Baldwin and Coates: Activist postures as ‘live authorship’
James Baldwin’s The fire next time and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the world and me are two searing critiques of racial injustice in America, in both the context of the 1960s and the present. The emancipatory nature of these works calls into question the effacement of their authors as proposed by Barthes’ influential concept of the death of the Author. Barthes’ concept is meant as a liberating understanding of authorship for the reader: it signifies the absence of the author at the moment of interpretation, meaning they have no control over the interpretation of their work, nor is any one interpretation conclusive. Albeit an emancipatory idea for the reader, the death of the Author fails to recognize the different social positions from which authors write, meaning it can undercut the emancipatory aims of their discourse. In order to gain a more inclusionary understanding of the concept of the author, I want to investigate what a comparison of the authorial postures of James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates as public intellectuals can teach us about Barthes’ idea of the death of the Author and how can we use this knowledge to propose a more inclusionary conception of authorship.
I will center my investigation around the concept of the public intellectual, and some of the different levels and tensions this authorial model contains (Heynders, 2016; Baert & Booth, 2012). By using the public intellectual as a lens for Baldwin's and Coates’ life writing on their experience of racial oppression, I will construct an account of how these oppressive societal conditions influence their authorial postures. I will relate this interpretation of the public intellectual to “the death of the Author” (1967/1977, p. 148) as conceived by Barthes, to explore how this influential Western conceptualization of the author fails to recognize the role of the author’s social position in the act of writing. I will argue that Foucault’s (1969/1984) notion of “author function” (p. 108) recognizes this blind spot.
A precarious endeavor
It is a precarious endeavor to write about blackness and racial struggle in America from my perspective as a white man in Europe. It is important that I try to avoid making assumptions about the African-American experience and instead learn from its articulation in these works, keeping in mind the difference in social positions. This requires strong reflexivity on my part, which I think can only be achieved by setting out with an anti-racist goal, namely to learn from these black literary positions, and try to put this knowledge to use to strive for an inclusionary conception of authorship. To ensure a thorough analysis I will keep a close reading method and an open interpretive attitude.
I will perform a posture analysis (Meizoz, 2010) on several heuristic levels (Heynders, 2016) of Baldwin's and Coates’ performances in one representative video interview each, and I will conduct a comparative narrative analysis (Smith & Watson, 2001) of two works by the authors, The fire next time (1963/1993) by Baldwin and Between the world and me (2015) by Coates. Also using biographical information, I will compare their authorial postures as they become apparent through the interpretation of their self-presentation and literary practice. Thereby I will try to gain an understanding of the ways their personal conditions of societal oppression influence their authorial postures as public intellectuals. Based on this understanding I will try to formulate a critique of Barthes’ (1967/1977) concept of the death of the Author as an exclusionary conception of authorship, seeing how it effaces the idea of a committed literary practice. I will argue that Foucault’s (1969/1984) concept of “author function” (p. 108) can be used to amend this limitation, and make for a more inclusive idea of ‘live authorship’.
Public intellectuals: levels and tensions
Because this paper is based on the premise that both Baldwin and Coates in their own ways perform the role of public intellectual, I will first establish a short framework for what this role entails. Public intellectuals, on the basis of their intellectual endeavors, try to combine critical thinking with mediatized, dramatic persuasiveness in the hope of making their ideas speak to a large enough audience to bring about change: “writing and thinking have become part of a wide-ranging public performance, often characterized by theatricality” (Heynders, 2016, p. 2). Heynders describes the activities constituting the role as follows:
The public intellectual intervenes in the public debate and proclaims a controversial and committed … stance from a sideline position. He has critical knowledge and ideas, stimulates discussion and offers alternative scenarios in regard to topics of political, social and ethical nature, thus addressing non-specialist audiences on matters of general concern. (2016, p. 3)
The public intellectuals performing this role can have their roots in the fields of literature or the sciences, but also in the arts or journalism: most importantly, they are able to wield the qualities of “sensitivity, anticipation, the thinking through of alternatives, imagination and courage” (Heynders, 2016, p. 11) in their discourse on the matters they deem publicly relevant. In their performance, the public intellectual “deliberately uses various media platforms, styles and genres” (Heynders, 2016, p. 7), the affordances of which “in contemporary culture … confirm the presentation of a self as construction, a performance in which private and public phenomena are intermingled” (Heynders, 2016, p. 13). To analyze this multifaceted figure, Heynders (2016) provides a “heuristic four-level scheme” (p. 21), to interpret the public intellectual’s “Cultural Authority … Social and Cultural Context … Mediated Context of Production and Reception … [and] Aesthetic Performance and Theatricality” (p. 21); some of these levels will be used in the analysis of Baldwin's and Coates’ authorial postures below.
