Roland Barthes and The Death of the Author

May 1, 2012 — Leave a comment

Structuralism

In the 1960’s Barthes set out to establish a structural account of narratives. This project plays out in the realm of literary criticism and involves a debate between conservative and avant-garde forms of criticism. This boils down essentially to the impact of semiology and structuralism on literary criticism: essentially an interrogation of the very nature of the act of reading and writing. Psychoanalysis also comes to play a role. This type of interpretation is styled by Barthes as interpretive. As criticism it openly displays its attachment to ideological positions (Marxist, Existentialist, Psychoanalytic). It reflects on itself, its own language and its own modes of thinking. This is a contrast to what Barthes calls academic criticism which sees itself as outside ideology; as objective. Academic criticism also searches for text meaning in the author and in other external contexts.

First key text for articulation of this literary criticism interpretive style: Criticism and Truth (1966)

Barthes ‘new criticism’ is concerned with language itself rather than critical evaluation. In particular this new form of analysis shatters the traditional role or rule of verisimilitude in texts. A key point for Barthes on this matter is that by asserting an emphasis on clarity (to be found in verisimilitude) the old form of criticism is allowing itself to label as ‘jargon’ any critical discourse it dislikes.

“Barthes’s engagement with the structural analysis of narratives is a key moment in his life long critique of the bourgeois ideal of literary realism, a critique we have already observed in his work, Writing Degree Zero. The modern novel uses functions and indices of character and atmosphere to generate the illusion of ‘reality’. As Barthes frequently notes, in bourgeois Literature that which is detailed (in terms of description) is always associated with ‘reality’, with ‘realism’. Barthes engagement with the structural analysis of narratives continues, therefore, his demystification of bourgeois Literature by demonstrating the systematic (formal) rather than realistic basis of modern narratives.” (Graham Allen; Roland Barthes, Routledge Critical Thinkers)

Essentially this new criticism is about a structural understanding of general systems of signification: “it is because society, any society, is concerned immediately to structure reality that structural analysis is necessary.” (Barthes, Sociology and Socio-Logic; essay 1962)

“Yet the idea of an author as the source of a narratives signs runs directly against structural analysis, in that it suggests that a narrative’s form and meaning stems from an original human consciousness. THe idea of the author, in other words, suggests that narratives are not mediated but rather are unique expressions of unique authorial consciousnesses. As Barthes’s famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1968) reiterates, structural analysis must dispense with the author completely, reading the signs of narration and of reading purely within the system of narrative itself.” (Graham Allen; Roland Barthes, Routledge Critical Thinkers)

Post Structuralism

The late 1960’s to the early 1970’s; this period in France dominated by the May 1968 near-revolution. These radical political events are matched by radical ideas emerging from philosophers and theorists such as Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva, Foucault and Baudrillard.

Barthes characterizes his work up to 1968 as obsessed with creating categories and classifications. He is assigning himself the same credentials as three authors he studies in his 1971 book ‘Sade, Fourier, Loyola”, in which he argues that all three very different authors share an obsession with ‘systematics: classifications and categorizations. Post-structuralism is a move from the demystification of signification to the demystification of the sign itself: “initially, we sought the destruction of the (ideological) signified; now we seek the destruction of the sign.” This is the notion to change the object itself. Barthes now equates the sign with the very thing (bourgeois society) which it (the sign) formerly allowed him to critique. (Graham Allen)

Post-structuralism moves its critique from French society (local) to Western civilization itself. The connection between Plato and Greek philosophy and contemporary mass communication and culture is recognized and therein the sign is perceived as involved in a system of meaning at the very bedrock of Western thought.

In 1967, Derrida published three influential texts which became the basis of deconstruction: Speech and Phenomenon, Writing and Difference, and Of Grammatology. At the root of deconstruction is the assertion that all ideas of structure depend upon the notion of a centre, an origin or foundation from which meaning flows. For Derrida there is an implicit contradiction:

“the centre…closes off the play it opens up and makes possible. As centre, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements or terms is no longer possible… Thus it has always been thought that the centre, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the centre is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it. The centre is at the centre of the totality, and yet, since the centre does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its centre elsewhere. The centre is not the centre. The concept of centered structre – although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the episteme as philosophy or science – is contradictorily coherent.” (Derrida, 1981, Writing and Difference, p271)

Saussere’s definition of the sign means that meaning can never be contained in the sign. Meaning therefore emerges from the relational difference and similarity between signs. Derrida expands on what Saussere only suggested. Meaning is purely relational and cannot be pinned down. To halt the play of meaning (relational movement of signifieds becoming signifiers ad infinitum) we would need to find a transcendental signified; a sign which does not depend on on other signs for its meaning. This is essentially impossible and has radical deconstructive effects on all discourses (religion, politics, philosophy, science etc.)

The author, traditionally, is a transcendental signified, standing behind the work as God is thought to stand behind the material universe. The author gives stability and order to the work. The author is associated with capitalist or commercialized ideas of reading as it allows for a model in which works can be successfully interpreted, mastered, deciphered, tamed. The capitalist association here is related to the suppression of difference and the promotion of consumption. What makes The Death of the Author post-structuralist is its introduction of the theory of the text and intertextuality.

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