S/Z and film criticism

by Judith Mayne

from Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 41-45
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Roland Barthes. S/Z. Translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1971). $8.95 paper.

Realism and narrative

Some concept of realism provides the aesthetic and ideological foundation of nearly all reflections on the nature of cinema. This is none too surprising. The evolution of cinematic form—in particular as the Hollywood film industry has defined it—has followed from attempts at all levels of the cinematic process to make the cinema appear “more real.” Major film theorists such as Bazin, Kracauer, and the early Metz begin and too often, in circular fashion, end with an apparently unquestionable, direct relation between film form and the reality which the form represents on the screen.

Too often theorists invoke the authority of the word “realism” uncritically. The term becomes an excuse for no further analysis. Yet the very word “realism” can be confusing to critics and readers alike. Part of this confusion comes from the fact that as a critical term, “realism” refers to various moments in literary and artistic history. Realism refers to a precise movement in 19th century prose. Conceptually it is also an artistic form which every artistic movement called “modern” has taken issue with. Also, both critics and artists have labeled some artistic tendencies which are in fact diametrically opposed “realist.” In this way the academic realism glorified by bourgeois critics is linked to socialist realism only by a similarity in stated goal. The transferal of realism from literature to cinema carries with it the same general confusion that has plagued literature and the visual arts since the 19th century.

Beneath and at the same time beyond the specific styles or specific movements that we label “realistic”—and confusingly so—artists, critics, and the audiences for art have shared since the 19th century what can be referred to as an attitude of realism. Such an attitude cuts across the boundaries separating cinema from the other arts. The basic assumption of this attitude is that the techniques of an art directly relate in either an existential or analogous way to events and objects in the real world, which the artist has chosen to depict in the written text, in the frame, or on the screen.

Theorists on one plane and viewers on another often assume that cinema of necessity utilizes a realistic form because of the nature of the cinematic image. For although few critics claim that the image, inherited from still photography, transparently reproduces reality, the image is at least analogous to it. Ironically cinema has become a bastion of realism, not only because of its close relationship to still photography, but also because of its close ties with literature. Cinema became, very early on in its history, primarily a narrative form, a vehicle for storytelling. The source for the majority of fiction films is literature, and even most documentaries rely on rather simple narratives. Thus many of the technical devices of the cinema—the camera as point of view, editing as manipulation of time—have correlations in literary narrative. Cinema is governed by an “attitude” of realism, then, because of its special combination of the image of reality with the forms of narrative fiction.

It is because of these close ties between cinematic and literary realism that Roland Barthes’ S/Z. An analysis of the novella Sarrasine by Honore de Balzac, it has as much relevance for film as for literary criticism. In a broader sense, Barthes’ analysis of this one text reflects current concern of many critics of the arts, especially in France, with the notion of realism. Many of these critics, including Barthes, incorporate Marxist philosophy as a given into their intellectual project. In this instance, they are examining and critiquing realism in such depth because they see realism as an ideology in its own right. They also feel that most Marxist artistic criticism, as well as most bourgeois criticism, similarly sees the text as a reflection. For Marxists art reflects the economics base; for bourgeois critics, it reflects or expresses human nature. These critics see literature and the visual arts as having at their disposal a number of means by which an impression of reality can be created. The contemporary critics of realism, however, wish to analyze these very mechanisms of this impression of reality as constituting the ideology proper of the text, rather than what is apparently reflected in the text. The latter, this reflection, the content, is itself seen as one of the text’s illusions.

For Barthes, realism is an attitude found both in the reader and the text. It rigidifies discourse into a series of one-to-one correspondences. With this attitude, reading itself becomes a passive activity. The text seems to exist as one homogenous block of meaning which the reader is expected to decipher only within a given set of rules.

Appreciating plurality in the text

Initially readers of S/Z may not understand the entire achievement of Barthes’ analysis, for they may assume that the breakdown of the tale Sarrasine into 561 pertinent units of signification, or “lexia,” was Barthes’ way of achieving an intricate textual analysis; or, in other words, Barthes’ way of accounting for all the possible meanings of the Balzac novella. From the outset, however, Barthes makes it clear that is aim is neither an exhaustive, definitive analysis of a single work nor an elaborate model which would then be tested against other works. Such approaches seek to impose an order on the text, making it lose what Barthes calls its difference. Difference is that property of discourse, not to be confused with “individuality,” which is process rather than product, a continuous articulation but irreducible to a single one-dimensional impulse.

