The Deaths of the Author: Reading and Writing in Time


For thirty years the "death of the author" has been a familiar poststructuralist slogan in literary theory, widely understood and much debated as a dismissal of the author, a declaration of the writer's irrelevance to the readers experience. In this concise book, Jane Gallop revitalizes this hackneyed concept by considering not only the abstract theoretical death of the author but also the writer's literal death, as well as other authorial "deaths," such as obsolescence. Through bravura close readings of the ...

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For thirty years the "death of the author" has been a familiar poststructuralist slogan in literary theory, widely understood and much debated as a dismissal of the author, a declaration of the writer's irrelevance to the readers experience. In this concise book, Jane Gallop revitalizes this hackneyed concept by considering not only the abstract theoretical death of the author but also the writer's literal death, as well as other authorial "deaths," such as obsolescence. Through bravura close readings of the influential literary theorists Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, she shows that the death of the author is best understood as a relation to temporality, not only for the reader but especially for the writer. Gallop does not just approach the death of the author from the reader's perspective; she also reflects at length on how impending death haunts the writer. By connecting an author’s theoretical, literal, and metaphoric deaths, she enables us to take a fuller measure of the moving and unsettling effects of the deaths of the author on readers and writers, and on reading and writing.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“. . . Gallop has provided us with a profound look at what it means to read and write in the face of human mortality. Highly recommended for students of literature and literary theory.” - Emily Manuel, Global Comment

“Jane Gallop is no doubt one of the best readers of her generation, but with The Deaths of the Author she proves that her writing is unprecedented: sharp, brisk, with a great sense of rhythm, utterly sophisticated and yet perfectly clear, from the very first till the very last sentence.” - Jan Baeten, Leonardo

“Jane Gallop revitalises debates on the ‘death of the author’ theory by examining the effect the theory has on the author of a landmark work. She uses readings of influential literary theorists Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak to connect an author’s theoretical, literal and metaphoric deaths to discuss the idea.” - Times Higher Education

“Gallop meticulously yet gracefully analyzes the complicated relationship between a devoted reader and the author that inspires them. . . . Gallop’s impressive close reading breathes new life into these dead authors and fittingly pays tribute to the man who killed the author and liberated the reader by practicing what he preached at a level of insight and clarity on par with Barthes himself.” - Chase Dimock, Lambda Literary Review

“Gallop’s close readings in and around queer lives, the “fragments” that the “dead-but-still-going” author leaves behind, elegantly invite us into the traces, ghostings and shadows that viscerally render the imbrication between the theoretical and the personal — a dynamic often disregarded in many academic circles. By writing Barthes (then Derrida, then Sedgwick, then Owens, then Lynch, and then Spivak), [she] breathes life into the future-perfect corpses that are never really dead as such in the first place.
The Deaths of the Author conjures a corps de ballet in which Gallop cinematically choreographs shadows and bodies so that in their performance they commingle. I am thankful for the invitation to dance.” - David A. Gerstner, Reviews in Cultural Theory

“Always lively and lucid, Jane Gallop has produced another remarkable book. Taken literally, the familiar notion of ‘the death of the author’ acquires a wholly different resonance in these essays on major contemporary theorists, who reflect on the temporality of writing and the effects of deaths of authors.”—Jonathan Culler, Cornell University

“Jane Gallop is one of the small handful of critics who are keeping close reading alive. With this volume, she illuminates the stakes in paying such careful and loving attention to the words by which writers are turned, and turn themselves, into authors: stakes made visible on the relational field joining reader and author in an intimate bond that’s desirous, companionate, aggressive, indecent, sustaining, disturbing, unstable, and, when elaborated by a critic and thinker as gifted and incisive as Jane Gallop, also endlessly productive.”—Lee Edelman, author of No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822350811
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 7/31/2011
  • Pages: 184
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Jane Gallop is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She is the author of several books, including Living with His Camera, Anecdotal Theory, and Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, all also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt


