Authorship and the Internal Process
A text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader.
(Barthes 1977 p.148)
Any given text can have a variety of readings. Any viewer to the text (and this can mean image, music, book or film) will have their own interpretation, their own personal meaning. As we can see by the following quote, any reading of a text is personal and can be at odds with other interpretations.
If ‘1984’ or ‘The Trial’ had been a children’s book, Mr Messy would be it… Hargreaves may well pay homage to Kafka and Orwell in this work, but he also goes beyond them.
(Richardson 2010 para.1)
We need to understand the mechanism by which meanings can be communicated from one individual to another. Further, how can we use this within the creation of an artefact when one meaning is being communicated to a mass audience, each with their own interpretation?
Do we assume that, if the author is unimportant in this transaction, that they have no responsibility in the reception and understanding of an idea or concept? Or do we examine how the reader constructs meanings in order to better communicate with them en masse?
Barthes’ 1968 Essay on Authorship – “The Death of the Author” seeks to address what he saw as a traditional critical view of Authorship. Critique was seen as a way of defining one true meaning to any given text to clarify what the Author (as God/creator) was trying to communicate.
We 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,
(Barthes 1977 p.146)
Barthes argued that the author does not define the interpreted meaning of a text. They may have an intention that they want to communicate, but they cannot control how the reader receives that meaning. As soon as a text has been completed, the author is superfluous to the understanding of it. The vital component is the reader, who is the one that gives meaning to the text.
Further, Barthes argues that the meaning of any text is derived form previous texts. Since it is a creation of the reader, this can also depend on cultural and social experiences. The audience, as individuals, interpret the text based on this clash of external stimuli from multiple sources to create a personal meaning.
The reader is the space on which all quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in it’s origin, but in it’s destination.
(Barthes 1977 p.148)
Any text is reduced to a chain of symbols that link together in the mind of the reader to create a meaning. The intention of the author is immaterial, as there is an almost inexhaustible supply of other information that has influenced the reader in their interpretation. Any further input form the Author can only limit these potential meanings for the finished text.
It is not the author, or even the action of authoring that is important to Barthes, but the reader and how they create a meaning. To understand how this works we need to analyse the cues and the system that encodes them within the text. We need to explore the links between one cue and the next, to examine the code that each reader will use to decode the work.
Communication is a two way process. Fiske describes two schools of thought (1990 p.2), one concerned with the transmission of a message, the other with the production and exchange of meanings. While both are useful to understand how we communicate, it is the latter that connects with Barthes as it deals with the communication of meaning using Signs and Codes. Any text is a collection of these signs to form a code that the reader interprets.
The human brain is designed to seek patterns. As we look at the stars on a clear night, we see constellations. Well, we see cultural and ethnic constructs based on the perception of the location of stars that we decode as shapes – commonly referred to as star signs. As Fiske (1990 p.26) explains “Perception always involves the drive to understand and organise”. When we receive a series of signs, we interpret them whether there is an intended code system or not.
Shannon and Weaver developed a simple model to show how communication works (Fiske 1990 p.7). While simple, it serves to analyse how meanings can be altered between the Author and the reader.
Shannon and Weaver, 1949 according to Fiske 1990 p.7
A message is encoded and transmitted – the receiver then decodes this to receive the message. Between the transmission and the reception is the point where noise (dictionary definition “A disturbance… that obscures or reduces the clarity of a signal.”) can interfere, causing three different classifications of problem.
- Technical – is there a problem in the transmission of the signs?
- Semantic – are the symbols used conveying the correct meaning?
- Effectiveness – is the desired meaning received and having the desired effect?
Gerbner builds on this model adds a perceptual dimension, pointing out that the reception cannot truly reflect the original message and adds an element of selection to the transmission process. “Human Perception is not a simple reception of stimuli, but is a process of interaction or negotiation” (Fiske 1990 p.25).
