Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Two Egyptian voters hold a poster of candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a queue oustide a polling station in the Gamaliya suburb of Cairo [Jonathan Rashad/Getty Images]
The Listening Post

Roland Barthes in Egypt: Authors and Authoritarianism

‘The reader gives life to the text – and where media has been reduced to the work of propaganda, hope lies there.’

Oscar Wilde was a lonely child.
He fought and won acceptance from the world.
They smiled, they laughed, they praised,
They drove poor Oscar to his grave.

We cannot be sure that Divine Comedy’s Absent Friends derived some inspiration from Roland Barthes. But it might not even matter. Because it’s up to us, the readers, to make these connections.


by ”Lina

breaks the text open and invites the readers and the spectators to give it different meanings, because a text is essentially in conversation with different cultures and contexts and the place of this conversation doesn’t lie in the author, but in the reader”]

In The Death of the Author, Barthes walks us through some of the reasons why, essentially, it is the reader, and not the writer, who gives life to the text.

But to understand his reasoning, it is important to follow Barthes’ thought development on semiology and mythology as a tool to critique media.

Through his reading of semiology, Barthes examines the ways through which meaning is controlled and produced. Any linguistic sign, be it an image, a text, or any other sign, can be consumed on the denotative level that delivers an immediate and concrete understanding, and that is devoid from any association. It can then be consumed on a secondary connotative level, where the sign connects with other elements, like context, different cultural subjectivities, hegemonic ideas in order to produce additional, ultimately politically infused, layers of meaning.

Barthes is interested in this complex realm of connotation and how it is deliberately tampered with by powerful elites to induce certain meanings that support dominant power structures. This is where his work on myth unfolds. He argues that signs can be an avenue for the production of myths, which, in turn, become the building blocks of ideology; myths, like writers, are like the superheroes that used to be found in fables, different detergent brands tell epic stories, wine becomes the site of French national pride.

To illustrate this, let’s go to Cairo and walk in one of its lifeline highways, Salah Salem Street. Throughout, you will find some billboards with an endearing picture of a soldier carrying a toddler. The denotation is direct: a soldier is carrying a toddler. The connotation, in a context of a growing military presence in the everyday life of Egyptians, through both political and economic power, becomes something along these lines: Your army, that superhero hegemonising power today, is none other than a loving and caring soldier tenderly carrying and kissing a baby.

The problem with how the connotations of media signs are choreographed in Egypt, however, is that it leaves little space for imagination.

Barthes’ imagery of how connotations are drawn is one that depicts a dynamic space of give and take between senders and receivers. If the sender is hypothetically a major institution of power, like a state, or a multinational, or a media conglomerate, it offers a tip and controls the context through a complex web of simultaneous soft and hard power. The rest is left to the receiver, who will inevitably draw the connections, with some sort of a superficial agency. In Egypt, you are seldom given this space and this agency. Instead, the tip becomes a consolidated and direct message, mediated through compound signs. It is a place where connotation and denotation are almost flattened to become one thing. And this is a sound-surround system, in the midst of a controlled environment. There is no way out.

This is perhaps why I found myself cheering on my own in my small studio, imagining myself at a football game in the midst of a multitude while re-reading Barthes’ Death of the Author. It is the liberating remembrance of how Barthes essentially trivialises the aura of the author, the producer of signs, the hegemonic influences of the media.

He does it simply by reminding us that their writing is none other than a weaving together of some pre-existing references. He shatters the famous Arab saying that meaning exists in the tummy of the poet by shattering the very idea that a text has an inherent meaning, rendering it a closed field with only the author having the key.

Instead, he breaks the text open and invites the readers and the spectators to give it different meanings, because a text is essentially in conversation with different cultures and contexts and the place of this conversation doesn’t lie in the author, but in the reader. “The true locus of writing is reading,” he writes. “The birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the author,” he dramatically reminds us.

So how do we read this?

In a context where the fabrication of meaning is at its height in Egypt and where media has been largely reduced to the work of propaganda, remembering that hope lies on the other end of the production process, is the only way to imagine a way out of this maze.

But what happens if you are a writer and one who wants to sit on the right side of history by not forcing meanings and myths through a flattened series of connotations and denotations?

Today, the proponents of contemporary journalism celebrate “user-centrism”, where media should produce what the audience want. The notion is not without problems, because while it wants to reposition the media as an everyday intimate companion of “the people”, as if to give them agency, it also emanates from the grander desire to be influential, and profitable, by attracting the widest possible base of audience.

To read Barthes today, to readapt him, could help us to reinterpret users’ centrism in that it allows us to imagine a progressive kind of journalism that is worth fighting for. When we write, let’s leave our egos at the door. Let’s not be forceful with the meanings we are trying to deliver; because we can be more questioning, more speculative and less over-determined. Let politics and ideology not stand in the way of cultivating something that pushes readers to think further and develop our incomplete thoughts, or take them into unpredicted territories. Let’s follow the lives that our writings take once we hit publish with curiosity, and celebrate, with a glass of milk, not wine, our multiple deaths, every time we get published.

Lina Attalah is co-founder of Mada Masr, an independent Cairo-based news media. She has been a journalist covering Egypt and the region for the past decade, and a cook for much longer.

This article forms part of an online project by Al Jazeera English’s media analysis show The Listening Post. Follow  #MediaTheorised

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.