Thursday, March 13, 2003

Week 07, Levi-Strauss and Barthes

Notes on Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes.

Page-by-Page Notes on Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques.

1421. “[T]he chief had further ambitions. No doubt he was the only one who had grasped the purpose of writing.” The Nambikwara chief finds writing useful, and his take on this phenomenon seems anything but naïve. His cunning allies him with his European visitors, the “civilized” folk. But he (and therefore Lévi-Strauss) causes irritation as a result of his power play. The author is offering us a conscious agent-style story about how writing developed.

1422. “A native still living in the Stone Age had guessed that this great means towards understanding, even if he was unable to understand it, could be made to serve other purposes.” The author will write later (1424) that this understanding itself also serves the interests of power even though it seems like it should give the possessors more control over their societies.

1422-23. “The possession of writing vastly increases man’s ability to preserve knowledge. It can be thought of as an artificial memory, the development of which ought to lead to a clearer awareness of the past, and hence to a greater ability to organize both the present and the future. . . . Yet nothing we know . . . justifies this view.” Lévi-Strauss undermines one of the main ways of distinguishing between civilization and barbarism. Writing is usually linked to continuity: to a sense of history, progress, cultural values, and community. It’s generally said to offer a way of presencing a civilization.

1423-24. “My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery. The use of writing for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, is a secondary result, and more often than not it may even be turned into a means of strengthening, justifying, or concealing the other.” Lévi-Strauss dismisses the view that writing is merely a neutral or disinterested means of making intellectual progress. There’s no such thing as Matthew Arnold’s disinterested pursuit of culture—at least with respect to literary works of art. What is the implication for literature? Well, we might suggest that literary texts make up part of the means of control: another brand of hieratic written language. Also dismissed is the notion that literacy is primarily about our regard for democratic process and self-government. As in the chief’s example, it isn’t so much what writing means to individuals as what it does within the larger cultural system.

1424. “The villagers who withdrew their allegiance to their chief after he had tried to exploit a feature of civilization . . . felt in some obscure way that writing and deceit had penetrated simultaneously into their midst.” It seems that the natives didn’t buy the chief’s sham. They resisted the hierophant’s power. They linked writing with deceitful use of power. I suppose this real-life “fable” attests to the increasingly sophisticated ways in which the link between the cultural power emblematized by “the written” and social and political control.

1425. Lévi-Strauss’s style usually downplays the presence of an entire expedition group: apparently he wants to minimize contamination so that he seems to be observing the origins of social practices such as writing. At this point, however, he mentions his wife’s presence and the illness she came down with while traveling with the group.

1426. “The Nambikwara rely, then, on the generosity of the other side. It simply does not occur to them to evaluate, argue, bargain, demand or take back.” This tendency runs counter to the cleverness of the chief—the ordinary Nambikwara prefer intuitively an economy of generosity and fair exchange. They oppose the linearity or teleological dimension writing fosters. But what is Lévi-Strauss doing by way of questioning this opposition between the civilized and the primitive, so-called? Is he trying to set forth an alternative to our “corrupt” ways, thereby reasserting the values of primitivism?

General Notes on “The Death of the Author” (1968)

In this essay, Barthes’ terms have shifted a great deal, have even undergone a sea-change from his earlier work. 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?

Page-by-Page Notes on “The Death of the Author” (1968)


1466. The author signs his own “arrêt de mort” or death sentence, and the signing is an important event, bringing text and reader into contact. This act situates the text as a public code that can be appropriated only by an equally non-private reader. Barthes keeps using terms of privacy and the personal in a communal sense. He likes the idea of a pleasure-yielding encounter with texts, but wants to avoid reinforcing the social and political hierarchy usually invoked when we talk about the relationship between an individual, pleasure-seeking reader and a closed-off, authoritative literary text. As he writes, “Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.”

1466. “As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively . . . the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.” Fictive writing, in other words, refers only to itself. At the bottom of this page, Barthes praises Mallarmé for his liberated stance on the disappearance of the author: “Although the sway of the Author remains powerful (the new criticism has often done no more than consolidate it), it goes without saying that certain writers have long since attempted to loosen it.” Recall Walter Benjamin’s remarks in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” about aestheticism’s way of turning the text into an occult object, one with the powers of an author. Of course, Benjamin criticizes Mallarmé’s Symbolist doctrine as well. Partly what Barthes opposes is the capitalistic notion that the author of a text is its owner, upon which notion much criticism is based: “capitalist ideology . . . has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author. 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.” And when a work is explained, he suggests, the critic treats the author as “a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.” This is obviously, in Barthes’ view, a notion apt to underlie the hieratic transmission of knowledge and culture in a manner that allows the transmitters to control their reception and use.

