The Cult of the Individual

Barthes observes that in the oral tradition, the relator of a narrative’s “‘performance’–the mastery of the narrative code–may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius.’ The author is a modern figure, a product of our society[‘s] discover[y] of the prestige of the individual… It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the person of the author” (1322)

When I first read this, I immediately thought of the Anglo-Saxon ‘scop’ or storyteller, who would relay stories by memory, in verse. In our class discussion the example of “the unknown Beowulf poet” was brought up when we talked about this passage, and it strikes me that even our tendency to adopt that phrasing reflects the ideology that Barthes talks about. Our use of the article ‘the’ and the singular form of ‘poet’ still clearly communicates our understanding of Beowulf as the product of genius–of spontaneous genesis within an individual mind–rather than the culmination of a slow and collaborative process of enrichment and fine-tuning by many such scops (all of whom were privy to bits and pieces of raw material from even conversational narratives over their lifetimes).

I’m very interested in exploring further the connection between this attitude, seemingly made possibly by literacy–by the printed word, and the western hyperfocus on individuality to the exclusion of all things social and community-centered. I think I’ll add a re-read of Ong’s (<—–) Orality and Literacy to my three-foot-high-and-counting pile of summer reading. I am also beginning to see more significance of the potential for hypertextuality to shift our culture almost as drastically. I can’t help but wonder what Barthes would have made of the wiki phenomenon.

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