English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Supplementary Remarks about Roland Barthes'
"The Structuralist Activity," "What is Criticism?"
and "The Death of the Author"

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

Note to Spring 2003 E456 participants: here's a fairly detailed essay on some Barthes texts I did in a previous E456 class. Some of them aren't currently assigned, but one is "The Death of the Author."

Since we only made it through the essay on wrestling from Mythologies, I am going to set down some things about the other assigned writings by Barthes. What we see in the "Wrestling" essay is Barthes "undistorting" the sign system that constitutes the wrestling match. The naïve fans take away only the immediately intelligible bits of meaning regarding the spectacle; they never reflect on the pieces or units (the wrestlers, their bodies and gestures, etc.) in their proper relations as part of a larger meaning-generating system. Right before their eyes, made visible by the bodies (as signs linking appearance with concept) and gestures of the wrestlers themselves, innate good trumps innate evil. The form of Justice is perfectly represented in the glaring light of the ring. Yet what is "perfectly represented" is fundamentally distorted-it is only a bourgeois conception of justice that, supposedly, ignores the social construction of "badness."

"The Structuralist Activity" (1964).

In "The Structuralist Activity," Barthes describes the goal of structuralism as being to reconstruct a given object of study so as to reveal its "rules," i.e. what makes it possible for the object to work as a system. Think of Mary Klages' tinker-toy example, and you immediately understand what Barthes means: if you know that the plastic rods always go into the round holes, you know the rules of tinker-toy construction and can build things out of the pieces. The structuralist, of course, is more interested in how the things get built than in what they are or "mean."

Barthes furthers this basic description of structuralism by explaining it as a kind of mimetic activity. The structuralist makes a "simulacrum" of the object, says Barthes. This use of mimetic theory allies him, to some degree, with Aristotelian mimetic theory: Aristotle says that "to learn gives the liveliest pleasure" and that imitation is one of the first and indeed primary ways in which we learn things about ourselves and others. Moreover, Aristotle describes tragedy as "an imitation of an action"-meaning, apparently, that the playwright imitates not merely "something just as it happened in real life" but something more important: the fundamental laws (probability and necessity) that govern the operations of the cosmos. That is what he means by "action"-the plot's unfolding accords with these fundamental laws and teaches us to accept them and their implications for our real-life behavior.

But Barthes adds something, quite aside from the stark difference that he would not accept Aristotle's faith in natural process as the locus of reality. What Barthes adds is a level of creativity in what he calls simulacrum-making: "the simulacrum is intellect added to object"-an addition that he argues has "anthropological value, in that it is man himself, his history, his situation, his freedom and the very resistance which nature offers to his mind." Structuralist activity renders the object of its attention intelligible with regard to human activity and thought. What is really being "imitated" is not some kind of physical thing in itself, but rather its rules of functioning. That-and not just direct copying--is what makes for intelligibility.

The structuralist analysis goes through two stages, says Barthes: the first is dissection, and the second is articulation. Let's spend some time on the first, dissection. Dissection requires that the critic "find . . . certain mobile fragments whose differential situation engenders a certain meaning; the fragment has no meaning in itself, but it is nonetheless such that the slightest variation wrought in its configuration produces a change in the whole…." (1129 column one). The key principle here is that of difference. The structuralist takes the object apart to find its smallest differential element or unit, which can mean nothing in itself unless it is placed in relation with other units from which it differs. Meaning is an effect of this kind of differential relation among units. Barthes' use of the term "paradigm" helps clarify this operation: he writes that

[T]he paradigm is a group, a reservoir-as limited as possible-of objects (of units) from which one summons . . . the object or unit one wishes to endow with an actual meaning; what characterizes the paradigmatic object is that it is, vis-à-vis other objects of its class, in a certain relation of affinity and dissimilarity: two units of the same paradigm must resemble each other somewhat in order that the difference which separates them be indeed evident (1129 column two).

The examples Barthes gives are excellent: the fact that the two dental sounds s and z (see his book S/Z) share one common characteristic of "dentality" but differ in the important aspect of "sonority" results in effects such as that the French word "poisson" (pwasón) can mean "fish" while the French word "poison" (pwazón) can mean "poison." Butor's book Mobile deals with the phenomenon of classic car appreciation on the same principle: all classic cars have certain common features-most notably their boxy shape-upon which can then be built the system of differences (ever-morphing tail fins and so forth) that is delightfully meaningful to car buffs like my friend Jennifer, who used to own a Galaxy 500 and now has a 70's Firebird painted-you guessed it-fiery red. The cars are similar, but they differ in some respects, and the paradigm of differences makes for a large but always intelligible group of classic cars to buy or gawk at. Barthes himself sometimes wrote about sartorial fashion-the way in which newly designed clothes are trotted out and shown off by impossibly perfect supermodels every year is an obvious favorite of structuralist analysis. Without meaning to sound cynical, I might ask whether the progress of theoretical movements operates in something like the manner just described in connection to fashion.

