Reading a Legible Reality: Barthes and the Infinite Text

Andrew David King
November 28, 2012
Comments 1

While perusing the KR blog archives this past week, I came across a great post by Hilary Plum about the Occupy movement, social vicissitudes, and the trouble with the “us” versus “them” distinction. Her post takes its title—“Whoz Side U On, Anyway?”—from a Dean Young poem of the same name, and so I read it, curious to see how it pertained. Like a good handful of other Young poems I’ve read, it’s funny, smart, and hip, but never too obviously any of those things; when you read it, you’re never quite sure which parts are serious statements, which ones are jokes, and which ones are meta-statements that take on the patina of jokes and vice versa. The poem describes, in one part, a strange colloquium of poets on what counts as avant-garde; a man who writes a poem about hitting a deer with his car and “feeling kinda bad” isn’t very avant-garde, so it’s “off to Russia” with him. But either the most hilarious or most sincere part—or, mutually, the most tragicomic part—is a line that jabs or exonerates a crux of avant-garde and cultural criticism: the action of what I will call textifying (not quite contextualizing, though I’ll get to that) the subjects of such criticism. “See this shoe? It’s a text,” Young writes, smirking or scowling or straight-faced.

I tried to put off discussing what so irked me about the line for some time. In fact, it seemed impossible to articulate until just the other day, when I tried to send an email containing nothing but an attached file. “Send this message without a subject or text in the body?” the warning pop-up window read—a truncated version, of course, of something like, “There is no text in the body of this email; shouldn’t you put some in?” Setting aside the antiquatedness of file transference via email, there are bigger questions here: is there text in the body? Is there a subject? Can a body be a body without implying some kind of text? How much is subject constituent of subjectivity? And so on. All of this echoes arguments about digitalism, the body, individual identity, and the decline of a coherent humanism in an age where electronic models of consciousness seem more and more plausible—topics I’m not prepared to take up—not to Robert Burns’s (and, famously, J.D. Salinger’s) line from his 1782 poem, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”: “Gin a body meet a body / Comin thro’ the rye…” Instead, I wondered at the possibility of objects like bodies becoming texts, or containing them, and what this possibility or lack thereof entails for criticism; is it necessary to render, or attempt to render, things as texts in order to make them intelligible? Do ekphrastic writings fail if the works they build from can also be “texts”—i.e., if they can signify—in some way, and therefore speak for themselves? Are paintings and songs texts, too? And, if they are, does this depend on their being written down and embodied (hah!) in some material incarnation, or because of something intrinsic to them that exists no matter the body of presentation, that exists whether we read a score or hear it sung?

These questions are important because, for any standard of intelligibility, clarity and consistency in terminology—as much as the subject matter affords and calls for—are important. And the tendency to subsume various bodies, not all human or even animate, into new statuses as “texts” to be “read” supposes that such is possible—and not just possible but plausible, desirable, and even demanded. I am not sure that it is. Young wasn’t the first to mention the tendency (though he may have been the first to turn it into poetic trope); by the time it appears in his poem it’s old hat—up for grabs, true, but anxiety-inducing because it’s still our crutch. This is not to say that there’s no apparent reason why the textification of subjects became a prevalent phenomena. To my mind, there are many reasons, the most pressing of them being the need to find some way to critique the seemingly un-critique-able—slickly embedded discourses, ideologies, assumptions, and other forceful or coercive arguments not contained in speech. By transforming these systems and things into texts, textification grants them comprehensibility and thereby opens up a space for them to be interrogated or rebutted. It also makes the unfamiliar (the non-textual) familiar (textual). This, at least, is how I understand the motive to textify.

But I have more questions—namely about that which we might, contra our subversive aims, actually lose when we transmogrify non-texts into texts. (I hope I can be granted at least one distinction so far, lest I be accused of begging the question in the technical sense: I begin by accepting that there is a difference between texts and non-texts and that the burden of proof is on the textifier to show why non-texts should be “read” in the strict sense in which one would “read” a “text.” I don’t think this is too radical. But I know many people would challenge this very distinction on the grounds that it’s fallacious or hegemonic.) Do we lose something characteristic about objecthood by forcing upon objects the motifs and criteria of texts? I am assuming, throughout, that all texts are objects of a sort but that not all objects are texts—or are reducible thereto. And if there are some objects that aren’t inherently or intrinsically texts, how do we make the leap into legibility? How do we take the non-textual and translate it into the textual, and what’s our process for this? Even if we do have a process, however, I’m not sure that it won’t have pitfalls—or, if it does, that we should accept them.