Besides the different levels at which public intellectuals operate, Heynders notices that “from the outset, the thinking about intellectuals was based on dichotomies. Almost all theorists place one type of intellectual in opposition to another” (Heynders, 2016, p. 4). She refers to Baert and Booth (2012), who have categorized these oppositions between types of public intellectuals as tensions inherent to the role of the public intellectual. These tensions are distributed over “four axes which can be summed up as hierarchy versus equality, generality versus expertise, passion versus distance, and the individual versus the collective” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 114). The first is explained as a “tension between self-proclaimed authority and egalitarian principles” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 113) that Baert and Booth discern in the Dreyfusards on which they base their ideal type of public intellectual. Public intellectuals act from an egalitarian outset but in claiming for themselves the legitimacy to speak up they create a hierarchy between themselves (at the top) and the people they claim to represent (at the bottom). The second is a “tension between the specific expertise … of the intellectuals involved and the focus of their public intervention” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 113). The matters of general concern on which they speak stretch well beyond the specific fields in which public intellectuals have gained their authority. Third, there is a “tension between the passion and commitment that underscore[s] their intellectual interventions on the one hand and a posture of detachment that remain[s] central to their intellectual positioning on the other” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 113). Without empathy there would be no engagement, but without distance there would be no objectivity to judge fairly on the matter. The fourth and final is “a tension … between the individual and the collective, in particular between individual beliefs and aspirations … and collective organization, commitment and obligations” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 114). The generality of the goal of public intellectual action requires collective organization from a diverse group of specific thinkers, whose agreement may often be limited to the very basic tenets of the goal. Some of these four tensions will be identified in Baldwin's and Coates’ postures below as well.
Baldwin and the civil rights movement
James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in New York City, and grew up in a poor family in the Harlem ghetto. His stepfather, with whom he had a difficult relationship, was a Baptist preacher, and Baldwin himself was a young Revivalist preacher for some of his high school years before losing his faith. After high school he worked a series of odd manual jobs to support his family and began his first endeavors as a writer, getting involved in the artistic circles of New York’s Greenwich Village and beginning to explore his homosexuality (Baldwin, 1963/1993; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021a; Poetry Foundation, n.d.). After this period he moved to Paris and lived there from 1948 to 1957, writing magazine pieces and later his first two novels as well as a collection of essays. These first novels dealt with themes such as racial inequality, his time as a young preacher, interracial love, and homosexuality (American Masters, 2006; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021a; Poetry Foundation, n.d.).
In 1957, Baldwin was persuaded to move back to the United States by the emergence of the civil rights movement, of which he became a prominent member. During this time he traveled much throughout the segregated South of the United States, gaining a unique perspective on the scope and nature of racial oppression in America, and making it the primary subject of his speeches, lectures, and writing (American Masters, 2006; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021a; Poetry Foundation, n.d.). In 1962, Baldwin published two essays on racial oppression. On November 17, most of the issue of the New Yorker consisted of his essay Letter from a region in my mind, dealing with racial struggle and various elements of the civil rights movement. The New Yorker’s readership consisted mostly of the affluent, liberal readership whose passive attitudes towards racial equality Baldwin was addressing, and the essay hit hard. On December 1, A letter to my nephew appeared in the Progressive, a letter-style essay addressed to his fifteen-year-old nephew on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the abolishment of slavery in America during the civil war. These two essays were joined and published in early 1963 in Baldwin’s book The fire next time, which became a bestseller and was read by many white Americans to gain a better understanding of the civil rights movement (American Masters, 2006; Biography, 2018; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021a; Forde, 2014; Poetry Foundation, n.d.).
