The belief that “the author is dead” is one of the unquestioned bad ideas that has become gospel in the art world. It’s usually just asserted — along with its companion notions that originality is impossible, and the artist’s intent is irrelevant — as if to deny it is as hopelessly naive as denying evolution.
One of the results of these ideas taking hold in the contemporary art world is that the two richest and most famous living artists, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, have each been sued multiple times for plagiarism. Generations of artists believe they can’t do anything new, and that the radical thing to do is appropriate (copy) objects and images from popular culture, or art history, or steal from other living artists, without adding much or anything to it other than a shift in context. Sherrie Levine, for example, merely took photos of Ed Weston photos and exhibited the nearly identical replicas as new and profound philosophical work. Copying so brazenly that the artist is successfully sued for plagiarism is a low for the art world, but not only has this happened, but artists who wanted to use their own imaginations to make original creations were thwarted and sidelined as backwards and irrelevant [ex., it was impossible for me to paint images from my imagination in grad school, and we all had to make conceptual work about social issues].
The above are what happens when artists believe French philosophy. Even worse is how the notion that the artist’s intent is not important is used to project heinous interpretations onto artworks in order to censor them or demand their destruction. If someone says a work is politically vile, than it doesn’t matter what the artist intended anymore, because “the author is dead”.
And, no, I’m not writing this because I hate postmodernism and am an angry paint dauber lost in the past. Cartoons such as “Family Guy”, “The Simpsons”, “South Park”, “Bob’s Burgers” and “Futurama” frequently make use of the postmodern devices of borrowing from popular culture, and combining content from different eras or genres to produce hilarious results.
One of my favorite skits, for example, is the “Cylon and Garfunkel” song from “Futurama”. It combines pop/folk music reference with the original “Battlestar Galactica”, all taking place in an imagined future, and unified in one overarching story and aesthetic. If you like “Futurama”, you like the best aspects of postmodernism.
I’m also not at all averse to using postmodern techniques in my own work, such as a digital/impasto, digitally sculpted, painting using imagery from classic sci-fi:
The speech bubble also contains an Abstract Expressionist painting (done digitally), and there is an ironic critique of boob art. I’m all for the complexity, irony, humor, tragi-comedy, and simultaneous multiple, shifting, overlapping perspectives of postmodernism, but not the extreme stances and reductionism. It can be incorporated and integrated into a unique overall vision that has some original content… Pomo offers new tools to the creative artist, but you don’t have to throw out the old ones, or yourself. No matter how many references and divergent perspectives one pulls from, it all happens in one mind: is organized, prioritized, infused with meaning and given orientation and emphasis. And there’s no reason one can’t pull directly from the imagination and conceive of a combination of things, or a unique thing that hasn’t been portrayed before, and only a specific individual, with her unique experience and skill set could have produced it.
An artist who conspicuously uses postmodernism in a good way is David Salle:
His paintings are almost a literal, visual transcription of postmodern conclusions, but at least the juxtapositions of imagery and styles from different contexts are interesting and aesthetically satisfying. His work is a bit dry because, well, rather than building on meaning between the images, he rather dryly elects to deflect meaning. In so doing he hopes to create a new kind of meaning. It’s all a bit devoid of feeling (as if there is something wrong with strong human emotion), but nevertheless he conducts stimulating visual experiments.
The even more literalist and reductionist — thus radical or extremist — strain of postmodern art merely copies and if we’re lucky, adds some sort of flair in the name of commercial branding.
Jeff Koons’ threadbare and incredibly arrogant painted-by-assistant replicas of old master paintings are a perfect example. They are just copies, but in the bottom center of each he places a gaudy-as-fuck blue, “gazing ball”. He argues, and apparently believes, that by doing this he “improves” on the original paintings, I shit you not.
This infamous painting by Manet, we are to understand, because of the blue clown nose affixed to it, is better than the original.
“These paintings are stronger for being together with the gazing ball – if you removed the gazing ball they don’t have the same power, they don’t have the same phenomenology… These paintings in their own time were some of the greatest masterpieces in western art history, but in this time, this moment, they’re most powerful as they are in this state of gazing.” ~ Jeff Koons
This gilded bullshit is made possible by the theory that the author is dead, in which case the contemporary artist can only imitate from the past or popular culture, and to do so is mind-boggling, crystalline brilliance, hence the extraordinary prices (tens of millions a pop).
Can you forgive me for being skeptical, and not buying into either this (boring-ass) art, or the ideas that underpin and justify it?
There is good in postmodernism, and there is too much of a good thing, where we throw out the baby and enshrine the bath water.
Please excuse my typos, etc. I don’t have an editor.
And let’s not give all the credit to postmodernism for thinking of conspicuously pulling from different, sometimes incongruous sources, cultures, eras and so on, and integrating them into a unique artistic whole. T.S. Eliot did this in his poem “The Wasteland” of 1922.
According to Wikipedia:
Eliot’s poem loosely follows the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King combined with vignettes of contemporary British society. Eliot employs many literary and cultural allusions from the Western canon, Buddhism and the Hindu Upanishads. The poem shifts between voices of satire and prophecy featuring abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location, and time and conjuring a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures.
That last sentence perfectly describes what Barthes, 45 years later, claims about literature. It had been done. It was a part of criticism since before he was 8 years old.
One could have all or most the benefits of postmodernism without ever encountering it, as they already existed in literature and criticism decades prior. Barthes and his ilk are merely responsible for distilling the ideas to the point where they are radical because ridiculous, and expressing them with new terminology and impenetrable prose.
You can find a remarkable amount of Barthes’ arguments in Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, of 1921. I will insert some quotes where appropriate to make this comparison.
[Curiously, Eliot’s essay was very clear on a first reading, even though he’s a giant of 20th century poetry, and hence an extremely sophisticated writer, whereas I can read passages by Barthes over and over and still not be sure what they mean, which I think may very well be the desired effect.]
Here I will question “the author is dead”, and argue that the author (or artist) is alive; originality is possible; authors have relative authority over their own creations; and the intent of the author matters. Those are all positive things that give the individual (and specifically the creator) agency; the potential to innovate; affirm the power of the imagination; recognize the potential of art to communicate all manner of things beyond just manipulating symbols; and appreciate that authors can and do invest some of themselves into their art, and manifest their personal vision. This is pro-art and pro-artist.
Despite the ideas I’m challenging being overtly cynical and robbing artists of all agency, to unravel the rhetoric bolstering them is considered sacrilege both in the art world and in certain philosophical circles. I will be ridiculed for even daring think about this with my own brain, as if when Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” he didn’t mean everyone should ponder the big questions (in which case they were implicitly able to do so) but that people should merely examine themselves for bed lice. I invite people to make legitimate criticisms in the comments section, of what I actually argue, rather than declaring me a moron, unable to read, misapprehending arguments, failing freshman philosophy, and similarly predictable (largely competitive) angry mental spasms in other places on the Internet. Legitimate, thoughtful, well-intentioned criticism is a contribution to evolving ideas and dispelling blunders.
Most recently I encountered the blithe regurgitation of “The Death of the Author” in a film review of “Loving Vincent” where the narrator addressed his reluctance to interpret Starry Night:
There’s that whole death of the author thing that destroys the idea of artistic intent. The meaning of such paintings lie outside of the artist’s intent, only work within the larger context within which the artist resides.
While I’m sympathetic to not imposing a linguistic interpretation on a visual image, the meaning of art definitely can’t glibly exclude the artist’s intent, and so I finally decided to seek the source of the avalanche of interrelated seemingly nonsensical ideas to see if I could make any sense of it, or else discover it was nonsense.
