The Author Is Always Dead

This article was originally drafted and shared on October 4, 2020. It has been uploaded here due to the inaccessibility of its original publication.
This article is an incomplete first draft, and may be updated and reposted at a later date.

Death of the Author is a concept and term originally coined in the eponymous essay by Roland Barthes. In his essay’s conclusion, Barthes writes the following:

In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, […] but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, […] and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader:
the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of.
The unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination. But this destination can no longer be personal:
the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.
This is why it is absurd to hear the new writing condemned in the name of a humanism which hypocritically appoints itself the champion of the reader’s rights.
The reader has never been the concern of classical criticism: for it, there is no other man in literature but the one who writes.
We are now beginning to be the dupes no longer of such antiphrases, by which our society proudly champions precisely what it dismisses, ignores, smothers or destroys: 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.

(Barthes, 1967)
(Punctuation and spacing have been modified. The meaning has not been significantly altered.)

By this, Barthes is saying that the concept of the “Author” of a work – that is, its singular individual creator – having any bearing on the work’s actual meaning deprives the “Reader” – any and all people consuming the work – of their right to agency in creating meaning from the work.

Thus, the Author being metaphorically dead has much the same effect on the interpretation of their work as their being literally dead might: they no longer have any say over the work’s meaning, beyond what they directly imbued within the work in its creation.

In their 2005 paper Failure to Detect Mismatches Between Intention and Outcome in a Simple Decision Task, Petter Johansson et al describe a simple experiment:

[…] we created a choice experiment that permitted us to surreptitiously manipulate the relationship between choice and outcome that our participants experienced. We showed picture pairs of female faces to 120 participants (70 female) and asked them to choose which face in each pair they found most attractive.
On some trials, immediately after their choice, they were asked to verbally describe the reasons for choosing the way they did.
Unknown to the participants, on certain trials, a double-card ploy was used to covertly exchange one face for the other. Thus, on these trials, the outcome of the choice became the opposite of what they intended.
Each subject completed a sequence of 15 face pairs, three of which were manipulated.

(Johansson, Hall, Sikström, & Olsson, 2005)
(References to abbreviations and figures have been removed.)

In that experiment, very few of the participants noticed the manipulation. In addition, of the participants who were asked to describe their reasoning, the study has this to say:

There were no differences between the verbal reports elicited from [non-manipulated] and [manipulated] trials […]

(Johansson, Hall, Sikström, & Olsson, 2005)

That is to say, of the participants who did not notice their deception, and who were also asked to explain the reasoning behind decisions they had not actually made, none gave meaningfully different answers from their responses in regards to the unchanged decisions (in terms of emotionality, specificity, and certainty).

Given this, we can say that, given a decision made by an individual, the explanation the individual gives for the decision is equally as likely to be a post-hoc fabrication as it is to be the actual explanation of the decision’s origin.

If we once again consider Barthes’ thesis, we can draw an interesting comparison: while the idea of the Author’s death means that a work can be considered separately from any stated or speculated authorial intent, the findings of Failure and similar studies suggests that we can validly consider any decision in the same light – that is, devoid of any significous ties to its creator.

This means that not only can we effectively assess the meaning of a work of art without considering the intent the Author had when creating it, but we can likewise effectively assess the meaning, origin, and intent behind any action or decision without considering the intent or explanation given by or inferred of the actor or decider.

That is to say, not only can the Author of any work be considered dead, but so can the Actor of any action. The Author is always dead, in all circumstances.

Johansson, P., Hall, L., Sikström, S., & Olsson, A. (2005). Failure to Detect Mismatches Between Intention and Outcome in a Simple Decision Task. Science, 310(5745), 116-119.

Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author (962684243 748694812 R. Howard, Trans.).
Aspen, (5-6).