on 1 February 2008 at about 10:41

The Writerly Text: Part 1

Cross posted from CEMP

This lecture is an exploration of the notion of the 'writerly text'. The readerly and writerly texts were proposed by Roland Barthes - a critic and theorist who was concerned - as have we in the first few weeks of the course - with understanding the semiological basis of how communication works, and the role ideology (Barthes might say 'mythology') plays in the circulation and construction of meaning.


We began by thinking about expertise. Here's one of my favourite slides, a photograph by Leo Reynolds:

Ascent of Man

I challenged you by arguing that, since I'm an expert in a particular field (being a lecturer in a university presumably denotes my expertise), then what I have to say about that field is better, and more important, than what you, as students, might have to say. And of course, year after year, albeit with some reservations, you agree, instead of telling me to go screw myself. After all, why else would you pay fees?

So that's me, there, at the front of the evolutionary curve with my mortarboard, standing at my lecturn. And in the lecture you mostly placed yourselves a bit further back in the queue, no longer monkey-like, having managed to stand up straight, but not yet qualified to hold forth at the lecturn. It is a wonder of our educational system that we manage to encourage such submission and servitude in our young people.

Preferred readings

What experts do is to produce preferred readings - sometimes called 'dominant readings'. Here's a picture produced by Badoak for the last unit, Images:

Badoak's image

We asked Badoak to restrain any urges to tell us what he was trying to communicate with this image while we tried to analyse it ourselves. We had a variety of responses - it produced many different 'readings'. I proposed a reading - that the image has a narrative arc which moves as it were from bottom to top: bird tracks at the bottom are mimicked by artificial, but otherwise meaningless marks, but as we look higher up the image, we see these marks begin to appear coherent, recognisable as human symbols; right in the top corner, we see 0s and 1s - binary notation. All the way up the picture, these 'symbols' are accompanied by human footprints - indexical signs of human presence. The image thereby communicates a narrative about human beings, their development of complexity over their evolution: the closeness to - and yet the 'alienness' from - nature, that human culture and technology embody. It is a story of eons within a few centimetres.

Badoak confirmed that this reading was what he was trying to achieve: so the author's intention in this image was susceptible to interpretation by an informed reader. I found and identified the dominant reading of this image. This dominant reading was not universally shared amongst all of us though. Badoak confirmed that this was not disappointing - an author may not wish to be obvious, he might prefer for some work to be necessary to uncover dominant readings - after all without work, where is the art? The work of interpretation is what informed experts do.

Expert analysis

The expert might expound at length on the ways in which this image 'produces' meaning: it uses various signs, which in semiotic terms are indeces, icons and symbols: the footprints and bird-tracks are indexical - signs which are direct evidence of the 'signified'; the artificial, mimicked marks which resemble the bird-tracks, but which are clearly copies, rather than indices, are iconic signs - they resemble the bird-tracks, and signify birds only to the extent that the mimickry has some kind of fidelity; and finally, the heiroglyphic and binary notation are symbolic signs - they signify things human beings recognise only because we have somehow grown to share understanding of these signs through custom and convention. Symbolic signs are arbitrary - which is to say that they 'have meaning' only through convention, not through physical relationship or resemblence.

Note, though, that we do not need to understand what the heiroglyphs and binary notation mean: this image plays on the connotations they carry, rather than what they denote; we do not know, or very much care, which words or numbers are represented here - rather they stand for something else - the very complexity of symbolic meaning which human beings utilise - so this image harnesses not only semiotic signs, but 'figures of speech' too: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche - symbolic representations of how humans think. The binary 'stands for' advanced civilsation; the footprints 'stand for' the constant presence of human beings throughout the chronological story of the image. The image, in fact, is highly reflexive, since it uses signs to signify something about the very signs themselves. The co-evolution of the human and the sign are examined in the only way humans can examine them - through signs.

The expert utilises these specialised examples of vocabulary (sign, signifier, signified, index, icon, symbol, connotation, denotation, reflexivity, metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche) in order to more precisely provide evidence for the preferred, or dominant reading; we need only to throw in 'genre' and 'juxtaposition' and we might have a whole academic essay on our hands.

Red Riding Hood

Let's look at another example of an image. Prior to this lecture, you explored how to adapt the fairy-tale of Little Red Riding Hood by using other adaptations as a starting point. In the lecture we looked at this image, Little Red Riding Hood by John Wehr:

Little Red Riding Hood - John Wehr

Some of you adapted the story based on this image as Red Riding Hoodie - a (carnivalesque!) inversion of the story, where Red Riding Hood is a dangerous, disaffected youth, and the wolf had better watch out. How is it that you were able to create such a subversive interpretation of the story? Where has the dominant reading in this image gone?

Look at the construction of the image: we assume it is night; is the face lit by a streetlamp? Look at the cropping: is Red Riding Hood moving? what is he looking at? what is he thinking? what is off-shot? These contextual necessities are absent, and so the meanings we want to ascribe in this image are absent - left to our imagination. The inscrutability of this youth's face is just the starting point for constructing meanings - and the expert can use all the vocabulary they like, but cannot identify a dominant reading.

These imposed meanings - in this case the hoodie - come from somewhere in our imaginations, and are informed by our ideological concerns. What is a hoodie, with all its connotations, if not an idea we circulate, attaching implications to it as it goes? Where do those implications come from? Those implications are just snippets of our ideological hinterland which inform how we interpret the world.

Seeds of meaning

Here's a famous phrase:


In the session, some of the resonances or meanings we coaxed from this phrase, on its own, included the archaic spelling of 'child' and the syntax (verb at the end of the sentence) which implied a kind of poetic discourse. The 'dark tower' connoted a sense of the Gothic, perhaps. These 'hooks' or 'clues' start to push us towards constructing or imagining possible stories, forms and genres which we might generate from this short phrase.

