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Roland Barthes: Death of The Author

Death of the Author (1967) is an essay by the French literary critic Roland Barthes that was first
published in the American journal Aspen. The essay later appeared in an anthology of his essays, Image-
Music-Text (1977), a book that also included From Work To Text. It argues against incorporating the
intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of text; writing and creator are
unrelated.

In his essay, Barthes criticizes the readers tendency to consider aspects of the authors identityhis
political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or other biographical or personal
attributesto distill meaning from his work. In this critical schematic, the experiences and biases of
the author serve as its definitive explanation. For Barthes, this is a tidy, convenient method of
reading and is sloppy and flawed: To give a text an Author and assign a single, corresponding
interpretation to it is to impose a limit on that text. Readers must separate a literary work from its
creator in order to liberate it from interpretive tyranny (a notion similar to Erich Auerbachs discussion
of narrative tyranny in Biblical parables), for each piece of writing contains multiple layers and
meanings. In a famous quotation, Barthes draws an analogy between text and textiles, declaring that a
text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations, drawn from innumerable centers of culture, rather than
from one, individual experience. The essential meaning of a work depends on the impressions of the
reader, rather than the passions or tastes of the writer; a texts unity lies not in its origins, or its
creator, but in its destination, or its audience.

No longer the locus of creative influence, the author is merely a scriptor (a word Barthes uses
expressly to disrupt the traditional continuity of power between the terms author and authority).
The scriptor exists to produce but not to explain the work and is born simultaneously with the text, is
in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, [and] is not the subject with the
book as predicate. Every work is eternally written here and now, with each re-reading, because the
origin of meaning lies exclusively in language itself and its impressions on the reader.

Barthes notes that the traditional critical approach to literature raises a thorny problem: how can we
detect precisely what the writer intended? His answer is that we cannot. He introduces this notion in
the epigraph to the essay, taken from Honor de Balzacs story Sarrasine (a text that receives a more
rigorous close-reading treatment in his influential post-structuralist book S/Z), in which a male
protagonist mistakes a castrato for a woman and falls in love with her. When, in the passage, the
character dotes over her perceived womanliness, Barthes challenges his own readers to determine who
is speakingand about what. Is it Balzac the author professing literary ideas on femininity? Is it
universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We can never know. Writing, the destruction of every
voice, defies adherence to a single interpretation or perspective.
Acknowledging the presence of this idea (or variations of it) in the works of previous writers, Barthes
cites in his essay the poet Stphane Mallarm, who said that it is language which speaks. He also
recognizes Marcel Proust as being concerned with the task of inexorably blurringthe relation
between the writer and his characters; the Surrealist movement for their employment the practice of
automatic writing to express what the head itself is unaware of; and the field of linguistics as a
discipline for showing that the whole of enunciation is an empty process. Barthess articulation of
the death of the author is, however, the most radical and most drastic recognition of this severing of
authority and authorship. Instead of discovering a single theological meaning (the message of the
Author-God), readers of text discover that writing, in reality, constitutes a multi-dimensional space,
which cannot be deciphered, only disentangled. Refusing to assign a secret, ultimate meaning
to text liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary
since to refuse meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostasesreason, science, law. The
implications of Barthess radical vision of critical reading are indicative of the inherently political
nature of this vision, which reverses the balance of authority and power between author and reader.
Like the dethroning of a monarchy, the death of the author clears political space for the multi-voiced
populace at large, ushering in the long-awaited birth of the reader.

Influences and Overview


A post-structuralist text, Death of the Author influenced French continental philosophy, particularly
those of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (who also addressed the subject of the author in critical
interpretation in a similar fashion in his 1969 essay, What Is an Author?, which argues that works of
literature are collective cultural products and do not arise from singular, individual beings). Like
Foucaults work, Barthess essay aims to remove the author from his privileged position with respect to
the interpretation of texts; instead, Barthes places full responsibility and interpretive authority on the
shoulders of the reader.

