Friday, March 14, 2008

Roland Barthes, from Death of the Author

Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made up of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as hitherto was said, the author. The reader is the space on which all quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. Which is why it is derisory to condemn the new writing in the name of a humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader's rights. Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give language its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Klimt's Judith: Turning the Tables

This is Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Gustav Klimt. Art critics have accused Klimt of being merely decorative, but what I like about this image is that it subverts the patriarchal, voyeuristic gaze we often see in pre-Modern representational art, in presenting a Biblical woman, as direct and uncompromisingly bold as Manet's Olympia, challenging and seducing us coterminously. There is, in her gaze, a primordial power, and it's difficult to miss the fact that she's holding the head of Holofernes in both hands. Olympia is brash but unsophisticated; Judith is more multi-layered, and the one small breast revealed through her gossamer gown can come to seem like a radically sexualized equivalent of Mona Lisa's half-smile. You could also make a connection to Shakespeare's Dark Lady; though the position of the painter in relation to Judith is not clear. Judith refutes standard notions of female beauty; she is not voluptuous; yet the coolness of her expression exudes sensuality, knowledge, and power. In short, it would seem that in creating Judith, Klimt turned the tables on himself and his dominant and dominating masculinity; here, it is an empowered woman who rivets his gaze, and his objectification is tinged with awe rather than condescension or aggression. Among other things, an invitation to ekphrasis.

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