Plurality, Network, and Decentered Meaning in Barthes' S/Z

Andres Luco, English 111, 1999

"text" pp. Of texere’ to weave (Webster's New World Dictionary, 3rd Edition).

In S/Z, Roland Barthes carefully works to disassemble a popular French short story, "Sarrassine" by Honore de Balzac, and in doing so, unveils a complex system of textual codes inscribed within the narrative body. By uncovering a multiplicity of codes present in the text, Barthes lays claim to the true "plural" quality of discourse, which also supposes that any text is merely an assemblage of familiar "signifiers" that the reader passively deciphers and mobilizes in a purely conventional response. As the discourse progresses, the reader is compelled to bind all the independent codes together into a cohesive, centralized meaning. The aforementioned scenario describes textual reception in relation to what Barthes calls "the readerly": "The reader is thereby intransitive left with no more than a referendum (S/Z 4)." In opposition to this term, Barthes introduces a new, emergent concept of textuality, appropriately named "the writerly," where "the goal of literary work is to make the reader a producer of the text (S/Z 4)." One major result of the writerly text is to give the reader a better awareness of and control over the innumerable codes which, in the readerly, are deployed by the author in a covert transaction. Three key elements are crucial to ensure the existence of the writerly text: plurality, network, and decentralization. Each of these elements will be outlined briefly, along with some attention to how Barthes himself employs them in the composition of "S/Z".

From the outset of "S/Z", Barthes makes it clear that he will set out "to restore each text to its function making it cohere by the infinite paradigm of difference to a basic typology (S/Z 3)." What he means by the "paradigm of difference" and a "typology" of the text is of crucial concern to the concept of "plurality". At the heart of this concern is the distinction between "denotation" and "connotation." According to Barthes, a readerly text subordinates connotation (i.e. multitudinous associated meanings) to denotation as a means to fix, or center meaning. Even while connotation is moderately active in a readerly text, it only functions within a pre-ordained system of meanings, which might allude back to a central value after all: "Connotation is the way limited plural of the classic text (S/Z 8)." In "S/Z", Barthes denies the prospect of constructing a "metameaning" for "Sarrassine"; rather, he goes about dissecting its various connoted meanings in order to reveal the text's status as a set of interwoven "codes". This is Barthes' basis for so meticulously examining "Sarrassine" in the odd, phrase by phrase manner. Regardless, Barthes was successful in establishing a "typology" of the story, in which he presents and develops 5 independent, yet frequently overlapping codes (i.e. "SEM., SYM., REF., ACT, HER.). As long as we trust Barthes' taxonomy, it is easy to observe that he successfully maintains a pluralistic account of Balzac's story.

Implicit in the contention of the writerly text is something else of great interest: the idea of the text as a node within a network of codes. If we imagine a narrative or any other type of discourse to be a threaded tapestry, then we as readers are already familiar with its fabric. In other words, Barthes argues that a reader never encounters a text for the first time, for she has already been exposed to the universal codes that penetrate all texts, only in different forms: "This ‘I' which approaches the text is already itself a plurality of other texts I am not hidden the meanings I find are established by their systematic mark functioning (S/Z 10-11)." From here, it is possible to conceive of the text (and the reader) as an intersection of codes within a vast cultural network. Rather than blurring all traces of this network, a writerly text exposes it to the reader, allowing her to navigate her own course along the multidimensional body of the text, freely and repetitively experiencing the text through various contingencies: " we undertake to reread the text to multiply the signifiers (S/Z 165)." Interestingly enough, the format of "S/Z" itself scatters a total discussion of each code throughout the book (as Appendix III illustrates). No linear organization of Barthes' theory is attempted; everything that is discussed purely depends upon what is encountered in the story as "S/Z" moves along. Thus, in the spirit of a networked text, it is possible to read "S/Z" from point to point, and not only straight through.

Related to the idea of the network in writerly texts is the requirement for de-centered meaning. To review, plurality and the network provide the possibility for the reader to take advantage of different avenues of meaning. As a corollary to this phenomenon, the reader cannot be compelled to follow one avenue over another: " this ideal text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds (S/Z 5)." Indeed, Barthes even goes so far as to suggest that a text is not capable of denoting an ultimate signified (of offering a central meaning). Given his account of plural and networked codes, this isn't surprising. Nevertheless, this is the aim of the readerly text: " the discourse scrupulously keeps within a circle of solidarities the readerly is controlled by the principle of non-contradiction by stressing at every opportunity the compatible nature of circumstances (S/Z 156)." Denotation is crucial to the readerly's struggle for semantic cohesion. The intersections between various codes and meanings are stress points in the readerly's structure. The automatic response of the readerly is to superimpose hierarchies among the different codes. Barthes posits the writerly alternative in "S/Z": the absence of hierarchy, solidarity. He never funnels the analysis of the five codes into a grand conclusion; instead, he faithfully preserves its multiplicity. Plurality, network, decentralization. These features of the writerly text are definitely related, intertwined even, but not one of them exerts dominance over the other. They are each fundamental and necessary functions of the writerly text.

Putting all praise for Barthes aside, one question stands. How did the categorizing of the five codes come to be determined in the first place? Barthes introduces them and continues without giving much information on how he was able to isolate them. And if, as Barthes suggests, the text is a "galaxy of signifiers," what makes it possible for one to identify the fundamental "patterns" of signifiers? Of course, an explanation of this process would probably require a separate book. Thus, as in all healthy criticism, Barthes' thesis should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the vision of the writerly remains an outstanding one.

discussions of S/Z

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