In keeping with my snide attempts to play down the philosophical innovations of canonical enemies of positivism, I'm going to attempt to demonstrate the way the implications of Roland Barthes's famous essay do not (as far as I can tell) actually amount to a grand departure from traditional literary criticism.
Barthes begins with the contention that "as soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself ... the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins". We may ask how watertight this distinction is, whether narrative really does not act with a view to effect reality (understood as broadly as possible). Although this is exactly what Barthes wants to get away from, I am left wondering what can motivate 'intransitive' writing? Are writers satisfied merely with the playful reproduction of symbols? More on this below.
Barthes provides a sweeping historical survey of the rise of the author, suggesting that narratives were originally 'performed' by 'mediators' (perhaps the oral tradition which produced the works of Homer is an example of this). "The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual". It is "logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the 'person' of the author". Broad strokes, obviously, and I am compelled to put forward the fact that anti-capitalist theories and experiments have been formulated within a positivist framework, an interjection spurred by my commitment to the notion that any critique of current relations of production has to be couched in an empirical understanding of the world.
Barthes goes on to use the French symbolist poet Mallarmé as an example of the "essentially verbal condition of literature", where "only language acts, 'performs', and not 'me'". Easy to say about symbolist poetry perhaps, but Proust is a more difficult fit. According to Barthes, the author of In Search of Lost Time "blurs writer and characters": Charlus does not imitate his real-life inspiration Montesquiou. As I understand it, Barthes is saying that Charlus is the original way Proust saw Montesquiou, and the real person behind the character is only a 'secondary fragment'. Again, not territory Barthes is interested in, but this leaves us bereft of an exploration of the way the character of Charlus was created by his author.
Barthes suggests that "the author is never more than the instance of writing" – "there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now" – an "enunciation has no other content (contains no other proposition) than the act by which it is uttered". I am not capable of fully engaging with this argument, since I'm not familiar with the linguistic theories Barthes is appealing to. As I understand it, the basic point being made is that language is not tied down to the task of representing a universally understood reality. But from this, Barthes goes on to argue that "the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin ... no other origin than language itself." In this light, authors merely regurgitate the language they have internalised. Their thoughts and emotions are already encoded in the language they are familiar with, so the act of writing is the manipulation of these codes into new forms. The text is therefore qualitatively different from those original emotions and thoughts. Fair enough, although it would be well to remember that authors are not merely unconscious language reproduction machines. They make conscious choices about the language they use, and these choices are to some degree recoverable.
For Barthes, a text is a "multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash ... a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture ... "the book is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred". In other words, writers do not express feelings, but repackage existing quotations. Language develops over time independently of the reality in which it is used. However, we should not forget that we use language to do things like communicate our understanding of reality to each other (both in very direct ways such as recipes and indirect ways such as fairy tales). Therefore, you can argue that certain writings are intended to be understood by others as a record of the author's understanding of reality. Their meanings are to some extent recoverable and we can have some sense of the person behind the writing they have produced. Leaving that aside, there is also the very simple point that even if we wish to describe works as a collection of quotations (thoughts and emotions encoded in enunciations previously uttered), these quotations can still be traced, and the way they are assembled by the author can be recovered and explained by the critic.
Barthes does not see the point in doing this: "to give a text an author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing". Once the author and their "hypostases" (society, history, psyche, liberty) are discovered, the critic claims victory. Barthes describes this as an act of tyranny: instead, "to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases – reason, science, law". I can only understand this point through Nietzsche, who identifies a religious impulse in the practitioners of the scientific method – their need to explain reality through the collection and comparison of empirical data is a manifestation of a hunger for a single transcendent truth by which to order that reality. Rejecting such an impulse is indeed a radical move: the individual reader has complete liberty to read the text in whatever way they want. But is such individualism desirable? I do not think it is when it comes to throwing away useful things like reason, science and law, but what about traditional literary criticism? Ultimately, what is to be gained from a complete understanding of the author of a text? This is perhaps the most probing and unsettling question Barthes leaves us with, and one I'm not sure I can answer yet, but notably, Barthes doesn't really provide an answer to it either. It appears that for him, liberty from considerations of authorship is self-evidently preferable.
However, Barthes has quite an unusual concept of what a 'reader' of a text is: "he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted" – "the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost". We may ask how a reader would be able to know more about a work's sources than the author, but it is clear that for Barthes, the reader is no longer a person. Rather, he is "without history, biography, psychology". I can only understand this to be an unreachable ideal – a vantage point that gives access to every single linguistic experience and stimulus the author of a work has ever had. Obviously, this is not possible, but ironically enough, it is generally the vantage point that literary critics work towards. Crudely put, the critic who finds and "disentangles" the most "quotations" can claim victory – only a minor modification in the understanding of the methodology Barthes is arguing against.