Authenticating the Non-Signature

Saturday 30 August 2008 15:05

I have not been able to use a pen properly for years – one of the consequences of contracting Still''s Disease in childhood. I never hand-wrote an examination in my life, and the appearance of the word-processor was what liberated me to write long fiction – for good or ill. When I grow old (older) there will be no ''papers'' to sell, even if they might have been worth selling, only hard-drives and backups of hard-drives, some of them in computer languages that no longer exist (Who remembers CPM any more? Alan Sugar once thought it would dominate the world).

Although, of course, contrary to popular belief, a hard drive provides quite an interesting, if fragmentary, record of the owner''s activities, and it is conceivable that a new kind of biographer will develop in response to the digitisation of textual analysis - one whose primary qualification is in forensic computer studies and who is capable of analysing and assembling the fragments of code that remain after a document has been deleted. If Franz Kafka had used a computer, for instance, we would know a great deal more about what kind of pornography he liked and the recent book on the subject by the man from Oxford Brookes (I''ve forgotten both title and author) would be full of tantalising snippets of code.

Of course, none of this would tell us anything much about The Trial or Metamorphosis. What we know, or think we know, about the biography of writers is completely immaterial to the work. A good biography merely satisfies our curiosity, and provides us with a handy set of assumptions with which to start a conversation. The work is the public part. We do not demand to know the biography of the man who hung the doors in the house in order to judge whether the doors work properly or not. It''s not that we''re not interested in the carpenter, but what we like to call his ''biography'' does not relate to the door. A door is not a carpenter whose story we have not heard.

That mischievous philosopher Slavoj Zizek once wrote that he was tempted to put the following at the end of the author biography to one of his books: ''In his free time, Zizek likes to surf the internet for child pornography and teach his son to pull the legs off spiders...''

Of course, his publishers wouldn''t let him do it and the bookshops would certainly refuse to stock it, and probably, in the end, mischievous or not, old Slavoj would pull it at the proof stage. One way or the other, what Zizek himself might call The Master-Signifier would simply elide the event.

However, these public codicils to the last will and testament of the author of the book (the author dies at the moment of publication and any subsequent appearances are completely spectral, mere hauntings, attempts to manage the book''s reception from beyond the grave) are central to the authority of the work. If the book is about, say, a political event, we want the author to have worked for the CIA or for some significant president, or at the very least to be a Professor Of Politics At An Institute. Zizek, for example, is several professors, an International Director and a Senior Researcher. He has also Appeared In Films. In the latter, the mischievous mind is at work again, since one of the films listed is called Zizek! and he is the subject and almost the only person to appear in it, apart from his wife and some students at a seminar. Zizek is well aware of the function of cover-copy!

And why, you may ask, does a writer (me) holding these views about the spurious nature of biography and the death of the author, give readings of his work? Well, a writer must earn a living, or part of a living anyway, and the relationship between the use-value and the exchange-value of a book being so poor, any additional way of increasing sales must be grasped. Besides, as well as being an author I am a human being, and I like meeting people, and readings usually occur within the context of a festival or a conference and so on. And besides, I''m, a writer of fiction, and a good deal of fiction gets told at these events. (I''ll be writing more on this subject in The Cork Literary Review in due course, so stand by if you''re interested.)

Which brings me back to the handwriting issue, since an inevitable consequence of giving a reading is that people want you to sign their books. The transitive author-biography-fiction relation is somehow authenticated and the exchange-value altered, by this simple affirmation. It is as though, in signing the text, I accept responsibility for it, and, in this age of mechanical reproduction, make this particular copy, one of identical thousands, unique.

The fact is, I am rapidly approaching that state of skeletal degradation where I can''t sign books anymore.

I am thinking of asking the people who organise these things to add an addendum to the safety announcement in theatres, something along the following lines: ''... and in the unlikely event of an emergency please proceed to the fire exit nearest you. William Wall has asked us to announce that due to the increasing illegibility of his handwriting he will be unable to authenticate his signature if asked to do so at a later date, as such any marks he makes on your book should be regarded as fictitious and bearing no relationship to any person living or dead.''

Of course, such a disclaimer would actually authenticate the non-signature as a work of fiction in itself, one that had exactly the same relationship to me, the author, as the book has; that is to say, everybody present will know I wrote it, it will bear all the hallmarks of my present style (illegibility), but after the event, when it''s presented at a second-hand bookshop say, it might just as well be by anybody else. And thus, I fear, it might well stand for the work as a whole, a potent metaphor, passing silent, solemn judgement like the old-time gesture of donning the black cap.