Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”
S. Heath, tr. and ed. Image, Music, Text (1968), pp. 142-8
Barthes’s essay summarizes itself in its final paragraph: “Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (189).
Not a shocking conclusion for an article entitled “The Death of the Author,” really, but truly radical idea in and of itself: that the Author, long the focus of literary study, is not in fact all that important – it is the reader that matters. To get to this point, Barthes begins with the observation that “The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author… [and that the] explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us” (186).
Barthes begins to take apart this assumption of authorial importance by noting that “… it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality… to reach that point, where only language acts, ‘performs’ and not ‘me'” (186), a conclusion to which New Critics could at least tentatively assent. However, Barthes’s next move is a bit more radical. He claims that “… writing… designates exactly what linguists, referring to Oxford philosophy, call a performative, a rare verbal form… in which the enunciation has no other content… than the act by which it is uttered – something like the I declare of kings or the I sing of very ancient poets” (187). The Author (who by now should probably simply be referred to as “the writer”) is then merely a conduit for pre-existent language, a person whose “… only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them” (188).
He is the assembler of already formed writings, many of which are mutually contradictory. Barthes goes on to assert that, “… the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (188); to focus on the author is “… to impose a limit on [a] text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (188). This is the case because to insist on an authorial presence is to insist on a coherence in the writing that is simply not there. The author is the transcendental signified for the structure of the text, and a post-structuralist understanding cannot tolerate such a figure. To do so would be to deny the slippage that is inevitably at work in the bricolage that is present in any text.
Barthes then concludes that “In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law” (188). In short, he proposes an anti-foundational hermeneutic for interpreting both life and literature that values the play of contradictory elements of a text in the mind of the reader, who is the central figure, the final object of the act of writing.
Barthes conceives the author as chef, the text as food, and the reader as ingesting and digesting that which the chef has prepared. In Barthes’s opinion, only in entering the reader’s mouth does the food take on any flavor, and only in his stomach does it release any energy. Moreover, Barthes relentlessly reminds us that the author did not create (in the sense of bringing into existence) any of the ingredients in his dishes, and that the chef would cease to have any real purpose without his patrons, that it wouldn’t really do him much good to prepare meals that would merely sit on a table until they rotted away. Barthes deconstructs the binary of “Author / reader” to show that the reader is the necessary supplement and then privileges the reader: a necessary corrective in the flow of literary interpretation, to be sure.
Yet, I can’t help but feel sorry for the Author as viewed by Barthes: is his skillful selection and combination of ingredients in his text to be completely ignored? And, is not the Author almost undoubtedly also a reader himself? I envision, instead of a mere change of privilege in the Author / reader binary, a deconstruction to the point of implosion: the roles of Author and reader are shared by all in varying proportions at varying times for various people. What exactly that looks like, however, is another thought for another essay.
NB I know that the food metaphor does not necessarily hold up perfectly, but it is, I think, helpful, and, just as importantly, fun. Also, please forgive my default use of the masculine pronoun for unidentified people; old habits die hard, I suppose.