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Final Paper! Intentionality and Authorship in Barthes, Foucault and Smith

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Biology/English 223: Evolution of Stories

Final Paper

In conjunction with our presentation given on May 1, 2007


The Author of a Theory and the Reader of a Text: Intentionality in Science and Literature


Introduction to the Project


            The idea of intentionality, in scientific theories and in fiction writing, has been an important and controversial one for our Evolution of Stories class.  Our class has mainly examined science, through biological evolution, as a non-intentioned, non-teleological process of development, and we have mainly examined literature as a product of the author’s craft and as an indication of his unique self.  My presentation, with Caitlin Evans and Jen Dodwell, aims to look at intentionality through different lenses than did our class.  Caitlin and Jen will turn in their papers and do their parts of the presentation separately from me, but I would like to situate my project by briefly explaining how Caitlin and Jen approached intentionality.  Caitlin reverses the paradigm through which our class has viewed science by showing how the scientist’s intention, and his analysis of his experiments and statistics, affects the scientific process, and she uses the novel, The Missing Moment by Robert Pollock to help prove her point.  Jen examines the relationship between the reader and the text.  What I examine, which follows this introduction, is the relationship between the author and the text, and how different conceptions of that relationship present differing and opposing opinions about how readers should engage with text.  I will do this by comparing what we have examined in class, Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better,” to a new postmodern framework laid down by Roland Barthes in his article, “The Death of the Author” and by Michel Foucault, in “What is an author?”  We aim to complicate and enrich the way our class has viewed the subject of intentionality in evolution and in literature.

Intentionality in Literature: Questions of the Author’s Selfhood in Barthes, Foucault, and Smith


            Our class has made an analogy between the process of evolution and Zadie Smith’s formulation of the classic novel.  We have studied evolution as a process in which organisms improve but cannot reach a state of perfection, and Zadie Smith sees classic novels as “honorable failures” in which better authors are able to convey their unique selves more persuasively than worse authors are, and perfection here is also impossible because the self can never be completely translated into words. Both biological organisms and writers can be said to “fail better,” or, in our class’ terminology, get increasingly “less wrong.” 

Our discussion of literature has put emphasis on the intention of the author because Zadie Smith, as an author, writes in The Guardian about how authors perceive their work and about what readers can learn from that. Smith reveals fragments of emails that other authors have sent her about the craft of writing and concludes that “a writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner” (2).  She summarizes her “simple point, which is that writers are in possession of ‘selfhood’ and that the development or otherwise of self has some part to play in literary success or failure” (2).  Her claim that “a novel is a two-way street, in which the labor…is…equal” (6) is ultimately contradicted by her contention that it is up to the reader to understand what the writer is saying about the world.  A novel, according to her, is “one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through language” (5) and not “the thing you relate to;” a reader must be able to “allow into their [sic] own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their [sic] own” (6).  In other words, a reader needs to do his or her best to understand what the writer meant. 

These views stand in direct opposition to those which Barthes and Foucault put forward 40 years earlier.  The aim of this essay is, first, to explain what Smith believes about the relationship of writer to reader, which has already been done, second, to explain precisely what Barthes and Foucault believe about the relationship between writer and reader, and third, to contrast their views with Smith’s so that all three texts may be elucidated. 

Barthes and Foucault both complain about the reification of the author figure, or as Foucault puts it, the “ideological production” of the “author function,” (287) by the critics of the era.  They saw it as their mission to take literary analysis away from the glorified notion of writer and give it back to its intended audience, its readers.  For Barthes, giving text back to readers is such an urgent mission that the author’s presence must die to make way for it: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (280). 

