Death of the Author

Skeleton

In this episode, Kim and Saronik discuss Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” printed in Image Music Text, translated by Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

The image for this week is plate three from Jules Morel, Manuel d’Anatomie Artistique. Paris: Grand, 1877. Medical Heritage Library Collections on Internet Archive.

TRANSCRIPT

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

author, bart, intentionality, individual, reader, text, imagined, authorial, intention, idea, fact, discourse, podcast, god, nietzschean, responsibility, thinking, essay, high, language

Saronik  

Brilliant. In this episode I, Saronik, talk with Kim about “The Death of the Author.” So Kim, what the heck is the death of the author?

Kim

“The Death of the Author” is the title of an essay written by Roland Barthes.

Saronik 

Let me just stop you right there: is that the way we pronounce his name because I always get confused. Well, I sometimes get confused…

Kim

Let us try, in order, pronouncing all of the possibilities okay. “The Death of the Author,” by Roland Bart, Barthe, Barthes…

Saronik

I mean, so my French pronunciation is atrocious. We can move ahead with the podcast, please. 

Kim

No, I like this plan. 

Saronik

Well, I thought it was, like, “Row-lahnd.” Isn’t it?

Kim

[pronounces Roland Barthes in more and more chaotic sounds]

Saronik 

I really hope you don’t speak French and listen to this. Anyway, so, this was… listen to… essay written by some… [more chaotic French pronunciation and laughter from Kim].

Kim

BARTHESES. Okay, so the death of the author is this idea by our friend Roland Barthes, however we want to say it, that the intention of the author matters not. The author, very simply, as the title says, is dead. We don’t need the author anymore. We don’t need criticism to try to discover the intentions of the author and thereby explain the work itself. It’s against the idea of intentionality; that authorial intention doesn’t exist and what does he substitute instead? The reader. So I’ll read you the famous last line of the text: “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” 

Saronik  

Oh god, that sounds oedipal.

Kim

Yes, it is. In fact, the Father is, the author is a father figure. The author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he exists before it, thinks sufferers, lives for it, in the same relation of antecedents to his work as a father is to his child.

Saronik  

That is creepy, but also interesting because it’s sort of like a deistic conception of God, a God who recedes from creation after creating.

Kim

Yeah, but it is much more Nietzschean. It’s like okay, God is dead, because there’s a bit of violence to it. So it’s not just that the author has made the thing and now we should let the author recede from view. But in fact, Barthes wants to argue that in order to privilege the reader, you have to kill off the author, you have to imagine the text is born with the reading, rather than the writing.

Saronik  

How do you think we can use this idea? Like I mean, I mean this question semi-seriously, because I can’t remember the last time that I’ve used Barthes in my own work, to return to the question, how can we use it?

Kim

I think there’s two ways of answering that question. And one is just to say that we already are using Barthes without thinking about it, like, this idea has crept into our ordinary engagement with texts. And we don’t even think about it anymore. The way that we are willing to privilege our own interpretations of the text over any sort of imagined authorial intention, which I think is really common in order to do any sort of really good close reading, in a way. What you’re looking for when you look at all those details is, you’re not looking for an omniscient author who is incredibly good at putting all the details in, you’re not looking for a realist, but you’re looking for the ways in which language acts through the author that the author is not aware of.

Saronik  

How do you make the distinction between say, chasing authorial intentionality in the text and, like, the cult of the author? What I’m saying is, like, in some cases, the biographical details of the author are quite substantially important in the way that we read the text. We could always say that those are also part of the reading. It doesn’t matter who the author is, but…

Kim

OK, let’s hold the cult of the author on the side because I actually find that really fun. It’s, like, one of the reasons I enjoy writing about Gertrude Stein.

Saronik  

She was quite a person.

Kim

Quite a life. But the other thing that I think is worth noting that might sort of help answer this question in a roundabout way, and it gets back to your “how do I use this” question. Is, maybe even how do you use it in a way that is not about reading literature, in a way that is not in our ordinary grad student lives, which is the idea of doubting individual intentionality in general. The idea that language and culture and the world acts through us much more than we act through it. That all of the words that are coming out of my mouth right now are not so much words that originated in some sort of romantic interiority of my sort of creative essence, but are in fact words that came into my head from outside it that like language is speaking through me, that I got this idea from Barthes and I got the language to articulate it from Barthes and I also got it from my, you know, I don’t know my MA Professor Ellen Rooney, and a bunch of other people and stuff I read online and like all like there’s not there’s like less of what you think is you in your head, and more of what you think is, like, consciousness is made up of the world around you as much as it is made up of you and the inside of your head.

Saronik  

Yeah, I mean, like, I think you use the word “world” which is so great. My next question what I was gonna say is like, the moment we deprioritize interiority and intentionality and try to think of the world as this sort of, very, very intricately enmeshed manner, like we are all, everything is socialized to a degree that we couldn’t have imagined before. I think there will come, or there comes a point, where it becomes a little difficult, or let’s say challenging, to sort of define interpersonal relationships. They all sort of begin with two really opaque points of interiority: this it’s me and you, me with a capital “M” and you with a capital “Y.” So do you see a bridge here somewhere?

Kim

Yeah, I do. But actually, that’s not what I was thinking. So when you started talking about this, like, amazing intermeshed network of the, like, society is that much more socialized than we imagined, I thought, the sort of image of the networked world–so you were thinking about individual subjectivities and interpersonal relations, and I was thinking about the sort of individual versus society, the way that we imagined ourselves acting as individuals in terms of, like, the social contract and individual agents. And maybe if we didn’t think of ourselves so much as individuals to begin with, we wouldn’t be so worried about maximizing our individual interests.

Saronik 

Yeah, I mean, it sort of totally reorients the idea of responsibility. Which is definitely something that we need in the world.

Kim

I think the responsibility of the reader is actually a really important thing to think about now in the world that we live in. Like, if we can’t expect responsibility from the writers of our public discourse, if we can’t expect responsibility from our political figures, then we can perhaps try to shift responsibility onto the readers, or by necessity, the responsibility has been shifted on to the readers, right?

Saronik 

Right. So like in this scenario, the readers are the public and the author is the person spouting discourse.

Kim

Yes.

Saronik

Like, not spouting discourse, that was a terrible phrase, but like, saying things?

Kim

Can you imagine what the discourse fountain looks like? 

Saronik

I will have nightmares tonight about that.

Kim

How about I read you the best line of the text as the ending? And so maybe this is in fact the answer to how the death of the author will save the world. “In precisely this way, literature–it would be better from now on to say writing–by refusing to assign a secret and 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 hypotheses: reason, science, law.”

Saronik  

Oh dear God. And we’ll end on that note for listening.

Kim

Farewell, my farewell listeners.

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