Well, that is a tad misleading. I’m not attempting to tackle this out of the blue. I’ve been exposed to these ideas indirectly through my art education through an MFA [including a class on “Art Theory” at UCLA, which I aced], in countless essays by other postmodern thinkers and critical theorists, and have been contemplating these ideas for more than a quarter century.
The source most cited is Roland Barthes’ six-page essay of 1967, which could have been whittled down to one or two pages if it weren’t deliberately abstruse. As with so much French theory the most difficult part isn’t grasping the meaning, but rather merely making sense of the convoluted language it is expressed in. Just because a particularly brilliant philosophical idea may be difficult to understand doesn’t mean that anything difficult to understand is brilliant philosophy. I’d say that if you can’t say it plainly, you’ve got something to hide. Surely if you want your philosophy to be understood, you’d present it in a clear and succinct manner.
When profound ideas are clearly expressed I will stop reading and ponder, saver it like a sip of good wine. If the presentation is strenuous to access, and the ideas are merely complicated, then I find myself trudging through, and taking it apart. This is what happened when I read “The Death of the Author”.
And, no, folks, I’m not trying to inflate my own ego by toppling some giant of (pseudo) philosophy. Rather, I’m trying to free myself and other artists from destructive ideas which have taken hold in the art world.
Sure, people are naturally going to ask, “What qualifies YOU (and your puny intellect) to DEBUNK Roland Barthes?!” One, it is not that hard to flip patently ridiculous overstatement on its back. Two, if I can dismantle the rhetoric, than I must be capable of doing so. Three, I maintain that tens of thousands, if not millions of people could do so if they bothered to look into the matter and give it a try.
Barthes will argue that the purpose of writing is to evaporate meaning, and to sever any connection with the author or self, either in the writer or the reader. The writer’s personal life, feelings, passions, tastes, obsessions, suffering, elation and so on become not only irrelevant, but purposefully and necessarily eradicated. Art becomes void of the human, and only about the interstices and interrelations of text or symbols. The writer or artist has no authority over her own creation, and all authority is granted to the reader. The art only exists, subjectively speaking, when it is within the field of the reader or viewer’s attention.
By me, these ideas make art now not worth making, unless one has a perverse obsession with linguistics and symbols: the artistic equivalent of pure math in defiance of practical application. But it will also prepare you for Barthes’ own writing. It is, by design, anti-meaning (also, he will say, anti-God, anti-reason, anti-science, and anti-law).
By his own standards and theory his own text must defy meaning and reason. Therefore, one can’t hope to find reasonable arguments supporting meaningful content in his writing. This is part of why people don’t understand it. There is nothing to understand. Rather, the attempt is to confound. There is only an elaborate and dizzying play (and not a fun one) of textuality.
You will need to know what textuality is, and here’s a handy dictionary definition:
The quality or use of language characteristic of written works as opposed to spoken usage.
You could make this even simpler and just say that textuality is writing.
The core of Barthes’ argument is that writing has no other meaning or significance than is intrinsic to writing itself, in the same way, for example, that the rules and strategies of Chess have no real bearing on anything other than Chess (or Chessness, which sounds marginally less goofy than Chessuality).
Why a philosophy or more accurately theory (it doesn’t need to be supported by reason, and is anti-reason) which denies human agency, and that meaning outside of art can be conveyed through the medium of art, has become the Ten Commandments of the art world, I don’t know. Perhaps the art world was awed or dumbfounded by the extra-syllables tacked onto words and the new vocabulary needed to say obvious things that could have been said with the old vocabulary.
In the end, there’s nothing much more to Barthes’ theory than a game of textuality, in which case it is relatively easy to pick apart using the time-tested tools of basic reasoning and making analogies to the real world outside of linguistics. It just takes someone with the audacity and tenacity to do so.
And here is my attempt (and I think a successful one) to do just that. It is no great achievement, but merely pointing out that the emperor’s codpiece is a flounder.
Barthes opens his essay with observations worthy of an English Literature 101 introductory class. He quotes a sentiment spoken by a character in a story by Balzac, and then asks us whether it’s the author speaking or the character. Let me give an even more accessible example. When, in the song Bohemian Rhapsody Freddy Mercury sang, “Mama, just killed a man / Put a gun against his head / Pulled the trigger, now he’s dead…” we can guess that Freddy didn’t shoot anyone, but rather, he was singing from the standpoint of a fictional character. I think it would be the rare individual for whom it wouldn’t be obvious that Freddy was singing as a character and as himself.
Barthes, of course, doesn’t stop there. He asks:
Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero..? Is it the man Balzac…? Is it the author Balzac…? Is it universal wisdom… or romantic psychology?
Allow me to paraphrase:
Who is singing in this way? Is it a person in the song? Is it the man Farrokh Bulsara (Freddy’s real name)? Is it the performer Freddy Mercury? Is it his generation? Is it a moral stance?
What is unusual, however, is Barthes’ bizarre conclusion, which is served up in one long and tortured sentence:
It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.
The first little bit is easy enough to make sense out of. We can’t know for sure to what degree it’s Freddy, or Farrokh, or a person in the song, or the voice of an era that is singing. If you look up Bohemian Rhapsody in Wikipedia, you will find precisely this commonplace sort of questioning regarding the lyrics. Are they “veiled references to Mercury’s personal traumas” or a reference to literary works such as Faust (selling ones soul to the devil), a Persian book called March of the Black Queen, Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, or are they just “random rhyming nonsense”, or all of the above?
It’s no great insight to appreciate that an author has influences, pulls from different sources, and reflects various trends, beliefs, and concerns of his or her time. Nobody exists in a vacuum.
Barthes’ next contention is that all writing is a special voice and literature is precisely the invention of this voice. We’d have to accept here that all writing has the identical voice, which it does not, any more than all singing has the same voice (Karen Carpenter does not sound like Ozzy Osbourne). I think he needed to elaborate on what he meant by voice, since he is not using it in the conventional sense at all, but to mean its opposite: a lack of any discernible voice (“several indiscernible voices”). What he probably means is that all literature, in order to be considered literature, follows the conventions of literature (and more fundamental linguistic things like grammar…), at least according to his definition. Now, “literature is precisely the invention of this voice” makes sense. He can use precisely here because he’s partially just given us a tautology: all writing is a special voice, and literature is the invention of that special voice — writing = voice = literature — or to be more concise, “literature is literature”.
Eliot argued something that sounds similar, though much more directly, long before:
The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.
Barthes’ “special voice” echoes Eliot’s “particular medium”, and his “Death of the Author” is similar to Eliot’s “not a ‘personality'”. For Eliot, the more the individual author assimilates history and masters his craft, the more universal his voice and its presentation. A young poet may only have his own experience and perspective to draw on, reflecting the time and circumstances in which he lives. But a more mature poet can entertain multiple perspectives simultaneously, draw on history and specifically the history of poetry to weave a broader and more complex fabric.
A major difference here is that when Eliot refers to the “medium” he’s talking about the tradition of literature acting on the individual, and even the individual poet giving perspective on the past:
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.
When Barthes’ speaks of the”special voice” of literature, it’s not the whole history of medium, but rather a matter of pure linguistics — “the play of symbols”. Eliot stresses the forest over the trees, and Barthes a piece of bark over the trees and the forest.
If we try to get at a direct definition of literature from Barthes, that doesn’t refer back to itself, we are left with “that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes”. This is perhaps the most poetic and elusive phrase in his essay. Literature ends up being the diametrical opposite of what authors and readers assumed literature to be: instead of it being a meaningful story about something, literature is a sort of vacuum in which subject and meaning are scattered and disappear. Literature is re-defined as anti-literature. There is no protagonist, for example, but rather a space or nexus where no subject can be contained.
