Commentary on R Barthes -- selections (amended and abridged) from Harris D (1996) A Society of Signs?, London: Routledge (ch 4)

I have chosen a more detailed analysis of Barthes' work, because it has been the most influential in introducing 'structuralism' to British students of cultural studies and media studies. 

Barthes' work seemed to offer a suitable synthesis between a congenial structural linguistics and marxist analysis, especially in his analyses of current (ideological) myths and their structure (Barthes 1973). And there can be no doubt that Barthes is very readable, and that therefore he offers a much more appealing introduction on pedagogic grounds, certainly when compared to Metz, Derrida or Deleuze, say. 

A central 'block' of U203 (Open University 1982) (especially Martin's Unit 13), introduces concepts that have become familiar since to all media students, gathered from across the range of Barthes' writings -- types of signs (iconic and arbitrary), levels of signification (connotation and denotation), codes and their different types (hermeneutic, proiaretic and the rest), narratives and how they work across time and space to deliver particular effects. 

When students (mine at least) refer to 'semiology' as an approach to the study of film, youth cultures, or recreation, they often seem to mean something like the OU's pedagogical construction based on Barthes' work. It is sometimes hard for them to detect changes in Barthes' work. 

It is convenient to focus attention, therefore, on some short and highly readable pieces which do introduce some of these problems. They also happen to be essays which are often cited in debates about 'postmodern sensibilities' or identities -- social and cultural life itself is moving from patterns that look like 'works' to those that look like 'texts'. There are also several rehearsals in these essays of arguments that have become familiar to any account of postmodernism, the refusal of 'depth' or 'centre' to ground readings, for example. 

I am not concerned to judge Barthes specifically here, of course, and thus I do not see any need to be 'fair' to him specifically. I do not intend to offer a summary of Barthes' work before and after the pieces I have chosen, for example, not to pursue his answers to the criticisms I shall make. There are excellent summaries of Barthes' work which do this, like the readable accounts in Martin's Unit (Open University 1982), Sturrock (1979), or Culler (1976a) and there are the specific commentaries in other philosophers' works which you will encounter. 

I do want to discuss these pieces critically, to encourage a re-reading. Because they are so short and accessible, they are particularly suitable for student readers to practise their own critical readings. Of course, my discussion is more than just a straight review of the three essays, and I have gone beyond a close reading of them in a way which probably does them a little violence. It might well be rather unfair, for example, to choose three separate essays and then to look deliberately for incoherence between them. I am aware that I am offering a rather prosaic, perhaps even a nit-picking analysis, rather than the more poetic reading which is sometimes on offer (in Young's collection, for example, which offers a more systematic commentary on Barthes and reminds us that he, like Foucault and Derrida, deliberately plays with words and their meanings, which is bound to appear as inconsistent: Barthes' essay, the word [text] enacts its own meanings, a wandering of signification which is, precisely, text' (Young 1981: 31). 

Perhaps the best way to proceed is to begin with a very short summary of each piece. Obviously, this summary is not going to be an entirely innocent one in terms of the critical discussion which is to follow. I hope it is clear where I am also offering comments or asides on my summary as I proceed. 

The Death of the Author

First, the piece offers an uncompromising argument for the 'death' (or redundancy, to use an equally frightening metaphor) of the concept of the author. It begins by noticing the disappearance of the narrator in modern writing . Balzac's Sarrassine is the example here, later to be the subject of a much larger piece by Barthes (1975) (the dates refer to different English editions of Barthes' work, and are not reliable as a guide to the actual sequence of the writing). Perhaps something like Martin Amis's London Fields, with its switches between different narrators, might be more appropriate an example for the modern reader? The effects of surrealist or Brechtian experimentation are also cited, as steps on the way, so to speak. There is an insistence that even autobiography is not about real life coded in writing but the other way around -- e.g. Proust reconceptualised his life after or during writing in order to make it a 'work for which his own book is the model' (Barthes 1977:144). As Sturrock (1979) reminds us, Barthes wrote his own autobiography in the third person. 

Secondly, as structuralist linguistics tells us, texts do not express the subjectivity of their authors -- they are better thought of as 'fields without origin', 'multi-dimensional spaces', 'tissues of quotations', 'never original' (Barthes 1977: 146). This point applies to all kinds of mundane feelings of 'authorship' as well as actual novel-writing. The inner self that we experience as the 'real us' so to speak, is 'only a ready-formed dictionary' -- so life imitates books. 

