Roland Barthes

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

One of the main ideas in Roland Barthes's essay "The Death of the Author" is that literary meaning is produced by the reader, not the author. Texts do not mean any one thing determined by the writer, but instead are "tissues" of meaning determined by the interplay of different discourses.

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To the modern reader, it is not perhaps obvious from what context Barthes was working when he wrote this essay. That is because the essay has been so influential in literary criticism that the method of reading it is reacting to—criticism based in biography—is simply no longer really taught. This is how significant this essay has been.

Barthes's main argument in this essay is that it is reductive to interpret all texts based on biographical information about the author. It used to be frequently argued that most elements of a text could be related back to the life experiences of the author, but Barthes's argument is that this imposes "limits" upon texts which do not need to be there.

As such, if we embrace the "death of the author," we become better able to read the text as it is rather than against the context of its author. This is not to say that we must remove all context, but Barthes does argue that there is another context for reading texts which is more important: that of the reader. Barthes changes the focus of intent in reading from the author, who produces the work, to the reader, who brings his own meanings to it through the process of reading it.

Barthes suggests that there is no point in trying to work out what an author "means" when it is more productive instead to think about what a text means to us as readers. There is no single meaning to a text, but multiple possible meanings depending on who is reading it, for what reason, and in what context.

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Barthes's primary point is that meaning in a literary text is produced by language, not the "author," a term that means either the person doing the writing or an "authorized" ideological meaning within the text. Barthes's points can be summarized in this way:

  1. Using the example of a Balzac story, Barthes points out how narration makes it impossible to assign attitudes in the text to an "author" or controlling intelligence.
  2. Beginning with Mallarme, Barthes sketches a brief history of "pre-Modernity," in which he shows how the "person" of the author has been removed from literary texts. Barthes says that

it is language which speaks, not the author; to write reach that point where only language acts, 'performs', and not 'me'.

3. Texts therefore do not contain the meaning of a single "Author-God," but are instead a "multi-dimensional space" in which a variety of writings "blend and clash."

4. Removal of the "author" changes the way we read texts. Reading becomes about "disentangling" rather than "deciphering"—that is, the meaning of a text is determined by the ability of the reader to trace the relationships between discourses, rather that figuring out a "secret meaning" placed within it by the author.

5. Literature (and criticism) are therefore transformed. The reader is "the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed"—or, in other words, it is the "performance" of the reader that determines the ultimate literary value of a text. In this sense, "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author."

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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.

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