In his essay, Barthes criticizes the reader’s tendency to consider aspects of the author’s identity—his political views, historical context, religion, ethnicity, psychology, or other biographical or personal attributes—to distill meaning from his work. In this critical schematic, the experiences and biases of the author serve as its definitive “explanation.” For Barthes, this is a tidy, convenient method of reading and is 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 separate a literary work from its creator in order to liberate it from interpretive tyranny (a notion similar to Erich Auerbach’s discussion of narrative tyranny in Biblical parables), for each piece of writing contains multiple layers and meanings. In a famous 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 locus 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 (a text that receives a more rigorous close-reading treatment in his influential post-structuralist book S/Z), in which a male protagonist mistakes a castrato for a woman and falls in love with her. When, in the passage, the character dotes over her 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.
Influences and Overview
A post-structuralist text, “Death of the Author” influenced French continental philosophy, particularly those of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (who also addressed the subject of the author in critical interpretation in a similar fashion in his 1969 essay, “What Is an Author?”, which argues that works of literature are collective cultural products and do not arise from singular, individual beings). Like Foucault’s work, Barthes’s essay aims to remove the author from his privileged position with respect to the interpretation of texts; instead, Barthes places full responsibility and interpretive authority on the shoulders of the reader.
Barthes’s work shares much in common with the ideas of the “Yale school” of deconstructionist critics, which numbered among its proponents Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, 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 fully anticipated by the philosophy of the school of New Criticism, a group of 20th century literary critics who sought to read literary texts removed from historical or biographical contexts. New Criticism dominated American literary criticism during the forties, fifties and sixties. New Criticism differs significantly from Barthes’s 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.” William Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley wrote this in 1946, decades before Barthes’s essay. (“The Intentional Fallacy.” Sewanee Review, vol. 54 (1946): 468-488. Revised and republished in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, U of Kentucky P, 1954: 3-18.) From the perspective of authorship, Barthes’s “Death of the Author” concept breaks little new ground in denying the possibility of any stable, collectively agreed-upon readings. Instead, Barthes himself has pointed out that the difference between his theory and New Criticism comes in the practices of “deciphering” and “disentangling.”
Since the New Criticism’s main theorists, Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, were all teaching in Yale English simultaneously with the younger Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man– and sat on committees concerning their tenure and promotion– there seems to have been a generational rebellion in hiding their influence. Bloom wrote of this obliquely in his “Anxiety of Influence.” The older men carried a heavy freight of pre-War Eliotic Christian and Southern culture; but this article is not the place to search for motive, merely notice the hidden connection.
Drawing on Freudian psychoanalysis – particularly in its Lacanian conception – and Saussurean linguistics, post-structuralist scepticism about the notion of the singular identity of the self has also been important for feminist and queer theorists, who find in Barthes’s 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 stable identity above and beyond the obliteration of stable critical interpretation.
Alternative readings of Barthes’s essay – such as the idea that the essay is really a satire upon the very notions he “advocates” in the text (i.e., that “Death of the Author” actually defends traditional notions of authorship) – remain in the critical minority.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Content, 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.
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, 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.
More by Barthes, Reference
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.
Flip, Illustrated Cartoon (!) Version
Course, Anne and Philip Thody, ed. Richard Appignanesi. Barthes for Beginners. Cambridge: Icon Books, 1997.