After the turbulent demonstrations of the Birmingham, Alabama, campaign in the spring of 1963 – during which police responded with much violence to peaceful protesters, causing wide media coverage and increasing social unrest concerning the treatment of black people – Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sought to meet with Baldwin and other black community leaders as an off the record opportunity to gain a better understanding of each others’ perspectives (Carson, 2010; National Park Service, n.d.; Walker, n.d.). The meeting took place in New York on May 24, 1963. Baldwin brought several leading civil rights movement figures, among whom renowned psychologist Kenneth Clark, who would interview Baldwin later that night. The meeting quickly turned sour when the civil rights representatives spoke frankly about the oppression African-Americans faced, but Kennedy failed to grasp the severity of their situation, leaving the conversation unfinished and both parties frustrated. This meeting would however set in motion Kennedy’s becoming aware of the scope of racial oppression in America and the importance of civil rights legislation, which he would pursue until his assassination in 1968 (Carson, 2010; Emersonian Eye, 2020; National Park Service, n.d.; Walker, n.d.).
Ongoing civil rights action and media attention forced the Kennedy administration to push forward on civil rights legislation. On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation, proposing a new civil rights bill. However, Kennedy would not see its implementation, as he was assassinated on November 22 that year. Lyndon B. Johnson, the former vice president who had taken over the presidency from Kennedy, strengthened the bill and pushed it through the House and Senate, eventually signing the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. Little over a year later, through continued civil rights action, Johnson also signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965, putting a legal end to the enforcement of Jim Crow segregation laws in the South (Carson, 2010; National Park Service, n.d.; Urofsky, 2014; Wallenfeldt, 2018). In the following years, Baldwin would live in both the United States and France but would spend the remainder of his life in France after his friends and fellow civil rights activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in 1963, 1965, and 1968. In addition to his civil rights activism, Baldwin was also an advocate for gay rights. He died in France on December 1, 1987 (American Masters, 2006; Anderson, 2019; Carson, 2010; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021a; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021b). Below I will perform a short posture analysis (Meizoz, 2010) of the interview Baldwin gave to Kenneth Clark on May 24, 1963, just after the dissatisfactory meeting with Robert F. Kennedy.
Baldwin presents himself as an outsider in The fire next time (1963/1993), even within the community of the civil rights movement. His atheist worldview and homosexual identity did not correspond with that of many of the civil rights movement’s Christian leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., or with that of the more radical Black nationalists of the Nation of Islam (Baldwin, 1963/1993; Melton, 1998). In a conversation with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who wants Baldwin to join his organization, he expresses his desire for individuality: “‘I left the church twenty years ago and I haven’t joined anything since'. It was my way of saying that I did not intend to join their movement, either” (1963/1993, p. 70). When Muhammad asks him what he considers himself now, Baldwin replies: “‘I? Now? Nothing.’ This was not enough. ‘I’m a writer. I like doing things alone.’” (1963/1993, p. 70). His individuality is further emphasized when Baldwin arrives at Muhammad’s house: “I knew that once I had entered the house, I couldn’t smoke or drink, and I felt guilty about the cigarettes in my pocket” (1963/1993, p. 61). Throughout the video interview, too, Baldwin can barely be spotted without a cigarette in his hand (Emersonian Eye, 2020). As an ex-smoker myself, I can say with some certainty that the habit of smoking (when still practicing) becomes part of one’s identity construction and self-presentation: through its affordances of non-verbal expression in gesturing, a perception of increased distance created between others and the smoking self, and the pose of a dissident lifestyle through the display of substance use. Baldwin’s smoking is more than a habit, and becomes a part of his self-presentation; what Meizoz calls, “authorial posture … ‘the manner of taking up a position’ in the field” (2010, p. 83) of literature.
