David Greetham: Retexting the Barthesian Text in Textual Studies

Greetham_David-FR038Text as a Field of Contention

“Text” has proved to be a particularly problematic—and productive—term in both the critical theory with which Roland Barthes is associated and in the textual and editorial scholarship in which I have operated for most of my professional life. Perhaps inevitably, there is often considerable consensus on usage and meaning in the two fields. And equally inevitably, a good deal of dissent. A large part of my agenda as a textuist has been to discover the common threads and to demonstrate that there is much to be gained (for both groups) in an attempted understanding of the theoretical and practical operations of both dispensations. It was this belief that motivated my founding of the determinedly interdisciplinary Society for Textual Scholarship in the late 1970s (together with the journal Text, now Textual Cultures, the ongoing series of international conferences of STS. And this same conviction has driven the composition of most of my major publications, including Theories of the Text (1999) and The Pleasures of Contamination (2010). This current essay, in which I address the “renaissance” of Barthes from the two perspectives, is another attempt to show that, while we may seem to be speaking different languages and to have different critical aims, “critics”—in the bailiwick of structuralism, poststructuralism, and so on—and textuists have much to learn and profit from each other

Even the three “texts” in the title of this essay—a present participle (or possibly a gerund?), a noun, and an adjective—can begin to illustrate both the commonalty and the differences: as will be shown, “text” has been the focus of much debate in textual scholarship, as well as a pervasive concern in Barthesian criticism.  According to Geoff Dyer’s “Preface” to Barthes’s Camera Lucida, “the classic Barthesian insight into the nature of an event or thing, [the word] “text” was his consistently preferred term” (Barthes 1981: xi); and it should hardly be surprising that “text” should be so ubiquitous, or that this ubiquity should be just as evident in philological or editorial discussion as in critical theory. Barthes himself admits that “I know the word [text] is fashionable (I am myself often led to use it)” (1977: 156). And  we now inhabit a communication universe in which text or more properly its abbreviated form (txt) has become the preferred verb for messaging, an example of an obsolete usage1 having been resuscitated by a new technology2. Complementing Barthes’s self-citation, I would note that the index entry for text in my own Theories of the Text (Greetham 1999: 378) runs to well over a hundred citations for the word, not even including such sub-sections as “diachronic,” “paradigmatic,” “hierarchy of,” “as passive female,” “as scripture,” and “transactive,” culminating in a throwaway Barthesian moment “(see also “work”),” which then generates a further forty-seven citations. From long before Stanley Fish (1982) used the ambiguity of text (Is There a Text in This Class?) to demonstrate both the ambivalence, the polyvalence, and the contested semantic field of “textual” study, the word  has been testimony to a strange duality.

The Historical Evidence

This is not the place for an extended philological excursus, but from the very first appearance in English, in the thirteenth century, text has betrayed this paradoxical dichotomy: the etymology includes, on the one hand textus, “the Scriptures,” “the Gospel,” and thus an authority, and, on the other, a textile, “that which is woven, web, texture,” “the tissue of a written work,” from texere, “to weave.” This duality operates in two (contradictory?) modes. On the one hand, the OED defines one strand of the meaning of text as “the wording of anything written or printed,” as in OED (c1380) Cleanness (Nero) l. 1634 “Fyrst telle me Þe tyxte of Þe tede lettres” (which manages to combine the physicality of the text with a graphic networking—the “tede lettres”). But, on the other, OED also uses a quotation from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a citation that seems to anticipate the Barthesian relation between text and work; “Hit is the tytelet token & tyxt of her werkkeȝ.” Barthes’s “From Work to Text” (1977) is the best known argument for what we may call the “textile” metaphor (the networked, the multiform, or what Barthes sees as an aspect of the “Einsteinian science [that] demands that the relativity of the frames of reference be included in the object of study” (156). But Barthes sets this “Einsteinian” model against the “Newtonian way” (156), “the traditional notion of the work.” The evidence of OED shows that this linguistic aporia between text as authority and text as network has been inferentially there from the start. Without dwelling on the possible misrepresentations of science in Barthes’s potted history, it is clear that his distinction between text (the woven network) and work (the fixed, concrete form in which a text is embodied) has become a fundamental rhetorical donnée in the discourse of criticism. Witness Barthes’s claim that “the work is a fragment of substance, occupying a part of the space of books (in a library, for example)”

