Roland Barthes: “From Work to Text” Explained


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Is this work or text? Image by Ioannis Kontomitros.

Barthes’ Description of the Object ‘Text’

When discussing ‘text’ and ‘work’ in From Work to Text,  Barthes does not try to define what he means by ‘text’ but explains the differences in the two concepts based on seven propositions: method, genre, signs, plurality, filiation, reading, and pleasure; how he viewed the developing relationship between ‘text’ and ‘work.’

  • Method: Barthes explains that ‘work’ can be handled. It is a concrete object; something that is definite and complete, “a fragment of a substance occupying a part of the space of books,” whereas the text is the composition or the meaning the reader takes from the ‘work’ and it is not a definite object.
  • Genre:Unlike the rigid classifications applied to the ‘work,’ the text cannot be pigeon-holed into a genre or placed in a hierarchical system.
  • Signs:The ‘work’ is ‘complete’ and comprehensive; it is signified, there is no arbitrariness involved in its literal understanding or interpretation.  Therefore, it can be categorized and function as a symbolic sign to whatever subject it signifies. The text is ‘incomplete’ in that it is metonymic; its words or phrases may be exchanged for others with similar meanings or associations. Its meaning becomes interrupted since it encourages the reader to produce overlapping ideas and make associations.Its ambiguity causes it to become extremely symbolic and makes its signifiers arbitrary and undetermined.Unlike the ‘work’ which has closure and can be interpreted literally and is explanatory and is a sign in itself, the text is opened-ended, has a multitude of associations and is deeply symbolic,  accordingly, it has plurality of meaning. Barthes says the text is like a ‘woven fabric’  that comes with known codes that are assembled differently and maybe  be woven with ‘citations,’ ‘references,’ and ‘echoes;’ it is intertextual in that it is “the text between of another text.”
  • Filiation: If writing is seen as a ‘work’ it is defined by a process of association or authorship. It becomes affiliated and identified with its author and the reader’s knowledge of the author and previous works may become the key to its understanding.  If writing is viewed as a text, then it is not limited and confined to a genre and the reader does not expect it to fit into a category of type since it is part of a grid and free to be interpreted beyond the author’s signification.
  • Reading: The ‘work’ is a commodity—an object of consumption in that the reader tends to be passive and is expected to be fed and entertained when reading.  If the reader approaches a text as writing and not as a ‘work,’ then the reading experience becomes interactive.The text narrows the distance between reading and writing by replacing consumption with the free play of collaborative reading.When interacting with a text rather than a ‘work,’ the reader questions and thinks about the writing instead of taking it for granted. If readers passively consumes words, they will tire from reading; as Barthes puts it: “to be bored means that one cannot produce the text, open it out, set it going.”
  • Pleasure: The pleasure of reading classic literary works may feel like consumption since the reader cannot rewrite those texts and thus a distance is created between the reader and the ‘work.’ If viewed as an accessible text, however, a piece of work arouses feelings of pleasure because there is no feeling separation between the reader and the writer and the text transcends any language or social barriers.

Are You Reading Work or Text?

So, the next time you pick up something to read, notice whether you are consuming and taking the written word for granted, or you are making associations and interacting with the text. Are you treating those written words as if they are etched in stone with only one meaning, or as a layered tapestry that echoes several possibilities?


Barthes, Roland.  From Work to Text. (1977). Image-Music-Text. 155-164. London: Fontana.

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