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The Death of the Author Leads to the Birth of the Ignorant Reader - A Criticism of Roland Barthes

PillarofCreationJun 18, 2018, 3:46:27 AM

The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes is a brief six page essay written in 1967 which seeks to assert that there is no tangible or meaningful connection between an author and the works that he creates. That literary critics need not preoccupy themselves with considering the opinions or intentions of a work's creator. I will be breaking down his entire essay to find his claims and elucidating them for the purpose of defeating this assertion. (The original is in French so I will be using a translation by Richard Howard.) An author will not always have the final say on the meaning of the works they have created (go look at J.K. Rowling's Twitter if you need proof of that). However, the intentions and expression of an author at the time they create a piece of literature are some of the most important things that inform the nature of the work. This is true of any type of art.

Barthes begins with an example, as if he is already halfway through his explanation of why authors don't matter.

"In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, speaking of a castrato disguised as a woman, writes this sentence: “It was Woman, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive fears, her unprovoked bravado, her daring and her delicious delicacy of feeling” Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero, concerned to ignore the castrato concealed beneath the woman? Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain “literary” ideas of femininity? Is it universal wisdom? or romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: 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."

A castrato is a man castrated to improve the quality of his singing voice. Why Barthes chooses this example, I do not know, but amoung all his flowery language he has already made an unusual assumption. When Barthes asks who is speaking he's equivocating statements with utterances, which is wrong. A verbal utterance is always spoken in a specific place, at a specific time, by a specific person. A statement, like the one from Sarrasine, is an assertion with no other time, place, or context than it's place in the work that contains it. This may seem like semantics, and it is, but just because an idea didn't come directly from the mouth of the person who thought it, that does not degrade the relationship between the two. It just makes nature of the relationship harder to verify. The best logical simplification of Barthes arguement that I can make is ,"The specific intentions of an author when they write a something is impossible to verify with 100% accuracy, therefore, the author need not be considered at all." This is a shitty arguement. Barthes continues.

"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."

An intransitive verb is one without a direct object. Here Barthes is asserting that only utterances have any connection to the real world because they have not been repeated by a secondary source. This again contains an incorrect assumption. Even utterances have dubious meaning if their content is vague enough to require clarification on the part of the speaker. Assessing the meaning of a statement coming from a secondary source is again more difficult, as the original speaker is not there to clarify, but the original intent of the speaker remains the same, even if that intent was never explained throroughly enough to be known by anyone else.

"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” The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person” Hence 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 person, his history, his tastes, his passions; criticism still consists, most of the time, in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire, Van Gogh’s work his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice: the explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has produced it, as if, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, it was always finally the voice of one and the same person, the author, which delivered his “confidence.”"

Consideration of the author responsible for producing a work is now tyrannical, according to Barthes. Hilariously, Barthes blames the tyranny of the author on Positivism (the assertion that all knowledge is aquired via the logical synthesis of information gained through sensory experience) and Capitalism. Blaming the nature of human language and communication on capitalism is rather clear evidence of how badly Barthes was duped by Marxist political theory.

"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, Mallarme 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”: Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author for the sake of the writing (which is, as we shall see, to restore the status of the reader.)"

Objectivity is castration. You heard it here. Barthe's obsession with castration aside, this is a very telling line. The be constrained to reality, to be faced with an unavoidable conclusion which you do not control, is disempowering. True freedom is the ability to force your wants upon reality. Feels over reals, as they say. Mallarme was a French poet who more or less believed in Platonic Forms. Perfect ideas that exist outside reality that the artist strives to bring into being. It isn't very suprising that such a person would be an anti-realist.

"Valery, encumbered with a psychology of the Self, greatly edulcorated Mallarme’s theory, but, turning in a preference for classicism to the lessons of rhetoric, he unceasingly questioned and mocked the Author, emphasized the linguistic and almost “chance” nature of his activity, and throughout his prose works championed the essentially verbal condition of literature, in the face of which any recourse to the writer’s inferiority seemed to him pure superstition."

Here again is the incorrect assertion that literature is speech without a speaker. Barthes seems to take all of his opinions about literary theory from poets. Which makes sense, as poetry, more than other types of writing, sometimes seeks to transcend considerations of what the author intended the poetry to mean.

