In his first paragraph Barthes uses Balzac’s Sarrasine’s castrato character’s inner voice to examine who’s really doing the talking in a written work, since there are layers of meaning in the identity within the particular quote. One of my favorite aspects of post-modernist literature is its playfulness with the notion of authorship and recursive identity within a given work. John Barth’s “Giles Goat Boy,” a favorite and seminal work for me, starts with a forward deliberately attempting to put the authorship of the book into question (it is supposedly a ‘discovered’ manuscript of debatable origin).
But Barthes claim “We shall never know (the author), for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. ” It’s a good point in a theoretical way, like the idea within Information Theory that the maximum amount of information that can be carried is with white noise (which by the way, is only a single construct within Information Theory, necessary to build other constructs on the formation of information within a signal).
However, contending that we can never know, and that the text exists in a “negative oblique space where” everything slips away stands at odds with the practical reality that if the author and the author’s creative genius wasn’t there, the text would not exist in the first place. One could allow that Barthes’ point of view is suggestive and not absolute, or that it promotes a point of view to help shade meanings on traditional critical methods, but he’s constantly painting himself into corners with absolute statements.
He doesn’t limit his point of view to contemporary authorship, or even to the author as a modern figure emerging from the middle ages. He states that “No doubt it (the loss of identity of the author in a negative oblique space) has always been this way”, that as soon as narration occurs “the author enters into his own death”. Barthes’ claims that the author is a modern construct that emerges from the Middle Ages, implying that before that time authorship was assumed by a mediator, shaman or performer, and not coming from genius.
But what about the ancient Greek Tragidians, like Aeschylus, or Roman pornographers, like Patronius and his Satyricon? As a form, the novel may be modern but not the author nor the notion of a genius within the author. Barthes makes a valid and important point that Capitalism’s relationship with the author is as a unique commodifiable object. It make me think of the profoundly capitalist notion of “branding”, as in the Mickey Mouse brand to Walt Disney. It’s also reasonable to place classical criticism at the service of Capitalism, which provides an excellent motive for placing the “branded” author at the center of a critical approach.
And is it correct to see a creative work as existing solely in the context of the author, even to the extent of not placing the content of the work outside of the context of the author’s personal life up to that point. It makes sense that some authors have become recluses, like Salinger and Pynchon, who prefer to let their work stand on its own. In fact the notion of a creative work “standing on its own” is what strikes me to be the appropriate post-modernist attitude to take regarding a creative work relative to its creator, and as an approach does not require the destruction of the author.
Barthes states that “it goes without saying that certain writers have long since attempted to loosen” the sway of the Author. No doubt, but if you destroy the validity of the author as a creative center, one who either brings works into the world from some unconscious place of ‘genius’ as I believe, or out of a “tissue of signs” or quotations and a “mosaic of other activated texts’ or drawn from an “immense dictionary” as Barthes contends, you still don’t have to kill off the creator.
Who constructed the “tissue of signs” or the “mosaic” or read the “immense dictionary” to begin with? Even Mallarme’s intensely abstracted and word-based poetry (though I must confess to not having read it) is based in language as a kind of meta language, Mallarme still had to create it, even if Mallarme makes deliberate efforts to remove himself from the writing of it.
According to Barthes, Valery approached his prose with the notion that his interiority, or creative genius or authorship, was pure superstition. Fine, he can believe that. I’d like to see Valery prove it. The mere attempt to compile a series of words, to become a “scriptor” as Barthes puts it, the mere attempt in itself is a creative act by a unique individual, and not by a scriptor snatching bits from a pre-existing dictionary without any personal intervention.
Barthes takes on Proust as proof somehow that by the self-referential and recursive existence of the author within the book working up to writing the book, that by blurring the realities of authorship and narrative of authorship, one can assume the actual author has in some semiotic sense committed suicide, when in fact Proust has only ‘played off’ an idea, like a jazz rift, and has not actually dissolved himself. Barthes includes Surrealistic texts as further proof of non-authorship, with aleatoric and unconscious techniques of construction.
But again, where did the technique of construction come from if not from a creative place within the author? Surrealists are in effect trapped in a paradox that the subversion of codes is in itself a code (and Barthes believes in the indestructibility of codes) but it in nowise removes the destroyer of the code from a creative act through a destructive one. Barthes puts up linguistics as providing a sort of murderous apparatus for deconstructing the author out of the text it examines.
That the un-provable, and therefore empty, process of enunciation exhausts the notion of an “I” within a text, reducing it to no more than an instance of saying “I”. Fine, great, so? If I have a tool, say a microscope, and I use it to examine the surface of Michelangelo’s incomplete Prisoner Statues in Florence, and I get a very interesting take on the chisel marks’ depth and flow and intersections, have I therefore negated Michelangelo? Even if you add on top of that Michelangelo’s insistence that he was merely releasing the character from within the stone, Michelangelo’s creative force is still there.
