Comprehending Barthes- From Work to Text (1971)

This essay, written by famous littérateur, French-born Roland Barthes, is one of his most commendable works, and makes a distinction between a ‘work’ and a ‘text’. This essay seemed to me as a reader, to be having similarities in parts with his previous one, ‘The Death of the Author’. Roland Barthes seemed to uphold the ‘text’ by declaring it as an ultimate literary concept, as against the more popular notion of ‘work’.

The author here, claimed that the perception of language and the literature produced in the same, has changed over the years, the reason being the increasing deliberate interrelation of disciplines that otherwise are not related to each other. But again, he felt that we are in need of a new object called ‘text’, which could be obtained by twisting and turning old concepts of Marxism, Freudianism, etc which are in use for several decades. There are a few propositions of a text, and these are enunciations instead of argumentations. The author marked a few of those, and used them in bringing out distinctions between a ‘work’ and a ‘text’.

They are-

 Method– one should refrain from saying that a work is classic and the text is avant-garde. It is not surprising to find ‘text’ in many ancient works, whereas many modern literary works are devoid of any text. The distinction between the two is similar to Lacan’s distinction between ‘real’ and ‘reality’. One is demonstrated, and the other displayed, respectively. A work can be displayed in libraries, bookstores, catalogues, etc. But a text is demonstrated, and only held in language. Genre– a text cannot be contained in a hierarchy. On the contrary, it disrupts any classification or categorization. (Barthes himself was a dynamic personality in terms of ideas. He was a Marxist, a structuralist, and a post structuralist all at the same time, making it impossible for readers to confine him within one category). As Saussure had said a sign consists of two parts- the signifier (sound-image) and the signified (meaning or concept). The author said that a work is the signified and the text is the signifier. The signifier shouldn’t be considered as the ‘first stage of meaning’, but its deferred action. Under the signified, there are two modes of signification- either it is evident and the work becomes an object of philology, or it is secret, and the work falls under hermeneutics. Work is moderately symbolic, but a text is radically so. This is because; the text is metonymic, which requires a considerable amount of symbolic energy. A text is plural. A work is singular, on the other hand, and in congruence with the monistic philosophy. This difference certainly affects the readability, and especially in places where monologism is the law. For example, the Marxist interpretation could make itself more material by pluralizing itself, but it is resolutely monistic. The plurality of texts makes them half-identifiable, like quotes without commas- anonymous, yet already read. A work is a product of Filiation. The determination of the work by the world, consecution of works among themselves, and conformity of the work to the author. The author is the guardian of his work, and can protect it using intellectual property rights. However, a text is independent of such things. Here, Barthes’ essay ‘Death of the Author’ can be referred to. The author claimed that a text can be read without the guarantee or inscription of its father. In this case, the author becomes a ‘paper-author’. In that essay, Barthes claimed that once a work is published, it ceases to remain the property of the author. The reader takes over, and gives a new identity and meaning to it. Related to this are the propositions of reading and pleasure. A work is just consumed when read. However, a text separates a work from consumption, and performs it as a play, activity, practice etc. Thus, text reduces the gap between reading and writing. Therefore, a text is not just read, but interpreted and performed, in which case the reader becomes a co-author. Just reading would also affect readership, since most people get bored easily if they are unable to reproduce a work. That there is a pleasure of a work cannot be denied. One can read the works of Proust, Balzac and other canonical writers several times and delight in it. But this pleasure again remains in part a pleasure of consumption. This is because, the works of such eminent writers can be read, but not reproduced. However, a text is solely aimed at providing pleasure, or jouissance.

Barthes ends his thought-provoking article by saying that a text creates social utopia in its own ways. However, these propositions are not enough to comprise the ‘Theory of the Text’. Discourse on the text should be nothing but the text itself. The author declared that only a practice of writing, which is a process of production, can bring the text alive, and harmonize with the Theory of Text.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s