Even Barthes, writing in Mythologies, had his own sense of the limitations of semiology, of systems of signs and how we could interpret them, though this was clearly foregrounded by statements about semiology’s utter importance:

The development of publicity, of a national press, of radio, of illustrated news, not to speak of the survival of a myriad rites of communication which rule social appearances makes the development of a semiological science more urgent than ever. In a single day, how many really non-signifying fields do we cross? Very few, sometimes none. Here I am, before the sea; it is true that it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, sign-boards, clothes, suntan even, which are so many messages to me.

Curious but telling, this distinction: we does the sea bear no message? I’m no Barthes scholar, and wouldn’t be able to say whether or not this point gets taken up again in another of his writings somewhere. But it seems that there’s an important, or at least interesting, move being made here: there are “very few” sites that lack signification, but they do exist. I have to wonder, though, if they only fail to exist in the semiologist’s eyes because their signs are too hard to read; but couldn’t one argue that the sea has been assigned tons of semiological meaning by various societies, by virtue of its being a part of the landscape that humans inhabit? Maybe. Or maybe the semiological can only exist via the activity of humans—though we can’t say intentional activity, because this would obscure the way in which many of us move through society unconscious of the ways in which our behaviors, and the behaviors of others, signify. It’s clear we need some better criteria, and Barthes provides it:

…[I]s myth always depoliticized speech? In other words, is reality always political? Is it enough to speak about a thing naturally for it to become mythical? There are, therefore, strong myths and weak myths; in the former, the political quantum is immediate, the depoliticization is abrupt; in the latter, the political quality of the object has faded like a color, but the slightest thing can bring back its strength brutally: what is more natural than the sea? and what more ‘political’ than the sea celebrated by the makers of the film The Lost Continent?

So there is a relationship, then, between the natural and the political, one such that we can still distinguish between objects sans signification (“the sea itself,” one might say, aping W.C. Williams) and objects appropriated toward signification (the sea in The Lost Continent). Myth, in being speech—as Barthes puts it—and signification, in being a form of communication, can be read, can be understood. And inasmuch as the objects that we wish to critique in the world are objects that are either parts of myths or could be made parts of myths, aren’t they fair game for the sort of textification that wants to make them available for examination? Barthes also goes on to expand the relationship between the signifier and the signified to include a third term: there’s the signifier, the signified, and then also the sign, which is “the associative total of the first two terms.” In this way, Barthes is able to capture both the structure and the phenomenology of semiological systems: he gets clear on what how they seem to work and on how they appear to us. He expresses this relationship with the following chart:

Seeing that even the sea can signify for Barthes—or, at least, he can take it to signify in a certain setting, to be made a part of myth—why can’t other objects that don’t seem textual at first be made into texts? Perhaps some might think that my question is trivial, or shallow, and this might be true in some cases where the media in question could plausibly be said to be fundamentally communicative; therefore, transitioning or translating it into another medium and textifying it just isn’t that big of a deal. But there are some examples, I think, where textification can become gratuitous, or at least questionable. Maybe it appears questionable to me only because it’s foreign; maybe because it seems over-the-top; maybe because it’s not apparent to me just what the methodology is for going about this odd transition from object to text. Nonetheless, it’s crucial for someone like myself who is interested in possessing a comprehensible vocabulary through which texts and art-objects can be spoken about. Because I agree with Barthes that “the development of a semiological science more urgent than ever”—Mythologies was first published in 1957; imagine, just imagine, what he would write if he were still alive today—I think that it is important to ask questions about that development, and to look closely at the semiologist’s assumptions and goals when speaking about objects as texts.

The other day, while doing research on animal rights for a side project, I came across Carol J. Adams’s 1990 book The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory. This a good example, I think, of a borderline case of plausible/implausible textifying at first: what is it about meat, one thinks, that makes it anything like a text? On a materialist conception, is it not just material? Is it not utterly deprived, by its definition as a certain type of physical, biological thing, of the possibility of signifying? Not so, says, Adams. Reading passages from her book out of order, without reading her own articulation of her methodology first, produced the shock of confronting unfamiliar systems of interpretation: some systems, Adams seems to want to say, necessitate a treatment as texts to be critiqued, and for good reason. “By speaking of the texts of meat we situate the production of meat’s meaning within a political-cultural context,” she writes. “None of us chooses the meanings that constitute the texts of meat, we adhere to them.” So by moving meat into the realm of “text” we enable its political and cultural examination; this makes sense, but I’m not sure that the idea that “none of us chooses the meanings that constitute the texts of meat” does. Nonetheless, she goes on to put forward some criteria for what might make an object plausible as a text:

