Monday, February 6, 2017

Short summary: Death of the Author - Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes's famous essay "The Death of the Author" (1967) is a meditation on the rules of author and reader in the formation of meaning as mediated by the text. Roland Barthes's essential argument is that the author has no sovereignty over his own words (or images, sounds, etc.). The finale meaning of any written text belongs to the reader who interprets it. When we encounter a literary text, says Barthes, we need not ask ourselves what the author intended in his words but what the words themselves actually say. Text employ symbols which are deciphered by readers, and since function of the text is to be read, the author and process of writing is irrelevant.

The literary text after the death of the author

The “death of the author" means that meaning is not something retrieved or discovered, having been there all the while, but rather something spontaneously generated in the process of reading a text, which is an active rather than passive action. In other words the action of reading overrides that of the original writing, in turns in itself into a sort of writing.

Barthes does not intend to suggest that the death of the author lets any reader read any text any way he or she like (though others like the Yale School perused this line of thought). What Barthes is suggesting is that reading always involves at least a little bit of writing or rewriting of the text's meaning.

Barthes' essay is an attack on traditional literary criticism that focused too much on trying to retrace the author's intentions and original meaning in mind. Instead Barthes asks us to adopt a more text oriented approach that focuses on the interaction of the reader, not the writer, with it. This means that the text is much more open to interpretation, much more fluid in its meaning than previously thought.  


For additional summaries of works by Roland Barthes:

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