Newcombe adds society as an effect on the communication between Message and Medium. While simplifying the model – communication is two way between A and B, but effecting both is an external cultural or societal influence of X (Fiske 1990 p.31). In effect, the reader decides what information to take from A, or to decide what meaning is inferred.
Newcomb’s 1953 Model, according to Fiske 1990 p.31
Westley and MacLean further built on this model by adding an editorial dimension C – the communicator (A) deciding what and how to transmit to the reader (B) (Fiske 1990 p.32). This is influenced by numerous sources, including different cultural and social events. So we have a model that includes mass communication. It begins to show the receiver at the mercy of other external stimuli when it comes to deciding on a meaning of a text. It can be argued that by showing the feedback to A (the transmitter of the idea) as weak, that the model is outdated. Interactive media, blogging and social networking actually serve to strengthen the cultural influences on B, and even allow B to control elements of the editorial process. In effect, allowing B to act as a gatekeeper for the cultural information and interference they receive.
Westley and Maclean’s 1957 Model, according to Fiske 1990 p.34
We can judge the success of a text by it’s ability to communicate meaning. We now have criteria by which to judge this by means other than by the communication of meaning from Author to Reader. We can see that the meaning of any text can be altered by technical, semantic, effectiveness, perceptual, cultural or editorial influences. If we go back to our original authored text, we see that there are many reasons why the author is unimportant to the reading of any given text.
Psychoanalysis investigates how the mind works to ascribe meanings.
Jung is of particular interest for his work on the interpretation of the unconscious mind through dreams. He theorised that any perceived phenomenon is received by the mind, where “… they become psychic events, whose ultimate nature is unknowable” (Jung 1971 p.4). We cannot know how an individual ascribes meaning, therefore we cannot predict it.
Barthes and Jung both recognised the use of Myths. Jung famously explored these as a means of understanding the subconscious through dreams (Jung 1971 p.36), while Barthes uses it to mean a chain of related concepts that explores “culture’s way of thinking about something”(Fiske 1990 p.88) in order to decode the meaning within cultural use.
Campbell worked to analyse ancient myth as a means of exploring a common root of all things within us. These ‘Monomyths’ have been mediated through time and cultural interpretations; yet maintain their root meanings. This places Myths as a central part of mans evolution into a cultural being as the root of all our creation(Campbell 2000 pt.1). When we create, we are unconsciously exploring these symbols, and when we view we are using them to understand what we are seeing (Campbell 2000 pt.1). All stories link back to these symbols of Myth as they are not personal or cultural constructs, but “are Spontaneous productions of the psyche” (Campbell 2000 pt.1) that link science, art, language, religion and moral codes within culture.
Dream is the personalised Myth, Myth the depersonalised dream.
(Campbell 2000 pt.1)
We all unconsciously have a shared set of symbols that are the basis of our Ethnic and Cultural existence. Jung postulates that they influence our dreams, and Campbell cites successful stories as aspiring to be like our dreams. Our dreams are our individual retelling of shared cultural signs and symbols. Our minds will interpret these as with any other stimuli, and a attempt to fit them, with a structure to decode and understand them.
As Vogler points out in his famous memo, “A practical guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Campbell and Jung both referred to the same recurrence of similar characters who appear to “all people and the myths of all cultures” (Vogler 1998 p.10). While Jung analysed these “Archetypes” to find deeper meaning in peoples dreams to help with psychological problems, Campbell sought and analysed these Monomyths to find the root of culture and Vogler merely postulated that better stories would be written if we were aware of a common shared meaning within us as human beings.
We can see there are three levels of understanding where a personal meaning will come from. We have a shared set of symbols that is encoded deep within our being. This give rise to a set of Ethnic and Cultural Symbols that are constructs based on these root meanings. We also interpret these through our personal experiences of the world which gives us another level of meaning. All these combine to form the filters that we, as individuals, use to decode any stimuli we perceive.
