How to Murder a Useful Theory: The Politics of the Death of the “Death of the Author”

If there is a phrase that riles up people in literary criticism, it has to be the “death of the author”. It’s a provocative one that reminds people of Nietzsche’s condemnation of Christianity (“God is dead!”) and it attracts controversy, an aspect that welcomes interpretations and misinterpretation alike. Everyone from YouTubers to bloggers has used it to argue different things, but in the end it becomes a phrase so meaningless it can become a political slogan for any candidate interested in joining today’s elections.

So in this short post, I want to talk about how to murder useful theories into meaningless abstractions and how we are all complicit in this murder. I could have chosen any theory, but there is something particularly juicy about how we killed the death of the author. And I hope people are willing to explore with me this strange crime that we have unfortunately perpetuated.

Background: What Death of the Author actually is

Let us start with the basics: the victim of today’s murder case is “the death of the author”. It is a theory coined by Roland Barthes, a philosopher inspired by Saussurean semiotics, and is the subject of an essay.  His essay translated by Richard Howard begins with a peculiar paragraph:

In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, speaking of a castrato disguised as a woman, writes this sentence: “It was Woman, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive fears, her unprovoked bravado, her daring and her delicious delicacy of feeling.” Who is speaking in this way? Is it the story’s hero, concerned to ignore the castrato concealed beneath the woman? Is it the man Balzac, endowed by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it the author Balzac, professing certain “literary” ideas of femininity? Is it universal wisdom? or romantic psychology? It will always be impossible to know, for the good reason that all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and that literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.

“Who is speaking in this way?” is the fundamental question of the essay. That is the question that has been bothering Barthes since he has started writing literary criticism. “Who writes?” is pretty easy to answer; that would be Balzac, of course. But “who is speaking in this way?” is a much troublesome question that many people seem to have avoided asking.

When Balzac expressed himself and wrote those words, they have left him. It now floats onto the pages we read. A particular complication not discussed by Barthes can also be noted: if it was translated into a language — as this Barthes essay was! — then those words go through another filter. Whose words are they now? The translator or the writer? Who the hell knows.

If we develop this line of questioning, then this goes against how we talk about literature. We are closer to pre-modern societies which view narratives not told by individuals but by mediators. Storytellers are mediators, not creators. They may perform well, but they are not admired for their genius; instead, we praise them for how they are able to channel the energies from myths into a performance we can all watch. In a sense, we are watching actors, not playwrights, on the stage.

Literature, on the other hand, is about The Individual. Barthes argues that “the author is a modern figure” because the conception of individuals as opposed to collectives comes from the history of “English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation”. In other words, literary criticism has “discovered the prestige of the individual” and this reflects the “capitalist ideology” which views the individual author as the most important figure. We talk about Balzac, Miyazaki, Shinkai, Yamada, Fitzgerald, Joyce. Their works are secondary to these names. They are producers of works and we are their consumers. Indeed, Barthes’s criticism is closer to how contemporary cultural criticism has a disdain for brands. These author names are no different from your KFCs, Tescos, and 7-11s. The personalities of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf are assimilated into tote bags and hashtags. They are celebrities by name, not by profession. And in the case of literary criticism:

The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions; criticism still consists, most of the time, in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire, Van Gogh’s work his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice: the explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has produced it, as if, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, it was always finally the voice of one and the same person, the author, which delivered his “confidence.”

The authors themselves become symbols. They are not people but topics to discuss on an afternoon tea break. No one sees these writers as ordinary folks who need to pay their bills and tolerate societal problems. Instead, they are heroes of literature who should be emulated.

But there is a paradox: once the writer pens something down, that is not the “property” of the writer anymore. It is a word on a paper that can be freely interpreted by anyone who happens to see it. There is nothing stopping from folks interpreting that word differently from what the writer may have intended. It is free, away from this undeniably capitalistic conception of writing. The writer is no more the producer of narratives that capitalism demands of them; they are the mediator of narratives and the readers are free to play with them. Interpretation overrules all.

This is the crux of the death of the author. One could say it is the death of literature, criticism, or even capitalism. It imagines a communist-inspired utopia where writers, critics, and readers are equal. There is no such thing as authority since inequality is needed for capitalism to function. The writer is not heroic anymore and there is no reason to “discover” the mythical Author anymore. We are just folks who want to read, write, and understand a good book regardless of what our “role” is.

