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Roland Barthes' Death of the Author and Art as Text
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-11-30 09:28:00
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“The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.”
                                                         --Roland Barthes (“The Death of the Author”)

In his essay “The Death of the Author”, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) makes a provocative statement which is on a par with Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement on the death of God. To understand such a statement one has to know something about the mode of cultural analysis he founded under the name of structuralism and whose central insight derives from the work of Ferdinand De Saussure (1857-1913).

Sassure had argued that the individual speakers of a language do not determine the meanings of the words they utter; rather, the significance of their utterances is determined by the pre-existing system of meanings on which they draw and which are accepted by all those who speak that language. If books in any language were left on library shelves unread, they would be bereft of any meaning. No readers, no meaning. A dog watching his master look at pieces of paper with ink marks on it for hours at a time has a hard time understanding this strange addiction of his master. For the dog, it makes much more sense to be out on a walk smelling all kinds of wonderful smells and running after a stick.

Of course that leaves aside the anomaly of an individual or two who appear from time to time with a private solipsistical language of their own, those who hear internal visiting voices urging them to use terms of a language that are antiquated and no longer in use. Their motivation is usually a great desire to stand out from the crowd and appear clever; more often than not what they manage to accomplish is an anomalous and slightly deranged view of social reality, a contemptuous disregard for the system of meanings of a language that dictate that they be not tampered at will, albeit language itself is an evolving phenomenon. Insane asylums are full of those kind of people.

We have already seen in previous theories of art and literature that it is the intention of the artist that confers artistic status on the products of his activity. To the contrary, Barthes applies the general structuralist claim to the critique the idea of the artist as creator or author of the artwork. In his opinion, modernism has forced a revaluation of this idea of the artist’s intention. He takes a close look at the works of Mallarme, Balzac and Proust coming up with the insight that when the production of meaning by modern literary works is analyzed with techniques modeled on structural linguistics, reference to their authors’ intentions becomes superfluous.

Rather than speak of the work with its associations to the author as the origin of a single, determinate meaning, Barthes prefers the notion of text, understood as an ensemble of competing “writings” or discourses that the scriptor (who has replaced the dead author) does not create but quotes. That is to say, the scriptor can only quote, because his sole resources are the already existing discourses at hand. But rather than fashion them into a unified whole, as previous theorists conceived of the outcome of artistic creation, all that is left for the scriptor is to bind them into a mélange. The presence of such distinct, competing discourses in a single text is what the structuralist critic is interested in exposing to view. And so, in place of the author, no longer the source of meaning, Barthes enthrones the reader, who, by decoding the competing writings that constitute the text, achieves authority over it.

Consider this excerpt from Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”: “In his story Sarrasine Balzac, describing a castrato disguised as a woman, writes the following sentence: ‘This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussing, and her delicious sensibility.’ Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.”

This emphasis on quotation rather than originality is quite typical of Barthes and his followers. Admittedly, Barthes is writing about literature, but his claims can be easily generalized to other arts. While the idea of the artist as the origin of the work of art has had a venerable history dating back to the rise of the modern individual and his consciousness of his worth as an individual in 16th century Renaissance Italy, for Barthes, the advent of modernism signals the demise of this very idea.

There is little doubt that Barthes’s writings have had a major effect on both artists and theorists. By designating ours a post-modern age, they no longer view art as the product of an authorizing intelligence ideally in control of the meanings it produces. This of course goes against the grain of control freaks of every persuasion, and of cultural philistines, some of them even claiming to be artists, out to impose their theory of art on the rest of us, or perhaps declare that progress is inevitable and what comes at the end is always superior to anything that preceded it, those who claim absolute originality even when they reinvent the wheel out of sheer ignorance that it has already been invented. The more reasonable observers readily admit that some of the historical phenomena of the 20th century (Gulags, Holocaust, genocides, atrocities of every kind) far from being progress, was regress of the worst order. But if one accepts Barhes’s theory of the death of the author, then the best one can do is to place various existing ideas in competition with one another.  

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Emanuel Paparella2008-11-30 18:51:46
A footnote may be in order here. In line with the very last statement of this submission, in this ongoing presentation of various theories of art I am attempting to place in competition and dialogue different ideas on the theory of art. I may or may not personally agree with any of them, but that is not as important as the final judgment of the reader who, as Barthes reminds us, is the real authority and needs to read, ponder, react and debate them to make them meaningful to him/herself or others. Ovi magazine is after all a place of freewheeling opinion and dialogue respectful of free speech; it is that characteristic that makes it so attractive to so many people. It may be also worthwhile to reveal that those particular contributions on art are in fact classroom lectures for a course on aesthetics I teach at Barry University. The Barthian approach of focusing on the reader rather than the author has proven quite effective for a very fruitful debate of those ideas on art among students. They feel empowered by the fact that it is the reader that confers meaning, to freely express their divergent opinions on the nature of art.

titeeksha2011-09-12 19:42:46
it was a very effective explanation of bunch of highly technical sentences....

Ray E Johnston2012-08-11 02:34:09
I think it makes clear where solipsism lives and dies. More than that, the critic also emerges as a superfluous appendage explaining meaning of past cultures. leaves the current reader competing stories and the reader takes what he understands was being said. No more.

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