Roland Barthes: The Death of the Author

[Readings] (08.29.08, 4:43 pm)


Barthes opens his essay by looking at a quote from Balzac’s Sarrasine, and digging into the methods of understanding the quote’s author. The quote is remarking on a castrato impersonating a woman, describing the fluid evocation of the idea of “Woman” given off by the impersonator. Barthes is trying to discern who is behind the quote, though, who is saying it. It could be the story’s hero, it could be Balzac the author, Balzac the philosopher, it could be universal wisdom or romantic psychology. Barthes explains that due to the nature of writing itself, it is impossible to know. Writing is a voice with an indeterminate speaker, whose identity and body is lost through writing.

The idea of the author is a construction that derives from rationalism and the Reformation, which were concerned with elevating and unearthing the individual in all things. There is a fascination with modern society to connect the author to their work, and to understand the the human behind the work, through the work, perhaps instead of the work itself. Criticism sees a work as the product of the author, or a product of the author’s character traits.

Barthes looks into Mallarme (who was a subject of great interest by Umberto Eco), and explains that Mallarme’s work was intended as a removal of the author so that pure language remained.

Other writers see to expound on the relationship between themselves, their works, and their characters, blending them to some degree. The author’s relationship to the work can be seen as somewhat incidental and residing in chance. Writers may challenge the position that they stand on in relation to their work. Surrealism pushes this further by playing with the system of language. This playing is supposed to expose the limits of authorship (or authorial intent, I suppose?) and exhaust the idea of the person in writing, as opposed to the subject, the one who writes.

As a side, many popular contemporary authors see their writing as being very systematic. They do not control or master the writing from the top down, but rather they develop characters and let the characters act on their own. In this sense, the writing is a run of a simulation.

With this in mind, modern works may be approached with the knowledge of the author’s absence. If we “believe in” the author, it is as the parent of the book, the precursor to the work. In the modern text, the writer is born along with the text.

Barthes explains a perception of the text which is lacking the absolute message of the author (in an almost theological sense). The text is a “space of many dimensions”, it is a “tissue of citations”. Expression is merely translation from a dictionary. “Succeeding the Author, the writer no longer contains within himself passions, humors, sentiments, impressions, but that enormous dictionary, from which he derives a writing which can know no end or halt: life can only imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, a lost, infinitely remote imitation.”

In a post-author text, deciphering becomes impossible or useless. Imposing an author onto a text forces the text to adopt an ultimate signification, which destroys the writing. Modern writing instead can be distinguished and traversed.

Written language is inherently ambiguous, and when we remove the author, written language can be perfectly understood. Barthes mentions Greek tragedies, which use ambiguity and duplicity to convey meanings. It is the reader who is able to interpret, connect, and weave these together.

Barthes is not trying to criticize the meaning or unity of texts, but rather the idea that unity or meaning descend from an external author who precedes and begets the work. Rather, meaning and the unity of a work coalesce in the reader, who connects and strings together meanings from all places. The reader lacks history or psychology or identity in the sense that the author does. The reader’s meaning can be considered a liberation or popularization from the idea that meaning is from and for the author.


Authorship is interesting in a modern society, especially in terms of commercial products. In a culture where corporations are extended rights and status granted to individuals, commercial products tend to stand with the company or the corporation as their author. Some examples of this is are computer software, pharmaceuticals, fast food, etcetera. Despite the fact that many individuals are responsible for creation, and these creations have evolved and changed significantly over time, the products themselves are, even legally, authored by the corporation.

Authorship is important in simulation as well. If one ascribes to the belief that all creative expressions are systematic (that is, they are embedded with models of meaning), then these systems could be said to be authored. The systems are open works, in the Umberto Eco sense, as they are free to some interpretation, but are still constrained by their original authorship.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBarthes, Roland
TitleThe Death of the Author
Tagsdms, postmodernism, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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