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Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, wrote the influential essay "The Death of the Author" in 1968. But what exactly does "the death of the author" mean to Barthes? Many English departments, especially in the United States, adopted Barthes' ideas (along with those of other thinkers like Jacques Derrida) in the 1970s and 1980s, which was crucial to the development of poststructuralist literary theory.

In this essay, let's take a closer look at Barthes' argument. Before moving on to our summary and analysis of "The Death of the Author," you can read it here.

'The death of the author': summary

Barthes begins "The Death of the Author" with a quote from Honore de Balzac's Sarrasine novel as an illustration. Barthes asks us who "speaks" those words in a passage from the book: the novel's protagonist, or Balzac himself? If it is Balzac, does he speak on his own behalf or on behalf of humanity as a whole?

The point made by Barthes is that we cannot know. He boldly declares that writing is "the destruction of every voice." Writing is actually a negative, a void in which we do not know who is speaking or writing, rather than a creative or positive force.

In point of fact, our obsession with "the author" is a curiously modern phenomenon that can be traced back specifically to the Renaissance and the growth of the concept of "the individual." Barthes points out that a lot of literary criticism still views the author as an individual who created a particular work. As a result, we discuss how we can identify Baudelaire as the man in his novels. For Barthes, however, this search for the literary text's definitive origin or source is a wild goose chase.

He makes the point that some writers, like the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé from the nineteenth century, have tried to remind us through their works that language speaks to us, not the author. The writer ought to compose with a specific generic quality: In order to permit the writing of the work, the author suppresses their personality.

Barthes begins by capitalizing the term "the Author" as if to draw a parallel with a higher entity like God. This can help us see the relationship between the writer and the text in new ways. According to conventional thinking, the author is analogous to a parent and conceives the text rather than a child. Thus, the author exists prior to the literary work, whether it be a novel, poem, or play.

However, according to Barthes' radical new perspective on the relationship between the two, the writer and the text are born simultaneously. This is because whenever we read a literary work, we are interacting with the author right now rather than having to consider Shakespeare the Renaissance "author" four hundred years earlier. Shakespeare', as an author, exists now, at the time we read his chips away at the page in the twenty-first hundred years. Writing is a performative act that only takes place when we read the words on the page because that is the only time those words actually have meaning, and it is our interpretation that gives them meaning. All things being equal, then, at that point, we ought to consider not 'the Writer' yet 'the descriptor (Barthes utilized the French scripture in his unique paper, an uncommon French term which implies, basically, 'copyist'). A literary work should not be viewed as a secularized version of a sacred text in which the "Author" is a God who has given the text a single meaning.

Instead, many previous works of literature "blend and clash" in the literary text, incorporating a variety of influences, allusions, and quotations. In point of fact, Barthes asserts that "none of them" is "original." The text, on the other hand, is "a tissue of quotations."In his conclusion to "The Death of the Author," Barthes argues that imposing an author on a text actually restricts that text because we must view the literary work in relation to the author who wrote it. The person who created it must be the source of its meaning.

However, according to Barthes, writing is not like that: It is a "tissue of signs" that the reader only understands when they interact with them. We must abandon the notion that the author determines the meaning of the text in order for the reader to exist and have the meaning as a term. The meaning of a text lies "not in its origin but in its destination."

"The Death of the Author" analysis 

"The Death of the Author" makes a number of bold but significant assertions regarding the relationship that exists between an author and a literary work: that literary works are not original; and that one cannot simply look to the author of a piece of literature to determine its meaning. Instead, as readers, we are always trying to figure out what a text means.

We tend to think of writing as a creative art in the sense that it is the creation of a voice, not the "destroying of every voice." Additionally, the literary text lacks originality: Indeed, each text is merely a "tissue of quotations."This may appear to be Barthes overplaying his hand; surely literary works do not simply consist of a series of quotations from other works; rather, they contain original thoughts, phrases, and ideas. However, throughout "The Death of the Author," Barthes is interested in language, and it is true that the words used in every piece of literature, which are the raw materials through which meaning is created, are familiar and therefore not original: merely assembled in a slightly novel manner. (A notable exception is Lewis Carroll's nonsense works, of which "Jabberwocky" contains numerous original words; However, the fact that we recognize this poem as an exception rather than the typical method by which works of literature generate meaning is part of the fun.)

Although "The Death of the Author" was a bold and influential statement, it had many predecessors: For instance, T. S. Eliot had already put an emphasis on impersonality in his 1919 essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," despite the fact that Eliot still considered the poet to be an important source of written text. Also, in the middle of the 20th century, New Criticism, especially in the United States, argued that the text had meaning on its own, independent of the author who wrote it and that looking for the authorial intention in literature was kind of red herring.

A compelling argument is made in "The Death of the Author" about how a piece of literature has meaning in relation to its readers rather than its author. We who read Dickens in the 21st century are not the same as Victorian readers of his works when he was alive, for instance. Over time, words acquire new resonance and acquire new meanings.

However, we might make a few points to challenge Barthes' argument. The first is probably the most obvious: that it shouldn't for even a moment need to be an 'either/or' and that the introduction of the peruser doesn't be guaranteed to must be at the expense of the demise of the creator. We can read Keats' poems and try to figure out what the young Romantic poet meant by what he wrote, and what he was trying to say with the work, and we can also acknowledge that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" has new resonances for us now, two centuries after it was written.

Second, treating a piece of literature as merely a "tissue of signs" runs the risk of placing it on the same level as a telephone directory or bus schedule. They are also not original and consist only of well-known words, names, and numbers. Great works of art, on the other hand, put these words and "signs" into new combinations — and there are virtually infinite of them — that can give us new meanings, whereas works of literature typically draw on familiar words and even phrases. Therefore, rather than a bipartite relationship, we might think of the author, the text, and the reader as a tripartite partnership: The meaning of the text is formed by all three elements.

If I give my students a poem and don't tell them who wrote it, they can try to figure out what it means by looking at the language; However, understanding the author and their context can reveal new meanings that are crucial to comprehending the text. The meaning of a poem shifts as soon as we know it was written by Sylvia Plath and can relate specifics about her life and death to our reading.

So, we do need to think about who wrote a text and how that might play a role in making sense of it. However, we also need to recognize, like Barthes does, that once a text is written and published, it is no longer just the property of the author who wrote it; instead, the people who read it are also the ones who make sense of it. 

The death of the author


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