Roland Barthes: “From Work to Text” Explained

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There’s a difference between passive consumption and active reading. Image – Marcus Quigmire.

How do you approach reading? Do you passively consume the words on the page or screen in front of  you, or do you interact with the writing? Linguist Roland Barthes had something to say on our conception of written language.

Who is Roland Barthes?

French Philosopher, Linguist and Semiotician Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was one of the leading structuralist thinkers of the 20th century. He built his concept of the transformation of our approach to literary works based on the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Julia Kristeva, and Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975).

Barthes noticed back in the 1970s that a change was taking place in how we approach language and literary written works, pointing out that disciplines were breaking down their borders and beginning to interact. Barthes viewed this move as part of the development of thought on linguistics, anthropology, Marxism, and psychoanalysis – and he pointed out that the adjustment in attitude was not coming from the “internal recasting” of these disciplines but from “their encounter in relation to an object which traditionally was not a part of them.”

Linguistics: Interaction of Disciplines Transforms Conceptions

Barthes claimed that although a certain ‘mutation’ occurred due to the process of interaction between disciplines, these transformations should not be over-estimated since they constituted  just an “epistemological slide” that had taken place in the traditional way of looking at previously formed categories.

He continued to explain that the interdisciplinary nature of  literary and cultural  analysis had altered our conception of language and the traditional notion of what was understood to be a literary work and had thus resulted in the reader’s focus being changed from a ‘piece of work’ as whole to an object known as  the ‘text.’

With this new way of approaching written work, Barthes also felt that a positive change had taken place between the writer and the reader; a change which Barthes felt promoted the reader from a passive consumer of ‘works’ to one who could interact with ‘texts;’ something that the feeling of the remoteness of the ‘works’ and their conventions and strict genres would not have previously allowed.

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