Rebirth of the Death of the Author

I love teaching first-year classes. There’s an expectation sometimes that this won’t be the case, or that more advanced courses offer more exciting situations, which they can do, of course, but the way in which the adjective ‘undergraduate’ can be used as an insult seems to me not so much snobbish as silly. Undergraduate teaching makes you work. The students don’t have to be there, and they’re also none too sure if they’re going to persist with your discipline. Each lecture becomes an exercise in both attention-seeking (of a good kind, hopefully, and often, I’ll admit, of the more common and vain variety too), and advocacy. With first-years you have to argue for your discipline in a way more advanced settings are less likely to require. This is a situation radicals and reformers ought to revel in, and for good reasons: asking a room why they’re working the way they do – what the point, in my local experience, of English is at all – sets the question off in unexpected directions.

Today’s my last day of teaching for the semester. I take a 100-level course in narrative theory, and it’s one of the most stimulating teaching experiences I’ve had. The course itself is – or should be, or is as I fantasise it – an exercise in ostranienie, estrangement, V-effekte. Narratology tries to make the tasks and approaches of literary texts blurt out their own secrets and techniques, to operate upon the body of literature (we murder to dissect, friends!) in ways that will render it less mysterious, more amenable to common discussion, dissension and debate.

I’m convinced this is a good thing, and teaching it over a few years now – to a group of unruly, often bored, not always enthusiastic teenagers and others – convinces me that we’ve allowed a great loss to take place in accepting defeat in the so-called Theory wars. Theory, our opponents suggest, took away from the ‘Common Reader’, reduced the literary experience. My feeling, interacting with students dealing with university English for the first time, is that this taking away may well be worthwhile. If literary studies are kept inside the vocabulary of ‘taste’ –  a discourse sitting in its impenetrability along with wine appreciation and interior decorating – what masquerades as critical judgement will remain a substitute code of class, a way of indicating allegiance to a social order that need not justify itself because ‘distinction’ clothes itself in the language of feeling.

Our opponents, of course, take quite a different account of these last decades’ battles. Here is C. K Stead:

Barthes, and I think Foucault too, has announced ‘the death of the author.’ Barthes’s essay on this subject is difficult; and there is a sense in which it can be said to be wrong-headed, perverse and untrue. The more we read the work of any of the great writers, the more we have the strong impression of a single personality encompassing the whole oeuvre. Dead or alive, the author lives in every sentence; and recognising this, the ‘common reader’ is likely to feel a certain impatience with Barthes’s argument.

This is nonsense, and lazy nonsense too. Would a teacher of Stead’s obvious erudition and distinction accept a student essay announcing that ‘Shakespeare, and I think Webster too, wrote a play called The Duchess of Malfi’? Besides, this ‘strong impression of a single personality’ may be what suffocates literature, what turns readers from texts, what blocks new impressions and readings.


Why I love Roland Barthes

Barthes, of course, announces no ‘death of the author.’ Obviously JK Rowling, Dan Brown, Patricia Grace et al are all very much alive, however much or little of their ‘strong personality’ we may feel from time to time. Barthes’ piece, far from being an ‘announcement’ of the kind Stead doesn’t even deign to read, is a polemic, a political-aesthetic intervention, and an argument – amidst the rebellion and chaos of 1968 – against the author function in favour of the reader and reading. What has author-centred criticism produced?

For Barthes:

Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favour of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

How true this is for the era of the book club, the literary festival and enforced celebrity! Book reviewing and discussion is forced from the pages of newspapers while writers are coerced into ever-more restrictive routines of appearances, interviews and promotions. ‘Good society’ sets up the writer as a model for the ‘knowledge economy’, while at the same time disdaining writing, ambiguity, excess, interpretation. Kerry Prendergast, the (thankfully ex-) Mayor of Wellington used to talk about ‘creative people’, as if the arts were a realm apart from the proles serving lattes. Barthes’ polemic is, before everything else, an instance of democratic radicalism, insisting on the productive role of the reader.

A democratic role. Most frightening, in all this, for ‘traditional’ criticism is the suggestion that study may be forced to encounter the object itself – language in all its slipperiness and ambiguity – instead of the closed meanings of authorial interpretation:

Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is “explained” – victory to the critic.

This rhetoric is unthinkable without its context in 1968 – Barthes’ call (‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’) is a slogan alongside ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’, aiming itself against the deadening authorities of a capitalist system demanding stable meanings, compliant reader-workers, and efficient, unambiguous transmission of signs. (A counter-argument from another era, that consumer society in fact relies on the flourishing of Barthesian reader-producers, seems to have fallen away during the War on Terror: you were either with ‘us’ or with the terrorists, and the stability of Author and Authority, to say nothing of the Bible and Christ himself, reasserted itself with a startling lack of ambiguity).

Fit audience, though few: this is what Barthes sets his face against, as he assembles a program for reading that will follow texts where they lead, bypassing the gatekeeping figures of Author and Critic. Bureaucrats, Brecht told Benjamin once, are afraid of production – they never know where it might lead. Texts have more meanings than any single reading – or any proper noun of author – can possibly contain. They’re generators of meaning and they take part in an endless process of generation:

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture. [. . .T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them. [. . .] Succeeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humors, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt: life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred.

