On Barthes’s “From Work to Text”


Roland Barthes was a prolific and important academic literary critic in the mid 20th century. He published many books, but his most famous are probably S/Z, Mythologies, and Image – Music – Text. The essay “From Work to Text” comes from this last book.

I thought I’d continue from Sontag into Barthes, since he was mentioned in the last post. She was one of the main academics to introduce him to the U.S. Unfortunately, I’ve always found him quite difficult to read. To me, his academic style (or at least the translation of it) makes it difficult to tell whether there is serious content in what he is saying or if he hides behind the abstraction.

“From Work to Text” starts from the idea that in modern critical theory we use the “capital T” Text in a different way than the “work” of literature. The way in which he teases out the difference is through a sequence of numbered comparisons. I warn you. This is going to get strange.

The Text cannot be put into strict categories and genres. A work can. The Text subverts classification. A work can be seen, but the Text demonstrates. The work is physical (i.e. a book), but the Text is language and non-physical. The Text is always paradoxical.

A work is symbolic and to be interpreted. The Text “practices the infinite deferment of the signified.” In this sense, the Text is radically symbolic, because its language never ends unlike the limited symbols of a work. The Text is plural in the sense of transcending all interpretation, not because it is ambiguous, but because of its inherently infinite nature.

There is no origin of the Text which sits in a seamless relation to all other texts. Sources and influences are a myth with the Text unlike a work which sits in an ordered string of influence. In other words, there is a relation between author and work. The Text comes into being through The Author, but the difference between reading and writing is abolished in the Text.

One plays the Text rather than reads it so that there is a collaboration. Still, no matter how we try we can never fully articulate what the Text is.

On the one hand, I get what he is saying. The essay is an attempt to explain what he sees as the difference in usage by a particular academic community. The problem is that I can’t tell if it is serious or if it is meant as some sort of hyperbole to make fun of the academics which try so hard to distinguish these things. To me it reads as academic satire, but from what I’ve seen elsewhere, this is to be taken seriously.

Except for the over-the-top parts, it does a fair job at teasing out the intended difference and many people summarize the distinction he makes as coming from seven places: method, genre, signs, plurality, filiation, reading, and pleasure. When put in this way, it is easier to see that he tries to tease out the difference between “high literary art” and “low popular fiction,” a debate that is notoriously difficult to this day.

I’m curious if anyone else has had better luck with understanding the Barthes hype.

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