The ‘death of the author’ as an instance of theory

Copyright 1996, 2000 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes.
As are all of my posts on this course, this document is open to change. If you have any suggestions (additions, qualifications, arguments), mail me.

One of the positions taken by post-structuralist theorists is that the author is dead. As is the case with most theoretical positions, the first task of the reader should be to understand as fully as possible what the issues really are. It's easy to short-circuit a theoretical position if you don't unfold it, don't see what the terms and the implications are. We can easily say “of course there was an author and she knew what she was doing—look at the multiple drafts, the letters to her friends, and so forth.” But that response to the possibilities of interrogating, or problematizing, the existence of the author is probably not helpful:

  1. One may take it as read that the person doing the theorizing has probably already thought through the dismissal of her or his proposition, and has something further in mind. It isn't a difficult thought to have, and it is unlikely that the position ultimately holds that there was not in fact such a person as William Faulkner, say, who sat down and wrote As I Lay Dying.

  2. Such quick dismissal overlooks the fact that critics tend to operate as if the author did not know what she was doing, even if she says that she does, and for very good reasons which need to be explored -- for instance because she could not be aware of her social or cultural ideological environment, or fully aware of how profoundly she was influenced by her own personal or cultural experiences, or of how her subconscious was seeing and constructing relationships, or of what implications the genre she was writing in had for the eventual meaning of what she had to say.

  3. Further, this dismissal begs the question of interpretation and meaning pretty entirely. How do we know the author meant to mean what we think we know she meant? How can we guarantee (and should we?) that we are reading the text 'properly' as the author would have had us read it? The issues of interpretation and meaning are pretty big issues to beg. If it were clear what Shakespeare 'meant' by Hamlet, we wouldn't have hundreds of articles and books disagreeing with each other about it. As we do have multiple, and differing, interpretations, it should be clear that we do not, in fact, know what he 'meant', nor have we agreed on how we could find out.

  4. We get caught in a fruitless circle: we construct an author out of our reading of her (usually we don't know her personally, and it's pretty tough to really know anyone in any case), and then we say we know she knew what she was doing, because she did exactly what we imagine our reconstruction of her 'predicted'. The author is 'in' the text only insofar as we try to read her 'out' of it. This is not to say that a knowledge of an author's life cannot illumine a text, but at the very same time that illumination forecloses the text, cuts off possible meanings which lie inherent in (or, implicit in) the structure of language, images, ideas in the text, and critics have been quite free to decide when an author's life 'matters' and when it doesn't. One of the strikes against autobiographies and biographies as guides to an author's thought and meanings is that they themselves are writing, conforming to certain conventions, constructing a plot-line from the intricate and intermingled complexities of an inner and outer life.

  5. In simple empirical historical terms, we have empirical evidence that authors read their own works differently at different times in their life, and that there are authorial readings which strike all of the readers as just plain dumb, or missing the boat in some way -- as Lawrence said, trust the tale, not the teller.

  6. In fact we don't fully know what it means to be 'an author' -- that is, what creativity really is or where it comes from, and whether it is many things or one thing. We do know that the creative process seems often to 'take over' the original intentions and meanings of the author, and in past days this phenomenon has been put down to inspiration by divine forces and so forth -- the author is 'possessed' by a muse, for instance.

  7. And lastly, even if we knew something of what creativity was, we still need to know what the relation between an 'individual's' meaning and the social meanings which have constructed her life are: how much of someone's meaning is their culture's meaning? Where do you mark a difference?

The idea of the author's disappearance has a long history in the century -- it isn't a newfangled concept. Among the people who advocated the disappearance of the author from the text was James Joyce, but modernism in general has stressed that the text stands apart from and is different from the author, and modernism has endorsed the idea that literature is an intertextual phenomenon, that texts mean in relation to other texts, not in relation to the lives of the author. One of the chief theorizations of modernism, New Criticism, speaks of attempting to find the author in the work or the work through the author as the 'Intentional Fallacy'. It is not a long step from the modernist position of the retreat or disappearance of the author to the idea that the concept of the author as a concept through which to read and understand literature has lost its salience and validity and is more likely to mislead than to illumine.

A quite different tradition, that of phenomenological hermeneutics, suggested that the author is radically disengaged from the interpretive process, that "the book divides the act of writing and the act of reading into two sides, between which there is no communication" (Paul Ricoeur, "What Is a Text?") This tradition is a main support of one of the most influential of the Reader-Response theories. As Ricoeur, commenting on the fact that writing separates the writer from the reader, remarked, "Sometimes I like to say that to read a book is to consider its author as already dead and the book as posthumous."

Contemporary theorists have a number of reasons further to those above for thinking that the concept of 'the author' is not a profitable concept. Here are some of the reasons for that, based loosely, in part, on the Roland Barthes' essay "The Death of the Author" in his collection of essays Image, Music, Text, and on other sources.

  1. There are a number of theories of language and grammar which militate against a text (note the shift from 'a work') being written by an intentional individual in possession of his meanings.

    • Following the work of Emile Beneviste, the idea that the "I" of a sentence such as "I went to the store" is a different entity from the subject who speaks the sentence. The "I" within the sentence is an 'empty' marker -- anyone could say the sentence, and it would 'mean' them. The subject who enunciates isn't the same as the subject of enunciation (the "I" in the sentence), doesn't, as it were, get in to the sentence except as an accident of propinquity.

