No longer the focus of creative influence, the author is merely a "scriptor" (a word Barthes uses expressly to disrupt the traditional continuity of power between the terms "author" and "authority.") The scriptor exists to produce but not to explain the work and "is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, [and] is not the subject with the book as predicate." Every work is "eternally written here and now," with each re-reading, because the "origin" of meaning lies exclusively in "language itself" and its impressions on the reader.
Barthes notes that the traditional critical approach to literature raises a thorny problem: how can we detect precisely what the writer intended? His answer is that we cannot. He introduces this notion in the epigraph to the essay, taken from Honoré de Balzac's story Sarrasine (a text that receives a more rigorous close-reading treatment in his influential post-structuralist book S/Z), in which a male protagonist mistakes a castrato for a woman and falls in love with her. When, in the passage, the character dotes over her perceived womanliness, Barthes challenges his own readers to determine who is speaking—and about what. "Is it Balzac the author professing 'literary' ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? … We can never know." Writing, "the destruction of every voice," defies adherence to a single interpretation or perspective.
Acknowledging the presence of this idea (or variations of it) in the works of previous writers, Barthes cites in his essay the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who said that "it is language which speaks." He also recognizes Marcel Proust as being "concerned with the task of inexorably blurring…the relation between the writer and his characters"; the Surrealist movement for their employment the practice of "automatic writing" to express "what the head itself is unaware of"; and the field of linguistics as a discipline for "showing that the whole of enunciation is an empty process." Barthes' articulation of the death of the author is, a the radical and drastic recognition of this severing of authority and authorship. Instead of discovering a "single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God)," readers of text discover that writing, in reality, constitutes "a multi-dimensional space," which cannot be "deciphered," only "disentangled." "Refusing to assign a 'secret,' ultimate meaning" to text "liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law."
Barthes' work shares much in common with the ideas of the "Yale school" of deconstructionist critics, which numbered among its proponents Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman in the 1970s. Barthes, like the deconstructionists, insists upon the disjointed nature of texts, their fissures of meaning and their incongruities, interruptions, and breaks.
Ideas presented in "The Death of the Author" were fully anticipated by the philosophy of the school of New Criticism, a group of 20th century literary critics who sought to read literary texts removed from historical or biographical contexts. New Criticism dominated American literary criticism during the forties, fifties and sixties. New Criticism differs significantly from Barthes' theory of critical reading because it attempts to arrive at more authoritative interpretations of texts. Nevertheless, the crucial New Critical precept of the "Intentional Fallacy" declares that a poem does not belong to its author; rather, "it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it. The poem belongs to the public." William Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley wrote this in 1946, decades before Barthes' essay. ("The Intentional Fallacy." Sewanee Review, vol. 54 (1946): 468-488. Revised and republished in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, U of Kentucky P, 1954: 3-18.) From the perspective of authorship, Barthes' "Death of the Author" concept breaks little new ground in denying the possibility of any stable, collectively agreed-upon readings. Instead, Barthes himself has pointed out that the difference between his theory and New Criticism comes in the practices of "deciphering" and "disentangling."
Since the New Criticism's main theorists, Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, were all teaching in Yale English simultaneously with the younger Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man – and sat on committees concerning their tenure and promotion – there seems to have been a generational rebellion in hiding their influence. Bloom wrote of this obliquely in his "Anxiety of Influence." The older men carried a heavy freight of pre-War Eliotic Christian and Southern culture; but this article is not the place to search for motive, merely notice the hidden connection.
Drawing on Freudian psychoanalysis – particularly in its Lacanian conception – and Saussurean linguistics, post-structuralist skepticism about the notion of the singular identity of the self has also been important for feminist and queer theorists, who find in Barthes' work an anti-patriarchal, anti-traditional strain sympathetic to their own critical work. They read the "Death of the Author" as a work that obliterates stable identity above and beyond the obliteration of stable critical interpretation.
Michel Foucault also addresses the subject of the author in critical interpretation in a response to Barthes' death of the author theory. In his 1969 essay "What is an Author?", he develops the notion of "author function" to explain the author as a classifying principle within a particular discursive formation in the West. Foucault does not explicitly mention Barthes in his essay but its analysis is a clear challenge to Barthes' depiction of a historical progression that will liberate the reader from domination by the author.