Reading and Writing in Time
By Jane Gallop

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5063-7


PART I. The Friendly Return of the Author....................29
1. The Author Is Dead but I Desire the Author....................55
2. The Ethics of Indecency....................85
PART II. If I Were a Writer and Dead....................87
3. The Queer Temporality of Writing....................115
4. The Persistent and Vanishing Present....................145
Works Cited....................167

Chapter One


In 1992, Seán Burke, writing the definitive study of poststructuralist anti-authorialism, declares Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author" to be "the single most influential meditation on the question of authorship in modern times." Burke is commenting here, we should note, not on the intrinsic value of Barthes's little essay but on its influence. Although the text in question was just a few pages in a little-known literary quarterly, its title has become a widely familiar, world-renowned slogan.

According to Burke, it is often supposed that "The Death of the Author" was written in the midst of and "in mind of the student uprising" (20). Barthes's essay was published in France in 1968, the year of the nationwide insurrection of students (and workers), and its tone seems perfectly to fit the publication date. Although actually written in 1967, "The Death of the Author" conforms to our image of "1968"—which surely contributes to our sense of the manifesto as historic. The "revolutionary" tone is probably best typified by the text's final sentence: "We now begin to cease being dupes ... 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."

This sentence is dense with the rhetoric of revolt: We have been "dupes" of a "myth." The moment is "now" to move toward the future and reject ("overthrow") the past. Barthes uses the first person plural and a sort of imperative ("we know it is necessary") to exhort the reader to action. Finally, and most militantly, this final sentence endorses violence as "the cost" of a new future.

If "The Death of the Author" is "the single most influential meditation on authorship in modern times," it is this final sentence which is most often quoted. Actually not the entire sentence (which is longer and more complex than what I have quoted) but the elegant, memorable last clause: "The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author." Barthes's polemical essay closes neatly on the five words of its title—a definitive, conclusive, triumphant ending. The last clause of Barthes's manifesto is taken as the definitive statement—not only Barthes's but post-structuralism's—on the question of the author. The author is the past; critics should no longer be concerned with the author; he should be dead to us. The ending is so perfect it has been taken as the last word.

But the militant, elegant slogan is really only the end of a little essay written in 1967. It is in fact not long at all before Barthes brings the author back. In a book published in 1971, Barthes writes: "The pleasure of the Text also includes a friendly return of the author." This sentence appears in the preface to Sade, Fourier, Loyola. While "The Death of the Author" might be Barthes's most famous text, especially to those not very familiar with or sympathetic to his work, Sade, Fourier, Loyola is one of his least read books. Thus the author dies in an overexposed Barthes and returns in an underexposed Barthes; the imbalance in the reception of these texts tends to obscure the return and exaggerate the finality of the death. And whereas the author's death sounds historic and revolutionary, his return is "friendly." "Friendly" is a far cry indeed from the militant tone of the 1968 manifesto.

While for me "friendly" is the word that jumps out of this sentence from Sade, Fourier, Loyola, it is the last four words that are particularly important to Burke, who would elevate "return of the author" to the status of the parallel phrase from 1968. Burke in fact entitles his book on poststructuralist subjectivity The Death and Return of the Author; he would replace the familiar catchphrase with this conjunction of two Barthes phrases in order to produce a truer, more accurate representation of poststructuralism's relation to subjectivity. While I am grateful to Burke for making me aware of the "return of the author" in Barthes, my interest in the return is not to find a better definitive figure for poststructuralist theory, but rather to follow the vicissitudes of the dead author in Roland Barthes's writing.

"The pleasure of the Text also includes a friendly return of the author." While the last words of this sentence from Sade, Fourier, Loyola give Burke the title to his book, I recognize the first five words as the title of Barthes's next book, published in 1973, one of his best-known works. Although Burke reads The Pleasure of the Text for additional evidence of the author's return, what Barthes says there about the author is in fact more peculiar and more evocative: "As institution, the author is dead: his person ... has disappeared ... but in the text, in a certain way, I desire the author."

