Roland Barthes: “The Death of the Author”

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)


“The Death of the Author” (1968)

“The Death of the Author,” written in 1967 and published in 1968, is a stance against the enclosure of Structuralism and the authority of formalism. While the essay by Roland Barthes makes sense in the context of the intellectual life of Paris, it has often been misinterpreted when it was removed from the transitional context of theory passing out of Structuralism into Post-Structuralism as a reaction to the events of May 1968. However, as was pointed out the date of writing predated the date of publication, but the “revolution” of the essay had been a long time in the making. As a product of Literature and the classical tradition in France, the “author” was part of a system of political and economic authority that Barthes began working to dismantle from the 1950s. As Barthes wrote, “The author is a modern character.” But more interestingly are the words he uses to describe the social condition of being an author: “..the author still reigns..” and “culture is tyrannically centered on the author..” In other words, by conflating the work and the author, the classical system of reading controls the interpretation to the authority of a single voice, that of the creator.

The “Death of the Author” is an extension of the end of the unified subject, and as such, Barthes was expressing the prevailing intellectual stance that was being written and would be expressed among that group of thinker who were attending the seminars of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) in Paris. If the subject is dissolved into language, then so too is the fiction of the author or the independent creator of a work of art. Moreover, from a Marxist perspective, the “author” is a modern invention, derived from capitalist ideology that granted importance to the author’s person that was part of the wider system of ownership, property and privilege. “The Author” is part of a capitalist stress on control through authority: the authority of the writer him/herself or the authoritative interpretation of privileged interpreter. “The Author” is also part of the Enlightenment stress on individuality that inversely prioritized expertise and uniqueness. An explanation for the work of art would be sought in the person of the producer, his tastes, his history, his passions. In addition it is possible to locate an “origin” for the Romantic notion of the writer as creator, for the author is a historical entity, created by Romanticism and the stress on the significance of subjectivity.

This essay is very short, and indeed many of the texts of Barthes are quite brief, with “Myth Today” being uncharacteristically long. Part of the impact of Barthes is not just that he gave voice to ideas in circulation but also that he did so in a timely manner–short essays are easier to publish than long books which take years to write–and in a public language that was easily accessible. American writers would later find his writings difficult but that was only because they were reading them twenty years late and were not part of the conversation that generated them in the first place. When it was published in 1968, the anti-establishment tone of the essay hit the right note and fell into keeping with its own time. That said, because the essay predated much of contemporary Postmodern theory, subsequent Postmodern thinking has assumed that the point Barthes was making is that the author does not exist, or that the artist has been eradicated. However, the author was resurrected in The Pleasure of the Text in 1971, indicating that ending the role of the author was not the intent of Barthes.


Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

Barthes wanted only to extend the meaning and interpretation of the work of art to include the interaction of other texts and the responses of the reader. The German School of Constance will take up this notion of the active reader and develop the role of the reader into “reader-response” criticism and the impact of plural readings upon the act(s) of interpretation. The theoreticians of Constance developed Reception Theory to explain the interaction between the work and the audience as the “horizon of expectations,” but it is important to make a distinction: the scholars of Constance were motivated by the student movements of the late sixties. The ongoing battle fought by Roland Barthes was with the fortress of French Literature which was part of a network of ownership and control. Classical Marxism would necessitate the concept of property, but Structuralism, on the other hand, would understand writing, not as property, but as part of a linguistic system. From either or both perspectives, the aesthetic or the form of the text becomes irrelevant. “The Death of the Author” puts forward a series of ideas far more important than whether or not the Author is “dead.” It is here that Barthes would write of the concept of “intertextuality.”

In Writing Degree Zero (1953), the goal was a neutral and blank language that used words in a material and concrete manner that freed them from social codes. For Barthes, as he had mentioned several times before, it was the nineteenth century poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) who understood that language speaks, not the author. In his famous poem Un coup de dés, Mallarmé explained the importance of the gaps between the words that rattled across the white pages like a die rolling across a casino table: “..the ensuing words, laid out as they are, lead on to the last, with no novelty except the spacing of the text. The ‘blanks’ indeed take on importance, at first glance; the versification demands them, as a surrounding silence, to the extent that a fragment, lyrical or of a few beats, occupies, in its midst, a third of the space of paper: I do not transgress the measure, only disperse it..” In other words, Mallarmé equated words with silence or gaps, emphasizing the materiality of language and the performative nature of reading.