(Barthes, “Work to Text” 156-7) and that “it can be held in the hand” (157). Such citations place work in a spatial, concrete tactility; whereas “the Text is a methodological field” (157), i.e., a continually woven textile fabrication. Like Penelope’s weaving, the text is always simultaneously making and unmaking itself. Text is therefore a fabric[ation], the pattern in the carpet, as when a fabricator (knitter, weaver) continually “rips out” the textile to begin anew—again, like Penelope.

The Inversion of Terminologies

To an expert audience, like the Barthes conferees for whom the earlier version of this essay was presented, there was no need to demonstrate the utility of Barthes’s dichotomy, or its importance to the lexicon of critical theory. But what if his philology were as flawed, or at least as incomplete, as his history of science?  What if the triad of texts in my title were to provide a very different vocabulary and a rival or at least alternative usage?

As an historian of textuality, I have always found this Barthesian dichotomy a challenging paradox, in that most contemporary textual scholars and scholarly editors might be familiar with the gap laid out in Barthes’s argument, but in their practice and conceptualization would usually invert the terminology: far from being concrete and physical, a work in much (but not all) contemporary textual criticism lies beyond phenomenological reach and will be enshrined at best imperfectly in a text. Contrary to Barthes’s view, it is the text that can be held in the hand (or in a library). The work is (re)constructed by a critical intervention on the text(s), with the aim of resuscitating a now-lost state of the work, perhaps the original or the final authorial intentions.

According to such major figures as G. Thomas Tanselle, it is this very concrete physicality of a text that is its major liability as a witness to the ideal form of the work lying behind it. Because a text is very much in the world, it is subject to change, erosion, and corruption, whether it be an inscription on stone, a papyrus or parchment/vellum manuscript, a printed book or even a digital code. According to this view, it is the task of the textual critic to see beyond these corrupt remains and to try to reconstruct the ideal work that lies behind them. As Tanselle puts it:

Our cultural heritage consists, in Yeats’s phrase, of “Monuments of unageing intellect”; but those monuments come to us housed in containers that—far from being unageing—are, like the rest of what we take to be the physical world, constantly changing. Verbal works, being immaterial, cannot be damaged as a painting or a sculpture can; but we shall never know with certainty what their undamaged forms consist of, for in their passage to us they are subjected to the hazards of the physical. Even though our reconstructions become the texts of new documents that will have to be evaluated and altered in their turn by succeeding generations, we have reason to persist in the effort to define the flowerings of previous human thought, which in their inhuman tranquillity have overcome the torture of their birth (Tanselle 1989: 93).

Note the almost Platonic, plangent longing for this immanence: “verbal works, being immaterial, cannot be damaged as a painting or a sculpture can, but we shall never know with certainty what their undamaged forms consist of,” whereas “[editorial] reconstructions become texts [i.e., the physical, concrete presence] of new documents.”  For Tanselle and other textuists of this persuasion, it is indeed text that can be “held in the hand” and work that is an ineffable, immaterial (and therefore an unknowable and inaccessible entity).

The Originary versus the Socialized

This inversion of terms might be thought of as mere verbal sparring, were it not that the distinction reaches back (as I’ve earlier shown) to the origins of textual study and the book trade in the West: the texts (the actual physical readings) of manuscripts aboard ships passing through the entrepôt of Alexandria in the third century BC were used by the Alexandrian librarians to attempt to establish the lost and immanent work that putatively lay behind the corrupt remaniements of the physical texts. As is well documented in the history of textuality, it was the librarians of Pergamum in Asia Minor (Stoics rather than Platonists) who put their faith in these admittedly “socialized” texts, simply because they did represent an actual documentary state rather than what became known as an ineffable “O prime,” that originary stage beyond even the recovery of the archetype, and was thus speculative or immanent, rather than concrete and documentary. And this distinction became one of most persistent in textual history, down to the late twentieth/twenty-first-century endorsement of “social” textual theory, associated with the work of Jerome McGann (1991, 2001, 2006, 2014) and D.F.Mckenzie (1986, 1992), holding that because the so-called “originary moment of inscription” (the work) was beyond recovery, the proper business of textuists was to chart the post-inscriptional history of texts, again seen as concrete media that “could be held in the hand.” The emblematic work in such a lost inscriptional origin is Coleridge’s account of the opium-induced vision that lay behind Kubla Khan having been interrupted by the visit by the “person on business from Porlock,” with a similar lament over origins that Shelley described in insisting that the very moment of inscription was a “fading coal,” lost in the act of setting down the text that might have become the work.  So, the text/work dialectic has had a long and polemical history long before Barthes’s reinvigoration of the debate, though in different terms.

