Tag Archives: Barthes

In what sense?

"In what sense" has got to be one of the most basic philosophical questions.  It aims, at the very least, to get clear about what we're talking about.  Because, as it turns out, words and concepts and such have different senses.  Justice, for instance, seems to mean different things.  And it would be important to avoid obvious equivocations.  So, for instance, if I am talking about a normative notion of justice, and you come back at me with empirical observations about the criminal justice system, I will be confused.  This seems to be a really straightforward point.  But alas.  Here's Stanley Fish, The New York Times' idea of an intellectual:

I don’t think that’s the way it happens or could happen. Let’s say (to give a humble example from literary studies) that there is a dispute about the authorship of a poem. A party to the dispute might perform comparative analyses of the writings of rival candidates, examine letters and personal libraries, research the records of printers and publishers, look at the history of reception, etc. Everyone who engages in the dispute will do his or her work in relation to well-established notions of what counts as evidence for authorship and accepted criteria for determining whether or not the evidence marshaled is persuasive.

But suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? Suppose you believe that the so-called author is not the source of the words to which he signs his name, but is instead merely a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates? (“Writing,” says Barthes, “is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”)

I am not affirming this view, which has religious (“not me, but my master in me”) and secular (it is the age or zeitgeist that speaks) versions. I am just observing that there are many who hold it, and that for those who do the evidence provided by printers’ records or letters or library holdings will not be evidence at all; for they do not believe in the existence of the entity — the conclusively identified individual author — it aspires to be evidence of. If no one wrote the poem in the sense assumed by the effort to fix authorship, that effort is without a point and the adducing of evidence in the absence of something to be proved will seem quixotic and even perverse.

The example might seem to be to the side of the (supposed) tension between faith and reason, but it is, I believe, generalizable. Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions – there are authors or there aren’t — that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

Holy Crap.  The "valorization" of property has an empirical component ("your property is valorized at less than it was valorized at before") and a normative component ("your property ought to be valorized at more than it was before") and a conceptual component (your property is valorizable), among other components.  The question for the literary studies people is whether some person x wrote some poem y.  This is an empirically verifiable fact–just ask Foucault's estate.  The question for Foucault, I take it, is whether such knowledge will tell us anything about anything (well, in particular, about the "meaning" of the poem.  They're different questions which Stanley Fish has hopelessly confused.

And he has confused these two different sorts of claim in order further to confuse the difference between the methods of faith and the methods of science.  They're not, to reorient the analogy where it should (!) be, talking about the same thing.  And to make this all a tomayto-tomahto question of evidence just ignores one pretty basic philosophical question.