We think of literature as an expert, highly crafted, very specific use of language, both in terms of what it conveys, and the aesthetics of how it is conveyed. Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” not only beautifully tells a story, it uses suspense and apprehension to keep us engaged with the text. On top of that it examines, illustrates, and argues moral perspectives while addressing the human condition. All of this extraordinary specificity (including deliberate ambiguity), we are to accept, is really “neuter” and “oblique” and a place where “every subject escapes”.
Quite the contrary, both literally and figuratively. Raskonikov does not escape after committing murder, and the character (subject) is so memorable that I remember him today, decades after reading the book when I was 18.
When I read the book, I knew nothing about Dostoevsky and couldn’t be bothered to read the introduction. The story carried itself, and I needed no exterior information to give it meaning. But this doesn’t mean the author was absent, or his explanation would be irrelevant.
Just because in linguistics an individual word or sentence has no subject, and no meaning on its own, irrespective of numberless other sentences that give it context, does not mean that a highly crafted work of literature is similarly, or rather identically adrift of meaning.
Bathes tells us we can’t “assign a specific origin” to literature. Even if there were some first undisputed instance of literature, what is the origin of that? It may be a gradual development. Is anyone arguing otherwise: that literature arrived full blown out of nowhere?
This juicy bit deserves some more scrutiny:
Literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes…
This part alone — just one grandiose conclusion tucked into a Burrito Supreme of a sentence — doesn’t just get a pass. The key to cracking this kind of theory is to put it in ones own words. Here it goes:
Literature is an abstract system of representation made up of symbols (none of which has meaning independent of the others) arising from myriad intermingling influences, and which has no fixed anchor in reality. It can’t contain any subject or identity, including that of the author.
When you can’t understand what the hey he’s talking about, you might assume it’s over your head. Nah, it’s just obfuscation. I’ve read that at the time he was writing French academics wouldn’t take philosophical arguments seriously if they weren’t daunting to decipher from the get go. He’s basically arguing that a map is not the terrain. That river on the map, well, it’s just ink and if you are dying of thirst, you can’t drink it. A map is an instance of the system of cartography which it represents. All maps are, well, maps, whatever they are maps of. You can’t unfold the map and find the cartographer in there. And no matter who made the map, he or she is not reflected in it. The cartographer neither invented cartography, nor the words for the geography, directions, or measuring…
This doesn’t rise above platitudes. What cartographer seeks to take more credit than having learned a skill, executed it well, or in rarer instances added some personal touch, modified or improved on the methodology?
Barthes’ next contention is even more overblown:
Once an action is recounted, for intransitive ends, and no longer in order to act directly upon reality — that is, finally external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol — this disjunction occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing begins.
In other words, “Once an author is finished writing, he is no longer writing, and then the writing stands on its own”. See, while the author is writing, she is a part of writing, but once she’s finished, she’s not a part of it anymore. The result is just writing, which is an abstract system of representation composed of symbols….. Her soul didn’t transmogrify into the ink of the letters.
Alright, alright, if we want to get nit-picky about impossible claims, he is arguing that even in the process of writing the author is inevitably separating himself from what is written, because there is nothing in writing that is “external to any function but the very exercise of the symbol”. There is a sort of peeling away as the writer divides himself from that which he is writing. And please notice here that King Lear is nothing more than the “exercise of the symbol”.
The idea of an individual author is also supposedly new-ish to humanity. Curiously, Barthes here appeals to ancient practices in order to justify the radically pure NEW:
in primitive societies, narrative is never undertaken by a person, but by a mediator, shaman or speaker, whose “performance” may be admired (that is, his mastery of the narrative code), but not his “genius”.
Right again. When telling stories passed down over the generations, the shaman didn’t say he came up with it on his own, because he didn’t. And if he were presenting himself as channeling spirits, he also didn’t say he made it all up on his own. I knew that. The more interesting thing here is the notion of “narrative code”. The person formerly known as an author is a “master of narrative code”.
What follows is a bit of a straw-man argument:
… the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions; criticism still consists, most of the time, in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire, Van Gogh’s work his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice…
One could easily maintain that the author is alive but, no, Van Gogh’s work is not due to his madness, but more to his sanity. Further, he was influenced by the Impressionists, his Dutch predecessors, Pointillism, his religious background, absinthe visions, as well as bouts of insanity, and so on. One can consider the man without coming to a stupidly narrow and dismissive conclusion, such that only his madness mattered.
In any case, the idea of assessing literature directly, and not via the life or personality of the author, was argued by Eliot in 1919:
Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.
One doesn’t have to switch from one extreme, which Barthes felt compelled to admit is only “most of the time”, to the polar opposite 100% of the time. If literary criticism mostly focused exclusively on the author (which is a gross exaggeration that ignores the “New Criticism” popular in the 50’s…), but clearly not always, the smart and practical thing to do would be to find the middle ground, not just insist the opposite is absolutely true, hence “The Author is Dead”. His is the radical reductionism, folks. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Much more multi-faceted approaches to interpreting literature had already been explored and established going back to the 1920s.
Once again, and I have to repeat this to make it stick (if my debates on the topic with Barthes defenders are any indication), Barthes is not making a reasonable argument against pre-existing absolutism. He’s making absolute claims against pre-existing reasonable positions.
The explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has produced it, as if, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, it was always finally the voice of one and the same person, the author, which delivered his “confidence”.
In 1967 this statement was patently false. Approaches to literature which focused on the text irrespective of the author’s biography had become central to literary criticism starting as early as Eliot’s pronouncements from the 20’s, or John Crowe Ransom’s essay of 1937, “Criticism, Inc.” Ransom argued, three decades before Barthes killed the author, that “criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic.” Additionally, to quote Wikipedia’s entry, he insisted that “personal responses to literature, historical scholarship, linguistic scholarship, and what he termed ‘moral studies’ should not influence literary criticism. He also argued that literary critics should regard a poem as an aesthetic object”. [Note that the resurgence of a purely moralistic approach we see now was considered missing the point 80 years ago, and Barthes’ approach appears to be not entirely unlike “linguistic scholarship”.]
Clearly, literary criticism in which the author is an unconditional authority only existed in a fictitious past, which itself was merely “the exercise of the symbol”. The New Criticism was a highly influential movement in the 1950’s which strove to “discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object” (Wikipedia).
Barthes wasn’t saying anything new when it comes to considering a work independent of the author, but rather isolating one approach (in which writing is “an exercise of symbols”) and renouncing all others. I think it’s safe to say that at least potentially looking at an artwork from multiple angles is better than just one. And while I’d generally agree with New Criticism that an artwork should stand on its own, I would not disregard or devalue the author’s intent, or explanation.
[Uuuuh, no, I didn’t only look this stuff up in Wikipedia. All my elective courses in college were in Literature, and this included 20th century poetry, Contemporary Literature, and several others. My reasoning for choosing them included that literature was not only the study of literature itself, but whatever the writing was about, which made it doubly interesting. I only mention this because I am intimately familiar with the personal attack (ad hominem fallacy) variety of debating which is habitually used to attempt to automatically disqualify those who question a cherished belief. Sorry I have to address this sort of thing.]
Literary history be damned, Barthes argues that we always assume that the author is responsible for what he wrote and that the writing perfectly reflects him. Now, we are to understand that Toni Morrison’s novels are NOT a unique expression via the avenue of literature of her accumulated experience, understanding, feelings, empathy, suffering, triumphs, imagination, relationships, research, aesthetics, etc. In no way is her inner life conveyed through her stories. You cannot know her through her writing, nor can she convey anything unique of herself. How uplifting and life-affirming!
Essentially, Barthes is arguing for a nihilistic rejection of the individual. Oh, do you object to nihilistic?
