Roland Barthes: 'Author, I'm sorry'

Born 100 years ago today, Roland Barthes is still uncannily with us. The French critic, a pioneer of the study of symbols and signs, could read anything as a text, from novels, to wrestling, to the striptease. Without necessarily knowing his name, we use Barthes’s methods every day to understand the world around us.

In Mythologies (1957), he skewered the consumer culture that churns out not only products but myths, shoving them at us as if they were real: the harsh detergent that instead evokes gentleness, luxury, and even “a certain spirituality” by conjuring images of “the deep and the foamy”; or the elaborate roast dinner advertised mostly to readers who can’t afford to cook it, photographed from a high angle to appear “at once near and inaccessible”, covered with a “genteel” glaze to disguise “the brutality of meat”, whose “consumption can perfectly well be accomplished simply by looking”.

Barthes may be less cited by academics nowadays than in decades past, but in ordinary life he has only become more relevant: people routinely read the news, television, films and all aspects of culture, high and low, in his code-breaking spirit.

You didn’t have to be a soap salesman to risk Barthes’s wrath: higher brow pursuits offered no protection. His essay “The Death of the Author” (1967) was one of his most gleeful slayings. In fact, its zeal is such that you may begin to suspect that Barthes, like a playground tormentor, has a stronger attachment to his victim than he admits. Poor, striving Author, he – definitely he, in this case – stands accused of playing God, daddy and spoiled brat all at once. Barthes has no time for so-called geniuses: writers are “never original”, but should be content to transcribe, hack-like, a book that’s “a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture” (those magazine advertisements run through him as he sits at his desk, along with films and operas and every book that’s come before).

Barthes’s arrogant Author presumes to father a text and give it “a single 'theological’ meaning” or “message” for the rest of us to decipher. Worse still, he wants to “express himself”, when we already know there’s nothing new inside his precious mind. What Barthes hates most about the Author is our single-minded fixation on him, our eagerness to interview him in magazines and devour gossipy biographies: “The image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions.”
Barthes has no time for so-called geniuses: writers are "never original", but should be content to transcribe, hack-like, a book that's a "tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture"
When you think of a text as being written by an Author, Barthes laments, you “impose upon that text a stop clause”. It’s the end of the adventure – here’s what it means, and that’s that. Barthes hated being told to sit still; his enemy is always the rigid, fixed meaning. Only by bumping off the control-freak Author can you leave ideas free to roam, shift, make mischief, as he felt they should. Without the pesky Author and his fixed intentions, a text can mean whatever you want.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when, a decade or so later, the Author Barthes had scorned showed signs of creeping back into his good graces. He even flirted with inhabiting the role himself. In his lecture Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure (1978), named after the first line of À la recherche du temps perdu, he admitted that after the death of his beloved mother, he was ready, as Proust had been in similar circumstances, for a new life, and a new kind of writing, with more room for love and grief in it. With a sudden affection for the maligned Author, Barthes planned to become “the subject who makes something” rather than the one who only reads and analyses texts.

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