In the video, Baldwin, just like Clark, is wearing a sharp suit; presumably, both are dressed for the occasion of speaking to the Attorney General and/or taping a conversation meant for a television broadcast. However, it can be noticed that contradictory to Clark, Baldwin is wearing heavy rings on his hands. Further investigating Baldwin’s dressing style, a quick image search for ‘James Baldwin’ returns a roll of pictures of him dressed in fashionable and flamboyant clothes, marking his individuality (see Figure 1). This dress sense, combined with his heavy smoking and references to alcohol consumption, are elements of his authorial posture as an individualistic writer, living an artistic and non-conformist lifestyle. Relating this posture to Baldwin’s lifeworld – Heynders’ (2016) heuristic level of the public intellectual’s social and cultural context – it can be seen to make sense. The “specific (trans)national, societal and economic context” (Heynders, 2016, p. 21) of 1960s America, which discriminated heavily against black people as well as homosexuals, and was quite unreceptive to atheist views, was not a context in which it would have been easy for Baldwin to be accepted as himself by any group. The exclusionary reality of his “complicated intertwining of private and public worlds, of the individual writing position and the specific (trans)national context” (Heynders, 2016, p. 22) makes it a more favorable strategy for him to adopt the authorial posture as an individualistic writer and emphasizing the singularity of his voice, unaffiliated with any specific group but speaking only ‘as himself’.
And yet, despite his individualism, Baldwin is passionately committed to the cause of his activism: black liberation. Throughout the interview, he speaks with much fire and passion about it, clear but emotional and visibly affected by the disappointing conversation with Kennedy, sometimes even, it seems, fighting back tears – as does Clark. Henry Morganthau, the producer introducing the program, remarks that the conversation shows “a certain emotional spillover of the highly charged atmosphere of the meeting” (Emersonian Eye, 2020, 0:48), and Baldwin’s first words in answer to a question are: “my mind is someplace else, really...” (Emersonian Eye, 2020, 2:53). The severity of the situation of black people in 1960s America is something that outweighs Baldwin’s individualism: he is committed to the cause of its betterment because, as he puts it, “perhaps we were, all of us … bound together by the nature of our oppression” (1963/1993, p. 41). The racist construction of value judgments white people assign to Baldwin’s skin color, and the skin color of every African-American, is something beyond the individualistic authorial posture he can adopt; his commitment stems from the dishonesty that lies at the very heart of his own country.
Coates and Howard University
Similar to Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in a poor black neighborhood: not in New York, but in the Baltimore projects. He was born on September 30, 1975, raised in a strict family, and with a strong awareness of racial inequality. His mother was a teacher, and his father, like his grandfather, was a librarian and ran an independent press that published black literature; he had also been a member of the Black Panther party in his youth, a black self-defense (later turned Marxist) organization for the protection of neighborhoods against police brutality in the 1960s. Coates felt very burdened by the widespread street violence of his youth (Coates, 2015; Duncan, 2014; Sparks, 2016). After high school, Coates attended Howard University in Washington, a historically black university that impressed him very positively as a place where black people could thrive, which stood in sharp contrast with the streets of Baltimore. Although he did not finish his studies, he would keep the school in high regard, encouraging his son to go to college there and later taking up a teaching position at Howard himself in 2021. During his studies at Howard, Coates began to work as a journalist, which got him involved in writing about racial inequality, especially after his Howard University acquaintance Prince Jones was killed by police. Later, Coates moved to New York and started writing for various magazines, notably the Atlantic. He published his first book in 2008 and has written several since, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as notable essays on the Obama and Trump administrations. In 2015, he published Between the world and me, a non-fiction work dealing with his experiences of and thoughts on racial oppression, which became a bestseller (Coates, 2015; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020; Sparks, 2016; Today, 2020). Below, I will perform a similar posture analysis as the one in Baldwin’s interview above. Coates was interviewed by Craig Melvin for the Today show on November 25, 2020, twenty-two days after the presidential election won by Joe Biden and amidst the gaining momentum of Trump’s campaign denying his defeat.
