A Note on the “Death of the Author”: A Discussion of the Viral Letter from a Dad to his Gay Son

Letter

Yesterday, a letter from a father to his gay son went viral on the internet. The image above was posted on the Facebook page of FCKH8, and as of now, this post has garnered over 80,000 likes. Here’s a transcript of the letter if you’re unable to read it in the image above:

Nate,

I overheard your phone conversation with Mike last night about your plans to come out to me. The only thing I need you to plan is to bring home OJ and bread after class. We are out, like you now. I’ve known you were gay since you were six, I’ve loved you since you were born.

– Dad

P.S. Your mom and I think you and Mike make a cute couple

Naturally, I began to read some of the comments people have written on this post, and of course, there are many who claim that the letter isn’t authentic, and that virtually anyone could write this letter and post it online. I conducted some online research for a couple of minutes, but I was unable to find this letter’s original source, and I was unable to identify who “Nate” and “Dad” are. True, anyone can be Nate, and anyone can be dad. I can grab a piece of paper, write this exact same message, and share it online for the world to see. Thus, it is unsurprising to see how many people are calling the letter a fake. Not only are they questioning its authenticity, but they are also demanding to know who originally wrote this letter.

My question is, does it really matter whether this letter is authentic or not? Does the message behind the letter lose any rhetorical power or agency if we determine that it is indeed a fake? Are the words in this letter unable to stand on their own without an author? Perhaps not.

Fiction, whether it be in the form of a novel, a letter, a short story, or even a poem, has always been deemed to exhibit emancipatory and inspirational potential. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for instance, is deemed to be one of the many literary texts that were capable of promoting social change. There’s even a story (or perhaps better said, a myth) in which Abraham Lincoln himself supposedly exclaimed “So this is the little lady who started this great war” when he met Stowe for the first time. Regardless of whether or not this statement was actually uttered by Lincoln, it still says a lot about the common belief of words possessing the power to change.

The viral letter under scrutiny has invoked a lot of positive response from the media and from people around the web. Many consider the letter to be heart-warming,  a clear indicator that times are changing. Others view the letter as a symbol of social progress, and that the act of “coming-out” is becoming less of an issue in our present day and age (I also discuss this notion of the issue of “coming-out”  and gay visibility here and here). Others were angry at the letter, claiming that it is fake, and that it is simply part of the media’s attempt to depict our society as more progressive and liberal than it actually is. What is definitely apparent is that the letter, regardless of its lack of background and context, still has the capacity to mean something to an interpreter. This notion reflects the ideas once posited by French literary theorist Roland Barthes in his 1977 essay titled Death of the Author (you can access the full-text essay here).

According to Barthes, readers generally tend to “glorify” the author, as if he or she is the absolute authority (pardon the pun) over what the text does or does not mean. Thus, the author tends to be approached as “the voice of a single person, […] ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes), although when realistically speaking, once something is unleashed into the world or published, its meaning is no longer fixed nor stable.

True, a text or a product will always have a creator, but the creator is no longer the guardian of the semantic and cultural meanings that the product possesses. Popular internet memes succumb to this “death.” Indeed, many popular internet memes, such as Me Gusta and the Ridiculously Photogenic Guy have a point of origin and a creator, but these creators no longer control the meaning of these memes, or the eventual evolution of these meanings (for instance, note how “Me Gusta” eventually developed derivatives such as “No Me Gusta” and “Me Gusta Mucho).

What Barthes means by the “death” of the author, is that meaning should not centered on authorial intent, but rather, on the interpretative abilities of the reader. This, in due course, is because meaning itself is unfixed and unstable–what “happiness” and “pleasure” means for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean for me. As Barthes himself puts it:

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. (Barthes)

The reader is therefore the nexus of all the culture, the history, and the psychology needed to understand and interpret words, whether they be on paper, on a screen, or even if they’re transmitted orally. There is no possible way for you to read orhear a set of words and understand exactly what an author meant. Thus, when it comes to the viral letter from a dad to his gay son, authorial intent does not necessarily matter, and to some extent, it is not absolutely necessary for us to know exactly who created this letter in the first place. What matters is that the words written on that sheet of paper are capable of meaning something valuable to someone. Even if the letter isn’t exactly an authentic indicator that times are changing, it is capable of transmitting an the idea that the idea of change is tangible, palpable, and desired.

We’ve generally accepted the idea that fiction–including novels, stories, television, and movies–is capable of changing us and influencing us (for better or worse). Why does it matter then whether this letter is fictional or not? Regardless of what many think, the idea of the social and cultural emancipation of gender–to the point where coming-out is presented as a non-issue–is a fiction that I’m willing to embrace.

P.S. I think the postscript on the letter under scrutiny is absolutely adorable.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s