In 1967, French essayist and literary hypothesizer Roland G. Barthes¹ published The Death of the Author (La mort de l’auteur), which takes, as its central aim, the delegitimization of “the Author” (capitalization his) for the prioritization of “the reader,” a point arrived at by Barthes’ through his belief that textual signification reached a point of coalescence only through the reader, and not through the author (even though they are also readers).
The essay’s title (not so much its contents) has become a popular slogan, deployed in literary circles as de facto justification for narcissistic misinterpretation. Under its auspices, if an author(s) expresses something, directly or through their work(s), which a member of their readership dislikes, then, under the auspices of the “death of the author” that reader may declare the author(s) intention(s) void, henceforth, and instead, declare their own “reinterpretation(s)” the valid one(s), even if the passage(s) is/are clear in intent, or, is/are clarified directly by the author(s).
When one declares biographical information and authorial intention irrelevant to a textual fictive work, it is pertinent to ask why such persons read a particular author? Within the framework of “death of the author” theology, they’re all the same, merely another jumble of text which can be extrapolated any which way one pleases. Indeed, one can rightly ask: why read any fiction at all? Why not read a instruction manual or a signpost, which can then be “reinterpreted” so as to make it amenable to the reader’s hermetic and fragile sensibilities?
In the observation of this practice, what one witnesses is not merely the death of authorial intent, but the death of art as a distinctive practice, for art, in any classical sense, can no more exist without authorial intention, and its evaluation, than it can without an audience.
… literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes. (Barthes, The Death of the Author)
The pronouncement is made after a digression on Sarrasine, a novella by Balzac concerning a man who falls in love with a castrato disguised as a female who the protagonist describes (obviously incorrectly) as a near-perfect distillation of womanhood. Barthes declares that, in such lines, it is impossible to tell who is speaking, the protagonist or Balzac or “universal wisdom” or “romantic psychology” (though all of these “voices” would, of necessity, be under the direction of Balzac’s, yet Barthes, for a reason never stated, classes them as if they were distinct persons), hence his reference to the ‘oblique’ nature of literature.
Literature is indeed a composite, but it is in no way an “oblique into which every subject escapes” (the subject of desire—for the author, the successful completion and warm reception of his creation—cannot, de jure, vanish into itself) nor a “trap where all identity is lost” for literary style is every bit as distinctive as a fingerprint (ie. stylometry). Barthes is correct insofar as he realizes that there can be multiple “voices” within a work, but this in no way invalidates the stewardship of the author or authors (as in a collaborative effort). Indeed, upon the topic, Barthes himself writes “Balzac, speaking of a castrato…” as if he already understands and accepts what he attempts to undermine—that there is but a singular guide (a master “voice”). That admission, itself, undermines the whole premise.
Probably this has always been the case: once an action is recounted, for intransitive ends, and no longer in order to act directly upon reality — that is, finally external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol — this disjunction occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins. (Barthes)
Intransitivity is a verb property (in distinction to transitivity). Intransitive ends, then, are those which exclude questions of what or whom, confining description instead to the where, when and how—already they are not “external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol.”
Nevertheless, the feeling about this phenomenon has been variable; in primitive societies, narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose “performance” may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his “genius”
Narrative is, at its point of origin, always undertaken by a person, regardless of the character or stage of development of the narrator’s society. The reason why those who performed ancestral narratives did not claim (creative narrative) genius is rather obvious, they did not create the stories they communicated, and knew that others would know it—one would not expect to hear a modern playwright adapting Macbeth to claim (creative narrative) “genius” in the enterprise, and if one did hear such a pronouncement, he or she would likely be swiftly reproached for it.
…it is logical that with regard to literature it should be positivism, resume and the result of capitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importance to the author’s “person” The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author…
His low opinion of authors is again clear in his encircling of person with quotation marks, as if the “person” of the author were merely an illusion, a view which is more elaborately expressed in Empire of Signs (1982), in which he speaks emphatically of undoing “our own reality” (page 6).
Returning to his essay—If one is speaking of literary history or biographies of writers then the writer should take center stage (particularly in the latter example). To say that “biographies of writers” should not be “centered on the author” is the same as saying that biographies shouldn’t exist. That, of course, does not mean one should not mention reader’s reactions and the change effected by the public reception of a text; consequently it may (or may not) be fair to criticize a historical (but not biographical) work concerning literature which sets out to cover a given period comprehensively, and yet focuses on an author (or set of authors) at the expense of all else.