When doing the same quick image search performed for Baldwin, the query ‘Ta-Nehisi Coates’ returns a similar roll of author pictures (see Figure 2), but Coates’ dressing style is notably different. Apart from this being another person and obvious visual historical differences, it is striking that Coates’ clothing is much more demure. He appears either in a dress shirt, or a shirt and jacket (but without a tie). This could be taken to suggest that Coates, contrary to Baldwin, emphasizes much less his individuality, and more so his professionalism as a writer. When turning to the video itself, an interesting contrast becomes apparent: in the video, Coates is not wearing a jacket or shirt at all, but a baggy, informal sweatshirt. Additionally, he has exchanged his previously shaved hair and light stubble (as can be seen in the pictures) for a full head of hair and a beard (Today, 2020). Although the interview takes place in the context of the pandemic, which could be said to explain the difference in hairstyle, I would argue it can be seen in a broader context that reconciles Coates’ ‘professional’ search results with his casual appearance in the video. Rather than contrast the neat (but unexceptional) and casual attire, I would say they are both expressions of Coates’ privileging subject-matter over looks: his appearance communicates that he does not care too much about appearances, but about ideas; it communicates that he is a public intellectual engaged in goals that stretch beyond himself as an individual.
Another thing notable about Coates’ sweatshirt is its print: the front bears the lettering of his alma mater, Howard University. And this is not the only interview in which Coates appears wearing the University’s merchandise (see for example here and here, and screenshots from these videos in Figure 3). This is noted by Melvin too, remarking on the shirt as he asks Coates about his son attending Howard University. As in Between the world and me – which has the form of a book-length letter-style essay to his then fifteen-year-old son – he speaks highly of the school, which for himself meant a formative experience that gained him a broad scope on the beauty and intelligence of black people (Coates, 2015; Today, 2020). Throughout the book, he refers to the school as his personal “Mecca” (Coates, 2015, p. 39), besides its education most prominently because of its celebration of black identity, and its extensive library of African-American literature. Coates employs the school to represent the “black power … the view taken in struggle” (p. 149) and the “love power” (p. 149) that hold African-Americans together: “they made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people” (p. 149). Contradictory to Baldwin then, Coates’ authorial posture not so much emphasizes his individuality but propagates the togetherness and shared values of black American people. He is aware of the power of his appearance in the persuasiveness of his role as a public intellectual. This awareness can be interpreted from Heynders’ (2016) heuristic level of aesthetic performance and theatricality:
The way one presents oneself in words and images has consequences regarding … credibility, persuasiveness and attractiveness … the public intellectual has to be conscious of what he represents, when, where and how. He always constructs a posture, a public persona connected to a particular social discourse … but connected to his own experiences as well. … there are ‘aesthetic’ devices involved in foregrounding one’s life and making it representative for the lives of other people, and subsequently convincing in an intellectual argument. (Heynders, 2016, p. 23)
Coates is representing his university as a powerful symbol of blackness. Perhaps this difference in authorial postures can be explained by a historical difference: in Baldwin’s time of segregation and forcibly closed-off groups, his individualistic posture allowed him to behave as a critical outsider to fight racial inequality; in present times of increased individualism, Coates’ modest self-presentation forefronts the common cause of racial equality, a tactic that might be better suited for today. Each in their own time and way, Baldwin and Coates employ their authorial postures to navigate between their personal identity and the common struggle for racial equality.
The fire next time
When analyzing The fire next time and Between the world and me, Smith and Watson’s notion of “models of identity” (2001, p. 168) provides a helpful way to gain an understanding of Baldwin's and Coates’ authorial postures as public intellectuals as they are distinguishable in these works. Baldwin and Coates both employ “life narrative … about their own lives … as a member of a community … from externalized and internal points of view” (Smith & Watson, 2001, pp. 4-5) as a structuring element of their works, and a way to introduce and exemplify the larger societal workings of racial oppression. The interaction between these ‘two selves’, “the social, historical person … living in the world. … [and] the self experienced only by that person, the self felt from the inside that the writer can never get ‘outside of’” (Smith & Watson, 2001, p. 5) is the literary device that constitutes the bridge between the structural societal elements of racial oppression and the authors’ personal and emotional lifeworlds.