Barthes contends that by removing the Author from the text, or even taking text from which the “scriptor” has removed themselves, that it utterly transforms the text. And here I agree, and I agree that the tools of post modern deconstruction and linguistics do transform our understanding of what text can mean and how it can be received in a critical context, and even in a personal one. It is intellectually interesting to remove the author and his/her existence as conjoined in time and see the ‘scriptor’ as coming into existence at the moment of reading, and to consider the writing as being what the linguist J.
L. Austin calls a Performative Utterance (an act of utterance that does not report a fact, but is an action in and of itself). But contending that the performative utterance, activated by a hand trapped in the phenomena of lagging behind reality by a few microseconds, “traces a field without origin” or if there is an origin the language itself negates it by “ceaselessly” calling it into question, is interesting as a point of view only for about the few microseconds that my sensory information to my mind lags behind reality.
This isn’t about the removal of the author so much as it is contending that even if an author exists, they merely inscribe and don’t create, since the language they inscribe is self-referentially self canceling. Barthes says “We know now that 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 centres of culture. ” Fine.
Interesting, even revelatory in its point of view that there is nothing new under the sun (which is not something new under the sun). But is not this assembled mosaic of texts assembled by someone? And how is it that the act of assembly is tacitly a non-creative act, and an act that does not come from ‘genius’. Barthes uses Bouvard and Pecuchet, characters from the same titled book by Flaubert, who try and move from a non-creative life as copyists to a creative one as farmers and back to copyists from a dictionary which Flaubert himself wrote before the book was created, as another example of non-authorness.
But it again strikes me as ironic that these are characters, created by Flaubert. It’s interestingly recursive, but not self-canceling as Barthes contends. He includes Baudelaire’s internal fictional “unfailing” dictionary in Paradis Atrificiels to exemplify the scriptors self-removal from emotions and passive reading of an “immense dictionary from which life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” A tissue of signs perhaps, but lost and infinitely deferred?
If an author/scriptor is a mere copyist assembling a tissue of signs, how then is the author/scriptor lost and infinitely deferred from the readers interaction with the text. If I read a text I am creating meaning from that text, but I am also aware that there is a creative force behind my created meaning, irrespective of my created meaning, and that is the author. Barthes seems to contend that all “agency” or representation must be transferred to the text, or language, itself.
Some, like Graham Allen in his book “Intertextuality” claim that Barthes “does not murder all forms of Authorial agency” (my italics) and to take it as such is a misinterpretation; but he does, over and over. When he says “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin”, “the whole of enunciation is an empty process”, “the text is henceforth made and read in such a way that at all levels the author is absent”, “the text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning, but a multidimensional space”, “the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.
” Barthes says “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. ” How so? I am unconvinced. If, as he claims, criticism has allotted itself the task of discovering the author beneath the work, how does that impose a limit on the text? A critic may, like Barthes, impose whatever they like, but in no way does that limit me to my own creation of meaning from a given text. Does the act of analysis destroy flexibility of meaning in a creative work? Only if you give the author of the analysis a God-like power over all other interpretations.
Here I agree with Barthes in not granting that power, but it raises the paradox that by agreeing too heartily, I’m also negating Barthes’ existence as the author of Death of the Author. So I choose to limit my giving over of power to the author, but I don’t see the need to kill him or her. In Barthes’ conclusion, he ironically refers to Greek Tragedy’s texts which carrying double meanings understood by the characters within the play in only a unilateral way, and with the viewer/listener/reader able to perceive the layers of meaning from outside the play.
This reveals to Barthes the totality of the existence of writing; a tissue of signs, drawn from many texts, a multiplicity focused in one place in the reader. True enough, but to say the author is not a part of that focused multiplicity is nonsense. A texts’ unity lies in its destination as he says, but not at the cost of its origin. That “Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader” may be true enough, but recognizing the reader doesn’t obviate the writer. I contend we don’t have to throw out the author/baby when we throw out the bathwater of classic criticism.
Barthes’ newly-birthed reader can live quite nicely with its older sibling, the author. or” has really achieved. Has it thrown off the yoke of “capitalist ideology”? Has it done anything to progress society? Has it overthrown the old elites and liberated the vast horde of readers? No; quite the contrary. When the author is dead, the reader is king, or rather, the individual, free-floating consumer is king. The quality of a work of art is therefore determined by the number of people who consume it; in other words, by market forces.
Artists must cater their work to market realities, and a whole swathe of nominally “left” commentators cheer them on; those artists who pursue their singular, uncommercial vision are condemned as “elitist” or worse. The trend launched by the “Death of the Author” has been against self-expression in art, and in favour of pandering to the dollar and to the lowest common denominator. It’s a perfect example of the dead end and hypocrisy of 60s radicalism. The author is dead, long live the free market! Deconstructing Authorship © 2010 DeathofTheAuthor. com