The type of analysis pursued in S/Z focuses on this difference as multiplicity and plurality. Barthes does not assume meaning but addresses himself rather to the possibilities of meanings. On this count he distinguishes between the “readerly” and the “writerly.” Barthes’ own point of reference, Balzac, in many ways serves as a casebook example of the “readerly.” Balzac’s writing style is discourse which does not seek really to challenge the reader but to rather present the reader with a world that is coherent, well-ordered, and already meaningful. The “writerly” text, however, does not assume the meaningfulness and coherence of discourse but rather challenges it. In so doing, the writerly text challenges the reader as well, shaking his or her assumptions and conventions about literature and about one’s very judgment of reality in the day-to-day world. Twentieth century literature abounds in examples of the “writerly.” For example, the new novel which took hold in France in the 1950s, presented readers not with well told, easily consumable events, but with fragments, flashes of perception, and treatises on the very possibility of writing. In fact, Barthes was one of the major critical defenders of this new art.

The “readerly” and the “writerly” in some ways then parallel the distinction between “classical” and “modernist” literature. Barthes, however, makes a special contribution to critical theory in that he is concerned not only with different types of texts, but also with different ways of reading. The “writerly” submerges itself in that difference of the text. It is discourse in dynamic flux, calling upon the reader to produce rather than to passively consume. In contrast to the fluidity of the writerly, the “readerly,” or classic text, plunges the reader

into a kind of idleness—he [sic] is intransitive ... reading is nothing more than a referendum.” (p. 4)

We can find many writerly texts—most variations of 20th Century Literature courses depend on them, with novels and plays from Joyce to Beckett, from Woolf to Eliot. However, a writerly practice of reading is much more difficult to find. Barthes says there is a “legality” of reading at fault. It is not simply the fault of the ways the texts are written or produced. To separate “production” from “consumption” in this way is, moreover, a typical feature of this classical model. Barthes gives us his reading of Sarrasine in order to develop a new kind of reading, one which will subvert the equation between reader and consumer. He wants us to learn to engage in literary interpretation as a means of crafting the text ourselves, as

ourselves writing ... To interpret the text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it.” (p. 5, Barthes’ emphasis)

While Barthes’ essay deals with plurality and difference in terms of written language, the ease with which he taps other sign systems to elaborate the nature of the writerly also suggests that S/Z is no more “about” literature than the writerly is “about” writing in the strict sense of the word. The preciseness with which Barthes deals with his object “literature” carries with it, in counterpoint, a gesture of destruction of the object itself as a homogenous block with clearly defined boundaries. Hence it is tempting—and justifiable—to perceive Barthes’ analysis of Sarrasine as pertinent to all sign systems, including cinema.

Realism as a complex system of conventions and illusions

Film is ripe for the kind of considerations elaborated in S/Z. The “classical” stance or realist attitude which Barthes describes as symptomatic of literary criticism, of most interpretation, has characterized most approaches to film. In some ways, this dominance of the “readerly” is even more acute in film. This is because films are subservient to a narrow law of reading in ways that are more explicit than in literature. The question is once again one of realism. Since it is more anchored in sensory reality than its verbal or written counterparts, cinema has historically carried with it an equation with some type of reflection of reality. And as pointed out earlier, in this way cinema has been designated the realistic art form par excellence, similar to what Barthes calls “classic” narrative fiction.

In a sense in S/Z Barthes rewrites a dominantly readerly text into a writerly one. Such a transformation of classical discourse into the “writerly” is permitted by what Barthes calls the “limited plural” of readerly texts. Even the most classical or “realist” model of discourse, in other words, has certain fissures that betray its innocence and transparence. It is the reader’s task to follow these “cracks,” opening them up even wider. Since ideology is borne most commonly by those conventions which are unnoticed, the kind of reading proposed by Barthes is a political act, an attack on dominant modes of perception. The writerly, then, is not a modality of discourse to be added to x number of others. It is rather a function of the process of production itself (writing or reading) which it is the task of dominant classical models to repress.

