Foucault and Barthes on Authorial Intent

Roland Barthes writes eleven years earlier than Foucault about a similar subject. How do we interpret a text with or without recognizing that it has a specific author who created it? And what precisely is an author? Do we need one? Barthes argues that writing is the destruction of every voice, at every point of origin. In this space where all identity is lost, even the identity of the individual author, what we have to focus on is the reader’s role given that the origin of the author is not necessary anymore. This means that instead of a focus on the origin of the text, we would now focus on its destination (who reads it, and how, with what interpretation?) The term author seems to be closely linked with the term authority and Barthes wants to avoid it. Assigning an author to a text furnishes it with a final signified and closes the writing. His view is of an either-or manner: Either we have an author, thus a constrained final signified that prevents us to focus on the reader’s role, or we have a dead author which frees a text to limitless varieties of interpretation from its readers. It may be interesting to inquire on why Barthes is so set on connecting the author’s existence with a tyrannical one that governs upon the text. In his article we find references to how the explanation of the work is always sought to the man or woman who produced it, as if this were the voice of a single person confiding an ultimate secret to us. And although Barthes makes a point, I think that it is Foucault who, while arguing against him, carries this point further away into the universe of discourse.

Foucault addresses the question, what is an author? He excavates through the terrain that Barthes leaves and discovers how a certain number of notions that are intended to replace that privileged position of the author actually appear to preserve this same privilege and suppress the real meaning of his disappearance. For example, Barthes would “kill” the author and tell us that what we have left is solely the work. Foucault argues that the question about what a work is is just as problematic as the one of sustaining an author to a work. Another problem once the author “disappears” is that writing maintains a primal status. Not without rendering certain signs and signifiers that could be traced back to the author. So what is important is to locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance and watch the openings it uncovers. For example an author’s name is not simply an element in discourse, it performs a role and assures a classificatory function (I can read Foucault better if I know his biography and the other works he wrote, these other works go under his name, understood as works written by him) But what is important I believe, is that the author is not a free, independent spirit who is aware of transcendental truths. He is rather located inside a discursive construct and is, thus, either exposed or deprived of certain author-functions that take place in discourse. The author is the principle of a certain unity in writing and the text always contains signs referring to him, again and again. This idea of authorial appropriation is important to Foucault because now we may study discourses by examining the subject who produces and is a part of them (a culture, history etc.) We can now ask ourselves how can a subject appear in the order of discourse, and what place can it occupy in this order. Once aware that the author is not free to create in a world of inexhaustible significations, once we realize his limited functional principle in the world of ideas, we may be able to study him as a subject that constrains interpretation from the reader’s perspective, without assigning a Barthean role of tyranny and authority over the text.

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