Friday, July 27, 2012

Slayage 5: Whedon as Undead Author

Jonathan Gray, a personal favorite of mine for his writing on LOST and on anti-fandom, gave the keynote speech to open up Saturday's session. He provided a classic description of why textual studies killed the author and why the WSA was right to dig him up when it came to Joss Whedon, Undead Author. It turns out that Gray has some interesting things to say about why Joss Whedon matters.

Roland Barthes, famously, killed the author so that the reader could be liberated to better understand the text. He wasn't alone, of course. There's the criticism of the intentional fallacy, in which readers make the mistake that the intention of the creator is the only correct interpretation of the work. (There's many examples of how this isn't true. Alfred Hitchcock frequently lied about his own work. Stephen King was so deep in his substance dependency at the time of Cujo that he has no memory of writing it. DW Griffith famously toured with Birth of a Nation declaring that it was an anti-war film, not a racist epic; he was wrong, lying, or too much a part of a certain kind of Southern gentility to see it. Novelists regularly change their minds about the meaning of their work over the years.) The tyranny of the author makes reading an exercise in psychology and literary biography, at best, or a slave to the author's interpretation at worst.

People like Adorno and Horkheimer have argued that the author should be killed because all too often auteurism is window dressing for industrialized crap. The idea that the unconscious of the author is irrelevant to the making of meaning only serves to amuse psychoanalytic critics.

My approach is strongly influenced by Umberto Eco and Stuart Hall. Eco, in writing about the rights of texts and interpreters of texts, provided an apt summary of the feedback loop that overly focusing on the author's intent obscures:

“Since the intention of the text is basically to produce a model reader able to make conjectures about it, the initiative of the model reader consists in figuring out a model author that is not the empirical one and that, in the end, coincides with the intention of the text. Thus, more than a parameter to use in order to validate the interpretation, the text is an object that the interpretation builds up in the course of the circular effort of validating itself on the basis of what it makes up as its result.” (Collini, 64)

Actual authors write a text for an ideal reader, using the text to move actual readers closer to that ideal through craft and pleasure. They can never write for each individual reader, however, because they can never meet that many or hold that many people in mind. Even when authors meet fans at conventions, via fanmail, lurking online, they can never write for the entirety of their audience, which is international and millions-large. So the reader to an author is always imagined.

Actual readers use the text to construct an idea of the author, as Whedonesque, Hitchcockian, etc. Few people meet authors, and, when they do, they discover that authors are less than their work, if it's any good. To fans, there is no Joss Whedon; there is only their Joss Whedon.

Now, to understand how authors craft the message, let's use LOST, where the issue of authorial intent is pretty famously important. There, the author draws on the cultural bank of culture (Sawyer is all that is man, no, Sayid is all that is man), industrial norms (of Hollywood, of publishing, of TV land, etc.), the medium (TV images play on a different screen, where the colors, fidelity, and lighting work differently), art history (LOST draws on The Prisoner, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Survivor; the pilot does things that only blockbuster films did), genre (the Robinsonade, sci-fi, etc.), the author (JJ Abrams' Felicity and Alias both had time travel plot lines, so it that work is relevant here. Try it with Star Trek?).

The audience interprets the author's message through the filters provided by those same factors we called the bank: culture, industrial norms, the medium's traits, art history's inspiration, genre's influence, and the creator's track record as a predictor of future messages. 

Let's complicate that by introducing the notion of the serial. In serial narratives, actual authors (the person or persons creating the text to be shared) create additional texts informed by their imagined model of the audience. Actual audiences (the persons with whom the empirical authors’ work is shared) then change their imagined model of the author in light of the new evidence provided by the evolving serial text.

The result, for Eco, is not a direct communication between actual authors and actual viewers. It is an indirect dialogue between actual authors and their imagined models of their text’s interpreters on the one hand and between actual audiences and their imagined models of the authors implied by the text on the other.

This conversation can be repetitive, requiring little alteration in either’s model of the other. Aaron Spelling’s Charmed serves as a useful example of the repetitive author-text-audience paradigm, in which dozens of episodes seem to have been inspired by the costume changes that they would require.

Or, an actual author may create an innovative serial work that challenges actual critical readers of it to live up to the actual author’s especially demanding model of their audience. Those actual critical readers, potentially, could then challenge that actual author to live up to their model of an especially innovative author. That's especially true as audiences connect and collectively become much smarter through their access to each other's expertise, research, and insights through fan boards and wikis. The standards of what intelligent television have gone way up since the 1960s, because "none of us is as smart as all of us," as the saying goes.

Serial narratives that are consistently innovative are created out of an indirect dialogue between authors and audiences in which each encourages the other to strive to embody an ever-shifting ideal.

Got it?

Now let's make this more complex and more real still... The problem is that there multiple authors with different understandings of what the dominant, hegemonic meaning of the text is. Let's use LOST again. David Fury thought the "real meaning" of LOST was in the world-building, the numbers and the long-term arc plan. He left the series in a huff after season 1, having written two classic episodes of the series, for 24. The network suits believe that every fantastic event has to have a scientific explanation, even though Abrams believed that the odd was what would make this Robinsade last. Lindelof and Cuse think it's in the character drama, if we can even believe them. Power determines what the dominant meaning of the text is intended to be.