The death of the author comes from Barthes’s never-ending quest to ask the simpler but more provocative question: Can literature be revolutionary despite its history? In his first ever book, Writing Degree Zero, he sees a worrying paradox in the progressivism in literature. If language overall is determined by the bourgeois or ruling classes, then shouldn’t writing a revolutionary language be counterproductive? Using the language of the oppressors merely continues the lineage of oppression. A true revolutionary would have to imagine a new language and even dismantle the very idea of a Literature if that is to be done. He calls this imaginary field a “writing degree zero” since we have to start from scratch and keeping the language (writing degree one) or reforming it (writing degree two and more) may mean nothing will change.

This may sound too theoretical and utopian, but this has happened before in postcolonialist writings. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer, worries about this fundamental question. Who is he writing for if he is writing in English, the language that oppressed his people? Although A Grain of Wheat is an excellent English-language work fictionalizing the tragic history of Kenyan revolutionaries, he is writing not for his people but folks who read in English. This includes the very people who may have colonized the country. Thus, it is possible to perpetuate a linguistic imperialism by using the language of the colonizers. It is why he has asserted his stance in Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature on writing his newer works in Gikuyu. He outlines his thinking here:

Language as communication has three aspects or elements. There first what Karl Marx once called the language of real life, the element basic to the whole notion of language, its origins and development: that is, the relations people enter into with one another in the labour process, the links they necessarily establish among themselves in the act of a people, a community of human beings, producing wealth or means of life like food, clothing, houses. A human community really starts its historical being as a community of co-operation in production through the division of labour; the simplest is between man, woman and child within a household; the more complex divisions are between branches of production such as those who are sole hunters, sole gatherers of fruits or sole workers in metal. Then there are the most complex divisions such as those in modern factories where a single product, say a shirt or a shoe, is the result of many hands and minds. Production is co-operation, is communication, is language, is expression of a relation between human beings and it is specifically human.

Thiong’o’s writings stress how we can transcend the ideologies of capitalism and colonialism found in literature and language. A “writing degree zero” is totally possible if we reflect on how we talk about literature and language. If production is the same thing as language as Thiong’o suggests, then it is possible to revolt against the unfairness of both processes for a better future.

And with that in mind, let us bring back the discussion to the death of the author. It should be obvious now that Barthes’s death of the author concept is inspired by Marxism. He too talks about production and alienation. In Mythologies, he dedicates a chapter to how writers are not just celebrities but producers who still have to be creative even in vacations. They may take a break, but we the audience expect them to keep on thinking and imagining new worlds for us to devour. The producer-consumer dynamic is prevalent. That is why writers may feel alienated by the creative process becoming mechanized chores while we are trapped in wanting more of the same by the writers.

Barthes thus ends his essay on the death of the author with a calling, the same way Marx and Engels ends The Communist Manifesto with a declarative statement. The reader, a sly metaphor for the proletariat, is where everything comes together and they do not have any history, psychology, or biography. They are the engines of a possible revolution. Classical criticism (or bourgeoisie thinking) has never cared about the sensibilities of the reader/proletariat. It only cares about the author/capitalist because they maintain the mechanisms of literature/capitalism. One could even go further than Barthes and say the classical criticism we are taught by teachers in literature classes is developing a false consciousness that makes us subservient to bourgeoisie and capitalistic ideologies. We are inadvertently reproducing the myths capitalism uses to dominate writing. But we are frustrated by the pretense of these criticisms. We start to question what they essentially mean. Barthes continues,

We are now beginning to be the dupes no longer of such antiphrases, by which our society proudly champions precisely what it dismisses, ignores, smothers or destroys; we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.

The death of the author is the death of capitalism, of exploitation, of authority, of history, of language, of criticism, and many many more. The reader, free from the chains, is reincarnated through the revolution and is free to read the works in any form. Maybe there are no such thing as authors or critics because that has been fused into the role of the reader. Reading is writing is critiquing. It’s a world that I will like to personally live in and, in a sense, this blog is a reflection of that ideal.

Interlude: The death of “the death of the author”?

I assume this Marxist interpretation of the essay is going to be radically different from what most readers are probably expecting. And people are going to justifiably ask questions like “Isn’t this a poststructuralist theory?” and “Is everyone using it wrong then?” These questions are necessary to answer and that is why I think it is appropriate to answer as many of them as possible in an interlude.