1467. “Leaving aside literature itself (such distinctions really becoming invalid), linguistics has recently provided the destruction of the Author with a valuable analytical tool by showing that the whole of the enunciation is an empty process.” The structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and others, that is, have done much to strip away old-fashioned ideas about how language works, in particular the so-called “instrumental” view that posits univocal speakers using language much as they would use, say, a hammer to drive a nail into a wooden block.
1468. “For [the modern scriptor] . . . the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a pure gesture of inscription (and not expression), traces a field without origin—or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.” Barthes discusses the difference between linguistic inscription and expression, and finds inscription liberating. He offers us today an alternative view of 1960’s radicalism as not neo-romantic expressivism (with its emphasis on the transmission—or highly dramatized failure of transmission—of earnest meanings derived from the passionate interiority of the writer’s being), but rather a rejection of the expressive doctrine and the still- hierarchical mode of cultural transmission it implies: the author as genetic origin, pursued by critics and readers as a little god who anchors and limits the text’s meaning. By contrast, Barthes calls for jouissance. Mallarmé and the Symbolistes believed in the power not of the author but of the Word as something almost sacred. Barthes gives us a more open-ended or intertextual version of this ideal: an endlessly dynamic, non-denotative, pleasure-generating lexicon, and a kind of bliss that comes with embracing the play of signification, from reading not messages but rather “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writing, none of them original, blend and clash.” And he continues, “The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” A good question might be, is this a viable model for the writer? Or is the pleasure of the text primarily an experience to be had by readers, while the text is produced in another mode? Does is matter?

1469. “[L]ife never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred.” Barthes even refers to the language that subsumes the Author as an “immense dictionary.” We notice his use of a textile metaphor: the text as something woven, a tissue or fabric. This is a fine figure and it can be found as far back as Homer, whose nymphs and great ladies seem to be perpetual weavers and unweavers of the very story he tells. But Barthes writes in addition, “historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic.” Criticism seeks its object or even constitutes it, perhaps thereby serving an ideological purpose beyond the immediately literary realm.

1469. “[L]iterature . . . be refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God and his hypostases—reason, science, law. So Barthes declares writing (in the new sense he gives it) a revolutionary activity, and in this it reads like a post-structuralist manifesto. But with the hindsight of four decades, this may all sound rather optimistic. Can writing bear such a burden? It’s up against some pretty stiff opposition. Can anyone simply say at a given point in history, “I pronounce the author, the autonomous self, dead”? In Barthes’ view, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” The reader is the destination to which he refers. So Barthes is positing a kind of reading practice that would not reinforce any ideological narratives, one that would not make the text anchor us in a time, place, or a politics; there would be nothing to consider but the present field of play as constituted by the text. He puts the reader on what used to be the hierophantic author or critic’s level: we can experience jouissance rather than isolation, democracy rather than subordination of our desires to the imperatives of power and carefully limited meaning. A stirring declaration, no doubt—but the state of bliss Barthes promotes, I think, draws much of its power from that which it opposes, at least in the sense that the exhilaration comes from engaging in a practice that defiantly rejects hierarchy, authorship, and critical hegemony. I’m not so sure that most readers really want to experience a text that way like a fair amount of Continental theory from Barthes’ era (and today, for that matter), what we’re dealing with in “The Death of the Author” is advocacy in the guise of inevitability. Patterns of and expectations for reading surely change over time and in response to broader social, political, and technological factors, but I don’t think they change as quickly or as utterly and permanently as Barthes, writing in that momentous year of radical consciousness and uprising, 1968, implies they can. The conditions of textual production and reception are structured by all sorts of cultural, economic, and political imperatives, and it seems there’s nothing inevitable about the march towards textual jouissance or the death of the author.

1470. “[T]o give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” But again, un-repression, we might say, needs repression as its anterior condition. One might question the stability of such an achievement since it implies a notion of linearity and progress even as it celebrates play and randomness, the floating of signifiers without their settling in the realm of the signified.

Page-by-Page Notes on “From Work to Text” (1971)


1470. “The mutation in which the idea of work seems to be gripped must not, however, be over-estimated: it is more in the nature of an epistemological slide than of a real break.” This is a much more cautious statement, and a less celebratory one, than what we read in the earlier essay.