There are no fixed meanings or privileged ones: 'writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it' (147). We should see the act of writing as 'performative'. As a result, conventional literary criticism, designed to uncover the 'real' meanings of novels, expressed by 'real' authors, is also abolished and that's good, because, in its arrogance, such criticism used to ignore the reader and also selectively overlook the 'phatical' bits of texts (designed to involve the reader). 

The reader is the missing term in conventional criticism -- the multiplicity of the text is focused in the reader, not the author, the unity of the text is in its destination. '[T]he birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author'. Yet, to raise a point which we will discuss below, 'the reader' is also an abstraction 'without history, biography, psychology' (148). Really, of course, it could not be otherwise for Barthes: it would be inconsistent to abolish the (actual) author while retaining the (actual) reader. 

From Work to Text

This piece begins with an interesting comment about the effects of a move towards interdisciplinarity 'when the solidarity of the old disciplines breaks down -- perhaps even violently' (Barthes 1977: 155). We now have an escalating pattern of change, where the classic 'breaks' (attempts to re-found marxism, Lacanian freudianism, and structuralism) have relativised our knowledge of the world, and changed our notions of the relations between writers, readers and observers. There will be further changes in the basis of knowledge, a new 'epistemological slide' rather than a break (155). (Althusser had claimed to have found an 'epistemological break' between humanist and structuralist marxism in Marx himself, a break that inaugurates a new 'scientific' marxism). 

For Barthes, the new (literary and cultural) analysis will not be a new, tightly ordered discipline, but should be seen as necessarily speculative, employing 'not argumentations but enunciations, "touches", approaches that consent to remain metaphorical' (156), rather than an attempt to read off meaning from a metalanguage. Methodologically, we are told (164): 

'the discourse on the Text should itself be nothing other than text, research, textual activity, since the Text...leaves no language safe outside, nor any subject of the enunciation in position as judge, master, confessor, decoder. The theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of writing.' 
We see here one of the ways in which Barthes is shifting to a radical kind of textuality, then, one which 'goes all the way down' as Norris (1992) puts it, and one where Barthes, like Lyotard heads into a denial of any other criteria by which to judge events or accounts of them. We get to the heart of Barthes' argument when he tries to distinguish 'texts' and 'works'. The distinction is not a matter of location in time or of value or quality. Works might have different qualities among themselves, but this is not the proper topic for a critic: -- 'there is no difference between "cultured" reading and casual reading in trains' (162). By implication, for Norris, there is also no difference between works in history or economics either. 

Works are designed to be consumed with plaisir (roughly, a rather conformist pleasure delivered by a work, gained from following the narrative to its delivery point and responding as intended to the 'phatical' bits). Works are 'filiated', closely connected with social practices like those in the world of commercial writing, including literary criticism and notions of authorship, ownership, copyright and the law. (This point is made in Foucault's own announcements of the 'death of the author' --collected in Bocock and Thompson 1992). 

By contrast, texts are distinguished by their 'methodological fields' rather than by anything substantially or concretely different about them or their contents. They are performances, 'limit works', existing at the limits of 'enunciation, rationality, readability etc.' (157). Texts are radically symbolic, 'off-centre, without closure (159), playful, offering jouissance (an ecstatic pleasure in language that escapes the devices of the narrative and rejoices in the experience itself, a kind of literary orgasmic release -- see Heath's discussion in the introduction to Barthes 1977). Texts help us glimpse a 'social Utopia...[a]...transparence of linguistic relations if not social ones', a 'space where no language has a hold over any other' (164). Texts operate via 'serial movements of disconnections, overlappings, variations' (158). 

Texts are networks (rather than discrete entities or 'organisms' with a history and parentage like works), opening out to readings well outside the author's intentions. Such openness blurs the conventional differences between reading and writing (162). The reader and the text both play with meaning, rather as a musician plays with a score, both to reproduce it and to embellish, to perform. There is here a clear preference for texts, of course, and a way of denying any claims to sufficiency advanced by any mere works 

Change the Object Itself

The old critical project, as in Barthes' earlier classic Mythologies (Barthes 1973) has to be altered. That earlier work followed an 'inversion model' (common in marxism, but subsequently attacked by the Althusserians -- see file), which saw connoted ideological meanings as a base for the denoted literal meanings of cultural phenomena. In this way the meanings of advertisements, performances, cultural activities of various kinds naturalised capitalist ideology. 