Stuart Hall observes that audiences are authors too. Their interpretation shades the meaning of the program for themselves (dominant, negotiated, subversive codes) and for others when they discuss it or make new messages out of it in pamphlets, fanfic, filk and fanvids. Other examples would be how racial minorities become accustomed to cross-racial identification in mainstream works, while women often find the scream queen and the sex object unsatisfying for their own narrative needs and look elsewhere too. We read against the grain of the text because we read it from our own particular subject position, emotional state, narrative desires, etc.

The audience is a source of the material that the authors draw on to make stories in the first place (we call it culture). Life provides the cultural bank that authors make withdrawals from in their role originating, retransmitting, and evolving the message.

Moreover, authors are audiences too. As narratives get longer and more complex, authors need to reread past seasons, through the filter of audience feedback, to write future seasons. Joss Whedon had to ask Jane Espenson whether they intended to have Willow become a lesbian back with "Doppelgangland". He forgot that he killed Warren in season six when he helmed the Season Eight comics. They also need to employ continuity experts to keep a "book" of the prior narrative decisions. Indeed, this continuity expert is almost never smarter than the internet, as any perusal of Memory Alpha's critique of the forehead ridges moving around willy-nilly on Klingons or Lostpedia's lists of the prop department errors when it comes to time travel continuity and publication dates for the books on shelves.

Even better, texts are authors too. Casablanca is one of many films where the text was written day by day during the shoot, responding to what worked. Abrams likened the process of creating television to driving in the fog: you know where you're going, you can kinda see where you are, but connecting the two points is where the artistry and improvisation comes in. (This is where Michael Emerson's move from mere Other to mastermind comes in. Or you can note that James Marsters acted his way out of an early death for Spike.) The goal of many writers is to create characters with the complexity necessary for them to start speaking to you. Internal coherence often leads stories to unexpected places too. We call these various ways that the text writes itself "the Muse." And we fail to follow it at our own peril.

Even paratexts influence how we interpret the text and thus generate meaning. Spoiler-phobia indicates their power. But it's also in advertising too: the ad campaign for Prometheus is vastly better than the film itself. Of course, I can't know that for sure, because I approached Prometheus expected it to be as uncanny, action-filled, and terrifying as its ads and was bitterly disappointed to find that it was different from it.

Finally, of course, the text sets the limits of valid interpretation of it by its own authors and its audiences. Buffy is about is about many things, but the redemptive power of peanut butter is not one of them. (LOST, on the other hand...) So when Lindelof and Cuse claim that the characters don't care about the numbers, any fair reading of the text would conclude that Hurley cares quite a bit about them. They were wrong in their interpretation of the text, reading it the way they wanted it to be, not the way it was. 


Authors create texts but are also audiences reading that serial text and responding to the interpretations authored by the audience

Audiences read texts, but are also authors of interpretations and reinterpretations of the text. They build the "author" out of their experience of the text, authoring him or her.

Texts are authors too.

So why have we dug up Joss Whedon and made him an Undead Author?

Well, he's one of the good ones, according to Gray. One reason we killed the author is that he was greedy for credit and tyrannical in his rule over the text. But Joss Whedon gives a lot of credit to the staff of Mutant Enemy and gives them opportunities to produce and direct (Jane Espenson is a classic example of this, as is Drew Goddard). Gray notes that Whedon listened to audiences, using the writing of Oz in season two as one example; I would cite his use of fan fiction forms like Doppelgangland, Superstar, and shout-outs to the online fandom with Andrew. Do we want to kill good authors who listen, he asks? Why should feminist authors make Barthes murderous?

And, of course, just because the author's intent has been abused in the past is no reason not to use it wisely now. While we can never entirely trust the author's intent, they are valuable and knowledgeable interpreters of their own work. Surely it's informative that one possible way of reading Cabin in the Woods is as a "hate letter" to torture porn, in Whedon and Goddard's words?

The author is one way of dealing with the Horkheimer and Adorno culture industries critique: there has to be an option other than crap and stuff you mistakenly think isn't crap. And speaking of the cultural industries, one can hardly approach Joss Whedon's work understanding him as the sole important creator of meaning, as the Powers That Be at Fox radically influenced both Firefly and Dollhouse. Barthes doesn't seem to acknowledge how frequently the author is a victim in his quest to show us how frequently he victimizes us.

And, of course, the author serves an important role, as Nick Fury, subtly pushing the actors to become authors in their own right. They run interference with the industry (mysterious shadowy forces that they are). Auteurs in industrialized media production have to be catalysts as much as individual creators. 

Any study of Joss Whedon through the prism of auteur theory has to ask: maybe there aren't enough authors in our analysis. Look at how different Season 8 was without the actors, composers, cinematographers, etc. Maybe killing the author should be replaced by elevating other workers to auteur status.

So, Gray ended his lecture as I'll end this too-long blog post: With a series of questions to ponder.

  • Why now? 
  • How does the text of these series and films change with Joss added to it?
  • What do the stakeholders want with him? The press? The fans? The audience? The critics?
  • What are the fights about Joss about and who profits from them?

Next time, we'll get to Bella and Buffy, I promise...


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