1471. “The Text is not an object to be thought of as an object that can be computed. . . . the Text is experienced only in an activity of production.” The text, as Barthes characterizes it, is all activity without end; it is not something static that shores up somebody or some group’s particular ideology and interests. A stable “work,” he suggests, always supports rank and privilege, while a “text” refuses coagulations of meaning into ideology: “What constitutes the Text is, on the contrary (or precisely), its subversive force in respect of the old classifications.” Further, he writes, “the Text tries to place itself very exactly behind the limit of the doxa. . . . Taking the word literally, it may be said that the Text is always paradoxical.” There are other views of textuality as opposed to stable, fixed works: we might consider Edward Said’s The World, the Text, and the Critic, in which texts are best seen as sites of struggle, not as a vehicle for liberation from determination by power interests. Said consistently writes of literary texts as both remarkably sophisticated and worldly productions, where voices and interests compete and can be profitably argued with by savvy readers. Said’s text is open, but retains its ideological charge, its ties to the interests of power.

1472. “The Text can be approached, experienced, in reaction to the sign. The work closes on a signified.” As Barthes explains, a work is bound to be thought either obvious in its meaning and therefore subject to the classificatory work of science and philology, or else it is considered mysterious and therefore the province of the various kinds of analysis: Marxist, psychoanalytic, formalist, etc. The work, then, is the ideal object for traditional education, with its need to codify and pass along fields of objective facts. Alternatively, it will require the priestly interpretive skills of the professor and critic. Barthes writes that “The logic regulating the Text is not comprehensive (define ‘what the work means’) but metonymic; the activity of associations, contiguities, carryings-over coincides with a liberation of symbolic energy . . . .” In this view, he is in accord with the Twentieth Century’s basic insight into the way language operates. His remark that without symbolic energy “man would die” amounts to saying that we are first and foremost linguistic beings. As he says by way of addition, “the Text is radically symbolic: a work conceived, perceived and received in its integrally symbolic nature is a text. Thus is the Text restored to language . . . .”

1472-73. “The Text is 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.” So the text is disseminative—this idea is in radical opposition to the formalist theory and practice still more or less reigning in American literature departments in 1971, which exalts the autonomous work to the status of Barthes’ Author. The text denies the affixing and limiting qualities of language. A Barthesian text won’t let us settle on fixed concepts or referents. It is an instantiation of symbolic energy, and entails the perpetual explosion of meaning: “The reader of the Text may be compared to someone at a loose end (someone slacked off from any imaginary); this passably empty subject strolls . . . on the side of a valley, a oued flowing down below . . . what he perceives is multiple, irreducible, coming from a disconnected, heterogeneous variety of substances and perspectives . . . .” The text isn’t unworldly as Barthes describes it at this point in his essay since it is “woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages . . . antecedent or contemporary” (1473).

1473. “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.” There’s no return to the originary meaning of the text, and Barthes is not interested in the private, the personal, and so forth: all of this amounts to what he calls “the myth of filiation.” On this page he also contrasts the best metaphor for works (organism) with the best one for texts: “the network.” In a network, you don’t look for a way back to the beginning, and if there’s a way out, it comes in the form of an “extension” perhaps not unlike the “combinatory systematic” of dynamic, living beings in nature. The text is in this way open-ended, and does not, says Barthes, command the “respect” that a work would—a change he considers all for the best.

1474. He writes, “The Text . . . decants the work . . . from its consumption and gathers it up as play, activity, production, practice. This means that the Text requires that one try to abolish . . . the distance between writing and reading . . . .” Reading should not be consumption, says Barthes: it should be production. Those trained to consume reading material in a passive manner can’t appreciate or produce texts, in his sense of that term. The advent of the critic testifies to the further progression of readerly passivity. Barthes’ reference to music is interesting in that it provides a different spin on the Paterian saying, “All art aspires to the condition of music.” Barthes is suggesting that the position of listener and producer of music used to be almost non-existent, even though things have now changed in that area of art.

1475. “the reduction of reading to a consumption is clearly responsible for the ‘boredom’ experienced by many in the face of the modern (‘unreadable’) text, the avant-garde film or painting: to be bored means that one cannot produce the text, open it out, set it going.” Pleasure in works is limited: one cannot rewrite Proust’s novels. Jouissance, says Barthes, is far different because it does not depend on the author. Ultimately, it is a species of pleasure allied with sexuality: one of the significations of the French verb jouir is, as readers may know, “to experience an orgasm.”

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