I’m not just throwing words out there, folks. Notice the part where nothing in the world has real existence, and compare that to his notion that “the world is text” (which I will get to).
The reason Toni Morrison’s person and experience are irrelevant is because she is merely a byproduct of exterior forces: any beliefs she holds as her own are merely adopted from others and can be reduced to arguments in linguistics = text. Humans are not real, only text is real.
You see, according to Barthes, there is a necessity of substituting language itself for the man or woman.
It is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality … that point where language alone acts, “performs,”and not “oneself”.
By the way this applies to all art, if you hadn’t assumed that. It also applies to what I’m doing right now, or rather what you are reading when you read it. The essay wrote itself, and I merely typed it. It doesn’t matter if I’m thinking this through, and about to take a shower and hope some more understanding percolates in my mind. My thoughts are not what is important here, nor that they come from me, but rather the text, or the textuality of the text, is all that matters. I’m not exaggerating. You’ll see.
Linguistics has just furnished the destruction of the Author with a precious analytic instrument by showing that utterance in its entirety is a void process, which functions perfectly without requiring to be filled by the person of the interlocutors…
This says that a speaker is not necessary for speech to happen, except perfunctorily. One is a mouthpiece for speech, which is an end in itself, but one is not the originator of what one speaks. For this reason, Barthes prefers to not use the word author but instead scriptor, or to use a more common word, scribe. One is a copyist, not an originator.
And now it’s time for a personal anecdote. When I was in junior high school I was quite bad at math, mostly because I never did my math homework and I simply forgot how to do it. I found it too abstract, and just didn’t care about numbers. When we started dipping into algebra we had a test with word problems. I couldn’t do the proper equations using algebra, but because there were concrete things in it, I could figure it out by making several equations using multiplication, division, addition and subtraction. The whole class did abysmally on the test, but yours truly had the highest score somewhere around 70 percent. Nevertheless, the teacher gave me a fail, because she insisted I copied off of other students. I asked how I could have the highest score if I copied off other people? Her logical conclusion was that I copied some right answers off of some students, and some off of others, and just got lucky. It was inconceivable to her that I could figure out the problems without using proper equations.
The relevant point here is the question, how is someone like William Faulkner merely a scribe? Who is he just copying from? Did this apply to Shakespeare as well? Dostoevsky? Tolstoy?
linguistically, the author is never anything more than the man who writes, just as I is no more than the man who says I…
Damn! The first part is already a startling claim: an author NEVER transcends merely being a scribe. [Note. “Never” includes Blake, George Eliot, Kafka, and the luminaries I already mentioned…] But the second part is an astounding proposition: I am nothing beyond something that says “I”. This is not just the death of the author, it is the death of the individual, the extinguishing of the self. The only avenue of escape for Barthes here is he started it all off with linguistically. Well, if that’s what he concludes through the lens of linguistics, than perhaps there’s a wider aperture in which to assay reality. But yes, the core problem with the death of the author is the denial of self-hood.
We will also deny the prior existence of the author:
The modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text; he is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing, he is in no way the subject of which his book is the predicate; there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now.
On one level that is moderately reasonable. This just says that we should consider literature on its own terms, and for its intrinsic merit, and not value it in relation to an external story that presumes to give it more significance. We don’t need to know if it’s the last work of the author, or if she only wrote one book, or what her politics or relations with others were… The proof is in the pudding. So, for example, if a symphony by Shostakovich does not of its own elicit feelings such as sorrow, knowing the subject was death, and particularly unjust or early death, doesn’t actually change or improve the music at all.
I tend to agree with this. There is a lot of music, art, and literature I enjoy where I don’t know anything much about the creator. I’ve read books where I’d even forget the name of the author while reading it. However, you can believe that the art should stand on its own (usually, with some conceptual works it won’t make sense without certain information, and that’s the point), but reject that the author is dead.
The idea that Chaucer is written here and now is not reality. Barthes just means that the tree doesn’t fall in the woods unless someone is there to witness it. The text only exists when someone reads it, and as far as that person is concerned, Chaucer need not, or does not exist.
Anyone who writes does so through a sort of universal voice that exists completely independently of the person who presumes to adopt that voice. Got it. When you play the guitar, you are not you, you are the role of the guitarist, speaking in the special voice of manipulating the instrument to reproduce an abstract language of notes, none of which sound like anything except in the context of all the others…
It’s such a precious and slight point. It’s similar to pointing out that English doesn’t belong to anyone, nor does the grammar or vocabulary, thus when you speak, nothing coming out of your mouth is your own. True, in a sense. But the context in which you speak is your unique circumstances which nobody else shares, and your peculiar relation to English.
All texts are not perpetually written here and now. Rather, they were written as they were written. His argument is the same as saying all photos are eternally taken the instant they are seen. We know that a lot of photography requires the photographer be in the right place at the right time, and the photo is a record of a fleeting, irrepeatable instant.
Applied to photography Barthes’ argument is that there is no photographer before or after the fraction of a second (I know it’s a metaphor) when the shutter clicks, and we might also not use the word photographer but rather clicker. It is irrelevant to know any details about Diane Arbus as she neither proceeded nor followed the instant the picture was taken. Arbus is merely someone who went through the motions of using the language of photography. The meaning of the photos are only created and assessed by the viewer.
Of course, I know he’s not saying the person didn’t literally exist before or after, but rather that their existence is completely irrelevant (hence, the “death of the author,” and not merely taking the author down a notch or two or three or dozens).
And here I could accept Barthes’ argument as a mental exercise, and one approach among many for looking at art. But he doesn’t present it as that, but rather as an absolute truth, which is akin to boldly declaring that in fact a meteor does not hit the moon unless or until someone discovers it doing so, at which time and only at that time does it happen. He’s taken one side of a conundrum, erased the other, and declared it fact. The resulting conclusions are if not ridiculous, coolly cerebral, detached, and dry as chalk.
To write can no longer designate an operation of recording, of observing, of representing, of “painting” (as the Classic writers put it), but rather what the linguisticians, following the vocabulary of the Oxford school, call a performative, a rare verbal form (exclusively given to the first person and to the present), in which utterance has no other content than the act by which it is uttered.
Note that I don’t care enough about what the difference is between a linguist and a “linguistician” to look it up, and I assume the word linguist would have sufficed. I’d also like to add to the vocabulary of the Oxford school (which I can do decades later because all additions are eternally only present) the word bullshitstitician. Here, a photograph does not record how anything looked, or an event that took place, but rather it is about nothing other than the process of taking the photograph. In other words, all photos are records only of taking photos.
This is a kind of extreme reductionism. We can see some parallels in visual art, such as Jackson Pollock’s paintings being commonly understood as a record of the action of painting. His paintings can be seen as having no subject or content other than painting itself.
But this doesn’t apply to the overwhelming majority of painters, whose process of painting isn’t identical to, or even evident in, the final painting. H.R. Giger paints using an airbrush, often in a sort of swirling pattern, for example, but the results render the process nearly invisible.
And while both Pollock and Giger produced paintings, their process was enormously dissimilar, with one flinging paint in abstract arabesques, and the other spraying it in thin coats to produce realistic imagery from the imagination. While Barthes’ amputating reductionism works with subject-less abstract painting, it’s not at all convincing to say that the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo or Vincent Van Gogh do not have a subject, and there is nothing of the artist in their work.
Next we learn that a text cannot have a specific, fixed meaning:
We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.