The author is dead, Barthes declares again, still in 1973. The author is dead but—nonetheless—I desire the author. This sentence appears in a chapter entitled "Fetish." The standard Freudian analysis of the fetish is that it represents the mother's phallus even though we know she has no phallus. We know intellectually that the mother has no phallus, but nonetheless our desire disregards what we know; the fetish represents a solution to the split between what we know intellectually and what we desire. In The Pleasure of the Text, a book that affirms the reader's perverse desires, Barthes uses this fetish structure to frame his relation to the author: even though I know he is dead and gone, I nonetheless desire the author.

This is not exactly a "friendly return": fetishistic desire is not necessarily friendly. But both might be opposed to—or outside of—what Barthes here calls "institution," just as both would seem to contrast with the militant, polemical tone of the 1968 essay. Where Burke settles on the 1971 "return" as the appropriate figure to supplement the overfamiliar "death of the author," I would like in this chapter to follow the various expressions of Barthes's relation to the dead author.

* * *

After "The Death of the Author," the first book Barthes published was S/Z (1970). S/Z has in fact a quite special relation to the 1968 essay. Based on a seminar that Barthes taught in 1968 and 1969, S/Z is an extensive and detailed close reading of the Balzac short story Sarrasine. "The Death of the Author," written the year before the seminar, opens by quoting a sentence from the same Balzac story.

After quoting Balzac, "The Death of the Author" proceeds with a series of questions: "Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story? ... Is it Balzac the individual? ... Is it Balzac the author? ... Is it universal wisdom? ..." The 1968 manifesto then answers the questions with a declaration that goes straight to the essay's polemical point: "It will be forever impossible to know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every origin" (12, 142).

In S/Z, after quoting the very same sentence from Sarrasine, Barthes writes: "The origin of the sentence is indiscernible. Who is speaking? Is it Sarrasine? the narrator? the author? Balzac-the-author? Balzac-the-man? ... universal wisdom? The crossing of all these origins constitutes writing" (164, 172–73).

The series of questions is similar, with a few variants (for example, "individual" has become "man"). There are enough similarities that this paragraph from S/Z could be considered a revision of the opening of "The Death of the Author." Which would make the difference in the sentence following the questions particularly noteworthy. Both sentences concern the essence of writing (writing is x; x constitutes writing). But, while in 1968 he speaks of writing as "the destruction of every origin," using the rhetoric of violence characteristic of the manifesto, in 1970 writing has become "the crossing of all these origins." In the 1968 essay, this paragraph is followed by one that proceeds to the heart of the essay's topic: "The voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins" (12, 142). In the 1970 book, the paragraph is followed by another, much longer quotation from Sarrasine, and then, using this second quotation as the slimmest of pretexts, Barthes devotes a long paragraph to the question of the author. That paragraph begins: "A classical story always gives this impression: that the author first conceives the signified (or the generality) and then looks for ... signifiers, convincing examples" (165, 173). The paragraph ends by returning to this idea and elaborating upon it: "The author is always considered to go from signified to signifier, from content to form.... The mastery of meaning ... is a divine attribute, once this meaning is defined as ... the emanation, the spiritual effluvium overflowing the signified toward the signifier: the author is a god" (166, 174, emphasis Barthes's).

S/Z is structured as a series of fragments. Barthes divides the Balzac story into passages of varying lengths, and quotes the entire story in order, piece by piece, commenting as he goes, following each Balzac passage with a short commentary. The order of Barthes's commentaries seems simply to follow the order of whatever occurs in Balzac's text. For example, in the pages just cited, we have a Balzac sentence that leads Barthes to talk about the impossibility of determining who is speaking, followed immediately by a Balzac passage that prompts Barthes to comment on the idea of the author-as-god. We are led to understand that the proximity between these two ideas is arbitrary, suggesting no necessary connection between them, occasioned only by the order of Balzac's text. Yet these same two ideas (the impossibility of knowing who speaks and the author-as-god) are in fact both found in the 1968 essay "The Death of the Author," which also quotes the first of these two Balzac fragments. (The second of these two fragments, I might add, has only the slightest possible relation to the author-as-god idea that Barthes derives from it.) The juxtaposition of these two ideas thus seems more than arbitrary.