Balzac is for many the prototype of 19th century literary realism, i.e., of discourse that presents itself at the complete service of a coherent, well-ordered world. “Order” is hardly typified in Sarrasine, a tale of sexual transgression and overt narrative ploys. The artist who falls in love with a castrato, the narrator who tells his story many years after the fact in hopeful exchange for a night of sex with the woman who hears the tale—this is hardly standard realist fare. Yet realism is an attitude that we, as readers, bring to the text. We have been taught to relegate what does not fit into our conventionalized schema to the realm of the superfluous, the insignificant. It is precisely Balzac’s apparent refusal of certain of the canons of literary realism, and the way he utilizes the “superfluous” and the “insignificant” that make Sarrasine Barthes’ choice for analysis.

The realism of literature is a complex system of illusions. It is propagated in both literary production and reception. Barthes suggests that literary realism depends upon a complex network of codification amongst different sign systems:

... to depict is to unroll the carpet of the codes, to refer not from a language to a referent but from one code to another.” (pp. 54-55)

The real depicted for me in the book is a real already molded, transfigured and defined by other texts, other systems of representation:

... realism cannot be designated a ‘copier’ but rather a ‘pasticheur’ (through secondary mimesis, it copies what is already a copy).” (p. 55)

Yet the realist attitude suggests (naively) that literary conventions are passive reflections of a natural order or (more sophisticatedly perhaps) that the craft of literature serves principally to illuminate a world already replete with meaning.

Realism is a circulation of codes rather than an unidimensional movement of a transparent “form,” devoid of substance and signification, onto the “content” of reality. Barthes’ emphasis on codification is nothing new to those familiar with semiotics in general. One of the basic points of departure of semiotics is that the meaning which we derive from human behavior depends on our knowing a set of limited conventions, which are possibilities defined like so many shifting rules of a particular game. The very ways we use and combine conventions and the movement into new conventions may be endless. And it is precisely this wide range of possibility that distinguishes Barthes’ notion of code from that of many other semioticians, who are more concerned with the rules and by extension with the rigidity of those rules than with the various interactions possible based on those rules.

A code is basically a conventionalized pattern of behavior which allows meaningful activity. As semioticians are eager to point out, the apparent gratuitousness of rituals of everyday life, from the type of breakfast one eats to the kind of car (if at all) one drives, is in fact limited by a field of choices that our specific historical circumstances, our social milieu, have defined for us. Art is no exception. And art holds a particular interest for semioticians because artistic activity emphasizes more self-consciously the possibility of combinations and variations on the codes at its disposal than does everyday activity. But if art has special characteristics, it is still governed by what is possible within a certain framework of convention.

The cross-hatching of codes:
realism as the accumulation of references

Barthes emphasizes that one of the major, characteristics of the codified nature of human activity—and in the case of the Balzac novella, of literary realism—is the dependence of one type of codification upon another. He refers to the way realistic description, for example, depends on painting.

Every literary description is a view. To describe is thus to place the empty frame which the realistic author always carries with him (more important than his easel) before a collection or continuum of objects which cannot be put into words without this obsessive operation ...” (p. 54-55)

The significance of this particular example for cinema is clear. The cinematic frame rigidifies its objects, holds them in a sort of figurative suspended motion that counteracts the potential anarchy of movement and fluidity of images in motion. Cinema, in this respect, is not a “copy of a copy” in the same way as literature. It is, rather, a process within which a code of framing inherited from painting coexists with a simultaneous operation of producing images. A similarity persists: Just as the literary language of realism masks the codification inherent in the very process of “cutting out” a slice of reality, so the cinema, with the flow of sounds and images, “naturalizes” or masks our perception of the organizing function of the frame. It is in this way, then, that Bazin could erroneously call cinema a window on the world.

Barthes insists, however, that today’s representational codes have been

shattered to make room for a multiple space no longer based on painting (the ‘picture’ ) but rather on the theater (the stage).” (p. 56)

However in cinema—and here one might begin to speak of film’s specificity—the anachronistic nature of 19th century realism has been recuperated and rejuvenated. In the time that we have seen the rise of modernism in the other arts, filmic technology has retained that function of preserving narrative integrity. Cinema is a collectivized spectacle. At the same time, it promises an individual experience of contemplation that characterizes painting. Film accomplishes this individualized contemplation not only through the frame but also (and this “but also” is in no way definitive) through the perspective of the camera, inherited and adapted once more from codes of painting, especially the codes of perspective developed in the Renaissance.