Does this “theory” apply to his own sentence above? There is no precise meaning that issued from Barthes’ himself, but rather, his utterance is a patchwork of snippets gathered from all corners of the Earth, pulling in all directions, and the only meaning is in the act of utterance? This could explain a thing or two. Perhaps he isn’t concerned that his own text has coherent meaning outside of itself and applies to the world, millions of other writers, and can withstand counter-argument. I think a good argument could be made that “The Death of the Author” is an illustration of its own argument, and perhaps deliberately so.
The author need not be a God nor his message theological for a sentence to have a precise and clearly intended meaning. That meaning may be debatable, and certainly in poetry writers will create deliberate ambiguity, but while there’s wiggle room for different interpretations, the text in question can’t mean anything at all or just whatever. Add grotesque exaggeration to Barthes’ reductionism and insistence that half a conundrum is a fact. When he isn’t belaboring the obvious, he’s insisting a kernel of truth is a field of corn. Because the meaning of text is not entirely cast in stone, we must go the complete opposite direction and say it’s the equivalent of sand in a whirlwind.
Of course, the writer is incapable of any originality:
Like Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, both sublime and comical and whose profound absurdity precisely designates the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original; his only power is to combine the different kinds of writing, to oppose some by others, so as never to sustain himself by just one of them; if he wants to express himself, at least he should know that the internal “thing” he claims to “translate” is itself only a readymade dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum.
It’s as if Barthes is addressing a world of computers/robots who only parrot what humans have previously done. The robots operate, but are not conscious, and can only select which things to imitate and in which combinations, just as the best Chess computers defeated the best human Chess champions by pulling from an immense catalog of Chess games, but without even knowing they were playing Chess. If originality is impossible, why haven’t we reached a condition of stasis where no new artistic styles arise?
If humans are incapable of originality, how did vast libraries of literature arise? Was there a line in the sand after which nothing new could be said? When was it? Allow me to counter that either humans were never capable of originality, or we always are. There was no cut-off point. This is why new discoveries, technology, styles, and content continuously arise.
Before I tackle the more alarming contention that the author’s internal “thing” (feelings, sensibility, and what she wants to convey) is a “readymade dictionary”, I will use a cogent example from the time Barthes wrote his essay to thoroughly refute it. It should be that the composer, certainly, is also only a “copyist” creating a pastiche from extant musical styles and techniques. Enter one Morton Subotnick.
The same year Barthes copied onto paper his bricolage of received ideas in acceptance of some kinds of writing and rejection of others – 1967 – Morton Subotnick produced his Silver Apples of the Moon. Boom!
This new music was made using a Buchla modular voltage-controlled synthesizer, which was constructed partly using suggestions given from Subotnick. Subotnick’s contribution to the design was to argue against having a keyboard because he wanted to get away from a conventional approach to making music. Instead, there were panels of dials, levers, and plugs which needed to be moved to different sockets to produce different types of sounds.
No longer did a composer, such as himself, need an orchestra in order to hear his music which had been written down. He could create it on the fly, by himself, and record it. The composer became a one-man orchestra using methods never before available to make music never before heard. And if one wanted to say that his innovations were somehow merely the consequence of technology, the counter is that humanity continues to create together in an interrelated fashion, not necessarily deliberately, but one innovation feeds off another and opens new avenues of opportunity. Subotnick spoke specifically of “making a new message with a new medium”, and felt that the synthesizer was like the printing press, in that suddenly a new vista of possibility was opened with enormous implications. Rather than rehash traditional techniques and content, Subotnick sought to work with the inventions of the present moment and explore the unknown. So much for only being able to copy and reassemble what’s already been done.
Here’s a short video in which Subotnick explains why the synthesizer opened a new musical world to him:
Now back to Barthes’ advice to the author, that he at least be aware that whatever it is he thinks is the internal “thing” he wants to communicate through literature is itself a “readymade dictionary”. Again, this is not just the death of the author, but the death of the self. Everyone is reduced to being the equivalent of a host for a virus, the purpose of which is merely to perpetuate the virus, which is textuality.
And here I must pause and ask if Barthes was pranking us. Were we supposed to pick up on the absurdity buried in his Byzantine text when taken to its logical conclusion? Even if he weren’t serious, or if he was dead serious that all things eventually point to inescapable absurdity, the art-world has, as I mentioned earlier, by and large taken him literally, and used his arguments as a guidebook for creating sterile appropriation work, as well as a tool to stamp out artists who strive for manifesting an original vision.
Consider I was born in 1965. According to Barthes’ paradigm I would never be capable of original art, nor an original thought or feeling. At my core would reside a received “dictionary” in which definitions only matter or make sense in relation to one another, in which case there could be no center. Or, in relation to Subotnick, I was an organism intrinsically capable of creating with new tools and exploring new terrain; and as for the dictionary, it could be shelved and one could imagine without it. Guess who I’d rather have had as an influential uncle figure?
There is art that is mostly or entirely derivative, some of which doesn’t aspire to be anything other than a copy of what already exists. When a precocious child musician plays a guitar solo by Ritchie Blackmore, Barthes is correct to say she isn’t the author. She is only really responsible for how well she plays the passage, and her particular interpretation. Everyone knows that. But when Jimi Hendrix got on stage and played The Star Spangled Banner in his own style, he wasn’t merely copying the musical score, he was presenting something that hadn’t been heard before. Just because there is art that is derivative doesn’t mean no art rises above that.
And the same may be said of people. It may be true, at least metaphorically speaking, that some people don’t have an original thought in their lives. That’s less an insult when one considers Barthes doesn’t even think it’s possible to have one. How often do children say or do anything truly original? I can remember once saying to my brother when he hogged the bathroom before school and made us both risk being late, “YOU’RE wasting MY time!”. I thought I’d said something new for a few seconds before realizing I’d merely spouted a cliché one hears all the time. Similarly, when I was in Hawaii, riding a bus, some local girls in the back of the bus were singing, “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg…”, and laughing like it wasn’t something I sang as a kid some 40 years prior. At the time I mentally noted the recurrence of the completely unoriginal, and insipid, but experienced anew among giggling young bodies.
Even if one never thinks or does anything out of the ordinary, one still cannot experience the process as anything other than individual. All children suffer and rejoice learning the same ABCs and having their first crushes and all the usual growing pains. How many nearly identical birthday parties have occurred in the US, with the same cakes and ice-cream and party hats and pin the tail on the donkey? And yet, even the vocabulary used, the grammar, and the ritual experiences happen nevertheless, no matter how redundant, to an individual. The human cannot not BE, nor not be aware of being.
We can say with confidence that the girls on the bus were not the authors of the Batman smells variation on Jingle Bells, but we cannot say that they didn’t have selves. And we can’t say that just because they, at that tender age, had perhaps never mouthed an exceptionally original sentence, that they did not have an original experience. No two lives are the same. Each person sees reality through a unique portal and has some knowledge nobody else has. Over time, if one is drawn to do so, one can slowly individuate oneself, learn to think for oneself, and eventually harness ones confluence of skills and unique experience to add something special to our accumulated knowledge.
Barthes’ appears to have confused humans with Invasion of the Body Snatchers type clones:
The writer no longer contains within himself passions, humors, sentiments, impressions, but that enormous dictionary, from which he derives a writing which can know no end or halt: life can only imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, a lost, infinitely remote imitation.
What happened to the writer’s feelings? Maybe Barthes himself was a clone. How could one go even a few months without being overcome by one or another powerful emotion? He just must be speaking metaphorically, in which case we are to understand that as regards the final piece of literature, the author’s feelings are no longer relevant, and the text is not a record of them, nor does it convey them. Rather, all literature is essentially an abstract, handed-down process of literaturizing. It’s like playing a game of Chess. You didn’t invent the moves, and you are not the author of your strategy. You are not playing Chess so much as Chess is playing you. You are merely engaging in Chessness. Your biography, passions and fears are immaterial in relation to your Chess acumen (in literature, “mastery of narrative code”).