    • Following the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, the idea that meaning does not belong to words but to i) the field of meaning in which it occurs and the differences from other words in that meaning-field, so that meaning is by difference, not by identity: this is the 'paradigmatic' placement of language; and ii) to the placement of the word in the grammar of a sentence: the 'syntactic' placement of language. iii) A third placement was added, for instance by Umberto Eco, the placement of context, in that words change according to their context: this is the 'pragmatic' placement. For the purposes of the death of the author, the functionality of language which is most important is the first mentioned, the idea that meaning is created through difference, not through identity. The effect is to place any language use within a broad frame of language-use, in which language is an independent system.

    • This has led to the idea, articulated by the philosopher Heidegger and others, that humans do not speak language, language speaks us. As we acquire language we enter a flow of meaning which has several at least two broad configurations: i) language as an independent system of differentiations; ii) language as as a storehouse of cultural meaning, so that Foucault can speak of stepping into the flow of meaning, Lacan of our entering, through language, into the Law of the Father, the rule of the governing conceptions of our culture. The 'intended' meanings of an 'author' are subsumed under languages' real ways of meaning, and the centrality of pre-existing fields of meaning to our very being as (inevitably, culturally-formed) 'individuals'. It can be argued that there is no such thing as 'personal' meaning (there can be personal experiences, but when we assign meaning to those experiences, that meaning is only shared, only cultural), it can be argued that any subject who enunciates is only a creation of language itself, it can be argued that meaning belongs to the play of language itself and is far beyond our control. All these things mitigate against the privileging of an 'author' in reference to a text.

  2. Following on the ideas of language and meaning, contemporary theorists suggest that any piece of writing is in fact a complex web of cultural meanings, a texture of them, a text. A text only means because there are strands of meaning leading to all sorts of areas of experience and language use: particularly to the conventions of writing (e.g. how things are expressed in writing, what is expressed, how different topics are written about), to previous writing, to the archive of cultural meanings and instances of their use, to the way we speak about various aspects of our lives and experience. Any text is necessarily intertextual, it does not have boundaries but has filiations, connections, instead. An 'author' exists as a cultural process, what Barthes calls a scriptor, Foucault an author-function. Foucault writes that "[a text] indicates itself, constructs itself, only on the basis of a complex field of discourse." and as Barthes writes,

    "In the multiplicity of writing, everything is disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, 'run' (like the thread of a stocking*) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced...." -- see also Barthes' "From Work to Text", in the same volume.

    *[Women's transparent silk or synthetic stockings used to 'run', a line of thread unthreaded: why women's dis/appareled legs should appear in this text is an interesting question, and an illustration of the unruliness of language -- "ranged over," indeed!]

  3. Contemporary theories of narrative suggest that a narrative is an 'intransitive' function, that is, it does not set out to do anything; as such it, like the "I" as subject of enunciation, is separated from the particular circumstances of its articulation, exists as meaning-potential, the potential to be actualized within the meaning-realm of the reader. Insofar as any meaning is to be made, it is made by the reader, not by the 'author'.

  4. The very concept of the stable ego has itself been challenged -- it has been suggested that our 'selves' as entities, as discrete and identifiable beings, is a cultural concept, that 'we' are in fact processes of symbolization, not stable beings. We 'occupy' different realms of meaning (this is known as the de-centered ego); we are produced by language, or by symbolization in various forms (the focus of much post-structural thought on language as the sole means of and process of symbolization may be a limitation) and as such exist as unstable vortices of meaningfulness; much of what we may mean or be is generated by forces which have been repressed and are experiences in displaced ways, so that Lacan has suggested that who we really are in our unconscious, not our highly modulated and culturally controlled conscious selves.

  5. The very idea of, and the centrality to our culture of, 'the individual', has been seen as an ideological conception, a product of the capitalist revolution in the late seventeenth century. In support of this idea one might note that the "rights of the individual" were not theorized until the eighteenth century, and wonder whether humankind just hadn't been bright enough to think of them until then, or if the centrality of the concept 'the individual' is an historical phenomenon. There are various claims that the idea of "the author" was not a significant concept before this time. In partial support of this it might be noted that the use of the word "original" in a positive sense to refer to 'authored' texts, paintings, etc., did not occur until the late eighteenth century, not long after, for instance, the emergence of the idea that individual actors might give their own interpretations of roles.

It is still possible for many people to write off all these questions, to dismiss them. It isn't very helpful to do so. ‘Common sense’ may say that of course there is a unitary author who arrived at his own meanings and put them into highly communicable form in a poem and sent them to us. But anyone who has thought for a minute about what common sense has told people throughout human civilization should be very wary of common sense, because it’s probably your learned, unexamined patterns of thought talking to you. And in any case in a university we are responsible for more than common sense. We are responsible for the charted and uncharted implications of human thought and action, and so we must proceed with openness and care. And no one should be satisfied with that ‘common sense’ response who has thought very carefully about the nature of authorship, the construction of meaning, creativity, the nature of art, the relation between meaning and interpretation, or the problems of hermeneutics, that is, interpreting over time, class and region. Ultimately it doesn’t explain enough of what happens and most importantly doesn't open up (indeed tends to close off) the problems that the concept of authorship raises.

I hope by now it is clear that I do not mean, and the theorists do not mean, that there was not a person who thought, felt, planned and wrote. What is in question is what is meant by authorship, and the assumption that the meaning of a work is the product of a single self-determining author, in control of his meanings, who fulfills his intentions and only his intentions. In the jargon of contemporary theory the concept of the author is a 'contested' concept, and our first task is to 'problematize' it, to see what the issues are which have led it to be contested. To contest something is to question its common usage and to scrutinize it for its full but often obscured meanings and implications.