Balzac described the family of the castrato in Sarrasine as “this mysterious family [which] had all the appeal of one of Lord Byron’s poems.” In reference to this description Barthes observes:

The realistic author spends his time referring back to books: reality is what has been written.” (p. 39)

Thus literary realism uses a cross-hatching of codes, a movement back and forth between discursive registers rather than movements away from the code to a reality existing beyond its realm. What we call “realistic,” then, has very little to do with judging an artistic technique against concrete, sensual reality. Rather, the realistic accumulates as many points of reference within previously existent discourse as possible. However, for us to accept this reference to past codification, especially to artistic and social codification, as realism, the process and the accumulation of references must be accomplished as unobtrusively as possible.

The question is one of naturalization. Realism rests on certain illusions which cannot be called attention to as such, for to do so would be to break the imaginary bond between nature and culture which is its ideological mainstay. In discussing both realism and codification, Barthes is addressing a phenomenon which extends far beyond the immediate boundaries of literature. For the mechanisms of literary illusion are related to the mechanisms by which, for example, capitalist society assures its continuance, its right to exist as a social system, by relegating its functioning to the natural order. Owning a car and a color TV become necessary attributes of “progress.” This seems the way we should want to live. Like the conventions of everyday life, realism is, in short, an ideology. Like all ideology, it validates itself by linking itself to natural, rather than self-consciously social impulses.

Film depends on such a mechanism of naturalization by piling one discursive reference point upon another, making it appear all the while that such an accumulation only better serves to illuminate reality. The most codified filmic genres (the western, the love story, etc.) possess their measure of verisimilitude by constantly referring back to other models. Filmic protagonists, dramatic situations, and the like must be recognizable; that is, the audience refers its knowledge of them back to other films. Thus it is necessary, in a film such as WESTWORLD, that the collapse of the adult Disneyland occur primarily in and through the Western sector (rather than the Roman or Medieval worlds). It is there that the cinema is most believable, most accomplished in a duplication of formal devices ad infinitum.

The illusion of operability in literature and film

One substantial characteristic of literary realism separates it from cinematic realism. Barthes says of literature,

In short, ... what we call ‘real’ (in the theory of the realistic text) is never more than a code of representation (of signification): it is never a code of execution: the novelistic real is not operable.” (p. 80)

One tacit assumption often made about literary realism, Barthes insists, is completely false. That false notion is that the realistic author describes things and events in such a way that a facile transition could be made from the word to the actual image of these descriptions materialized. This is a characteristic of the “readerly.” The reader senses a direct connection between the means of realism and reality itself, a connection of a one-to-one variety. Barthes insists that realism has very little to do with actual possibilities in the real world. He says that when and if one equates realism with “operability”—i.e., assumes that artistic realism can be acted out or performed—one discovers

...an inevitable destruction of novels when they are transferred from writing to film, from a system of meaning to an order of the operable..” (p. 81)

An illusion of “operability” gives cinematic realism an additional emotional thrust as a realist art. Thus I seem to “see” filmic characters as close to “in the flesh” as is possible, whereas in novels the characters are only the function of discourse. And I can identify the camera’s point of view with my own. But such operability is limited. For example, I must train my perception in order to identify with the camera; the film never allows a total confusion with reality. Cinema appears to be of the order of the operable primarily because of other films, because of cinematic habit. Because of its analogous nature, cinema does have a certain de facto operability. However, this is neither the primary aspect of cinematic illusion nor the mainstay of its realism. More important for the effect of realism are the degree to which cinema uses a narrative structure and reference to past artistic and cultural codes.

“Writerly” elements in film

What then can be said of a “writerly” cinema as opposed to a “readerly” one? In another essay, Barthes reproduced photograms from several of Eisenstein’s films to demonstrate that there are elements in cinema—like the writerly in literature—which we cannot channel into precise levels of meaning. The angle of Ivan’s beard; the obsessive curve of a woman’s bent head; a facial expression that is excessive—here the filmic image possesses certain qualities beyond static analytic categories. In these cinematic images we can find a third level, a third meaning, in addition to the levels of communication (simple transmittance of the cinematic image) and signification (the network of symbolisms—referential, Eisensteinian, historical). In contrast to the “obvious” symbolic meaning, the third meaning is “obtuse.” Like an obtuse angle which is greater than a right angle, Barthes says that the third meaning

... seems to me larger than the pure, straight, enclosed, legal perpendicular of the narrative: it seems to open the domain of meaning totally, that is, to infinity ... the obtuse meaning. seems to spread itself outside of culture, knowledge and information ...” (1)

This excess, this irreducible quality suggests an infinity of language—here, imagery—and as such resembles the writerly in literature.

