Barhes: S/Z

Barthes, Roland.  S/Z.  Trans.  Richard Miller. New York: Hill & Wang, 1975.  Print.


Criticism, Structuralism, Post Structuralism, Close Reading, Literature

One Sentence Summary

Barthes seeks to exhaustively analyze/interpret the short story Sarrasine by Balzac through the use of five codes (Hermeneutic, Semic, Symbolic, Proairetic, Cultural) applied to units of text called lexias.


Barthes analysis of Balzac’s Sarrasine weaves in and out of 562 lexias–units of text “artificially articulated” sequentially–toward an exhaustive explication of the short story. Barthes reading, while authoritative through its deductive (post)structuring, is, in the end, one of many potential multivalencies. Barthes distinguishes between his own “writerly” (analytical endeavors) text and Balzac’s “readerly” (classical stories) text. Barthes suggests and utilizes five codes (hermeneutic, semic, symbolic, proairetic, and cultural) which drive his analysis, an analysis interspersed with substantive asides and explanatory notes digging deeper into subjects relevant both to the analysis of the story at hand and of Literature in general.

Crucial Quotes

“[Reading] is a form of work …and the method of this work is topological: I am not hidden within the text, I am simply irrevocable form it. My task is to move, to shift systems whose perspective ends neither at the text nor the “I”: in operational terms, the meanings I find are established not by “me” or by others, but by their systematic mark: there is no other proof of a reading than the quality and endurance of its systematics; in other words: than its functioning” (10).

“Further, to study the text down to the last detail is to take up the structural analysis of narrative where it has been left till now: at the major structures; it is to assume the power (the time, the elbow room) of working back along the the threads of meanings, of abandoning no site of the signifier without endeavoring to ascertain the code or codes of which this site is perhaps the starting point (or the goal); it (at least we may hope as much, and work to this end) to substitute for the simple representative model another model, whose very gradualness would guarantee what may be productive in the classic text; for the step-by-step method, through its very slowness and dispersion, avoids penetrating, reversing the tutor text, giving an internal image of it: it is never anything but the decomposition (in the cinemagraphic sense) of the work of reading: a slow motion, so to speak. neither wholly image nor wholly analysis; it is, finally, in the very writing of the commentary, a systematic use of digression (a form ill-accommodated by the discourse of knowledge) and thereby a way of observing the reversibility if the structures from which the text is woven” (12).

“The commentary, based on the affirmation of the plural, cannot therefore work with “respect” to the text; the tutor text wil ceaselessly be broken, interrupted without any regard for its natural divisions (syntactical, rhetorical, anecdotic); inventory, explanation, and digression may deter any observation of suspense, may even separate verb and compliment, noun and attribute; the work of the commentary, once it is separated from ny ideology of totality, consists precisely in manhandling the text, interrupting it. What is thereby denied is nit the quality of the text (here incomparable) but its “naturalness” (15).


Throughout my reading of S/Z, I mentally returned to Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Social Sciences,” (published a few years before Barthes analysis). Barthes concept of the plural, and his attention to the multivalency of connotation brought me back to Derrida’s discussion of freeplay. As with Derrida, Barthes work here seems to be grounded clearly in structuralist approaches (the language is Saussurian), yet at the same time the focus on plurality, connotation, and open-endedness seems to shift the theoretical stance toward post-structuralism.

Barthes “writerly” text (what I take to mean analytical text), a text which I understand him to mean as a sort of enacted practice (process manifest) stands in contrast to the “readerly” text, a text which is meant to be consumed, digested, and passed along not to be returned to (Barthes playfulness and wider critiques of cultural/economic issues are quite amusing). I seem to want to take the opening chapters of S/Z as quasi-polemic, or at least as polemic as a playful Barthes can get. The opening 20 pages root the work in structuralist method (primarily  through deductive practices), yet it sees to abide to the idea of rejecting absolute forms. (Is this a shift from structuralism as epistemology to structuralism as methodology?) In any event, Barthes urges the act of rereading as an escape from typical patterns of consumption, (a sort of methodology, I suppose): “… rereading is no longer consumption, but play (that play which is the return to the different). If them, a deliberate contradiction in terms, we immediately reread the text, it is in order to obtain, as through the effect of a drug (that of recommencement, of difference), not the real text, but a plural text: the same and new” (16).

Barthes analysis is built around, and explicates between, five codes he details early on:

1) Hermeneutic (HER): Lexias that raise questions or delay answers or suggest mysteries: commonly: the Enigma.

2) Semitic (SEM): Lexias that are specifically attuned to connotative meanings; much of the “plurality” of the text seems to stem from this lexia.

3) Symbolic (SYM): Lexias that work by pointing to broader structures (Barthes seems to be working with a list of literary themes here) such as, and notably, Antithesis.

4) Proairetic (ACT): Lexias that work as narrative discourse, driving the action in a rational, logical manner.

5) Cultural (REF): Lexias that allude to or reference sayings, aphorisms, word play, gnomic codes, etc.

Seminar Agenda

What theory of criticism does he offer? What is he trying to do? What sorts of experiences does it engender for the reader?

For me, Barthes seems to be offering a sort of structuralist/poststructuralist hybrid criticism. His attentiveness to structure is explicit, but his focus away from absolute forms/truth claims, his decentering of analysis (its plural nature, its proof only as stable as its function), along with his playful tone throughout, seems, to my understanding, to be moving into the poststructuralist/postmodern realm with the apparent act after act of deconstruction via lexias.

Barthes seems to be putting a method to the test. He is reading closely and working from a structuralist perspective, and while not exhausting an analysis, certainly analyzing exhaustingly. I could read this a number of ways. It is an act of love, of Literature, of this narrative, of analysis. Deep love. It could be read as an act of madness (love blinded?), a deconstruction so thorough, so painstaking, and yet also potentially so incomplete, as to be almost incomprehesible at a macroscale. Meaning is all but lost in a sea of meanings. The work is audacious, like approaching a mountain from a distance, seeing its massive form clearly from afar only to both get lost in and marvel at the abundance of detail (flora, fauna, geography, climate, etc.) it reveals down to the granular detail of pebbles rolling along the bed of a storm-generated creek.

What does this sort of criticism do? It seems to make an argument about the text itself (rooted in its functionality, as Barthes says), but it also seems to suggest, or maybe even goad (to use a Burkean term) through its playfulness, others into this sort of open-ended analysis, perhaps beyond literature, if possible. (Why not? After all, it’s signs all the way down, right?)

Further Reading

One Thousand and One Nights

Pastiches and Mixtures, Marcel Proust

Dictionary of Received Ideas, Gustav Flaubert


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