Response to Roland Barthes

Some time ago I attempted to hash out an argument that art could be objectively assessed. But I’m unsatisfied with my logic in hindsight regarding Roland Barthes. The focus of this website was different back then, so I started rambling about modern American politics halfway through the discussion, a surface-level topic which I now find a droll waste of time.

This is a proper… call it a challenge, if you like, of ‘Death of the Author.’

In ‘Death of the Author,’ Barthes says that the author’s intentions and history are irrelevant, because they’re drawing on a collection of experiences and social conventions to produce whatever they make. So, there is no author – the book was produced by a society as a whole and has no single creator. To give an author a text is, to Barthes, ‘to impose a limit on that text.’

Let’s inspect these assertions in sequence. First, that there is no ‘author.’

Now, the main issue I have with this assertion is that it’s just retarded, to be quite honest. Barthes has placed far too much emphasis on the social, and committed the grave mistake of generalising authors as people widely attuned to their societies, and books as purely products of the society. This seems to completely ignore works and authors falling outside the realm of public value, concern, or discussion. There are numerous examples. In 1978, no Australian public discussion centred on any of the values of, or had the same outlook as David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life. So, then, does that particular text not have an author? Rubbish. David Malouf does not cease to exist just because he is not well-known. Barthes has failed to account for the fact that people exist – they have different experiences which change how and what they write about even if they happen to live in the same society and share similar values. No one but Malouf would have been able to write that book – it would not have emerged from some ethereal plane independent of a creator.

Barthes compares texts to textiles and says that a book is drawn from ‘innumerable centres of culture’ as opposed to individual experience. The problem being that all the cultural ‘centres’ are usually coalesced into a single author. This author does not reflect the content of the world around him exactly, in ratios which reflect the ratios that values appear in society. They bring their own personality into things – which is influenced by parts of their society and values but never the whole. The author’s opinion is thus greatly boosted in importance – because they wrote the damn text. Obviously. Why should we have to say any of this? Barthes is ridiculous.

Second, I take umbrage with Barthes’ insistence that placing a limit on the text is a negative effect. Well, that’s the only way we define things – by placing limits around them and defining what they are not. Removing the ability to say what a text is not opens the floor for all sorts of ridiculous claims which can be supported by the most flimsy pieces of evidence. For example, one could claim that An Imaginary Life is actually a third-wave feminist manifesto that advocates for the exile of all epic poets.

Going too far down that path distracts us as a group of writers and takes us to the territory of the ironic. Soon enough, (and this has already happened) it becomes possible to laud a poorly-written meta-textual poem (about how the poem itself is terrible) as a fantastic work of art. This is something, I want you to imagine, that was pushed out in fifty seconds by a lazy grad student – the quality reflects that, it’s nothing to be seriously considered a work of art – and yet a roomful of critics and analysts will have no choice but to take seriously something that was foisted on them as a joke. The end result has already happened; it’s postmodernism. It’s Rupi Kaur (whose fame and acclaim is a travesty). The culture’s ironic and self-hating enough as it is; I’ve met enough people on the street who sarcastically beg for suicide and claim they’re depressed, while laughing all the while at jokes on incredibly deep levels of irony, that I know the culture’s diseased. And it’s ultimately because of Barthes.

The death of the author distracts us from what they wanted us to think, know, or feel – which itself shouldn’t be the end of the discussion, but should obviously take precedence, because nothing is produced outside of context. That context can easily include societal values, and in fact mostly will. (Think Kafka.) But authorial intent matters because without it there’s no definition. And without definition you get Rupi Kaur.

Barthes explains that meaning then resides exclusively with the reader, who reinterprets the text differently on each reading. But the fact that people interpret things differently isn’t always something to be lauded. Mostly it is. But when someone goes wildly off-kilter and has only the flimsiest of evidence to support their analysis (ie. Malouf’s book being a feminist manifesto) we really shouldn’t take them seriously. I’m aware that’s not a critique of Barthes but felt we should just establish the fact.

“…By refusing to assign a ‘secret,’ an ultimate meaning, to the text (and the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases–reason, science, law.”

And why the hell would you want to do that? Is there a single good reason for doing that? That is literally – and I’m not exaggerating like some Californian valley girl – the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Roland Barthes, you are an idiot.

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