On Barthes’ “Death of the Author”

by Mark Wallace

I will be leading a discussion on Barthes’ “Death of the Author” in a seminar in a few weeks time, so now is a good time to re-read it and try to gather my thoughts on it. It’s a very short essay, 7 pages, and this may go some way to explaining its ubiquity. Not very far, but some way – for when you are introducing students to critical theory, a short, difficult essay is easier than a long, difficult essay, and most options fall into one of those two categories. But Barthes’ massive logical leaps into ex cathedra pronouncements on the nature of language, writing and reading are missing a whole lot of supporting evidence and development.

Barthes starts with a quote from Balzac, one that isn’t familiar in an Anglophone context, a fact which perhaps makes a difference as to how forcefully his point comes across. Then he asks, pertinently enough, who is it who speaks in this piece of narration, and answers: “We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, or every point or origin” (Word Image Text, Fontana, 1977, p. 142). In the history of literary criticism, this is perhaps the moment where philosophy begins to take over, exorcising the strict formalism of New Criticism. New Criticism often appears in histories of literary theory as the pre-existing paradigm overturned by theory. It is in this context that Barthes’ pronouncement gains in force, for, taken in itself, it reads to me like a huge hyperbole that is almost wholly unsupported in the essay. The rest of the essay doesn’t add any readings of pieces of literature to this one, it rather concentrates on very general philosophical points. This is a very important feature of this essay, one which was part of a huge shift in the study of literature – formal analysis and attentive reading of literature has given way to philosophizing. Jonathan Culler has written a book on this, though I haven’t read it.

So Barthes’ definition of a text is that it is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of meanings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (146). Is that all it is? Does anyone really believe that? If a text is just a tissue of quotations without an author or organizing consciousness behind them then why would we have favourite authors? Did Barthes never read a book on the strength of another book by the same author? I bet he did. I find it hard to see his stance as anything other than a deliberate overstatement. It can’t be proved or proved wrong, and I’m tempting to take an Ayer/ logical positivist view and class it as nonsense. But it was paradigm-shifting nonsense, that much we have to admit.

Is literature the work of an author? Does it arise from cultural codes? A little of column A and a little of column B is the common-sense answer, and one I’d subscribe to, but when Barthes’ essay appeared in 1967 obviously the zeitgeist was ready to answer: it’s all B; A does not exist! B was the position that academics were disposed to theorize. Maybe a reaction against New Criticism, a turning of the critical wheel, or maybe other historical factors (student riots, etc.) added to the enthusiasm with which the essay was read. But the theorization of B (cultural codes) was considered to involve the absolute denial of A (author), and that’s unnecessary and unsustainable. It would have been just as easy to outline the ways in which B operated historically, and sidelined A; but what happened was rather the theorization of B, and this entailed a theorization of the falseness of B. History is  mixed up, but theory proves often pure and absolutist.

It’s a work like “Death of the Author” that makes me suspect that the qualities required to be a celebrated thinker are the taking up of a ridiculous or blatantly exaggerated view and creating terms within which it can be defended, a view that corresponds to the zeitgeist, but amplifies it. This is not a conclusion that I want to reach, because it removes all of thought from any engagement with reality, or truth – it actually puts it on the opposite path, because defending an evident absurdity requires greater ingenuity and affords greater scope for intellectual pyrotechnics than defending a common-sense position, thus an absurdity is philosophically superior to any other character of theory or observation. It’s no wonder that Stanley Fish’s theories about all “knowledge” being related to conventions specific to a group or moment came out a few years after this essay. But Fish should have historicized his theory (but that’s one convention that went out of fashion), because while truth loses out in Barthes’ approach, it has made some slight returns since, and if Carlyle’s theory of the “bankruptcy of imposture” (on which, stay tuned) has any validity at all, it’s going to be coming back a lot more in the near future.