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  • From Work to Work
  • Paisley Livingston

Is it legitimate to interpret and evaluate works in terms of their place within the writer’s Oeuvres complètes? Is the notion of the life-work, and of relations between works and the life-work to which they belong, theoretically uninteresting, or worse, unjustifiable? The publication of a beautiful, five-volume edition of Roland Barthes’s Oeuvres complètes is a good thing, but if we were to rely on this theorist’s meta-hermeneutical dicta alone, it would be hard to say why. Barthes and other advocates of impersonal notions of discourse and textuality tell us there is no good reason to “privilege” the boundary and internal structure of the individual writer’s corpus. Yet Barthes, like the many critics who have trumpeted the “death of the author” theme, continued to rely on the categories of author and life-work. 1 This discrepancy between theory and practice can be resolved in one of three ways: we can revise the theory to make it square with practice; we can keep the theory and try to make our critical practices conform to it; or we could replace both with some compatible pair of alternatives. 2 In what follows I argue for revising theory in light of practice, first by responding to some theoretical objections to the work/life-work topic, and then by providing examples of worthwhile lines of inquiry related to it.


Doubts about the validity of the work/life-work topic arise from various sources. One is epistemological: it may seem difficult or impossible to justify claims about life-works. Another motivation is political: an emphasis on the interpretation of individuals’ life-works can be seen as contributing to liberal individualism or capitalist [End Page 436] ideology. Or more moderately, one may think that a focus on an individual’s corpus can lead to a failure to recognize other, historically important texts and practices.

To respond to the epistemological objection first, we should note that worries about knowledge in general are a live issue in philosophy. If the skeptic’s challenges cannot be met, it could seem to follow that we can never know anything about an author’s life-work. But this does not look like a very good argument in hermeneutics, aesthetics, or literary theory, where one expects to find reasons for being skeptical specifically about work/life-work relations. Assuming that there is something we can know—or more pertinently, something we can know about the art of literature—why is it that we cannot know anything about life-works? Saying that we have to interpret life-works, and that interpretations are always already unreliable for this or that reason, is not a good answer to the latter question, not only because such an account of interpretation is anything but unassailable, but because the alleged grounds for uncertainty or doubt are still not specific to the problem of knowing life-works. Are there any such specific grounds? It is hard to prove in advance that attempts to appreciate or know relations within a life-work are necessarily thwarted, for such an argument overlooks mundane claims we regularly make and rely upon. What is more, such an argument would have to rest on some very strong assumptions, which is why we frequently see claims about the unknowable complexity of life-works accompanied incongruously by confident generalizations about even larger and more complex objects of study, such as major institutions, social systems, vast discursive formations, and historical epochs. If we cannot know the life-work of Samuel Beckett, how can we know anything about such monstrously big topics as the emergence and function of authorship in modern Europe? If we cannot know how Beckett constructed or created his works, how can we know anything about how scads of readers have constructed or interpreted them? 3

Shifting from epistemological to substantive objections, we encounter a prevalent motif of contemporary literary theory: individual agency is in some sense epiphenomenal, or is at least highly constrained by other factors, so it is a mistake to spend one’s time asking questions about what particular writers have done. Instead, we should try to understand...

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pp. 436-454
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