This is bunk. Language, while it has its structure and vocabulary completely independent of the individual, is a relatively transparent vehicle for potentially original and precise communication. All use of language cannot be reduced to merely arranging the symbols of an abstract and self-referential system. Words do not only refer to themselves and each other, as Barthes argues, they refer to real things. Life is not an imitation of a tissue of signs mirrored back to some infinitely remote image, itself mirrored. Stop and savor his argument here. There is no original anything. All is imitation, and the source itself is an “infinitely remote imitation”.
It’s as if he’s trying to be as backwards and cynical as possible in order to test our credulity. We could say that a painting is not an imitation of life, but a different sort of thing with its own laws and orientations. A painting is a flat surface and not a window on reality, and its language is articulated in movement on a two-dimensional plane… There’s certainly truth in that, but it’s absurd to go to the opposite extreme and declare life an imitation of painting, and painting just a system passed along for so many generations that there can be no original inception, in which case life is a poor imitation of a poor imitation…
A much more persuasive and accessible way to make his argument is to say that the individual is determined by the culture, and not the other way around. I gather that argument is so obvious that he’d lose radicality if he put it so directly. Civilization precedes my or your birth, thus we are created by and in it. He might go so far as to say that it originates not with the first word articulated, nor with meaningful grunts and suggestions, nor with colorful mating displays of distant animal ancestors, nor with the amoeba devouring the rotifer: there is no beginning and no end.
The counter-argument is that at best we have another chicken and egg conundrum from which Barthes has taken the counter-intuitive option and insisted it is unassailable truth. We could also argue that civilization must have been created by individuals, slowly, over time, and it is only experienced in and through the individual. The individual condition of being an “I” is universal. Further, individuals continue to modify and add to culture and civilization.
When Barthes’ scribed his essay, there were no personal computers, and no smart phones. Man hadn’t landed on the moon. There was no Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, hence no heavy metal. The Beatles hadn’t yet produced the White Album, Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road, or Let it Be. Should we say that rock music did not contribute to Western culture? If you grew up in the 70’s, there’s a good chance that the music of 1967-1973, which I consider about the best period of rock, was an enormous part of your participation in culture, as was television. One can use as a metric how much time people spent engaged with the mediums.
The same year Barthes wrote this 6 page essay denying originality, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. To quote Wikipedia, the album “was lauded by critics for bridging a cultural divide between popular music and high art, and for providing a musical representation of its generation and the contemporary counter-culture.” They experimented with “using the studio as an instrument, applying orchestral overdubs, sound effects and other methods of tape manipulation”. The stylistic influences included “vaudeville, circus, music hall, avant-garde, and Western and Indian classical music”.
According to Barthes theory, Sgt. Peppers should not have been possible. Musicians, artists, and authors can and were originating new creations simultaneous with his fashionably radical, shooting yourself in both feet style “philosophy”. One might contend that Sgt. Peppers illustrates rather than refutes Barthes’ claims, because indeed they did pick and choose from among extant styles and created a pastiche or collage of sorts. The problem is that they didn’t merely do that. They integrated it into a whole, along with their own distinct flavor (elsewhere, before and after, they practice a more direct style) and created something uniquely new. They are an example of artists taking advantage of postmodern ideas, with or without reference to the philosophy itself, but NOT in the name of eradicating meaning or the individual. And even if one could get away with dismissing the Beatles as copyists or mere instrumentalists, we are still left with Morton Subotnick launching into completely uncharted territory.
The Beatles and their generation also explored with potent psychedelics and had subjective experiences which were novel for Western people. This novelty of experience also produced novel expression in their music, which is why Sgt. Peppers is considered an important work of British psychedelia. We might say that the whole genre of psychedelia was unprecedented in Western art. New technology and new experiences make novel content possible.
Once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.
More exaggeration and either/or ultimatums. Freud wrote his interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in his Interpretation of Dreams in 1889. Clearly, in the 18th century, whether you believed in the author or not (and I suppose we didn’t really stop believing in them until after Freud’s death in 1939), you could offer some other interpretation than was traditionally accepted, or which the author himself offered up. Just because there’s an author doesn’t mean his interpretation of his work is sacrosanct. But it also doesn’t mean it is irrelevant. Somewhere between the extreme shores of radical, reductionist oversimplification is the deeper and more treacherous waters of reality.
Additionally, if anything is putting a lid on the scope or meaning of literature, a stronger case could be made that amputating the author and reducing all writing to being only about writing – textuality – is to really “furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing”. Writing is no longer capable of expressing the author’s feelings, or recording or representing anything outside of linguistics. Literature is reduced to a game of playing with borrowed words and symbols.
The purpose of literature, we learn, is to eradicate meaning:
The space of the writing is to be traversed, not penetrated: writing ceaselessly posits meaning but always in order to evaporate it: it proceeds to a systematic exemption of meaning.
[Note that the above quote, which is only the latter part of a longer sentence, contains two colons. True, it is a translation of the original French, but I’m guessing it’s fairly consistent with Barthes’ uber-pretentious prose.]
It’s as if
writers scriptors write copy down meanings from infinitely remote imitations only in order to deflate them in the process of doing so, which we are to understand is not self-defeating.
Thus literature (it would be better, henceforth, to say writing), by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world as text) a “secret:’ that is, an ultimate meaning, liberates an activity which we might call counter-theological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law.
If you reject God, reason, science, and law (as well as the author and subject and her feelings) what is left? Nothingness? Infinite meaningless imitation? Textuality?
I do understand what he means here, and it’s very similar to arguments for abstract art, such as that one is freed from the requirement to represent anything external to painting, and that painting is itself the content. When I was 18 I read in an art magazine that only color and composition mattered when looking at a painting. It was rather an easy idea to assimilate, especially as it made looking at art much easier. And I can remember standing in front of crucifix by Max Beckmann, I think in the LA County Museum of Art, and regurgitating just this line to my brother, and some man looking sideways at me with some skepticism.
There are many more ways of looking at the painting above, and much more to it than purely design. It matters that the purple ball in the upper left is a sun, and not just a purple circle. And you’d think by now I’d cease to be embarrassed by the inanity I articulated with such surety over 30 years ago, but it continues to haunt me.
Reducing all painting to design suits one kind of painting among many, all with legitimate claims as to what they are attempting to do. You can make a painting that is about the process of painting, and paint itself — paintinguality — and you can make one that is transparently representational, and anything in-between. We don’t need to hack reality into an either/or, all-or-nothing proposition. Over the decades I’ve found as a general rule that a painting should work in terms of color and composition, and succeed on that level, but there are many more levels.
“The world as text”?! The world exists independent of text. Again, Barthes presents an esoteric thought experiment as reality. Even if we were to concede that all meaning is textual, would that apply to all experience? Is sexuality really nothing more than textuality? Why didn’t he say “sex is text”? Would that have made the ludicrous too obvious? He is not refusing to arrest meaning, he is denying there is such a thing. And since when did a novel have a single, ultimate meaning, as opposed to multiple and sometimes shifting meanings, implications, and ramifications? Since when did literature only provide answers and not ask questions? If Barthes isn’t himself arresting meaning he’s executing it, and that we should accept as preferable.
And now we reach where all this is headed. Barthes unequivocally answers the questions he raised in his introduction. He quoted a bit of text by Balzac, and asked who was speaking that text. Here is the final conclusion:
No one (that is, no “person”) utters it: its source, its voice is not to be located; and yet it is perfectly read; this is because the true locus of writing is reading.
This is just getting worse and more resembling self-parody or taking the piss out of a gullible audience that assumes anything radical must represent progress.
