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‘The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.’
Discuss Barthes’ essay with reference to social media
In his seminal essay ‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes (1977) challenged the world of orthodox literary criticism by claiming that its obsession with distilling the truth of an author’s intentions from his works is futile. The act of writing is ‘the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin’ (Barthes, 1977, p. 142). The author’s aims and motives are obscured by the duplicity of language: not only is language inadequate to express the author’s inner world, but language also skews the reader’s interpretation of the work. Language is a complex network of cultural codes and associations over which the author has no control.
Yet, the notion of authorship is not confined to literature. In this essay, I shall be examining how Barthes’ ideas apply to Facebook, a social media website. Here, users create Facebook ‘pages’, which are in effect mini-autobiographies that they update with news, photos, biographical details etc. Users are also able to make ‘friends’, i.e. to subscribe for updates from other users’ pages, and to comment on these updates. Facebook is then a vast network of individuals who are both authors of their own pages and readers cum critics of their friends’ pages. Moreover, not only is communication between author and reader mediated via language, it is also restricted by the Facebook software, which as shall be seen, permits only certain kinds of expression on the part of the author.
This essay is structured as follows. Firstly, I will review Barthes’ essay in more depth, emphasizing the issues relevant to my study. Secondly, I will consider how Facebook mediates between author and reader, providing a cultural template through which an individual’s biography is filtered. Finally, I will consider how Facebook alienates users in the manner envisaged by Barthes in his essay.
According to Barthes, it is the identity of the author that is paramount for the literary critic: the work is ‘tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions’ (Barthes, 1977, p. 143). The responsibility for meaning, for the “truth” of the work, as well as its success or failure, is placed squarely on the author’s shoulders. The work of literary criticism is to enlighten the readership as to the author’s motives by invoking their personal biography: Van Gogh’s genius is attributed to his madness, Tchaikovsky’s to his alcoholism and Baudelaire’s to his ‘failure’ (ib.) as a man.
Yet, Barthes maintained that the medium of language interferes with the process of writing, such that an author necessarily relinquishes control over the manner in which his work is interpreted. Influenced by contemporary advances in linguistics, Barthes claimed that ‘language knows a “subject” not a “person”‘ (Barthes, 1977, p. 145). The “subject”, or author, of the work is not an individual. In other words, the author as individual with a biography, emotions and intentions is invisible to the reader. Rather, they see the subject, an empty construct, an abstraction formed by the words on the page. This subject is ’empty outside the enunciation which defines it’ (ib.): it is the work that calls the subject into being and the subject is entirely dependent on the work. The author’s true identity has been hollowed out due to the alienating effects of language and has been replaced by the subject, a mere place-marker holding language together.
Language, argues Barthes, has this alienating effect since a text is nothing more than a ’tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’ (Barthes, 1977, p. 146). An author’s words, and the manner in which he utilizes them, are not the author’s own but are drawn from a huge cultural reservoir of previous texts. A phrase elicits a culturally determined meaning, provoking a myriad of contextual associations giving the text a life of its own, constantly displacing its meaning even further from the author’s intentions. Attempting to pin down meaning is futile since no text was ever written in a vacuum; the cultural landscape has no origin, no founding text that would guarantee all meaning. Rather, the origin is language itself, which ‘ceaselessly calls into question all origins’ (Barthes, 1977, p. 146).
The author is then doubly deceived by language. Firstly, language does not belong to the author. It is an alien presence that inhabits him and that enforces a culturally dependent mode of expression. The author can never perfectly capture his inner experience through language, as there is always some part of that experience that evades capture through words. Rather, he evokes the subject, his avatar, as seen through the lens of language. The author’s true identity, if indeed there is a “truth” of his existence, will always elude the reader and in fact, himself.
Secondly, the reader also has this alienating relationship with language. The “meaning” of a text, as supposed by the reader, is coloured by their cultural context. The author, in allowing his work to be read, relinquishes control over how it is received by his audience. They will draw their own conclusions, make their own associations and interpretations which depend on the ‘immense dictionary’ (Barthes, 1977, p. 147) of cultural references that they have at their disposal. Thus, the reader imagines the author as a subject, a construct of their own conception of language. This subject differs not only from reader to reader, but temporally, being reconstructed every time a particular reader approaches the same text.
Any attempt to attribute a work’s success or failure to a particular author is fruitless. When a critic examines and re-examines a text, they are merely reconstructing their own conception of the author as subject, which can never coincide with the author’s conception, let alone his true identity. Asking an author to explain a text merely creates another text with another subject, and the game begins again. The author is effectively powerless—responsibility for a text’s interpretation is passed to the reader. There is no ultimate meaning: ‘In the multiplicity of writing everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered’ (Barthes, 1977, p. 148).
