The Electronic Labyrinth

Death of the Author

Until recently, an author was an unproblematic concept; an author was someone who wrote a book. Roland Barthes' landmark essay, "The Death of Author," however, demonstrates that an author is not simply a "person" but a socially and historically constituted subject. Following Marx's crucial insight that it is history that makes man, and not, as Hegel supposed, man that makes history, Barthes emphasizes that an author does not exist prior to or outside of language. In other words, it is writing that makes an author and not vice versa. "[T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings [...] in such a way as never to rest on any one of them" (146). Thus the author cannot claim any absolute authority over his or her text because, in some ways, he or she did not write it. This is not to say that someone named Margaret Atwood did not spend many months toiling away at book called Lady Oracle, rather that we must re-think what it means when we say "Margaret Atwood" and "Lady Oracle." Barthes throws the emphasis away from an all-knowing, unified, intending subject as the site of production and on to language and, in so doing, hopes to liberate writing from the despotism of what he calls the work, or what we have called The Book:

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 [...] [However] by refusing to assign a 'secret,' an ultimate meaning, to the text (and the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases--reason, science, law. (147)

It is tempting to see hypertext as realizing Barthes' utopian dreams of a writing liberated from the Author. The ability for each reader to add to, alter, or simply edit a hypertext opens possibilities of collective authorship that breaks down the idea of writing as originating from a single fixed source. Similarly, the ability to plot out unique patterns of reading, to move through a text in an aleatory, non-linear fashion, serves to highlight the importance of the reader in the "writing" of a text--each reading, even if it does not physically change the words--writes the text anew simply by re-arranging it, by placing different emphases that might subtly inflect its meanings.

However, the vision of hypertext as the New Jerusalem of the writerly text neglects to consider the very real pleasures that come from surrendering to the discursive seductions of a masterful author. As Max Whitby notes in his article "Is Interactive Dead?," "[s]torytelling and narrative lie at the heart of all successful communication. Crude, explicit, button-pushing interaction breaks the spell of engagement and makes it hard to present complex information that unfolds in careful sequence" (41). The real allure of hypertext, it may turn out, is not its alliance with the writerly text, but with The Book, with its possibilities, through fixed links and narrow path choices, of ever more ingenious ways of directing, controlling and surprising the reader. The Author may be dead, but his ghosts maybe even more eloquent.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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