Or, The Death of the Author, and the Critic, and, Well, Pretty Much Everybody
So, today in one of my classes we did a Roland Barthes hit-and-run, the kind of discussion where we touched on a point here and there without getting into the meat of the essay. Now, I’ve never been a fan of his ubiquitous manifesto (1977, I think?), but not being able to get into it in class left me rather unsatisfied. So this may be a bit of a rant. For those who would rather not (re)read it, the essay goes something like this (but is much longer and more complicated and lacks my amiable tone and asides):
The voice that we hear as we read a text is often mistaken for the voice of the Author, but it is actually so many different voices, layered over one another (characters, narrators, and the various voices of the writer), that it is impossible to distinguish a single voice of the author. Since the author has no distinguishable voice, it is impossible to point to an interpretation and say, "this is what the Author intended." Thus, the traditional critical approach ("the Author encoded a meaning in this text; the Critic deciphers it") is rendered useless. This end to the myth of the Author’s… well, authority, is what Barthes means by the "death of the Author." Thus rendered obsolete, the Critic subsequently succumbs to a somewhat less publicized death in a garret somewhere. Tragic.
Writers, have you been under the impression that you have intentions or your work has a meaning? Nope, sorry, guess again. Since the language you use, the phrases and the ideas, are just borrowed from what you’ve read, heard, seen, and learned from the world around you, there isn’t actually any such thing as "self-expression," and you can’t control the innumerable meanings that are consequent to your use of language. Nice try.
By the way, this new way of thinking about writing is "properly revolutionary." That’s because to deny there is one fixed meaning in a text "is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law." *
So, if a text is just a mish-mash of recycled meanings and images and ideas with no unifying meaning, and the author is dead, what comes next? Well, next we have the reader, who acts as a sort of receptacle for all these ideas. But the reader must be impersonal in order to comprehend all the elements and potential meanings of the text without limit or prejudice.
And I have to quote his conclusion in its entirety, because… well, just because:
"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." [emphasis mine]
First of all, I think Barthes must have been a scientist in a past life, because he removes his subjects from their messy human contexts and dissects them entirely in the abstract. I suppose he’s trying to pursue a sort of pure theory or something. (What’s up with that, Humanities people? Why do we buy into this idea that our work needs to be framed in the language of labs and theories in order to seem legitimate? But that’s probably a rant for another day [or another writer- I know Twist has some experience in this area].)
Anyway, after all that trouble to sound scientific, it’s rather jarring when he leaps into this rousing speech at the end. It leaves me with the vague sense that I’ve been challenged to join some sort of battle. But, like an outsider watching Don Quixote posture against his imagined enemies, I really can’t tell what all the saber-rattling is about, or what the real point of all the theory has been.
I do understand what he’s getting at. Traditional criticism is based on a misguided distribution of power. The Author isn’t the source of Truth, and the critic’s job is not to decipher the meaning of a text. Meaning happens in the reader.
The problem is, his ideal reader is an impossible theoretical construct, impersonal and capable of comprehending all meanings. S/he does not exist. Barthes’s revolution does not privilege the reader (the real person reading); it privileges the text. "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’," he writes. Language is the only variable in his equation capable of pure existence; the text is only space in which all its potential meanings can be held, because it has not been limited by the intentions, assumptions, and prejudices of actual people.
And, since I’m not much for lab work, actual people are the ones who really interest me.
*This acknowledgement that these principles have implications for existing power structures is as close as Barthes gets to practical application. There is a lot of potential for applying his ideas about authority, criticism, the role of the reader etc to the politics of the literary canon, among other things. But he doesn’t go there; he remains firmly planted in the abstract.
4 years ago