It is tempting, perhaps, to see a parallel here between the third meaning in the cinematic image, and what Eisenstein called the overtone, or the quality of the cinematic image which does not fall under the immediate guise of the “dominant” thread of the individual shot. Interestingly enough, Eisenstein’s overtones are traced in a fashion inverse to that of the third meaning. Eisenstein described the overtones as being impossible to perceive when the image is seen alone, or in a static state; they are only visible when seen in projection, in what Eisenstein referred to as a qualitative leap from the film projected, to the image in movement on the screen. (2)

Barthes unearths and pursues the third meaning through the photogram, the single frame. We have to arrest the normal perception of the film and interrupt the flow of images to allow this channel to be manifest. The normal temporal perception of a film, its normal conditions of consumption are in other words conditions that prohibit spectators from perceiving the “writerly” in filmic discourse. This does not imply that elaborate frame-by-frame analysis is the only means of fracturing the “realism” of film. What I would suggest, in a more general way, is that for us to enter the “limited plural” of most films, we have to be conscious of the image as filmstrip; the screen as surface; the frame as selection. It is between each of these two terms that a writerly cinema lies.

Questioning the relations between
connotation and denotation

Our entry into the modest plural of classical texts raises the question of just how such an entry can be possible when the classical text weeks to reduce this plurality. Barthes suggests that we have at hand a “modest instrument” capable of grasping “only a certain median portion of the plural”; this is connotation (p. 6). Barthes uses the term connotation in the way described by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev as a system of associative, secondary meanings built upon a system of primary meanings, which is denotation. Denotative meanings, in other words, are more neutral and more widely accepted meanings than connotations. For example, “home,” which denotes a “house, apartment, or other place of residence,” becomes in connotation “a place of warmth, comfort, and affection.” Denotation is the support of connotation. For Hjelmslev and for Barthes, the signified and signifier of denotation (that is, the whole term) together form the signifier of connotation, thus permitting the formation of a second signified or “meaning” that is suggested but not universally agreed upon.

Barthes does not deny that tracing out connotations is a useful but limited critical tool. Traditional literary criticism has seen denotation as the realm of dictionary meanings and connotation as the realm of the artist’s creativity. Barthes would counter that the so-called sense of creativity attached to connotation serves to assure denotation’s status as law and absolute order. He calls connotation the arrangement of

... all the meanings of a text in a circle around the hearth of, denotation (the hearth: center, guardian, refuge, light of truth).” (p. 7)

The very notion, in other words, of a neutral system (denotation) which forms a support for richer, more complex associations, must be challenged. This is because these connotative associations affect our notion of what constitutes a primary system in the first place. Connotation is by its very nature a fleeting and multiple system. This very multiplicity challenges—at least in a limited way—the primacy of denotation:

... denotation is not the first meaning, but pretends to be so...” (p. 7)

Rather than emphasizing the development of signification as a unilateral movement back to denotation, Barthes defines connotation as a spreading out of meaning beyond the movement from a single signified to a single signifier. The fact remains, however, that in the classical text, the two levels of denotation and connotation, perceived as separate entities, are an integral part of the production of that text. Each system refers to the other according to the “requirements of a certain illusion.” (p. 9) Such an illusion is that ideological one of innocence, of nature. To work with connotation as an instrument, then, is to examine the gaps between denotation and connotation, i.e., the ways in which connotation functions as a naturalizer of language. Barthes comments:

... if we want to go along with the classic text, we must keep denotation, the old deity, watchful, cunning, theatrical, foreordained to represent the collective innocence of language.” (p. 9)

Just as Barthes destroys the notion that literary realism is the movement from literary codes to a sensory experience of reality, so he carefully defines connotation as a movement between texts, between codes and different practices of codes. He insists that connotation is not to be confused with “association of ideas” which is a “system of the subject.” Connotations are not, in other words, relationships between the text and experience separate from it, untouched, as it were, by the laws of discourse:

