I feel I may have been a little unfair in choosing “From Work to Text” last post. In the same collection of essays, Image – Music – Text, is a much better introduction to what Barthes is known for: (post-)structuralism.
Recall that structuralism began back in the very early 1900’s (maybe even very late 1800’s) with linguists like Saussure. Barthes begins the essay by recalling this work. They studied the idealized structure of language and pointed out how this ideal linguistics may be different than actual usage. This gave a systematic way to go about studying it which was still important.
If you’ve ever tried to read any structuralism, then you know that it is full of jargon. The most important words to know are parole vs langue and signifier vs signified. Langue refers to the idealized language we study and parole to the use of language in everyday life. Signifier means the word itself (i.e. the collection of sounds or scribbles on the page) and signified is what the word refers to.
Barthes wrote this essay in the 70’s, so linguistic structuralism had essentially died at this point due to people like Derrida and Chomsky. But Barthes mostly brings up Saussure as an analogy to what he wants to do. Narratives are also composed of chunks which can be identified, and they are structured in a meaningful way which can be studied.
Barthes identifies three main levels of description for a narrative: function, action, and narration. He uses “function” for the smallest unit of a narrative, because it is to consist of things like Chekhov’s gun. One unit might be the reference of a rifle on the wall. The rifle will function later in the story.
Barthes finds that identifying the functional units becomes increasingly more complicated the more you think about it. For one, he makes an assumption I don’t quite agree with to make things easier: art has no noise. If the author refers to a red sweater, the detail is not just meaningless noise, it must have some significance. If you want a rule of thumb, the functional units will be roughly each sentence unless there is strong reason to divide the sentence or include two.
These units come in two types: functions and indices. We already pointed out that function means the unit serves a function in the narrative like the gun example. An index unit integrates more diffuse information like the atmosphere. To understand the meaning of this type of unit one must move to a higher level of description (action or narration).
He then goes on to classify functional units even further into four functions: nuclei, catalysts, indices, and informants. These are what they sound like. The nuclei form the core of the story in the sense that deleting one fundamentally alters the story; a catalysts makes an event happen; indices we described already; and informants identify a location in time and place for the narrative.
Barthes then goes on to describe ways in which these units can interact. For example, the catalysts act on various nuclei. If this interests you, read the essay, but it may be a useful exercise to think about it yourself.
He calls a logical succession of nuclei bound together in some way, a “sequence.” For example, a short sequence of three functional units could be: hand held out, hand shaken, hand released. This small sequence might sit in a larger “meeting sequence”: approach, halt, hand shake, sit.
The next level of description was action. In a narrative, each actor/character belongs to a sphere of action. There are relatively few spheres per narrative (compared to functional units), and these can be classified. He gives a brief historical summary of people’s attempts to do this, but we’ll skip that for the sake of space.
The important thing is to not confuse short, trivial actions, which are functional units, with large scale “actants” between the characters. The classification comes in three main types: communication, desire/quest, and ordeal.
Barthes’s explanation of the last level of description, narration, becomes characteristically vague, because he turns to the classic problem of reader/writer interaction. There is, of course, clear evidence of the narrator in a narration (the fact that the words are there at all!). It turns out, there is just as much evidence of a reader, but these are more subtle.
For example, if a narrator says that his friend Susie owns the coffee shop, this is presumably not to remind himself of a fact he already knows. It exists on the assumption that the reader does not know, and hence shows there must be a reader. He goes on to describe types of narration, which I’ve discussed here.
One of the main points of the narrative level is to integrate the lower levels into a coherent whole. He calls this integration whereas the other fundamental process is called segmentation. He goes on to describe how functional distortion of these units can have meaning. For example, the unit of shaking hands can be interrupted by a sequence of thoughts. It is one unit which has been distorted and segmented for a reason.
He gives some more examples of segmentation and integration, but that is the main idea of the essay. I think it is far better and more useful than “From Work to Text.” Although structuralism and post-structuralism were major academic movements, I feel, like Sontag, that a lot more popular criticism can make use of structural analysis.