Modern literature and the death of the Author in Roland Barthes

Modern literature and the death of the Author in Roland Barthes

“...literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost...” - Roland Barthes


Roland Barthes

It's common to see fans seeking explanations about movies and books on the authors, considering them the only reliable source of interpretation, but Anne-Marie Willis argues that the designer has no prevalence over his creation. And there's a great thinker foccused on literature who followed a somewhat similar line of thought. In 1968 Roland Barthes published “The death of the Author”, a instigating text about the relation of the Author, the Critics and of the Reader with the modern literature.

If both of them converge to a critic that undermines the importance of the creator, Barthes was more interested with literature and went beyond, showing that to question the image of the Author is also questioning the Critics. Barthes asserts that literature is independent, a body of symbols:

“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.

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.”

"Pie fight, study 2". Adrian Ghenie, 2008.

Stéphane Mallarmé was a french critic and poet to whom Barthes credits the pioneering in this concept of literature:

“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.)”

Against the conventional critic and questioning not only the place of the author but even the literary canon, Barthes goes on with the idea that a work is always dependent on the reader:

“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.
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.”

Opposing the image of the Author and that of the writer, he exposes what he consider to be a multiple writing:

"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.

"Not to be reproduced". Reneé Magritte, 1937.

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."

Barthes calls out the negligence with the figure of the reader and contests the idea that it depends on the Author:

"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.
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."

Subversive, “The death of the Author” is the kind of idea that still needs to be debated. And maybe this is the definition of any relevant thought. In 1968 Barthes made an objection that no reader nor writer should ignore, but that's still less popular than it should, at least out of the academic circles.