Seeking Meaning in the Structuralist Activity

In “The Structuralist Activity” Barthes spends much of the article explaining how and why exactly the application of structuralism is to be considered an activity.  There is one particular part of the essay that I found to be especially important.  I feel that it is here that Barthes captures the essence of Structuralism, leaving the rest of the essay to mostly definition and explanation: “…what is new is a mode of thought (or a ‘poetics’) which seeks less to assign completed meanings to the objects it discovers than to know how meaning is possible, at what cost and by what means.”  Structuralism is more concerned with the act, or process used in deriving meaning than the meaning itself, or the content of a theory.

What I am wondering here is if the act or process used is referring only at the level of language.  Let us take a feminist interpretation of Frankenstein for example.  I will use the designation ‘x’ to represent a completely articulated feminist theory on Frankenstein.  Now using Barthes’ structuralist activity, he will be interested in the act by which the meaning behind ‘x’ was derived.  Would this act include the examination of things like historical context and relationships between characters, since these probably would have been considerations for the writer who came up with ‘x’?  Or will Barthes want to stay strictly at the level of language (as I imagine Saussure would)?  Or is this simply a misunderstanding of the application of this theory?  Perhaps Barthes is speaking more generally, and the structuralist activity is not meant to be applied to specific, individual interpretations?

“…but only the act by which these meanings, historical and contingent variables, are produced.”  – when he refers to these meanings that have been produced, can these be examined case by case, or must it be examined in terms of a necessary method (be it conscious or unconscious) that will be used in order to derive any meaning whatsoever?


Are Barthes and Saussure Alike in Some Aspects of Theory?

In The Structural Activity Barthes tries to explain the word Structuralism. Structuralism is seen as a mode of thought that “refers to the linguistic model that was originated by Saussure’s theory that deals with economics, linguistics, and the science of structure.” Not only is structuralism complex and has many different working parts but it also involves a second part that includes history, and the immobilization of time. When I think of the second part to the definition of structuralism I think of the historical time period in which you are analyzing a text. The historical aspects play a role in analyzing the text because the text has historical references in it. The more modern structuralism is noted to be during Marxism. I found this interesting because Marxist theory deals with the political, social and economic policies that Karl Marx was questioning during the 18th century. His theories questioned religion in regards to scientific facts. Structuralism cannot be put into one solitary category such as Marxism but it has a series of concepts and cannot be associated with only one school or movement such as Marxism. Marxism is only one way we can see structuralism play out in theory. Structuralism is broken down in order for one to understand the goals of structuralism which is known as the structuralism activity. What exactly does this mean? Well Barthes explains that a structuralism activity involves dissection and articulation. These two terms used to show a change an actual meaning in a text. The actual meaning of the text can be interpreted as an allegorical meaning that is hidden in the text that reveals more than just its elements. Like Saussures theory of linguistics both theorists try to find the allegorical meaning of a text through the historical aspects by looking further into the text by breaking it down into different parts. When Barthes tries to explain how the dissection operation part works in structuralism he states that “The dissection operation thus produces an initial dispersed state of the simulacrum, but the units of the structure are not all anarchic before being distributed and fixed in the continually of the composition, each one forms with its own virtual group or reservoir an intelligent organism, subject to a sovereign motor principle: that of the least difference.” What I thought the dissection process referred to as when one tries to come up with the image of structure in a text it is not controlled or has any rules or principles in the way that it is supposed to be broken down into. Each part that is being dissected is formed in its own group that has a certain principle that has more similarities than differences. The question that I have is whether or not this dissection is within one text or a medium or several texts that are being analyzed in reference to one another? If the structuralism activity does in fact involve several texts that are being viewed and analyzed for their allegorical meanings that have a connection this reminds me of Saussure’s theory that involves looking at several texts elements/themes throughout history that have the same myths. The difference is that Barthes has a method for analyzing the text in a way that not only focuses on a historical aspect of a text but also its different themes and ideas. The second part to the structuralism activity involves the articulation. The way in which the linguistics aspects of a texts forms meaning. This also reminds me of Saussure’s theory because he was very much involved with analyzing how language and words are thought of and produced. Barthes is concerned with the meanings of certain words and the historical and contingent variables of the words. The difference between Barthes and Saussure is that Barthes is interested in the fabrication of meaning in a text than the meaning of a word itself. Barthes also believes that a text is a work and that the work itself has one identity. So does this mean that the work is not looked at an analyzed with several other works? This is where Barthes and Saussure are very much different in terms of their theories.