As an aside, it is worth looking at some of the pieces in Mythologies, perhaps. My personal favourite concerns a very brief analysis of what became known as the 'structure of apology'. At the most specific level, the piece, entitled Operation Margarine, features an analysis of an advertising campaign for margarine which cleverly acknowledged and then incorporated the consumers' perceptions of margarine as an inferior product (modern readers might think of substituting junk food, say, for margarine in order to locate themselves in the politics of the piece). 

Apparently, the advertisement began with a 'cry of indignation against margarine: "A mousse? Made with margarine? Unthinkable!"' (1973: 42). A narrative then developed which revealed these perceptions as misguided and ill-informed: 'And then one's eyes are opened, one's conscience becomes more pliable...The moral at the end is well known: "Here you are, rid of a prejudice which cost you dearly!"' (42). Barthes sees this sort of structure operating in the wider society: 'It is in the same way that the Established Order relieves you of your progressive prejudices' (42). He finds the principles at work with discussing the Army or the Church, for example (41) (and implicates some popular novels in the process): 

'...[on] the Church: speak with burning zeal about its self-righteousness, the narrow-mindedness of its bigots, indicate that all of this can be murderous, hide none of the weaknesses of the faith. And then, in extremis, hint that the letter of the law, however unattractive, is a way to salvation for its very victims, and so justify moral austerity by the saintliness of those whom it crushes (The Living Room, by Graham Greene).' 
This sort of analysis had made Barthes very influential, and perhaps it is easy to see why from the example above: a mundane advertisement is made to yield some concealed truth about capitalism following a skilled and sceptical reading which refuses to simply follow the account of the world on offer, but which imposes its own. Now, to return to Change the Object Itself, Barthes feels it is time to move beyond this sort of analysis of mythology as a mystified or an upside-down world, as inversion. This analysis was drawn from themes in the young Marx, but we can now progress to those in the mature Marx (another specific reference to Althusser's project here, Barthes 1977: 169). 

Mythology still works in the same way, but we now have a new science of reading it. Also: 'any student can and does denounce the bourgeois or petit bourgeois character of such and such a form' (166). Denunciatory discourse and demystification have been routinised, have become a mere 'stock of phrases', orthodox, even mythological themselves. As a result, properly academic and critical analysis must go further and 'shake the sign' itself, just as French psychology has moved on: that began by listing the symbolic contents of dreams and so on, and 're-inverting' them, only to find that being done these days by mere dabblers, the 'psychological vulgate' (167). 

The task now is not to reveal latent meanings but to 'fissure' meaning and its representation, not to destroy myths ('mythoclasm'), but to splinter the smooth connections between signs ('semioclasm'), not to critique just French society but the whole of Western civilisation and its unifying 'regime of meaning' (167). This is a project to dissolve any 'works' back into 'textuality', in other words. 

Apart from being made possible by the new methodological work available, this shift is necessary because the signs of advertisements no longer point to products nor to political ideologies as simply as they did. The whole world is already playing with signs: 'endlessly deferring their foundations, transforming signifieds into new signifiers, infinitely citing one another' (167--8). The issue now is not one of 'critical decipherment' but of estimating the 'levels of reification of various languages, their 'phraseological density' . 

We have an interest, then, in the extent to which these different 'languages' can appear as fixed, immutable, natural and compelling, as 'works' making claims to be sufficient, to use the terms we developed above. 

This is a shift from a more obviously 'denunciatory' stance, with its problems of separating out the error of the myth from the truth of its analysis. In a way, Barthes here is anticipating the failure of the Althusserian project, perhaps, which was the last great attempt to clarify the basis for marxism's claims to be able to offer a 'science' to help us identify 'ideology' or 'myth' (one of the last great metanarratives in Lyotard's terms). 

Myth is still universal in our societies, affecting 'inner speech, newspaper articles ... political sermons, [running] from the novel to the advertising image (i.e. all the imaginary)' (169). We need new concepts to grasp it, not the old ones of sign, signifier, signified, connotation and denotation, but 'citation, reference, stereotype'. We need to offer an 'antidote to myth', and its reifications, languages which are 'airy, light, spaced, open, uncentred, noble and free' (168), a 'new semiology'. 