Though the Author’s empire is still very powerful (recent criticism has often merely consolidated it), it is evident that for a long time now certain writers have attempted to topple it. In France, Mallarme² was doubtless the first to see and foresee in its full extent the necessity of substituting language itself for the man who hitherto was supposed to own it; for Mallarme, as for us, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality — never to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist — that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not “oneself”…
There is little to be said of this passage other than that Barthes is confused as to the topic of agency. He deploys “speaks” metaphorically, of course, and yet, to consider his example in the literal register proves clarifying—for language cannot act or perform of its own accord anymore than a organ can play itself or a candle kindle its own flame.
Barthes then digresses, at considerable length, on a number of writers, including the previously mentioned Mallarme, as well as Proust. I’ll not dwell upon these passages, as they are merely reiterations of his previously mentioned belief that “language… speaks, not the author,” to which one might sardonically reply, “It is the coconut which uses amphioctopus marginatus, not amphioctopus marginatus which uses the coconut.”
… linguistics has just furnished the destruction of the Author with a precious analytic instrument by showing that utterance in its entirety is a void process, which functions perfectly without requiring to be filled by the person of the interlocutors: linguistically, the author is never anything more than the man who writes, just as I is no more than the man who says I: language knows a “subject,” not a “person,” end this subject, void outside of the very utterance which defines it, suffices to make language “work,” that is, to exhaust it.
A void, in any literal sense, would be void of any ‘process’ One may talk all one likes about what rocks are like in the absence of sensing apparatuses to perceive them, but it doesn’t fundamentally matter, for there would then be nothing for the rocks to matter to. They would be, but they would not, could not, matter. The case is the same with regard to language. Language does not know a ‘subject.’ Language does not know. Language is not an agent.
The absence of the Author (with Brecht, we might speak here of a real ‘alienation:’ the Author diminishing like a tiny figure at the far end of the literary stage) is not only a historical fact or an act of writing: it utterly transforms the modern text (or — what is the same thing — the text is henceforth written and read so that in it, on every level, the Author absents himself). Time, first of all, is no longer the same. The Author, when we believe in him, is always conceived as the past of his own book: the book and the author take their places of their own accord on the same line, cast as a before and an after: the Author is supposed to feed the book — that is, he pre-exists it, thinks, suffers, lives for it; he maintains with his work the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child. Quite the contrary, the modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text; he is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing, he is in no way the subject of which his book is the predicate; there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now.
One can see how ironically authoritative Barthes takes his own absence of authority to be by declaring his baseless assertion to be “a historical fact.” This assertion of simultaneousness is clearly untrue, for the simple reason that the author must think of what is to be written before he or she writes.
This is because (or: it follows that) to write can no longer designate an operation of recording, of observing, of representing, of “painting” (as the Classic writers put it), but rather what the linguisticians, following the vocabulary of the Oxford school, call a performative, a rare verbal form (exclusively given to the first person and to the present), in which utterance has no other content than the act by which it is uttered… the modern writer, having buried the Author, can therefore no longer believe, according to the “pathos” of his predecessors, that his hand is too slow for his thought or his passion, and that in consequence, making a law out of necessity, he must accentuate this gap and endlessly “elaborate” his form; for him, on the contrary, his hand, detached from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin — or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, that is, the very thing which ceaselessly questions any origin.
If writing is, as Barthes asserts, “no longer… an operation of recording, of observing, of representing…” then he could in no way record, observe or represent any lack of representation and is saying that he can say nothing.
We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture. Like Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, both sublime and comical and whose profound absurdity precisely designates the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original; his only power is to combine the different kinds of writing, to oppose some by others, so as never to sustain himself by just one of them; if he wants to express himself, at least he should know that the internal “thing” he claims to “translate” is itself only a readymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum… Succeeding the Author, the writer no longer contains within himself passions, humors, sentiments, impressions, but that enormous dictionary, from which he derives a writing which can know no end or halt: life can only imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, a lost, infinitely remote imitation.
A text does consist of a line of words. That is all it consists of. Such a line may contain (and “release”) a single meaning (theological or otherwise) or a multiplicity of meanings; which it contains is dependent upon intention and the presentation and apperception thereof. Misinterpretation in no wise invalids this fact. For example, if an author writes a particular line with a single purpose, regardless of the interpretations of others, the originary meaning will always remain the same, that is to say, just as intended.
In his domain, the artist is absolute.
From this point he notes that since writing cannot be truly deciphered (since it can never mean anything definitively), literary criticism must also be done away with (curiously, he did not, after his essay’s completion, tender his resignation to the trade), along with god, reason, science and law.
… criticism (even “new criticism”) should be overthrown along with the Author.
… to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law.
