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Please Give Norbert Weiner Some Naughty Schnauzers
(And Other Curious Developments in the Work of Janet Zweig)

by Patricia C. Phillips


I’ll wager that no one reading this essay knows (or perhaps wants to know) the author of the ridiculous sentence in its title. Since the publication of Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author” 40 years ago, many readers have acquired a seasoned skepticism about the authority and dependability of the authorial voice. Although Barthes suggests that the emergence of the reader comes at the expense of the author, authors (and artists) did not die. Instead, the author exists, in culture and in the perspectives of diverse readers, as a negotiable and indeterminate figure rather than the sole agent of significance. It is generally accepted now that meaning develops in—or actively occupies—the transactional space between the mind of an author and the minds of a text’s different readers. This epistemological exchange also changes over time. If meaning is accepted as variable, spatialized, and temporalized, then the author has never ceased to exist.
In Janet Zweig’s Impersonator (2002), installed in the Instructional Technology Center of Santa Fe Community College, the author may not be dead, but she is unequivocally missing in action. Who is the impersonator, who is she dramatizing, and what is her relationship to an author? Where does the artist enter and exit in this discursive, possibly disturbing scenario? There is a phantom author of texts, potentially multiple, unidentified impersonators, and someone who may have defaulted on the commonly accepted role of the artist as creator and maker. As Hannah Arendt speculates about webs of relationships and enacted stories, “The manifestation of who the speaker and doer unexchangeably is, though it is plainly visible, retains a curious intangibility…”

Small Kindnessses, Weather Permitting, 2004.
Steel and electronics, dimensions variable.
35 interactive video and audio kiosks installed at Minneapolis light-rail stations.


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