Can author and work be separated?

Annika Elisabeth von Hausswolff, Alternate Secret


Commentary on the book by sociologist Gisèle Sapiro

The new book by Gisèle Sapiro Peut-on dissocier l'œuvre de l'auteur? starts from an issue that is not new and that refers to the notions of author and work, social constructions that gain particular meanings with the modern emergence of the figure of the author. Notions that varied throughout history and within cultures. The creation of criminal liability for the author, in the 2001th century, as well as of intellectual property in the 266th century, greatly tightened the relationship between the author and his work, accentuating the individualization of the “author character”, establishing, as Foucault observes, “ this fundamental category of criticism, 'the man and the work'” (Foucault, XNUMX, p. XNUMX).

In the XNUMXst century, the discussion about the intimate links between the author and his work took on new contours, even though it remains indebted to deep and ancient collective beliefs. If the author blemishes his work through reprehensible conduct, private or public, the conceptions that make him unique gain strength in the debates that are established. The controversies raised create constraints, controversies amplified by the media and social networks, for whom, equally, the creator is, invariably, someone who expresses himself in his own name, an isolated being, demiurge of literary and/or artistic creation.

Crimes of harassment, pedophilia, insults, affiliations and support for fascist regimes, often expressed in the works themselves, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, sexist statements are some of the acts that trigger the debate, often compromised by pamphlet-style reactions, sometimes revealing positions authoritarian that tend to reject, disqualify rational arguments about the issues. For these reasons, the author invites you to examine the arguments of the confused debate, in order to clarify them, offering elements capable of allowing each reader to position himself in this arena, disentangling himself from the confusions and discursive bad faiths that, many sometimes, they impose themselves as a way of discrediting anyone who may seem like an opponent.

In the first part of the book, the discussion takes place on the forms of identification between the author and his work. It is conceived from a triple relationship between metonymy, similarity and internal causality (intentionality) which, if at first sight strengthens the belief in the intimate bond between one and the other, under a sharp look it does not resist the confrontation with the strategies of the authors themselves, of cultural intermediaries and the reception of works. As forms of identification, metonymy, similarity and internal causality are arguments that legitimize the formal and institutional protection of the work (copyright, for example), prestige dishonored by the movements of production and circulation of themselves and their creators.

The metonymic relationship is established by the identification of the author's name designating the set of his work, an allegedly coherent production inscribed in a larger prescient project. However, circulation and appropriation movements question this coherence due to two realities that arise when works become public: the limits of their perimeter and the cohesion of their unit. The author's name works well to designate each of his works, however, when we choose one and not another for this, that is, when the choice becomes selective, the perimeter that gave cohesion to the work as a whole changes. A situation that can be observed when the work is divided into periods, phases, genres, making two descriptions of the same author not interchangeable (p. 45), or even when the author denies, refuses to recognize as your own work.

The relationship of similarity between the author and the work refers to the person, which does not occur in the metonymic relationship. The collective belief in the moral responsibility of the author is so strong that the strongest evidence for this illusion, going beyond the borders of the field of cultural production, perhaps lies in its institutionalization, as expressed in copyright legislation, among other criminal offenses imputed to authors, creators, etc.

The work would be a direct emanation of the author's person, presumably close internal and psychological relations between both. Another evidence of this would be in the work of fictionalization (in its allegorical, metaphorical forms, autobiographical writings, etc.), a form that favors the creation of a complex relational space where the links between the author's personality, his biography and his values ​​are masked by the work. of fiction (p. 56-57). However, these writing strategies open spaces for interpretation that only the use of elements external to the work can explain. Here is a first contribution that sociology presents to decipher the inconsistencies of certainties: proposing in its analyzes not to separate the work from the author, it confronts them in their identification bonds.

The relation of intentionality, in turn, identifies them, given that the action appears guided by free intentions, without determinations, as an unaltered and linear “project”. The socially and culturally unanchored intentionality of this perspective collides with the effects of the relative autonomy of the work, and the moment of reception constitutes its best example. In this process, it is plausible that the moral of the work is in question, without that of its author being questioned. Therefore, the importance of discussing the symbolic violence that the works run the risk of perpetuating, their production and reception conditions must be questioned (p. 88). Otherwise, fictitious oppositions between “similar things and false similarities between different things” (Bourdieu, 2009, p. 34) are created, in spite of the authors and the works themselves.

