Blog: Stories and Death of the Author

Stories and Death of the Author
Stories and Death of the Author
Date: 2018-Jan-29 07:12:38 EST

Death of the Author is an idea from postmodernist philosophy that I find useful as part of how I see the world. Stories are among the more precious things we create; they're part of how we impart meaning onto the varied dry data we have on the world and on ourselves. Fluency in working with them is part of philosophical intelligence, and as part of philosophical freedom, death of the author helps us avoid ceding ownership of our most central tools to other people.

The core idea of death of the author is to reject ownership over stories or other cultural content, and to reject centrality of interpretation attributed to authors. Were a musician to write a piece, or an author to write a book, or a poet to write a poem, they may have ideas of what it means. We contextualise this - we decide that their ideas of what it means are what it means to them, and we are comfortable with deciding on what it means to us as readers. There are nuances to be worked out ; we should not blame authors if we do not like the meaning we've imparted to their work, but we consider their contribution like one of a parent, and their idea heads out into the world to live its own life. We also feel comfort in taking ownership of stories and extending them, in the old tradition of word-of-mouth and folk tales, as we see fit. Each person that has heard a story is a carrier and potential additional author of that story, and we weaken the notion of "true" forms of these works to "original" ones.

The notion of canonicity of fiction is a concise way to talk about this; that which we call canon is a version of a story that we have in our head, and what's canon to one person is not necessarily canon to another. A given person might even have multiple distinct versions of a story in their head; they might recognise multiple distinct canons as frameworks of understanding.

Applying this, at least two large works of fiction that I care about and grew up with, Star Trek and Doctor Who, are works that I've internalised as stories. With both of them, they have what's known as "extended universes" from books, as well as a TV canon. People generally recognise at least two canons, and there are two distinct fan wikis for Star Trek, Memory Alpha for TV canon, and Memory Beta for extended universe. For both of them, I further have a personal canon.

With Doctor Who, I cut the ties from the TV series at the last episode featuring the Sylvester McCoy doctor. This is largely because the Doctor Who movie that followed felt like it was made with little understanding of the classic series, it had large shifts in tone and changed background (the Doctor being half-human). I am aware of the remake series after the movie, but the cord is cut, and it doesn't help that I dislike the politics that some showrunners brought to the series afterwards. Others with this perspective call themselves "Old Whovians".

For Star Trek, I cut the ties after Star Trek Voyager. This is largely out of tiredness; there was a long gap, and subsequent movies and series never managed to interest me. Plus in general I feel that Star Trek has a lot of story already and doesn't really need any more.