“300,” Zack Snyder’s action-packed depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae, takes glorious violence to a new level. When it opened last week, movie-going crowds watched in awe as heads rolled, armies plummeted off rocky cliffs, rhinos suffered massive brain trauma, and many a Persian infantryman was torn to shreds. But more was torn to shreds than oriental-esque soldiers—“300” achieved glorious victory, smashing box office records, and racking in the third-best opening of all time for an R-rated movie. It seems as if everyone was enchanted by 300’s Spartan glory. Well, maybe not everyone. While the masses rushed into the theater, the critics walked out, literally in fact. In Berlin, several critics didn’t even make it through the movie. Those who stayed appeared to regret doing so. On the whole, reviews were less than favorable, to say the least. Just to give a sampling of some of the remarks the movie evoked from critics:
“Despite the fantastic visuals, action and sometimes rousing story, the needle flickers between grandiose and laughable -- in part because the film takes itself sooo relentlessly, slow-motion, music-swellin', see-you-in-hell seriously.”—Mark Rahner, Seattle Times
“300 is at its best when it settles for purely visceral thrills”—Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
“History is inconveniently complex. And so we get Frank Miller's version, in which everything is simplified to the point of porridge.”—Stephen Witty, Newark Star-Ledger
“Put bluntly, the movie's just too darned silly to withstand any ideological theorizing. And 'silly' is invoked here, more or less, with affection.”—Gene Seymour, Newsday
“It is undeniably exciting and awe-inspiring; but it also lacks a sense of tactile warmth, a crucial core of reality.”—Tom Long, Detroit News
“There's nothing remotely like reality to be had in this film.”—Tasha Robinson, Onion A.V. Club
“300 is about as violent as Apocalypto and twice as stupid.” –A.O. Scott, New York Times
This last remark gets right to the point—all in all, the critics thought the movie was stupid—either it was stupid fun, or just plain stupid. “300” is not only over-the-top, it is a veritable departure from reality, maybe even a venture into “hyper-reality,” as Staci Layne Wilson of the Sci-Fi times suggests, and thus very hard for critics to take seriously. Neal Stephenson, writing for the New York Times, elaborates on this point:
“Such criticisms aren’t really worth arguing with, because they are not serious in the first place — and that is their whole point. Many critics dislike “300” so intensely that they refused to do it the honor of criticizing it as if it were a real movie.” (It’s all Geek To Me—New York Times 3/18)
If “300” is indeed a shining example of pure entertainment, it would appear that as the cultural commodity approaches perfection, the critics are left with little to say. They can scorn, they can snob, but ultimately, they cannot hail these products as legitimate textual entities.
What has happened to the critic that has left him/her able only to snob a work like “300,” rather than, well, criticize? Perhaps we should begin our quest to find the critic by looking into the changing nature of the work/text and its origin—the Author. Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault are not short on insights into this subject.
For both Barthes and Foucault, the idea of “Authorship,” is ultimately a myth of modernity. As Barthes wrote, “the author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism, and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the ‘human person’”(DA 143). Basically, modern society ties text to the author. This myth of modernity compels the reader to see the text as inseparable from the author—and therefore who wrote/produced it is crucial to its meaning. As Foucault observes, the text was viewed to be meaningless if it did not have an Author tied to it—“‘literary’ discourse was acceptable only if it carried an author’s name; every text of poetry or fiction was obliged to state its author and the date, place, and circumstance of its writing” (WA 126). To change who wrote the text would change the very meaning of the text itself (see Foucault’s discussion of author’s names). The role of the Author, then, was analogous to a fixed meaning of the work—the one meaning centered upon the individual deemed the author. Hence, for Barthes and Foucault alike, the Author is a product of modern structuralism. Barthes fleshed this point out, writing, “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on the text, to furnish it with a final signified to close the writing” (147). What, then, is responsible for the “death of the Author?” Sure enough, it’s the rise of post-structuralism. When culture is revealed as decentered, the myth of modern structuralism is annihilated, and the author meets his/her demise.
But before looking into culture-after-authorship, we should pause to examine the role of the critic with respect to the Authored text. If the job of the critic is to judge the value of a work based on its meaning, the critics first task is to find the meaning—which, before his/her death, lies in the Author’s identity. It is as Barthes wrote, “when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’—victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been the reign of the Author”(DA 147). Thus, the critic thrives off of the structuralist myth. And, sure enough, as post-structuralism tears away the fixed signified and thus the author, “criticism (be it new) is today undermined along with the Author” (DA 147).