And now it’s time for another short anecdote, which should not remind you that I am a person writing this.
During grad school – and it is more than worth mentioning that Barthes’ theory and its descendants were taken with utmost seriousness and paramount importance – I dated a girl, and for some perverse reason (perhaps she’d annoyed me) I decided over the course of an evening to tell her that I’d been abducted by space aliens. I’m not a cruel person, but I do have a wicked sense of humor, and so I might have started this off as a joke, but when she took the bait uncritically, decided to run with it. I don’t remember how I elaborated the tale, but I recall pushing the boundaries of the ludicrous. Only the following day did I tell her I was joking.
Wait, one more. I also told a coworker about a childhood neighbor of mine who was a thalidomide baby, born with no arms or legs, and how she came to my apartment to paddle in our pool on top of a raft. I recalled the tragic circumstances of her life and how out of desperation she’d become a circus freak who wore a costume turtle shell and was known as “Shelly the Turtle Girl”. Days later I told me coworker I was kidding, and she got a little pissed off.
If I didn’t know better, which I don’t, I’d be pretty sure Roland Barthes was serving up the equivalent of an alien abduction scenario, because all his propositions are the opposite of what one would normally think, and taken to the ridiculous.
His obtuse sentence observes that writing can be perfectly read. Indeed. I don’t think this has ever been contested. He couples inanity with the preposterous to test the metal of our credulity by adding that the true source of writing is reading: something is actually its opposite. The true source of dance is sitting and watching! Fortunately he resolves this seeming contradiction by providing “another very specific example [which] can make this understood”:
Recent investigations (J. P. Vernant) have shed light upon the constitutively ambiguous nature of Greek tragedy, the text of which is woven with words that have double meanings, each character understanding them unilaterally (this perpetual misunderstanding is precisely what is meant by “the tragic”); yet there is someone who understands each word in its duplicity, and understands further, one might say, the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him: this someone is precisely the reader (or here the spectator).
Would that Barthes could write a single short and clear sentence. This argument doesn’t support his case. Because Greek tragedy (as well as a lot of modern and contemporary fiction, OK all fiction) is ambiguous, uses ambivalent words, and each character only understands his own perspective while not seeing the big picture, the only person who can see the whole is the reader. Well, no. The only person we know most probably saw the whole picture is the author who deliberately constructed the fiction in this way. There’s no guarantee at all that the reader knows enough to put it all together. We might as well argue that Einstein’s theory of relativity is only understood by subsequent researchers who explore it and check the equations, and not by Einstein himself. I, for one, don’t possess the mathematical skills to understand or refute Einstein’s E=mc2, and I think it’s pretty safe to say he had a better grasp of it than I would, even if I forced myself to look at the equations with dumb incomprehension. It is equally inane to assert that only the reader is capable of unifying seemingly disparate and ambiguous content of literature into a coherent whole, while the author was clueless.
One can easily refute Barthes by trying to apply his theory and see if it really works. Would you agree that Arundhati Roy has at least a 51% better understanding of her own novel, The God of Small Things, than the average reader? Well, I read it and I’m pretty sure she’s got well over an 85% better understanding of it than I do, and I loved it (one of my measures of how well one understands an art work is how much one likes it).
If you agree she’s 51% more likely than the average reader to give a worthy explanation of her own novel, than you are not in league with Barthes.
Note that many people in the art world who will angrily denounce me for questioning Barthes, and declare me a hopeless reactionary (if not a Nazi), simultaneously would argue that a white person cannot understand what it’s like to be an Indian woman. Nevertheless, the reader, irrespective of race (perhaps, unless they are white) is supposed to know better than an Indian woman what her own (as it were highly personal, at least in quality of sensation) expression means.
One possible counter is that Roy may be an authority over her own writing if and only because she is an authority on the subject matter, the history, geography, and so on, and not simply because she’s the author. This is another strawman. Does anyone think the discipline of literary criticism, up until Barthes arrived on the scene and turned the world on its head, was so simple-minded and shallow that it accepted an author’s interpretation as automatically beyond question simply because she was the author, and NOT as highly likely valuable because as the author she would quite likely possess extensive knowledge of her subject, material, and craft…?
Consider that the writer is also simultaneously the reader, especially when doing multiple edits, not to mention is probably a voracious reader of other authors when not herself writing. So, we can say that when Flannery O’Connor was reading novels by Hemingway and Fitzgerald she expertly weaved the disparate parts into some cohesive whole that the original authors were blissfully unaware of, but when in turn she wrote her own short stories, she lost this capacity, even in re-reading them and editing them.
Someone somewhere might protest that I am extrapolating and that’s not what Barthes was saying. Allow him to hammer it home himself:
A text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination…
How is it possible that the reader registers, “without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of”? When I was 18 I attempted to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, a 700 plus page densely layered novel with ultra-complex writing rife with allusions, parodies, puns, obscure references, and parallels with Homer’s Odyssey (which I hadn’t read). I, the reader, before I gave up and read something more my speed, like “Lust for Life”, apparently understood, without my knowing it, all the allusions and twists and terns and humor well beyond my education or experience or capacity with English on a level that trumped that of Joyce himself.
And another anecdote. When I was in high-school I thought the lyrics to Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train included the line “pencil bone not healing”. I thought the lyrics were stupid, but the song had catchy riffs and an outstanding guitar solo. What Ozzy was really saying was, “mental wounds not healing”. Which interpretation is true? I am the listener, and he is merely the singer, or vocalizer. Because of Barthes’ essay, in the art world it is commonly accepted that the artist’s intent is irrelevant. Well, the listeners interpretation does matter, so pencil bone it is. I always thought the pencil bone was probably a boner, and so Crazy Train is about, uuuuuuh, chronic masturbation? Only the listener knows what the song means.
If you think that at least the reader is valorized, think again:
But this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.
In other words, the reader is merely someone who holds the book, draws his attention to it, and he doesn’t bring anything to it either. This simply must be an exercise in fuckwittery. He is not saying much here other than that after the painter finishes the painting, it is not seen until a viewer looks at it, at which time it is seen in the present only, and only the viewer can see it (the painter can’t see it anymore). Well, what if the painter is there looking at his own work in the gallery along with other viewers? Can only he not see his work? Or does he magically become able to understand what he didn’t when he deliberately and painstakingly created the painting while looking at it the whole while?
The birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.
It’s hardly the birth of the reader since people had been reading literature since the Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates 2000 BC. For 4,000 years there had not been readers until Roland Barthes rescued them from the tyranny of the assumption that the author knew what he was writing, and was responsible for it.
We could say that in order for the reader to have tyranny over the author, than the author must die. That is probably true, but undesirable and stupid. There is far more to be gained from ascertaining what the author actually intended than to project whatever nonsense or agenda onto her writing.
Now that Barthes’ radical theory is accepted wisdom, I suppose my counter-contention is now radical. Behold:
There is both an author AND a reader.
It’s so obvious that this must be the case, and just as it historically has been. No, history and tradition aren’t automatically wrong or heinous. Rather, there’s a good chance that wacky mental masturbation doesn’t stand the test of time.
What we can possibly gain from Barthes’ theory is that the meaning the author attributes to his work is not bullet proof, and the reader is free to have her own interpretation. When has that ever not been the case, at least since the 1920’s, or more pertiently, in our lifetimes?
In his text Barthes’ sought to kill the author, God, science, reason, law, the self, and even the reader (except as a miraculous computer program which registers everything but understands nothing and is not conscious).
As a consequence of this apparently uncritically accepted outrageous theory, many an art style had been spawned or rejected out of hand, and art criticism has suffered being replaced by sometimes spurious subjective projection and over-politicizing.
