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Barthes’s “The Death of the Author”

Barthes’s 1967 critical essay “The Death of the Author” addresses the power of the author in reading and analyzing writing, and the power of the reader or listener and the option to more or less ignore the work’s background and focus more on the work itself.


This is both an essay and general philosophy by French literary critic, Roland Barthes.




Any text, once written, has little to do with the author. The reader can put any interpretation on it that the author did not intend. This gives significant freedom to the reader who is released the task of discerning the author's real intent.

The task of the reader is not to decipher, but to enjoy and find one's own meaning.

Barthes interprets this interplay with the text as full of potential that approaches intercourse in the pleasure that can be obtained. It is language that speaks, not the author. Language creates the speaker. Language knows a subject, but not the person.

In its writing also, the content of the text has many cultures and influences, from other writers to language itself. Much content may be subconsciously added by the author -- 'the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture'. The author is thus imitative of his or her experience rather than creating something original.



When critically viewing a writing, “the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions” takes the spotlight; the author is forced to take sole responsibility of the failure or success of the work. Interesting examples of this idea are given by Barthes:

“…Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice.”




image: Mary Engelbreit
“If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”―Mary Engelbreit


With this viewpoint the creator’s work is a direct passage to the creator himself (or herself), which seems to take away from the text itself. The information not said within the work dictates the work. Research must be done on the era of the writer, the sociopolitical stance of the writer, the context in which the work was written, etc. All of those elements culminate into the limitation and constriction of interpreting the text as nothing but itself.

Barthes goes on to discuss the text itself appearing as derivative, extracted from other works due to the “innumerable centres of culture”.
The direct intent of the author may be muddled due to the translation from author to text to reader, the text ending up more of an “immense dictionary” than anything else. The inability of text to truly capture the “passions, humours, feelings, impressions” of the author are “lost, infinitely deferred” due to the subjectivity of the reader.

This point ultimately leads to Barthes main point: the reader holds more responsibility to the text than the author. The complexity of different connotations and experiences that come from the author into the text are flattened when it arrives to the reader. The reader comes empty handed and is completely impersonalized with the text. It is as if a sculpture, a three dimensional work, is photographed, reduced to two dimensions. So much information is condensed and made inaccessible to the viewer. Barthes makes the point that the origin of a work may lie with the author, but its destination is with the reader.

“… the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.”
Tags: barthes, history of art
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