10C Barthes "From Work to Text"

Richard L. W. Clarke LITS3304 Notes 10C
Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” Modern Literary Theory: a Reader. Ed. Philip Rice and
Patricia Waugh. London: Edward Arnold, 1989. 166-171.
Barthes states in this essay that it is best to speak of literary text rather than work because
the former suggests, via its allusion to the interweaving of different strands of material (text
originally meant cloth-fabric), the way in which each text is caught up in a web of
intertextuality. That is, if every sign gestures towards every other sign, then so does each
Barthes argues that there are a number of differences between a literary text and a
literary work. He warns, firstly, against the dangers of basing such a distinction on
chronology, determining that the “work is classic, the text avant-garde” (167): “there may be
‘text’ in very ancient work, while many products of contemporary literature are in no way
texts” (167). Rather, he contends that where the work is synonymous with an actual book
which one can hold in one’s hands or lodge in a library (that is, it occupies an actual physical
space) or even place on an examination syllabus, the text is what he describes as a
“methodological field” (167). By that, Barthes means that the text is a “process of
demonstration” (167) and that it “speaks according to certain rules” (167). In other words,
“the Text is experienced only in an activity of production” (167). The text is not the
“decomposition of the work, it is the work that is the imaginary tail of the Text” (167).
Indeed, the text is not confined to the space occupied by a single work. Rather, it “cannot
stop . . . its constitutive movement is that of cutting across (in particular, it can cut across the
work, several works” (167).
Secondly, the text cannot be constrained by outmoded generic classifications or
distinctions between literature and non-literature or between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature. Texts
possess a “subversive force in respet of the old classifications” (167) and may even be, in
some cases, “limit-works” (167), that is, which go to the “limit of the rules of enunciation”
Thirdly, where the work “closes on a signified” (168) which is either self-evident or
“secret, ultimate, something to be sought out” (168), the text “practices the infinite deferment
of the signified . . . its field is that of the signifier” (168) which must not be viewed as “‘the
first stage of meaning’, its material vestibule, but, in complete opposition to this, as its
deferred action” (168). The “logic regulating the Text is not comprehensive (define ‘what the
work means’) but metonymic” (168): the text produces a “serial movement of disconnections,
overlappings, variations” (168), encouraging the “activity of associations, contiguities,
carryings-over [which] coincides with a liberation of symbolic energy” (168).
Fourthly, the text is plural. It does not merely have several meanings. It is irreducible
to any meanings. It is not a “coexistence of meanings but a passage, an overcrossing” (168)
answers not to an interpretation . . . but to an explosion, a dissemination. The
plural of the text depends . . . 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). . . . (168).
The text is
woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, . . .
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
Richard L. W. Clarke LITS3304 Notes 10C
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. (169)
The reader is confronted with “multiple, irreducible, . . . disconnected, heterogeneous variety
of substances and perspectives” (169) which are “half-identifiable” (169) because “they come
from codes which are known but their combination is unique”(169).
Fifthly, where the work is “caught up in a process of filiation” (169) (it is determined
by “the world” [169], by its place within literary history, and by its “conformity” (169) to its
author who is “reputed the father and owner of the work” [169], the text is read “without the
inscription of the Father” (169). Where the work is thought in terms of an “organism which
grows by vital expansion, by ‘development’ (170), the text is something best conceptualised
in terms of a “network” (170) and can accordingly be “read without the guarantee of its
father” (170). If the Author makes a return to the text, it is “as a ‘guest’” (170): “he is
inscribed” (170) like one of his characters, figured in the carpet” (170). His “life is no longer
the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work” (170). Indeed, his work allows
his life to be read as a text. This is true even of biography where the very term indicates that
“the I which writes the text . . . is never more than a paper-I” (170).
Sixthly, where the work is the “object of consumption” (170), the text is “play, activity,
production, practice” (170). In the text, the gap between writing and reading is deconstructed
by joining writer and reader “into a single signifying practice” (170). The reader is “called
upon to be in some sort the co-author of the score, completing it” (171). The text “asks of
the reader a practical collaboration” (171) in which s/he is called upon to “produce the text,
open it out, set it going.