What are the main ideas in Roland Barthes' essay "The Death of the Author"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

French philosopher Barthes' essay "The Death of the Author" is a post-structuralist text that propagates the idea that there can be no essential structure and therefore, reflecting the ideas of Derrida, words written by authors are part of the interminably intermixing words of cultures. While this sounds very complex, in essence it means that authors can have no supremacy over readers and that words can convey no meaning or intent other than what the reader experiences. In this post-postmodern milieu, these ideas may not carry as much sway as they did during Barthes' era when New Criticism and close reading were at their peaks.

Briefly, the ideas the Barthes brings out relate (1) to the impotence of the author to control writing or the authorial experience and (2) to the power of the reader to be the determinate factor in defining the meaning of the textual discourse. His first tenet is that the act of writing (such as I am doing) creates a neutrality in which there is no voice, no identity, no personality--there is only a negative space: "Writing is that neutral, ... space ..., the negative where all identity is lost." This constitutes the entering into self-assimilation into a negative by the author: "the author enters into his own death, writing begins." Barthes elaborates on this with a brief history of the author as the object of prestige, of humanity and personhood. This is significant to recall toward the end of the essay when Barthes invests the reader with prestige after having buried the author.

A highly significant point Barthes makes is derived from post-structuralist linguistics. He asserts that language (discourse) is separate from original intent; it is drawn from vast cultural memory and experience and the only function an author can have is (1) to select from a vast internal dictionary, so to speak, of words that play off of each other and (2) to mix and combine elements in ways that don't sound too much like other previous combinations. It is by this same means (the vast internal dictionary) that Barthes is able to invest the reader with the prestige and supremacy that once belonged to the author: the reader has the same access and the same ability to unite words that play (a concept attributed to Derrida) to derive an original meaning on his own account. The author dies but the reader becomes supreme and invests meaning and intent.

Barthes also importantly repositions the concept of writing imitating something. For Aristotle and Sidney and such, writing imitated God's truths; for Romantics, writing imitated nature's truths. For Barthes, life imitates the book that is drawn from the "dictionary ... that can know no halt," yet the book is a collection of letters and words that imitate signs, the reality behind which is "lost, infinitely deferred": thus meaning and intent can never be fixed, must always be variable and up to the reader to determine. The author becomes a "scriptor" and the myth of the prestige of the author is overthrown:

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.