... connotation is a correlation immanent in the text, or texts; or again, one may say that it is an association made by the text-as-subject within its own system.” (p. 8)

Similarly, connotation is an instrument with which we can enter the “modest plural” of most films. What needs to be developed more precisely is the nature of the relationship between denotation and connotation in filmic expression. There can be no dictionary of cinematic expression and, as Christian Metz has amply demonstrated,(3) cinema cannot be compared to the basic features of a language system. There is still a conventionalized level of codification upon which most cinematic connotation is built. Most film critics refer to this first level as reality itself. Film historians write about the development of cinema as the development of a more natural art form. This history corresponds however to the development of a loose system of cinematographic laws accepted (at least by and large) as given attributes of cinematic expression. Thus we can have texts on cinematography used in, film schools to teach the “rules” of cinematic expression to future directors.

Five levels of connotative coding in the realist text

Barthes’ detailed analysis of Sarrasine studies connotation as it is developed and informed by the interplay and interaction of various codes. The examination of codes, of these formalized vehicles of meaning, has become so basic to the semiotic enterprise that the very term “code” is too often taken for granted as a semiotic end-all and be-all, Barthes’ analysis of Sarrasine is continually self critical; and he carefully specifies what the purpose of codification is.

Hence we use Code here not in the sense of a list, a paradigm that must be reconstituted. The code is a perspective of quotations, a mirage of structures; we know only its departures and returns; the units which have resulted from it (those we inventory) are themselves, always, ventures out of the text, the mark, the sign of a virtual digression toward the remainder of a catalogue ...” (p. 20)

The way in which Barthes identifies the codes operative in Sarrasine is significant. They emerge from the title Sarrasine and the first sentence of the story. This is, as Barthes puts it, “as chance would have it.” Yet it is fundamental that this codic matrix should give itself in condensed form from the opening moments of the novella. Such a matrix is often operative in classical films. Thierry Kuntzel’s work on the condensation of codes in the opening moments of classical films, in particular, has demonstrated the very powerful system of economy operative in the filmic text. (4)

Barthes identifies five levels of connotation. Each level is codified in its own way, and the various levels interact.

1) The hermeneutic code. All of the codes that Barthes elaborates participate, in some way or another, in giving “truth” to the classical text. The hermeneutic code reveals the truth which the task of the narrative has been to hide throughout its development. In its barest expression, the hermeneutic code refers to standard elements of traditional plot structure: exposition, climax, denouement. The function of this code is

“to articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer...” (p. 17)

The hermeneutic code is based on a simple articulation: that of question and answer. It is, Barthes says, constructed according to the subject and predicate structure of a grammatical sentence:

To narrate (in the classical fashion) is to raise the question as if it were a subject which one delays predicating; and when the predicate (truth) arrives, the sentence, the narrative, are over, the world is adjectivized (after we had feared it would not be).” (p. 76)

For the reader, the hermeneutic code assures, by a number of devices, that her/his interest will be maintained, and that the enigma of the narrative will be solved. In Sarrasine this enigma begins with the title itself, which poses the question, “Who or what is Sarrasine?” Perhaps the most basic effect of the hermeneutic code is expectation:

Expectation thus becomes the basic condition for truth: truth, these narratives tell us, is what is at the end of expectation.” (p. 76)

Film is in a position to teach us much about the hermeneutic code in this respect, since its appeal and coherence depend so overtly on means of suspense.

2) The code of semes.

The seme ... is a connotator of persons, places, objects, of which the signified is a character. Character is an adjective, an attribute, a predicate...” (p. 190)

Semes are units spread throughout the text which regroup concepts and elements fundamental to the narrative. The systematizations of these semes are most commonly referred to as themes, although it is misleading to apply the term to Barthes. Most thematic analysis would summarize a given narrative as a hierarchy of themes: principal or secondary, according to crude quantitative terms or according to less crude but nonetheless rigid notions of pertinence. Barthes emphasizes, however,

The seme is only a departure, an avenue of meaning.” (p. 191)

Moreover, for Barthes the operations of the semes underline the degree to which the characters and worlds of fiction are divorced from a real life referent:

The person is no more than a collection of semes. (p. 191)

3) The symbolic code. Whereas the semic code works through a certain accumulation of elements, the symbolic code moves inversely. Borrowing from Freud, Barthes sees the major movement of symbolism as one of displacement, of substitution, and the object of this displacement is the human body.

