“Death of the Author is the idea that works of literature may be examined independently of what the author originally intended, that a reader’s interpretation may be just as valid even if the author disagrees, as long as the reader succeeds in killing the author and becoming the new author.”
I saw this in a tweet the other day and was immediately intrigued by the concept. Advancing beyond literature, I feel we must ask, what role does the artist/designer/creator play in the translation or interpretation of their work?
Within this thread of tweets, an interesting dialogue came underway (pictured below). In short, the conversation began with, “the idea that a text can be validly interpreted against authorial intent makes me legit mad.” In defense of their statement, they suggest that the reader’s interpretation of any text is equated to aesthetics—a superficial appreciation of the text—rather than being of substantial meaning.
This was a very civil and interesting conversation. For full scope, read below:
The individual arguing in favor of authorial intent as the sole decipher of text, also makes the lofty claim that “to deny the necessary communication between artist and audience is to destroy the idea of art entirely.” Ironically, this statement attempts to project meaning across an entire field of work completely independent of the creators. In writing “intended work that doesn’t successfully transmit that intent has failed” creates a falsified idea that the success or quality of all work is dependent on the communication of authorial intent, and once again assigns intent/meaning.
We don’t live in a utopian world of absolutes wherein the intent and ideology of creators indisputably radiate from their work—nor should we expect it to. We’re complex individuals amongst strings of societies all of which exist inside of a larger global ecosystem. Our perspectives are bound to vary thus giving “meaning” or “intent” a fluid quality which is entirely dependent on the interpreter, the observer, the reader.
Artists may even choose to veil their intent because it doesn’t necessitate immediate understanding, and instead are more interested in requiring the viewer or reader to embark on an their own investigation or discover what the art or text might mean. In Roland Barthes’ essay, The Death of the Author, he writes “literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”
In similar fashion, all creators, to some extent, in the manifestation of their work surrender their identity to the audience. Barthes refers to this as “restoring the status of the reader” wherein communication between artist and audience no longer needs to exist and abolishes the hierarchical relationship between the two and removes the pedestal of intent.
“To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing.” —Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author
Refusing to kill the author, which in most cases is ourselves, jeopardizes not only how our audience engages with our work but the state of art and design at large. Whether you like it or not, action and insight can exist outside of intent, meaning particular outcomes aren’t guaranteed purely because you intend for them to. Furthermore, it isn’t fair nor practical to suggest users are solely wrong in their own interpretation and that you, the creator, are the determiner of right.
Just as Barthes writes that “linguistically, the author is never anything more than the man who writes, just as I is no more than the man who says I: language knows a “subject,” not a “person,” could it also be said that the designer is no more than the person which designs, and that design itself knowns only “experience,” not “intent?”
If a tree falls in a forest and crushes a rabbit beneath it, does the intent of the fall, if not to crush the rabbit, negate the rabbit’s death? In that Barthes argues “the true locus of writing is reading,” the true locus of designing is reading, interacting, or experiencing. Authorial intent isn’t supreme nor should it be regarded as such, because experience doesn’t come by the guiding hand of authors nor their permission. In a world where authorial intent is deemed absolute, and the only lens we’re allowed to peer through is that of the authors, progress is halted and all ideas become pure regurgitation of one another.
In a similar vein, What You Can Learn From Quantum Theory approaches the same question of our roles as not only creators but also the observers. Barthes closes off his essay in saying “we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author,” and to that point, let us kill off our the purity of our intentions, the need to distinguish art from design, and in their place give authority to our audience.