CREATIVE JOURNAL—Roland Barthes and Pierre Bourdieu—The Death of the Author

In the previous post I said we’d been reading Benjamin and Barthes, but never got to talking about the latter.

In Roland Barthes’ piece, he talks about the text being a product of the reader more than the writer, where the multiple possible meanings float until fixed by the action of someone reading it:

Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author.. . . a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. (Barthes, 1977, p. 148)

Following from this, Barthes announces the designation of writing as ‘performative’: “in which the enunciation has no other content (contains no other proposition) than the act by which it is uttered” (Barthes, 1977, pp. 145–6) and the ‘death of the author’.

. . . the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now. (Barthes, 1977, p. 145)

[ASIDE: the ‘scriptor’ is Barthes’ reference to the successor to the author under this new regime. The scriptor’s work is not about expression, but the possibility of an “immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt.” (Barthes, 1977, p. 147)]

There is an interesting parallel with a text we’ve just looked at for another course that I’m on, the Framing Art course which is concerned with museology. This other text is Pierre Bourdieu’s Cultural Works and Cultivated Disposition (also mentioned in a previous post) where he is analysing the perception of the museum ‘experience’ for audiences, particularly those that feel excluded from this institution:

. . . the history of the instruments of perception of a work of art is the essential complement of the history of the instruments of production of the work, inasmuch as the work of art is in a way created twice over, by the artist and by the spectator, or, rather, by the society to which the spectator belongs. (Bourdieu, 1969, p. 41)

Bourdieu is here discussing issues of attribution and specifically how these affect the “legibility” of a work of art for a particular society.

He is presenting a much more prosaic view of the affect knowledge and education have on the reception of art, but essentially Barthes’ argument is a natural extension of Bourdieu’s comment – that our interpretation of the artwork is as important as the original intention, and the original intention is vague and imprecise.

  • Barthes, R. (1977). The Death of the Author. In Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press. pp. 142–148.
  • Bourdieu, P. and Darbel, A. (1969) Cultural Works and Cultivated Disposition. In The Love of Art: European Art Museums and their public. Cambridge: Polity Press. pp. 36–50.

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