The idea that this attention to the ‘tissue of quotations’ that makes up a text involves any neglect of ‘close reading’ and the textual textures older critics (or their ‘post-theory’ epigones) claim to treasure is dishonest, and the shrill preaching from the Right that they are the defenders of literature is baseless arrogation. What could be more breathtakingly precise examples of close reading than Barthes on Balzac, de Man on Wordsworth, Derrida on Montaigne? These are readings that extend writing, to be sure; that, I suspect, is the productivity that leads them to be so mistrusted.


What is the purpose of the humanities?

Alain Robbe-Grillet called Barthes ‘a thinker of slippage’, and this is his great beauty and his great weakness. ‘Death of the Author’ lives on as a text in a context quite foreign to its production and initial reception. Activist, interventionist, militant, Barthes’ writing has, in the following decades, been banalised in departments of literature prepared to important exotic critical names without facing the bracing challenge of the texts and ideas. He’s a writer now more scoffed at than read and, in one sense, it is entirely understandable that this should be so – if 1968 was in turn defeated by the neoliberal reaction from the late 1970s on, then the Death of the Author became impossible, a dream living a half-life in English Departments abroad.

But Barthes’ example and challenge remains. The humanities are, currently, everywhere under attack. Insisting that what we do matters without further justification seems unlikely to help in this situation: if the universities struggle to find allies as the enemies of the humanities subject them to the language of profit, business outcomes and ‘relevance’, we may be forced to look to our own practice for reasons to ask for allies’ assistance.

This is the moment when, for me, narratology and teaching matter. Too many people take Barthes to mean that, with the ‘death of the Author’, anything goes, and that detail and scrupulousness disappear. His essay suggests the opposite: dispensing with the ideological myths of the Author as comforter and limit forces us to pay attention to those much-vaunted ‘words on the page’ and their implications, as well as the wider world of signification in which they operate.

In teaching, for me, the promise of ‘Theory’ is not its ability to bamboozle students (the complaint of the outraged defenders of the Common Reader) but rather its organising of materials so as to enable a common vocabulary for dispute. Mieke Bal outlines the problem in a comment that has always inspired and troubled me:

Teaching literature essentially amounts to showing off, as it were, unintentionally intimidating students: the more they find interest in the interpretation offered, the more they feel personally incapable of doing something like it. Offering terms which allow them to couch their views in publicly accessible language was in my eyes an important gain to be drawn from such structuralist exercises.

But disillusion quickly followed. For the terms of structuralist jargon, if understandable at all, intimidated the students even more, and, interestingly, for the same reasons: because, ultimately, the were not intersubjective, could not be understood.

The disillusion here, I think, comes from our political moment – the great breakthroughs in literary criticism have arrived, not via pedagogical reformation, but on the back of political transformation. The Formalists share 1917 with the Bolsheviks; Barthes can assume an audience in the student and unionist rebels and revolutionaries of the ‘night of the barricades’ and the convulsions of 1968. Perhaps the Arab Spring – and the end of postcolonialism – will produce new audiences, new theories, new narratologies? Without this spur it is no wonder that Barthes’ insights desiccated into stylistic tics and academic mannerisms. That, though, is no reason to dismiss him for these.

Roland Barthes is one of the best stylists I’ve read, an exhilarating, provocative inspiration of a writer. I felt an excitement reading him – and being taught him by people like Andy Barratt and Simon Ryan in Otago, and Linda Hardy at Victoria – that in turn prompted me to think about how close reading, textual analysis, and social critique might profitably ‘blend and clash’.

A ‘post-Theory’ humanities is no humanities at all, and one that – if it is nothing more than the well paid studying without thought to the object of study or the audience for their research – scarcely deserves defending. The birth of the reader, again, can commence only with the rebirth of the ‘Death of the Author’.


CK Stead, “English in our Universities” The Writer at Work (Otago University Press, 2000), p. 117. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s line is from his Why I Love Barthes, trans. Andrew Brown (Polity, 2011).

Many thanks to Pip Adam, who was a silent but important and supportive presence through my teaching this semester. The students protesting in solidarity with their Auckland brothers and sisters offer another model too.

Cross-posted from Nae Hauf-Way Hoose.

Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

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  1. Hi Dougal
    Nice to see Barthes re-visited like this. Thanks. There’s lots of reasons to like Barthes, not ;east because he had obviously read and loved Winnicott.
    I did a degree an undergraduate in literature when I left school and it sucked all the light out of my enthusiasm for the subject and for writing in particular. As Bal says it was just dispiritedly intimidating with very little opportunity for a genuinely intersubjective space.
    BTW, I just realised – having last week read Weinderger’s essay – that your blog epigraph is from MacDiarmid.

  2. Very fair analysis, Dougal. I enjoyed reading it.

    Barthes’ essay is for me a very important statement of a certain position vis a vis fiction; but because the essay has to be interpreted by the reader, it is a position very open to interpretation. Its metaphorical title cues this expectation that it should be taken fairly obliquely, rather than as a statement of theoretical dogma.

    The main way I read it is as a homage to text. That is, it argues that the author has undeservedly taken the credit for what the text is alone deserving of. The true author is, in effect, the blank page and the marks upon it – ie the “text” itself.

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