Response to Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”

I kept thinking about the conversation we had in class about Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” and why what he purports in his article is hard to digest, for me.  For one, I believe his argument is partly one of semantics, preferring the term “writing” to “literature” or likening the “author” of a text to one that “disentangles” the “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”  Either way we are still left with things to read, things that have been assembled by an individual with a certain artistic or aesthetic insight.  And to dismiss the individual that assembles a given work seems unfair to say the least, because if anyone could do it anyone would do it.  So merit is due to the individuals with said artistic skill-set.

However, I agree with the notion that the ‘author’ sits a-top a pedestal in contemporary society, but this is partly due to the workings of literary critics (like Barthes as he barrages his reader with countless authors he feels speaks to his ideals) and the need to distinguish good works from lesser works.  Yet to deny hierarchical categorization would be to deny human nature, so canonization of literary ‘genius’ still remains just as the New York Times will continue to publish a “best-sellers” list on a weekly basis.

Barthes also seems to ascribe the role of the critic to the everyday reader, which I also believe is unfair.  Readers outside the small selective circle of literary criticism read for entertainment, pleasure, or out of curiosity, not necessarily to acquire a secret, worldly and universal understanding or “ultimate meaning” from a text.  But I also agree that no “ultimate meaning” should be divulged or sought after in reading/writing in the first place.  Reading is responsive, and what you get is what you get.

I think I understand what Barthes is getting at, but I also think that what he purports is too idealistic.   A balance between a reader’s interaction with a text and authorial intent can be achieved, but is up to the reader to recognize his/her role in approaching a text that has been amassed and transcribed by another.  Mutual respect on both sides of the author/reader equation is essential.

3 thoughts on “Response to Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”

  1. One minor disagreement. I think that anyone who interprets (as in, reads and has an understanding of) a work is a “critic” for Barthe. We all read and bring our unique perspective to everything from toothpaste ads to Greek philosophy. Even when we’re reading for pleasure, our personal take on the text makes us a critic, for Barthe. That was my understanding, at least. I agree with your thoughts on balance.

  2. “And to dismiss the individual that assembles a given work seems unfair to say the least, because if anyone could do it anyone would do it.”

    Barthes isn’t about dismissing the author so much as demystifying it. Don’t take his rhetoric too literally — he uses Author With A Capital ‘A’ figuratively; the symbol of the author as an infallible figure is his target, not necessarily writers themselves.

    It’s easier to look at “The Death of the Author” as Barthes’ way of outlining what is more commonly known today as “reader-response criticism.” His assertions are more about combating New Criticism’s focus on examining texts in a vacuum, removing reader interpretation, obsessing over artistic form … while at the same time rejecting other literary/social theories like Psychoanalysis that glean over the content of narratives that don’t openly relate back to their author.

  3. I guess I should have said “gloss over.”

    It’s not that the elements of New Criticism are not just as relevant. We still use close reading and formalist critique. And psychoanalysis is still an applicable reading today.

    But Barthes seriously believes that even “everyday” readers are, in fact, critics. How one interacts with a text and takes away from its writing as “meaning” is arguably more important than what the writer originally intended.

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