Junebug versus Hurricane


No Thoughts On Writing

Stop the Music for a Minute

fit to be tied

Taylor Black

May 5, 2010

No Thoughts on Writing

My reading of Roland Barthes’ S/Z could not have come at a better—or, depending on how you look at it, worse—time in my life as a thinker and reclusive academic.  Telling as it may be, most of my energies and worries lately have been about my profession and my professional community.  Specifically, I have been concerned about the prescriptive and sometimes limited ways in which scholarship and critical discourse get carried out and received in contemporary academia.  You see, I have had a sinking feeling over the past few years that the well of what we call “critical analysis” might have run dry long ago—that maybe there are only so many arguments that we can make as academics and cultural theorists without eating ourselves alive or, worse, devolving into a world where everyone is arguing and no one is listening.

Thankfully, M. Barthes’ essay seems to be heaven-sent: sent at just the right time and delivering just the right message for my world-weary soul.  While it seems to have been decided that both academic labor and cultural theory ought to be affirmative, positivist and invested in the endless production of arguments and new ideas, S/Z focuses on the creative aspects of writing and reading in order to imagine new ways of thinking about conducting flows of thought, literature and ideology. The classical, prescriptive concept of a text is a religious one.  Even in spite of years of post-structuralism and deconstruction, there is still a certain reverence and awe given to pieces of literature and philosophy that holds onto the assumption that there are definitive answers, connections, metaphors and clues imbedded inside the pages of a book that, with the proper equipment and know-how, can be dug up and put on display for all to see.

The compulsion we as academics have to argue the truth or the validity of a text treat the process of reading in a liturgical manner.  The goal of these sorts of academic regulations and conventions represent a literary ideology: a “monster” that those of us employed in the profession of scholarship and academic reading that makes dead objects of pieces of literature and paranoid consumers out of its poor, pitiful readers.[1] All the rituals—the ten minute talk, the twenty page paper, the conference presentation, the question and answer period, the research, the thesis, the argument, the point—that we maintain in the holy name of professionalism and what’s often referred to as good academic work are only ways in which we foreclose the creative in the name of the critical, leave out the listening in the name of the prescriptive reading and unfortunately allow for the kind of prose that even the writer themselves can’t bear to read once it’s done.

There are, even as I’m writing these very words, scores of undergraduate students whispering to each other in the cold, dead halls of English departments across the world, trying to figure out what this text or that essays is about or represents so that they may walk into class with a confident air about them, prepared to tell their teachers just what they’ll expect to be hearing.  This habit of approaching pieces of literature as dead object that contain within them mummified information that the professional scholar must necessarily be able to seek out and cite like some sort of necrophilic archaeologist is what Barthes refers to as “the readerly.”  The ultimate goal of the readerly reading of a text is to sort out right away and without a doubt what it is that a book represents.  Sort of like writing an obituary, this kind of consumption of a piece of writing proclaims with theological certainty how an object of literature should be remembered.  It carves it into stone.

Failure to comprehend a literary work or piece it together so that it might be explained to those poor, lost sophomoric souls roaming the halls of academia everywhere is exactly what the readerly attempts to avoid in its self-confident, almost scientific rendering of a text.  The same finality that gets carried by an obituary is, in Barthes own words, a product of the readerly: “To depart/to travel/to arrive/to stay: the journey is saturated.  To end, to fill, to join, to unify—one might say this is the basic requirement of the readerly, as though it were prey to some obsessive fear: that of omitting a connection.”[2] The idea behind readerliness, and indeed behind what’s considered responsible literary scholarship, is that professional duty lies in the academic’s ability to succinctly and effortlessly piece various works of literature together—both in and of themselves as well as in conjunction, or religious association, with each other.  Once someone is able to successfully defend and articulate their own positions on this or that literary body then they can call themselves—at least to those who will listen—an expert, nay a doctor of literary analysis.

So, while Barthes refers to the readerly text as simply what we conceive of as a “classical text,”[3] as a thing, I also believe he has imagined it for us as a process.  The experience of consuming a classical text allows for a certain kind of freedom, he says, that allows them to decide “either to accept or reject the text.”  Readerly reading is, then, “nothing more than a referendum…[representing] what can be read but not written.”[4] Both the archaeological ways in which, as I have described, works of literature get approached, taken apart and put back together as well as the pious manner in which literature gets remembered and associated weigh this freedom that Barthes lays out for us.  The “right” of scholarship and academic reading lies in the ability of the professional critic to have something distinctive and utterly, horribly communicable to say about the mass of literature that they indulgently refer to as their “field of research.”

There is no pleasure in the holy kingdom of academic literary studies, only proclamations, theses and one defended paper after another, marching off into the abyss.  The rolling hills of this great dark land are filled with the gravestones of classic, readerly, texts and teeming with busy-bodied academics and critics searching, digging and scratching away at surfaces looking for the one last idea that hasn’t yet been uncovered, the decomposing trace of something, anything, that hasn’t already been said.

