Literary Texts: WTF? Introduction to Cultural Texts and Roland Barthes’ From Work to Text

Hel,lo my name’s Tom and welcome back to my
channel where I talk a little bit about theatre, a little bit about being a PhD
student and a little bit about those two things lashed together. Today, another
episode of What The Theory? and we’re building on some of those ideas that I
looked at in my last What The Theory? video around semiotics to look at the
concept of cultural texts. As always, if you’ve got any further questions or any
ideas for other videos I could make, please do drop them in the comments down below I’m always really keen that these are kind of the start of a conversation rather than the end of one and also to be really
responsive to what people want to see videos about. But, here we go with
today’s video on cultural texts. So, in the last episode of What The Theory?, we looked at semiotics and the process through which words, symbols and images come to take on meaning. If you haven’t watched that video I perhaps suggest
going back and watching that one first as we’re going to kind of carry on
from where we left off there. I will link it up in whichever corner those go in,
and then pop on back to watch this one. When we were looking at semiotics, we were zooming right in and focusing on what individual words or symbols might mean
and how they come to mean that thing. But, unless you’re a linguist or a symbolist or a character in a Dan Brown book, then individual words and symbols
might not be that interesting to you. When they do perhaps come more
interesting to those of us in the wider humanities is when they get knitted
together into broader things which we call cultural texts. The term text is
thrown around quite a lot in academia but, quite often, I find that when we come to
talk to people outside of the humanities around what text is, our use of it can
seem a little bit odd. In colloquial terms, text tends to mean a group of letters
grouped up into words and sentences and paragraphs either on paper or on a
screen. However, when we use it in cultural studies and in humanities and
in academia more generally, we use it to describe all kinds of things from books
to films to adverts to even sometimes cities and people. Now, the reason that we describe all these very different things as texts is something that I think,
depending on how your brain works, will either slot into place quite quickly or
perhaps take a little bit longer to get your head around. But, today, I’m going to
try and explain why we use this word “text” and what it means to describe so
many different, diverse things. So, to begin to understand what a cultural text
is, I want to start from that very colloquial definition of groups of letters
and words on paper. Because our broad understanding of what a cultural text is
does have its roots in literary studies. Up until just after the middle of the
20th century, pieces of literature were more often referred to as “works” or “works of literature”. Now the term work was incredibly loaded and much time was
spent deciding which bits of literature might be a literary work and which
didn’t deserve that title. And there’s a particularly interesting discussion
about this in Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction in
which he looks at the notion of how the context surrounding a bit of literature
helps us to decide whether we might perceive it to be a literary work or to
not be so. Again, there was a book published recently which played with
this idea which took the words of Vine creators and presented them in the
format that you’d usually find a contemporary poetry collection.
Furthermore, when analyzing works, scholars assumed there to be a definite,
concrete meaning of that work of literature. A piece of literature meant
whatever the author intended it to mean and any other interpretation of that was
deemed strictly wrong. So, when during the 1960’s and 1970’s scholars wanted to
move past this notion of the literary work, they decided that the old term was
too laden with old prejudices and old ideas and that a new approach to pieces
of literature required a new terminology. And, thus, the text was born. Although not
the first to come up with the term, it was Roland Barthes who most influentially laid out the difference between a work and text in his essay From Work to Text
which I will link in the description down below. Barthes actually lists seven
points of differentiation between a work and a text but I’m just going to draw on
a few of the key ones here. So, a text is not the book, it’s not the format through
which the ideas within are communicated to us but those ideas themselves. And, as
such, when we’re analyzing or approaching texts, we’re less interested in the form
in which it’s presented to us and the context in which it’s framed.
Furthermore, a text has no definite meaning, in fact it contains multiple and
potentially infinite different meanings. Using the terms from my previous video,
Barthes suggested that a work was everything from the signifier to the
signified while a text was everything that happens after that that process of
the work coming into contact with a reader. And, therefore, different readers
would have different interpretations of the same piece of literature.
Finally, for today, there was to be no attempt to draw a big black line around
what was considered a text and what wasn’t, any piece of writing could be
approached as a text. The idea was to throw off those old prejudices of what
was included in the Canon or the Tradition and what wasn’t and suggest
that we can analyse any piece of writing through the same critical methods. With
this idea that formal context is less important, we might begin to see how the
idea of the text began to expand beyond just literature; if we’re going to
approach JK Rowling with the same outset as we approach Shakespeare then why
not start to look at pieces of culture that communicate things through methods other than words? Because, as we discussed in my last video, the methods through
which we communicate tend to be quite similar no matter what form they take,
whether they’re words on paper, whether they’re images or whether they’re
physical movement. So, taking this a step further, why shouldn’t we approach other
forms of communication through the same critical frameworks that we apply to
literary texts. Talking about texts rather than works, then, allows us to open
up our concept of what might be a worthwhile object of study. In short, it
democratises theory, it allows us to take the same approach to an episode of The
Simpsons that we might to a work of Proust. The scholar Richard Rorty
describes any theorist who thinks a text to only be a piece of literature to be a
“weak textualist” and there’s this idea that’s increasingly evolving that a text
is absolutely anything through which there is communication involved and
therefore almost any phenomenon on earth could be described as a text because it
is something that is communicated and can be “read” by a “reader”. Today, however, let’s stick with what we might call cultural texts, those things like
performances or films or books or pieces of visual art or pieces of sculpture
which aim to communicate cultural ideas through some kind of artistic form. And
I’d like to close with some thoughts about why this idea of the cultural text
might be incredibly useful in cultural studies and in the humanities
as a whole. First off, it allows the incredibly powerful tools that theory
gifts us to be applied to much wider culture. For a long time, the ideas that
are bound up in theory were held hostage by literature. By expanding the notion of
what a text is, we can use those same critical techniques to approach
everything from television adverts to billboards to pieces of pop culture that
we might use to apply to Shakespeare. All of these things will have ideologies and
power dynamics bound up within them and so it’s great that we can use these same
tools to analyse pieces of culture wherever they appear. Secondly, it takes
away any regard of the intention of the author. This does a couple of things. It
takes away that notion that the author is some kind of deity who has gifted us
this great bit of art, but it also allows us to not have to be bound up in
whatever the assumed intention of the author was. If you went to a gallery and
saw an extremely abstract piece of art which you couldn’t understand, it’d be
very very hard for the artist who created it to convince you that in
actual fact you definitely did understand it. And, in the same way, it
would be wrong to consider the author’s intentional meaning to be the meaning
that everyone who comes into contact with that text takes away from it.
Finally, the concept of the text unleashes a piece of culture from its
temporal specificity, it suggests that it can change meaning over time as society
changes and shifts and across different societies across the globe. And it is in
this regard a text is only brought into being when it comes into contact with
its readers and therefore, depending on who those readers are and the other bits
of culture that surround it, this will have an effect on what that piece of
text comes to mean. The concept of the text, therefore, allows us to free the
ideas communicated through a piece of culture from the physical form which
they take in their communication and, as such, it allows us to set aside the
deification of the individual or individuals who created that piece of
work and, rather than focus on the process that led to the creation of that piece of culture, focus instead on the effect that it has.
Thank you very much for watching this episode of What The Theory?. For those of you who have been kind enough to subscribe to my channel, I recently
reached a thousand subscribers which was really lovely, so thank you very much for
doing so, it makes this kind of feel very worthwhile and helps me to know that it
is useful to some people. I’m gonna put some extra reading and some sources down in the description below as I quite often usually do and but, until next time,
have a great holidays!

Dereck Turner

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