But there are other parts of Barthes’s critique of text and work that might accord better with his dialectic. As has been observed, often with some acrimony, Continental textuality (as opposed to Anglo-American) has shown an affiliation, even a derivation from Franco-German structuralist principles, concentrating on stages of différence in variant texts as being essentially the history of the work, though again without any firm hope of resuscitating the work.  And some Anglo-American textuists have been almost apoplectic in their suspicion of these foreign incursions into the discipline, as witness David Shaw’s (1992) barely concealed fury in the collection The Book Encompassed (211-12):

[t]here has been no McKerrow or Greg or Bowers in French textual studies. The theoretical interests of French scholars have notoriously tended to structuralist criticism and its various offshoots, many of which have stressed the reader’s rôle in re-creating the identity of a text as he reads it. There has been a bias against the notion of texts having an author who possesses some sort of textual right of ownership and there has been a consequent lack of interest in the concept of a ‘correct’ text restored through the study of the historical process of transmission. . . a theory of copy text is needed before any other is possible.

To my mind, the more challenging parts of George Bornstein’s and Hans Walter Gabler’s collection of essays on “contemporary German Editorial Theory” (1995) is this record of cumulative textual différence, usually couched in structuralist principles, rather than in the lame concluding essay showing a final, authorized version after all the variants had been put in their place, that is, buried. And Hans Walter Gabler’s attempted rapprochement between Franco-German structuralist text and Anglo-American “final intentions” (the work) in his edition of Joyce’s Ulysses generated more intemperate heat than light, as what I have called the “estranging openings” of the facing recto and verso pages [Fig. 1] were largely taken as irreconcilable graphic and ideological contradictions. I regard these openings (“verso” [left]- and “recto” [right]-hand) as “estranging” because the first is a visual display of the “structure”—the different documentary stages of the text—according to structuralist principles of différence. The left page in the Gabler edition is therefore full of special, non-alphabetic, symbols charting these stages. But the second (right-hand) page represses this evidence to present a “clear” text without symbols, a text that represents not variance but completion. And this supposed completion (“final intentions”) is a critical construction by the editor and is not a reflection of the readings in a single document. This “estrangement” was rendered invisible when the full three-volume “synoptic and critical” edition was withdrawn and only the right-hand pages made available.

While it is inevitably something of a simplification, during the hegemony of “final intentions” in Anglo-American editing (roughly mid-twentieth century until the 1980s/1990s), the aim of such editing was to produce “eclectic” texts. These “eclectic” editions presented “clear” texts free of the symbols drawn from the evidence of various individual documents, this evidence being relegated to an “apparatus” of variants buried in the back of the book.

While this conceptual distinction is still pretty much in place in Anglo-American textual studies, in Continental criticism there are other traces of Barthes’s formulation: the devenir perpétuel of recent French textual work (in say Cerquiglini’s concept [1999] of mouvance, in which the primary interest is in “whatever is unstable, multiple, and precarious” xiii), together with the structuralist principles of much Franco-German work on Proust, Goethe, and Joyce, suggest that the edges of text and work are still under negotiation. A further complication has been added in the last few decades by the swerve away from the concept of single authoriality towards “multiple” or “socialized” texts. This swerve sets the text within a wide social context, which could include the contributions of the author’s friends and relatives, the printers and publishers, and the “readers,” including the critical reception. In addition, there has been increased concern with the medium of transmission (for example, manuscript, printed book—in its various manifestations—periodical, newspaper, and electronic media). The swerve toward the social text is consistent with the growth, during roughly the same period, of such critical movements as feminism and gender studies, or Marxism and subaltern or post-colonial studies. I have previously argued that this shift also represents Barthes’s distinction between a lisible or “closed” text and a scriptible or “open” text, which invites further “reinscriptions” and participation in the “recomposition” of the work. Barthes’s S/Z, in which the “host” Balzac text is cut into lexias or reading units, is a particularly stark example of critical interventions into the text, and can be paralleled by an increased awareness of how such seemingly dry and objective editorial operations as annotation and commentary (see Barney) can change the way a text is negotiated.

