Symbolic Systems

Jeff Rice suggested that I revisit Roland Barthes’ work. I have, and I find that I really can’t connect with Jeff’s network. I find too much interference in Barthes’ texts.

To come to adopt a closed sphere of language under the pressure of all those who do not speak it, is to proclaim one’s act of choosing, if not necessarily one’s agreement with that choice. Writing here resembles the signature one affixes at the base of a collective proclamation one has not written oneself. So to adopt a mode of writing—or, even better, to make it one’s own—means to save oneself all the preliminaries of a choice and to make it quite clear that one takes for granted the reasons for such a choice. (Writing Degree Zero, 26-27)

In this passage, Barthes is specifically attacking the libratory potential of political writing (as a response to Sartre’s What is Literature). Most significant, I think, is the claim at the end of this particular chapter that “any intellectual mode of writing can only give rise to a para-literature, which no longer dares to speak its name” (28). In a direct sense, this is the discourse of professionals (politicians or scholars alike) that reify a mode of discourse by adopting it. Professional writing training cannot escape a particular “closed sphere of language”—a symbolic system not created by a student writer that they are expected to choose. In this arena, I doubt the utility of “student centered” or “libratory” pedagogies. I think political skepticism fuels much of Barthes’ early writing, and the mistrust of emancipatory schemes always comes back to the nature of language systems themselves.

An emancipatory sign system does not exist, but Barthes attempts to conceive of one in An Empire of Signs:

Text and image, interlacing, seek to ensure the circulation and exchange of these signifiers: body, face, writing; and in them to read the retreat of signs. (xi)

The perfect system in Barthes’ fictional Japan is an autodestructive (or autodeconstructive) one, not a system that forms professional or political systems:

. . .the wall is destroyed beneath the inscription; the garden is a mineral tapestry of tiny volumes (stones, traces of the rake on the sand), the public place is a series of instantaneous events which accede to the notable in a flash so vivid, so that the sign itself does away with itself before any particular signified has the opportunity to “take.” One might say that an age-old technique permits the landscape or spectacle to create itself, to occur in a pure significance, abrupt, empty, like a fracture. Empire of Signs? Yes, if it is understood that these signs are empty and that the ritual is without a god. (108)

The approaches to language described in these two works (as well as any of Barthes’ works) may bear some surface similarities, but I would argue that they are not interchangeable, nor are they productive as a general framework for “writing studies.” Barthes’ work offers highly specific reflections within well-defined domains of language, fictional as well as actual, that enrich considerations of personal, social, and ritual dimensions of symbolic systems. In the literary and personal modes, such sign systems chafe against reference. The “utopia of language” is a para-literary invention which exists nowhere. The interface of symbolic systems and the world is another matter.

This, ultimately, we must take for granted. Do most people understand how cameras and lenses work? Is the acceptance of photographic projection of reality as “symbolic” contingent on an understanding of the limits of these systems? Must we “study” a camera or photograph to learn how to deploy it, or to be skeptical of the veracity of visual products? Hardly. We take these symbolic systems for granted. To examine them productively rather than critique them until they self-destruct seems to me to be the proper domain of “rhetorics.” To trace the chains/channels/paths of production as something more than an abstracted and universalized “network” of discourses—to deal with each mode specifically, as Barthes did, seems crucial.

Another of Barthes inquiries (not mentioned in the carnivalesque discourse) is his analysis of the symbolic system deployed in Michelet. Like A Lovers’ Discourse: Fragments, citation is a crucial strategy in Michelet. Barthes seeks to uncover “an organized network of obsessions” constructing it much like Michelet himself under the influence of “History as God” rather than “History as Science”:

For History can only be the object of an appropriation only if it is constituted as an authentic object, supplied with two ends or poles. History can be an aliment only when it is full as an egg; hence Michelet filling his has supplied his with two goals and one direction: His History has actually become a philosophy of History. History is to be consummated, i.e. on the one hand concluded, fulfilled, and on the other consumed, devoured, ingested, so as to resuscitate the historian.(25)

In this network of obsessions we find the necessity of reference (dispensable in A Lovers’ Discourse), the consummation of a collective proclamation (the fulfillment of a social imperative, as in Writing Degree Zero) as well as the auto-destructive nature of signs meant to be devoured to raise the dead, but only as a foreign landscape (like his mythical Empire of Signs). Historical prose, ultimately, is “the product of an erasure” (28). It is a unity founded on the death of individuality.

Although Barthes’ figures (or methods) repeat themselves (with obvious reversals/rewritings), they are not generalizable reflections on all discourse. They are inescapably specific. Personally, I find that that increases rather than undermines their power. Barthes lack of authorizing citations in The Semiotic Challenge is lamented: “Unfortunately, I can no longer (for practical reasons) authenticate my references for this ‘scholarly text’: I must write this manual from memory.” His excuse is that the sources of rhetoric are “commonplaces” which a scholar or student can easily find. The rejection of citation as authority is not philosophical, just practical. It certainly is not general—he is not always “indifferent to the proprieties of knowledge” (A Lover’s Discourse 9)

A final note: The tension between objects and symbolic objects is discussed nicely in The Semiotic Challenge. The meaning of an object is “something used for something” (181). Peirce described symbols as “something that stand for something” (loosely paraphrased). In both cases, the semantics involve a sense of function that can only occur in the context of a network of relations. The object, when granted a function, is ultimately transitive—its actuality becomes secondary when converted to symbolic action. But most significantly, no object within culture is devoid of meaning, in Barthes estimation. If it stands for something—then, according to Peirce, it is a symbol. Any “nonsymbolic image-repertoire” can only be achieved at the cost of being nonsense.