The Author as an Unstable Effect of the Text

By Alhassan Pereira Ibrahim, a former CRP Intern

Our intern Alhassan Pereira Ibrahim from two years ago

“Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (Roland Barthes, 1977). Authors are actors on paper or screen and the act of writing “… creates an opening where the “me” disappears while “I” endlessly come and go.” (Trinh T, 1989, p35) The author is not simply a master of his/her element, a manipulator of language and a creator, separate from the individual who writes. The author ‘lives’ on long after the death of the individual, but is refigured in the process. Through their writing, the author is still lives, breathing inside our heads, in a dialogue with us. Of course, this is due to the permanence of the text in comparison to the transience of the embodied being – even digital text can have a measure of added permanence to the fleshy body. However, once writing begins, the text immediately belongs to a different sphere, so too does the persona of the author.

This paradox of the author as creator yet separate from the individual who creates is an interesting notion.  Exploring the distinction can help us to better understand the role of the author.  An instance of this is when a writer adopts multiple pseudonyms, each with their own personality and writing style, in order to create a distance or separation between their identity as an author apart from the individual.  We may want to ask the author Teju Cole and others who create pseudonyms about such distancing.

In Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in the 19th Century, Robert MacFarlane makes a distinction between creation – the act of creating something out of nothing - and invention – which, from the Latin means to discover what exists already. Perhaps the most famous example of creation can be found in the Book of Genesis, with its self-announcing declaration: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… Now the earth was formless and empty… And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light” (The Bible, KJV). The literal truth of this is irrelevant but the sentences illustrate the idea of creation as ‘something out of nothing’. Contrast this with the invention or discovery of electricity for example; it was an amazing discovery but we were only encountering what was already there. The same can be said of the author: the act of writing never creates something from nothing, what a writer does is to invent, to choreograph an encounter that already exists within the assemblage of histories and cultures, even if only imagined. What this means is that the context of invention or production is key to what the author can imaginatively create. If we accept that the act of writing encounters what already exists, albeit in different and creative ways, then text is produced by context.

The distinction between creation and invention provided by McFarlane leads to an interesting ideological distinction between the culturally extolled notion of ‘creativity’ and the mundane act of ‘production’. Some, like Pierre Macherey, identify creativity with divinity, an act mythologised and elevated beyond humanity itself.  But ultimately, he dismisses creativity in favour of production.  By favouring production, Macherey does not simply negate creativity, but makes the claim that at the very root of creativity is production. The binary between creation – that which transcends the material, and production – that which is rooted in the material, is an interesting notion.  Macherey’s inversion of the binary is a useful one in thinking about the discourses around intellectual property with its assumption of a single source – the author, the poet, the singer, the artist – as the owner of the property.  But how can ownership of a text be attributed solely to a single source if the text is itself the result of multiple encounters? Encounters between the structure and history of language, between texts, interpretations and editors?  Are we seeking a return to creative transcendence alone by reifying the role of the author?

In his acclaimed essay, The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes invites us to dispense with the author, who, as far as Barthes is concerned, plays no role in providing meaning to a text.  The author is merely a conduit for meaning. If meaning and interpretation are dependent on language, writing itself, then the author cannot have the final say or impose any degree of ownership upon the text. For Barthes, the author is replaced with a “scriptor” who is created along with the text.

“Succeeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt: life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (Barthes, 1977).

For Barthes, assigning an author to a text is essentially superfluous. No one person can be the source of meaning, or the authoritative ‘voice’ of a reading; ascribing an author to text does that and elevates the author to the status of a divinity, a transcendent authority who is the sole dispenser of truth and the fixer of the text.

If we accept that the author, far from being separate from the text, is a projection from within the text, we can then appreciate Barthes idea of the author as a scriptor, as a play of language within itself.  This brings the question of the pseudonym to the fore as practical example.  Let us take the idea of pseudonymity in Soren Kierkegaard’s Who is the Author of Either/Or published under the pseudonym A.F., Kierkegaard says:

“Most people, including the author of this article, think it is not worth the trouble to be concerned about who the author is. They are happy not to know his identity, for then they have only the book to deal with, without being bothered or distracted by his personality” (A.F, 1843. p16).

Kierkegaard is essentially trying to create a distance between the text and the author. Would our reception of Adichie’s Americanah be different if there was the pseudonymity between it and her previous book? The same is true of the 2007 author of Every Day of is for the Thief and the author of the 2013 Open City, Teju Cole. “[…] in the pseudonymous books there is not a single word by me. I have no opinion about them except as a third party, no knowledge of their meaning except as a reader, not the remotest private relation to them, since it is impossible to have that to a doubly reflected communication” (Kierkegaard, 1846. p625ff). Although Kierkegaard is trying to argue that he has no connection to his works, this is not strictly true. On a personal level, he was deeply invested in his works as most authors are.  And in trying to distance himself from his writing, the connection is already implied. The point is, would we read a text differently and accord status if there were no prior knowledge of the author that produced all the books or all the marketing apparatus that helps to shape our reception of that text?  How would we read and conceive of a text without the authorial framing?  Would the status of divinity have any foothold?

In the provocative short essay, Borges and I by Jorge Luis Borges, we witness the self, writing the self. “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to” (Borges, 1970. p282). The narrator discusses himself as if he is two different people; the story itself is a meditation on the complexities of evaluating the self. Borges’ split of the dual nature of self is interesting here, the private “I” – is the self, known by itself, Borges the author – is the public persona that is known to others through his writings – a creation of the text if you will.  Here we have a conflict of identity between the two selves, “Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him” (Borges, 1970. Pg282). Which will survive and which will perish is the question we must reflect on in the relationship between the author and the individual. But what is most striking is the note on which the essay ends, “I do not know which of us has written this page” (Borges, 1970. p282).

Borges’ essay exemplifies the Barthesian notion of the scriptor as an invented identity separate from the personal ‘I’ – the individual who writes and who dies. But given that the author is invented within language and cannot be fixed by any one reader or interpretation, authoriality itself is inherently unstable; part of a dynamic and shifting relationship between texts and worlds.


Barthes, R., 1977. The Death of the Author. [online

Minh-Ha, T.T., 1989. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Indiana: Indiana University Press

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed (1981), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkein, Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Macfarlane, R., 2007. Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Johannes Climacus, 1846. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments: A Mimical-Pathetical-Dialectical Compilation, An Existential Contribution. ed. S. Kierkegaard. KW12 (2 vols.), SKS7, SV7.

A. F., 1843. Who is the Author of Either/Or? KW13, SKS13, SV13, Fædrelandet 1162.

Evans, C.S., 2010. Kierkegaard: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macherey, P., 1978. A Theory of Literary Production. Translated from French by Geoffrey Wall. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.

Borges, J.L., 1970. Labyrinths. USA: Penguin.

Roy, A., 1997. The God of Small Things. London: Fourth Estate


  • Such an interesting article, I had never thought of the author in this way before!!! Thanks Alhassan for such a fascinating discussion. Definitely a star philosopher in the making!

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