Death of the Author
The Death of the Author (French: La mort de l'auteur) is a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. Barthes's essay argues against traditional literary criticism's practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated. The title is a pun on "Le Morte d'Arthur": a 15th century compilation of smaller Arthurian legend stories, written by multiple (anonymous) authors with heavy reinterpretation by the editor, Sir Thomas Malory. As a result, the final text of Le Morte d'Arthur is ultimately the work of several authors across several centuries, and thus the style of analysis Barthes criticizes in his essay is difficult, if not impossible, to apply.
The essay's first English-language publication was in the American journal Aspen, no. 5-6 in 1967; the French debut was in the magazine Manteia, no. 5 (1968). The essay later appeared in an anthology of Barthes's essays, Image-Music-Text (1977), a book that also included his "From Work To Text".
In his essay, Barthes argues against the method of reading and criticism that relies on aspects of the author's identity — their political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or other biographical or personal attributes — to distill meaning from the author's work. In this type of criticism, the experiences and biases of the author serve as a definitive "explanation" of the text. For Barthes, this method of reading may be apparently tidy and convenient but is actually 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 thus separate a literary work from its creator in order to liberate the text from interpretive tyranny (a notion similar to Erich Auerbach's discussion of narrative tyranny in Biblical parables). Each piece of writing contains multiple layers and meanings. In a well-known 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 text's unity lies not in its origins," or its creator, "but in its destination," or its audience.
No longer the focus 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 Honoré de Balzac's story Sarrasine in which a male protagonist mistakes a castrato for a woman and falls in love with him. When, in the passage, the character dotes over his perceived womanliness, Barthes challenges his own readers to determine who is speaking, and 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. (Barthes returned to Sarrasine in his book S/Z, where he gave the story a rigorous close reading.)
Acknowledging the presence of this idea (or variations of it) in the works of previous writers, Barthes cited in his essay the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who said that "it is language which speaks." He also recognized Marcel Proust as being "concerned with the task of inexorably blurring…the relation between the writer and his characters"; the Surrealist movement for employing 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." Barthes' articulation of the death of the author is a radical and drastic recognition of this severing of authority and authorship. Instead of discovering a "single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God)," readers of a 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 hypostases—reason, science, law."
Influences and overview
Barthes' work has much in common with the ideas of the "Yale school" of deconstructionist critics, which numbered among its proponents Paul de Man 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 anticipated to some extent by the New Criticism, a school of literary criticism important in the United States from the 1940s to the 1960s. New Criticism differs from Barthes' 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." Barthes himself stated that the difference between his theory and New Criticism comes in the practice of "disentangling."
Post-structuralist skepticism about the notion of the singular identity of the self has also been important for some academics working in feminist theory and queer theory. These writers find in Barthes' 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 not only stable critical interpretation but also stable personal identity.
Michel Foucault also addressed the question of the author in critical interpretation. In his 1969 essay "What is an Author?", he developed the idea of "author function" to explain the author as a classifying principle within a particular discursive formation. Foucault did not mention Barthes in his essay but its analysis has been seen as a challenge to Barthes' depiction of a historical progression that will liberate the reader from domination by the author.
Some scholars have rejected Barthes's argument in toto. Camille Paglia, for example, wrote:
- Most pernicious of French imports [into American academia] is the notion that there is no person behind a text. Is there anything more affected, aggressive, and relentlessly concrete than a Parisian intellectual behind his/her turgid text? The Parisian is a provincial when he pretends to speak for the universe.
- Roland Barthes' "Death of the Author"
- William Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, "The Intentional Fallacy." Sewanee Review, vol. 54 (1946): 468-488. Revised and republished in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, University of Kentucky Press, 1954: 3-18.
- Paglia, Camille (1990). Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, NY: Vintage, p. 34
- Burke, Seán (2010). The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida (3 ed.). Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0748637119.
- 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.
- Content and 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.
- Hix, H. L. Morte d'Author: An Autopsy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
- 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 and other post-structuralists
- Burke, Séan. The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
- 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.
- Flip, illustrated cartoon version
- Course, Anne and Philip Thody, ed. Richard Appignanesi. Barthes for Beginners. Cambridge: Icon Books, 1997.