Barthes — Jarrett

“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. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found the text has been ‘explained’ – victory to the critic.” (1325)

In this passage Barthes is describing one of the mechanisms of traditional criticism. An historical, biographical, flesh-and-blood Author has always been the standard by which traditional critical interpretations of texts have been judged. The final answer to the question, “Well, what is this poem/novel/play/grocery list about?” has typically been defended by pointing at the Author. The text has typically been understood to be about something related to that Author’s historical or biographical experience. This has particularly been the case with Authors whose work is admittedly autobiographical in nature. Kerouac’s On The Road is about the Beat Generation; it’s about the search for personal and artistic freedom, the quest for meaning in life in post-war America. Sal Paradise is Kerouac, Dean Moriarty is Neal Cassidy, the one character stands in for the biographical person. In the traditional method, a critic posits an interpretation of a text, other critics fact-check this interpretation against the Author’s known biography and declares the interpretation right or wrong.

Barthes, picking up where Derrida left off, says that this methodology is inherently limiting; in fact, it’s downright tyrannical in some instances. This isn’t how writing really works, says Barthes. The words on the page are not a code that can be deciphered to reveal what they really stand for (although this is a particularly attractive way to read fiction). Language is often an ambiguous mess; the text on the page is not always as coherent as we are lead to believe. Derrida points out that there is no transcendental signified, there is no “code” that can always and forever be “deciphered” as absolutely meaning this, that, or the other. Relying on what we know of the Author’s biography to absolutely inform our reading of a particular text is debilitating; it does not allow for the possibility of a multiplicity of readings, a plurality of interpretations that co-exist between the page and the mind of the reader(s). This doesn’t mean that knowledge about the Author’s biography cannot be used to inform a reading of the text; anything that opens the text for interpretation is great. The problem arises when the strict adherence to Things Only Relevant To The Author’s Experience closes the text to other possible readings.

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