Thus, the boundaries of text and work are as fraught in textual studies as they are in literary theory and criticism. And it is perhaps emblematic of this uncertainty that in such comprehensive accounts as the Lentricchia/McLoughlin Critical Terms for Literary Study (1995), there is no separate chapter on text/work, although the rival concepts behind the terms occur prominently, for example in the chapters on “interpretation,” “intention,” “author.”  Perhaps it was just too much of a challenge for the editors to commission an essay in which the basic terminology was still in a state of devenir perpétual.

S/Z as a Textual Marker

This continued negotiation has not prevented me from drawing some of the most challenging of Barthes’s work into the textual-critical debate, even into the most familiar of editorial/philological graphemic displays. The very title (and front cover) of S/Z, [Fig. 2] demonstrate a bar of difference that encodes a Saussurean phonemic distinction between the unvoiced and voiced versions of its major characterSarrasine and “opposite” number La Zambinella—and that character’s shifting gender identity. This graphemic device is a form of the basic lemma of textual apparatus, whose function is precisely to use the bar of difference (in editorial practice the half square bracket—]) as the marker of the play of difference. And the bar separates the lemma (the reading referred to in the text, say an emendation) to the left of the half-bracket, and the copy-text variant to the right, say Tweedledum] MS Tweedledee. The half-bracket “]” thus encodes a series of bipolar oppositions (right and wrong, truth and error, sincere and corrupt). Such oppositions are the very raison d’être of the critically edited text.

But there is more to it than this just this visual display. I have long argued that the emended reading (i.e., the one accepted by the editor despite the reading found in the copytext), or Barthes’s “S” (before the bar of difference and “Z) is, like all the other morphological or phonological units on the textual page, a potentially unstable signifier whose instability is highlighted by the existence of the lemma and of the formal listing of alternative signifiers after it (Barthes’s “Z”). In an emended reading, the signifier contextualized by the copy-text has been found inadequate to express the signified—the postulated conceptual referent that ought to be inferable from the context—and has been displaced by another signifier, either drawn from another context (another “witness” or document) or constructed by the editor from a vertical or horizontal (paradigmatic or syntagmatic) reading of the system of reference in which the signifier signifies.

Pleasure and Jouissance

And the simultaneity of the paradigmatic and syntagmatic produces what Barthes calls jouissance—of reading for those moments when “the garment gapes” (1975 Pleasure: 9), when the textual fabric can be seen through its holes, what a textuist might call its lacunae, the gaps, or missing pieces in the evidence, transmission, and reading of a text. Barthes makes a distinction between, on the one hand, the “Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading” (1975: 14), and, on the other, “the Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language” (14). This is the same distinction made in textual studies between the “perfected,” “definitive” edition (“a comfortable reading”) and the genetic edition, the one whose text is held in fieri, the formulation used in Italian textual criticism to suggest the continued forging of a text.

