Authorship 2.0: Barthes as Precursor to Authorship in Web 2.0 Spaces

Roland Barthes

This paper argues that Roland Barthes’s post-structuralist theories of authorship can be re-read in terms of emerging notions of authorship in the participatory technologies of Web 2.0 spaces. Specifically, I construct a reading of Barthes’s autobiography, Roland Barthes, as the culmination of his efforts to deconstruct social and literary norms of authorship and autobiography.

Most striking, throughout Roland Barthes, are Barthes’s strategies for referring to himself. Sometimes as Barthes, other times as R.B., often I, he, the boy, the writer, etc. There is also very little chronological organization. What the reader is left with is an undifferentiated mass of memories, musings, reflections, and aphorisms. The experience of reading Roland Barthes is little short of surreal. It is one thing for Derrida in Speech and Phenomenon to demonstrate the paradox of a self-defining system (4). One would think that Derrida works to demonstrate that such a system cannot possibly function. It is another thing entirely for an Author to construct himself textually in light of the Author’s death he himself had already acknowledged: “to write on oneself may seem a pretentious idea: but it is also a simple idea: simple as the idea of suicide” (Roland Barthes 56). The fact that Barthes authored this line proliferates a multitude of readings. Barthes the critic has demonstrated textually a general death of the Author. By making himself the subject of his text, he immediately erases that subject. By assigning his proper name to the text he bifurcates himself into an author-function and a physical embodiment of the experiences. And it is those very experiences, those personal readings and inquiries, which make up the very content of Roland Barthes. More simply, by writing his autobiography, Barthes’s forces himself to reconcile the paradox of meaningful texts and the absence of the author in meaning-making. His solution is to represent his “subject” as decentered, multiple, and infinitely interpretable.

I argue that these are precisely the fundamental challenges to notions of authorship posed by Web 2.0 technologies. Wikipedia entires, for instance, are constructed by multiple authors, often referencing other texts as content, and meet with regular scrutiny, confirmation, refutation, and often change. It is through recursive readings between texts such as Barthes’s autobiography and emerging technologies such as wikis that we might move toward a fuller, more complicated version of each.