Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Literary Interlude, "Statement of Purpose Via Roland Barthes" Edition


...The Text is plural. Which is not simply to say that it has several meanings, but that it accomplishes the very plural of meaning: an irreducible (and not merely an acceptable) plural. The Text is not a co-existence of meanings but a passage, an overcrossing; thus it answers not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination. The plural of the Text depends, that is, not on the ambiguity of its contents but on what might be called the stereographic plurality of its weave of signifiers (etymologically, the text is a tissue, a woven  fabric). The reader of the Text may be compared to someone at a loose end (someone slackened off from any imaginary); this passably empty subjects strolls—it is what happened to the author of these lines, then it was that he had a vivid idea of the Text—on the side of a valley, a oued flowing down below (oued is there to bear witness to a certain feeling of unfamiliarity); what he perceives is multiple, irreducible, coming from a disconnected, heterogeneous variety of substances and perspectives: lights, colours, vegetation, heat, air, slender explosions of noises, scant cries of birds, children's voices from over on the other side, passages, gestures, clothes of inhabitants near or far away. All these incidents are half-identifiable: they come from codes which are known but their combination is unique, founds the stroll in a difference repeatable only as difference. So the Text: it can be it only in its difference (which does not mean its individuality), its reading is semelfactive (this rendering illusory any inductive-deductive science of texts—no "grammar" of the text) and nevertheless woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages (what language is not?), antecedent or contemporary, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The intertextual in which every text is held, it itself being the text-between of another text, is not to be confused with some origin of the text: to try to find the "sources," the "influences" of a work, is to fall in with the myth of filiation; the citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas. The work has nothing disturbing for any monistic philosophy (we know that there are opposing examples of these); for such a philosophy, plural is the Evil. Against the work, therefore, the text could well take as its motto the words of the man possessed by demons (Mark 5:9): "My name is Legion: for we are many." The plural of demoniacal texture which opposes text to work can bring with it fundamental changes in reading, and precisely in areas where monologism appears to be the Law: certain of the "texts" of Holy Scripture traditionally recuperated by theological monism (historical or anagogical) will perhaps offer themselves to a diffraction of meanings (finally, that is to say, to a materialist reading), while the Marxist interpretation of works, so far resolutely monistic, will be able to materialize itself more by pluralizing itself (if, however, the Marxist "institutions" allow it).

—Roland Barthes, from "From Work to Text" in Image/Music/Text (1977)

I may well be reading too much into this passage, but, in the way it suggests, through all the semiological jargon, the possibility of finding multiple meanings in a text, I see a justification of sorts of the existence of arts criticism: as an outlet for elucidating these meanings through various prisms, whether self-contained or connected to the wider world. And considering Barthes, in Image/Music/Text, uses a frame of cultural reference that ranges from Beethoven to Goldfinger, I imagine he would embrace the idea, arguably made popular a couple decades before this by those Cahiers du cinéma critics in the 1950s, that such a multiplicity of meanings can be found even in the most seemingly "lowbrow" of texts.

By the way, if any of you want to have your brain hardwired to look at art through a deconstructive prism of signs and signifiers, Roland Barthes—judging by this one book of his I'm still reading—is your man. It's truly mind-altering stuff, if sometimes verging on the dryly academic.