What is an Author?

Foucault’s “What is an Author” seems to be written as a direct response to Barthes’ “Death of the Author”. While Barthes philosophy revolves around imagining as if the work in question does not have an author, Foucault continues to analyze what exactly constitutes an author and his text. While reading the article, I began to think about what would happen if all authors ceased to exist. This is not to say that there would be no writers producing work, but what would happen if no written work was attributed to an individual. Is this even possible in society? And then, what would constitute a text? If a quote is stated, but no author is given then it is just an opinion floating in the air. There could be no facts as nothing could be proven. Any medical or law journal that states what it believes is a fact, cannot be necessarily true as if there is no author attached to the work then the work can not be verified. Many times in an English class a professor will hand out a poem without the author’s name. Now, if a student were to be handed two poems and one was written by a well-known author and the other by the professor himself who’s to say the student would be able to differentiate one from the other? On the other hand, if the author’s name was stated alongside the poem the student will label the one written by the professor as amateur and the one written by the famous author as “deep” or “inspiring”. This will happen even if the student sees no meaning in the poem solely as a result of the name alone. Foucault then addresses the question of what constitutes a work. Is anything an author has written work? Should it be hung in a museum or sold online for hundreds of thousands of dollars simply because of the name attached to it? Foucault proves that defining an author and his work is not as simple as it appears to be and that everything must be questioned when it comes to the author.

The Death of the Author – Barthes

I feel like Bathes main point of his article “The Death of the Author” can be summarized in his line “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” (147). His articulation of the text being a “multi-dimensional space” which writing blends together to create a “new”. Barthes writes “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” Is this similar to the weaving we discussed in class the other day (or the leather per say, which has no woven materials), but the weaving is that of the reader’s culture, rather than the Author’s culture? Or vice versa? Barthe goes on to write in the same paragraph, “the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt:” These emotions are all subjective and change with every new cultural age or age in general. For example, it might have been funny to poke fun of the big boy in your second grade class. However, now, you know it was wrong and it was, indeed, not as funny as you thought. If we were to incorporate the Author’s definition of these words, then there would be only be one right way of writing his text.  By killing the Author, Bathes makes point in which we can openly read the work and understand in different ways.

The other thing I want to touch base on is at the beginning, when Barthes writes “the author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs” (143). Would Bathes argue that Kerouac’s writing, known for his long string of consciousness, who was part of the Beat Generation of writers, was a bad writing? Or rather, would Bathes argue a text that is nourished by the Author, bad writing, bad literature? I’m curious as Bathes makes a lot of sarcastic comments in his article.

The Politics of Authorship

“It is thus, logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author.”

I found this relation of authorship to capitalism interesting.  Although it seems like a sound observation, I don’t see why this should carry a negative connotation.

Barthes says “For him, for us too, it is language which speaks, not the author…”  This seems to suggest that somehow language does the speaking all on its own.  It makes more sense to allow that a person speaks, and the way he attempts to make his idea clear is through the use of language.  There are many ways to read and interpret language, but we are not opening a dictionary and discussing language word by word.  It is all in a particular sequence and context that was intentionally arranged by an individual.

I wonder how Barthes feels about his own work.  Does the reader or critic have anything to say, or is all of literature an intangible web of interpretations where nothing can stand its ground?

