March 22, 2018 - The University of South Dakota

My senior year at UW-Madison I took a philosophy seminar called The Death of the Author.  

The class was taught by a professor who had taught an Existential Philosophy course I took the year prior.  As compelling as he was in the large lecture setting of that course, he was as hapless at leading in discussion the smaller group of us that gathered every Thursday afternoon for the two hour class meeting on the fourth floor of Helen C White library in a room with a nearly panoramic view of Lake Mendota that began the semester as a late summer vista of blue water and sailboats and slowly transformed into a frozen ice expanse covered in snow.

The class was made up of philosophy majors and graduate students but was augmented by me and my best friend and we felt somewhat bemused as the untethered discussion often devolved into people shouting things like "WHAT ABOUT FUNCTIONAL ART???!!" at each other.

The title of the class was cribbed from an essay by Roland Barthes of the same name and was an exploration of the question of who determines the meaning of a piece of art (in Barthes' case, a text).  The conclusion Barthes reaches is that the Author has essentially no bearing on the meaning of his or her work, the Author's intentions are not to be considered in interpreting a work, and meaning is determined by the interaction between the text and the perceiver of the text with the Author having no special authority or influence on said meaning (hence, the "death" of the Author). 

Possibly because of the near anarchy of the seminar format, possibly because I was in the class with my best friend and we were both soon-to-be-graduating-seniors, I left the course feeling as if it had been a complete waste of my time and had no practical application to anything in my present or future world.

Little did I know that almost 20 years later I would wake up in a Holiday Inn Express in South Dakota thinking about Roland Barthes.

I had arrived in Vermillion, South Dakota, late the night before after playing at a coffee shop in Lincoln, Nebraska, and would perform twice at the University of South Dakota, my first time in the state, the 36th in which I've done my Odyssey.

I stumbled downstairs for a surprisingly robust hotel breakfast and armed with two cups of coffee returned to my room to prepare for the day.

First up was a radio interview on the South Dakota NPR affiliate (which you can hear HERE).  My interviewer was fantastic and I got to talk and play for almost a half an hour.

Following that I hustled to a lunch and then to my first full performance of the day for a Classical Myth class of about 50 undergrads.  The professor and students were wonderful and after some time to catch up with a dear high school friend (who teaches at USD) I set up for my public performance in the beautiful Farber Hall.  

The room acoustics were incredible and the audience warmly receptive to my post-show discussion antics.

Following the event, my friend and I caught up more over drinks and after a night of sleep I again awoke in South Dakota.  

My final appearance was a discussion with a small theatre class, all of whom had been present at the previous night's show.  I don't get a chance to talk about my Odyssey purely from the aspect of performance and being a professional performing artist and this discussion was eye-opening, intense, and very fulfilling.  Talking with a group of performers about the vulnerability of an hour long solo show was a gratifying way to end a very busy 36 hours in Vermillion.

So why was I think about Roland Barthes and that underwhelming class I took so many years ago?

Well, I experienced my Odyssey was refracted through four different lenses: A radio interview, a Myth Class, a public performance, and a theatre class. 

Each audience, each context, created a different meaning for my song.  

I, as the "Author," was just a vessel for the song to enter the world and once I sang it the audience and the context determined what it meant.

I went back and looked at Barthes' essay in preparation to write this and found an incredible passage, which a 21 year old me underlined in bold pen:

"Writing... designates exactly what linguists... call a performative, a rare verbal form... in which the enunciation has no other content... than the act by which it is uttered - something like the I declare of kings or the I sing of very ancient poets."

Funnily enough, Barthes' lack of knowledge of Ancient Greek resulted in him missing a subtle but even more compelling facet of Greek epic for the purposes of his argument: in Homer, the Invocation is not even a personal "I sing," but an impersonal imperative directed at the Muse: "Sing (through me)." 

The Author was always dead in epic and the conception of the Bard was very similar to the Scriptor figure Barthes settles on to take the place of The Author by the end of his essay.  

So there it is: The Odyssey, Roland Barthes, and Vermillion, South Dakota.

I'm guessing that's the first time those words have appeared in the same sentence but you just never know.

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