S/Z by Roland Barthes

Barthes, Roland, and Honoré de Balzac. S/Z. New York: Hill and Wang :The Noonday Press, 1974.

Barthes performs an analysis influenced by structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure that explores and (de)mystifies the link between a sign and its meaning. However, S/Z is identified as a postructuralist text because Barthes criticizes narratology as an attempt to establish an overall system out of which all individual narratives are created, which makes the text lose its specificity (différance). This criticism is ostensibly laid out by Barthes’ use of five specific “codes” of reading that reveal literary texts reflect structures that are interwoven in ways that do not close down meaning into one. Instead there is a plurality that he insists cannot ever be reduced to a single privileged interpretation.

Hermeneutic code: “all those units whose function it is to articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer; or even, constitute an enigma and lead to its solution” (17).

Semic code: “the unit of the signifier” which creates or suggests “connotation” (17).

Symbolic code: “lays the groundwork” for a “symbolic structure” (17).

Proairetic code: “the code of actions and behavior” (18).

Reference code: “the knowledge or wisdom to which the text continually refers” (18); “references to a science or a body of knowledge” (20). (Barthes also calls this the “cultural code.”)

What I take from his analysis of Balzak’s work is that the critic/reader is simultaneously producing a text as they are reading it and as they are writing it.  Instead of reading a text for its linear plot, and rather than attempting to locate fundamental structures of literature in a text (things like genre), we have to be conscious that the reader is “no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” (4)  Barthes himself produces Sarrasine as he reads it.  In all its radical structural perversity Barthes is making us aware of our processes of reading as a very tight relationship between reader and text, between author and reader, that we do more than “accept or reject the text” (4) but create it as we read it.

His way of reading also reveals that as we read we make decisions about meaning, and even when looking at a single sentence there are a variety of meanings we choose. As Barthes puts it, ” “the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one” (5)  Even “plotting” is a retroactive construction.  Narrative is more like a constellation; a “nebulae of signifieds” (8) than a single authoritative assertion.


About kathrynpagel

Professor of Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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