Emily Eakin’s obituary for Jacques Derrida in the New York Times observes that his death marked the moment at which “the era of big theory came quietly to a close” (2004, D12). This equivalence between the death of Derrida and the death of his ideas prompts Jane Gallop’s reconsideration of authorship in her new book, The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time (23). For Gallop, the ideas laid out by Roland Barthes in “The Death of the Author” (1968) and by Michel Foucault in “What Is an Author?” (1969) continue to offer new insights despite the obituary’s proclamation of the death of theory. Gallop insists, however, on a new reading of authorship in the twenty-first century: the strangeness of the relation between literal and theoretical death lies at the heart of her study, as a function of authors’ attempts to mourn their own deaths.
Much of the recent critical work on the death of the author addresses the evolution of the role of theory in literary studies over the last fifteen years, and it is into this camp that Gallop falls. However, while critics like Loren Glass and Seán Burke in different ways elided the literal nature of rupture, Gallop is interested in such endings, particularly as the death, return, or persistence of the author affects the temporal modes of a text. She addresses how anxieties about literal death and the death of influence become tools for generating meaning.
For Gallop, the question of the death of the author becomes one of connecting physical death with obsolescence and the perception of anachronism. She does this in a series of close readings of short passages from works by major theoretical figures (Barthes, Derrida, Sedgwick, and Spivak). As she writes, “the title of this book, The Deaths of the Author, is meant to refer to both the literary theoretical concept and the real life drama, to make it impossible to think either separately, to insist we think them together” (5). Doing so involves a reconsideration of the temporality of writing: the act of writing is inscribed, she suggests, with the author’s awareness of his or her own death as an approaching event that will affect not only bodily existence but theoretical influence. Writing becomes caught up with the change in status from living to dead (7). The erotics of the body in this moment of passage have a great deal to do with the ethics of memorialization, in which the anticipation of rereading is a kind of anticipation of physical return, of touch that is desired. The futurity of desire (which in this case is a desire for the persistence of the present moment) as something deferred or unsatisfied is connected, Gallop argues, with the dailiness of reading, with the return of the author in a particular moment of the reader’s life. [End Page 179]
Motivating the desire for the present moment is an anxiety about failures of anticipation and about past assumptions that are recorded in print even after they have been proven wrong. The recording of these failures both sustains the moment of the past assumption and threatens to elide the author’s influence, so that writing risks the death of influence in the recording of such failures. Gallop suggests that “the printed word, necessarily anachronistic, is where the writer confronts her status as a dead author” (114). The argument here is less about reading the death of the author than it is about what it means to commit to writing at a time when authorial death has become a critical commonplace, something that remains in the back of the writer’s mind at all times.
For Gallop, the death of the author is a moment not just of anticipation but of surprise, and what she finds most fascinating is the attempt on the part of the writer to make his or her text surprising as well, situating the act of writing in time with the anticipation of death, while...