Roland Barthes is a renowned French literary critic, who is perhaps most known for his essay “The Death of the Author”. “From Work to Text” grapples with the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘text’, where at it’s very simplest, we might distinguish ‘works’ as passive, and ‘texts’ as active. As ‘texts’ cannot be defined, Barthes must instead identify the conception of ‘texts’ by establishing what they are not; he does this by juxtaposing the concept with his conception of the ‘work’. This is done through proposing seven different means of comparing and contrasting the two ideas; these being method, genre, signs, plurality, filiation, reading and pleasure.
In his method section, he suggests work is definite, while the text is what the reader creates in the process of reading and is therefore unique to each reader, and not a universally identifiable concept. He then suggests genre to be the social categorisation ascribed to the work which provides context and creates a sense of expectation and shared meaning. To him, the ‘text’ defies genre and classification, and operates outside these hierarchies because all ‘texts’ are simply a different organisation of the works that precede them. In a ‘work’, each word is explicit in its meaning, and the overarching message of the work cannot be contested; it is thoroughly unambiguous. By contrast, the text is comprised of terms which could be substituted for terms of similar meaning. This prompts the reader to question the significance of the particular ‘signifiers’, and to draw their own unique connections by the inference of potential readings. The ‘work’ has a signified meaning, while the ‘text’ continually defers signification; that is, it refuses to be neatly categorised into a singular meaning or interpretation. This concept links to plurality; the text is multiple and numerous in meaning because it is fragmentary in construction; each citation and reference is a small suggestion of a larger picture.
Following on from this, Barthes maintains that where the ‘work’ exists in reference to the author and the reader’s understanding of the ‘intended’ meaning, the ‘text’ operates outside the realm of associative understandings implicit in this reference. The meaning of the ‘text’ is not in its prescribed meaning, but the meaning made in the process of an individual reading. In this it is implied that ‘works’ are affiliated with the author, while texts lack filiation. Similar to filiation, there is a distinction between reading a work and a text. Where the work is passive and the meaning is clear and easily absorbed, the text asks to be interacted with, and requires the reader to engage in ‘play’ with it in order for the reader’s own meaning to be discerned. The ‘text’ can never be ‘absorbed’ like a work, as it is intangible. Barthes final distinction regards pleasure; where ‘work’ is pleasurable in its passivity and ease of absorption, ‘text’ is evasive, and does not allow the reader the pleasure of a neat meaning.
Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text”, trans. Stephen Heath, Image-Music-Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977) 155-64.
[This text was first published 13 September 2016, and has been featured on the creative-commons ‘Literature Matters’ blog]