So, then, what becomes of the critic in de-centered post-modernity? More immediately, what is there after the Author is gone? Barthes believes that the removal of the author “utterly transforms the modern text” (DA 145). The work, and writing in particular, “can no longer designate an operation of recording, notation, representation, ‘depiction’” (DA 145). Furthermore, “We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (DA 146). In short, the single meaning of the text attributed to the Author (what Barthes called the theological meaning, since it is unitary and absolute), is replaced by a multiplicity of meanings, which depends on the reading. In another essay in Image-Music-Text, From Work to Text, Barthes claims that the reader gives the text its meaning, not the Author. Since the text is not a mere representation, there is no innate meaning to the text that one can decipher; rather, since there are many meanings that can be extracted from the text, depending on the reading, “In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, not deciphered” (DA 147). If this is the case, what role can the critic have? There’s no meaning to criticize! The reader bonds directly to the text—the mediation of a critic is superfluous. Thus, the only thing a critic will be able to say about truly decentered text is that there is no meaning to be found in it—and thus they can do little but not take it seriously.
This analysis implies that the individual can no longer express himself through writing (or the work in general). What, then, becomes of the individual him/herself? If one expresses more meaning through reading that through writing, then the individual can only be expressed by mixing writings, rather than by writing oneself—one can only express oneself by translating themselves into “words only explainable by other words” (DA 146), as Barthes puts it. Therefore, after the death of the author, “life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (DA 147). After the death of the Author, we ourselves become decentered. One life becomes a copy of the model, the referent is obliterated, and the sign is infinitely deferred (one should recall Baudrillard’s writings on hyperreality and the precession of simulacra). Thus, the true post-Authorship text is not based on “reality,” it can only be said to exist in “hyperreality.”
Which brings us back to “300,” a film (and a film is to some extent just another sort of text) bashed (or, in some cases, praised) by critics for being totally out of touch with reality and for having no decipherable meaning besides the blatant themes of liberty and valor, but adored by the moving-going masses, who managed to connect to the movie nonetheless. A movie based on a comic book based on another movie based on accounts of a war. It may be mindless entertainment, but it gets right to the core of what Foucault and Barthes were talking about. There is no Author-god who bestows the film/text with some kind of “theological meaning.” “300” lays thousands of infantrymen to rest—and the Author along side them. The movie can only be disentangled, not deciphered—leaving a minimal role for the critic. Sure enough, the critics could do little but snob the movie, or praise it as cheap thrill. And yet, the film-text continues draw in audience/readers by the millions, who seek to interact with the text and disentangle their own meanings from it. The audience/reader has no need for the critic. If anything, “300’s” ability to appeal to audiences (and therefore provide some sort of meaningful experience for them), while drawing a scornful response from critics, who could only pass it off as stupid/stupid fun, is evidence that culture has in fact become post-modernized. Hyperreality may indeed be our reality.
However, the critic, though stumped in this particular case, does not appear to be dead at all. On the contrary, one can turn to the Arts and Leisure section on any given Friday and find critics doing their thing, week after week. Two explanations account for this fact. Foucault provides the first explanation. Foucault notes that even if the Author as such is declared to be dead, the Author-function, as he calls it, might still be carried out by other means, arising from that which has come to take the place of the Author. As he wrote, “It seems to me that the themes destined to replace the privileged position accorded the author have merely served to arrest the possibility of genuine change” (WA 118). He then goes on to pinpoint two such themes that have emerged after the “death of the Author,” but continue to imply the Author-function. Thus, the death of the Author does not necessarily change the nature of the text—the Author-function must be eliminated entirely from discourse to bring about “genuine change.” And, as long as the nature of text remains unchanged, the critic will still have a role to play.
Secondly, and this is merely a corollary of the first point, contemporary culture, even if it has seen the rise of the post-modern, has not seen the end of the modern and its myths. There is no reason to believe that the two are mutually exclusive. Hence, the Author might have only died a partial death—or it might be dying a slow, elongated death. Where modernity’s myths persist, there the critic will find his role; where they are replaced by endless deferral of reference, the critic will find himself impotent. Thus, in the end, the survival of the critic may speak to the persistence of modernity, but his/her defeat at the hands of “300” is a testament to the force of the decentered and the hyperreal in today’s world.
DA = Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author
WA = Michel Foucault, What is an Author?