Yet the effects of language are not disproportionately visited upon the author. According to Barthes, language’s alienating effects apply equally to the reader. The reader is ‘without history, biography, psychology’ (Barthes, 1977, p. 148), an impersonal ‘destination’ (ib.) for the author’s work. The reader’s role is to hold the text together, to create a unity from the cultural codes that make up the text. In other words, the author’s relationship with the reader cannot be personal: they can make no assumptions about the reader’s identity because the reader, in the process of reading, is also an abstraction evoked by the text. By symmetry, both author and reader, as represented by the text, are subjects.
Barthes’ textual examples in ‘Death of the Author’ (1977) are not limited to literary texts: as mentioned previously he uses the music of Tchaikovsky and the work of Van Gogh as illustrations of his thesis. Indeed, Barthes never limited his analysis to so-called high culture: in his book ‘Mythologies’ (Barthes, 1972) he deconstructs the cultural meanings of, for example, advertisements and films. Facebook is therefore an entirely appropriate medium for a Barthesian analysis. First, however, I will examine what is meant by a text in Facebook, and nature of the cultural codes peculiar to it.
Facebook can be viewed as a form of relational biography (Richardson & Hessey, 2009). Users update their biographies by adding essentially static information (date of birth, education etc.) as well as time-dependent data about their feelings, social commitments etc. This data can be annotated by other users in the form of comments. The user in essence constructs a “timeline” which amounts to a somewhat haphazard diary of their inner life and social relations. This timeline can be read by the user and, within certain restrictions, the user’s friends. It therefore amounts to a text, from which an interpretation of the author-as-subject is constructed in the reader’s mind.
Facebook updates can take written form, which is subject to the constraints of language and alienating to both author and reader as demonstrated earlier. Yet, the architecture of Facebook is such that further restrictions are imposed on the author. One example of this is the “like” button. A user demonstrates his or her preferences by “liking” other users’ comments or updates. Yet, this restricts the user’s reaction to mere approval. This has led some users to call for a “dislike” button, or a range of options to indicate, for example, humour or sadness (Guynn, 2015) in response to an update. Such an innovation would, however, still place a limit on the user’s reaction. Facebook texts are therefore subject to a far more restrictive cultural template than literary texts. The Facebook user-author is potentially alienated as a subject to a greater extent than the author of a literary text.
However, such alienation appears to be exactly what users of Facebook want. Das and Kramer (2013) note that a large proportion of users (over 70%) practice self-censorship. That is, they manipulate both the data they post to Facebook and their reactions to other user’s activities, in an attempt to create an idealized autobiography. They might attempt to post only positive updates in order to seem optimistic, or they might “like” other user’s posts in order to appear friendly. In Barthesian terms, they are manipulating the “language” of Facebook in an attempt to manifest themselves as an ideal subject. The Facebook author is not only dead, but the cause of death appears to be suicide.
Unfortunately, as Barthes predicts, such an exercise is futile. The restrictive cultural code inscribed in the apparatus of Facebook leads to far greater opportunity for the reader to misunderstand the user-author. Such misunderstandings can lead to “flame wars”—heated comment exchanges between users—or in extreme cases “unfriending” (the revoking of the right of another user to read one’s Facebook page). This had led to the publication of numerous books on Facebook etiquette that document the possible ways in which such misunderstandings occur and provide tips on how to avoid these situations (see e.g. Awl (2011)). However, such rules of etiquette serve only to narrow the options a user has for self-expression, leading to further alienation.
These cases serve to illustrate Barthes’ claim that the reader is ‘without history, biography, psychology’ (Barthes, 1977, p. 148), an abstract concept emptied of intention and affect. When a user-author makes an update on Facebook, they make certain assumptions about the reader and how they will react, and tailor the update to such a reader. Yet, these assumptions are not necessarily transmitted to the readership, each of whom infers their own reader-subject from the text. An example is the relationship status: a user can define themselves as “single”, “married”, in a “complicated” relationship etc., and a complex etiquette has arisen to prevent misunderstandings of this status (Suddath, 2009). For example, the author might set their relationship status to “complicated” and assume readers will interpret this as “difficult” and view it fairly neutrally. However, the author’s partner might interpret it in an entirely different fashion—as an open relationship, perhaps—and have a negative reaction. The author and their partner each invest the reader of the text with a different identity: the reader-subject of the text is an abstract concept, given flesh by the individual reactions of the text’s consumers.
In conclusion, I have examined the phenomenon of Facebook from the perspective of Barthes’ essay, ‘The Death of the Author’ (1977). I have argued, not only that the Facebook author is dead in the sense that their identity cannot be inferred from their text, but that Facebook architecture and the self-censorship of its participants lead to a greater alienation of the author from their text than that achieved in a purely literary context. Moreover, I have demonstrated that this alienation applies both to the author and the reader of the text. Not only is the censorship practised by user-authors with the aim of creating an idealized self-image counterproductive, but the message the user-readers receive about their identity is equally alienating. Since Facebook authors are at the same time readers, this leads to a double alienation that Barthes had not anticipated when he wrote his essay.
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