The Death of the Author?

40 years ago, in his essay on “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argued that “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” Further, Barthes went on to suggest: “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 multi-dimensional 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 centres 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.”

Roland Barthes

 What is the status of Barthes’s claims four decades later? With benefit of hindsight, how does his essay measure up against Foucault’s contemporaneous study, “What Is An Author?” More generally, what are some of the problems and possibilities of efforts to reclaim authorial agency in the wake of poststructuralism?(Note: comments are welcome. If you would like to be able to author separate posts–recognizing, of course, the charged theoretical implications involved in the idea of authorship–please e-mail

8 responses to “The Death of the Author?

  1. As to the death of the author (sounds more like “the death of the death of the author” by now, if the author was ever dead to begin with…).
    Barthes’ article (however illuminating, seminal, etc.) is to some extent essentialist: it seems to assume there is only one context for the analysis of literature or for literary operations, just one “literary game” or just one way of speaking the truth about this issue: the (post)structuralist context, game or language. Moreover it couches the whole issue in an apocalyptic tone, mixing the issue of Barthes’s new insight or proposed views on authorship with a completely different issue of literary evolution – that is, if the author is dead for Barthes now, surely he has been dead all along, even if people didn’t know?
    Foucault’s essay (while still a totalizing affair) reads better in that it seems to allow for different kinds of author-effect, or to recognize the validity of the author-game for certain purposes or in certain contexts. It seems to me that a discussion of authorship and its modes and uses should be above all contextual. How to do things with authors— apart from killing them, that is. Take them to a literary festival, for instance, and analyze their social interactions there, in the flesh.

  2. I’ve been working for some time on life writing in performance, a representational field wherein the modes of authorship and the stakes for imagining it offer a number of challenges to Barthes’s declaration. Feminist and queer autobiographical performance, for example, while it still leverages the Foucauldian author function in compelling and complex ways, seems to be interested both in presence (cf Derrida) and identity. Admittedly, performance and writing are not the same thing, but such a narrative mode frequently employs writing, which is then re-performed as central to its establishment of subjectivity.

    The stakes for historically silenced voices here become clear: that declaring the death of the author is something of a luxury, for the status of Barthes’s author seems implicitly male, white, European. And while Barthes seems to want to decenter the author as part of a class critique, installing a proletariat of language workers, the move wipes out a host of other identity-based positionalities whose identification-as-author is still exigent, still necessary before we can meaningfully imagine a post-class/ post-gender/ post-race/etc. writerly millieu.

  3. I have recently been teaching two quite different texts side by side: Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognitions. In both texts the young female characters, in their search for a type of agency, or for an autonomous self, only mangae to re-situate themselves within a still problematic web of influences, voices, allusions. In terms of contemporary relevancy, Barthe’s “multi-dimensional spaces,” “tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture…” (to quote only above) speaks eloquently to contemporary network culture. Authorship like this, in a response to a blog on a site connected to sites, to what extent is my voice any more than a restless mix?

  4. Still, both Angela Carter and William Gibson speak from an authorial position defined by a cluster of commercial, legal and intellectual conventions- e.g. they assert their “moral rights” as authors. Authorship may be analyzed as a form of creative agency (a pretentious one perhaps, as Barthes’s analysis implies) but also as a set of conventions for presenting (“one’s”) discourse publicly, acknowledging it or claiming it as one’s own… As Brian Chanen suggests in the previous comment, new media redefine this public “face” of writers and readers by providing new interactional abilities and opportunities. Not that authorship disappears, of course, but it is interestingly complicated. The widespread use of nicknames in blogs etc. offers an interesting case of a continnuum between authorship in one’s own name (“veronymical” as someone called it), various degrees of pseudonymous presence, and complete anonymity. E.g. I assume people are using their real names in this relatively academic forum.

    Although the issue of the signature is only part of the question.

  5. Pingback: Remix Theory » Archivio » The Author Function in Remix, by Eduardo Navas

  6. Pingback: Using J.G. Ballard As A Research Space « how to play big science

  7. I like the work of ROLAND BARTHES. THE DEATH OF THE AUTHOR is just the fact

  8. I love lamp.

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