Critical Authority

In his The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes argues that critics up until his time have been not the sages, but the ruiners of Literature. His essay could have been easily called The Death of the Critic, or even The Rape of the Text. He describes Critics as a destructive force to texts, and that their inclusion of information beyond (or rather, beneath) the texts to which these critics cast their own pens is destructive to the very texts they examine.

When describing the work of the Critic, Barthes repeatedly uses language which brings destruction to mind, including the words "decipher" (or code-breaking), "pierce," and "evaporate." He further describes a text as a delicate, even ephemeral thing, comparing it first to a tissue, and then to the threads of a stocking. It is as if a text is a membrane that a writer holds before him for examination (reading, not criticism), and that these Critics, in their search for the author, must tear their way through the text in order to examine him.

In contrast, although Barthes calls this idea "the death of the author," the language used to describe the process of this death is far more gentle, even passive. The author is not in fact, torn, pierced, or destroyed, he simply "diminishes like a figurine at the far end of the literary stage." Since the text stands between the author and the reader, the author is not harmed by his "death". He simply goes unseen.

Barthes, in fact, lays no guilt at all on the writer for this destruction of text. It is the Critic upon whom culpability is set. It is the Critic who has brought the writer (who upon publication is as immediately distanced from the text as any other reader) into the realm of examination. The reason, Barthes explains, for the inclusion of the Author into analysis of his work, is that when the actual life experiences, attitudes, and emotions of the Author are included in an analysis, the Critic can claim that these attitudes and emotions represent the True Meaning of the text. This penetration of the text deflates it and closes it to further scrutiny. It seems then to Barthes that either the Author or the text must be removed from the process for this destructive scrutiny to end.

In removing the Author from analysis of a text, Barthes simultaneously preserves all texts for further study, reopening the closed books, and also overturns the idea of the "Critic", authorizing (forgive the pun) all readers to be critical of what they read. Since without an Author there can no longer be an "authoritative viewpoint", all viewpoints are valid, and texts are therefore not only reassembled, but broadened to limitless "disengagements" by any number of Readers.

It is this new figure, that of the Reader, which can emerge after the removal of the Author and the Critic, and it is to this Reader that all texts are directed. Barthes says "the true place of writing is reading," and this, to him, seems as important as any other idea about a Text. It is is the reading (not in the person who in some unseen and distant place and time put the text to paper), that the text comes to life. A text still tied to its Author is either unfinished or not to be read by the public. A text to be read by the public is therefore severed from the hand of the Author by necessity, and the Reader is born.

Critical Authority