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Monday, March 22, 2021

Writers and Authors

I continue to occasionally open up my Barthes Reader more or less at random and read some little piece or another.

In "Writers and Authors" (1960) our pal Roland talks up the "author" who is someone who writes intransitively; to no object; who writes for the purpose of making something out of words; for the goal of nothing more than language itself. The "writer" on the other hand, writes down words on paper for a purpose: to explain something, to sway minds, to express rage, whatever. The "writer" writes transitively, there is an object to the writing beyond the construction of a pile of language.

Barthes goes on the propose that the "author" in this sense is rewarded, by a process Barthes describes as a miracle, by the resultant pile of language amounting in the end to something more than a mere pile of words.

What the author views as an "end" (the words themselves) is transformed by the power of language into a "means" for expressing ambiguity, for opening the door to questions, or something like that. Since Barthes wants very much for there to be no conscious goal to the writing, he finds himself a bit at sea to explain what the writing does other than exist. But sure, let us stipulate that "literature" even if written purely as a craft unto itself, does something larger.

Clearly, Barthes wants to restrict our attention to the good authors. Bad poets have always been with us, and we may assume that no miracle occurs to transform their doggerel.

Also, Barthes very much wants to argue that "good writing" (the kind authors make) is inherently ambiguous and allows multiple readings, and his argument is that the author didn't intend for it to mean anything, so, yay post-structuralism!

There's some sort of analogy here with photography, I am pretty sure.

On the one hand there are lots of photographers who want to tell you a story. They photograph for explicit reasons, to show you the conditions in the factory, to record the protest for posterity, to explain their boring road trip, or whatever. These are "writers" in the Barthes terminology.

At the same time we certainly have a lot of photographers who are in love with craft. They photograph to photograph.

The photographers of this stripe that manage, nevertheless, to make pictures that are more than exercises in craft are, maybe, the "authors." Despite focusing on the craft, they make work that nevertheless "means something" in some sense.

Here we have, of course, the artist's tic of refusing to explain themselves, as well as the amateur's obsession with sharpness and the rule of thirds.

Even Barthes admits at the end of the essay that, in these modern times, "authors" and "writers" are usually the same person, and what he's really talking about is two endpoints of a kind of spectrum of writing activity. In the same way, I dare say we can sensibly talk about a spectrum of photographic activity. Are you shooting for the craft of photography, or are you shooting to explain, reveal, record something? Probably a bit of both, most of the time.

At the end of it all, though, I am kind of attracted to the notion that if you simply hammer the craft of it all hard enough, something more will emerge spontaneously. Barthes' miracle is a very appealing idea, even if it doesn't actually occur very often. I certainly see a lot of photographs that are made with a profound attention to craft, to form, to the act of photography, which in the end don't seem to have attracted the attention of the Gods. There is no evidence of the miracle, only the craft, in the end.

Maybe the miracle is real, but only as a social construct. The work acquires meaning because we say so, not because of any notional exterior force, not because of some semi-mystical emergent property, but only because someone liked it well enough to declare "it means something, namely, this" and they successfully sold their idea to a hapless public.

I'm not entirely sure that it matters.


  1. Of course Barthes also wrote an essay titled "The Death of the Author" ...

    1. Barthes wrote a lot of stuff over multiple decades, and a lot of it was "hey, here's something to think about" so it's not all necessarily of a piece.

      Death of the Author, though, does follow fairly naturally from Authors and Writers, I think. Both are, fundamentally, repressing the identity of the author and forwarding the idea of language, structure, culture, and so on as the mechanical means by which meaning arises.

      I have come to suspect (with some help) that Barthes was prone to a bit of hyperbole, just throwing up slightly wild ideas, in order to break down the deeply engraved pathways of thought he felt people were stuck in.

    2. "throwing up slightly wild ideas, in order to break down the deeply engraved pathways of thought"

      - A pretty good precis of the Modernist ethos. It worked until it didn't.