Imagine my surprise when a venture into the depths of the interwebs offered an array of capitalized titles referencing auteur-theory and, even better, had a legion of video-essayists wrestling with the pronunciation of French philosopher Roland Barthes.
Lil’ cultural scientist me didn’t know how fast to squee at the sudden attention her field finally got in the wider sphere.
I knew that guy! Finally, I had somewhere to go with my knowledge.
And then I didn’t know how fast to frown and nod sadly in resignation, because of course the quest for separating Art from the Artist doesn’t come from a happy place.
The main reason you’d wish for this separation, after all, is if the Artist influences or taints the experience of the Art somewhat. Thus making it more difficult to enjoy the Art without feeling awkward or guilty due to the actions, idea’s and agenda of the Artist.
A text, any text, is no instruction manual.Except for actual instruction manuals.
Before I actually dive into what the Death of the Author actually entails (and where misinterpretation of it gets dangerous and complicated), let me place some notes.
- Yes. I’m writing this a bit late, and mainly due to the commotion surrounding J.K. Rowling’s media presence on Twitter. She’s saying a lot of harmful things there and by doing so estranging a large part of her dedicated fanbase, yours truly included.
- No, the notion of the Death of the Author doesn’t actually have anything to do with the actual physical demise of the creator of a work. However, their decease does factor into the discussion of the separation of Art and Artist, at least in my opinion.
- You’ll see that the whole concept of the Death of the Author is very much based on subjective interpretation. This, too, is my explanation of this specific theory. The thing with cultural theory is that it is not based in numbers, but on the least transparent medium available: language. It makes it difficult to nuance without creating slabs of text, but dI’ll try to keep it brief and breezy.
- (Many notes, very wow) This might be a given to some people, but when I refer to the term ‘text’ within this discussion, it is not restricted to the written word, but deals with the broader term of ‘thing made by creator’. Thus any type of content can be referred to as ‘text’ as a subject of interpretation.
La Mort de L’Auteur
Alrighty! Here we go.
Written in 1967, Barthes’ short essay La Mort de l’Auteur consisted of a whole 5 pages of text.
Spoiler: that’s not very much.
Its title referenced Le morte d’Arthur; a medieval retelling of the legends of King Arthur, in which (another spoiler) Arthur dies. Besides Barthes basically punning himself into the historybooks of the academic world, Barthes implies this as a kind of metaphor. The hero of literature up to this point had mainly been the author, reigning supreme over their work and how it was interpreted even after they wrote it. Sometimes even after their death.
By drawing this connection between the Author and Arthur, Barthes intends for us, the ordinary folk, to get up and start making a difference. Arthur is far away on Avalon; the Author stands equally far from their texts. It is up to us, not to heroes, to instil meaning into the world, or the text, by interpreting it ourselves.
Back to the text
Along with not being very long, La Mort de l’Auteur wasn’t very nuanced either.
This lead to a lot of confusion and discussion. Many scholars saw the text as a rebellion or even a death threat to the figure of the author within the text. That might not have been Barthes’ intention, but that is exactly where we run into the ‘spirit’ of the Death of the Author.
Mainly, it boils down to this: a text, any text, is no instruction manual.
Since any reader has their own subjective experiences, it is inevitable that they could interpret a text differently than the author might have intended.
What I believe we should take away from The Death of the Author is not whether the author and their intentions are unimportant or essential to your reading experience. Rather, the author’s intention does not have influence on the validity on other substantiated interpretations of the text.
‘a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.’Roland Barthes, 1967
Barthes wrote his essay in order to push against the literary tradition of always and only reading a text through the perspective of the author’s biographical history. Ergo, knowing about the author was seen as essential to understanding what he wrote. Which Barthes found silly, since who someone is and what they write can differ immensely. Also, whatever an author wants to say should be found in their text; it’s called writing for a reason.
Through The Death of the Author, Barthes intended to ‘give the text back to the people’, without such a heavy emphasis on hierarchy when it comes to multiple interpretations of text.
And yes, he implied that if necessary, in order for the reader to be ‘born’, the institution of the Author might have to die in the process. This ‘birth’ refers to the validated influence on the text and its interpretation, just to be clear. People were clearly reading before that…
But the main point is, then, that Barthes wishes for the individual to be able to interpret a text on their own terms. Not only through the intentions and history of the Author.
To separate Art from the Artist
Being able to enjoy Art without condoning the actions and (political) thought of their creator starts with Roland Barthes. Because of him, we can somewhat distance the Author from what they produced, since our own experience of them is acknowledged as equally valid as what the Author intended with it.
Along with that, it offers some nuance to the reader’s experience. Even when clear ideology is present in the text, the Death of the Author allows us to enjoy what exists around these ideas without implicitly agreeing to all of it.
Once the text is published, the Author no longer has unconditional control over it. They can still comment on it, steer people’s perception of certain characters or events. But if a reader develops their own theory, and it can be traced within the text, then that is valid as well. This simultaneously offers a very empirical and a very vague, associative approach, which admittedly is a bit confusing.
Much more critical thought has since gone into this by many, many people. One of Barthes ‘collegues’, Michel Foucault, actually wrote longer essay on the subject, which is often seen as heavily indebted to Barthes’ ideas. In What is an Author? (1979) he continues along Barthes’ initial thoughts, expanding them into an actual (and more radical) reading strategy.
But that’s a topic for another time, I think!
If you’re really interested in theories like this, I’d love to write some more about it. Do let me know! However, if you’d really like to get down to the good stuff, I sincerely recommend Andrew Bennett’s The Author, from the New Cricital Idiom series for a very thorough overview of various approaches to the notion of the author.
Also, if you have found any mistakes in this, or any other of my articles, please do let me know.
To some extent, I like being wrong.
It’s how I learn.
- Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ in: Séan Burke (ed.) Authorship: From Plato to Postmodernism: A Reader, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, pp. 125-130
- Andrew Bennett, The Author. London/New York: Routledge, 2005.