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Margit Sutrop THE DEATH OF THE LITERARY WORK More than twenty-five years have passed since Roland Barthes issued his manifesto, "The Death of the Author,"1 where he complained that classical criticism had never concerned itself with the reader but only with the one who writes. Declaring that "we" must reverse the myth, he said: "the birth of the reader must be requited by the death of the Author."2 Three years later, in 1971, Barthes published a new essay, "From Work to Text," where he proclaimed that there was a need for a new object—the Text, in opposition to the traditional notion of the work.3 We mightwell say that he had announced that the birth of the text must be requited by the death of the work. At least many literary theorists of that time read this essay in just this way. Both claims of Barthes became influential and found a lot of supporters. The author was sidelined by the reader who, instead of understanding the literary work and laying out the meaning in interpretation , now claimed to be producing meanings of texts. Together with the author, the literary work was excluded and replaced by the text. Barthes articulated the need for a new object—the text—for he thought that the work was related to the meaning, behind or within the work. In order to prove that the task of the literary criticism is not to find out what the work means, he found it necessary to claim that the author was dead. Hence, the real content of the metaphor "dead author" is that there is no transcendent figure at the origin of a text's meaning. A new object—the text—was needed for the same purpose. It had to let the critics produce meanings for the texts, instead of describing the Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 38-49 Margit Sutrop39 hidden meaning. It offered the critics the desired possibility of seeing themselves as co-authors, allowed them to feel like creators. For most of the literary critics the substitution of the literary work by the text also had axiological foundations. To speak about works meant to be concerned with "great things" with exceptional auras. Texts were something more worldly, something that the critics could work on. The literary work was not in fashion anymore. Anybody who didn't want to be out-of-date had to use the more fashionable notion of the text. But this general agreement about the displacement of the work by the text concealed the fact that although everybody spoke about texts there was no consensus about what the text is. The word "text" was used imprecisely, in many different ways—even by the same critic. "Text" has by now so many different meanings that its use seems to be altogether meaningless. All is text. Text is all. It seems to me that some roots of this terrible mess can be found in Roland Barfhes's article "From Work to Text," where he articulated the need for this new object. Barthes's essay is full ofcontradictions, and he himself attaches to the notion of the text two radically different contents; therefore it is not clear in what sense the text is the opposite of the work. Curiously, there has been a lot of discussion about the death of the author but the death ofthe literarywork has hardly been resisted. It has been taken for granted that the literary work closes itself on a signifed, that the work is a closed, finished object which hides its meaning. I think there are good reasons to doubt this claim. But the refutation of this premise is a topic of another essay. My main point here is to argue that the literary work has lost its content because the notion of the text has had such an important extension. Even among the literary theorists who agree with this extension of the concept of the text to the concept of the work, not all oppose the text to the work in the way Barthes did. Many reader-oriented critics are convinced that every text has its meanings only in reading. As the meaning is...


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