Barthes writes early on in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” that “…writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” (Finkelstein and McCleery, 277).  For Barthes, the sheer fact that a novel is narrated implies the death of the author, because it refers to the imaginary world of a text, a symbol.  It is not even capable of referring to a reality, or anything else for that matter, outside of itself, because it can only reference its own fictional world and so the narrative “voice loses its origin” (277).  He shows examples of how modern writers subvert the idea of the author as controlling narrator of the text.  For the poet Mallarmé, language speaks and not the author.  The author is a necessity for the occurrence of language, but his personality and physical presence do not affect that language in a meaningful way: he is a “prerequisite impersonality” (277).  Proust’s narrator of In Search of Lost Time is having trouble writing; it is only at the end of the novel that he has the revelation that allows him to write.  This way, it is not clear who actually “wrote” À la recherche de temps perdu.  Surrealists engage in a practice called “automatic writing” in which they write in groups and access their unconscious minds by writing as quickly about whatever they happen to think of.  No master author figure can control and limit the meaning of the text.  For Barthes, modern writing is the performative, a mode that exists only in first person present tense; it contains the ideas of multiple writings and cultures, they “blend and clash” together in each work. 

Barthes goes even further: the idea of the author bestowing one correct meaning on the text actually comes from literary critics who would like their interpretation of the text to be the correct one and who aim to limit the meaning of the text.  At the beginning of his essay, he poses a seemingly obvious question that he answers, at the end of the essay, in an unusual way.  He quotes a passage from Balzac’s novel, Sarrasine about a castrato dressed up as a woman: ‘This was woman herself with her sudden fears, her irrational whims…’ and asks the question: who is speaking?  For Barthes, the speaker cannot be the castrato, or an omniscient narrator, or Balzac himself; it does not have a voice and only the reader can make sense of it.  No character, narrator, or author figure can understand all of the relations, contradictions, irony, parody between all of the voices in the text because each of these people, or constructions, participates in creating one of those voices; however, all of the voices are directed at one type of person, the reader.  Barthes is anxious to specify that a text is not determined by each reader’s unique self but simply by the idea that the text is being read.  The reader has “no history, biography culture” (279).  For the reader to regain full interpretive power over a text, the author, or rather the critic’s conception of him, he must metaphorically die.

Foucault agrees with Barthes and elaborates on his point, particularly on the point about the author’s position as a society’s ideological creation.  He also says that the notion of author comes from a post-industrial culture of “individualization” (280).  He claims that writing has always been associated with death, since the golden age of Greece in which men were willing to die in war so that their heroics would be immortalized in prose, since Scheherazade told stories to postpone and eventually to avoid her death in 1001 Arabian Nights.  In contemporary culture, writing is associated with death insofar as the text “possesses the right…to be its author’s murderer” (281). 

To prove that the author function is an ideological operation and not a fact about a text, Foucault presents four ways in which “author discourses” (282) can function in society.  First, they can be objects of appropriation, because authors can be submitted to punishment if they have written transgressive texts.  Second, different texts can have a different author function.  In the Middle Ages, scientific texts needed to have authors to prove their “truth” but fictional texts could be anonymous.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, scientific texts could be published anonymously and in groups if they recounted already established truths and literary texts became required to have authors.  Third, the construction of the person of the author comes from an idea of what an author is outside of the text; it does not stem from a text itself.  This point is reminiscent of Barthes: a text does not possess an author who works a certain way; rather, critics determine how the author works.  Foucault proves this by saying that we have different expectations for “philosophical authors” and “poets” (286) than we do for “writers” and the 18th century had different standards altogether for all three of these types.  Finally, the construction of author does not refer to one self; it is also a complex grammatical operation that can give rise to many selves.  When a novel is narrated in first person, the “I” refers neither to the author nor to the character; it really refers to a space in between that society has labeled “author” but could be labeled differently.  In mathematics treatises, for example, there can be many authors in the same text; the first voice is in the introduction, the second is in the body that proves its points and the third is a more human, doubting voice that reflects on the conclusions in the body of the essay and refers to other mathematical ideas, situating itself within a “field of mathematical discourses” (287).

