Thursday, June 18, 2015

Roland Barthes and the Death of the Author c. 1970

“The birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.”

Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) was a French literary critic who applied Saussure’s and Derrida’s arguments to hermeneutics. Although he was a prolific scholar, the two works of his which most directly concern us are short essays: The Death of the Author and the Discourse of History (both in 1967)

In the first of these pieces Barthes argued that the Author – the concept of a story-teller uniquely endowed with insight into the human condition, and therefore qualified to speak on it from a place of authority – was a modern invention. Traditionally, stories were told and retold through tradition and ritual. In other words they came from a place beyond the individual recounting the story, and their particular recitation of it was not in any sense authoritative. What was authoritative was the tradition itself, of which the particular storyteller was merely an agent of transmission.

Upon reflection, the traditional model was more faithful to what actually happened during storytelling. Not only was the story not under the “author’s” control to begin with (as per Saussure, concepts are derived from language, which are handed to us as fait accompli), it was not under their control in the process of transmission (where words and concepts seem to take on a life of their own, and “ventriloquize” the “author”), and was not under their control at the end either (since once words are written down, the “author” can no longer control how they will be interpreted.) It was simply wrong, then, to think of the “author” as in any sense the owner of the story. More properly, he was a “scriptor” – a person who simply wrote down what was already latent within the constellation of language.

Both the traditional and modern views were “logo-centric” in that they relied on some outside agent to stand over, organize, legitimate, and impart meaning to, the story. If literary criticism, like philosophy, were to become aware of itself, it would have to be based on the primacy of language and the legitimacy of multiple readings – which meant, in this case, that one could not appeal to the author as an authority for assessing the meaning of a text. Just the reverse – it was the reader who imparted meaning to the text, and it was the text itself that he had to appeal to by way of justification. The idea that the text had one fixed meaning, or that the meaning(s) existed independently of the reader or their act of interpretation was simply nonsense. Far from deciphering the actual meaning of the text, which was a kind of violence (Barthes argued) directed at the multiplicity of meanings within it, literary criticism should aim at liberating the meaning of the meaning of the text, or in other words at placing it back in the hands of the reader.

In The Discourse of History Barthes discussed the work of four historians (Herodotus, Machiavelli, Bossuet, and Jules Michelet), and argued that their writing about history (and by implication that of other historians) was essentially fictive. That is, it shared common narrative devices, tropes, conventions, elements of plot and characterization, and so on, as well as authorial rituals (not to mention the actual business of _reading_ a history), which all made it possible (preferable, even) to understand a work of history as literature. This was not exactly the same thing as saying that history was bunk, or that it was all made up (though it wasn’t far from it either) – but it was to say that the historian could claim no authority to say what had actually happened. That would (again) be “logo-centric,” and the past was in any case beyond the historian’s or anyone else’s ability to recall. But even if we could recall it, we would still (following Nietzsche) have to reject the implicit authority of “it happened.” After all, just because “it happened” one way in the past didn’t mean “it” had to “happen” the same way today.

Other postmodernist historians took these ideas further and, following Derrida’s prescription (“there is nothing outside of the text”), began to approach historical documents with an eye toward an internal rather than an external reading. In other words, they argued that the historian should imitate the literary critic in pulling apart the assumptions and multiform meanings within the text, rather than (as historians usually do) try to use it as a “window” into the actual past. The past, like any other text, “preserves its secret.”

The Death of the Author:

Part of a Series on Postmodernism (IX of XVI)

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