Die, Author! Die!
For many years literary criticism revolved around the creator of a text, the author. Critics were interested in what message the author intended to convey, what subconscious influences had affected the way the author had written the text, and what influence could be ascribed to the author with respect to what was occurring in the society at the time the text was written. Through these methods, critics sought to establish definitive meanings for each text as a way to better understand the world around them. Because of this approach, authors came to be revered while their texts were simply viewed as a byproduct of the genius and skill of that author. In 1968, Roland Barthes wrote a short essay which revolutionized criticism because it challenged this connection of the author to his texts. Barthes contended that the only valid meaning of a text was to be found in the text itself since the author’s intentions could never truly be realized. Further, building upon the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Barthes believed that any meaning that might be derived from a text could only be understood through the language which created it, and the author was in many ways simply a conduit of the language into a textual form. Barthes’ essay called for “The Death of the Author” in the interpretation of texts, separating the text from the author and thus freeing critics from pursuing a definitive authorial meaning for any text. To Barthes this was not only “revolutionary “ but “liberat[ing],” freeing critics from the pursuit of ‘absolute truths’ and ensuring, in his mind, the future of writing through unlimited interpretations and meanings within every text (150). Very straightforward and logical, Barthes’ essay examines a number of reasons why interpretation of a text can only best be realized by removing the author.
Barthes begins his observations by questioning who is speaking within a text. Using an example of a text by Balzac, Barthes shows that the voice of the text may be seen as a character, the author as an individual, the author as the voice of ‘literary’ ideas, the voice of universal wisdom, or any number of other possibilities (146). Barthes believes that the voice of the text has no single definitive identity because the text suffers “…the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” (146). Once written, the voice/author /speaker can no longer act or react, impress or offend. The text thus exists as a moment fixed in time with no identity attached to it because it stands immutable, no longer accessible to change by the author.
From the moment the text is written, it gains an independent existence outside of the reality in which the author exists. Unable to alter this existence (without bringing forth a completely different text), the author becomes detached from the world of the text and thus, as far as the text is concerned, the author dies (147). The author therefore is to be seen as the medium for storytelling and can be considered a modern creation of society in so far as the author as a figure only has taken on meaning in the modern world. Authors came to prominence in modern society, Barthes believes, because they represented individualism and a celebration of the ‘human person’ (147). Further, since modern society has considered a text to be a representation of the author’s life and characteristics, the meaning of a text was considered a reflection of what the author intended to tell the reader.
Barthes sees the attachment of the text to its Author as very entrenched in criticism, but he provides examples of certain authors who, like him, saw the text not as a product of the Author but of the language. Discussing Mallarmé, Valéry, and Proust, as well as the Surrealist authors, Barthes shows how these authors intentionally designed their texts to manipulate language, thereby causing the language to ‘act’ and create meaning (147). According to Barthes, these authors were trying to distance themselves from their texts so that all meaning was to be derived from studying the language of the text without any connection to the author.
Traditionally, the text is seen as coming after the Author, a result of meaning made possible by the experiences and ideas of the Author’s life prior to creating that text (original emphasis, 148). In contrast, a modern reader has no such connection to the text. When the Author is taken away, the text becomes something different, endowed with its own self-contained attributes and no physical attachment to a person, place, or time (148-149). The text becomes new to each reader, as if it were just created in the “…here and now”(original emphasis, 149), and is a product of the language. The text in fact has “…no other origin than language itself” since it is merely a product of the evolution of the language (149).
The author does not create the words, phrases, or stories that are part of the text. Those aspects of the text have already existed or been created within the language itself at some point previous to the text’s creation. Thus the text is not the definitive ‘word of God,’ uniquely endowed with meaning by the “Author-God” (149). Instead, the text is merely a rephrasing and recombination of the language with no single definitive meaning or interpretation. The text is not unique or original because it always draws upon something that existed before it, and the text itself can ultimately be reduced to no more than a combination of various linguistic signs.
Attaching the Author to the text ascribes a “limit [to] that text,” reducing its meaning to only one absolutely determinable idea (149). By removing the Author, the text becomes open to wide interpretation and thus becomes tremendously more important than it ever could be as a simple statement made by the author. Barthes considers this concept “revolutionary” in that it opens up the possibility of infinite interpretations and meanings not only for written texts but for all ‘absolute truths’ (150).
Separated from the Author, the text exists as a result of a variety of sources: the language, older ideas and stories, cultural assumptions, and aspects of societal expression. These various influences reside in the language of the text and open interpretation to many meanings. To this multifaceted creation comes the Reader. The Reader is ultimately best able to interpret the text because the text outside of the influences of the Author is open to many possible meanings. The Reader, when interpreting a text, will never suffer the problems of the Author because he is “…without history, biography, psychology” (150), unlike the Author as seen by earlier critics to whom these were defining aspects. The text without attachment to the Author thus exists only when it is read, being reborn upon each reading with a meaning based on the understanding of each Reader. As Barthes states, “A text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (150).
The “future” of writing, according to Barthes’ final argument, will be successfully reached only through the Reader (150). Allowing the Reader to assume this role is only possible by removing the association of the text with the Author. Therefore Barthes would have us believe that the future of writing depends upon the ‘death’ of the Author (150).
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Unattributed Handout. 1968. 146-150.