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Looking at The Death of the Author and What is an Author? again side-by-side confirmed to me something that I have suspected for a while now—one needs Foucault to salvage Barthes, or perhaps more broadly poststructuralism to salvage structuralism. This is to say that identifying the structures at work (play?) in a phenomenon is incomplete without an understanding of the power relations that have produced them and, crucially, work to maintain them.

Thus, executing the author and the work by fiat, as Barthes seems to want to do, doesn’t quite work. He says that “we know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God),” and his characterization of this as something “we know now” positions it as the inevitable outcome of the march of progress: we also “know now” that the earth is round (146). Similarly, he contends that in the face of “the combined action of Marxism, Freudianism and structuralism,” the work must inevitably give way to the text (156).

Foucault, however, cautions that “we must not be taken in by his apparent interchange” in which “the history of thought, of knowledge, of philosophy, of literature, seems to be seeking, and discovering, more and more discontinuities,” arguing that we should “question teleologies and totalizations” of this sort (6, 16). Instead, his position is that we must ask “how is it that one particular statement appeared rather than another?” (27).

This is to ask after power, to recognize that believing in the “theological message of the Author-God” is not arbitrary, a mistaken impression that we must correct, but the product of a particular discursive formation—power relations—which we ignore at our peril.

Barthes figured his intervention as freeing; he believed he had pulled the keystone out of the arch, for “once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile” (147). This is to say that, if we believe that “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 that “when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained,’” dislodging the author removes that “limit” and “final signified” and reopens the “writing” of the play of signification, destroying authority (147). He conceived of “the logic regulating the text” as “metonymic,” as an “activity of associating, continuities [and] carryings-over,” as a “liberation” (158).

However, in these characterizations he missed key workings of power—Barthes himself recognized that “the Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book”; his error was in believing that the author was no longer “believed in” (145).

By the same token, metonymy works through quite specific channels—a word has to have a (socially-produced) meaning in order to suggest related words, which themselves have to be fixed by the same process. Barthes’ famous “metonymic skid” (S/Z, 92) is, therefore, a sliding between necessarily fixed points.

It is this misrecognition that makes Foucault so vital to recuperating Barthes; the former recognizes that discursive formations constitute the objects about which they “speak,” such that merely doing away with one term (Author) or looking into the relations between terms (metonymy) does nothing to trouble the overall structure.

To be fair, Barthes was interested only in uncovering structures, which is the structuralist/poststructuralist divide in essence, yet Foucualt’s rejection of “writing a history of the referent” points out that uncovering what “really” happens is less important than dissecting how we talk about it (47).

Barthes is absolutely right that alongside the “work” there is an “irreducibly plural” text composed of a “network” of untraceable “quotations without inverted commas”—Foucault, too, discards the search for origins and points to the intertextual “network” of which a book is a “node” (Barthes 159, 161, 160; Foucault 25, 23). The trouble comes in thinking that by exposing these facts we are liberated from the system that produced them.

Indeed, Barthes, for all his insistence on displacing the author in favor of the reader and the consumption of works in favor of the production of texts, runs into the intractability of these structures. He argues that:

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. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost,” such that, post-author, meaning comes from the meaning of “quotations” and “cultures,” which are “inscribed” onto the reader (148).

He means this to place the reader at the center, but characterizing the relationship in such a way positions the text itself, not the reader, as the agent; though Barthes references “relations of dialogue, parody, [and] contestation,” what is relating in these ways is the “writings.”

Additionally, that the “writings” are nominalized elides the question of origin and positions them as just existing—not the production of the reader after all. Moreover the reader is the object rather than subject of inscription. In this way, overall, agency is foreclosed for the reader.

Barthes tries to uncover how we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes, and in exposing it he seeks to liberate us to see the real relations between things, yet Foucault contends that “we must show why it could not be other than it was” (28).

That is, categories are “normative rules, institutionalized types,” not “intrinsic, autochthonous, and universally recognizable characteristics,” and it is precisely that normativity and institutionalization which are fundamental to how things have come to be how they are and the means by which they maintain themselves (22).

This is to say that these “themes whose function is to ensure the infinite continuity of discourse [ . . . ] do not come about of themselves, but are always the result of a construction the rules of which must be known, and the justifications of which must be scrutinized” (Foucault, 25).

The construction itself is what matters, its processes of normalization, institutionalization, and foreclosing of other options; this is where our scrutiny must fall rather than declaring that these rules are constructed and stopping at that, as Barthes does.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1975). S/Z: An Essay. New York: Hill and Wang.
—–. (1978). The Death of the Author. In S. Heath (Tran.), Image-Music-Text (pp. 142-148). New York: Hill and Wang.
Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon.

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