Both of these tendencies may produce and represent pleasure in textual editing, but with starkly different rationales and procedures. For example, the famous (some might say infamous) Kane-Donaldson edition of the “B” text of Piers Plowman takes as its core responsibility the “smoothing” out of the imperfect scribal copies to produce a “comfortable” text, a “text that never was” since scribes and other transmitters are notoriously unreliable and intrusive, reducing authorial originality to bland ordinariness. This belief favors the lectio difficilior (the “more difficult” reading) as being more likely to be authorial, even when it has no documentary support among the extant texts). A similar editorial “pleasure” in the editing of Piers Plowman or other intractactable texts may attempt an aesthetic “smoothing” of the prosody, for example, perfecting the alliterative verse line to produce what the editors regard a “fulfilled” aesthetic, despite the evidence of scribal copies. But there is a very different sort of editorial pleasure in the recent concentration on, for example, the scraps, fragments, unresolved poetics of the texts of Emily Dickinson preserved on the backs of envelopes or of telegrams (Fig. 3 Gorgeous Nothings).  This sort of pleasure celebrates the gaps, the incompletions, the unfulfilled. It has gained a wide contemporary currency in, say, the production of facsimile editions with diplomatic transcriptions of, for example, Wordsworth and Yeats [Figs. 4 and 5], showing the hesitations and changes of mind in authorial composition. And a similar concentration on what are called the avant texts, those stages in pre-publication construction, has motivated the Franco-German promotion of critique génétique over the Anglo-American production of “final intentions,” in which an editorial “clear text” demotes variance to an apparatus, or even the back of the book, so that the editorial handiwork is repressed or obscured.

Culture and Variants

Considering these shifts in recent textual work, it is surely telling that the annual publication of the (largely Anglo-American) Society for Textual Scholarship is now called Textual Cultures and the publication of the sister organization, the European Society for Textual Scholarship, is called Variants. The one places textual study in a social context, and the other promotes variance or mouvance. And similarly, the concept of “full score” that Barthes (1968), following Lévi-Strauss’s formulation of the axes of paradigmatic and syntagmatic “bundling,” uses to illustrate jouissance can be seen (and performed) in the simultaneity of a typically dense vertical and horizontal display, like this page from the score of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony [Fig. 6]. Barthes sees such horizontal and vertical “bundling” in the simultaneous “system” (the vertical axis of possible selection) and “syntagm” (the actual linear, horizontal selection)–langue and parole respectively. Such “scoring” has its genetic literary analogue in this spatially arranged mapping of the “gross constituent units” (and the lack thereof) in a graphic representation of a section of the 1805 and 1850 texts of Wordsworth’s Prelude. (Fig. 7 Greetham 1999: 316-17).

I recognize that this account of some moments when the Barthesian text can share (or radically diverge from) the features of the philologist’s text may both be very incomplete and may obscure a deeper set of problems. For example, no textuist has yet fully confronted the dizzying range of meanings of Barthes’s punctum in Camera Lucida (1981), with its deft, sometimes inconsistent, evidence for the relation between the phenomenology of present surface (the tactile, physical photograph) and the loss—of time, of the moment superseded by, but misrepresented in, this tactility. So, textuists are continually confronted, not just by the alterity of any historical document (including that produced earlier the same day), but by the act of both forgetting and yet nostalgically longing for, that “originary” moment that the document/photograph disturbs and devalues, as Barthes fully recognizes in his account of camera lucida (a deliberate provocation to the traditional camera obscura). Thus, as Barthes notes, there is “[n]othing surprising, then, if sometimes, despite its clarity , the punctum should be revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it. I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss its point of effect, the punctum” (1981: 530). In Camera Lucida Barthes captures the editorial problem of belatedness (perhaps related to Shelley’s “fading coal”: “The name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That has been,’ or again, the Intractable. In Latin (a pedantry necessary because it illuminates certain nuances) this would doubtless be said: interfuit; what I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator); it has been here, and yet immediately separated, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred.” (1981: 77). This sense of the photograph (as text) occupying a position that is neither perfectly present nor past is similarly, if puzzlingly, caught in the statement posed by French textuist Louis Hay:  “Le texte n’existe pas” (1985), rendered more interrogatively in its English translation as “Does text exist?” (1988).