I was deep in one of those daydreams ...”

In the word daydream in the opening line of Sarrasine, two antithetical terms are united in a single figure. This figure of the antithesis will be carried throughout the narrative in different forms. It is a structure whose terms become more and more clearly opposed or, to put it better, more ideologically charged. Adding Lévi-Strauss’ concept of exchange to a Freudian notion of symbolism, Barthes says that the human body becomes the site of transgression of three symbolic orders—that of meaning, of sex, and of money. Antithesis is, in other words, transgressed in Sarrasine. Falling in love with a castrato represents a confusion of the sexes, and this is consequently the most transgressive gesture of the tale. By abolishing barriers,

... this metonymy abolishes the power of legal substitution on which meaning is based ... it is no longer possible to represent ... Sarrasine represents the very confusion of representation, the unbridled (pandemic) circulation of signs, of sexes, of fortunes.” (p. 216)

4) Proairetic code, or code of actions. Proairesis, for Aristotle, was the ability to rationally determine the result of actions. Thus the proairetic code refers to the logic of actions as they are governed by the laws of discourse:

in narrative ... the discourse, rather than the characters, determines the action.” [p. 181)

The code of actions is above all one concerning sequential narrative; the parceling of movement into comprehensible segments. These actions, says Barthes, “form the main armature of the readerly text...” (p. 255) In scriptwriting, in directing actors, in deciding where to cut, filmmakers have a more heightened sense of the code of actions than’ most writers before the nouveaux romanciers.

5) Referential code, or cultural code. The “truth” of a text is formed in, part by a dependence on an authoritative knowledge outside the text. It is slightly confusing to refer to this particular code as the cultural code (” ... of course, all codes are cultural....” [p. 18]) What distinguishes this code from the other four is the fact of its institutional reference. It is this code that one might qualify as the most direct entry into the ideology of a given historical epoch, for it is through this code that the text anchors itself most strongly in its historical context:

The utterances of the cultural code are implicit proverbs: they are written in that obligative mode by which the discourse states a general will, the law , of society, making the proposition concerned ineluctable or indelible.” (p. 100)

The referential code works, however, to deny its anchorage in history, in the order of the social. It strives, instead, to establish itself in a natural order:

... the cultural code inverts its class origin (scholastic and social) into a natural reference, into a proverbial statement.” (p. 98)

While the function of naturalization is a feature of all codes, the referential code exemplifies this function, illustrating the means by which reality not only informs the text but is informed by it.

Ideology in criticism and art

Tracing out codification is but a means to appreciate the plurality—however limited—of the text, of the writerly, which the classical text is never totally successful in repressing. Barthes emphasizes that we can define each code only in relationship to others. These relationships themselves are in constant flux. The five codes are woven in “stereographic space.” Barthes’ identification of each code as a type of voice suggests that just as we hear a sound in a song differently each time we hear it, so the code’s apparent fixation of meaning is illusory and transitory. And thus Barthes refuses any hierarchy of codes:

... if we make no effort to structure each code, or the five codes among themselves, we do so deliberately, in order to assume the multivalence of the text, its partial reversibility.” (p. 20)

Although one can use these five codes as a potential model for other analyses, what seems to me more important is an evaluation of how these five codes articulate ideology. Barthes insists throughout S/Z that codes are ideologically determined mechanisms, conventions that serve the interests of a particular ideology. The important gesture of S/Z is not to deal with ideology in a singular category as such. Barthes knows well that all textual mechanisms are permeated with ideology; we cannot, for example, separate the ideology of a text from its “style.”

The way in which Barthes deals with the referential code is particularly significant. The very name of the code—suggesting the reference of the text, its ultimate anchoring point—has a strong ideological charge. One of the most common attacks heard against Marxist criticism is that of reductionism. It really concerns just this question of referentiality. With her/his conclusions decided at the outset, the Marxist is accused of only looking at a text as a piece of evidence. Such criticisms are more often than not displacements of a more fundamental reproach against Marxism, i.e., that it speaks of what is repressed in the text, repressed in criticism—politics. The fact remains, however, that a reproach can justly be made against much ideological analysis—let us say, against a certain kind of Marxist criticism—for perceiving the text as, a single unit and as a uniform movement of reflection, however distorted or however transfigured, from economic base to superstructure.