These pieces have been very influential, and are superbly well-written and plausible. In a few brief pages, we have discovered strong arguments for a shift towards textuality as the task of cultural analysis. The (concrete) author (and reader), and the academic study of them as actors in a social environment, have disappeared, leaving only texts. Language itself has become more fluid and less concerned with representations of objects or ideological systems, and we cannot study its effects as once we did. This fluidity is now an everyday phenomenon and texts are increasingly replacing works on a global scale, as society itself become caught in an endless flux of signification. Disattending to some specifics, for a moment, these essays can be seen as capturing all of the issues we have been discussing, in other words. 

Barthes' position still presents several puzzles to the reader, though. Of course, we are not really invited to discuss these pieces too seriously by Barthes himself: he says the discussion is speculative, metaphorical and can only be pursued by a kind of textual strategy, a certain attempt to conjure meaning not in the old plodding, logical manner of empirical science, but by engaging with the metaphors, intertextual references and ambiences of the writing itself. 

I must confess I have never been very good at this sort of literary reading myself, although I am able sometimes to appreciate it, and even find a kind of academic pleasure in it. Let us refuse this sort of poetic engagement for now, then, and read the remarks as arguments after all. Let me begin with a few 'phatical' comments of my own, designed to bring in some reservations which you, the reader, might have felt on reading my summaries. 

The earlier essay on the 'death of the author' gives us a clue to the shift of object which is taking place in the other pieces. Clearly, it is not real authors who are really dying, but 'the author' as a theoretical object, the thing (or 'function' in Foucault's terms) which is in fact a construct of an old tradition of literary criticism (and of other social practices). Using familiar sociological terminology, we might think of the author as an 'ideal type', used to try and explain the central meanings of a novel, to fix meaning. Much literary criticism tries to construct both author and text in a kind of circular process of interpretation. As objects of criticism, however, neither are simple empirical objects, simply 'real'. 

In this sense it is possible for the old concept of the author to disappear or 'die' as new forms of interpretation develop which do not require an author. Barthes is suggesting that the old sense of 'text' can no longer be held either -- that we need a new theoretical object. Unfortunately, this new object still shares the same name as the one used in the old interpretation to refer to novels or films, although perhaps giving the name a capital letter ('Text') helps remind us of the change (although I am not sure this usage is consistent in Barthes' essays). As we shall see, this phenomenon of (theoretical) objects 'disappearing' became even more widespread -- the (usual notion of the) 'reader' also disappears (or becomes an abstraction), Barthes tells us, and he hints that so will 'the individual', and as we shall see, so will 'society'. In the normal world of 'everyday consciousness', of course, this sort of rhetoric can look inexplicable, excessive, even absurd. 

All will be well, though, even if a little strange, as long as analysts like Barthes remain with theoretical objects. It is understandable that inexperienced readers might still get confused by the use of terms like 'text' or 'author', and think that what is being referred to are actual books or particular writers, but, once you get used to the special usage, that confusion should evaporate. However, clarity might emerge, only to be followed by doubt: why should analysts develop new theoretical objects like this? 

Here, we find several arguments. A strong motive for the change appears to be 'theoretical'. Barthes wants to develop and take part in the new ways of reading, to contribute to the new linguistics and the new semiology. These new developments look exciting and to be making real progress towards rigour and explanatory power by pursuing a particular approach which gets beneath empirical variability to the underlying scientific concepts that account for that variability. 

You also get a sense that things have moved on in the academic world and in Barthes' own career, that the old ways of doing things (analysing modern ideologies, for example), are a bit routine, even slightly common and vulgar, as in the references to what 'any student' now does, or to the 'psychoanalytic vulgate'. French psychoanalysis and French marxism are making new discoveries using new methodologies, partly to separate themselves from such vulgarity, and it is time for cultural analysis to join in the exciting new research programmes and do the same. This will be an attractively expanded project not just to demystify myths but to interrogate the very structure and function of signification itself. 

All this is understandable, but still rather parochial and academic, perhaps. Why should anyone outside of the academy worry about these great shifts in theoretical objects? In England, of course, very few people did, although there was a brief popular controversy over the non-appointment of a prominent advocate of the new reading to a professorial position, and the public got to hear of some of the apparent absurdity of refusing to distinguish between (concrete) texts on the grounds of quality (the lack of any 'difference between "cultured" reading and casual reading in trains'). 