Near the middle of "The Death of the Author," Barthes writes: "We know now that a text is not made of a line of words, releasing a unique, sort of theological, meaning (which would be the 'message' of the Author-God)" (15, 146). While this parenthetic remark is the single mention in the essay of the "Author-God," it is absolutely central to Burke's reading: "This co-implication of the writer and divinity ... tacitly expatiates and enlivens Barthes's essay" (23). This co-implication is, according to Burke, informed by a "homology": "The author is to his text as God, the auctor vitae, is to his world" (23). While this homology is only "tacit" in "The Death of the Author," we can see a more explicitly articulated version in the commentary from S/Z that comes almost right after the one paragraph in the book that clearly derives from the 1968 manifesto.

While the "Author-God" appears but once in "The Death of the Author," as the essay progresses it increasingly uses a capitalized "Author" rather than the lower-case "author" with which it begins (ending, as we know, "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author"). I read this capitalized "Author" as a version of the doubly capitalized "Author-God." More centrally, the entire essay equates the author with God by putting the author in God's place in the Nietzschean slogan "God is Dead."

Barthes returns to the topic of the author-as-god near the end of S/Z: "The Author himself—the somewhat decrepit deity of the old criticism—can, or could some day, become a text like any other: we will only need to renounce making his person ... the origin ... whence would derive his work" (200, 211). The "Author," capitalized as in the 1968 essay, is here explicitly equated with a "deity." Yet, however the worse for wear, this god is not in fact dead. The author-as-god is again, as earlier in S/Z, the origin whence flows the work, but if we could renounce that version of the author, then the decrepit old guy need not die but can rather "become a text."

According to Foucault, in modern times writing underwent a historic reversal that transformed it from bringing immortality to killing the author. I wonder if we see here in S/Z another turn of that screw: if the author can "become a text," then, like a classical hero, he need not die. Barthes hesitates as to whether this is possible in the present ("can") or only in the future ("or could some day"). The passage continues with future-tense verbs, seeming to decide that this transformation of the author must wait for the future, but it is worth noting that, at least for an instant, Barthes seems to think it already possible.

Burke considers this passage from S/Z to be "the annunciation" of "the return of the author" (48). While the use of future tense verbs here definitely makes it some sort of announcement, I want to remark that the author here is not dead but only decrepit, and that while there is indeed a "return" in this passage, it is a different sort of return: "The Author himself ... could some day, become a text ... we would only need to give up making his person ... the origin ... we would only need to consider him himself as a paper being and his life as a bio-graphy (in the etymological sense of the term) ... the critical enterprise will then consist in returning the documentary figure of the author into a novelistic figure" (200, 211, emphasis Barthes's).

Barthes uses and emphasizes the word "return" in this passage, but the return here is not a return from the dead, but a return from documentary to novel, from nonfiction to fiction. This is in fact a rather strained use of the verb "return"; the combination of strain and emphasis suggests Barthes may be troping on the return. We see the strain particularly in the odd phrase "returning into," a phrase which takes the transformation of "turning into" and marks it as a repetition—suggesting that this future transformation will bring us back to an earlier (more original) state.

This idea of the author as "novelistic figure" will take on increasing resonance in later books by Barthes, and we will return to it. I would like here also to remark the other word that Barthes emphasizes (and strains?) in this passage: "bio-graphy." Barthes hyphenates the word to make us see the "writing" in "lifewriting." In Sade, Fourier, Loyola, published just a year after S/Z, he will in fact experiment with a new kind of author biography.


Excerpted from THE DEATHS OF THE AUTHOR by Jane Gallop Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

Part I The Friendly Return of the Author 27

1 The Author Is Dead but I Desire the Author 29

2 The Ethics of Indecency 55

Part II If I Were a Writer and Dead 85

3 The Queer Temporality of Writing 87

4 The Persistent and Vanishing Present 115

Notes 145

Works Cited 163

Index 167

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