"It is clear that Proust himself, despite the apparent psychological character of what is called his analyses, undertook the responsibility of inexorably blurring, by an extreme subtilization, the relation of the writer and his characters: by making the narrator not the person who has seen or felt, nor even the person who writes, but the person who will write (the young man of the novel — but, in fact, how old is he, and who is he? — wants to write but cannot, and the novel ends when at last the writing becomes possible), Proust has given modern writing its epic: by a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as we say so often, he makes his very life into a work for which his own book was in a sense the model, so that it is quite obvious to us that it is not Charlus who imitates Montesquiou, but that Montesquiou in his anecdotal, historical reality is merely a secondary fragment, derived from Charlus."

Proust died without completing his life's greatest work, a novel entitled "In Search of Lost Time." This novel was published posthumously and written from the perspective of a narrator with no name. An exercise in the intentional separation and even inversion of the relationship between artist and art. But again, Proust's method is the exception to the rule, not the rule itself.

"Surrealism lastly — to remain on the level of this prehistory of modernity — surrealism doubtless could not accord language a sovereign place, since language is a system and since what the movement sought was, romantically, a direct subversion of all codes — an illusory subversion, moreover, for a code cannot be destroyed, it can only be “played with”; but by abruptly violating expected meanings (this was the famous surrealist “jolt”), by entrusting to the hand the responsibility of writing as fast as possible what the head itself ignores (this was automatic writing), by accepting the principle and the experience of a collective writing, surrealism helped secularize the image of the Author."

Now, on top of being tyrannical and a form of castration, consideration of the author is now religious in nature. This is preposterous. The opinions and intent of the author are considered because to ignore them would be to throw away one of the most useful tools in determining the intended meaning of a work. Keeping the author in mind is a matter of pragmatism, not dogmatism.

"Finally, outside of literature itself (actually, these distinctions are being superseded), 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."

Again the conflation of utterance and statement. Just because the intentions of the author are not explicitly present within the words of a work, that does not mean those intentions do not exist. They are simply not contained solely within the words themselves, unless the words are so perfectly expressed that their meaning could not reasonably be misunderstood. An ideal writer would include all of the information required to understand their writing within the work itself, but people aren't ideal.

"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."

Barthes has now evolved from doubting the validity of the author, to doubting the very existence of the author, as though God himself guides the hand of every writer and they are but a vessel for the language that they speak. This is rather confusing as he just declared that literary criticism needed to be secularized. Barthes' analogy likening an author to a father and literature to a child is actually quite apt. A father is responsible for the existence of his child, but he does not control how people view the child or what effect the child has on the world. If he were alive today, Karl Marx would doubtlessly know this better than anyone. Barthes' rejection of this analogy show how willingly detached from reality he truely is.

"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: something like the / Command of kings or the I Sing of the early bards; 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."

Writing is only inscription, but not expression, says Barthes. Finally we see what lies beneath Barthe's repeated conflation of utterance and statement. It is his conflation of language and meaning. Language does have meaning, and that meaning is denoted solely by the definitions of the signs or symbols used in the language, but there is connotation as well as denotation. How you say something can influence its meaning as much or more than what specific language you use. And there are many things that cannot be fully expressed via symbolic language which still have meaning. Gestures, for example, can convey meaning without conveying any logical assertion or using symbols or signs at all. Feelings and intentions have meaning, even if they are not expressed using language. Many people experience subjective meaning in ways that they will never be able be properly express to another person. This doesn't mean that said experiences are meaningless, they are simply contain meaning that is difficult to express in an understandable way. Meaning goes well beyond modern language's ability to describe it.

"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: an experience which occurred in an exemplary fashion to the young De Quincey, so gifted in Greek that in order to translate into that dead language certain absolutely modern ideas and images, Baudelaire tells us, “he created for it a standing dictionary much more complex and extensive than the one which results from the vulgar patience of purely literary themes” (Paradis Artificiels). 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."

Barthes again likens the consideration of the author to a fanatical belief in an ultimate truth behind every work. Why the Author has to be seen as the end all be all of meaning in a literary work is not explained. Barthes is constructing a straw man of the arguement for author consideration to knock down with great prejudice. Barthes is correct when he states that literary works are a conglomerate of thousands of sources of culture, but he seems to intentionally ignore the method by which these cultural tidbits become a work of literature. Through the experiences of the author, these cultural fragments are brought together and synthesized into something often greater than the sum of their parts. The pieces of culture that are most important are not the words themselves and their established meaning but the ideas contained within the mind of author and their enshrinement in text. Great authors like Shakespeare often create entirely new words in an attempt to bring new meaning into a language that previously lacked a way to express said meaning. "Life can only imitate the book," is a microcosm of how backwards all of Barthes opinions about the world and literature are. Life existed long before language. It is language that seeks to imitate life, just as math seeks to imitate the universe.