To conclude his essay, Foucault takes up Barthes’ condemning language.  He postulates that society fears meaning and that the author function “impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, recomposition of literature” (290).  Foucault shows that the author is an “ideological production” by applying it to an axiom that he has created.  To Foucault, if an idea manifests itself as its opposite in society, it is an ideological production that the society has created to control its citizens.  The idea of the author, he claims, is surrounded by the ideas of genius and creativity; authors are supposed to bring innovation to the masses and literature is supposed to be a conduit of exciting new ideas.  But in society, the author function limits the ways in which a text can be read because readers and critics look only to decipher “what the author meant.”  Innovation manifests itself as close-mindedness, so the idea of writer is an ideological production.  As the author function has changed over time, Foucault feels that it has stayed the same for too long and should become a more pluralistic idea until it can eventually disappear. 

Now that I have made Barthes and Foucault’s ideas clear, I will show the important ways in which they clash with Smith’s.  Barthes and Foucault present ideas that oppose those of Smith about three main topics: the relation of narration to reality, the concept of writer as universal or socially constructed, and the role of the critic in discussing and determining literary production.

The opening lines of Smith, Barthes and Foucault on authorship demonstrate the extent of their differences the relation of narration to reality, of the author to the text.  Smith divides her essay into ten sections and the first is called, “The tale of Clive.”  She opens it by writing, “I want you to think of a young man called Clive” (1).  Clive is a writer, and she describes his pursuit of the perfect novel and his subsequent feelings of disappointment.  For her, writers have a physical presence and an emotional life outside of their texts, and a discussion of the meaning of the writer must begin with an invocation of his or her person.  In stark contrast, Barthes writes early in his essay that the author is “the negative where all identity is lost” (277).  Foucault’s opening refuses to even name “the author” or “writer” as a reasonable concept; he is intent on reminding his readers that “the notion of ‘author’ constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas…” (281).  Clive cannot exist for Barthes or for Foucault.  If narration opens up a fictional world that can only refer to itself, as Barthes claims, then a person outside, in the space of reality, cannot exist as a writer.  Clive could exist as a human being who writes texts, but he is not the writer of the texts; he is merely the “prerequisite impersonality” needed for the creation of words.  For Foucault, there is only the notion of the author; people in power give a text an author under certain situations, if that gives the text validity, if it gives them someone to blame for its transgressive content, if that implies that it could have “genius.”  Therefore a person cannot actually be an author. 

For Smith, it is important that the author is a living person outside of his or her books because she feels that the text’s only purpose, or “duty,” and its main source of quality, comes from the personality of the author, his ability “to express accurately their [sic] way of being in the world” (5).  This seems to me to be a difficult criterion for judging writing because it is impossible to really know a writer’s “way of being” and therefore to tell if he or she has expressed it “accurately” or not.  Regardless, for Smith an appreciation of text stems from the reader understanding the writer, and therefore the reader must access something about the writer when reading.  Barthes and Foucault would find this limiting.

Now that the differences in their views on the connection between narration and reality are clear, I will discuss how Barthes and Foucault view the author as a socially constructed paradigm and how that contrasts Smith’s interpretation of the author as a person who creates and gives meaning to unique texts.  Barthes and Foucault do not see the author as a universal condition or requirement of a text but as a cultural construction that must be examined in its historical development. For them, it is impossible to say what the author “is” or “means” because the idea of a universal meaning is one that contemporary culture espouses.  One can argue about what the author is, or should be, in the present moment, but one cannot talk about what the author has been or should have been in all of literature because history shows how society used to fashion the concept of the author.  This is why Foucault invents the term “the author function” which he defines as “characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society” (282) and why Barthes and Foucault often modify their statements to show that they are criticizing contemporary critics, interpreting relatively contemporary authors, and assessing a contemporary situation. Barthes talks about the “modern scriptor” (278) and Foucault invokes “today’s writing” (81). 