In fact, it is a quote from Shakespeare's King Lear, a fragment spoken by Edgar who is disguised as mad Tom. From this fragment, Robert Browning later constructed a poem in 1855 - from just a tiny fragment of meaning, Browning was inspired to write an allegory of knightly quest. From a few 'seeds' the creative imagination produces and transforms meaning.

Or consider this fragment:


We identified paradoxes and oxymorons here - mutually exclusive words joined together. The sentence is grammatically and syntactically correct, but implies nonsense, impossibility and paradox.

Actually, this phrase was used as an example by Noam Chomsky as part of his exploration of the relationship between language and human nature, and as an illustration of how meaning is created through more than simply grammar or syntax, since we can create syntactically correct sentences which are literally meaningless. (Incidentally, though not of direct relevance here, Chomsky argues that the ability to create syntactical structures necessary for language are hard-wired into human biology - a view shared to some extent by anthropological psychologist Steven Pinker).

Having seen Chomsky's example, some people considered it as a throwing down of the gauntlet, and set about creating texts in which such a sentence, apparently absent of any possible meaning, would actually make sense. Here's one of their efforts:

Behold the pent-up power of the winter tree;
Leafless it stands, in lifeless slumber.
Yet its very resting is revival and renewal:
Inside the dark gnarled world of trunk and roots,
Cradled in the chemistry of cell and sap,
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously
In deep and dedicated doormancy,
Concentrating, conserving, constructing:
Knowing, by some ancient quantum law
Of chlorophyll and sun
That come the sudden surge of spring,
Dreams become reality, and ideas action.

Bryan O. Wright

See this archived thread
to see a few more examples of how people explored the prompts of their imaginations, fed with just an apparently dry and meaningless piece of academic cruft.

The instability of meaning

These examples illustrate how, when given the opportunity, the human imagination expresses enormous creativity. The power of the imagination allows us to create and produce meanings, which are simply not present, or intended, by an author. Meaning is not stable and fixed, it is produced, created and constructed, and it mutates under the pressure of usage by creative human imaginations. Indeed, reading any kind of text, whether this text you read now, or fragments of text such as Chomsky's nonsense phrase, is not a passive, but an active activity.

Barthes' Death of the Author

So: we must re-examine the relationship between reader and author: what an author 'intends', the meaning that we might call the 'dominant' reading, is not as easy to pin down as we might at first have thought. Barthes' important essay The Death of the Author (1977), addresses this issue - let's see what he has to say.

"The author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs. The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions..."

So Barthes begins by framing the business of understanding culture as centred 'tyranically' around the author. The author has historically been the main focus of interpretation. This is borne out by a long tradition in academic fields such as English Literature, in which the 'correct' interpretation of a text is approached more closely by knowing more about the author and their biography. Or in art, the work of someone like Vincent Van Gogh can only be properly appreciated by understanding the contingent details of his life - the severed ear, the mental illness, the sojourn in Brixton, etc. Barthes continues:

"... there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic, nor again in the fact that criticism [...] is today undermined along with the Author."

Hand in hand with the concentration on the author - and the ever increasing detail one must know of the author's life in order to 'properly' interpret the author's work - comes the 'reign of the Critic', or the pre-eminence of the 'expert'. Experts are the repositories of correct interpretations, because they are the ones who have taken the trouble to discover the 'true', intended meaning of the author's text. Barthes also states that these privileges that have been granted the author and the critic are being eroded and 'undermined'. How so?

Well... a detour into the details of post-structuralist thought is beyond the scope of this lecture. Suffice to say that with the advent of postmodernist thought, and the dissolution of faith in 'absolute' values, which require an ultimate author (say, a God), notions of truth, and the importance of 'intention' have come to be undermined. Barthes is applying his understanding of a general shift in cultural thought to a specific idea about meaning - that shift in cultural thought which occurs as modernism gives way to postmodernism, structuralism gives way to post-structuralism, and reason and concrete 'evidence' give way to desire and 'contingency'.

Anyway: let's continue with Barthes on the role of the reader.

"The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination [...] we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."

Don't look for 'unity' and meaning in the intentions of the author: meaning can only be created by the reader. The emphasis that we've seen on the dominant reading is essentially vain. It is part and parcel of the vanity of the author, seeking to control their reputation with posterity through their memoirs and diaries, and it is an expression of the critic's desire to be legitimate - the business of academia and the 'cultural industry' ensuring that they are still important and necessary. After all, without experts, surely we'd sink into a morass of dumbed-down ignorance and anarchy?

Actually, Barthes argues, the reader creates meaning, not the author, and the reader is potentially infinitely varied: not every reader is an expert. So are non-expert readings less valid? Is an expert's reading more valid? What is the point, or need, for such elitism? Is it anything but elitism?

Forget the author, Barthes says; who cares where he was living, what he was drinking, who he was seeing, what he was thinking, when he wrote the text? The text is all that exists, and what we bring to the text in our interpretation is what we should care about.

Outside the text

In part two of this lecture, we'll look in more detail at Barthes' complex but deeply stimulating book, S/Z in which he first describes the writerly and readerly texts. We'll also see what relevance these conceptual propositions have to interactive media in particular; ways in which the writerly text can help us to approach many other theoretical models; and we'll also consider the irony (if you haven't already spotted it) in someone claiming to have expertise (like me) explaining what Barthes' text means.


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  • Small Print

    Joe Flintham 2000 - 2015

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