This early appearance of the famous 'collapse of internal differentiation' led to controversy, because journalists, politicians, elderly academics on appointment committees, and several others, clearly felt that professors should be interested in these everyday mundane matters, in common definitions of objects and interpretative problems and not in the rather specialised theoretical tasks and objects that Barthes and his followers were proposing to research. This rebuke is still likely, of course, and seems to have affected just about all the commentators on this topic: intellectuals, especially in Britain, perhaps, are expected to be engaged with the 'real world' and its objects as we have seen before. 

Methodologically speaking, there is no going back, though. The old goal of offering authoritative, fixed readings is no longer attainable. One sort of reply to accusations of irrelevance is to point to the fundamental flaws in the old attempts to be 'relevant'. This sort of critique became famous later as the attack on the 'emancipatory claims' of orthodox social sciences, which, after decades of the pursuit of 'relevant' knowledge of how to run welfare states, or to expose the ideological evils of British television (or whatever), simply failed to produce the goods, passed into history, and left the field to accountants, careerist politicians, and writers of viewers' guides. 

In Barthes' pieces specifically, the enemy is the old literary criticism, which promises to deliver relevant or emancipatory knowledge using the old techniques like telling the reader about the author as a person in order to explain how the texts can best be understood as the imperfect unfolding of some inner personality. Politicians, journalists (and students) might be grateful for this sort of labour as offering them a quick fix on a complex text, but it will not do for Barthes, as we have seen -- not only is the category of the author itself a construct, although this is hidden, it is a particularly uncritical kind of construct 'the epitome of capitalist ideology' (1977:143). 

It is not even a helpful category, especially since much actual writing in modern narratives deliberately sets out to write from different positions, via the construction of fictional narrators, for example, or the construction of different points of view, or other attempts to hide the author. Of course the notion of a single author is particularly hard to apply to collectively authored pieces, which most clearly includes most movies. 

It is simply impossible to escape a focus on textuality, then. There are no 'given' categories outside of the textual processes of interpretation and construction, the fixing of meaning by writing. It is naive to think that even autobiographical novels reflect some 'real life' outside the text. To the contrary, someone like Proust never simply puts his life into words but rethinks and retextualises his life in order to make it into 'a work for which his own book was the model' (1977: 144).We have here a much expanded version of textuality, of course. Texts are not just those avant-garde explorations which cross generic boundaries or deliberately play with language at the limits of communication: those pieces indicate what is now a much more available tendency, so to speak. 

Let us move in a slightly more technical direction. Barthes makes much of the distinction between 'works' and 'texts', and these distinctions have been used as metaphors to describe the cultural shifts from modernity to postmodernity: the former are much more closed, for example, offering only a rather conformist and limited form of pleasure in reading them (plaisir), while the latter offer more playful pleasures, 'symbolic liberation', less tied to (embedded in) the old social patterns. How useful and coherent is this distinction? 

Despite his denials, Barthes could be accused of offering a re-run discussion of the differences between 'high' and 'low' culture, or so it seems to an English eye: artistic objects belonging to the latter have long been despised by the English bourgeoisie for their limited and conformist meanings, their 'two-dimensional' qualities and, of course, their association with 'work', with an impure interest in production and (heaven forbid) making money. Echoes arise too of Bourdieu's discussions of high bourgeois aesthetics which focus on form rather than content to define themselves against the popular taste. The problem, is, I suppose, that Barthes never discusses in any detail the referents for his terms, and so it is always possible to suspect connections like these. 

Further, and rather confusingly, texts are also something much more mundane and omnipresent, the name for the routine processes by which we make sense of our lives, and the differentiating functions of the term are lost. Indeed, textuality in the expanded sense goes further than this, since texts constitute us as individuals -- they are our lives, and nothing is outside them. 

Not just the author and the reader, but the concrete book or play or whatever itself disappears too: there is no need to allow the mere existence of a physical object like a book or a film to intrude into our theoretical analyses, since meanings clearly flow around, behind and in front of those objects, in unities constituted by readers. 

There is a problem of reintroducing some kind of foundation again, however, where the underlying textualisation that constitutes all life appears as some sort of privileged concept really at the heart of things. Did it emerge as a concept independently of the textualising practices of the new semiologists? If so, something lies outside the text. If not, the conception must itself be a fixing or reification of textualising practice, no different in principle from the reifications of the old criticism, but quite unable to claim any simple status as a final trump card. 

The triumphalist use would need to be supplemented by a proper discussion of the grounds for using it. Instead, the expanded notion of textuality seems to be deployed as a constantly-repeated theme, as a kind of solemn warning against the tendency to take things too simply or literally. Insisting that 'social life is a text' seems to be a standard gambit to weaken older traditional theoretical categories, and then to begin with newer ones. 

