A Quick Study of Barthes

“To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing”. -Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”

What is it that Barthes left us? Is there anything worth looking at from the volumes of work that he left behind, and if so, what are the most valid, potent pieces of his theory? In this essay, I choose not to stand behind Barthes, but to insert the attitudes of those who disagree with some of his critical thought, and disprove them. I hope to show in this study, the proof and validity in Barthes work. One might say, how can the author of this study make such bold sweeping statements about a single Frenchman’s work, in turn I would say that it is not me, who is speaking, but rather a likeness of myself, on this page, I am a rhetoric, a fantastical amalgamation of my self-thought, cultures placed on me, structures for thought and thought patterns.

If in this study that I convince somebody of some certain belief, when this study has finished, then it was by the reader’s accord, and had nothing to do with the construction of my each sentence and paragraph, and hence I can not be blamed, for interpretations of interpretations that, when relegated to ‘author’, subject themselves to confusion and chaos.

Barthes was not trying to revolutionize the human essence, or make a point by detaching self from work, but instead to introduce a new chasm for existence on the page, readerly and writerly (S/Z 5). Barthes word writerly describes work, something impenetrable by criticism, “perpetual[ly] present”, always plural, escaped from all the forms of interpretation “in the Nietzschean definition” and texts that remain “plural”. The readerly being almost everything we are surrounded by in our literary culture. Barthes dialogue gets muddied though, when he enters ideas on how to distinguish these two works. It would seem impossible, because, if Barthes is right, than isn’t all literature, writing, doodling and art utterly plural? It would seem so, but Barthes has ways for deciphering the difference between the two. Interpretation, a word which Barthes uses cautiously, and always denoting what terms he means it in, plays a major role in these the distinction between these two types of texts. In S/Z he explains that (without fully explaining it and hastily moving on to his next category) interpretations are endless; that there are infinite ways of “entering a text”, “none of which can be authoritavely declared to be the main one (5).

So, if what Barthes is trying to assert is an indefinite plurality to any text, he falls down in this attempt, for what follows in S/Z is devoted to the actual dissemination of an actual “plural” text. For those not familiar with the language of Barthes and Structuralism, the word signifier is important. A classic meaning for signifier would be word, a marking within a text that leads the reader to construct his own image, thought or connection to other signifiers in the text, leading to an eventual understanding of the text. Barthes, however, uses this word in an ultramodern way. A signifier to Barthes would be more perhaps, only present in some texts; “plurals” which are not connected to some worldly meaning (being most literary works, of course) but limiting them to fiction. Barthes would argue that even non-fiction can be worked into the category of “plural”, but I would argue that a piece of non-fiction could not be plural, if its placement and aim is within widely acknowledged structures of human life, or experience. e.g. Barthes may have found Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to be plural; wide in its degree of possible interpretation. Whereas, anti-structuralists may propose that the conditions Zinn has depicted in this historical interpretation, are valid because they hold up to the common perception of United States history. This means that Barthes explanation of readerly, and writerly, are muffled, and muddied by either an inescapable desire from readers to assert their own feelings, or a universal alignment of thought on the topic of U.S. History.

In the event that Barthes ‘author’ actually takes a spill and is nowhere to be found, then the chasm of thought which Barthes and so many other French theorists introduced to the world of literary criticism may not be so far removed. First we must look deeply at what Barthes is actually trying to say. Granted, Barthes was not the most noted Structuralism, Deconstructionist or theorist of any given nature, but it was Barthes himself who opened the door of literature and art and allowed Structuralism to come in. In the opening pages to his famous lengthy essay S/Z he notes:

Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and the customer, between its author and its reader (4).

This line from his most famous work sheds some light into why he held these feelings on separation of text and author. Barthes, here, is suggesting that no reader can attain a grand knowledge of the text, that has been produced, and the producer of the text can neither set a meaning, nor tell the reader where to begin understanding the text. I have unfortunately come across one writer who finds so much of Barthes work: oppressed in its homosexuality (Saint-Amand 153). Perhaps this stabs at the heart of Barthes ideas, that any connection of author and symbols is arbitrary.

A terrible quarantine has been placed on Roland Barthes: it is connected with the absence of an explicit admission of his homosexuality in his work, or, more precisely, with the workings of repression in his writing (153)

Perhaps Saint-Amand is right, about what ever it is he suggesting, but isn’t that exactly what Barthes did not want. Barthes left out the nonsense of his personal life open to interpretation, and had many a reason for not talking about it. One, his theory would fall apart if, out of the blue, he inserted personal thoughts on his repressed sexuality. Two, Barthes spends plenty time writing about the repressed nature of things in so many other non-theory driven articles; The Diseases of Costume, The Last Happy Writer, Literature and Discontinuity, and the list of article where Barthes works other topics, is endless (Howard, index). Point being, Barthes would look at this young Frenchman’s remarks as, besides the point of what he is trying to say. Text can be plural, but is also, besides the author.

“Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (DOTA). Barthes solidifies this thinking is his most famous, and longstanding essay, The Death of the Author. Barthes really dismantles literature in the most primal ways: by recognizing the endless interpretations of texts, and seeing the constant.

So if the man is correct, than critics and readers all over the globe must re-evaluate the way they look at texts. The actual reading, being displaced from the author, creates a much grander outlook on literature, no longer limiting it to circumstantial evidence of the author, what he meant, who he was, what he is trying to say. When the author begins to write, he is partaking in his own death, the end of his own interpretation. In this realm of thought, many critical approaches fall short of proving anything, and come closer to limiting the text in an inescapable fashion. How can a critic or theorist conclude something about a text, when they have no base point to limit their critiques? This idea is frightening, but extremely valid.

Feminist critics focus on issues of women in literature, Deconstructionists in the eternal struggle to find some universal constructional method of interpretation; Cultural critics spend too much time trying to relate a text to their circumstance, Marxists also, relating text to culture, and ideas of philosophy that so many other critics find outdated. The point lies in the fact that that all of these forms of criticism leave the critic stranded in a swamp, up to their knees, the sludge that they have laid before themselves. Barthes has tried to help these people see that their petty connections are not worthwhile, and that the muck they stand in, is imaginary. If all writing, is only writing, unless it is read, and interpreted by some educated audience, then why, must criticism be so biased, and singular? After all, texts are plural.

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