Smith, on the other hand, believes that she can speak universally.  She talks about what writing is “to writers” (2) or what “most writers” (2) do.  However, the twenty-four writers she references in the course of her essay are all white, and are all European but one. (Borges is Argentinian, most are American, British, Russian or French.)  Of these twenty-four, only one, Jane Austen, was born before the 19th century, and no author published work before the 1800s, which is when the Industrial Revolution was beginning.  Therefore, Smith is generalizing about authorship by using examples that come only from a period that is, historically speaking, similar to her own.  If she only meant to talk about the post-industrial period, she would have specified that.  Her concept of “selfhood” did not exist centuries ago, but instead of addressing this issue, she does not mention authors who wrote before the 19th century.  She does not describe, as Barthes and Foucault do, that the concept of expressing the self through words did not even exist in other epochs, in other countries. 

Smith differs with Barthes and Foucault in her way of treating the author’s presence in the world and in a text, and prefers to view the writer as a universal fact of fiction rather than as a societal construction that has changed over the centuries.  The third primary difference between her writings and those of these two French theorists lies in her treatment of critics.  All three writers are skeptical of critics, but Smith formulates the task of a critic differently than do Barthes and Foucault.  Barthes and Foucault blame the critic for perpetuation the idea of the author-function so that they can limit readings of a text and say that they have the only “right” reading of a text.  Barthes goes as far as to say that “the reign of the author is also that of the critic” (278).  Smith sees the critic as a far less effectual influence on literature; to her, “rigorous literary theory” consists of “elegant blueprints of novels not yet built” (1).  She believes that “the critics, when they criticize, speak of the paintwork and brickwork of the novel, a bad metaphor, a tedious denouement, and are confident [the author] will fix these little mistakes next time round” (1). 

She clearly does not consider Barthes and Foucault then to be literary theorists or critics for they do not write blueprints for novels and they do not pick at or even discuss particulars.  Rather, they pave new philosophical terrain for novels by sensitively analyzing how authorship plays out in modern literature; they give the novel more space, but they do not set up a blueprint.  In fact, returning the novel to the reader, making him the site of literary interpretation, destroys the concept of a blueprint altogether, for a blueprint would instruct an author and these men do not believe that authors are important enough to be instructed.  Instead of criticizing particulars, they criticize the dominant way in which literature has been received since the early 19th century.  They are not interested in whether or not Casablanca is in Tunisia, to use one of Smith’s examples (5).  I do not think it can be doubted that through their discussions of what the novel has become over the centuries and where it should go, Barthes and Foucault are indeed literary theorists and critics, at least in these essays. Therefore, Smith has either misinterpreted them or has not read them. 

She then discusses another type of critic, a personal one, who offers “the insight of the practitioner” which is “for better or worse, unique” (2).  She offers three examples of this type of critic: Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, and Roland Barthes.  Barthes, as has been established, believes that the modern author is dead, yet Smith writes, “But neither did [Woolf, Murdoch or Barthes] think of a writer’s personality as an irrelevance” (2).  This is simply untrue; if Barthes sees writing as “the destruction of every voice” (2), he is does in fact see the writer’s personality as an irrelevance.  Instead of citing Barthes and supporting her interpretation of his writing (for some of his work does have a personal tone), she moves on, as if her argument were proven by the fact of its assertion. 

She misconstrues Barthes again, along with Foucault and many other theorists in her reductive summary of an analytical position: “We like to think of fiction as the playground of language, independent of its originator” (2).  I am not sure to whom Smith refers when she writes “we” and why anyone would “like” to think of it, as if it were a comforting illusion rather than a valid conclusion about literary practice.  While Barthes and Foucault seem to think this, and while both assert that Mallarmé bases his poetry on this idea, viewing fiction as “the playground of language” involves a complicated formulation of the meanings of author, reader, narrator, language, and reality.  Therefore, their ideas cannot really be reduced to Smith’s sentence.  Again, she does not cite these authors and look for flaws in their arguments; she feels that her generalization is enough.  As if to contradict these theorists, Smith writes about the idea of language taking a more important position in writing than the author: “I think that fiction writers know different” (2).  She may assert that “writers do not have perfect or even superior knowledge about the quality…of their own work” (2), but that contradicts her real message. The phrase “fiction writers know different” implies that there is a truth about writing to which only writers have access.  “We” are those who “think” but “writers” are those who “know.”