Whether the concept has a practical use at all, beyond the tactical or the rhetorical is much more debatable, though, and we would require much more detail on the processes by which the potentially limitless textuality of social life actually becomes realised or 'reified' in actual social practices. How do 'works' arise? Will they continue to arise despite the new free-flowing textuality? What we get for answers to questions like this in these Barthes essays seems to involve marxism after all, via coded references to Althusser or Lacan. As Culler (1976) suggests, Barthes' interest in the mechanics of meaning generation never quite displaces an interest in actual meanings and their social functions. The latter are introduced quietly, via evaluative comments on actual clusters of meaning (or works). 

Similar, if more specific, problems arise in discussing the reader. Given that someone has to fix the flux of meanings, at least initially, for any social life to materialise at all, it is clear that it should be the reader not the author, for Barthes. The role of the reader has been ignored too long in the old criticism, it is argued, and 'the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author' (1977: 148).This 'must' could contain theoretical, methodological and/or political imperatives, of course. In this usage, 'the reader' is clearly an abstract theoretical object or function again, as we have seen. 

It is not at all clear if this means that the open, fluid textuality we were discussing above is found only after a reader (or the reader Barthes himself) has so constituted it, though. In some ways, the very category of readership sinks into general textualising practice again: there are no substantial differences between reading and writing, we are told, for example, since both express a 'single (universal? foundational?) signifying practice' (1977: 162). In other areas, though, readership is a separate practice that does have specific effects, as we see when Barthes discusses real readers, and here, there are some important qualifications. 

Not all (concrete) readers are equally competent, for example -- some seem unable to read in the required unreified way, 'to produce the text, open it out, set it going' (1977: 163). These debates inevitably reintroduce contexts of cultural competencies or capitals, or of class, gender and ethnicity, of course. 

In recent cultural studies, after years of seeing proletarian children, housewives, recent immigrants or other undesirables as such incompetent readers, it has become quite fashionable to spend some time and effort in discovering 'active readers' among these groups, as we have noted on several occasions. Fiske (1989a) sticks quite closely to Barthes' arguments about readership being the same sort of signifying practice as authorship, for example, when discussing the active player of arcade video games, and arguing against the usual view of such players as 'addicts' or 'victims'. Authors are never as creative as they appear to bourgeois critics, Fiske argues, and nor are games players the passive zombies of bourgeois moral concern. Both operate creatively, as participants in a common signifying practice, within a structured environment. To paraphrase, we might suggest that Fiske is arguing for the structural similarities between writing Pride and Prejudice and playing Mortal Kombat II as a more streetwise version of the indifference between 'cultured' and 'railway' reading. Whether it is a theoretical reader or player who 'must' act like this, or an amalgam of real readers/players that Fiske knows is far from clear. 

Barthes himself occasionally is unable to actively read the more culturally remote classics (which must remain as 'works', therefore, implying that the whole distinction is based in readership -- see Barthes 1977: 163). The opposite can also happen as Barthes (along with many other critics) reads a good deal of complexity into modern practices and (concrete) texts. We know from his earlier analyses, as we have seen, that he can find immense textual labour and cultural significance in margarine advertisements, strip-tease performances, the depiction of Romans in films, words used to describe detergents, or a host of other matters (Barthes 1973). These banal works too can be opened out and made to disclose something about signification itself. 

More usually, though, Barthes is able to accept the invitation to encounter his preferred texts in a much more relaxed and unstressed way, one which has little to do with the circumstances in which students encounter them, incidentally: 'at a loose end', 'stroll[ing]' as if in a strange landscape with half-identifiable elements in unique combinations (1977: 159). Nevertheless, he still prefers some landscapes to others, despite his structuralist indifference: he clearly admires Proust, Genet, Brecht and Balzac, for example. He also clearly gains pleasure (jouissance even) from a wide range of textual encounters, but then he is (or rather was before he died) an eminent academic and polymath, and he no longer has to grind through texts in order to write assignments, prepare lectures, or bolster research proposals, perhaps as you , the reader of this piece, have to do. 

This raises the recurrent question of the origin and context of Barthes' readings again: are they in the text, or in the reader, so to speak, are they the product of a leisurely, cultured and bookish reading formation, or are these readings claiming a more universal status? Can anyone read like Barthes does, or do you have to have had years of experience in literary criticism, marxism and philosophy? 

