The death of the author

“A text’s unity lies not in its origin, but in its destination.” – Roland Barthes (1967, translated 1977)

I am in the middle of writing my PhD thesis. This is generally not considered an easy process, and I concur with that sentiment. For me, it includes stretches of intense productivity, digging for long-forgotten data, and dry eyes. There are also long periods of staring out of the window, while stewing on my thoughts. In one such stewing session, my thoughts wandered towards the quote above. It is from the essay “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes. Barthes disapproved of the idea that to find the true meaning of a text, one must consider it through the identity of its scripter. Instead, he argued that meaning lies exclusively in the words themselves, and their impressions on the reader. Thus, the unity of a text is not found in its origin, but in its destination. As Barthes wrote himself, “writing is that into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”1 “The author enters into their own death, and writing begins.”2

After the arduous process of writing and defending our theses, we get to don the title of Dr. In this very specific sense, a defense can be compared to a wedding; where Miss becomes Mrs. and one may take a new name. It is a celebration of rebirth. Not in how daily life will proceed from thereon, but in the internal mess of our self-identity. It is exciting and at the same time terrifying. We want to prove the celebration deserved, to both the opponents and to ourselves. Thus, we weave a written web from our complicated ideas (see, I am smart!) and numerous results (look, I have worked hard!), and then… we get tangled in it. The structure is lost, its meaning convoluted. An obscured path to destination nowhere.

What went wrong? Although we might deem ourselves the lead character of our PhD, this is certainly not true for the thesis – or any scientific text, really. It is an interesting irony that despite our collective woes over authorship, research articles are presumably detached from the people writing them. If we follow Barthes’ literary theory, then no scripter should be as dead and buried as the scientific author. Entirely severed from personhood, the subjects of scientific writing are unbiased data and the objective truths that can be gleamed from it.  To interject individuality, to let our desires, insecurities, and biases influence our discourse… these are pitfalls that the scientific author must avoid at all costs. Yet as I am writing this thesis of mine with restraint and objectivity (and metaphorically dying in the process), I wonder: why does this text still feel so incredibly personal?

To answer that question, I must first ask another: What makes a scientific text “well-written”? There are certainly better and worse ways to write, a distinction that is not made simply with linguistic accuracy. The first value for a scientific writer is truthfulness, but that is by far not the only concern. The more information and the higher the complexity contained within a piece of writing, the more difficult it becomes to structure properly. You might be familiar with feelings of frustration and confusion felt when reading a convoluted manuscript: am I too dense to understand this? Probably not – the writer simply demanded too much of your energy to unravel their text’s form, leaving too little for perceiving its substance. Consequently, the message is lost before arrival. We should thus aim for our writing to be simple and straightforward, especially when the science is not. Just as a good figure is visually appealing without misrepresenting the data, a good text should be easy to read without diluting the scientific discourse. It is easy to mix up these concepts however, and some writers might find themselves simplifying their research instead of (or in addition to) improving the structure of their writing. This is a risky practice, as it leaves conceptual gaps that the reader must fill in.  This brings us another writer’s concern, namely that of interpretation. It is easy to understand your own research, but immensely difficult to predict how unacquainted readers may perceive it; let alone to convince those same readers of its scientific value. Although no form of communication can ensure a uniform understanding of the author’s intent, I believe that the written word is especially easy to misinterpret. Unlike for instance presentations, where the author accompanies the message, written words speak only for themselves. The words must advocate for the scientific argument; consequently, the perceived strength of that argument is intimately connected to its written structure. Improving either one will likely improve the other.3  We must thus capture the essence of our ideas correctly, concisely, and clearly. This is by no means easy, and I would argue that –in contrast to the objectivity and emotional detachment we ascribe to ourselves– scientific writing can excel only through creativity and empathy.

Out of the millions of ways that written words can ensnare a thought, the author chooses a single one. This choice is unarguably and inherently personal. With every decision made, we write a bit of ourselves into the text. Thus, I can only conclude that the scientific author is still very much alive.  We are the narrators, guiding the reader along the path of our scientific discovery.

And with that, another stewing session concludes. I divert my dry eyes from the window, back to the screen before me. Now, where did I save the results from that one experiment two years ago?

Sources:

  1. Barthes, R. (translation by Heath, S.) The Death of the Author. Image-Music-Text. Fontana London (1977)
  2. Barthes, R. (translation by Howard, R.) The rustle of Language. University of California Press (1989)
  3. For anyone currently in the process of writing, I highly recommend reading “The Science of Scientific Writing” by George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan, which originally appeared in American Scientist, journal of Sigma Xi (1990). I believe that this is the most essential publication I have read thus far in my academic career.

The picture is a self-portrait painted by Rembrandt van Rijn (around 1628), photographed by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Although this painting is by far not Rembrandt’s most famous work, it is one of my favorites. It may just have been intended as a lighting practice, but I find it fascinating that he chose to obscure his face in shadow.  Rembrandt portrays himself for all to see, yet simultaneously he hides himself. This contrast is striking to me. It takes some staring to realize he is actually looking right back at you, the viewer.

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