Texts, Works, Objects and Signs

Patrick Grady O’Malley


Considering the “Text” as a “process of demonstration” and not a “reduction of reading to a consumption” transcends how many people likely think of the reading process. With our recent discussions on audiobooks, I wonder how Barthes would react to this form of media as being consumed or if he would be open to the idea of an audiobook as something to be experienced.


To comprehend a work is to do more than merely interact with the words of that text but to be part of the “biological conceptions of the living being.” This largely paves the way for Barthes to make his argument of a text as a “network,” something to be lived and interpreted. However, it is also this reason that makes his statement “the Text is not to be thought of as an object that can be computed,” confusing. Networks are always computed, and he seems to be countering his own argument by saying the text is one but cannot be the other. What’s more is that if a text is a “process of demonstration,” than again why can it not be computed? Computation and demonstration go hand in hand with one another, and the work that Digital Humanists do with text mining and more, demonstrate more about a text than most comparative studies or close readings do, all through computation. There is a generational delay or two from when this article was written to the advent of Computational Linguistics and Digital Humanities, but by the 1970’s computers were already changing the way that so much work was being done, if Barthes, so profound, prophetic and wise, were really on top of his game, I don’t think he would ever make the statement that text not ever be computed.


I do appreciate Barthes’ distinction of “work” as a “general sign” and a “Text” as “the signified.” I say this because I like thinking of work and text as two different entities (even though as I argue below, they are a bit closer to one another than Barthes suggests), work is the sign that represents all that went into its production, and perhaps also its appeal to a reader, whereas text as signified works on a deeper level as something that is to be interacted amongst/with, or as Barthes puts it: “the Text is radically symbolic: a work conceived, perceived and received in its integrally symbolic nature is a text.” This element supports my first statement saying Barthes’ perspective could shift the way people perceive the act of reading and writing.


But my only question is if a “Text” is an “object,” what of a work? Is that also an object or is it always going to be a “general sign?” Can a work never achieve what a text does, and does a text automatically fulfill the requirements of a work? The “interdisciplinarity” of research leads me to think that the two work in tandem a bit more than Barthes would like for us to believe. Or at least perceive as we ponder over his writings. If we could attest literary texts as always being products of “linguistics, anthropology, Marxism and psychoanalysis” then I don’t see the harm in thinking of them as “works” at the same time.

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