And then, several decades later, came Surrealism. Due to the use of psychological games, such as automatic writing, it was Surrealism, Barthes said, that “helped desacralize the image of the Author.” After a process of questioning and slow unraveling, from a Structuralist perspective, the author’s only tool is language itself and therefore trapped in language, authorship is never personal and the author is secondary to language. Compared to the strong pseudo “presence” of the Author, writing is neuter or “zero degree” or “white” and composite or plural, a site of the loss of the subject and of identity. Because, post-Enlightenment philosophy challenged the notion of the Cartesian subject, writing is the destruction of every voice and every origin. When one recounts/writes/represents, Barthes noted, a gap appears and the voice looses its “origin.”

The withdrawal of the author, Barthes wrote, “utterly transforms the modern text” and time is also transformed. When the Author is “present,” there is the before and after writing time, when writing begins, the author enters into his/her own death. In order to write, one must utilize language, and language, as Lacan asserted, “speaks the subject.” The reader or “the scriptor is born at the same time as his text..and every text is written essentially here and now.” Therefore “writing” changed from an act of recording or representation to a performance or a speech-act, which Barthes christened as “performative.” The term “scriptor” is then linked to“a pure gesture of inscription” which “traces a field without origin..” Barthes elaborated when he stated that the text was “a multidimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture.”Therefore, certain consequences occur: first, the “book itself is but a tissue of signs, endless imitation, infinitely postponed” and it is “futile” to attempt to “decipher” a text.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of the unified subject came under question through Lacan’s re-reading of Freud through the filter of semiotics in the fifties, and in the sixties semiotics gave way to Structuralism with Roland Barthes as its major spokesperson. If language speaks the subject, then there can be no pure gesture of inscription. The character Barthes referred to as the “Modern Scriptor” buried the Romantic notion of the Author. The hand/writing has become detached from the voice and writes traces without origin. The result is a “Text” which is a multi-dimensional space, a fabric of quotations, activated from thousands of sources from modern culture. According to Barthes, “..the writer can only imitate an ever anterior, never original gesture; his sole power is to mingle writings..” A book is a woven cloth of signs, endless imitation, with meaning infinitely postponed.

To impose an Author upon a text is to impose a brake on interpretation, to give the work a final signified. Writing becomes closed. The “author” becomes a component of reading, a theoretical designation, a fiction employed for the sake of discursive convenience. In other words “Vincent van Gogh” is a capitalist invention suitable for selling art and Ernest Hemingway is a signifier of a particular genre of American writing. Over the years, Barthes built a case that work could be only of its own time but that in order to exist art was a composite. As he wrote,

..a text consists of multiple writings, proceeding from several cultures and entering into dialogue, into parody, into contestation: but there is a site where this multiplicity is collected, and this sie is not the author, as has hitherto been claimed but the reader; the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any of them being lost, all the citations out of which a writing is made; the unity of a text is not in its origin but in its destination, but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history; without biography, without psychology, is is only that someone who holds collected into one and the same field all traces from which writing is constituted..

But as the end of the essay indicated, the death of the author does not mean the demise of the writer and points instead to the agency of the reader in bringing meanings to a text. The reader and the writer co-create a text that in itself cannot be singular or bounded as a “work,” but is inherently intertextual, (a term he borrowed from Julia Kristeva) that is, a “text” rather than a “work.” The total being of writing is multiple writings that are engaged in a dialogue. Writing is where multiplicity is collected, not by the author, but by the reader. The unity of the text is not its origin but its destination. According to Barthes, “The birth of the reader must be required by the death of the author”.

