What is an author? When Michel Foucault posed this question in 1969, it was largely philosophical. Along with Roland Barthes, who a few years earlier announced “the death of the author,” Foucualt sought to draw out structuralism’s logical consequences, which suggested that the much vaunted figure of “the author” was more an effect of language and culture than a cause.
Today the question of how to define an author is no mere idle speculation. Advances in generative AI have enabled computers to produce texts and images barely distinguishable from those created by human beings, unleashing anxieties that human authors and artists could soon become obsolete. Are reports of the author’s death no longer quite so exaggerated or metaphorical as they once might have seemed?
This week’s reading list explores this question and more, collecting some of our best writing on art, literature, technology, and the lives of great authors, including essays on James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Leo Tolstoy. In addition, two recent essays by James Duesterberg and Terry Nguyen tackle some of the thorny problems of creativity and individuality raised by generative AI. While for Duesterberg such technology is symptomatic of a kind of “self-imposed immaturity” in which we long to be relieved of the burden of thinking, Nguyen sees the advent of AI-assisted novels as an invitation to take postmodern theories of authorship more seriously: “Isn’t a word a word—still a word—regardless of who, or what, wrote it?” she asks. “The reality of authorship is often more collaborative and fluid than readers are led to believe.”
Far from being consigned to the ash heap of intellectual fashions, the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, a new biography shows, is in many ways still with us.
Until recent decades, Dickinson was most often depicted as a sentimental spinster or reclusive eccentric. A new biography and TV show reveal instead a self-aware artist who created a life that defied the limits placed on women.
Her critical writings explore the interrelations of philosophy and poetry, politics and prose—all against the backdrop of a society remaking itself in the shadow of fascism.