For starters, people are correct when they say this theory belongs to the hallmarks of poststructuralism. But it does also come from Saussurean semiotics, which is sort of structuralist. The thing about structuralism and post-structuralism is that there is no clear division; many structuralist theories sound post-structuralist and vice versa. If language can be analyzed through constructed systems of signs, then people are definitely aware that these are artificial constructs and frameworks. Barthes has been interpreted as both a structuralist and post-structuralist and it goes to show that the way we label things pre- and post- is up to our whims in reality.

The bigger problem with that question is how it completely misses Barthes’s adaptation of Marxist thinking into literary criticism. While I do think he ain’t politically a Marxist (he may be more Trotskyist), his strand of literary criticism does belong way more to the traditions of Marx and Engels. Post-structuralism by definition hates structuralism and Marxist theories can easily be interpreted as structuralism. Thinkers like Bourdieu and Foucault are trying to go beyond Marx, so it is easy to make the mistake of obscuring Barthes’s past of literally joining the Communist Party.

And so, we go to the next question: Are people using it wrong? Well, if we keep the tenets of the essay, then it is impossible to be wrong. Everyone is equally valid in interpreting Barthes’s theory in some sense.

But that does not mean people’s interpretations cannot be interrogated.

Someone could challenge us and we can say in the voice of the Dude from The Big Lebowski, “it’s just my opinion, man.” But that does not absolve us of the possibility that this person can still justifiably examine our arguments and even debunk them. It should be in fact quite encouraged under (my interpretation of) the birth of the reader. The reader (or the proletariat) is someone who goes against the hegemony and “opinions” are thus an important narrative to critique.

And for this very reason, delving into this post-mortem of the death of the author may allow us to see the problematic usages that may have murdered this theory.

Post-mortem: Conservatism and the birth of the fan

There are two popular notions of the death of the author: the first one is used as a conservative excuse to not critique the author’s political beliefs and the other is related to fandom. The former is easy to dismantle while the latter is an intriguing digression from the Barthesian notion of the death of the author.

Therefore, we should first discuss how it is used by conservatives in literary criticism. When conservatives apply this concept, they assume that this ultimately means divorcing the intentions of the author from the artwork. This means if, say, an artist may have fascist beliefs that it is possible to focus on the art itself and not the author. This depoliticizes the artwork and thus the death of the author.

I consider this to be an “excuse” by conservatives to not critically engage with the work. It assumes that the ideologies inherent in the work are normal and that an apolitical criticism is the only way to go. Such assumptions reinforce the status quo and thus their politics. And it is also intriguing to recognize when this concept is not applied: when works and interpretations are too leftist, they are claimed to be too political. The word “political” becomes a bad word and art is somehow neutral.

Suppose we take this charge seriously, then even the most political people should create apolitical artworks. If Marx wrote poems (and indeed he did), then we shouldn’t even care who wrote these poems and I am sure these conservatives will be happy to read these poems then. More importantly, it is a gross misreading of how Barthes conceives the interpretation of signs. Just because the writer has left these signs and therefore makes it possible for anyone to interpret them in any way does not mean the reader is unable to read them in a political way. The reader is the focus, not the author, and their readings are the ones valued here. If the reader alleges that the writer is a fascist, then it is their reading that makes it that way. To defend the writer as not a fascist because of the death of the author is in fact nonsensical. You agree that the reader has their own way of reading something and you disagree with their assessment. They are both valid. However, to deny someone’s reading because of the death of the author is stretching the philosophy behind it. Death of the author was never meant to be used as a tool to invalidate interpretations; in fact, it is meant to validate as many interpretations as possible!

That is why the conservatives’ usage of death of the author is baffling and somewhat hilarious. If they truly believe in this concept, then they shouldn’t be complaining. They should be debating. But using the death of the author as a fallback position to depoliticize something is essentially a political tool to silence any constructive criticism.

Onto the more interesting version: Cultural critics often use death of the author in discussions about fandom and theories on writing. The most prominent usage comes from the legitimate frustration of fans against JK Rowling fucking everything up in the Harry Potter universe. Everything Rowling does is unfathomable: who the hell cares if medieval wizards made their shit disappear or why in the world did she retroactively make Remus Lupin and those with the werewolf condition a metaphor for HIV/AIDS? Fans decry the canonicity of the laughable Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and there is much to be said about Rowling’s politics too. It is thus reasonable for fans to question the honest intentions of Rowling.