In defining the patriarchal texts of meat, part 1 relies on an expanded notion of what constitutes a text. These include: a recognizable message; an unchangeability of the text’s meaning so that through repetition the same meaning recurs; and a system of relations that reveal coherence. So with meat: It carries a recognizable message—meat is seen as an item of food, for most meat is an essential and nutritious item of food; its meaning recurs continuously at mealtimes, in advertisements, in conversations; and it is comprised of a system of relations having to do with food production, attitudes toward animals, and, by extension, acceptable violence toward them.

But what motivates Adams toward this? For her, part of the “recognizable message” of meat—which is now itself a form of text—is that it “includes association with the male role; its meaning recurs within a fixed gender system; the coherence it achieves as a meaningful item of food arises from patriarchal attitudes including the idea that the end justifies the means, that the objectification of other beings is a necessary part of life, and that violence can and should be masked.” Intuitively, I’d agree with many of these claims, though obviously many others wouldn’t. Semiology runs into trouble when it is forced to really prove the intuitive claims on which it is based, which makes it difficult for it to be the “science” that Barthes seems to want it to be. Nonetheless, there’s also a way in which these narratives and their signs are so ingrained that the only way to talk about them is to undertake what one might call some sort of “informed speculation”—an intuitive but not unintellectual reading of a particular system of signs in a particular situation. What’s also difficult to reconcile is that, presumably, both Adams and the sign-system she’s researching have political motivations and commitments, even if they’re unconscious ones (they’re less conscious for the system and its practitioners, of course, but there are also ways in which Adams—and here’s another assumption of semiology—is signifying, and victim of the signification of, things she’s not directly aware of). Textifying, though, can serve to equalize certain discourses, to knock down their pedestals: “People do not often closely scrutinize their own meat eating. This is an example of the prerogative of those in the dominant order to determine what is worthy of conversation and critique.” Indeed, much of Adams’s book is about just that: what goes into the process of determining the realm of social acceptability with regard to speech and behavior. Her book and project, then, is interested in un-embedding certain systems and their assumptions, and maybe also in subverting them.

But Adams knows that social activity is what both creates and re-establishes certain forms of meaning. Meat’s meaning, for instance, “is reproduced each time it is served and eaten.” Like Barthes, she also recognizes how arduous it is to critique that which one is affected or shaped—or even partially determined—by. Though “the texts of meat” must be disassembled, such cannot happen when meat is present “because it reifies the old codes.” What I take this to mean is that in order for a meaningful critique of social meat-eating to take place, the object of study must itself be removed from the discourse. It must be replaced with a doppelgänger, a text, which is also not its doppelgänger by virtue of its being a text. Adams’s project is interesting to me because it exemplifies what I think the motivation behind textifying might really be: a desire to grapple with, in an almost tactile way, that which seems to escape the words that a predominant discourse has provided. This I understand. But can everything really be a text, or do we really just mean to say that everything (everything, that is, in the scope of our interest) can be like a text—that is, that it has meanings we can most readily understand if we think about objects like we think about texts? The latter option provides the advantages of narrative structure, characters, roles, and so forth, all familiar elements to analysts of texts and all components, too, of the “speech” that Barthes finds mythology to be.

This seems understandable to me. But there are also some risks. By characterizing something as a text that is not a text proper, perhaps we move further away from the ways in which something is importantly not like a text, in which it cannot be read because it defines more democratic modes of meaning-making. This, after all, might be an even more effective route to take if what one wants to prove is that a particular object-cum-text supports an oppressive ideology, as Adams seems to want to do. It seems important to establish, first and foremost, the ways in which these things are not comprehensible before we render them comprehensible, or before we make the mistake of mimicking the same behavior we decry: that of imposing a system of signs or ideas onto something that does not naturally bear it. I understand, however, the practical limitations of this demand. Neither Barthes nor Adams nor any other interpreter of social behavior, semiological or otherwise, wants to spend their time exploring the idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and impossibilities of their methodologies. Wary of a total skepticism about these valid subjects of inquiry—a skepticism afforded by the very properties of culture they wish to interrogate—their concerns are practical: there are troubling power structures in social reality at play now, with various consequences happening now, which we might be closer to having solved if we just get over these methodological and theoretical hang-ups now so that we can speak frankly and pragmatically about what they engender.