As we have seen, communication exists because humans seek patterns. We have a number of models that explore how the stimulus reaches the reader, but we cannot know how these combine within the readers mind. These models refer to environmental ‘noise’ as blocking the communication, but this can also be analogous to Barthes “blend and clash” of meanings. Any of these influences can, and will, alter the meaning of a text.
A work of literature can, in other words, be constantly re-interpreted, or rewritten, in the mind of the reader
(Thody 2006 p.125)
An individuals personal code system is constructed from the clashing of external cultural stimuli and internal collective unconscious, to create individual meanings. Therefore there is an element of chance that enters into the process of understanding.
The composers Wolff and Cardew played with elements of chance in music. Rather than rely on a set score, they would give instructions to performers, which allowed for choice (Nyman 1999 p.114). By creating these sound events, each performance would be different. Not only did this give performers incredible freedom to create, but gave the audience freedom to interpret.
Many of the composers involved in this form of chance music were influenced by Jung and the theory of the collective unconscious, and used similar tools such as the ‘I Ching’ for inspiration, “seeking the uniqueness of the moment” (Nyman 1999 p.9).
To put it another way, both composers asked performers to generated specific signs without a code (structure) to help interpretation. The audience, being human, seek patterns where none is encoded. The audience creates a meaning form the resulting clash of signs. There is no author, only the reader.
The only meaning is the one the reader gives: ergo the reader writes the book.
While Barthes has his detractors, such as Buttrose, even he admits there is an element he can agree with. While individual differences in meaning are recognised, we still come to a consensual understanding – however, Buttrose counters that that is just a “difference of opinion” (Buttrose 2008 para.13). The reader having a different interpretation of a text than the author means they haven’t understood the text. But as we have seen, there are many reasons why the reader might not “get it”.
We cannot control how an individual ascribes meanings as we cannot understand the internal personal cue system. We can, however, come to understand and use with the symbols and signs as used en mass – the Archetypes or Myths. We can also use cultural and ethnic symbols that derive form these, and explore how the medium used can effect the interpretation of these. We also need to be aware of how these can affect each other.
Barthes may well have been stating the obvious in an over the top way (Buttrose 2008 para.13), but his observation ties in with theories of psychoanalysis and narrative very neatly. The author is dead because the reader ascribes the meaning, and without the reader the text is pointless – therefore, and meaning ascribed by an author is pointless. In it’s place, he leaves the scriptor (one who writes) and the reader (The one who he writes for).
When being critical of a text, we need to look at what may interfere with the communication of the meaning using objective parameters discussed above. This gives us more than the “I like it” or ”What the author is saying really…” interpretation, which does not help us when examining how and why a text works. We can define the job of the scriptor as the arranger of recognisable signs in a system to communicate an idea.
Barthes, R., 1977. Image, music, text. London, Fontana Press.
Buttrose, L., 2008. Larry Buttrose on Postmodern Theory | bartoncii on Xanga. Bartoncii Weblog. Available from: http://bartoncii.xanga.com/656891763/larry-buttrose-on-postmodern-theory/ [Accessed 11 December 2010].
Buttrose, L., 2006. The Essay. Sydney Mornings Herald.
Campbell, J., 2000. The hero with a thousand faces. Los Angeles, CA :;New York :, Audio Renaissance ;;Distributed by St. Martin’s Press,
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Jung, C. ed., 1971. Man and his Symbols. 6th ed. new York, USA, Dell Publishing.
Neumberger, J., 2009. J Burger Analysis…es.: The Dark Knight in Nine Acts. Available from: http://jburger.blogspot.com/2008/12/dark-knight.html [Accessed 10 October 2010].
Nyman, M., 1999. Experimental music : Cage and beyond. 2nd ed. Cambridge ;;New York, Cambridge University Press.
Richardson, H., 2010. Mr. Messy (Mr. Men Classic Library): Amazon.co.uk: Roger Hargreaves: Books. Amazon.co.uk. Available from: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mr-Messy-Men-Classic-Library/dp/1405235640/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1284636966&sr=8-1 [Accessed 16 September 2010].
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