Stories on the edge of familiarity

Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Author is Dead, Long Live the Author!

I’m taking a class on video games, and today we had a lecture (partly) about whether video games can be art. Apparently, there was a dude whose name I didn’t catch who said that video games can’t ever be considered art because they “lack authorial intent”. Class discussion looked at other things that we would consider art and how that statement doesn’t apply to them, and that whole idea of the death of the author came up.

In case you’ve never heard of the death of the author idea, the basic premise is this: the story, once made, becomes a thing autonomous of its author. The author cannot say anything definitive about it; meaning is made by the audience interaction with the story on its own terms.

Personally, I think that idea is absurd.

*ducks to avoid thrown objects* *gives a puzzled look to the airborne flowerpot*

How the holding of this idea affects the quality of one’s output isn’t something that I can speak on definitively (Tolkien, for example, thought this, and his works are unquestionably of the highest quality), but that’s not the point. I rather detest book bashing just because the writer has different ideas about art than I do, so I won’t participate in it.

What got me interested enough to actually speak up in class (for once) was the counter to “the author is dead”, and this random guy’s idea that art can only be called such if it serves the intent of the author/creator. He argued that video games do not allow the author to have enough control over the experiences of the players. The author cannot be a guide through a thought process, but instead the architect of a building that they hope the players will use the way they’re meant to. Therefore, they aren’t art.

I think that this idea is also absurd.

Both of these thoughts on the nature of art and meaning miss exactly the thing that the other fails to miss. In the case of “the author is dead”, what its proponents see clearly is how, say, the readers of a book often take from the story themes and lessons and ideas that the author never intended. The idea of art necessarily having authorial intent misses that fact, but what it has that “the author is dead” lacks is that authors do, in fact, put their intentions, thoughts, and ideas into their art. And readers/listeners/watchers/players do pick up on them.

But back to video games for a moment. The reason why this guy said that they couldn’t be art was because it was their interactivity that undermined the potency of authorial intent. Players can change the story, they can experience it in vastly different ways. They can do things that the author never intended. Now, he never actually played video games, so it would be very easy just to dismiss him entirely. The reason I do not do so is because, as I inferred earlier, his idea provides an excellent counterpoint to that of “the author is dead”, and also the mechanism that forms the crux of this debate.

Interactivity is what many tout to be the defining feature of video games, the thing that separates them from what is traditionally referred to as “art”. Unlike reading a book or watching a movie, in a video game, you have the ability to change things. Important things. Or, at the very least, it is your actions that move things forward, that affect the world, that influence how much and how little of the story you experience.

Is interactivity exclusive to video games? The entire genre of performance art would disagree. But, for the sake of argument, let’s get to another medium that’s firmly considered art: literature. Books. Novels. Written fiction. That stuff.

Does it have interactivity?

Are you, the reader, able make choices that affect your experience and understanding of the story, even if you aren’t able to change the story itself? Even if it’s the characters who are performing actions and you are merely learning about them?

Basically: are you involved in the creation and development of what you read?

The notion of “the author is dead” would say no, because you do not create the meaning. The meaning is already there in the book, for you to read and discover and extrapolate. At best, you can have your own perspective on what they book says. The notion of art needing “authorial intent” to be art would also say no, because it is the author who creates the meaning, not the reader.

Neuroscience would tell a different story. So would anyone who’s ever read a book and then watched the movie version and gotten upset because the movie didn’t do it the way they’d imagined it. When we read books, we live in the characters’ skins. We care about what they care about, we hate what they hate. Or we don’t, and feel conflicted about it, and so read on to understand. We imagine the appearance of the characters, the setting, the nature of their interactions. Text can only give so much information; we fill in the rest with glorious and rich detail. Good writing doesn’t imagine for us. Good writing makes our imaginations soar.

In other words, art is the meeting place of creator and appreciator. Art is where the two come together, where the creator speaks out meaning and the appreciator decides what meaning they will take in. Sometimes, the meaning the appreciator comes away with isn’t at all what the creator intended. Sometimes, it’s exactly what the creator was intending. Sometimes, it’s more than that. Sometimes less. Sometimes the creator learns something new from the very act of speaking, and so they share that moment of insight with the appreciator.

Video games may have a different kind of interactivity, a different kind of experience than other forms of art, but they are still art.

I love how, in the Bible, God creates through speaking. He says, and it becomes. We, as humans, then discover what he created. We learn about it, try to understand it, and use it to create something of our own. His authorial intent is made manifest, no matter how many might argue that he is dead, and we interact with his art as an instrument of relationship. As much as God spoke and the world became, his speaking started a conversation, a meeting of minds and hearts, of memory and intellect, emotion and reason, intuition and dreams.

The problem I have with “the author is dead” is that it takes away from the dignity and worth of the author. My problem with the idea of art needing “authorial intent” is because it takes away from the dignity and worth of the reader. Each idea says that, to one extent or another, someone doesn’t matter.

Art isn’t like that.

Art is the invitation to a special kind of relationship, a kind of give and take between people. It is about value, and the value of those who both create and experience it. If someone were to ask me if the author or reader know most about the meaning of a story, I would say simply this:

The author is dead, long live the author!

We are all involved in discovering meaning. And what a strange and beautiful journey it is.