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A Critique of Roland Barthes’ “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”

A Critique of Roland Barthes’ “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”

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Published by Andrew N. Adler
A Critique of Roland Barthes’ “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”
A Critique of Roland Barthes’ “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”

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Published by: Andrew N. Adler on Jun 22, 2011
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 A Critique of RolandBarthes’ “To Write: AnIntransitive Verb?”
ByAndrewN. Adler
Copyright © 1989 by Andrew N. Adler. All rights reserved.
Roland Barthes searches for what he calls “the fundamentalcategories of language” (145).
Initially, he marshals evidence for theexistence of two dichotomies that supposedly inhere in the structure of alllanguage — namely, the opposition between personal and impersonalpronoun modes, and the opposition between personal and impersonal verbtenses. Next, given this universal property, he invokes the “deep structure”assumption, which he refers to as the “postulate of homology.” Essentially,he argues that these relatively superficial dualities provide clues to aninevitable polarity in the way in which anyone transfers meaning throughany symbolic order.If communication does so proceed through fixed channels governedby formal rules, then Barthes’ essay implies two important results: First, wecannot transgress these channels simply by clever manipulation of surfaceelements, such as pronouns. Such games will only lend ambiguity anddeception to our attempted communications. Second, seemingly divergentefforts at conveying meaning (
, in science, literature, history, andpsychology) actually share similar limitations and horizons. Since allaspects of culture balance precariously over the same pitfalls, theelucidation of a general practice of undeluded writing might, to somedegree, rescue all disciplines.The details of this program rest upon the distinction between“discourse” and “the impersonal.” Of course, every communication iswritten by a human being, the implied narrator [
] of the wholetext. Yet in “discourse,” Barthes insists, “utterances” of a particularlyhuman point of view or origin
the presence of the implied narrator.
Barthes, Roland. “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?,” in
The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man
, ed. Richard Macksey & Eugenio Donato (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press),p. 145. All subsequent parenthetical citations refer to page numbers in this article.
(Presumably, as we discuss below, the “impersonal” text contains no suchclues about the humaneness of the implied narrator.)In literary discourse, for example, the reader participates not only inthe point of view of characters, who have their own subordinate discourses,but also in the perspective of the implied narrator who in some way “shows”the characters’ experiences to the reader. In a third-person account (“Carriesaw Bill leave the house”), we can locate an implied narrator who, withwhatever degree of reliability, “watched” Carrie watch Bill leave and toldthe reader so. Even an omniscient or anonymous
usually stillintervenes as a
stage-managing the text.The language of 
employs the particular pronouns and verbsthat attempt (unsucessfully) to transcribe the verities of human agency andhuman action, respectively. The things that we do in our daily livesapparently occur in a sort of (biological or chronological) time whereactions can be completed, continued, or repeated
time — past, present,and future.Barthes asserts, however, that discourse inevitably neglects tocommunicate the essence of such “personhood existing through time.” Moregenerally, he proposes that discourse, by its very nature, is neithersubjective
objective. I now discuss these two related claims.
(1) Subjectivity
Let us assume (temporarily) that an individual can possess an“interiority,” a subjective experience antecedent to any effort to describethis psychical state via language. Let us assume that Jill is happy. Themoment, though, that Jill
, “I am happy,” she has already failed toconvey her emotions
emotions. “Happy” is a fixed, conventional

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