In The fire next time (1963/1993), Baldwin provides a broad, partial overview of his own life in roughly three stages: his impoverished youth in Harlem, his years of preaching in high school, and (skipping his first emigration to Paris), his more or less ‘current’ self as a writer and civil rights activist, specifically a visit to Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam movement. A good deal of the book consists of the second stage, relating how the combined stress of emerging puberty and awareness of a dreadful social position at fourteen drove him into the church; and how, as time progressed, his experiences as a preacher and its stark contrast with the realities of racial oppression caused him to lose his religion. This ‘mode of identity’ as both a black person, subjected to racial oppression, and a former preacher, familiar with the rhetoric and illusions used to coax a congregation into belief, is then used to show how ‘whiteness’ is a driving ideological force in America, not a natural fact but an oppressive belief that is actively instilled: “color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality” (Baldwin, 1963/1993, p. 104). The same insight is used to show that the Black nationalism of the Nation of Islam (condemning the white man as “a devil” (Baldwin, 1963/1993, p. 65)), “had been designed for the same purpose; namely, the sanctification of power” (p. 50). The whole book then in the end becomes a sharp critique of any ‘higher power’ of ideology that includes some only to exclude others, and a plea to strive for a society based on invested and reciprocal love.
Between the world and me
Coates uses a similar interplay between his own life story and structural racism in the United States to show the fatal consequences of exclusionary ideologies. Between the world and me is roughly made up of Coates’ youth on the violent streets of the West Baltimore projects, his time studying at Howard University, the birth of his son and the first years of his family living in New York, and the effects of the police killing of his Howard University acquaintance Prince Jones on his perception of the world. Coates shows how the violent reality of the streets instilled in him a very binary conception of the world, necessitated by, as he puts it in the interview, a survival strategy of “always head on the swivel, watchout” (Today, 2020, 12:12). He explains how this attitude of binary thinking in his teenage years brought him to gravitate towards the ideas of justified violence of Malcolm X as a way to advance the societal position of black people. It is only at the ‘Mecca’ (specifically, Howard University’s library) where, reading as many books on racial inequality as he can, he learns of the existence of a myriad of opposing ideas as existing within the black community, reflected by the infinite incarnations of black identity he encounters in his fellow students on the campus yard. It is through overcoming his own ideological righteousness instilled by violent necessity, and exchanging his search for definitive answers to a search for better questions, that he can show how the American Dream is inseparably entangled with ideas of white supremacy. Additionally, this mode of identity provides him with a great awareness of the destructive physical realities created by the Dream.
It is clear by now that both Baldwin and Coates’ authorial postures as they become apparent in interviews and their works give evidence to the tensions inherent to the authorial model of the public intellectual as described by Baert and Booth (2012). Baldwin sharply balances the “tension between the passion and commitment that underscore[s] … [his] intellectual interventions on the one hand and a posture of detachment that remain[s] central to … [his] intellectual positioning on the other” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 113) in his sympathy for Malcolm X and the passion for the advancement of black people in the Nation of Islam on the one hand, but his rejection of their ideas on violence and their replacement of the hegemonic white worldview for another exclusionary ideal on the other: “I, in any case, certainly refuse to be put in the position of denying the truth of Malcolm’s statements simply because I disagree with his conclusions” (Baldwin, 1963/1993, p. 59). Similarly, the “tension … between the individual and the collective, in particular between individual beliefs and aspirations on the one hand and collective organization… on the other” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 114) is clearly discerned in the regrettable contrast between the beliefs of his religious contemporaries and Baldwin’s own sexual identity and lifestyle of artistic individualism, nonetheless united under the same goal of the erasure of racial inequality. Although he disagrees with them on many subjects, these differences are subsumed under their common goal, as the oppression of African-Americans is such a pervasive force that its countering subordinates virtually everything else. This tension is less apparent in Coates’ authorial position as a public intellectual. The tension between commitment and detachment however is clearly visible in his overcoming of binary oppositions. Although his passion to strive for racial equality points to the clear answers of Malcolm X’s tit-for-tat ideal, his critical detachment makes him come to the conclusion that this is too much of an exclusionary answer as well. Coates is “willing to speak out on significant political issues and face adversity … . Yet, … it is [his] independence which … allow[s] [him] to make the right judgment call” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 113).
