This is a short position paper I wrote for my Pursuits of English class at Montclair State University. It critiques Roland Barthes’ extreme fixation on the audience in his classic essay, “Death of the Author.” I hope it is clear enough.

Barthes: Enabling Market Architecture

Roland Barthes’ anti-author stance enables a view of the reader as the ultimate arbiter of  the use-value of any text. While perhaps successfully attempting to counter capitalism’s emphasis on the author and the commodification (i.e. private ownership) of ideas, Barthes’ monomaniacal focus on the demand (as in supply and demand) of the reader creates a mirror image of the original capitalism problem. Instead of the author-as-individual articulating the needs of society through artistic critique–in order that those needs be addressed through discourse–the owners of the means of production (media magnates who control scores of publishing houses, film production companies, television stations, et cetera) are empowered to entice “society” to articulate the “needs” of the “author-as-machine,” in order for that author to not starve to death, impoverished. Of course, the author’s starvation is the last concern of the magnate, for it is the fulfillment of society’s demand–and the customer is always right–that maintains a steady stream of capital.

“The customer is always right,” is exactly the attitude that Barthes espouses in passages such as, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.” The “reader” has no specific identity; the “reader” is both anyone and no one. It falls to the im-”personal” imperatives of the marketer, then, to determine who the readers are and what they want. And what they are determined to want decides not only the task of the author but the tenability of the author’s employment as an author.

The “unity” of a text, a quality which I take as synonymous with and inclusive of “cogency,” “relatability,” “coherence,” and ultimately, “value,” is dependent on the tastes of the reader, and without these qualifiers–all of which are dependent on cultural conventions–the text lacks “unity,” and therefore lacks “value” from either an artistic or capitalist standpoint.

This is the basis of consumerism: a culture of broad-based marketing to as many people as possible, starting with financially privileged white males, ages 18-39, but ultimately fulfilling the cultural expectations of whatever strata of society have proven themselves commercially exploitable. For example, by reflecting the conventionalized expectations of African-American audiences, Black Entertainment Television (BET) maintains a steady market for products aimed at African-American audiences. Such marketing to a specific segment of society only becomes a viable and worthwhile investment when members of that segment prove themselves a financially capable target market (often made so with myriad predatory banking practices, among other exploitation, prior to any demonstrable entrance into the middle classes).

This step in capitalism is the only point at which a racial minority or other marginalized group is recognized in the Hegelian sense as a true segment of Human Society. The mentality is, “Yay, I’m a genuine human being now because I’m being marketed to and can make a bunch of white rich people richer.” Yet such demand is only maintained by meeting the conventionalized expectations of the assumed readers of that segment, or put differently, by identifying a stereotype that favors the existing power structures–racial, gender, sexual orientation, religious, and above all, consumerist, upon which the power of the owners of the means of production is based–refining and rearticulating the characteristics of that stereotype over time, and succeeding in marketing it to the newly recognized, financially viable target market.

In other words, overemphasis on the reader reduces human freedom to the right to be on a focus group, reduces ideas to commodities owned and manipulated by corporations, and reduces the artist herself to another monopolized component of the means of production (artist-as-machine).