Why Roland Barthes Was Wrong: Bakhtin, Dialogism, and the Eternal Dance Between Author and Reader

Roland Barthes, in his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author,’ argued that the role of the author should be minimised in the interpretation of a text. This idea was groundbreaking, but it leaves room for a more nuanced view. Using the framework of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of dialogism, we can see that the author is not just alive but is also in an active, reciprocal relationship with the reader.

1. Bakhtin’s Dialogism and the Literary Exchange

Mikhail Bakhtin posited that all communication is inherently dialogic – every text or utterance is a response to something that has come before and invites a response that will come after. In terms of literature, this means that authors don’t just write in isolation; they write in response to a cultural, social, or emotional context. Readers, in turn, respond to the text based on their own contexts. This continuous cycle of response and counter-response animates the text, making it a living, dynamic entity.

2. Personal Context and Polyphony

The concept of polyphony, as Bakhtin defined it, allows for multiple voices and perspectives within a single text. When an author writes a story, they’re adding their voice to a larger cultural dialogue. However, their voice isn’t the only one that shapes the text. Readers bring their own voices, shaped by their unique experiences and perspectives, to their interpretation of the story. It’s this polyphonic interaction that enriches the text, turning a simple story into a complex narrative landscape.

3. Intent vs. Interpretation

The author’s intent and the reader’s interpretation are not mutually exclusive; they are two sides of the same dialogic coin. The author starts the conversation by writing the text, laying out a path of intent that readers can choose to follow. However, readers may also bring their own interpretations to the text, which are equally valid. The richness of a text comes from this dynamic interplay between what is written and how it is read, between authorial intent and reader interpretation.

4. The Living Text

If a text is a living entity, as Bakhtin suggests through his dialogism, then it evolves over time through different readings, interpretations, and contexts. It’s not fixed or static but subject to the endless dialogue between its original author, various readers, and even other texts. This dialogic evolution makes every reading a unique experience, adding layers of meaning that might not have been immediately apparent, even to the author themselves.

5. Voices and Echoes in the Great Dialogue

Authors often write to engage with larger social, cultural, or emotional issues, adding their voices to a grander dialogue. Readers then participate in this dialogue, not just by interpreting the text but also by sharing it, critiquing it, and applying it to different contexts. This creates a ripple effect, allowing the text to resonate far beyond the individual experience of reading it. Through this process, both authors and readers contribute to the grand dialogue, enriching it and being enriched by it.

Conclusion

While Roland Barthes’ idea of minimizing the author’s role in textual interpretation offers an intriguing lens, it overlooks the dialogic nature of literature that Bakhtin so vividly describes. Texts are not monolithic entities but dynamic spaces for conversation between authors and readers. Through this interactive dialogue, literature becomes a richer, more resonant experience for everyone involved.

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