Barthes tried to reduce literature and art to just smoke and mirrors, and as evidence gave us a show of smoke and mirrors. In reality, outside of textuality, his contemporaries, including Morton Subotnick and The Beatles, continued to make original and captivating art.
I’d like to return to Van Gogh, who is a longstanding favorite artist of mine, and my current #1 favorite. Yes, I know, he’s a whopping cliché, but there’s a reason for that. I’ve read a compilation of his letters, a few books about him, including a psychological biography (and the highly romanticized “Lust for Life”). I’ve poured through art books, seen a retrospective in DC, and been to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I visited the Mulberry Tree at the Norton Simon museum near my home(s) in LA several times.
I’ve watched multiple documentaries, including “Loving Vincent”. I even made a tribute digital impasto painting to him.
I also have a Masters in Fine Art and the benefit of hindsight by living 128 years after he died. But the idea that I, as a viewer, know more about his art than he did, or can offer a better interpretation is preposterous.
I didn’t mix his paints on the palette, then slather them on the canvas in angled strokes. I didn’t know the subjects personally. I didn’t live in the yellow house and have never been to Arles. I didn’t live with and have tumultuous fights with Gauguin. I didn’t cut off part of my ear and spend time in a mental asylum. I didn’t have his early religious fervor, and I don’t share his general temperament. I haven’t read all the books he read and don’t have the same relationship to nature or peasants. I don’t share his mind or his suffering or elation. I don’t have his desperation or humility. I haven’t made hundreds of paintings in his style.
You don’t need all that necessarily to appreciate his paintings. I know next to nothing about Chaim Soutine, and nevertheless am quite struck by a few of his better works. The real meaning IS in the painting, not in all the external information. However, the artist was necessary, and the course of his life was essential to his ability to make the work (this should be agonizingly obvious). You can’t take the artist out of the art, and to say that the critic, let alone any viewer or reader has hegemony over the interpretation of the art, is tantamount to trying a suspect and refusing to hear anything he has to say. When one says that they have more authority over an artist’s art than does the artist, they are saying in effect that they know what it is to be the artist infinitely more than the artist knows what it is to be his or her self.
The reason Vincent is my current favorite artist is that over the decades his work just keeps getting better, and more luminous. His paintings are a manifestation of his interior sensibility and unique vision. In fact, they speak louder than the biographical information and art historical understanding. His style is a unique blend of outward appearance and his individual method of representation, with the result being a hybrid vision. The viewer is forced to see a person in a portrait, or a landscape, or a starry sky through his conspicuous interpretive rendition.
Would you know Vincent better if you were his neighbor and chatted with him frequently, and never saw his work, or if you only saw his work and never met him? Consider the townspeople in Arles, some 80 of them I believe, signed a petition to have him removed from the community as a dangerous and unpleasant nuisance. You can know someone’s appearance, and be familiar with his personality and opinions and daily routine, without knowing that person beyond the surface. In the art, some art, such as Van Gogh’s or Frida Kahlo’s, the real person, the inner self, is more evident in the art, and that is part of the function of the art — it is a visible manifestation of the immaterial inner being. [Yes, this is NOT the case at all with many or most other artists, at least not to the same degree. An appropriationist such as Jeff Koons tells us nothing of his interiority other than that he believes in the theories of the likes of Barthes, or his derivations, and commissions artisans to make props illustrating his conviction (and makes a fortune doing so)].
The idea that Vincent is not in his paintings, that they are meaningless, and that they are the visual equivalent of textuality, strikes me as missing the point of art, or at least something that I find most valuable, which is, indeed, the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. And if you are looking through someone else’s eyes, where are you?
I would say the same about any of the creators I happened to mention: Jackson Pollock, H.R. Giger, Frida Kahlo, Morton Subotnick, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles… I can’t imagine thinking I know more about their art than they do. What arrogance!
Who are these reader-Gods who know better than serious artists what their work is about? I suppose if you reduce it all to symbols, and in the case of writing linguistics, than a linguistician is a sort of expert who knows the territory better than anyone else, in the same way a doctor can know more about your health than you do. But you can’t reduce art to mute messing about with borrowed symbols without erasing the art.
Further, and I’ve dealt with this extensively elsewhere, giving the audience absolute authority over the artist in terms of interpreting the work enables anyone to project the most heinous and ridiculous interpretations on the work in question, and persecute the artist for it.
Let me give a quick personal example of how Barthes’ argument can be used against an artist. I once received an angry accusation on this blog regarding an oil pastel drawing I made when I was 19 or 20 years old, which was just over 30 years ago. Have a look and get a quick sense of what it “means” or what you think it is about:
I did this in a junior college drawing class. I don’t know what you think it’s about, but I always saw it as about (in addition to how it looks, color, composition, texture, mood, style, handling of medium, and all that important stuff) child abuse. The kid has a balloon, and is in the bathtub recovering from some violence in the home. Perhaps a birthday party went horribly awry. My fear at the time of making it was that people would think it was autobiographical, which it is not.
Enter an angry woman commenting on my blog, and she accused me of being a pedophile murderer, and the child being one of my serial victims. She threatened to report me to authorities. Her interpretation has never occurred to me, or anyone else I know of, and certainly not my teacher or peers when I presented it in my drawing class when I was 19 or 20. The “reader” assumed I’d drawn it recently.
Curiously, she stressed that the boy was “naked”, even though there’s no nudity, and she is the one who sexualized the body (which had also never occurred to me). I don’t know that she wasn’t projecting her own inner demons on an image that I made, and that her interpretation doesn’t say infinitely more about her and nothing about me. Do I need to say I’m appalled by violence and taking advantage of children, particularly sexually?! I’m also, get this, opposed to genocide, lynching, and even microwaving hamsters.
When dealing with paintings, it’s very easy to take any image that is against violence and re-interpret it as endorsing it. Picasso’s Guernica then becomes a sadistic feast of torture. All crucifixions can be re-interpreted as celebrating the torture and murder of a false prophet, and an endorsement of capital punishment. But wait, that’s not all, Jesus is mostly naked, so we can accuse the artists of some sort of perverse sexuality, including necrophilia.
According to Barthes’ her interpretation is necessarily legit, and mine is irrelevant. I am a sick monster, in that case. Utter garbage! The woman (who routinely posted on her Facebook page in ALL CAPS) appeared to have a rather serious struggle with alcohol addiction, and I’d guess some other related dire issues. I did make the effort to “consider the source”. She also said that my art in general looks like vomit on canvasses. To give her interpretation automatic dominion over mine, and to exclude mine entirely, is lunacy, and it can and does lead to the cruel and hypocritical persecution of artists.
Consider that the Impressionists were initially mocked, Der Fuhrer exhibited Expressionist and other artworks only to deride them as “degenerate”, or how many great books were initially banned (and are being retroactively banned now) to see that when we deny the author authority over his own creation, we hand it to the ideologues.
For a real world example, see my article: Radical Activists Demand The End of an Artist’s Career.
According to Barthes an artist, writer, or musician cannot express her or his unique individuality, circumstances, vision, or feeling in art. Further, he has no authority over his own work. Not only is it not true, it’s dehumanizing, boring, tedious, self-defeating, dismissive, and dangerous.
It works better as a hoax.
The artist is alive! And the idea that she is only capable of imitation, and that art is merely an exercise of the symbol was so excessively narrow that it was moribund on delivery.
Or, in two words, “people matter”.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy:
- How Postmodernism Has Worked Against Us.
- Inextinguishable Originality: Refuting Rosalind Krauss.
- Dismantling the Dominant Art Narrative
- What is the Purpose of Visual Art?
- Radical Activists Demand The End of an Artist’s Career
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