Roland Barthes first published what would become his most well known essay in 1968 in Paris. That being said, it appeared in some obscure literary journal, and since this was before the days of the Internet and full blown globalization, no one really knew about it for ten years, , when that same essay was published in an English translation of Barthes collection Image - Music - Text. The year was 1977, and literary criticism would never be the same.
This might be a bit dramatic, but Barthes' essay is also pretty dramatic: he's effectively killing off authors everywhere in order to free readers from the shackles of confined meaning they've endured for thousands of years without ever noticing. Barthes claim is fairly revolutionary: he believes that the author of a text doesn't matter, or have any say in what they've written.
Instead, he argues that 'The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.' (148)
In other words, it doesn't matter what the author meant, or that this particular meaning never crossed their mind: if, as a reader, you can argue a point, and back it up with the words on the page, then no one can say that you're wrong. They can disagree, and say that this is not their interpretation, but they can't use the excuse, oh that's not what the author intended, anymore, because, as we said, Barthes killed off the author.
In order to understand what Barthes said, and why he was saying it, it's useful to have a broad understanding of the movement he was a part of, and the movement he was reacting against. Poststructuralism was the rebellious child of Structuralism, a movement that was highly prevalent in the early to mid twentieth century and argued that there were structures underlying all systems.
One of the fields the Structuralists paid closest attention to was that of linguistics, which was where the French theorist Ferdinand de Saussure made his influential claims regarding the nature of the sign. Saussure argued that there is an underlying structure to all languages, despite their apparent differences, when you get down to the very basic concept of the sign, or, the individual word. He argued that this is because each sign, or word, is always comprised of two parts: a signifier, and a signified.
For example, when you read the word 'tree', the physical letters grouped together on the page would be considered the signifier. The concept of 'tree' that is triggered in your mind from the letters on the page, probably some version of a brown trunk that spreads into branches and has a lot of green leaves, is what Saussure called the signified. This is how meaning is produced: the signifier of the sign produces a signified in the reader or listener, an interpretation that makes meaning. Saussure, and the other structuralists, were proud of this because it proved their point that linguistics has an overarching order and structure to it.
However, the Poststructuralists came along a few decades later and said okay, okay, not so fast. The man leading this parade was most certainly Jacques Derrida, who was another French theorist that gained popularity in the 1960s, just before Barthes wrote 'The Death of the Author'. Derrida generally agreed with Saussure that a sign does consist of two parts, a signifier and signified, but this didn't mean that there was this neat structure to language or meaning.
Instead, Derrida believed that really, language just makes it so no one truly understands each other. This is because in his eyes, there is always a gap between the signifier and the signified. Maybe when someone wrote the word 'Cat' they were envisioning a cute little orange Tabby cat, but the person reading the word does so around Halloween which causes them to think of a sleek black cat that looks as if it belongs to a witch.
Derrida calls this phenomenon Differance: which is a play on the French verb 'Differer', which means both 'to differ' and also 'to defer'. Hence, that the meaning produced will always differ from the original intention, and it will also always be deferred to a later point in time.
Another good example for the concept of Differance is that of the Dictionary. If you don't know what a word means, you can look it up in the dictionary. But really, when you do so, all you find is other words. If you don't know what they mean, you need to look them up too, which leads you, again, to other words. The meaning always slides; there is, in Derrida's French vocabulary, a 'glissement', and so, you're left with an endless train of signification. Meaning is not concrete. It is subjective (as we talked about in an earlier post), and opinionated.
This was the theoretical landscape in which Barthes wrote his infamous essay: a realm of instability, flux, and fluid meaning. He speaks specifically to this in his essay when he writes, 'We now know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single "theological" meaning (the 'message' of the Author- God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.' (146).
In other words, as readers, we're never going to directly receive the exact meaning the Author intended, because 'the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred.' (147) The Author is not God, and we are not Moses.
But, rather than be upset about this, we should be happy, because it gives us the freedom to interpret a text as we please. To give an Author full authority is pretty boring: in Barthes words, it 'is to impose a limit on that text, to finish it with a final signified, to close the writing.' Once you get rid of the Author, reading becomes a lot more fun.
We can get playful, and creative, and come up with some funky readings. We can appreciate that 'a text is made up of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue' and recognize that 'there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto, said, the author.' (148)
This is where a lot of Queer Theory and Psychoanalytic Theory comes from in the later decades of the twentieth century: from a freedom to twist things around a bit depending on your interests as a reader. This is particularly useful when reading rather old classic texts that tend to be about white, wealthy Westerners who are racists, sexists, etc. If you try to read them in the way the author intended two hundred years ago, you'll probably end up pinned against some walls. However, if you try to do a Feminist reading, for example, and look at particular moments of subversion and manipulation, tease the text out a bit, you may open it up to a whole new interpretation that is much more useful to you, here in 2016.
I think this is what Barthes means when he says, 'We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.' (148) We do want to give books a future, and not just new books: all books, from all ages.
In the end, I think if there is one piece of literary criticism people should know, it's probably this one. Because its liberating, its freeing, and it makes reading fun. Of course it can be helpful to know a lot of background information on a text, when it was written, who wrote it, etc., but you can also know none of that and just enjoy a text for what it is: a text.