Oh boy, Barthes.

Given this was my first real encounter with Rolan Barthes, I was not sure what to expect. I had heard the name before with mixed opinions, but boy oh boy was I not anticipating this. Barthes is essentially a conservative if there were such a thing as “textual conservatives” (hey, maybe there is). He’s clearly a strong believer that the text is meant to remain a physical text and that we are not to trifle with its state of being. His whole essay almost felt biblical. I would go as far to say that Barthes thought very highly of himself and may have considered himself to be up there with the big man. However, by using this method of writing and expressing these “scriptures” on texts as a concept I almost hesitate to take him seriously. I am not sure if that is a result of us being in 2018 and the fact that he wrote this in 1971, but either way, there were clearly “heretics” that pushed him to write this essay. He even went and referenced Mark 5:9 writing “My name is Legion: for we are many” in order to prove his point, which I personally found preposterous considering this is an academic essay regarding the treatment of texts?

Aside from Barthe’s large ego, I feel as though his arguments resonate in those academics who refuse to accept digital humanities as an emerging field. At my undergraduate institution, my professor (who introduced me to DH and is the reason I am here blogging this today) was hired to create a digital humanities department at the school while being a member of the English department faculty. However, there was a faculty member in the English department who totally slandered her work in a department meeting, and the institution refused to fund her digital humanities lab. This gentleman made claims that using digital tools to alter texts was an offense to those who studied literature even went as far as to say that DH caused ADHD in young students (this flabbergasted me as well). For some reason (note my sarcasm) I think Barthes would support this notion. I mentioned in an annotation that Barthes speaks like someone who regards novels such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain to be some of the highest forms of literature known to man and will never be knocked out of the literary canon. Barthes states in his first point that “The Text is not to be thought of as an object that can be computed” (Barthes), he then proceeds to go on about how simply having the ability to hold the text and engage with it was an experience with language only attainable this way. Again, I know it’s extremely early on in the history of computation, but c’mon. Barthes isn’t even entertaining the possibility that maybe there’s more beyond these physical pages.

As a digital humanist, there is nothing more frustrating than reading that. Things such as text mining exist so that we can engage with these same texts he’s reading on an even deeper scale! When he states “…reading, in the sense of consuming, is far from playing with the text” (Barthes) I had to turn away. I feel as though even basic literary analysis that anybody who studies English does can be considered some level of “playing” with the text.

All in all, I am basing this opinion on how I interpreted this “From Work to Text.” Maybe his other works sounded entirely different, and maybe with current technology, he would have been more open to computational engagement with texts. That’s where the flaw lies with many theorists studied in academia, how much can we engage with their work when we don’t know what they would think of ours?

One thought on “Oh boy, Barthes.

  1. I read Barthes’s assertion that the text cannot be computed a little differently. It’s definitely intended as a provocation, but I don’t think it’s meant to be literal. Texts have been treated as “objects to be computed” since the 1940s and he may well have been aware of those activities when he wrote this essay. But I think Barthes is talking about his phenomenal text, “The Text,” which really isn’t an object, and which is too historically and socially complex to compute or analyze the way someone might treat a physical text. But our engagement with “The Text,” or a particular text, and how we construct it, is something we can analyze. In that sense we can play with it. I think that Barthes would be delighted with the way “play” has become a defining concept in the practice of digital humanities and the way we use DH methods to interrogate texts as a way of experiencing of them. Annotation is also a method of play: it’s an intervention in a particular text and how we read it. The process of annotation, and the result, both contribute to a greater notion of what that Text can be, in a less literal and more phenomenal way.

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