Should the author be dead?

In The Death of the Author, Barthes argues that after the writer performs the act of writing, he is rendered powerless. Writing is a “performative, a rare verbal form… in which the enunciation has no other content… than the act by which it is uttered” (145-6). From this point readers can interpret whatever they want out of the performative. After reflecting on this point, I realized that this philosophy had been disputed and supported in my education (both implicitly and sometimes explicitly) for as long as I could remember. Some of my high school and college instructors would emphasize that we could interpret whatever we wanted from the texts we read as long as would could support it. On the other hand, other instructors would be more inclined to tell us if there was a definite right or wrong in a piece of literature. Also, for some reason, whatever side they took on this issue wasn’t really an indicator of whether they were good professors or not. Therefore, I am still trying to make up my mind about this extreme postmodern ideology.

After reading texts such as The Death of the Author, it is easy to become nihilistic, thinking that nothing can be known or communicated. Barthes states, “Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on the text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (147). This idea emerges from philosophy dominant in the second half of the twentieth century, focused on a profound disbelief in grand explanatory theories that make absolute claims to knowledge and truth. This philosophy also calls into questions the general idea of human progress.

However, I can also see that perhaps this essay isn’t calling for nihilism but rather for relativism. According to Barthes, the author must die for the reader to be born. The readers have the power to make whatever they want of the work. With the death of the author, it’s the readers’ responsibility to find the meaning of works. This creates endless possible meanings to works of literature, and all interpreted meanings can be valid. I find this both liberating and utterly frustrating.  I can be misinterpreting Barthes’ essay at this moment, but according to him, I as the reader have the last say because his voice has been dead since the moment he wrote down those words.  When do you know when the reader shouldn’t hold that authority?

2 Comments on “Should the author be dead?”

  1. Brian Croxall says:

    Well written, Candice. I think Barthes would say that “deciphering” a text is futile because it implies that there is a single answer. Interpreting, however, remains possible as it is an act that is centered on the reader.

  2. Chelsea Edwards says:

    I completely agree with you that I have experienced both sides of Barthes’ argument. I remember many times in high school when my teachers would show us metaphors and deeper meanings that we “should be able to see” in the text. They spoke more as an authority figure with definitive correct answers rather than giving possible ideas. I think that kind of interpretation and teaching style really limits the interpretation and imagination of new scholars.