Deconstructing the Text (HUM303)

Here are some of my remarks on the second section of Belsey’s essay. If you have questions or observations about them, or even vague, half-formed notions about that essay as a whole, please address them to this post.

“By these means [closure, hierarchy of discourses] classic realism offers the reader a position of knowingness which is also a position of identification with the narrative voice. To the extent that the story first constructs, and then depends for its intelligibility, on a set of assumptions shared between narrator and reader, it confirms both the transcendent knowingness of the reader-as-subject and the ‘obviousness’ of the shared truths in question” (664).

Deconstructing the Text

In the first paragraph Belsey reiterates a double truth of ideology: it is inconsistent and it conceals its inconsistencies. Against this tendency, Belsey offers the critical practice of deconstruction, a set of methods that focus not on authorial intention (what the author “really meant”) but the formal elements of the text and the way they are configured.

“The aim is to locate the point of contradiction within the text, the point at which it transgresses the limits within which it was constructed, breaks free of the constraints imposed by its own realist form” (665).

This point of contradiction– there may be several of them– is known as an aporia, the moment or place in the text where the assumptions guiding it come unraveled. Belsey cites Roland Barthes’s critical reading (S/Z) of a Balzac short story, Sarrasine by way of example.

She argues that this kind of reading draws us away from the notion that there is a “single, harmonious and authoritative reading” of a given work and instead renders it “plural, open to rereading.” This latter activity is a form of signification. In reading critically in this fashion, we don’t so much dig into the text in order to locate its kernel of truth, but “produce meaning[s].”

The procedure of deconstruction entails shifting attention to the language of the text itself, its metaphors, its structuring “oppositions [and] hierarchies” in order to understand the difference between what the text seems to be doing (“its overt project”) and what it can do. It is the indeterminacy of language itself which enables this critical practice, the constant (connotative) spilling-over of meaning which is inherent to language.

It’s important to note that according to Belsey Barthes’s reading of Balzac’s story “is impossible to summarize adequately” (666). This resistance to summarization is a hallmark of what is called “Theory,” which attempts to keep thought in motion. To understand this as something other than the willful creation of nonsense, consider the difference between a butterfly pinned to a cork board and a butterfly in motion. Which of these is closer to the “truth” of the butterfly?

Ideology always seeks to pin down meaning, to limit signification to set of pre-approved conclusions. Deconstruction, ideology criticism, and the “writerly text” all work against that tendency.

Barthes deconstructs Sarrasine as a “limit-text” of classic realism– i.e. a classic realist text which undermines the very conventions of classic realism.

If the classic realist text seeks– like ideology– to offer a single authoritative reading, to enact, in other words, a “common sense” response to it, the nature of language itself subverts that project.

This is NOT to say that ANY reading of a text is valid. It would be directly counter to Belsey’s arguments to claim that every reading is equal, that every text means whatever we want it to.

“The classic realist text moves inevitably and irreversibly to an end, to the conclusion of an ordered series of events, to the disclosure of what has been concealed” (665).

Yet “even in the realist text certain modes of signification within the discourse [of classical realism]– the symbolic, the codes of reference and semes*– evade the constraints of the narrative sequence.”

* semes: units of meaning

The task of criticism is to render the text plural.

Belsey shifts focus to Macherey who, with Barthes, argues “that contradiction is a condition of narrative” (666). Recall that “the classic realist text is constructed on the basis of enigma.” In other words, realist novels tend to present us with a problem, an uncertainty, which the genre of realism itself promises to resolve. The narrative tension of the novel– that element of suspense which keeps us interested– is played out over the course of the text, deferred until the final denouement, a moment of closure which we, as readers, “know” will arrive.

“Thus the author’s autonomy is to some degree illusory”– i.e. authors are bound in various ways to the conventions of genre (the “rules” of classic realism).

“The formal constraints imposed by literary form on the project of the work in the process of literary production” is another way of saying the same thing.

While fiction is not synonymous with ideology (this, according to Macherey) “the language which constitutes the raw material of the text is the language of ideology. It is thus an inadequate language, incomplete, partial, incapable of concealing the real contradictions it is its purpose to efface. This language, normally in flux, is arrested, ‘congealed’ by the literary text” (667).

We tend to think of realism (“the realist text”) as something that represents the world as it is, in a phrase as the project of mimesis, in which “art is a mirror to nature”:

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” (Hamlet, III.2).

In fact, realism can only represent an already-mediated relation to “the Real” because of the nature of language itself. There is a contradiction between what it seeks to do (represent reality) and its “incoherences, omissions, absences and transgressions” (667).

Like the Lacanian subject, the literary text is constituted by a schism: “The unconscious of the work… is constructed in the moment of its entry into literary form, in the gap between the ideological project and the specific literary form. Thus the text is no more a transcendent unity than the human subject.”

By way of demonstration there follows a recapitulation of Macherey’s reading of Jules Verne’s The Secret Island. Review the arguments that lead to this conclusion: “The Secret of the Island thus reveals, through the discord within it between the conscious project and the insistence of the disruptive unconscious, the limits of the coherence of nineteenth-century ideology” (667-668).

Also, consider the last paragraph of this section of the essay:

“The object of the critic, then, is to seek not the unity of the work, but the multiplicity and diversity of its possible meanings, its incompleteness, the omissions which it displays but cannot describe, and above all its contradictions. In its absences, and in the collisions between its divergent meanings, the text implicitly criticizes its own ideology; it contains within itself the critique of its own values, in the sense that it is available for a new process of production of meaning by the reader, and in this process it can provide a knowledge of the limits of ideological representation” (668).

The Case of Sherlock Holmes

In this section Belsey performs her own deconstructive reading of works by Arthur Conan Doyle. It would be useful to be able to follow these arguments in order to give a concrete critical example for the claims she has advanced in the previous passages.

2 thoughts on “Deconstructing the Text (HUM303)

  1. Mari

    I really enjoyed the discussion today in class. I like hearing a variety of people voice their opinions and different ideas, especially on a subject that is complex and at first confusing as this one. It keeps the conversation interesting and I learn so much from my classmates because each person tends to bring up something I have not thought of or taken into consideration.

    The conversation we had on the issue of language and the constraints it puts, at times, on the human conscious and expression reminded me of this one scene in an early Jean-Luc Godard film called, “Vivre Sa Vie.” It’s about a woman who tries to become an actress but ends up a prostitute. In one scene she is in a cafe with a client discussing language and how language can deceive us in what we are trying to initially convey. It’s one of my favorite Godard films and it’s a wonderful scene.

  2. Pingback: Thursday Lecture (HUM225) « analepsis

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