This is what lies behind Culler's insistence that a 'competent reader' (or a 'competent writer' for that matter) cannot be omitted from Barthes' work. 

Of course, we have seen that 'the reader' does appear in those essays of Barthes that we have cited, but it is an 'ideal reader' or 'super-reader' (Freund 1987) who opens texts, largely (not exclusively). The same reader appears in the 'activist' material in cultural studies, in Fiske or in Bennett and Woollacott, we have argued. What about readers who close texts, who refuse the chance of jouissance? Jameson (1992) appears to be one of those who describes the attempt to resist the open, playful textualisation of what he takes as the ultimate example of Barthesian texts -- experimental video -- and I have already implied that pedagogues or students often need to do this sort of closure too. 

Barthes does not confine himself to literary texts as the theoretical objects of a new reading, nor to theoretical debate alone. He refers to social trends and developments as having something to do with the theoretical shifts he is keen to pursue. Some of the earlier social commentary and ideology analysis persists, even in the new theoretical endeavours, and we find another characteristic of recent 'postmodernist' commentary in the assertion that not just French society, or even the 'whole of Western civilisation' , but the 'whole world' is somehow converging with the theoretical interests he has outlined. We can interrogate these sections at least from a sociological point of view, though. 

Somehow, then, social trends confirm the validity of the theoretical transformations: possibly, Barthes is suggesting that his (and others') perceptions of the social changes around them have somehow pushed them into new theoretical labour. In this case, of course, the 'texts' being developed by 'the whole world' are better understood as having some independent existence, rather than being constructed in and by theory alone. This is fine, and it restores the relevance of the debate to people outside the academy, but to argue that events outside somehow themselves compel theoretical changes looks a little empiricist. Such a view also renders the new approach open to the old critical questions again, such as how typical these new social trends are, and whether they must be understood differently. 

Perhaps the emergence of world wide textuality has happened the other way around, though: the concept of 'text' constructed by the new semiology has escaped the laboratory and seminar room, and acquired a real existence, rather like a conceptual virus? Or perhaps some world-wide essential process is at work, moving in mysterious ways to alter both French theory and the activities of advertising companies in, say, Los Angeles? The problem is that all the possibilities are forbidden by Barthes himself: the old empirical approach is a flawed attempt to fix meaning, as is essentialism (which, in its Christian guise is also accused of being repressive). 

The virus possibility has been discussed in a way in Featherstone's (1991) account of 'postmodernism' as a concrete term, gradually articulated, developed and transmitted by a definite group of scholars and critics in France and the USA, and then reimported, ready reified, so to speak, into British academic life. This seems close to confirming the view that the whole exercise is of significance mostly (exclusively?) to academics and other cultural gatekeepers. 

If the concept of 'text' is going to be used to grasp real texts, then these issues can not be deferred or glossed by refusals to do any more than sketch in outlines. Barthes ends his piece on works and texts by arguing that no other approach is possible, as we have seen, that (theoretical) texts by their very nature can not be captured by any metalanguage, since '[the Text]...leaves no language safe, outside, nor any subject of the enunciation in position as judge, master, confessor, decoder' (1977 164). 

This leaves the analyst in an impossible double-bind again: if we try to say anything about Texts we fail to do justice to the never-ending fluidity of them, but if we remain silent about them we risk isolation and marginalisation and we vacate the field to more vulgar interpreters. If we just sit there and marvel at the endless deferrings of meanings, we can gain real pleasure (not to be underestimated as a motive for academic work, I have suggested), but we can never lose the feelings of fiddling while Rome burns around us, and our external audiences will lose patience with us. 

If there is still to be an interest in analysing concrete social practices or systems, it will not do to try and produce these solely from some single process like textuality. That process has to be operationalised, energised, or given expression by agents operating in social contexts. Again, this is glossed in Barthes, as we have suggested (and, I have no doubt, in Baudrillard or Lyotard too). The existence of works (or concrete social systems or practices) is taken as read: fashion houses, Disney sites, cultural eclecticism, James Bond movies or whatever, are criticised without being explained. This gives a strangely 'parasitic' and backward-looking tinge to much of this sort of criticism, and opens it to the charge of relativist indifference, an inability to prioritise, or to see much difference between TV coverage of the Gulf War and a 'virtual reality' video game (to cite Norris's 1992 example).