Contemporary channels of public engagement
Although their authorial postures lay different emphases for their engagement in public discourse, Baldwin and Coates both fulfill the role of the public intellectual, combining critical thinking with activism to make the world a better place for black people. Some of the differences between Baldwin and Coates’ approaches may be clarified through the affordances of contemporary channels of public engagement:
Organizing for large-scale, effective collective action is no longer solely a case of establishing organizations… that provide long-term platforms for multiple interventions … . Instead, intellectuals may engage in discrete interventions piecemeal as new collectivities are organized to support each one, subscribing only to those values expressed by each of these interventions. (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 122).
It is much easier for public intellectuals to align themselves with more specific causes that are a closer fit to their personal ideas. For Baldwin, this media environment would have provided better opportunities to combine his black and gay emancipatory programs. The possibility of adherence to more “fragmentary collectives” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 123) would have decreased the need for Baldwin to emphasize his individuality as much as in his 1960s context of large, sharply defined, and predominantly religious social groups did. Coates, operating in today’s media environment, is able to compile a more specific position from different fragmentary collectives, and indeed emphasizes much less his individuality than his adherence to collective efforts. This new mode of operation for public intellectuals “might also contribute to a different self-understanding—not as individuals or groups standing outside monolithic and discrete publics, but as individuals engaging and recomposing collectives (of which they may well form part) that they can help cultivate and knit together” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 124). As such, contemporary public intellectuals such as Coates closely resemble Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals who are aware of their social class allegiance” (Baert & Booth, 2012, p. 116): “they are part of the audience they address, and this makes their authority self-evident but also more subjective” (Heynders, 2016, p. 8). Baldwin and Coates’ subjectivity is their strength because their personal experience with racial oppression strengthens their public engagement to end it. This subjectivity needs to be recognized, as it is precisely what others can learn from.
Barthes, Foucault, and ‘live authorship’
In his influential essay The Death of the Author, Barthes (1967/1977) posits that the reader can never truly know the intention of the author, because “as soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, … the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins” (p. 142). Barthes’ essay is aimed at the liberation of the reader from the restricting directions of the author for the proper interpretation of ‘their’ text: he argues that as the text has left the writer’s hands, so has their control over its interpretation. This point is emancipatory: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Barthes, 1967/1977, p. 148). Barthes himself rejoices in this new perspective of authorship: the “modern scriptor” (Barthes, 1967/1977, p. 146) is released from the idea of expression, a “‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God)” (p. 146), and free to cut-and-paste from the infinite supply of sourceless language in a “pure gesture of inscription” (p. 146), which is the only possible writing that is left. “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (Barthes, 1967/1977, p. 142).
However, Baldwin's and Coates’ activist authorial postures as public intellectuals pose a problem for Barthes’ conception of authorship: writing is not a neutral space at all, but a political space. When the “identity of the body writing” (Barthes, 1967/1977, p. 142) is lost, this may not be a problem for an author inhabiting a white male body, who knows their body to be relatively secure. This security of the white male body is assumed to be a universal, neutral experience, so the loss of bodily identity is presented as a neutral feature of the act of writing. But, as Coates stresses throughout his book, the black body is not secure, but under constant threat: in America, “the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies” (2015, p. 11); its logic serves to “justify … a black body’s destruction” (p. 96). The loss of identity of the body in writing, a metaphysical idea, is thus a denial of the physical reality of the danger that conditions the black body. A black author then, relating their experience of inhabiting a black body in America, takes a leap of faith: they put their trust in the reader to interpret the bodiless text as being related to the identity of the physically endangered black body. This trust calls upon the reader to take responsibility in interpreting the text. When an author is in an oppressed social position and writes from an activist outset to call upon the reader to recognize this oppression, it might be that the reader is ‘born’ (emancipated) when they get hold of the text, but this readership comes with responsibility. The committed writer takes a leap of faith by exposing their oppressed position in writing to the reader; they are well aware that when the text is out of their hands, its interpretation is too. The reader can do as they please with it, but should not be careless: a textual endeavor of committed authorship calls upon the reader to equally profess a responsible, ethical readership. “We have to nuance the idea of the public intellectual as only an homme des lettres, and realize that the persona of the intellectual never is a disembodied one … it is connected to visible individual features and manners” (Heynders, 2016, p. 15). Readers should retain a sensibility to the implications of the bodily reality of the author as a person of flesh and blood; a sensibility akin to the central assertion of second-wave feminism that the personal is political. With this reasoning in mind, reading becomes a moral act.