The notion of the death of the author comes in when cultural critics and fans want to detach JK Rowling, nowadays the Voldemort or The-One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, from the work. She is deemed too toxic by fans for the world of Harry Potter. It is remarkably similar to how my colleague, mikumiku_ebooks, has become the creator of Minecraft. This interaction between fans and author is extremely intriguing and someday I will like to comment upon this phenomena, but it does not of course factor into Barthes’s conception of the death of the author. Although we can’t know everything that Barthes intended, we sure as hell would know he had no fucking clue what the living fuck Pottermania is. In this sense, this contemporary notion of his theory divorces the proletariat reader from the essay. Instead, it is the “birth of the fan”.

The “birth of the fan” is rightfully a phenomena worth exploring and I think Lindsay Ellis’s video explores that quite well for the most part, but it is the opinion of the writer that it should not be considered to be the same thing as the “birth of the reader”. The author-fandom/creator-fan dynamic is very different from the author-reader/capitalist-proletariat. The former is about how we interact with authors and the possibilities and limitations of these interactions. The latter is about how we read in a capitalist society. There is, of course, a connection between these two but there is an important distinction to be made. Reading and writing are stitched into the processes of capitalism; that is why we must call for the birth of the reader. The birth of the fan is a lofty goal too, but it is very different: fans can be creators of this same world too.

What we then see in videos like Lindsay Ellis’s is a confusion between the two births. The section where John Green appears in this video provides a very good example. When Green discusses his struggles with writing and fandom — and how this is also visible in his The Fault in Our Stars — he is making a statement on the creator-fan dynamic. The protagonists wanted the author of the fictional book to say something deep about life, but the author is just another flawed human like them. There is nothing the author could say that will satisfy these characters who face the dangers of dying at any second. This revelation by John Green is important and enlightening: he too understands the ridiculousness of authors becoming the sages for the people/fans. And it is easy to understand this in the conception of the death of the author. Yet, this is more of a statement on the creator-fan dynamic. It is true the author is dead, but it is not about the reader — it is about the struggles of a fan who admires the creator.

This is why Ellis discusses the limitations of the death of the author as something to lament about in today’s world. Barthes was never talking about fans but about readers. He would never have conceived of fandoms who go on Archive of Our Own to create their own fanfiction. Barthes may not be able to understand the struggles of being a Harry Potter fan or the protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars when they see the author is pure garbage. To him, it’s about linguistic revolution. To fans, it’s about what the work is to them.

This distinction between reader and fan is particularly crucial when we think about the political implications. The Marxism is divorced from the death of the author concept and instead, we get an implied understanding that capitalism is in the background. Capitalism is not politicized or brought into the foreground as Barthes does. Very little about “production” and “exploitation” is discussed in Ellis’s video on it and elsewhere. Instead, we get this liberal and sanitized version of the death of the author where the author’s intentions are critiqued and nothing else. Nothing about the celebrity status and where it comes from. Nothing about linguistic imperialism and revolutionary acts. Nothing about the utopias we should strive for.

It is solely about the creator-fan dynamic and I argue that a lot of potential has been lost because of this blurring of distinctions. Without distinguishing the reader from the fan, we get a depoliticized notion of the death of the author. Therefore, it is impossible to disagree with people who then say this notion is hopelessly outdated and post-structuralist because of course it is! There are no revolutionary politics in the whole damn thing! It is an abstract theory with no goals in sight!

Conclusion: The death of a theory?

This is not to say that Lindsay Ellis or anyone else is to blame for this popular conception of the “death of the author” and I do think there is some interesting insights to be had if we develop the “birth of the fan” critique in fandom discourses. But it is worrying that the “death of the author” has become a meaningless, depoliticized theory as of late.

Imagine The Communist Manifesto without the call for action in the end. It would just be a description of what is wrong and it might not have the legacy it now has. I can imagine it would be forgotten in some archive.

That’s the tragedy of the “death of the author” as it stands…

And this, I believe, is a reflection of current literary and cultural criticisms today. We describe in passivity and let things roll. Ideologies are not interrogated; the idealization of beauty, a potential source of crappy propagandas, is reproduced instead. Criticism has become description. Such writings are pointless to read and write since they do not expand our understanding of a work.

That is why Marx wrote in the “Theses on Feuerbach” that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Barthes wanted to envision a world that was a writing degree zero, a world where revolutionary language can exist. Maybe criticism can indeed be critical as its term implies.

Such an action will involve returning the revolutionary politics into our insights. That will require the uncomfortable digressions into ideologies that entrap us all and it may even change us. But if this succeeds, then we may be reborn as readers of our own right.

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