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  • Reports of the Death of the Author
  • Donald Keefer

Reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated. Throughout Western history, the death of a hero, the disappearance of something sacred, the fall of a leader, or the defeat of a powerful people has signaled cultural crises and the coming of anxiety-filled transformations towards an unknowable future. When Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the belated obituary on the death of God, he was well aware of its enormity. He complains that millennia will pass before humanity will overcome its living in the “immense frightful shadow” of God. 1 Roland Barthes’s 1968 notice on “The Death of the Author,” however, announces an analogous loss of the “Author-God” with nothing but smug confidence: “We know to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” 2 Since his actual death in 1980, and despite his writings contra the author, Barthes has become the sort of Author declared moribund in his article, as he is attentively read and dutifully quoted with adulation by artists, art and literary critical theorists alike. 3

For Abigail Solomon-Godeu, writing on photography, the death of the author, and by extension, the artist and composer, as theorized by Barthes, was a cornerstone in a new age of cultural production and consumption. Readers would be liberated from the tyranny of authorial authority. She links the transgressive edge of “appropriative art,” found in such works as photographer Sherry Levine’s photographs of famous photographs, to playing out the cultural consequences of Barthes’s manifesto. “The dismantling of the notion of unique subjectivity Barthes understood as a salutary blow struck against ossified and essential retrograde bourgeois humanism.” 4 The paramount irony is [End Page 78] that the Four Henchman of the Authorial Apocalypse, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Paul De Man, are given the godlike status of founding fathers of postmodernism by practically every writer on the current art scene. The program to “challenge the symbolic itself,” is accepted as a sacred charge by the new cultural clerisy. 5

Nearing three decades of postmortem of the author, what has changed? The “death of the author” has given birth not to the reader, but to a booming industry of “discursive practices,” or the production of texts on texts. And clearly, not one of the producers of these texts would happily give credit to discourse itself for their byline. Despite postmodern misgivings about authority and propriety, we can still be sued for appropriating without their permission words and ideas theoretically the product of language itself! 6 Isn’t it high time that we began to demand some sort of truth in advertising or reporting on matters such as these?

Margit Sutrop has lamented in the pages of this journal the resilient attitudes of those cultural critics who take as axiomatic Barthes’s claims: “Even the sharpest philosophical analysis has had no influence on those speaking about the death of the author.” 7 In fact, many of the critiques are so good, one must wonder if our continuing concern with Barthes isn’t bordering on overkill. Sutrop sees that Barthesian proponents have too much invested in the thesis to be moved. She then acknowledges that arguments might prove fruitless against the force of a metaphor. This is a very troubling concession however. There is nothing surprising about a community’s lack of self-criticism except when that community advertises itself as the party that dares to challenge all. The convenience of certain “truths,” or beliefs not subject to correction ought always to make us suspicious.

The truth is Barthes’s attack has much less to do with authors than with a style of reading: “We know that a 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” (DOA, p. 146). The tenacity of Barthes’s supporters is a function of the sort of reading that Barthes licenses here and in his other works. Clearly...

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pp. 78-84
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