Image Music Text – The Death of the Author
Notes and Quotes
Barthes is seeking to rescue the text from the tyranny of the context. Unfortunately, the text without context is just wind blowing across the surface of Mars – that is: utterly imperceptible
Read The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes here.
I have been referencing the notion that the “Author” is dead quite a bit throughout the recent articles. Thus, I turn now to a close reading of Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author.” I will at a later stage cover “What is an Author” by Michel Foucault, but for now we will focus exclusively on Barthes.
There is an interesting paradox in tracing this literary critique, as it requires a reliance on the Author-God figure, at least initially, to make sense of it. In effect Barthes may slay all who came before him, but if he is correct he must, as figure of Author, remain immortal. No doubt we will get to that.
Locating the Voice
It may be a simple exercise to consider that the Author’s “voice” is located in the protagonist. Consider John Galt in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and his 20 odd page diatribe about the ethics of being ruthless for the benefit of others in a Capitalist system.
Is this not Rand herself professing almost directly her fundamental ideas at root of Objectivism? On the other hand consider Dostoevsky. Where is his voice? If it is in the protagonist then it is weak and largely impotent against the forces of nature represented by the antagonists. Barthes uses Balzac as his opening example and questions the location of the voice in Sarrasine. He writes:
Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology. We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice of every point of origin (p. 142).
How the Author Dies
We return to our paradox as we approach the moment of the Author’s death. The paradox becomes: If Barthes is correct, the Barthes is dead. If Barthes is dead (as Author) then what authority does he have to speak? This is a dense idea that I will unpack further, but for now let’s trace the phenomenon as Barthes sees it.
Barthes points to the very act of writing as being a form of crossing a threshold of “reality to [intransitivity]. He writes:
The sens of this phenomenon, however, has varied; in ethnographic societies the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person by a mediator, shaman or relator whose ‘performance’ – the mastery of the narrative code – may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius’ (p. 142).
How the Author was Born
Barthes isn’t stupid. He also doesn’t get sucked into a game of historicity. Instead he locates the historical emergence of the act of authorship and notes that this is not the same as narrative a story. This is an important clue that we must acknowledge in order to solve our paradox. What then does Barthes say regarding the
location of the Author in history? He links the author directly to the emergence of novel technology through which authorship we recognize today was made possible. That is the ‘prestige of the individual’ in society transitioning out of the Middle Ages and into Modernism – read that: capitalism.
The author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazine, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs (p.143).
Consider the significance of this insight. Barthes is offering us a new perspective on our engagement with art. Do not take this for granted. It is one of the shining lights, stunning accomplishments, of Post-Modernity. However, it is an accomplishment that demands sacrifice on your part. He asks that we consider the work of Van Gogh with out the screen of his Madness filtering our subjective enjoyment of the art work. He demands that we listen to the dance of the sugar plum fairies without clouding the space with a critique of Tchaikovsky the man.
Barthes instructs sternly that we need to stop accepting the explanation for a work from its biographical author:
The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it… [as if] the voice of a single person, the author [is] ‘confiding’ in us (p.143).
No Salvation from the Other
Is it possible to argue psychoanalysis has a profound and foundational role in the development of Post-Modernity? I certainly think so. However, I am also acutely aware of my cognitive bias. Especially in that particular speech act. The question becomes then, do you consider the idea of Psychoanalysis to be a foundation of Post-Modernity? That is, in its own right as an idea; Or, do you instead read it through the filter of the Tangent General’s attraction to psychoanalysis?
Better yet, do we “read” as an act, the Death of the Author as a literary critique because Barthes wrote it? Could we instead abstract it from the page
and burst it open, twist it, turn it, push at it and pull it apart? The idea sans the context it emerged from. Can you in fact have an idea sans the context from which it emerged?
PO! That is, it’s neither yes nor no. I’ve introduced Edward De Bono’s work on Lateral thinking here, however we will brush past that and stick with Barthes in this article.
Proust (of Charlus)
Admirably, Barthes demonstrates that an idea is transcendent and cannot exist within the act of “Authorship.” The stream of consciousness of each individual author is inseparable from the stream of consciousness in and of itself. It becomes a Kantian idea, and gives us another clue to solve this paradox. Barthes is about to highlight the significance of Proust as absent (Father) author. To do this though he implicitly demonstrates how the act of writing is an attempt to parlay the Nomial world in the phenomenological world. Thus, the author is mere conduit to an ineffable idea which extends infinitely in all directions beyond the personality of the person engaged in the Act of writing.
On Proust specifically, Barthes writes:
… Proust gave modern writing its epic. By a radical reversal, instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model (p.144).
Murdered by Linguists
Linguistics takes the fall, but semiotics was in on the conspiracy. Now we need to sit in judgement, was linguistics acting in cold blood or did it act in self defense? A stupid concept! It’s not so stupid thought because it reveals our need to generate value. Barthes will discuss this in more detail when we finally get to the birth of the reader.
For now, we need to try linguistics, listen to Barthes argument as to exactly how linguistics murdered the author and reach a verdict. Barthes writes:
Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance of writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance of saying I: language knows a ‘subject,’ not a ‘person,’ and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language ‘hold together,’ suffices, that is to say, to exhaust it (p.145).
The Phoenix: Post-Modernity
If you agree with Barthes, that linguistics has “exhausted” authorship, then we are also taking into account, by implication, the destruction of modernity.
