Episode 84: Continuing with Barthes

How about this time we skip the introductory recap and rants and get on with the task at hand, shall we?

With the big deal I made about Aristotle being 2000 plus years ago, I figure I should make just as much a point for chronologically placing my other selected authors and their texts. Barthes’s “Death of the Author” essay was published in 1967, almost 50 years ago from this point in writing and a nice cutoff point for my considerations of “contemporary” texts from then until the present which I analyze.

In 1971, Barthes wrote “From Work to Text” an interesting essay that the Norton Anthology placed before me that seemed worth the effort. What first bugged me about this essay is that his definitions are not my definitions. Let me explain: One of the key critical theories that I used for my Ma thesis and one that will be a centerpiece for the dissertation is Textual Criticism. It’s a bit old school (some would even call it archaic) but it’s been getting a resurgence recently with the Digital Humanities scholars which I’m technically trying to join. My go to critic in this area is George Thomas Tanselle, whose thin book “A Rational of Textual Criticism” blew my mind years ago and is my go to source when ascribing certain terminologies. I use his definitions of Work (the abstract concept/idea of a piece of literature, something which the author tries to make concrete), the Text (the written product once it has been transformed through medium and language), and the document (individual physical copies which we the readers can obtain and manipulate but through which the text itself cannot be altered). Those definitions are my own abridged versions of them and I apologize if I do not give them justice. Barthes writes in a way that reverses “text” and “work” from the familiarity I previously explained. I will use Barthes notions as my explain the following parts but will revert them when it comes dissertation applications.

Text, much like Author, is capitalized throughout to show that we are dealing with something more grandiose than just what is contained between the covers. “The work is a fragment of substance, occupying a part of the space of books (in a library for example), the Text is a methodological field.” Barthes then starts comparing the comparison to Lacan’s distinction between reality and the real. For anyone who has had to deal with Lacan’s ideas, you can understand why my brain turned off when I reached that line. There a few more lines from Barthes that explains the difference with a bit of esotericness but it works. “The work can be held in the hand, the text is held in language, only exists in the movement of a discourse.” And a little later on: “The Text is experienced only in an activity of production. It follows that the Text cannot stop (for example on a library shelf); its constitutive movement is that of cutting across (in particular, it can cut across the work, several works).” By having the Text be only achievable/perceptible only in its production, I can tie that in to Shillingsburgs’s different performances that occur when making/reading a text/work (more of him to be explained in a future post).

Barthes returns to linguistics as he explains how the Text is basically like the Sign (grrrrr this weird capitalization is frustrating). The work becomes the signified but the potential of infinite signifiers along the way that we can never truly appreciate it. He then goes on a weirdish rant that kind of makes sense but its best that I just quote exactly.

“The infinity of the signifier refers not to some idea of the ineffable (the unacceptable signified) but to that of a playing; the generation of the perpetual signifier (after the fashion of the perpetual calendar) in the field of the text (better, of which the text is the field) is realized not according to an organic process of maturation or a hermeneutic course of deepening investigation, but, rather, according to a serial movement of disconnections, overlappings, variations. The logic regulating the Text is not comprehensive (define ‘what the work means’) but metonymic; the activity of associations, contiguities, carryings-over coincides with a liberation of symbolic energy (lacking it, man would die); the work – in the best of cases – is moderately symbolic (its symbolic runs out, comes to a halt); the Text is radically symbolic: a work conceived, perceived and received in its integrally symbolic nature is a text.”

I had to do a couple of double takes while writing it so don’t feel like you are the only one with an itchy scalp (this is a pun on “head scratchers”, I am not a good enough writer to make this subtle or even good, but my English major duties obligate me to play on as many words as possible). I picked this section not only because the word “serial” pops in but mostly because it really tries to stretch out our understanding of how we obtain meaning in that which we read. The process is not logical and contains many elements of which we can never really be aware of. Such potential linearity is further complicated when Barthes start to talk about how the author is kind of like a father to the text but that the Text has no Father in the Author. The Text expands and extends into a kind of “network”. The part that really makes has any kind of connection to my areas is this one moment after this explanation when Barthes states that: “Hence no vital ‘respect’ is due to the Text: it can be broken (which is just what the Middle Ages did with two nevertheless authoritative texts – Holy Scripture and Aristotle); it can be read without the guarantee of its father, the restitution of the inter-text paradoxically abolishing any legacy.” I take this as full permission to not only divide the work/text into partitions but also into installments. The intertextuality part can even be applied to how all DC or Marvel characters share the same continuity and world.

Barthes goes back to the author being removed from his favored status and just being one of us regular folk when he says that: “He becomes, as it were, a paper author: his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work; there is a reversion of the work on to the life.” This reminds me of anonymous author whose identity is searched for according to works ascribed to him/her. Then again, it’s interesting to think about the trouble that happens when you take the author as just another character in the text or the few moments when that actually happens, through the use of Author Avatars that too easily become a Mary Sue/Marty Stu. One need only have to go through a D&D game with a DM PC to know just how annoying it can be. Alan Moore, or at least I think it was him, had this cool moment where he placed himself as a character in one of his comic books and was all powerful because whatever he wrote was created/destroyed in an instant. The whole thing was super deconstructed when someone else took his character and placed it in another work (the problems that come with being in the DC intercontinuity) where he was more of a joke and ended up dying because of writer’s block (best poetic justice ever).

The most intriguing and confusing part of Barthes’ essay comes at the end when he says that there should be more work done towards constructing a Theory of the Text: “the discourse on the Text should itself be nothing other than text, research, textual activity, since the Text is the social space which leaves no language safe… The theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of writing.” I’m all for the text expanding in an almost organic manner but discourse occurs throughout different media, not just print. I’d enjoy a longwinded professor having to suffer through the point of not being able to literally talk about the theory of the Text but that isn’t where the conclusion is going. The Text is abstract and somewhere there is a slippery slope towards there being an almost sacred reverence towards it. We as readers can try to understand it through our own knowledge and the process can even be fun. And yet writers have this duty to add to it, almost as if it were calling. Still, we need to keep into consideration that accessibility to literacy and ease of publication has increased dramatically over the years and I’m pretty sure Barthes wouldn’t like the state of the Text if he read a handful of random YouTube comments.

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