This is noble, I think, and daring, and something I want to encourage. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think twice about textifying just anything, especially works of art in a criticism that isn’t weighed down by the same sort of social urgency that the above projects are. To do such is to pave over the gestural, the unspeakable, the not-quite-articulatable, that which lingers at the edge of comprehension not because it wants to be comprehended or because we could, if we wanted to, comprehend it, but because that’s what it is. This might just be what it means, in a sense, to live in a world of symbols: that our comprehension of them is always intricately tied up into our confrontation with them, our accosting of them (or their accosting of us). We both decode them and actualize them—and not even in turn, but at the same time. Maybe, for this reason, Barthes is precisely correct when he mentions the discipline of semiotics, if there can be one, in tandem with urgency; and maybe it’s why we’ve started to see, a la Occupy, the beginnings of what might be a mass disillusionment and discontentment with the systems of symbols that certain sectors of Western society afford their constituents. The first step to interrogation, and potentially to resistance, is to recognize symbols as such, but this is an increasingly harrowing task in a society where, as Benjamin writes in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.”

Roland Barthes

Our symbols are convoluted, but in order to decode them from their environment before decoding them themselves, we need to know what carries semantic weight: in other words, we need to know what can be read outright (what our de facto texts are), what can be textified, and what can’t. I don’t have any revolutionary answer to this question, but it seems clear that Dean Young’s hypothetical shoe just isn’t seriously a plausible text in itself; it might be plausible as part of a larger myth, but not by itself. There are other times when I’ve felt this way. A few years ago, I was perusing the Facebook page of a fairly well-known author I’d come to be friends with (in the Facebook sense, not in the actual); he’d posted a picture of a brick wall with some graffiti on it in the shape of a heart, and potentially some text. I don’t remember what the caption or exchange was, exactly, but I offered something in the way of a pithy comment. Not long after, another person commented with what I took to be a intensely verbose, pseudo, overdone “literary analysis”-type explication of the “meaning” contained in the image. I don’t mean to be a philistine here, but perhaps there are some objects that can be distorted by applying this type of analysis, which assumes both that textification is perennially plausible and that there’s some authorial intention behind any image to tack that textification to. “Guess which one of these is my student,” the writer commented, pleased with himself. Obviously, I was not the student—and gladly so. I wouldn’t have wanted to be that student; I aim to not read what’s not there as much as to read what is there, and though that distinction’s tricky, to not even toy with it is to approach solipsism. Both omission and invention are forms of misreading. There cannot be, then, an infinite text that contains as well as creates the world and all its ideas: at one point, as Barthes admits, signification stops. Even if it’s rare or improbable or hard to notice, it meets its limits. There are some fields and bodies that do not await our signification. To deny this is to deny that semiology has anything special to tell us.

I am, admittedly, prey to my own critique here: in the past I’ve written about the ways in which tattoos can be texts and, conversely, the ways in which texts or the experiences they represent can be tattoos, for instance. I might defend myself by saying that tattoos sometimes are quite literally texts, or contain them, but then I’d be committing myself to a reductive notion of what a text can be and what materials it can consist of. I’d also be opening an avenue into critiquing visual art—and thereby other visual forms of signification—as text. I have no explanation other than my own intuition: tattoos seem to be explicit acts of communication, whereas the forms of signification happening on a beach, as per Barthes’s example, perhaps aren’t. All of the confusion about what a text is, however, might be avoided if we alter our grammar. Why must a text be? We must an object also be a text? It seems that this is a much more serious metaphysical claim than most of us textifiers, including myself, are prepared to deal with. But the projects of ekphrasis and talking about works of visual art as if they have the capacity to be read as literary ones can be, at heart, imaginative. And while no imaginative project should be left unquestioned, neither should it be shunned. So long as I think about poems as existing on pages and other flat surfaces, so will I think of what other visuals might inhabit that surface, and how it can never be them, perhaps, but be like them. Though “like” only gives us one step of distinction while we need a whole staircase, it’s a start; it allows us to contextualize. This comparative approach might find, if it holds any water, a balance between an appropriate tentativeness and confidence, which it seems it would need to speak about the unspeakable—or to show that there are signs when we feel, mysteriously, as if we had been given no directions at all.

One thought on “Reading a Legible Reality: Barthes and the Infinite Text

  1. From what I gather, and it isn’t much, the blog places me in a position between analysis and creativity; to make something of something rather than take the voyeur but necessary way of science.

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