The Death of The Author: Roland Barthes and The Collapse of Meaning

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the death of the author by roland barthes“The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes  is a landmark for 20-th century literature, literary theory, post-structuralism, and postmodernism. The essay opposes the established trends “in ordinary culture […] tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life,” and abolish the classical literary criticism that analyses a literary work within the biographical and personal context of the author of the work.

The philosophical implications of “The Death of the Author” transcend literature and are closely related to the postmodern trends of collapse of meaning, inability of originality, the death of God, and multiple discovery.

The essay argues that a literary work should not be analyzed by the information about the real-life person who created it. The text (rather than the author, as Barthes himself would agree) complains:

Criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.

“The Death of the Author” rejects the idea of authorial intent, and instead develops a reader-response critical theory:

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.

The use of the word “quotations” expresses the idea that a text cannot really be “created” or “original”—it is always made up of an arrangement of preexisting “quotations” or ideas. Therefore, the “author” is not really an author, but rather a “scriptor” who simply puts together preexisting texts.

As if to corroborate his own theory, Barthes (most likely unknowingly and independently) wrote an essay very similar to Michael Foucault’s  “What is an Author.” It is also somewhat unclear who published the work first, as “The Death of the Author” first appeared in English in an American journal in 1967, but the “original” French book print was published in 1977. Foucault’s essay was first credited as a lecture and is officially dated at 1969.

The essay “The Death of the Author” can have several implications, both literal and metaphoric. In literary criticism, the death of the Author is the “death” of the physical real-life author of the work: For example, Baudelaire’s “The Flowers of Evil” should not be analyzed in the context of Baudelaire’s life.

In literary writing, the death of the Author is the “death” of the omniscient narrator and the author who calls attention to his presence in the text. For example, the author should not address the readers with phrases such as “dear reader”; the author should not give information about the characters that cannot be known in a “real-life” situation—such as characters’ thoughts and feelings. Another example is the use of “I” from the point of view of the author.

The death of the Author is the inability to create, produce, or discover any text or idea. The author is a “scriptor” who simply collects preexisting quotations. He is not able to create or decide the meaning of his work.  The task of meaning falls “in the destination”—the reader.

In culture, the death of the Author is the denial of a single “discoverer” or contributor. It is the equivalent of the “scriptor” outside literature. Therefore, “discoveries” seem to exist as  possibilities predating their inventor, and the discoverer simply “confirms” ideas that have already been there. The theory is known as “multiple discovery”—more than one person reaches the same discovery/idea/conclusion independently. Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious is similar to multiple discovery—a series of archetypes collected throughout the course of evolution that guide different individuals to experience, feel, think, and observe in similar patterns.

An example is the theory of natural selection that was simultaneously and independently grasped as an idea both by Charles Darwin and by Alfred Russell Wallace. An example is also the already mentioned similarity between Roland Barthes’ “Death of The Author” and Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author.” Yet another one is the discovery of the New World—culture and society have designated Christopher Columbus as the “discoverer,” even though the Vikings had reached the land more than 400 years earlier.

Common culture seems to oppose the idea of multiple discovery very vehemently and prefers the “heroic theory” of invention, which gives all the credit to a single person. Good examples are patents, copyright laws, and other measures that promote singular contribution to discoveries.

In the case of natural selection, Darwin’s credit is far greater than Wallace’s. That does not mean that Darwin does not deserve the credit—he had been tirelessly working on the theory of natural selection for 22 years when Wallace sent him a letter about the possibility of a common descent in all living organisms. Darwin, however, had elaborated this idea significantly and tested it systematically.

Another aspect of the multiple discovery theory is the development and elaboration of ideas. For multiple discovery, a “discoverer” is simply one of the many contributors. Common culture has it that Alexander Graham Bell is the Inventor of the telephone, but the discovery was likely reached independently by others too,  as well as elaborated on. The stages before the official “completion” of the telephone, for example the wires necessary for a telephone to operate, are just as important. In a similar way, Apple is considered the creator of the iPhone. But is it not simply an elaboration of the invention of the telephone, a discovery inevitably dependent on the invention of camera, micro chips, etc.?

Another aspect of the multiple discovery theory is the development and elaboration of ideas. For multiple discovery, a “discoverer” is simply one of the many contributors. Common culture has it that Alexander Graham Bell is the Inventor of the telephone, but the discovery was likely reached independently by others too,  as well as elaborated on. The stages before the official “completion” of the telephone, for example the wires necessary for a telephone to operate, are just as important. In a similar way, Apple is considered the creator of the iPhone. But is it not simply an elaboration of the invention of the telephone, a discovery inevitably dependent on the invention of camera, micro chips, etc.?

On the most metaphorical level, the death of the Author is the death of God that Nietzsche talked about. The literary world is a metaphor of the real world, which cannot and does not operate on a pre-determined plan, meaning, or creator.

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture. […]

In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, ‘run’ (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced; writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. […] Once the author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.

The Death of The Author is the multiplicity of meaning—therefore the ultimate collapse of meaning. It is the freedom from the shackles of meaning and Author’s intention. The death of the Author is also the inability to create, invent, or be original. It is the spinning out of control into the abyss of multiple meanings and inevitable meaninglessness.