Saffron Huang, Chat GPT and the death of the author, The New Statesman, 26 February 2023
In 1967, in an essay called “The Death of the Author”, the French literary theorist Roland Barthes argued that people should stop viewing the author’s intentions and biography as the ultimate source of meaning in a text. A text’s meaning is not fixed by the creator, Barthes claimed, but is always shifting, depending on how the reader interacts with the work. Barthes believed that we should dispense with the notion of the author, since they have no authority. Instead, readers should think of them merely as scribes who collect words and mark the blank pages. Authors may influence a text but they don’t decide how it is understood.
Who is the author behind the words that ChatGPT speaks? The popular language processing tool that the artificial intelligence company OpenAI launched in November 2022 is able to write fluently in English. It has quickly gone mainstream, composing sonnets, writing stories, and answering questions on diverse and complex topics – including world history, avant-garde films, birthday gift ideas, the complexity of the bubble-sort algorithm – for millions of users. It is also killing the idea of the author to an extent that Barthes could not have anticipated.
Michel Foucault did not believe in the straightforward death of the author. Responding to Barthes, he asserted that while the author is not a fixed, consolidated subject that straightforwardly determines meaning, our knowledge of the author still plays an essential role in producing and regulating how texts are used and interpreted, and in how society’s knowledge circulates.