Sunday, January 7, 2018

Death of the Author and Life of the Text by Roland Barthes

The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the “human person.” It is thus logical that in literature, it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the “person” of the author.

  The author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs. The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice,. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, the voice of a single person, the author “confiding” in us.

We know now, however, that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning ( the “message” of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture.

 Similar to Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, at once sublime and comic and whose profound ridiculousness indicates precisely the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know that the inner ‘thing’ he thinks to translate is itself only ready-formed dictionary, its words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely.

Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher the text becomes quite futile.

To give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is “explained”- victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has been that of the Critic; nor again in the fact that criticism (be it new) is today undermined along with the Author. 

In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, “run” (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced: writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption from meaning. In precisely this way literature (it would be better from now on to say writing), by refusing to assign a “secret”, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law.

Let us come back to the Balzac sentence:

In his story “Sarrasine” Balzac, describing a castrato disguised as a woman, writes:  This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings 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 Women? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know.

Another – very precise- example will help us to make this clear: recent research has demonstrate the constitutively ambiguous nature of Greek tragedy, its text woven from words with double meanings that each character understands unilaterally (this perpetual misunderstanding is exactly the “tragic’); there is, however, someone who understands each word in its duplicity and who, in addition hears the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him – this someone being precisely the reader or listener. Thus is revealed the total existence of writing.

The text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations to dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up 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 someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. Which is why it is derisory to condemn the new writing in the name of humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights.  Classic criticism never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature.

We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favor of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”

It may be that some literary works are reducible, in an explanatory way, to the person and intentions of the author but here Barthes refers to literary texts, which in his view, accomplish an irreducible, stereographic plurality of meanings, a serial movement of disconnections, over-lappings and variations of meanings; activities of association, contiguities and carrying-overs which ‘coincide with the liberation of symbolic energy”, a radical off-centered structure without closure; demoniacal, un-contained in its nature.

'A text abolishes the distance between the writer and reader.  In the text, in his text, the author is himself ‘a guest’. If he is a novelist, he is inscribed in the novel like one of his characters, no longer privileged, paternal or  theological, his inscription is ludic. He becomes, as it were, a paper-author, his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his  work."

This is an aesthetic analysis of Barthes’ experience as an author and reader. Roland Barthes the person is suspended in the act of writing, he becomes the open-ended conduit for the plethora of voices that comprise the consciousness of his individuality none of which are really his own;  he is radically separated from any one position or authoritative control. Its similar to what is called ‘automatic writing.’ A literary text, as opposed to a mere work, accomplishes the same discovery of movement, impermanence and absence of inhibiting closure, for the reader. “ As for the text”, he writes," it is bound to jouissance, that is, a pleasure without separation." The reader IS the author in such cases, on account an active engagement which the author’s self-effacement has provided.

Paul De Man wrote: "Literature as well as criticism - the difference between them being delusive - is condemned (or privileged) to be forever the most vigorous and, consequently, the most unreliable language in terms of which man names and modifies himself."

Probably Adorno could shed some light on this experience. Barthes is certainly influenced by the notions of  Mikhail Bakhtin.

1 comment:

  1. Adorno says the aesthetic experience has very little to do with enjoyment. Of course 'jouissance' doesn't reliably translate as mere enjoyment. Adorno speaks of the experience of unity, the engagement of the whole with each part, and each part with the whole. . . without separation?