Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Roland Barthes's The Rustle of Language

The University of California Press of Berkeley and Los Angeles—with permission by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.—publishes The Rustle of Language by Roland Barthes in 1989.  Richard Howard translates this work, originally entitled Le bruissement de la langue, from the French in 1986.  Éditions du Seuil first publishes the French version of Barthes’s text in 1984.  The book does not include an index and is not part of an editorial series.  The Rustle of Language is an anthology of articles about semiotics, linguistics, literature, and philosophy spanning the 1960s and 1970s.  These two decades see the prominence of structuralism and its counterpart post-structuralism in many fields.  Barthes contributes to both of these eras.  The articles are divided up into seven sections around a specific theme, usually a relationship of certain elements working within a type of structure.

“You can get drunk on this stuff,” my professor tells me often when I read a book on philosophy.  He is right, too.  The language can become so abstract or obtuse that finding an understandable pattern is like deciphering the meaning of a kaleidoscope’s image that cannot be repeated twice.  Luckily, the articles collected in this volume are short, so rereading a passage is worth the time.  And it means that a reader can find bits of wisdom that can apply to his or her life or circumstance, especially in the realm of reading.

Many of the articles interest me, especially when I have to teach languages and literature.  Both combine to express the substance of a particular culture.  In “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?” Barthes asserts that “Man does not exist prior to language, either as a species or as an individual” (13).  Language is the vehicle in which humankind can function and exist.  On the other side of language, there is reading.  Barthes certainly dives into the significance of the reading process.  One must know how to read well and work with the text so that meaning can be created.  In his article “Writing Reading,” he explains a small portion of an ideal reading process that helps writers to write.  A text must make a reader think and have ideas in order to write other texts.  He writes, “I therefore took a short text […], Balzac’s Sarrasine, a little-known tale […], and I kept stopping as I read this text.  […] Then what is S/Z?  Simply a text, that text which we write in our head when we look up” (29-30, emphases in original).  Sarrasine prods Barthes to write S/Z, a book about the function of codes.  If you have found yourself stopping and thinking when you read a book that stretches your mind, you are actually “writing in your head” in the same way Barthes does when he considers the meaning of a text.

Most graduate students would know about Barthes’s “The Death of the Author.”  Barthes argues that critics should not focus on the creator’s intentions or the circumstances of the creator’s life in order to come to a final interpretation of the work.  The creator and the text are two different entities.  Previous schools followed this system of author equals writer: “Once the Author is distanced, the claim to ‘decipher’ a text becomes entirely futile.  To assign an Author to a text is to impose a brake on it, to furnish it with a final signified, to close writing.  This conception is quite suited to criticism, which then undertakes the important task of discovering the Author (or his hypostases: society, history, the psyche, freedom) beneath the work: once the Author is found, the text is ‘explained,’ the critic has won; hence, it is hardly surprising that historically the Author’s empire has been the Critic’s as well, and also that (even new) criticism is today unsettled at the same time as the Author” (53).

However, Barthes does not agree that there is a sole interpretation of a text or that critics should follow this system.  For instance, one of my sisters was upset when J. K. Rowling told a student that she imagined Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series as a gay person if he were to exist in real life.  My sister then imagined that the final meaning of Dumbledore’s role revolved around his sexual orientation.  According to Barthes, this is not so.  Since the stories of Harry Potter have now been created and published, J. K. Rowling’s connection to them has now severed and is defunct.  The text now has autonomy and Rowling’s “interpretation” of Dumbledore is just one of many writings seeking to clarify the meaning of the Harry Potter series.  If she wanted to, my sister could posit her own theory of Dumbledore’s orientation in a structure that respects her parameters, and it would be just as valid as Rowling’s opinion.  In “The Return of the Poetician,” Barthes argues that “language has no truth except to acknowledge itself as language; good critics, useful scholars will be those who announce the color of their discourse, those who clearly affix to it the signature of the signifier” (174).

There are also times when an article or a concept goes over my head, no matter how many times I read it.  This has happened to Barthes, too.  In his article “The Image,” he analyzes the effects of a metaphysical stupidity that obstruct the meaning of the text to come out or that siphon its original meaning into oblivion over time.  “A certain text is said to be ‘unreadable.’  I have an intense relation to unreadability: I suffer when a text seems unreadable to me, and I have often been accused of being unreadable.  Here I am back at the same panic that Stupidity inspires: Is it me?  Is it the other?  Is it the other who is unreadable (or stupid)?  Am I the one who is limited, inept, am I the one who doesn’t understand?” (351-52).  Take comfort in the fact that even a philosopher sometimes struggles with the inadequacy of deriving a text’s meaning.

Barthes may have given a suitable answer to his own questions in “Deliberation.”  In this particular article, he wrestles with the question of whether or not his journal entries qualify enough to become published.  All graduate students struggle with this question, too, or at least I do.  What these insecurities amount to are weaknesses of the topic itself, not the creator.  “At bottom, all these failures and weaknesses designate quite clearly a certain defect of the subject.  This defect is existential.  What the Journal posits is not the tragic question, the Madman’s question: ‘Who am I?’, but the comic question, the Bewildered Man’s question: ‘Am I?’  A comic—a comedian, that’s what the Journal keeper is” (372).

The last aphorism that I find pertinent to my life and career comes from one of Barthes’s journal entries.  As a Latter-day Saint, I face a tension between the absolute truths of the Church of Jesus Christ and the philosophies of the world.  Generally, philosophies that do not coincide with the doctrines of the Church—which are many, if not all of them—are frowned upon and discouraged.  (Although I think the general membership would place C. S. Lewis as its unofficial philosopher.)  Holy Scripture is the source of true intelligence and happiness.  Nevertheless, I have to study philosophy so I can understand the workings of academia and the literary field.  As opposed to Holy Scripture, I use the term “secular scripture” to define truth and wisdom coming from literature.  Here is one example of secular scripture that I have found in Barthes’s journal entry of August 5, 1977: “Literature has an effect of truth much more violent for me than that of religion.  By which I mean, quite simply, that literature is like religion.  And yet, in this week’s Quinzaine, Lacassin declares peremptorily: ‘Literature no longer exists except in textbooks.’  Whereby I am dismissed, in the name of … comic strips” (367, emphases in original).  Some literature has the same effect on me.  It is not evil in and of itself to find truth where one can find it; I just try to understand that it may be just for my edification if others disagree about its worthiness.  That is probably why I contribute to my sister’s blog.  If there is a portion of truth, why not share it?

Unless you are a graduate student that needs to know the system of Barthes’s structuralism or post-structuralism, this book may be too advanced for you.  However, if you are curious about a particular topic or article by Barthes, this book will conveniently have it at your disposal.  Each article stands on its own and is short enough to experience its delectation.



  1. "Metaphysical stupidity"...It's nice to know that even the most intelligent critics or philosophers can be stumped once in a while. Makes me feel less "stupid". :)

  2. When a philosopher feels that way once in a while, we're in good company.


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


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