Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” is comprised of several short self-contained arguments explaining why the author is no longer an important part of literature. Quite possibly the weakest of his arguments is the one that states that the author is not important because he or she does not write him or herself into the work. Barthes states, “[T]he text is henceforth written and read so that in it, on every level the Author absents himself” (Barthes 4). Barthes claims that the author’s act of absenting himself from the finished product creates a product with no origin. Barthes states, “[The author’s] hand, detached from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin—or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, that is the very thing which ceaselessly questions any origin” (Barthes 4). But this logic does not track because the creation of a literary text in not a mindless scribbling on a sheet of paper.
Barthes’ belief that the author of a work merely transcribes his or her own literary work from an outside source—despite his outside source being language itself—sounds too much like the belief in a higher power. Like the poets of old, Barthes’ seems to be painting the author as merely a focus point for the muse. However, where the ancient poets would pray to the muse to lend truth to their poetry, Barthes has the author simply and thoughtlessly moving the writing implement over the page. While pecking away at my keyboard to write this response to Barthes, I am doing much more than randomly plucking the keys. I am thinking and rethinking what it is I am trying to say, and even when I do absent myself from the text, it is still born by the sweat of my brow. Now, I am left with the question: since I included the first person point of view in my text, would Barthes believe that I wrote, or did it still just come into existence on its own? And if my text does come into existence on its own, will it be just as good if I put no effort into it?
However, on the overall question of what “The Death of the Author” brings to the practice of literature is that it frees the writer from the need for total originality. A dead author is now free to compile works of literature rather than simply create them. Works can be built from bits and pieces of other works and put together like a collage. An example of this type of literature would be T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland where he takes parts of his poem from newspaper clippings. “The Death of the Author” also allows for the death of responsible literary criticism. Therefore, a literary critic is allowed to pursue any avenue of literary criticism. Parts of larger works can be evaluated out of context without concern for contradicting the larger meaning of the work itself. And works can be evaluated without regard to the academic critical consensus. For example, when evaluating Shakespeare, one can effectively ignore the hundreds of years of research by Shakespeare scholars and come up with a totally unique argument.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Translated by Richard Howard, 1967.