Must the author be dead to make way for the birth of the reader? In his essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes asserts that the author is dead because he/she is no longer a part of the deep structure in a particular text. To him, the author does not create meaning in the text: one cannot explain a text by knowing about the person who wrote it. A text, however, cannot physically exist disconnected from the author who writes it. Even if the role of the author is to mix pre-existing signs, it does not follow that the author-function is dead. Moreover, Barthes attributes “authorship” to the reader who forms meaning and understanding.
The reader is, however, an abstraction “without history, biography, psychology”. These contexts – history, biography, and psychology – can only be set by the author. For this reason, the author is alive because the text cannot exist without the author, the mixing of signs is the author’s art, and the reader’s meanings forming abilities are nourished by the author. Barthes declares that the text should be disconnected from the author because “to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing”.
If the death of the author signals a text’s liberation from restrained meanings, does this mean that the reader is free to interpret the text as he sees it? If language does not belong to the author, it should not belong to the reader either because neither person can dictate the absolute meanings of a text. Context, however, gives rise to meaning in text. It is the author who controls the context because it is he who gives shape to the text through the physical act of writing. Thus, the text and the author cannot be disconnected because a text cannot exist outside of its originator’s knowledge or experience.
The text is “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes). Thus, the text is born from the culture or cultures that the author has been exposed to. If the author were dead, the text cannot be drawn from any culture at all but will be left as meaningless lexis. Authors are not “dead” in the world of hypertext either. Certainly everyone – authors and readers alike – can contribute to online texts. The author, however, is the one who sparks interest in a certain text and through skilful manipulation of signs, control the level of participation in the shared texts posted online.
That is to say, the author is an originator of ideas, of texts, of communication. If the author is dead, why then are there copyright laws that apply to both printed and online texts? If the author is dead, no one owns the text and everyone can claim authorship. Nevertheless, the texts’ authors are named and are alive in the reader’s hearts – otherwise no one would download the e-texts or read them. Thus, authors are relevant to the reading experience because readers do search for texts written by authors whose names they recognize.
Barthes argues, the author should not exist. Nonetheless, the author makes it physically possible for a text to exist. He is also socially responsible for his works. A skilful manipulator of signs, the author greatly influences the way printed and electronic text are presented. He allows to mistakenly believe that the reader has complete freedom in producing meanings from a text. The author is very much alive: he is only playing dead. In what cases do we take the author’s identity into consideration while reading a text? Why?
According to Foucault, taking author’s identity into consideration while reading is not universal or constant in all discourse. Even within our civilization, the same types of texts have not always required authors. There was a time when those texts which we now call “literary” (stories, folk tales, epics and tragedies) were accepted without any questions about the identity of their author. Their anonymity was ignored because their real or supposed age was a sufficient guarantee of their authenticity. Text, however, that we now call “scientific” (dealing with cosmology and the eavens, medicine or illness, the natural sciences or geography) were only considered truthful during the Middle Ages if the name of the author was indicated. Statements on the order of “Aristotle said… ” were not merely formulas for an argument based on authority. They marked a proven discourse. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a totally new conception was developed when scientific texts were accepted on their own merits and positioned within an anonymous and coherent conceptual system of established truths and methods of verification.
Authentication no longer required reference to the individual who had produced them. The role of the author disappeared as an index of truthfulness and, where it remained as an inventor’s name, it was merely to denote a specific theorem or proposition. At the same time, however, “literary” discourse was acceptable only if it carried an author’s name. Every text of poetry or fiction was obliged to state its author and the date, place, and circumstance of its writing. The meaning and value attributed to the text depended on this information.
If by accident a text was presented anonymously, every effort was made to locate its author. Literary anonymity was of interest only as a puzzle to be solved as, in our day, literary works are totally dominated by the sovereignty of the author. Criticism has been concerned for some time now with aspects of a text not fully dependent upon the notion of an individual creator. Studies of genre or the analysis of recurring textual motifs and their variations from a norm than author.
Furthermore, where in mathematics the author has become little more than a handy reference for a particular theorem, the reference to an author in biology or medicine, or to the date of his research has a substantially different bearing. This latter reference, more than simply indicating the source of information, attests to the “reliability” of the evidence, since it entails an appreciation of the techniques and experimental materials available at a given time and in a particular laboratory.