[(essay date 1999) In the following essay, Fokkema situates Flaubert’s Parrot and several other postmodernist works within the context of Roland Barthes’s essay “The Death of the Author” (1967).]
There are brief and complex descriptions of postmodernism in literature. A catch phrase to sum it all up might run as follows: the author is dead, character is dead, this is the end of the story. Obviously, a more cautious definition can be much longer and will, inevitably, contain objections, restrictions, and counterexamples. The first is offered by postmodernism’s detractors, the second by its advocates who do not see the end of story, but rather a shift toward a new paradigm of narrative. Is there, in that new paradigm, any room for those cherished, humanized, and humanist figures, authors and characters? For a while, in the 1970s, when the first attempts were made to define postmodernism, this seemed indeed impossible, as postmodernism was all about fragmentation, anti-representation, and the breakdown of narrative.1 Now, however, we cannot be so sure.
It is true that Roland Barthes’s proclamation of the death of the author became the war cry of postmodernism. However, arguing against the idea of the author as agent, as source of a text, is not an exclusively postmodern phenomenon at all. The idea is also close to Eliot’s poetics of impersonality, or the New Critics’ emphasis on the text itself as the source of meaning.2 Barthes’s major target in his famous essay, “The Death of the Author” (1968), was not really the author but a practice of reading that construes a single or unified meaning by means of the authority of the author, and that practice has indeed changed (at least in the universities) and moved beyond the point of no return.3 The act of reading, however, involves presuming an author a priori, even when this author is elusive, institutional, divine, or dehumanized, a text generator dressed up with all the postmodern trappings. As Linda Hutcheon argues, “[the] position of discursive authority still lives on, because it is encoded in the enunciative act itself.”4 Thus, what occurs in postmodernism is not the abolishment of the author but a relocation and reconsideration of his (its) function.
Instead of single and unique authorship, we appear to have an encoded subject position situated in discourse. With this substitution, however, the humanist predecessor cannot altogether be reasoned away; he sticks on as a residue that resists being swallowed up. The idea of the author as a mere discursive subject is rather deficient and lacks explanatory power. Authors of postmodern fiction will not disown their creations when summoned to accept a literary prize, and in criticism, too, the concept of a “personal” author lingers on. Is an author’s gender ever actually irrelevant to the gender critic? If the author is therefore at once personal and impersonal, both gendered and sexless, both scriptor and a system where various discursive and historical formations meet, then a theory of authorship threatens to collapse from...