The Death of the Author (Barthes, 1968) and You

During a lengthy and thought provoking correspondence with a friend regarding a screenplay he had been working on, we arrived, as critiques of art often do, at Roland Barthes’ classic 1968 essay The Death Of The Author.

As an amateur literary critic, as it seems more and more of us are these days, the canonical interpretation of Barthes’ essay is relatively straightforward: there is no single, collapsible meaning that exists “behind” the work, embodied by the author. In Barthes’ words, the work is not the “predicate” for which the author is the “subject.” The meaning of a work arises in the act of reading, not writing. As such, any interpretation of a piece of art is valid, in the sense that meaning is fundamentally created by the reader in their interaction with the text. The essay perhaps, could have been titled The Birth Of The Reader. In a sense, Barthes’ ideas are democratizing, distributing the power of meaning-making to the public, freeing it from the hierarchical, omnipotent figure of the Author (and freeing the reader from needing to answer the question of authorial intent).

The interpretation of how Barthes’ ideas might apply to one’s own authorial practice is less straightforward. (Of course, according to Barthes’ ideas any interpretation of his ideas is fundamentally valid! I will, however, attempt to provide my own interpretation and argue for why I think it’s useful, and leads to better art, which I assume is the goal of most authors in a broad sense.)

What does it mean to assert that authorial intent no longer matters, as an author? In one sense it is a relinquishing of authority; in another it is an abdication of responsibility. If meaning-making is ultimately up to the reader, does it mean that the writer’s role is truly diminished to nothingness? In such a world creative choices are meaningless; a true ceding of authorial intent leads to art indistinguishable from random noise.

This idea is embodied in the classic thought experiment involving infinite monkeys, each with their own typewriter, one of which will ultimately produce a work of great literature. A surface level reading suggests that authorial intent is indeed meaningless: the monkey cannot be said to have intent in any substantive way. Meaning comes only from the reader’s own interaction with the produced work, which exists outside of any concept of authorship. However, this thought experiment fundamentally fails to externalize to reality: human life is most defined by its finiteness. Under finite conditions, in the limit a monkey will never produce a work of great literature.

I invite anyone who has not stared into the abyss of true randomness to give it a try.

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This is the lesson taught by Borges’ Library of Babel. Authorship and readership are, to use a tired cliche, two sides of the same coin. Authorship is fundamentally an act of curation. The author is the reader that decides that monkey #12949457 has in fact, written a novel of literary import. The author is the reader who stares into the abyss of randomness and finds meaning. The author’s act of meaning-making is the reader’s act of meaning-making, because in that moment the author is only a reader. To assert the reader’s act of meaning-making is legitimate is to simultaneously legitimize the author’s.

Barthes suggests that a better word for author would be scripteur (scribe, or copyist), to imply that the author is merely a conduit for a culture, a literature, and experience of the author. But what is the amalgamation of the culture one is steeped in, and the experiences one has experienced but the entirety of one’s person? And what allows the reader to experience meaning but the process of the writer’s own reading, meaning-making, curation?

Randomness is characteristic of a lack of order, of entropy. To extract meaning from randomness is to create life from death. The author looks into death in order to create life, sharing it with a reader who, at minimum, is also alive. Art is at its core, communication between two minds, and the best art is that which communicates most effectively. Barthes points out that ultimately, the reader’s interpretation is the meaning of the work, but it is specifically the author’s attempt to communicate their own reading, or intent, which allows the reader to form that interpretation. Without intent there is no interpretation. The modern author must accept responsibility for meaning while releasing authority over it. Authorial intent is what saves us from drowning in a sea of randomness, waiting eternally (because it will be an actually infinite amount of time) for the monkeys to produce the next great work of literature.

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