts (for example, Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner), Lucas has denied fans the opportunity to buy re-mastered copies of the originals. Fans wanting to watch high definition versions have no choice but to buy versions of the films that incorporate new CGI sequences, sound, scenes, and even dialogue.

Many Star Wars fans feel that the films belong to them and that Lucas has no right to force his changes upon them. In fact, they see it as vandalism of their property. In reflection of this, fans have produced their own digital restorations of the theatrical versions and are distributing them via the Internet in order to rescue their ‘world’ from the ‘depredations of the evil Emperor Lucas.’ They argue that the energy, money and time that they have spent as fans means that Lucas has a responsibility to give them what they want, rather than to do as he pleases. The author’s legacy is not his, but theirs. He should have the decency to ‘die’ (metaphorically) and leave it to them. After all, how annoyed would we be with Shakespeare if he kept rewriting Hamlet?

Is this the antithesis – the opposite – of Roland Barthes’ argument in in The Death of the Author? Or have author’s simply neglected the fact that they do not ‘own’ a text’s multiplicity of interpretations, and that its fans have an equal right to claim ownership of it , even to the extent of contradicting the author?

Dulwich College Singapore

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

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