Roland Barthes I: Thinking as a Maggot


The ‘death of the author’ demarcates the opening to a negative space. In fact, there is only an author insofar as they are in the process of dying, of entering and become an element of this space. “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” (Barthes 142) But this is a very specific kind of negativity, one which is focal and pervasive. It is not even a matter of dialectics. In fact, there is no dialogue between this negative and that which is to be scrawled over it. They are in an asymmetrical relation; the one antecedent to, and in excess of, the other.

“Whereas tragedy occurs on an absolute level, so to speak: the author has no influence over his heroes, he is only their servant, their instrument; they are the ones in control and they prompt him to institute proceedings against themselves.” (Cioran 137) It was precisely this ‘tragic’ idea of narrative that E.M. Cioran had pinpointed as vanishing under the cult of the author in “Beyond The Novel,” more than a decade previous to Barthes’ declaration. But whereas Cioran regarded the rise of the novel, with its attendant cults of author and reader, as a matter of cultural degeneracy to be expunged, Barthes undertakes what is basically a kind of reformation on behalf of the reader. For Cioran, the reader’s failure is identical to the author’s for both assume a depth and significance which they do not possess. They aren’t tragic at all, just a vulgar joke.

In Barthes, the cult of the bourgeois author (the self, the ego) is contrasted with the narrator who operates as a neutral mechanism: a mediation machine for the flow of disparate social and historical elements to flux through. An author is a hybrid invention – half piously religious, the other cynically capitalist. Their death is the performance of narrative, not as a set of interrelated events with their own content, but as the action of narration, that is, as the violent erasure of subjectivity. This leap into the neutral will have a new resident become its point of focus, equally neutral, but existing only as another means of organizing the refuse left behind – the reader.

The ‘evaporation’ of meaning, the necessary negation of it, has another effect on the institutions of meaning of which the author is just one. The critical establishment is also morbidly affected. For while the critic may no longer be in possession of the ‘theological’ role of interpreter for the author, their relationship to the process has become more intimate in this shifting of ground. For every author’s corpse, there will be a heap of critics’ corpses to pile on top.

This decay erupts in the negative space of the text, which, like all forms of decay, renders the personalized back to the impersonal (‘…to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality…”(Barthes 143)). There is a moment when the nudity of text becomes apparent. The grid which produces the text, made itself of a plethora of texts weaving together, provides the negative space for the mechanical author, their neutral machine now neutralizing them and fading them out of existence, out of the role as arbitrator of meaning. The space of death is not one of pathos though. Like any form of morbidity, while it spells the decay of the subject, it also provides a vast field for new life. As with the metabolic processes of disease, the death of the author and the rise of the neutral text is an orgiastic moment, one of pure play.

Barthes, while attempting to eliminate the psychological dimension of the reader-author nexus, continues to inject it with a kind of mysterious pathos. But for all of this, and for reasons which aren’t elucidated beyond a nod to their newfound ‘tragic’ character, the reader is salvaged and ordained as the new focal point. But if the author is just a corpse and the interpreters just a heap on top of them, why should the reader be granted the status of angelic sight, a sight that appears to be a purer, ahistorical neutrality, when they would better be understood as a maggot?


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