Darwin dies but Darwinism lives. Newton perishes so that Newtonian Physics can flourish. The idea becomes sacrosanct (once more) as the Author’s role begins to diminish.
Perhaps the dichotomy will prove to be an oversimplification here, and we must be defensive against dichotomies in general, but following the logic we get:
- Pre-Modernity: The Author did not exist, just the idea
- Modernity: The Author is born, produced and Reigns Supreme
- Post-Modernity: The Author is dead (linguistics killed Him), the idea remains, the idea lives.
The Author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his child. In complete contrast, the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now (p.145).
Remanent Gesture of Authorship
So far we have learned that Authorship as a concept, is a historical concept that existed in a particular space and time. Rather than consider Homer the Author of the Iliad or The Odyssey, we see it as simply a moniker for categorization. Barthes goes further though in articulating that Authorship is nothing more than a gesture. The gesture is the act.
The Author as person may be dead, but the gesture as act is very much alive. The predication on psychoanalysis is thus crucial here. To expect the Author to explicitly and consciously know fully and comprehensively why he acts is foolish. To instead acknowledge that the gesture of authorship is important and can reveal more that the person may have desired is of primary significance. “We know” Barthes enunciates:
that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash (p.145).
The innumerable centers of Culture
Good artists copy, Great Artists steal! This axiom has particular meaning now, in the context of Barthes. An author is artiste. The artist paints with the brash of chaos on the very canvas of Order. Self expression yes, but self expression is an act of reaction. Reaction to culture, to the stream of ideas that is always-already forever in existence. Barthes is elucidating how redundant it is then to try to filter a piece of writing with a crude lens of Authorship.
How do we find Linguistics in relation to the charge of murdering the Author? Linguistics is not guilty on account of acting defensively in order to protect the idea. I want to quote John Cena here: “live for the moment not for the money!”
What Power then has the Author?
His 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. Did he with to express himself, he out at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to ‘translate’ is itself only a ready formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely… (p.146).
The Idea, the Author and the Writing Ghost
The dictionary analogy is rather crude. Lacks sophistication but regains it immediately with the emergent nature of image from text. The act of writing is thus an act of communing. The Author is Ego, the Ego must be humiliated for pride comes before the fall. The humiliated author becomes the scriptor and the scriptor through gesture has the power to enunciate. Or as Barthes puts it:
Succeeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt: life never does more than imitate the book and the book itself is only a tissue or signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred (p. 147).
The Critic Died Too
The powerful reign of the Author from the beginning of the Renaissance to the end of Modernity is all a smoke and mirrors game for the parasitic continuation of the critic. Or, as Barthes exclaims: To know the motivations of the Author, his psyché, his temperament. To know what the Author was “meaning” is a trick the critic uses to close the text, to label it as a unified message and to claim to have revealed and extracted it.
Do not think here of Ebert and Rogers (Margaret and David) – think instead of Calvin. Calvin has understood the “psyché” of God (nature) as the Author of the Bible. So, by implication, there is not need for you (as a Protestant) to question it for yourself. The critic project the dogma though the lens of the Author.
If then, the Medium is the Message (as McLuhan suggested), the context of the text determines the reception of the text thereof. As such, Barthes is seeking to rescue the text from the tyranny of the context. Unfortunately, the text without context is just wind blowing across the surface of Mars. That is: utterly imperceptible.
The Birth of the Reader
The axiom I believe deriving from this is: The Death of the Author, is also the Birth of the Reader. What then is the Birth of the reader? Barthes writes:
… 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 texts unity lies not in its origin but in its destination (p.148).
Is the Author dead in the Birth of the Reader? Famous Author Mark Twain once said: Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. The point of Barthes drama is not simply to exonerate linguistics from the charge of murder, but to radically alter the context of all text. His masterful stroke wasn’t to proclaim this, but to share his own recognition through his own act of writing.
He gives over the power of interpretation to the reader through a reverent of self-sacrifice. The Reader is certainly born. But, the reader is born prematurely. Expected to comprehend of her own accord the intertextuality at play and implications to be carefully extracted as a result. The Author is dead! “This author is dead.” In the living context of Post-Modernity, the author0reader relationship ceases to unfold unilaterally and becomes instead a delicate dance called text and context. Author intention is still marketable and the nomial notion of the Idea still ineffable.
The Readers Incubation
So what are the clues that Barthes leaves us with in order to incubate the new born reader? He writes:
… the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which he is constituted. Which is why it is derisory to condemn the new writing in the name of humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights. … We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author (p.148).
Barthes didn’t believe the Author had died. He couldn’t have, for if he did he wouldn’t have written this article and certainly would not have included it in a book, a book that would become a pillar of his oeurve. Barthes is attempting to locate the author in the scientific paradigm and his is masterful in his execution of this aim.
As such, he becomes a key ground breaker in the burgeoning frontier of Post-Modernity. However, the paradox is solved when we accept that the Author isn’t dead, only the insufficient guise of the Author is dead. The birth of the reader isn’t the birth of the reader at all, the reader is always-already in existence. The birth of the reader is the birth of the reader’s responsibility.
No longer is it enough to accept the critics revelation of the Author’s psyché. That can only lead to the Nazi’s interpretation of Nietzsche. Instead, it is incumbent upon you to engage fully and deeply with the text, to enter into dialogue with the author about their ideas.
So Read on, but read responsibly.