Therefore, the first part of the book is summarized by Sapiro in the following way: the three identification relations that bear secular collective beliefs, as mentioned earlier, are transformed into strategies of differentiation, putting in check the second group of arguments that animates the controversies in the current public debate, that is, the one that defends the indissolubility between the moral of the author and the moral of the work. The identification relationship between both is questioned by the processes of circulation of works and authors in their three types: in metonymy, identification becomes differentiation due to the instabilities of the perimeter of the work and its internal coherence; in the moral similarity, through the interpretative game between author, narrator and their characters, which is actually the place of the author's strategies and artistic strategies; in intentionality (internal causality), in the effects of the work, in its relative autonomy from the creator when it becomes public, in its reception process.

The second part of the book is devoted to the examination of emblematic cases of authors, creators, and the public confrontation of responsibilities for their actions and their creations.[1] The author focuses on the way in which the arguments that move the controversies around the events are placed. Analytically, she divides them into two groups of phenomena: reprehensible private behavior, crimes of rape, pedophilia and murder, and reprehensible ideological positions, incitement to racial hatred, anti-Semitism, adherence to fascist regimes, etc.

Those who intervene publicly, whether they justify their positions by moral, political or aesthetic principles, do so by revealing their adherence to the identification principles discussed in the first part, without still being able to distinguish between representation and apology for hatred or discrimination. Circumstantially, accusatory or defensive practices and strategies result in the perpetuation of the physical and symbolic violence that they suspect of attacking or punishing.

As mentioned, once part of the public debate, the facts that affected the author and/or his work, when the morality of one and the other were convulsed, converge to two types of reactions to events: the first is based on the singularizing conception of the author, that is, it advocates the separation between the author and his work, under the argument that the works are autonomous and, therefore, must be appreciated for themselves, regardless of the moral of their author.

The second, then, states the opposite: the work is inseparable from the author's morality. Autonomous or not, can the work be censored? In the radical perspective of the “cancel culture”, which is emerging in the United States, yes: not only the work but its author can be repelled. Two reactions that illuminate the typologies: the French contestations to the Caesar attributed to Polanski did not demand his censorship, but demanded public debate on his crimes, on his vile conduct; and, second example, the New York Times he asked if it was time to censure Gauguin, during an exhibition, in London, of the portraits of the French painter accused of child abuse (p. 13 and 14). These are the arguments involved in these two groups of responses that circulate from one country to another, giving specific forms to the controversies.

The purpose of this short essay is to examine some developments in the arguments of supporters of the two extreme positions. Once delineated, they are synthesized into two ideal-typical constructions, perhaps generalizable: the “esthete” position, widely accepted in France, for example, and the more radical position of “cancellation culture”, intensely reiterated in the United States. In other words, a set of arguments appears marked by a certain universalism; and the other, due to a certain moralistic stance, the product of exacerbated sensibilities and a high threshold of intolerance justified by the history of combats against institutional racism in the country.

If the book does not have prescriptive pretensions, the position of the “sociologist specialized in the study of cultural universes” is clear. It is about perfecting an intermediate point of view that does not deny the relationship between the author's morality and the work's morality, but that judges the works in a relatively autonomous way, that is, according to specific criteria in the field of cultural production, provided that , for whatever reasons, do not contain incitement to hatred against people or groups, nor make apologies for physical or symbolic violence (p. 20). That is why his answer to the question posed in the title of the essay is simultaneously “yes” and no”.

Just because? Because the identification between the work and the author is never complete, the work escapes him. It is autonomous in the very process of production, its existence is the result of a collective work implied in the existence of a series of cultural intermediaries. Similarly, it transgresses it a second time, in the reception processes, through the forms of appropriation, which can be contradictory among themselves and between the author's intentions. When they circulate, they do so in different times and spaces, if removed from their production contexts, they can serve interests that once again escape the author.

Furthermore, if the reception is linked to a temporal change in the “horizons of expectations”, it can reveal prejudiced, discriminatory, previously tolerated and unacceptable worldviews at another time. They are characteristics of the forms of reception, of the “reading operations” (Bourdieu, 2009, p. 31), which contribute to highlight the relative autonomy of the works. See the example of Heidegger, the efforts undertaken for a long time to judge in an absolute way the autonomy of his works, separating them from the fascist political connections of the philosopher, and the controversies when launching his Notebooks Black, carriers of the euphemization of their anti-Semitic racism. His exclusion would not be enough, since it would also release him from “responsibility for the consequences of the call to responsibility” (p. 166), debtor that he is on what he produced. Precisely for this reason, the answer is twofold.