Barthess work shares much in common with the ideas of the Yale school of deconstructionist critics,
which numbered among its proponents Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, and Geoffrey Hartman in the 1970s.
Barthes, like the deconstructionists, insists upon the disjointed nature of texts, their fissures of
meaning and their incongruities, interruptions, and breaks.

Ideas presented in The Death of the Author were fully anticipated by the philosophy of the school of
New Criticism, a group of 20th century literary critics who sought to read literary texts removed from
historical or biographical contexts. New Criticism dominated American literary criticism during the
forties, fifties and sixties. New Criticism differs significantly from Barthess theory of critical reading
because it attempts to arrive at more authoritative interpretations of texts. Nevertheless, the crucial
New Critical precept of the Intentional Fallacy declares that a poem does not belong to its author;
rather, it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend
about it or control it. The poem belongs to the public. William Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley
wrote this in 1946, decades before Barthess essay. (The Intentional Fallacy. Sewanee Review, vol. 54
(1946): 468-488. Revised and republished in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, U of
Kentucky P, 1954: 3-18.) From the perspective of authorship, Barthess Death of the Author concept
breaks little new ground in denying the possibility of any stable, collectively agreed-upon readings.
Instead, Barthes himself has pointed out that the difference between his theory and New Criticism
comes in the practices of deciphering and disentangling.

Since the New Criticisms main theorists, Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, were all
teaching in Yale English simultaneously with the younger Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida and Paul de
Man and sat on committees concerning their tenure and promotion there seems to have been a
generational rebellion in hiding their influence. Bloom wrote of this obliquely in his Anxiety of
Influence. The older men carried a heavy freight of pre-War Eliotic Christian and Southern culture;
but this article is not the place to search for motive, merely notice the hidden connection.

Drawing on Freudian psychoanalysis particularly in its Lacanian conception and Saussurean


linguistics, post-structuralist scepticism about the notion of the singular identity of the self has also
been important for feminist and queer theorists, who find in Barthess work an anti-patriarchal, anti-
traditional strain sympathetic to their own critical work. They read the Death of the Author as a
work that obliterates stable identity above and beyond the obliteration of stable critical
interpretation.

Alternative readings of Barthess essay such as the idea that the essay is really a satire upon the very
notions he advocates in the text (i.e., that Death of the Author actually defends traditional
notions of authorship) remain in the critical minority.

Bibliography and Further Reading


Content, Critical Essays

Allen, Graham. Roland Barthes. London: Routledge, 2003.


Culler, Jonathan. Barthes: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Gane, Mike, and Nicholas Gane, ed. Roland Barthes. London: SAGE Publications, 2004.
Knight, Diana. Critical Essays on Roland Barthes. New York: G.K Hall, 2000.
Kolesch, Doris. Roland Barthes. New York: Campus, 1997.
Moriarty, Michael. Roland Barthes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991.
North, Michael, Authorship and Autography, in Theories and Methodologies. PMLA, Vol. 116, No. 5.
(Oct., 2001), pp. 1377-1385.
Context, Other Post-Structuralists

Burke, San. The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault, and
Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
Image-Music-Text

Thody, Philip. Book review of Image-Music-Text, by Roland Barthes; trans. Stephen Heath. Review in
The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 85, No. 6. (May, 1980), pp. 1461-1463.
Barthes and Feminist Theory

Walker, Cheryl. Feminist Literary Criticism and the Author. Critical Inquiry Vol. 16, No. 3 (Spring,
1990), pp. 551-571.
More by Barthes, Reference

Barthes, Roland, trans. Richard Miller. S/Z. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.
Barthes, Roland. Susan Sontag, ed. A Barthes Reader. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.
Flip, Illustrated Cartoon (!) Version

Course, Anne and Philip Thody, ed. Richard Appignanesi. Barthes for Beginners. Cambridge: Icon Books,
1997.