Thursday, October 17, 2019

Roland Barthes' Death of the Author

In a way the original question about a sentence from Balzac's Sarrasine is the most interesting part of "The Death of the Author."  Barthes asks who is speaking the sentence: the hero, Balzac as expressing his philosophy of Woman, Balzac as expressing literary ideas on femininity, universal wisdom, or Romantic psychology.  It is not surprising that he next says that we will never know.  But then he tells us that "writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin."  There is no real support for this throughout the essay.  Certainly the Sarrasine example by itself is not sufficient.  Mainly he tells us that some modernist writers (Mallarme, Valery, Proust, Brecht, all notable authors) are suspicious of the author, that the author is somehow associated with capitalism, that linguistic theory somehow compels us to accept the thesis (although there is nothing about the idea of performatives that excludes authors who do the performing), and so forth.  

Barthes replaces the author with the scriptor, and then says "the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing" and further "there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now."  This is just mythology.  The scriptor has no empirical or phenomenological presence.  We cannot find him.  To be fair, though, one can take the text as standing on its own without any causal roots or history.  This is a methodology that can be useful.  But note that the scriptor is not even needed metaphysically.  If all there is is the text eternally already written then why posit a scriptor WHO DOES NOTHING? But if Barthes is just trying to convince us that writers should never complain that their hands "are too slow for [their] thought" and that they shouldn't bother to polish their productions, this just doesn't seem like good advice.

One can agree that the text does not have "a single 'theological' meaning" without accepting the rest of what Barthes says.  Why should anyone accept that the text is "a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash."  Surely originality is common.  It is only great originality that is rare.  Sure, there are passages in any text that refer back to earlier times or have been used before in other contexts.  The idea of many writings blending and clashing in one writing is a pretty idea, but how can it be spelled out?  Similarly, to say that, "the text is a tissue of quotations" is just to make a clever metaphor.  Some texts probably are tissues of quotations.  Most are not.  To say that they all are is hard to translate into something that makes sense.  One might say that when Barthes says these quotations are "drawn from the innumerable centres of culture" this explains it.  To be sure, we can trace many influences.

Is that all that is being said here?  Not at all, since Barthes actually cuts off the text from its history.  If the writer's "only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them" then how do we distinguish a writer who really does this (i.e. a typical plagiarist) and one who does not, who really does, for example, rest on one idea, i.e. defends a thesis.  Barthes rejects the idea that the writer expresses himself, for "the inner 'thing' he thinks to 'translate' is itself only a ready-formed dictionary, in words only explainable through other words, and so on indefinitely..."  I agree that it is naive to speak of expression in terms of translating something inner.  It seems unfounded however just to assume that whatever is expressed is just some internal dictionary.  

Barthes replaces the author with the scriptor.  This being "no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt..."  Why should we believe that?  Why throw out my entire internal life and replace it with a dictionary that, by its nature, only consists of words?  What is that motive for this erasure?  We often think of Barthes as a kind of humanist, but he seems more intent on making us into language machines without souls.  

Again, why should we believe that "life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred"?  How can we be serious that events of life are just imitations of an internal dictionary?  I can understand, again, that Barthes thinks it a myth to believe that we can arrive at a final answer to the question "what is the meaning of X" and yet we do find answers to that question, ones that work well, have elegance, fit the data, and so forth.  

Barthes' motive may be clearer when he says, "To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish a final signified, to close the writing."  But what if it isn't?  To say that a text has an author (no need for the sly capital A) is to impose a limit on the text (it does not have another author, for example) but it is not necessarily to impose a final signification since there are many possible interpretations for whatever an author might say.  This leads me to believe that Barthes is just laboring under a false dichotomy, or committing the black or white fallacy.  

He goes on to attack criticism.  Of course, if there were a final meaning or explanation for every text then criticism would be a science, and that cannot be so.  And of course if criticism were just a matter of "discovering the Author ....beneath the work" then it would be overly limited.  Gadamer also opposes this idea, although his replacement, the fusion of horizons, makes much more sense than Barthes.  I agree that it is naive to believe that when the Author has been found the text has been explained.  But explanation is a complicated thing and, at the very least, one cannot leave out the author when explaining a text.  Nor can one leave out "society, history, psyche" or the historical search for liberty and justice, as Barthes does when he incorporates these into his idea of Author.  The best one can say for Barthes is that he suggests one methodology.  For example, when he says, "everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered" this is a rule one could follow with some possible success.

One is tempted to see the entire essay as just a symbol for the rebelliousness of the 60s, for example when he says "by refusing to assign a 'secret,' an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases - reason, science, law."  Well, first, refusing God is all fine and good, but it is not at all clear what refusing reason, science and law would even mean.  It is also fine to refuse to "fix meaning" but what exactly would it mean to fix meaning?  I go the library and see a long shelf of books on Nietzsche.  Would fixing meaning be a matter of refusing to publish any more books on Nietzsche?  Or would it be to simply accept one book on Nietzsche, one that contains all of the fixed interpretations of all of Nietzsche's writings.  Who would do that?  How would it happen?  In short, fixing meaning is not really a problem since it doesn't really happen, or only does happen in limited contexts (as when the professor insists that the meaning is this and you have to remember that for the exam).  

At the beginning of this comment I said that the first part of the essay was the most interesting.  But then the conclusion insists that no one says the sentence.  Instead the reader is held up as opposed to the writer.  It is not at all clear how that gives us anything of value since the internal life of the reader would be erased along with the internal life of the writer.  

The value of this essay must come mainly from its point of inspiration.  Before it was read, people felt oppressed by the idea that the text must be explained by going to the Author's meaning.  Now however literary writers can be inspired by the idea that "a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation" and that all of this is focused on the reader, and not the author.  I am not sure why a dialogue between the reader and the author is no longer the point at issue.  But I can see it as freeing that the reader is allowed some more flexibility in reading especially in finding significance in the work that relates to his/her life.  But it gets silly when he says "quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination."  And then he admits that this is nowhere, that my talk above about relating to one's life is meaningless, since the reader is deconstructed too:  "this destination cannot any longer be personal:  the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted."  Wait!  Why do we even need a reader to do that.  The field that holds all of that together is called, guess what, "the text."  "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author":  but of course the reader born is a nobody.       

2 comments:

Jonathan said...

I think you need to contextualize a lot more here. For example, what writing practices are in Barthes' mind? The nouveau roman, Beckett? Blanchot? What specific practices in literary criticism is he objecting to? How does this argument related to what he put forward in Writing Degree Zero? Of course he takes many things for granted and argue through assertion rather than step by step, but I think the kind of critique you are using here is not sufficiently nuanced or contextual. Even unpacking his argument about the Balzac quotation would require a little more finesse.

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