“It is language that speaks, not the author.”  I understand the benefits of opening up interpretation beyond the limits of an author, but the consequences of this line of attack seem to go much further than authorship.  Why would the author be the only one who cannot speak?  This absolute abandonment of any shred of objectivity is ridiculous.  If it is only language that speaks then the author cannot speak, the critic cannot speak, the reader cannot speak… At this point does literature even exist?  With such limitations what can one possibly do in the field?

Maybe it is just my American disposition, but I don’t see why a comparison to capitalism is negative.  Again, my American disposition leads me to prefer the idea of capitalism to the spirit of communism found in his “power to the readers” – rise of the proletariat – mentality.  Looking at this in relation to competing political ideologies it is hard to say which is better without the influence of biases.  Without doing any objective research right now, I want to say that capitalism has a better overall track record than communism.  It has created a more favorable society while allowing people to actualize their individual potential.  I am imagining somewhat of a logical extreme to Barthes death of the author/power to the reader proposition, where a field full of eager readers are sitting around regurgitating arguments over the classics with nothing new being written.

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French vs. English (tangent?)

(Once or twice I felt like bringing up this idea in class but was afraid it would take us away from the main points we were trying to understand in the readings so I saved it.  I’m still not sure it’s relevant, but I’ll throw it out there and see if anyone else is interested.)

When discussing the puns and plays on language Barthes makes, Prof. Ferguson said we should just “pretend this was written in English” and I agree that, for practical purposes this makes the most sense.  But, it was originally written in French and that does have an impact on issues of word choice and language play.  One of the reasons English is such a challenging language for people to learn is that it is a large, ranging language with vocabulary and spelling and grammar rules from many other languages.  However, the advantage English has over other languages is because it is so large, we are afforded choices in shades of meaning (and instruments for word play) that would be harder to come by in other languages.

More specifically, to compare English and French– French has about 100,000 words in common use and English 200,000 (Source: The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson).  In the US, where English is the most commonly spoken language we have not made it an “official” language, nor do we place restrictions on what can be an “official word” or the kinds of names one can give one’s child.  Compare to the Académie Française with its tight control over the French language, down to the list of state-approved names for French children.

Ok, so my point in connection to Barthes?  If the language is smaller, then the chance that one word means many different things is higher.  My French is pretty limited, but take the verb parler for example.  In English, this means to speak or to talk.  In English we say, “I speak French” but “I talked to my mother this weekend.”  (If you “spoke” to your mother, it implies something a bit more serious than a friendly chat.)  So I’m wondering if this makes plays on words like “jouissance” a little easier to pull off in French than it would be in English– and perhaps we are missing a million other such puns in the text?

Text & Work

I’ve always used the words “text” and “work” interchangeably when speaking of a book or piece of literature. I never thought there would be a distinction between the two. After reading Roland Barthe’s From Work to Text I’ve come to understand that “the work can be held in the hand, [and] the text is held in language.” The work is stationary. It’s what holds the language together, meanwhile the text lies within the work. I would agree that the text is the essence of the work. Maybe in the past, auctors would disagree and say that the work is what holds all the importance and that there is no distinction between the work and what is written inside. The work was whole and important to its spiritual connotations.

In The Death of an Author, Barthe’s also mentions that “the author is a modern figure.” Text is a newly created term and is linked to how the importance of literature has evolved over time. A book isn’t just read and taken word by word to mean what it is. We analyze it and create new ideas and meanings, “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).” This is seen in the way we now target one particular work from different areas of studies to have a greater understanding of it.

Although we interpret works through interdisciplinary methods, I think we can agree that in the end we still don’t know all there is to know about a work. I can compare a work to a lock and the key would be the text. The way we examine the language in the text allows us to obtain a deeper understanding and unlock the mysteries that lay within the work. The both need each other but without understanding how the key and lock work, we cannot unlock and make use of its function.

As reader’s we can study the text and become authors of our own interpretation of a work. The author of the work doesn’t play a role in our interpretation and therefore we become creators of an idea that was born from a text, which can become our form of a work. So can a text become a work?