Although I had heard and read a lot about “La mort de l’auteur” (“The Death of the Author”) by Roland Barthes, I had never read it in its entirety. I found it nice to be able to read and understand Barthes in French for once. I know, I should be able to read in French, but I find literary theory more difficult to understand in French than in English. As a result, it is such an effort for me to read French theory in its original language that I tend to avoid it. However, this essay is easier to understand than other essays written by Barthes.
“La mort de l’auteur” was originally published in 1967 in the American journal Aspen and only appeared in its French version in 1968 in the journal Manteia. Roland Barthes is a structuralist, and later post-structuralist, whose interest in semotics is evident in many of his works, including “La mort de l’auteur”.
“La mort de l’auteur” is probably his most controversial essay; however, the ideas he proposes in it are not as extreme as the essay title would suggest. In fact, I think that most of what he argues makes a lot of sense.
Barthes’s essay can be seen as a reaction to critics’ and readers’ urge to find the author’s ultimate meaning in a text. What Barthes argues is that the text exists in the here and now, that it is enunciated/read, and that there are multiple interpretations to a text. The author as we know him is the one we construct through reading the text. Barthes thus proposes that instead of deciphering a text to find the author’s message, we should untangle its various meanings. When talking of a text, Barthes uses weaving metaphors, which actually lie in the latin origin of the word text. He differentiates between the text and the work. The work is material, whereas the text comprises many discourses and other texts that interact and result in our own interpretation. The way we interpret the text relies on intertextuality. The text is thus fluid and has infinite meanings. Although he does not directly refer to intertextuality in “La mort de l’auteur”, Barthes’s argument points to this concept:
“un texte est fait d’écritures multiples, issues de plusieurs cultures et qui entrent les unes avec les autres en dialogue, en parodie, en contestation ; mais il y a un lieu où cette multiplicité se rassemble, et ce lieu, ce n’est pas l’auteur, comme on l’a dit jusqu’à present, c’est le lecteur”
“a text is composed of multiple writings, issued from various cultures that intersect through dialogue, parody, contestation; but the only place where this multiplicity is unified is not the author, as we have said until now, but the reader”
Therefore, according to Barthes, we should not try to explain texts by looking at their authors, but rather by looking at the language and how it speaks to us. For him, it is the langage that creates meaning, not the author. He notes that:
“l’écriture est la destruction de toute voix, de toute origine”
“writing leads the destruction of the voice, of the origin”
Indeed, authors cannot control the meaning that will be given to their texts. This so-called message of the author can only be a supposition from the reader. Moreover, texts take on a life of their own by surviving their authors and being read year after year, century after century, by various readers who will impose their own interpretation on the text.
This is something important for Barthes because it enables us to resist the totality of the message from an over-controlling author, that is to resist ideology.
“un texte n’est pas fait d’une ligne de mots, dégageant un sens unique, en quelque sorte théologique (qui serait le ‘message’ de l’Auteur-Dieu), mais un espace à dimensions multiples, où se marient et se contestant des écritures variées, dont aucune n’est originelle: le texte est un tissue de citations, issues des mille foyers de la culture”
“a text is not composed of a series of words, giving a single meaning, somehow theological (which would be the message of the Author-God), but a site with multiple dimensions, where various writings interact and contest each other, none of which original: the text is a fabric of quotations, from culture’s thousands of sources.”
What seems to shock the most in Barthes’s essay is that he replaces the Author by a scriptor, someone mainly laying words on the page. This is somewhat disturbing taken out of its context. However, I do not think that Barthes rejects the author as such, but rather the over-controlling author and the possibility to find the author’s meaning. All we really have is the work, those words on the page and we are ultimately free to interpret them the way we want, depending on our own circumstances. He therefore concludes that the only way to liberate the reader is to get rid of the Author:
“la naissance du lecteur doit se payer de la mort de l’Auteur”
“the birth of the reader necessitates the death of the Author”
Although Barthes’s statement is radical, I think his argument is convincing. How does it make you feel? How do you read a text? Do you always try to find out about the author or do you give more importance to the significance it has for you?
In my opinion, the author is one of the texts we use to understand the work. I believe we can only guess what the author’s intended message is. Each of us creates her/his own meaning of the text and the text will have a specific significance for each of us, depending on our own context. As we try to interpret the text, we might consider the author and, by doing so, we create the author through the text we have read, but also by using other texts about the author. Ultimately, the meaning of the text results from our own interpretation and use of the texts and discourses surrounding us and our reading.
All translations are mine and are probably imperfect. You can read the English version here.