advanced theory: Roland Barthes

So this section is for those that have a good grasp on basic Structuralism and want to go further in their studies of Literary Theory. This is an example of the theories and ideas that lead up to a literary theory, but Barthes is far from being the only establishing voice behind Structuralism. (see Ferdinand de Sassure) This is somewhat-advanced reading so be warned, if you’re not ready it will confuse the life out of you. For this EXTRA CREDIT assignment, read “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes and answer the two questions below, let’s say one paragraph min. for each question. (scroll down in Canvas to read or click here) Download et’s say one paragraph min. for each question. (scroll down in Canvas to read or click here)

Write a short summary and personal response to the essay. 

2. Examine the paragraph that starts with, “Once the author is gone, the claim to ‘decipher’ a text becomes quite useless” (5 Barthes). Then use “New Criticism” to compare and contrast the idea of language, meaning, or text analysis.  
In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, speaking of a castrato disguised asa woman, writes this sentence: “It was Woman, with her suddenfears, her irrational whims, her instinctive fears, her unprovokedbravado, her daring and her delicious delicacy of feeling” Who isspeaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero, concerned to ignorethe castrato concealed beneath the woman? Is it the man Balzac,endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy ofWoman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain “literary” ideasof femininity? Is it universal wisdom? or romantic psychology? Itwill always be impossible to know, for the good reason that allwriting is itself this special voice, consisting of severalindiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the inventionof this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin:literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into whichevery subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost,beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.· · ·Probably this has always been the case: once an action isrecounted, for intransitive ends, and no longer in order to actdirectly upon reality — that is, finally external to any functionbut the very exercise of the symbol — this disjunction occurs,the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death,writing begins. Nevertheless, the feeling about thisphenomenon has been variable; in primitive societies, narrativeis never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman orspeaker, whose “performance” may be admired (that is, hismastery of the narrative code), but not his “genius” The author isa modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, atthe end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, Frenchrationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, itdiscovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it morenobly, of the “human person” Hence it is logical that with regardto literature it should be positivism, resume and the result ofcapitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importanceto the author’s “person” The author still rules in manuals ofliterary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews,and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, bytheir private journals, their person and their work; the image ofliterature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically 2centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, hispassions; criticism still consists, most of the time, in saying thatBaudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire, VanGogh’s work his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice: the explanationof the work is always sought in the man who has produced it, asif, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, it wasalways finally the voice of one and the same person, the author,which delivered his “confidence.”· · ·Though the Author’s empire is still very powerful (recentcriticism has often merely consolidated it), it is evident that for along time now certain writers have attempted to topple it. InFrance, Mallarme was doubtless the first to see and foresee in itsfull extent the necessity of substituting language itself for theman who hitherto was supposed to own it; for Mallarme, as forus, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is toreach, through a preexisting impersonality — never to beconfused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist— that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not”oneself”: Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing theauthor for the sake of the writing (which is, as we shall see, torestore the status of the reader.) Valery, encumbered with apsychology of the Self, greatly edulcorated Mallarme’s theory,but, turning in a preference for classicism to the lessons ofrhetoric, he unceasingly questioned and mocked the Author,emphasized the linguistic and almost “chance” nature of hisactivity, and throughout his prose works championed theessentially verbal condition of literature, in the face of which anyrecourse to the writer’s inferiority seemed to him puresuperstition. It is clear that Proust himself, despite the apparentpsychological character of what is called his analyses, undertookthe responsibility of inexorably blurring, by an extremesubtilization, the relation of the writer and his characters: bymaking the narrator not the person who has seen or felt, noreven the person who writes, but the person who will write (theyoung man of the novel — but, in fact, how old is he, and who ishe? — wants to write but cannot, and the novel ends when atlast the writing becomes possible), Proust has given modernwriting its epic: by a radical reversal, instead of putting his lifeinto his novel, as we say so often, he makes his very life into awork for which his own book was in a sense the model, so that itis quite obvious to us that it is not Charlus who imitatesMontesquiou, but that Montesquiou in his anecdotal, historical 3reality is merely a secondary fragment, derived from Charlus.Surrealism lastly — to remain on the level of this prehistory ofmodernity — surrealism doubtless could not accord language asovereign place, since language is a system and since what themovement sought was, romantically, a direct subversion of allcodes — an illusory subversion, moreover, for a code cannot bedestroyed, it can only be “played with”; but by abruptly violatingexpected meanings (this was the famous surrealist “jolt”), byentrusting to the hand the responsibility of writing as fast aspossible what the head itself ignores (this was automaticwriting), by accepting the principle and the experience of acollective writing, surrealism helped secularize the image of theAuthor. Finally, outside of literature itself (actually, thesedistinctions are being superseded), linguistics has just furnishedthe destruction of the Author with a precious analyticinstrument by showing that utterance in its entirety is a voidprocess, which functions perfectly without requiring to be filledby the person of the interlocutors: linguistically, the author isnever anything more than the man who writes, just as I is nomore than the man who says I: language knows a “subject,” not a”person,” end this subject, void outside of the very utterancewhich defines it, suffices to make language “work,” that is, toexhaust it.