A Summary of Rolland Barthes' "From Work to Text"

Geoffrey Thurley in his work, “Counter-Modernism in Current Critical Theory” (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), asserts that Barthes's essay, "From Work to Text" is no more than an expression of a determination not to acknowledge the old ‘bourgeois’ literature, and we should waste our time chasing shadows if we tried to assign his phrases any concrete meaning" (Thurley, p. 228). Though this comment was meant as a criticism of Barthes's work, the second part of the sentence ironically approximates Barthes' own formulation of his essay because his essay offers "not argumentations but enunciations, ‘touches’, approaches that consent to remain metaphorical".

In his essay, From Work to Text, Barthes argues that the relation of writer, reader and observer is changed by movement from work to text. In this light, we can observe Barthes's propositions of the differences between work and text in terms of method, genres, signs, plurality, filiation, reading, and pleasure.

First of all, Barthes said that the text should not be thought as an object that can be computed. It would be futile to try to separate out materially works from texts. Besides, we must also avoid the tendency to say that the work is classis and the text is avant-grade. Barthes implies that there is a concrete quality to some writing, which identifies it as a ‘text’ and not as a ‘wok’. When discussing the issue of whether texts can be seen as a product of modernity, he comments, “There may be ‘text’ in a very ancient work, while many products of contemporary literature are in no way texts”. Barthes thought that the Text is a "methodological field" rather than a portion of the space of books", that is the work (170). Like Lacan's distinction between "reality" and "real": the one is displayed, the other is demonstrated. Likewise, the work can be seen and held in hand while the text is a process of demonstration, which is held in language. "The text is experienced only in an activity of production": the text is writable through tracing the flickering of presence and absence of the chain of signifiers. So the text "cannot stop" because the process of language does not come to an end, the meaning is always suspended, something deferred or still to come.

Then, the subversive power of the text is that it cannot be contained in a hierarchy or a simple division of genres. What constitutes the text is its subversive force with regard to old classifications. The text poses problems of classification because it always involves a certain experience of limits. The text tries to place itself very exactly behind the limit of genres – all literary texts are woven out of other literary texts. There is no literary 'originality': all literature is 'intertextual' and paradoxical.

Thirdly, the Text can be approached, experienced, in reaction to the sign. That is, the work closes on a signified that falls under the scope of an interpretation. In short, the work itself functions as a general sign and it is normal that it should represent an institutional category of the civilization of the Sign. The text, on the contrary, practices the infinite deferment of the signified. The infinity of the signifier refers to some idea of a playing – to play with the disconnections, overlappings, and variations between signifier and signified. In this respect, the work is moderately symbolic and the text is radically symbolic, filled with symbolic nature – like language, it is structured but off-centered, without closure.

The fourth idea is the plurality of the Text. It accomplishes the very plural of meaning: an irreducible plurality, which answers not to an interpretation but to an explosion, a dissemination. The plurality of the text depends not on the ambiguity of its contents but on the stereographic plurality of its weave of signifier. The weave of signifiers in the Text reveals a complex network of sign (citations, references, echoes, cultural languages) – in this extent, no sign is ever 'pure' or 'fully meaningful'. So the Text can be itself only in its differences, not monistic determination.

Then, the work is caught up in a process of filiation. According to Barthes, literary science teaches us two things i.e. to respect for the work and to respect the author’s declared intentions (the law/his copyright) therefore if we respect or admire the work we must also respect its author. The text can be read without the inscription of the author who is refuted the father and the owner of his work. Hence, no vital ‘respect’ is due to the text because text can be broken and read without the guarantee of its father. The author who exists in his text is only as a textual element or factor. He is merely a symbol of the function at the level of the work. The biography of the author is merely another text, which does not indicate any privilege – it is the language, which speaks in the Text, not the author himself. Also, it is the reader who focuses the multiplicity of the text, not the author.

The work is normally the object of consumption. We focus on the quality of the work rather than reading a text as a process. On the occasion as we focus on the reading as a process, we create ‘text’. We cannot consume the text, we can only play with it. Reading is the consumption of the work, not that of the text. In this light, the text itself plays and the reader plays twice over through reading – the text asks of the reader a practical collaboration, then it becomes writable. The radical fundamentality of text is that ‘text’ is the practice; it actively plays the volume.

The final approach to the Text is pleasure. According to Barthes, there exists a pleasure of certain works but this pleasure is in the level of consumption (passive). As for the text, the pleasure is bound to ‘jouis sance’ or the pleasure without separation. That is, the Text is a space of social utopia, which transcends social relations (author, reader, critic) and language relations (no language has a hold over any other).

At the beginning and at the end of his essay, Barthes clearly indicates his intention to separate his own critical formulations from critical formulations of the work. Since meta-language employs logic in order to set its own string of signifiers apart from the text, he will avoid doing so. He sets up the "arguments" and the "logic" which others employ in opposition to his "propositions" which are to be "understood more in a grammatical than in a logical sense". In his essay, ‘From Work to Text’, he attempts to maintain the distance between the binary opposition of "work" and "text" by defining each term in contrast to each other. At the end of his essay, he again insists that his "few propositions" do not constitute the articulations of a Theory of the Text and fail to form a meta-language, which would dictate how a text should be read. The theory of the Text is nothing but practice.

In other ways, however, the essay belongs to the textual world consisting of texts conceived as works. For instance, though he claims to avoid formulating a Theory of the Text, he cannot in fact escape the need to understand language through theorizing. Though he signals his aversion to logical constructs by attempting to assert rather than attempting to explain what constitutes a work and what constitutes a text, he cannot do so without operating according to the dictates of a meta-language.


Semsettin said…
wonderfully written, thanks a lot!
Doug said…
Well written, could use a little proofreading, but a well done argument. It helped me a lot with organizing my thoughts.
Anonymous said…
This is so helpful! Thanks!
vijeth said…
thank you for the wonderful elucidation.
Mar said…
Wonderfully written! Thanks!
Anonymous said…
this was stated verbatum of what another article stated. i don't see that woman's name as being given credit to.
Anonymous said…
If you are going to take a quote directly from From Work to Text, please put quotation marks around it. Most of this article isn't original work, it's just pulled from Barthes' original text with no quotation marks. I understand that it's about that specific essay but you still need to use quotation marks.

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