Literature as a political act
Although the reader can never be certain of the author's intention, and is free in their interpretation, to strive for a responsible readership I would argue the following. In literature, as elsewhere in society (for example concerning freedom of speech), freedom should not be defined as absolute, negative freedom, but as social freedom functioning in relation to other social freedoms (Hietalahti et al., 2016). Literature is far from a neutral act: it is a political act, not exempt from ideological motivations. A negative definition of the freedom of the reader would entail their ultimate freedom to interpret the text as they please; a definition of the freedom of the reader as social freedom means their freedom of interpretation comes with the responsibility to try to come up with a well-informed interpretation: a text does not function in a void, but in a certain context. Consider a short and crude example: starting from a negative definition of the freedom of the reader, a malevolent reader could hypothetically interpret Baldwin’s plea for racial equality as a hostile parody of civil rights movement rhetoric. Surely it will be agreed upon that this would be a wildly unethical interpretation. Such an interpretation requires that the reader deliberately treat the text as if it were completely separate from its social context. Baldwin accurately describes one such a way of reading as practiced by the disengaged white liberals of his time: “the affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn’t, as far as could be discovered, read, either – they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes” (Baldwin, 1963/1993, p. 61). Just like the text itself does not function in a void, readers do not interpret it in a void either; they are part of a social context informing their interpretation, a context that structures it, but at the same time provides agency for their interpretation.
Reading as a moral act
Responsible readership calls for a conception in the reader of a ‘live authorship’: although the author is absent, work can be done to try and approach them as a live and material, bodily other: interpretation and reasoning can be used to reduce the gap between reader and writer. “Reading has become a more social and participatory experience … and since authors play a recognizable role outside the text … fiction and narrative sincerity … [become] more encouraging concepts … than ‘autonomy’” (Heynders, 2016, p. 20). In the end, interpretation will always remain a leap of faith, and the reader and writer can never coincide. But the conception of a live authorship calls upon the responsible reader to take an informed leap of faith, as opposed to a mere shot in the dark justified by the assumed death of the Author. A concept that can help inform the reader’s interpretation is Foucault’s notion of “author function” (1969/1984, p. 107). Foucault explains that an author’s name does not function in the same way as the names of other individuals, but has different functions. The name designates the person, but it also designates their work: and as this work is not static (pieces can be added to it by the author; posthumous discoveries of difference in attribution can add or subtract works from it), an author’s name is not stable either. Furthermore, an author’s name functions to classify certain aspects of a discourse, thereby affecting that discourse and conversely being affected by it and changing of meaning itself: “the author’s name manifests the appearance of a certain discursive set and indicates the status of this discourse within a society and a culture. … there are a certain number of discourses that are endowed with the ‘author function’” (Foucault, 1969/1984, p. 107).
Although Foucault adheres to Barthes’ statement that the reader can never truly know the intention of the writer, the notion of author function brings an important insight with it: although it is not stable and should be reevaluated whenever constructing an interpretation of an author’s texts, when determined, it can be brought to bear on the text to gain an insight into the sociopolitical context determining the physical circumstances of the author, the ‘body writing’. Like Barthes, Foucault undercuts the powerful position of the author, but recognizes the dangers that come with the possibility of an unmitigated interpretation of the text: “how can one reduce … the great danger with which fiction threatens our world? The answer is: one can reduce it with the author. The author allows a limitation of the … dangerous proliferation of significations” (Foucault, 1969/1984, p. 118). When the author is not conceived of as a controlling force, or as totally absent, but as an author function used as an anchoring subject and living other to bring to bear on the text, the text’s interpretation can be given direction and moral justification. Baldwin and Coates implore us to use our knowledge of their material circumstances as a conception of live authorship, to inform a morally responsible readership.
When used as a lens on Barthes’ influential conception of the death of the Author, Baldwin and Coates’ authorial postures as committed public intellectuals in both their writing and public appearances show us that the total effacing of the author from the interpretation of their texts poses a problem of morality. In order to come to a morally responsible readership, Foucault’s author function can be used to conceive of live authorship to morally anchor our interpretation of emancipatory discourse.
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