Harry Potter and the Death of Roland Barthes

We are in hell.

This is a specifically neoliberal hell wherein, “no ethical consumption under capitalism” has, as one online commentator put it, become, an ethical imperative to consume. People see anyone interfering with their unimpeded enjoyment of those things they seek to consume as being, at best, morally questionable. How dare somebody else tell me, an individual, how to go about enjoying the things I want to enjoy?

This sense that it’s somehow wrong to interfere with the flow of libidinal intensity does, however, require a fair bit of apologetics and this is where the corpse of Roland Barthes gets hauled out of the grave and paraded around. “I separate the artist from the artwork,” people say, as if to suggest that because we can void the authority of the author to grant a text meaning this means that the author is no longer materially connected to the text.

Of course this is absolute nonsense. First off we would have to accept, fully, that Barthes’ premise was correct and that an author has no special authority over a text. Certainly Rowling, in particular, problematizes this premise as she has been particularly activist in the assignment of specific meanings to her text after delivery of it. Retcons such as the declaration that Dumbledore was a gay man, that various other schools of magic existed that were outside of the bounds of the delivered text (such as the nearly offensively named Mahoutokoro and Castelobruxo), or basically everything that happened in and around Harry Potter and the Cursed Child show that Rowling, as an author, has never been satisfied to allow an audience to construct meaning in her texts absent her influence; Rowling is a nearly uniquely activist author with regard to what her books mean. Furthermore, Rowling’s activism aside, the assumption that authorial intention is diffused by contradictions within a text is built around the asumption that authors are unified in their intention. If we start from assuming a certain polymorphic quality to authorial desire then we would end up with a situation in which any meaning that can be reasonably read into a text can be seen as an intended meaning. An author is not individual in that their authority, as an author, can be divided across all the things that they put into the text. All this is to say that it’s rather absurd to divide Rowling’s interpretation of her “wizarding world” from its implementation in texts such as a recently released half-rate Destiny clone.

However there’s something more insidious about attempts to divide Rowling from derivative licensed work such as Hogwarts Legacy – this is that Rowling gets paid for these things. While it’s true that the depiction of goblins in Rowling’s text is alarming at best, and while it’s also true that the “queer rep” of a transphobic straight woman will be problematic at best all this is somewhat irrelevant to the game itself – which Rowling didn’t write. She is, in fact, not the direct author here aside from her tendency to insert herself as an authority. The problem is that Rowling gets paid for this work and, with that pay, can continue amplifying her transphobia. There is a material relationship between the video game and the author of the books it is derived from that cannot be elided by any sort of pseudo-structuralist literary analysis. This is the problem with buying Hogwarts Legacy. It is not a question of the meaning of the text. By most accounts Hogwarts Legacy is a game that tries to mean very little of note. You run around blasting fire balls and other such violent magic at goblins only to discover it was all a frame job at the last minute. I’m sure this will be a cold comfort to all the goblins the players vaporized in the process of discovering the frame. So, no, Hogwarts Legacy looks like yet another committee-made, focus-group approved, skinner box that seeks to say as little as possible in order to maximize the likelihood that the audience will get hooked on the core gameplay loop and stay engaged. But it’s a skinner box where every person who buys it contributes a few pennies to the cause of bigotry via its material economic link to someone who regularly expresses bigoted views.

A a result people such as Jessica Conditt have, via their engagement with this game, helped to enable this bigoted agenda in the real world where you can’t just obliviate away all memories that Rowling is a TERF. It does not matter in the slightest that the reviewer has, “a big ol’ Harry Potter tattoo next to an anti-TERF tattoo,” because the issue is not the meaning she personally assigns to Harry Potter. The issue is money. Conditt, writing editorials for endgadget promoting that it’s morally Ok to buy this game, has, whether she intends to or not, financially aligned herself with TERFS. I couldn’t care less about the marks on her skin next to how she acts in the world. And how she acts in the world is as a promoter for this awful little game. The tendency of defenders is to fall back to individual subjectivity. This is, yet again, a reification of the moral imperative to consume. “As someone who searched desperately for an example of my own identity in the pages of Harry Potter novels, I deeply appreciate the evolution and inclusion in Hogwarts Legacy. This level of representation didn’t exist in AAA games 15 years ago, and it’s the result of all the progress made, through protest and education, since the books were published. Long before the in-fighting over a choice to play a video game.” Conditt says and I have no doubt she sincerely feels that way. She just fails to see that her feelings don’t justify how Rowling spends the money this game will earn her and the derivative money that she will gain through the continued cultural relevance of these awful wizard books. Conditt says, ” It’s us against the transphobic people in the world, not us against each other,” but this isn’t true. There’s no “us” here. She’s on the side of the transphobe because she’s promoting the transphobe’s product that will make her money. It’s really that simple.

Also Conditt’s plea, “boycott the game – just don’t boycott the players,” demonstrates an atomized and neutered view of the boycott. The boycott is, in fact, an act of moral shaming. It’s not just a person witholding their money. It’s a person publicly announcing it’s immoral to give money to this or that product. It’s “no ethical consumption under capital” arising as apologia yet again. And just as it’s clearly immoral to advertise for arms manufacturers it is also, clearly and obviously, immoral to give money to bigots. If you do it you are doing a bad thing and you should be ashamed. Stop trotting around Barthes’ picked-clean skeleton and actually take some accountability for the moral weight of your choices. Consider how your actions actually materially impact people. Think about the money for once.