Yay, more lit theory paper stuffs from a midterm.
(S/Z) is from one of his structuralist analysis
(W/T) is "From Work to Text"
(Death) is "Death of the Author"
Barthes, like Derrida, rejects the notion of a single, finite, determinate meaning. Barthes applies this in a specific way to literature (or narrative, text, reading, ect. I really don’t know how to say it when I can no longer call it reading I guess). Basically, he is another rejecter of structuralism, a task that is “ultimately undesirable” (S/Z 3). I am going to start with a rather list-y (boring) explanation of the binary work/text. I know of no other way that would not just turn into a big rambling mess. Here goes.
A Text is “not to be thought of as an object that can be computed”, while a Work is an object (Work to Text 156). A Text is not an object because it is a methological field, a process that is acted out. A text cuts across genres, while a work is classified into a genre. A Work goes from a signifier (itself), to a signified (its “meaning”), which is reductive of language to a single meaning. Texts go from a signifier to another signifier, which disseminates meaning, by “practicing the infinite deferment of the signified”(W/T 158). In a Work, Authors create a works that are then consumed by readers, while a Text creates authors (which is what he comes to call readers in S/Z, even if they are just a “paper I”) who “play”. This concept of “play” is “the reader plays twice over, playing the Text as one plays a game, looking for a practice which re-produces it…also playing the Text in the musical sense of the term…the co author of the score, completing it rather than giving it ‘expression’…it asks of the reader a practical collaboration”(W/T 162-3). The difference is manifested in how the reader takes pleasure (hopefully I get to that later) in the book, one of consumption of a Work, and one of production in a Text.
This leads me to the binary of the readerly/ writerly text. I see this as an extension of our definition of work/text. A readerly text is like a Work, and is what Barthes says we need to be moving away from. Here the focus is on the author and the singular meaning of what that author wrote. The text is written and the reader consumes it. The reader is “left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum”(S/Z 4). With a readerly text, the reader is a person who is supposed to take in the information and opinion that the author has laid out. In this case, the critic’s job is to decipher the meaning of the text. In opposition to the readerly text is what we should be shooting for, the writerly text. Here, the “author” is a scripter, a copyist, through whom cultural codes (I will also get to explaining codes in a bit) flow through to the one reading the text, who is also another site for codes to flow. The writerly text is “not a thing”, but a “perpetual present”, the process in the mind of the reader, it “happens” not “is”. The critic’s job is to disentangle the writerly text, to “appreciate what plural constitutes it”(S/Z 5). Again, play is the goal, not mere consumption. The writerly text is the ideal that we can never actually write. The best we can do is “read” plural texts, or create plural texts through the way we approach it. The plural text is what cuts across the binary of readerly/writerly and is what we should be pursuing.
For Barthes, the reason we should work for plural texts is because looking for a single meaning is pointless because there is no meaning there to find in the first place. We are all in a system of codes. When a person reads, the “ “I” which approaches the text is already itself a plurality of other texts, of codes which are infinite or, more precisely, lost…the meanings I rind are established not by “me” or by others, but by their systematic mark…to read, in fact, is a labor of language”(S/Z 10-11). So, we as people when writing and reading are “paper “I”s where codes are reconfigured. In this sense, we do not read, codes read us. We read and write to reconfigure these codes, and lucky for us we always have something to do because “their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language”(S/Z 6). This idea of “paper I” is basically the idea of why the author is dead, and I guess the reader along with him.
Barthes claims we are wrong to attribute creation of a text to the author, and that doing so ultimately pushes us towards trying to find a single meaning and limits our ability to “play”. If we give the author power, our reading turns into an act of trying to find the author, which we equate to the “meaning” and we believe we have deciphered the text. But, “once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile”(Death 147). This frees the critic from pointless work, as there is no meaning, and then he has to disentangle the codes, or play.
I think that the claim that to give a text an author imposes a limit is not all correct. We always come at reading with some sort of way or process, and thinking about the author can be one of “those ways”. True, we can come up with many ways to disentangle a text without the author, but we can come up with many ways with the author as well. I see it as one of the expanding ways to look at a text. Not necessarily the only one, but a valid way to approach it. I find it a bit ridiculous, and limiting, for Barthes to say that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”(Death 148). This last sentence has always sounded funny (ie overly dramatic) to me because a few lines before he says that the reader is “simply that someone who holds together in a singe field all the traces by which the written text is constituted”(Death 148). He tries to “champion” the reader over the author, right after explaining that both writer and reader, equally, are simply places where codes flow. Killing off the author, to me, is ignoring one of the pluralities of the text.
And, now my thing with the “codes”. Say I totally accept his idea that we are all just made of codes in the first place. I still do not fully buy that hierarchy that he implies that we are mere sites and codes use us. That is just a weird flow of logic. Even with codes, we use them. A code is something constructed to be used, a tool of communication, a means to express what you want to express. Something constructed has a constructor. Even if it is all a “system” that we are in, it can be us using the system instead of the system working through us. Maybe Barthes just should have used different words and he meant something else, maybe (probably) my opinion on this is just as equally an assumption, a leap of logic, or whatever, as his assertions. Either way, I just don’t find it quite all thought out correctly.