Literary Theory: The Author

Roland Barthes
In 1968, the poststructuralist critic Roland Barthes published the notorious and still influential essay, 'The Death of the Author'. Barthes said:
'We know the 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 innumerable centres of culture'.
- Roland Barthes, 'The Death of the Author', trans. Stephen Heath, Image-Music Text (London: Fontana, 1977) pp. 142-8.
It is this sort of statement that enables literary theory to exist, and legitimise the multiple approaches to the text. If the text is composed of all the texts drawn upon by the author (and all the texts seen in it by readers, regardless of the author's intent), then it can be interpreted in many ways, and our role is no longer to decode 'what the author is saying'. Barthes, indeed, went on to argue that a consequence of the death of the author must be 'the birth of the reader'.
However, what Barthes did not mean was that anyone can now say anything they like about a text. The text was still drawn from 'the innumerable centres of culture', in other words, subject to traditions and therefore social restrictions. The text is constituted by its intertextuality. Therefore absolute freedom of interpretation is not possible.
Foucault, 'What is an Author?'
Michel Foucault first gave 'What is an Author?' as a lecture in 1969, the year after Barthes's 'The Death of the Author'. Foucault disagreed with Barthes, because he believed Barthes's interpretation of the situation was too simple. Foucault argued that far from being dead, the concept of the author was a socially very powerful one. Instead of being the source of meaning (as in the traditional model of reader-author-text) the concept of the author was used to restrict meaning by preventing socially unacceptable readings from emerging. The author's name was used, regardless of the intent of the actual writer, as an important social signifier, rather like a brand name, to make sense of disparate groups of texts e.g. Shakespeare's brand is used to group the sonnets.
According to Foucault, letters, diaries or laundry lists have writers, but they do not have authors. Instead, the privileged 'author function' is only given to certain proper names (e.g. William Shakespeare) and therefore to certain groups of texts. These names are used to restrict dissident interpretations.
Again, this poses a strong challenge to the traditional model. If the author is not a real person but a social signifier, used to restrict meaning, then critics will be bound to debate the different ways in which a text can be read, and through which the author's authority can be challenged.

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