Why not? Because the work carries traces of the author's worldview, of his ethical-political dispositions, whether they are metamorphosed or sublimated by his craft. Responsibilities about it need to be assumed, including the effects that escape them, whether the author succeeds or fails in his career. It is also important to analyze it in its evolution, in relation to the author's strategies and creation strategies in the face of transformations in the field of cultural production in which it is inscribed, and which ends up giving it meaning.

Especially at this point, the human sciences have the important role of advancing the discussions, beyond what sociology already practices, and not converging with the approaches of the works, distinguishing them from the biographies and commitments of their authors. The new times require the transcendence of the boundaries that remain between the positions of authorized exegetes and those of authors who defend a socio-historical approach to works. The moment requires a combination of efforts to carry out an essential “anamnesis work”, an examination of the works both internally and externally.

This would have implications even for the future of the humanities as disciplines. According to Sapiro, only they are capable of making the social history of the “epistemic unconscious” of the productions that, even having passed the “posterity test”, need to be exhumed in order to remove from them any possibility of feeding constructions of new nationalist, racist canons and xenophobes (p. 229-230).

To suppress them, to “cancel” the authors, is to ignore the relative autonomy of the works, it is precisely to refuse to weigh the place of the canons, it is to sublimate their national and international fabrications, that is, to disregard the mechanisms that move them, the same that excluded and continue to exclude women and minorities for reasons related to their person and not to their work. Since they are not denied, as well as scientists, cultural intermediaries, editors, critics, translators, etc., they have a singular role in the exercise of their responsibilities in this work of rereading, reassessing and updating standards.

Finally, the discussion leads us to observe that the cases, whose international notoriety was undeniable, may be associated with North American movements, #MeToo and “cangel culture”, the two that invite to suppress authors, creators, and their sexist and racist works. The internationalization power of these struggles, as well as the dominant cultural position of the United States, should not impede public debate on the conditions of production of intellectual or artistic works. Assimilating censorship, assuming a commendable, “good-natured” posture, would be equivalent to eliminating the fruitfulness of the debate itself at a time when “its existence is vital for the work of raising awareness about the social issues of creation and, more broadly, of collective reflexivity on the forms of symbolic violence that are exercised in our societies” (p. 19).

In summary, Gisèle Sapiro works on two questions condensed here: can we separate the work from the author? We can and we can't. The double answer makes it difficult to formulate the following question, but does not invalidate it: can we suppress author and/or work? No, on condition that there is a distinction between apology and representation. This is another reason why the restriction should not nullify the public debate, since it is this, animated by feminist, anti-racist or anti-racist movements or against any kind of discrimination and incitement to hatred against populations, that can raise awareness of problems that are still hidden, in order to provoke the elevation of tolerance levels in each historical time period.

In order to understand the arguments raised by the form that polemics take between us, Brazilians, it remains to reflect on how we respond to them: we blame our authors, creators and artists, we suppress their works, or we discuss them and them call to assume the consequences of their responsibilities and complicity? Material to start the debate is not lacking.

*Mariana Barreto and pProfessor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC).

Originally published in the magazine Sociology & Anthropology, flight. 11, no. 3, September-December 2021.



Gisele Sapiro. Peut-on dissocier l'œuvre de l'auteur? Paris, Seuil, 2020, 238 pages.



Bourdieu, P. (2009), “Les conditions sociales de la circulation internationale des idées”. In: Sapiro, G. (right). L'espace intellectuel en Europe. From the formation of États-nations to the mondialisation xixe-xxie century. Paris, La Découverte, pp. 27-39.

Foucault, M. (2001), “What is an author?”. In: Said and written: This onetica – literature and painting, music and cinema. Rio de Janeiro, University Forensics, vol. iii, pp. 264-298.

Sapiro, G. (2020), Peut-on dissocier l'œuvre de l'auteur? Paris, Seuil, 238p.



[1] In that sense, Peut-on dissocier l'œuvre de l'auteur? continues the discussion that the author makes in other works, but notably in Des mot qui tuent, also published in the second half of 2020, in which it deals with the process of empowering the author in relation to public morals, taking as its object the judgment of the responsibilities of the intellectuals who collaborated with the German occupation in France between 1944-1945. Both in one work and in the other, the question of the author's responsibility is linked to his process of autonomization, especially in relation to public morality. Sapiro, G. (2020), Des mot qui tuent. The responsibility of the intellect in times of crisis (1944-1945). Essais-Points. Paris, Seuil.


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