And then there’s academic writing.  We have become so professionalized, so very guarded about what it is we say and do as professional scholars that we have let our fears and conventions get the best of us.  Just as there is no pleasure in the act of readerly reading, there is also no fun in the writing of critical analysis.  When what you’re told you have to do is make an argument, prove your point or exhibit some sort of fool-proof comprehension of a text then there’s little room for mistake.  The failure of completion—whether it be of your own vision of a book or body of work or simply of the weight of your argument itself—that makes readerliness such a paranoid, safeguarded venture saturates what we now know as academic prose.  The thing that makes a thesis good or worthwhile in the world of academia is its ability to convey confidence, finality and achievement; likewise, the one thing that makes a piece of professional scholarship itself is no real person–or even, really, academic person—would dare read it!

Literature, in our minds, expresses, and its use language creates metaphors. The job of the professional scholar is to uncover, situate and show an astute understanding of how these things are imbedded in whatever body of work they are approaching and defending to death.  The essay is, then, a kind of challenge, an investigation of the individual academic’s fortitude; the professional reading of the essay, in turn, works to declare whether or not a scholar has succeeded or failed at showing and expressing their total comprehension of a text and of literature in general.  Just like the undergraduate students I painted earlier in this piece who stand outside of their classrooms explaining texts to each other and getting the gist of what’s happening in their literature classes so that they can be examined once they walk in and take their seats, literary scholars of all stripes attend conferences and pore over peer-reviewed journals in search of holes in each others’ arguments, looking for a way into the great academic party.  Our writing, then, is really just an expression of readerliness, as it gets soaked with the weight of referendum that Barthes has described for us.  In the name of professionalization and academic success, we mask our failures—of understanding, of investigation, of comprehension—with conventions and false confidence.

Good academic prose isn’t supposed to express, that’s what, at least as we say to ourselves, literature does.  Instead, our writing distills our knowledge, it represents our abilities to read.  Even now, I am working against my better judgment that says that even though I have been assigned to respond to a text that really I should be showing an omnipotent understanding of it—that there should be less of me talking and thinking through my own reaction to my reading of S/Z and more of me making definitive statements about it and clear associations with the bodies of scholarship that I have found myself invested in.  What I ought to be doing, or rather, what’s come to be known as a proper academic response to something, is making claims about Barthes’ book, searching for an argument in order to situate my essay amongst all the other essays that have already been written about S/Z.  But, to situate myself is to do away with myself; to make a claim that can be rock steady and can live on its own.  Never mind the text itself or even the event of my reading it, the real goal of the scholarly—or, if you’d rather, the readerly—is to record my own success over a literary work.  After this, my response can live on its own, and if something as unfortunate as publishing happens to my piece of scholarship, my arguments can crystallize and lay waiting until some other wayward academic soul comes and shreds them to bits.

The problem with scholarly writing is, as I’m sure I’ve made abundantly clear, that its fascinated with its own success—indeed, to argue at all is to be invested in the business of being right and proving value.  But, what if writing didn’t argue?  After all, to concede yourself to an argument leaves open the possibility that you might—and considering the fastidious energy of literary critics, probably will—be wrong.  The answer to this conundrum, and the way out of this wicked fantasy of success that academic inquiry holds so close to its heart is a kind of wonderful failure, a resignation and romantic dedication to what Barthes calls “the writerly.”  Instead of working to overcome disorder in a literary object, the writerly text is only focused on the experience, or the event of the language being heard and read.  Unlike the scholarly paper, which attempts to codify and broadcast the academic’s success over a work of literature and makes arguments that are past even before they’ve been published in journals, the writerly text is, in Barthes’ terms:

“A perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitable make it past) can be    superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing before the infinite play of the world (the world as function is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, opening of networks, the infinity of languages.”[5]

So, if the readerly text ought to be read authoritatively and the scholarly argument is meant to convey success and completion with a kind of religious fervor, then I would like to humbly suggest that the writerly response necessarily be a record of failure—to investigate, to piece together, to associate, to understand, to communicate.  Instead of reading to understand and writing to explain, we could write to write, respond to respond and express what is already expressing.  While people read books like treasure maps and write essays like Bibles, the writerly text can write the things that need to be heard.  Writerly readers can listen to language the way we allow ourselves to listen to songs—to be taken over by them, to be perhaps discombobulated by them, or even to be confused or ambivalent about the content that they may or may not carry with them as they are uttered and echoed off into the distance.  You can argue and defend your self into oblivion or maintain your rights of failure and expression.  Instead of training myself to succeed at this academic profession I have placed my gilded toes upon, I will dedicate myself to protecting and expressing the kinds of personal failures—to explain, to be critical, to be scientific and precise—that got me here in the first place.


[1] Barthes, Roland.  S/Z: An Essay. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970. 97-98

[2] S/Z, 105

[3] S/Z, 4

[4] S/Z, 4

[5] S/Z, 5

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