Our “Evolution of Stories” class has used Zadie Smith’s essay “Fail Better” as a model for theorizing the relationship between writer and reader, writer and text.  I compared Smith’s ideas on authorship to those of Barthes and Foucault in order to bring up three comparisons which elucidate all three texts.  My first comparison has to do with the way Barthes, Foucault and Smith view reality as relating to the narration of a text.  Smith argues that the writer is a living being, with a past and future beyond the scope of his or her novels, with emotions and uniqueness, a “self” that can be part of her work, and she feels that better novels are able to convey the author’s selfhood more effectively.  The reader should not merely wish to relate to a book, but should try to understand what the author is saying, what view of the world he or she is presenting, so for Smith the author has authority over the reader and the reader needs to learn to access the writer’s thoughts. 

Her stance is oppositional to the earlier one shared by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.  They believe that the author’s self has no importance in modern literature because it is “born directly with the text” (Barthes 284) and that the complexity of the narrative voice, which relates only to its fictional world and not to reality, can only be fully understood and interpreted by those to whom it is directed, the readers.  For them, writing is an experimental terrain in which many ideas and cultures oppose each other and the literary critic should not use the concept of the “author” and his intention for the work to limit readers’ interpretations of text.  Foucault sees the concept of author as an ideological production which claims to convey innovation and creativity to readers, through the idea of “genius,” but which manifests itself as “thrift in the proliferation of meaning” (290), as a repressor and not a spark for multiple textual interpretations. 

My second comparison is about the status of the author concept in society, as either a universal fact or an evolving cultural construction.  Smith sees writing as the former while Barthes and Foucault see it as the latter.  Smith believes that she can generalize about what all “writers do” (2) but only invokes industrial and post-industrial authors to prove her points while Barthes and Foucault look at the development of the idea of author and show how it has changed throughout the centuries to suit each epoch’s ideologies. 

My final comparison is of the manner in which Smith, Barthes and Foucault treat the literary critics as a part of the writing process.  Smith sees the critic as someone who writes the “blueprint for a novel” while Barthes and Foucault bemoan the role critics have been taking in the novel, in claiming that critics use the concept of author to limit the reader’s ability to interpret the text.  As I describe Smith’s opinion of critics, I show that throughout her essay she misconstrues Barthes and Foucault’s writing; she believes that Barthes does not see the personality as an irrelevance, which his writing directly contradicts, and she writes the view that some critics see writing as simply language, “independent of its originator,” which is a gross simplification of what Barthes, Foucault, and many others theorize. 

To conclude, I feel that the greatest problem in Smith’s essay is not the content of her ideas, to which she is entitled, but her unwillingness to engage with Barthes and Foucault.  Her project of bringing literature back to the writer after it has spent roughly forty years with the reader is legitimate, but she would help her cause if she cited and argued with the scholars whose opinions differ so drastically from her own.  More importantly, though, is that a comparison of these three writers dramatizes what is at stake when reading: selfhood, culture, ideology, and the nature of reality itself.


Works Cited

  1. Barthes, Roland.  “The Death of the Author.”  The Book History Reader.  Ed. David Finkelstein, Alistair McCleery.  New York: Routledge, 2006, 277-280.


  1. Foucault, Michel.  “What is an Author?”  The Book History Reader.  Ed. David Finkelstein, Alistair McCleery.  New York: Routledge, 2006, 281-291.


  1. Smith, Zadie.  “Fail Better.”  The Guardian 13 January 2007 : 1-6.