"Once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing. This conception perfectly suits criticism, which can then take as its major task the discovery of the Author (or his hypostases: society, history, the psyche, freedom) beneath the work: once the Author is discovered, the text is “explained:’ the critic has conquered; hence it is scarcely surprising not only that, historically, the reign of the Author should also have been that of the Critic, but that criticism (even “new criticism”) should be overthrown along with the Author."

Here we can see Barthes arriving at his destination. Why is this theory of literature necessary? In order to free the reader from having to consider anyone's opinion but their own. Once the Author has been vanquished, the critic looses the information they need to properly evaluate a work. And thus only the reader remains to arbitrarily apply their own meaning to what they read. The entire essay has been an attempt to undermine the importance of critical thinking and problem solving. Forget doing work and searching for the answers, just make the answers up.

"In a multiple writing, indeed, everything is to be distinguished, but nothing deciphered; structure can be followed, “threaded” (like a stocking that has run) in all its recurrences and all its stages, but there is no underlying ground; the space of the writing is to be traversed, not penetrated: writing ceaselessly posits meaning but always in order to evaporate it: it proceeds to a systematic exemption of meaning. Thus literature (it would be better, henceforth, to say writing), by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world as text) a “secret:’ that is, an ultimate meaning, liberates an activity which we might call counter-theological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law."

Writing is a systematic exemption of meaning, says Barthes. At this point I wouldn't be surprised if his next statement were "Black is White," or "Up is Down." Language exists solely as a tool to convey meaning from one creature to another. To say that language excludes meaning is to completely give up on any ratinal conception of communication. Again we see the religion analogy and again we see the strawman of the author as God.

"Let us return to Balzac’s sentence: no one (that is, no “person”) utters it: its source, its voice is not to be located; and yet it is perfectly read; this is because the true locus of writing is reading. Another very specific example can make this understood: recent investigations (J. P. Vernant) have shed light upon the constitutively ambiguous nature of Greek tragedy, the text of which is woven with words that have double meanings, each character understanding them unilaterally (this perpetual misunderstanding is precisely what is meant by “the tragic”); yet there is someone who understands each word in its duplicity, and understands further, one might say, the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him: this someone is precisely the reader (or here the spectator). In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of 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."

The last paragraph on Barthe's essay finally returns to the example of the first paragraph. "The true locus of writing is reading." The implication here seems to be that because you are the one reading or uttering a text, you are now the author of that text. This is simply the normalization of ignorance. Reading a work and looking only within oneselves to determine the meaning of another person's words is rarely if ever going to provide you with the intended meaning. This becomes even more problematic if there are significant cultural differences between author and reader. After everything Barthes has said, I wonder why he cares about literature at all. If no objective meaning can possibly by derived from a work, why even bother discussing it? Such a discussion would inevitably devolve into everyone stating their own opinion with little to no actual evidence to support it.

Barthes example about Greek Tragedy is self defeating. Words or phrases with double meaning are used intentionally in the narrative to create conflict. The reader needs to know what both meanings are in order to fully appreciate the use of language in the story, but Barthes method of literary analysis gives no reason to consider what the intended meaning of the words are at all. Only the readers opinions about the language are allowed to inform them as to the meaning of the work. Literature in itself is not a cultural dialogue, it is a cultural statement. Only after two people have read a work can a dialogue about that work take place. Until then it is simply an assertion. To say that a reader has no history, no psychology, is to ignore their humanity. It is to reduce them to a robot only fit for consuming words. No one person can hold all of the potential meanings and understandings linked to a work. This is why literary critique is necessary, because no one person ever hold all the answers. But the author is still the closest we can get.

Barthes ends with another hint towards the nefarious underpinning of his philosophy. To deny the author is to champion the rights of the reader. The right to think whatever they want, to draw whatever conclusions they find to be reasonable, without any necessary reference to evidence or any connection to reality or logic at all. The birth of the reader is not ransomed by the death of the author. Meaning is only exchanged properly when the reader shelves their own ego long enough to consider the author's point of view. Only with an open mind can true cross-cultural communication take place.