So the author must die in order to allow a space for the reader. It is the reader, after all, who makes meaning. The reader/critic can never get outside of the language any more than the writer/author be an original author and go beyond known language. Barthes took up the question of the breakdown of the boundaries of the “work” into the “text” which has no bounds in his 1971 essay, “From Work to Text.” At the time he was writing, the old disciplines were breaking down in favor of the trend towards the interdisciplinary, a mixing of fields and professions quite comfortable for Parisian intellectuals. Barthes refers to the breakdown of old disciplines as a “mutation” that is part of an “epistemological shift.” A new objectless object and a new language was formed, as “work” evolved into text, which is located at the intersection of author and reader. Barthes borrowed a distinction from Lacan: “reality” is shown, but the “real” is proved. Therefore the text must not be understood as “a computable object” but as “a methodological field.”

The Work is seen, “held in the hand,” while the text is demonstrated, “held in language” and exists only when caught up in language. Text is experienced only as an activity in production. The text is “constitutive movement” or a moment of construction or assemblage and cannot stop at “literature” which is formally interpreted. The text is plural and fulfills the plurality of meaning and depends upon dissemination which Barthes described as “traversal.” “Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production,” he emphasized. The author cannot be returned except as a guest because the text is a network, a combinative operation. The text is play, task, production and practices, meaning that reading and writing are linked together in the same signifying practice. The pleasure of the text is that the text is a social space where languages circulate, because “..the theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of reading..”

Barthes criticized Structuralism for setting up a meta-language to critique language, claiming that a metalanguage is a linguistic impossibility, for one can never escape the effects of language. Post-Structuralism or a reconsideration of Structuralism admits that it can never be a theory, only an activity, because the post-Structuralist can never escape language. If reading was a performative activity, then the “Text..practices the infinite postponement of the signified..the Test is thus restored to language; like language, it is structured but decentered, without closure..Text is fulfills the very plurality of meaning..” Text depends upon “dissemination.”Although less well known that the predecessor essay, “The Death of the Author,” “From Work to Text” was quite well developed and Barthes developed a complex discussion of Text,which he capitalized. He wrote, ” ..the Text tries to place itself very exactly behind the limit of the doxa (is not general opinion — constitutive of our democratic societies and powerfully aided by mass communications — defined by its limits, the energy with which it excludes, itscensorship?). Taking the word literally, it may be said that the Text is always paradoxical..”

In explaining that the Text is “plural,” Barthes presented an early explanation of “intertextuality.” Intertexuality will be discussed in greater detail in another post, but the idea was introduced to the Parisian university community by Julia Kristeva (1941-) in 1966, but was disseminated and popularized by Barthes who defined intertextuality he wrote in his characteristic run-on fashion: The intertextual in which every text is held, it itself being the text-between of another text, is not to be confused with some origin of the text: to try to find the ‘sources’, the ‘influences’ of a work, is to fall in with the myth of filiation; the citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas. However due to ” a process of filiation, there is “an appropriation of the work to its author.” But, Barthes insisted, As for the Text, it reads without the inscription of the Father. Here again, the metaphor of the Text separates from that of the work: the latter refers to the image of anorganism which grows by vital expansion, by ‘development’ (a word which is significantly ambiguous, at once biological and rhetorical); the metaphor of the Text is that of the network; if the Text extends itself, it is as a result of a combinatory systematic (an image, moreover, close to current biological conceptions of the living being).”

For Barthes, as he frequently wrote, the consumable work or classical “book” produced more than mere boredom, it produced nausea. The solution is that the text be considered as pleasure: “ is bound to jouissance, that is to a pleasure without separation..” Barthes took the position of a politically engaged writer who combines Marxism with Structuralism to critique the bourgeois mythologies embedded in popular narratives. He was haunted, as were all Postmodern writers with the difficulty of using language to criticize language. Barthes and his fellow critics understood the critic as being trapped into the use of a meta-language that is as implicated in language as the language that is being examined. For the transitional writers, there is no way out of this dilemma but later writers will find a solution to the problem of language. Barthes was an important link between structuralism and post-structuralism because he understands that the use of language is tantamount to the use of power. The world is composed of language is is a logosphere composed of discourses that create their own truth by their internal force and their inner connections. The writer spent his career examining how the use of language and its structures construct “truths” that are accepted as “reality” instead of what these arguments actually are–writing or literature.

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