The Cult of Authorship

While reading Barthe’s essay, I found it a bit bizzare that, for an essay intent on dismantling the cult of personality surrounding the author in all forms of criticism, Barthes tends to mention authors a lot in his essay. It does offer context to his ideas (the Balzac line tieing everything together helpfully), but for an essay suggesting something as extreme as the replacement of the author, Barthes is still dependent on their existence to write his essay. The wordiness (and rapid-fire name-dropping of authors I’m mostly unfamiliar with) didn’t help matters either, and made the essay more difficult to understand for me beyond its surface.

Hyperbole aside, the issue of the fetishization of the author is one that basically anyone who’s taken a high school English class (or even a college-level one) can empathize with. The established set of meanings as intended by the author are the ones that you are restricted to, and often times critical reading becomes less of an analytical exploration (if that makes sense at all) and more of a ‘deep meanings’ treasure hunt, with pre-set clues and prizes to dig up. Though one would certain be more unskilled in high school than in college to truly form a non-spoon-fed opinion, the fact remains that the author is consistently put on the pedestal in academia and criticism, with the reader taking the side role of ‘putting the puzzle together’.

Nearly 50 years later, the decreasing importance of authorship can be seen in a fairly different form. Much of today’s internet content is inherently anonymous: few people look at a username on Reddit, Youtube, or any other meme-machine website to examine who wrote what today, or who originally created what viral piece of media. Much of it is also derivative, using pre-established structures, designs, or pictures to portray a new idea without the weight of authorial intent. Though much of it may be purely for light amusement and entertainment, in the user-generated content of the internet era, authorship is truly becoming less and less relevant.