S/Z – Roland Barthes (1970)

S/Z, published in 1970, is Roland Barthes‘ structural analysis of ‘Sarrasine‘, the short story by Honoré de Balzac. Barthes methodically moves through the text of the story, denoting where and how different codes of meaning function. Barthes’ study made a major impact on literary criticism and is historically located at the crossroads of structuralism and post-structuralism. Barthes’s analysis is influenced by the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure; both Barthes and Saussure aim to explore and demystify the link between a sign and its meaning. But Barthes moves beyond structuralism in that he criticises the propensity of narratology to establish the overall system out of which all individual narratives are created, which makes the text lose its specificity (différance) (I). Barthes uses five specific ‘codes’ that thematically, semiotically/semiologically, and otherwise make a literary text reflect structures that are interwoven, but not in a definite way that closes the meaning of the text (XII). Barthes insists on the (different degrees of) plurality of a text — a plurality that should not be reduced by any privileged interpretation. He also flags the way in which the reader is an active producer of interpretations of the text, rather than a passive consumer. (II). Barthes defines five codes that define a network (or a topos) that form a space of meaning that the text runs through. But these codes and their mutual relations are not clear structures, and do not close the multivariance of the text. … The five codes together constitute a way of interpreting the text which suggests that textuality is interpretive; that the codes are not superimposed upon the text, but rather approximate something intrinsic to the text. The analogy Barthes uses to clarify the relationship of codes to text is to the relationship between a performance and the commentary that can be heard off-stage. In the ‘stereographic space’ created by the codes, each code becomes associated with a voice. …”
NY Times: An erotics of art (Nov. 1975)
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