Now on to the second stage of structural analysis, articulation. Here, after "the units are posited," writes Barthes, the point is to "discover in them or establish for them certain rules of association" (1129 column 2). This endeavor, according to Barthes, is truly creative: the structuralist recognizes the pattern-forming recurrence of the units and their relations. The emergence thereby of "form" is what allow the work to become intelligible rather than a mere effect of chance. In a fine summation, Barthes declares that "the work of art is what man wrests from chance." For example, Russian formalist Vladimir Propp, in The Morphology of the Folk Tale, rendered Russian folk tales intelligible as a system by meticulously classifying their characters, the combinations of those characters, and their functions. So what we end up with is not just an agglomeration of jumbled-up old tales that don't add up to much, but instead a group of stories that are remarkably generative of variations and meanings while at the same time sharing some common elements of character and plot. Propp carefully articulated the units of the folk tale as a differential, intelligible system.

Ultimately, the goal in structuralism, as Barthes formulates it, is to know how meaning becomes possible, not to study meaning as something essential, innate, prior to language or cultural interaction. This may sound like a dry formulation, but Barthes confronts such judgments head on toward the end of "The Structuralist Activity." He endows structuralism with the mantle of prophecy in that it articulates culture as "the shudder of an enormous machine which is humanity tirelessly undertaking to create meaning" (1130). Against the common accusation that structuralism, with its emphasis on the synchronic (simultaneous or spatialized) rather than the diachronic (literally "across or through time," as when an analyst traces a language or culture back to its supposed roots), fails to account for historical change, Barthes claims that structuralism "does not withdraw history from the world: it seeks to link to history not only certain contents . . . but also certain forms, not only the material but also the intelligible, not only the ideological but also the aesthetic" (1130). Ultimately, he says, structuralism knows that it, too, is but an historical phenomenon that will give way to a "new language" that in turn will explain its significance and historicity.

"What is Criticism?" (1964)

In this essay, Barthes distinguishes between the critic's task and the artist's task: while "the world exists and the writer speaks" (282)-not necessarily in the vein of reflecting on the world or the activity of writing-the critic must engage in a metadiscourse, a discourse about discourse. The critic, intensely self-reflective, evaluates the validity of discursive systems both with regard to the artist or author's language and with regard to that language's connection to "the world." What Barthes calls "bad faith" on 282 is the refusal to circle back reflexively on one's own metacritical task as a critic. As for the critic's responsibility to the past and to the author he or she analyzes, I want to leave this part of the essay to you. I'll ask, then, how it is that Barthes' critic doesn't just pay homage to past's ideas and authors but instead makes our own times more intelligible to us even as he talks about long-gone authors and texts. The critic doesn't simply repeat or transmit the past and its ideas to us-something more creative and interesting happens. What is it and what makes it possible for it to happen?

*"The Death of the Author" (1968)

In this essay, Barthes' terms have shifted a great deal, have even undergone a sea-change. Now Barthes sees the concept "author" as something hostile to modern creativity and understanding. The "author," writes Barthes, is a concept that some would use for transmitting to us directly the heavy burden of past ideas, past history, and past solutions to problems that still plague us. The "author," with his stable corpus of "literary works" and his guardian-critics, is the repository of reactionism, of history as lowering authoritarians would have it interpreted. In this way art becomes the handmaiden of repressive political ideology and serves as history's slave. The "scriptor," by contrast, is merely "the one who writes," a function of the text rather than a biological human being in control of his or her own meanings. The scriptor is a synchronic function of textuality, is well explained by the linguist, and does not bring along with it the author's history or "diachronicity," to use a fancy term. Rather than provide lots of answers, I'll just ask you to complete the interpretation: to what extent has Barthes reenvisioned "structure" as something other than a closed set of differential units of meaning? If he has in fact given up on the old idea of structure as such a tidy, closed principle, what might he say is to be gained by this new way of talking in terms of "scriptors" and "texts" rather than authors and literature? Is there still a kind of intelligibility to be gained from "the death of the author" and the simultaneous "birth of the reader"? If so, what kind of intelligibility would it be?