Friday, 6 November 2009

"Is that really true or is it just something theory dreamt up": The Death of The Author and Student Media Analysis

One of the key problems of teaching media studies is that to many students are naive and inflexible realists and intentionalists. That is to say that their first question of any media text is 'what did the author mean?'. This is understandable but irritating. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism tend to be some of the last things that students encounter because the more basic issues, concepts and theories have to be in place before they can start grappling with the denser theoretical issues.

One of the most important realisations necessary for media (& cultural) studies is that authors and their intentions are secondary concerns (or more likely utterly unimportant). There are several reasons for this but they are best (first) summed up by Roland Barthes (Foucault's analysis of the problem would be the next step).

For Barthes (and thus for us) the problem of the author emerges out of the great insights of Structuralism. Levi-Struass, Propp, Todorov, and Barthes himself (amongst many others) showed that there were deep underlying structures in human societies and cultures that were universal; they appeared every where there were humans. These universal structures were also present in narratives; plot elements, character types, discourses, etc, are distributed across and are to be found in all societies & cultures. It follows from this that 'authors' are everywhere only re-figuring and/or re-arranging pre-existing elements rather than creating 'new' things ex nihilo.

More importantly still it follows that the theoretical insights we apply - from semiotics, structuralism, etc, - are more important than authorial intention because they concern themselves with context and reception and 'authors' do not.


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