What is so crucial about Barthes’ analysis is that the referential code is but one of five codes informing the connotative registers of the text. Far from implying a certain liberalism towards history and the social reality of a given epoch, this definition of reference within the text suggests that culture permeates the text on many levels. In the text, culture performs complex intertwining whose primary impulse will always be ideological, but not always ideological in the direct sense implied by the referential code. Barthes’ study suggests, in other words, the necessity of elaborating the various guises which ideology assumes.

Barthes’ essay could still be critiqued, perhaps. for failing to situate the text of Sarrasine within the social and economic reality of 19th century capitalism. From the point of view of ideology, which is where the text is located, he deliberately chooses not to isolate the text as a minute appendage of the economic structure of capitalism. The text itself is overdetermined. The author attempts to resolve contradiction (unsuccessfully) or rather to dispel contradiction. The classic or realist text possesses an economy of narrative. The explicitness with which Sarrasine enfolds a narrator who tells a story in exchange for sex illustrates that

...narrative is determined not by a desire to narrate but by a desire to exchange: it is a medium of exchange, an agent, a currency, a gold standard.” (p. 90)

Similarly, the semes of the text are organized according to a thematic economy. Their exchange value, says Barthes, depends on their cultural familiarity. (p. 93) In short, the text is a micro-economic system determined by a narrative logic. It is a narrative logic which is ultimately the “natural” logic of capitalism.

Yet even if Barthes’ analysis seeks to uncover and lay bare the ideological premises of the text, his interest in ideology gives way to his efforts to expose the difference of the text, the writerly. Barthes clearly refutes the capacity of ideology to be the major determinant of the text. He does not see the text as an ideological system but rather as a network permeated by ideology:

The primary evaluation of all texts can come neither from science, for science does not evaluate, nor from ideology, for the ideological value of a text (moral, aesthetic, political, alethiological) is a value of representation, not of production (ideology ‘reflects,’ it does not do work).” (pp. 3-4)

The implication here is that as long as we live in ideology (be it proletarian or bourgeois), we live in a world of closed systems, of readerly discourse, of channeled meaning. Put another way, many contemporary critics who are attacking realism as an extension of bourgeois ideology see socialist art as equated with bourgeois art, for both seem governed by a similarly structured legality and order. Such an assumption is highly questionable. While one might be tempted to perceive a work such as THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN as formally similar to the trappings of bourgeois art, it is patently ridiculous to extend these limited and incomplete similarities into an absolute judgment that makes no place for the consideration of the different social expectations and audience reception of works of art that exist in socialist countries. Barthes’ study is valuable as a powerful demystification of bourgeois textual ideology; but the basis of this demystification—the text as difference, the liberation of the writerly—can hardly be a-ideological. To suggest that discourse possesses qualities that go beyond ideology is itself an ideological gesture which should be examined.

In literature, as Marxists we can ask whether language itself is an ideological system. In this respect, Joseph Stalin’s dictum that language forms a relatively autonomous infrastructure has often been rejected but rarely successfully challenged. (5) In film, however, Marxists cannot consider a system of representation without speaking of technology, of the direct impact of economic factors. This does not amount to economic determinism, but to a substantial qualitative difference between film systems and literary systems. Film representation can change so quickly that it often becomes a sort of vector of the degree to which ideology can permeate a system. In this respect, we can perhaps speak of a writerly cinema, of readers as producers, but with careful attention to the ideological charge of such a notion.


1. “Le troisieme sens,” Cahiers du cinéma, No. 222 (July 1970), p. 13. Translation: “The Third Meaning,” Art Forum 9, No. 5 (January 1973).

2. “The Filmic Fourth Dimension,” Film Form (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), p. 69. Trans. Jay Leyda.

3. “The Cinema: Language or Language System,” Film Language (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1974), pp. 31-91. Trans. Michael Taylor.

4. See “Le travail du film,” Communications, No. 19 (1972), pp. 25-40 (on M) and “Le travail du film (2),” Communications , No. 23 (1975), pp. 136-189 (on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME).

5. Marxism and Problems of Linguistics (1954). (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972).