· · ·The absence of the Author (with Brecht, we might speak here ofa real “alienation:’ the Author diminishing like a tiny figure at thefar end of the literary stage) is not only a historical fact or an actof writing: it utterly transforms the modern text (or — what is thesame thing — the text is henceforth written and read so that init, on every level, the Author absents himself). Time, first of all, isno longer the same. The Author, when we believe in him, isalways conceived as the past of his own book: the book and theauthor take their places of their own accord on the same line,cast as a before and an after: the Author is supposed to feed thebook — that is, he pre-exists it, thinks, suffers, lives for it; hemaintains with his work the same relation of antecedence afather maintains with his child. Quite the contrary, the modernwriter (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text; he is in noway supplied with a being which precedes or transcends hiswriting, he is in no way the subject of which his book is thepredicate; there is no other time than that of the utterance, andevery text is eternally written here and now. This is because (or: itfollows that) to write can no longer designate an operation of 4recording, of observing, of representing, of “painting” (as theClassic writers put it), but rather what the linguisticians,following the vocabulary of the Oxford school, call aperformative, a rare verbal form (exclusively given to the firstperson and to the present), in which utterance has no othercontent than the act by which it is uttered: something like the /Command of kings or the I Sing of the early bards; the modernwriter, having buried the Author, can therefore no longerbelieve, according to the “pathos” of his predecessors, that hishand is too slow for his thought or his passion, and that inconsequence, making a law out of necessity, he must accentuatethis gap and endlessly “elaborate” his form; for him, on thecontrary, his hand, detached from any voice, borne by a puregesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a fieldwithout origin — or which, at least, has no other origin thanlanguage itself, that is, the very thing which ceaselesslyquestions any origin.· · ·We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasinga single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the AuthorGod), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are weddedand contested various kinds of writing, no one of which isoriginal: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from thethousand sources of culture. Like Bouvard and Pecuchet, thoseeternal copyists, both sublime and comical and whose profoundabsurdity precisely designates the truth of writing, the writer canonly imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original; his onlypower is to combine the different kinds of writing, to opposesome by others, so as never to sustain himself by just one ofthem; if he wants to express himself, at least he should knowthat the internal “thing” he claims to “translate” is itself only areadymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined)only by other words, and so on ad infinitum: an experiencewhich occurred in an exemplary fashion to the young DeQuincey, so gifted in Greek that in order to translate into thatdead language certain absolutely modern ideas and images,Baudelaire tells us, “he created for it a standing dictionary muchmore complex and extensive than the one which results fromthe vulgar patience of purely literary themes” (Paradis Artificiels).succeeding the Author, the writer no longer contains withinhimself passions, humors, sentiments, impressions, but thatenormous dictionary, from which he derives a writing which can 5know no end or halt: life can only imitate the book, and the bookitself is only a tissue of signs, a lost, infinitely remote imitation.· · ·Once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomesquite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon thattext a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to closethe writing. This conception perfectly suits criticism, which canthen take as its major task the discovery of the Author (or hishypostases: society, history, the psyche, freedom) beneath thework: once the Author is discovered, the text is “explained:’ thecritic has conquered; hence it is scarcely surprising not only that,historically, the reign of the Author should also have been that ofthe Critic, but that criticism (even “new criticism”) should beoverthrown along with the Author. In a multiple writing, indeed,everything is to be distinguished, but nothing deciphered;structure can be followed, “threaded” (like a stocking that hasrun) in all its recurrences and all its stages, but there is nounderlying ground; the space of the writing is to be traversed,not penetrated: writing ceaselessly posits meaning but always inorder to evaporate it: it proceeds to a systematic exemption ofmeaning. Thus literature (it would be better, henceforth, to saywriting), by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world astext) a “secret:’ that is, an ultimate meaning, liberates an activitywhich we might call counter-theological, properly revolutionary,for to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and hishypostases, reason, science, the law.· · ·Let us return to Balzac’s sentence: no one (that is, no “person”)utters it: its source, its voice is not to be located; and yet it isperfectly read; this is because the true locus of writing is reading.Another very specific example can make this understood: recentinvestigations (J. P. Vernant) have shed light upon theconstitutively ambiguous nature of Greek tragedy, the text ofwhich is woven with words that have double meanings, eachcharacter understanding them unilaterally (this perpetualmisunderstanding is precisely what is meant by “the tragic”); yetthere is someone who understands each word in its duplicity,and understands further, one might say, the very deafness of thecharacters speaking in front of him: this someone is precisely thereader (or here the spectator). In this way is revealed the wholebeing of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from 6several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, intoparody, into contestation; but there is one place where thismultiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author,as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is thevery space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all thecitations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in itsorigin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longerbe personal: the reader is a man without history, withoutbiography, without psychology; he is only that someone whoholds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the textis constituted. This is why it is absurd to hear the new writingcondemned in the name of a humanism which hypocriticallyappoints itself the champion of the reader’s rights. The readerhas never been the concern of classical criticism; for it, there isno other man in literature but the one who writes. We are nowbeginning to be the dupes no longer of such antiphrases, bywhich our society proudly champions precisely what it dismisses,ignores, smothers or destroys; we know that to restore to writingits future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader mustbe ransomed by the death of the Author.— translated by Richard Howard