The overthrown of criticism is a natural conclusion of the evacuation of meaning from authorship, and is just as mistaken for the same reasons. His railing against three hypostases in one ousia is shoehorned in suddenly, but isn’t wholly incorrect, for to refuse to “arrest meaning” is indeed to refuse reason, science and law, but it is not to refuse God, for one can easily apply reason, engage in science and construct and follow law, without any belief in providence whatsoever. All of this, however, is far afield of authorship and its supposed demise.
He then returns to Balzac, repeats the lines with which he opened his piece and concludes thusly,
… the true locus of writing is reading.
… a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted. This is why it is absurd to hear the new writing condemned in the name of a humanism which hypocritically appoints itself the champion of the reader’s rights. The reader has never been the concern of classical criticism; for it, there is no other man in literature but the one who writes. We are now beginning to be the dupes no longer of such antiphrases, by which our society proudly champions precisely what it dismisses, ignores, smothers or destroys; we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.
One of the reasons why “the death of the author” has become so popular is because of the high regard it supposedly has for the reader, which is taken up as a rallying cry—Barthes and his acolytes striking out against supposed ivory tower art snobs—and yet, consider his opinion of the readers in this last passage. For Barthes, readers are “without biography” and “psychology” merely a vector for the transmission of signification. This is well in keeping with the rest of the article, but it is completely out of step with the contemporary valorizations of the “death of the author.” Further, not only does there not need to be any antipathic bifurcation between authors and readers, there cannot be, for that is to propose a waltz without a partner where the loner refuses to box-step and the music plays itself. Or as Lamos of Films Lie put it,
The death of the Author is also the inability to create, invent, or be original. It is the spinning out of control into the abyss of multiple meanings and inevitable meaninglessness.
A declaration nullified by its very pronouncement.
In closing, I am reminded of a quote by Simon Leys, who, in his essay The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote, wrote,
Literary critics do fulfil a very important role… but there seems to be a problem with much contemporary criticism, and especially with a certain type of academic literary criticism. One has the feeling that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading. Worse even, if they were actually to enjoy a book, they would suspect it to be frivolous.
- Alan KcKee. (2003) Textual Analysis: A Beginner’s Guide. SAGE publications.
- Eric Wayne. (2018) “The Death of the Author” Debunked. Art & Crit.
- Gemma Khaicy. (2013) Why hackers should be afraid of how they write. The Sydney Morning Herald.
- Honore de Balzac. (1830) Sarrasine. Project Gutenberg (2010-2016).
- Jane Alison. (2019) Beyond the Narrative Arc. The Paris Review.
- James Wood. (2020) What is at Stake When We Write Literary Criticism?
- Joris-Karl Huysmans, translated by Keene Wallace. (1891 French; 1928 Eng.) Las-bas. Originally published by Tresse & Stock.
- Jeanne Willette. (2013) Roland Barthes: Structuralism. Art History Unstuffed.
- Joseph M. Pierre. (2015) Culturally sanctioned suicide: Euthanasia, seppuku and terrorist martyrdom. World Journal of Psychiatry.
- Lamos Ignoramos. (—) The Death of the Author: Roland Barthes and the Collapse of Meaning. Filmslie.
- Maddie Crum. (2016) ‘Fight Club’ Author Reflects On Violence & Masculinity, 20 Years Later. Huffington Post (USA).
- Michael Karlsberg. (2005) The Power of Discourse & The Discourse of Power: Pursuing Peace Through Discourse Intervention. International Journal of Peace Studies, volume 10, number 1.
- Pierre Haski. (2014) The Death of Simon Lays, Fierce Opponent of French Maoist Intellectuals. Not Bored (English Translation).
- Roland Barthes. (1982) Empire of Signs. Hill & Wang.
- Roland Barthes. (1967) The Death of the Author. English: Aspen, no. 5-6.
- Simon Leys. (2013) The Hall Of Uselessness: Collected Essays. The New York Review Of Books.
- T. S. Eliot. (1919) Tradition and the Individual Talent. The Egoist (later published in The Sacred Wood).
- Tulipsandmondays. (2014) A Case Against ‘Death of the Author’ Theory. Ididn’twantanyflowers.
¹ Roland Gerard Barthes was a literary critic and scholar of semiotics educated at the University of Paris and the author of numerous works including, Writing Degree Zero (1968), Empires of Signs (1983) and Criticism and Truth (1987).
² Etienne Mallarme (pen-name: Stephane Mallarme) was a French poet and literary critic, a contemporary of Rilke, Yeats and Verlaine. Mallarme was highly regarded by Huysmans, who praised the poet’s writing extensively in his 1884 novel À rebours.