Digitization, Morphing, and the Album

Moreover, Barthes’s later work on the punctum can also be seen as anticipating the technological and ontological issues raised by such textual/editorial challenges as digitization. The sense of a passing from one mode of (re)presentation to another is caught, for example, in Michael Fried’s comment (2011) that Barthes’s Camera Lucida “is indeed a swan song for an artifact on the brink of a fundamental change” (152). The struggle over representation and essence celebrated and bemoaned in Camera Lucida is all-too-present in the intellectual, institutional, and critical challenges raised by the digitization of texts, an issue that receives a probing analysis in Jerome McGann’s A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2014). Do we get closer to, or further from, the putative work that may be inferentially immanent in the digitized image of a manuscript or other text, an image that can be manipulated in ways, some explicatory and beneficial, others opaque or interventionist, that would have seemed almost unholy to earlier practitioners of palaeography and codicology?

A particularly provocative (if playful) example of such intervention may be through the editorial process of “digital morphing,” an electronic representation of Barthes’s distinction, derived from Mallarmé, between the “Album” and the “Book: “Album” is defined by Barthes as “the inventory of circumstances . . . a thread. . . or an anthological dispersion of pieces” (Preparation 186); “Book” is “architectural and premeditated,” “persuaded when all’s said and done there is only one” (182). Digital morphing involves an electronic “intervention” that can create intermediate states in the history of texts/images, states that may never have existed as documents but can show concatenations and shifts in intention and performance, not only in a given author or text but also between serial groups of texts, perhaps illustrating Foucault’s concept (“What Is an Author?) of the “transdiscursive” text/author, in which the edges of composition are blurred. Figure 7 shows such a morph, in which the “interventions” move among the opening frame of Goya’s Majas on a Balcony, Manet’s Le balcon and Magritte’s Perspective (Le balcon de Manet), so that any security in “original” text, variant, or parody is lost in the swirl of the “album.” In the morph, these “books” are not just “architectural and premeditated,” but, through parody, influence and recomposition, provide “albums,” in which the morphist may “play” any moment in the intervention by manipulating a digital slider.

One final puzzle: in a textual apparatus (which may be thought of as an “album,” a “morph” between separate documentary states) we have to recognize that the “rejected” variants to the right of the bar of difference (lemma) can so be designated because at some precedent, historicized, point in the reading of the text they were regarded as authentic and would have appeared to the left of the bar; thus the unstable condition of signifier is even more contingent than a temporary spatial mapping might suggest: as readings move across the lemma’s bar of difference from right to left and back again it is only this difference that remains constant, not the terms themselves. In this screen capture [Fig. 9] of the first and second quartos and the first folio of Hamlet, one may ask is Hamlet’s flesh “solid” (folio, lower right) or “sallied” i.e., “sullied” (first quarto, left, and second quarto, upper right)? The answer to this question will vary: either reading can be deeply embedded in the contextual polysemy that is the multiple play of Hamlet (the flesh is too “solid” as representing the gross physicality from which Hamlet wants to escape, or “sullied” in its reflection of the “rotten” state of Denmark). So both answers are “correct,” depending on whether they are “S” or “Z”. And I like to think that Barthes would have enjoyed this textual crux. Perhaps he might even have wanted to “text/txt” about it.

Whether or not Barthes would have been pleased with this particular ambiguity, I do think that the “textual” conundrum and what it represents could be seen to illuminate a number of his basic concerns: the lisible versus the scriptible, the role of the  lexia in literary (de)construction, the dichotomy of text and work, even the “death” of the historical author and the “proliferation” of meaning that attends this death. From my perspective, it will be instructive to see whether the “renaissance” of Roland Barthes produces a similar, if complementary, “renaissance” of textual criticism.

End Notes

1) See J. Shirley, 1639. Maides Revenge III. sig. Ev, “Would . . . every Character [had] Beene tex’d with blood.” OED text (v)

2) See 2000 Guardian 3 June (Weekend Suppl.) 26/1  “One private school in Berkshire has just instituted a fine system for anyone caught texting in teaching-time.” OED Draft Additions March 2004.

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David Greetham is Distinguished Professor in the Ph.D. program in English and the Certificate programs in Medieval Studies and in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy at the CUNY Graduate Center. He was the founder of the interdisciplinary Society for Textual Scholarship, has edited John Trevisa and Thomas Hoccleve, and is author of, for example, Textual Scholarship: An Introduction, Textual Transgressions, Theories of the Text, and The Pleasures of Contamination. He is now working on studies of the “incomplete” text and on theories of adaptation.