Responsibility to Form

Opening remarks A writer is part of a community. He or she does not exist in a void where there is no external influence. The writer is influenced by the context within which s/he practices. The writer as well as the critic has at their disposal language or the code to communicate their ides. These ideas, presented as language, are arranged in a particular way to achieve certain effects in the communication process. How the message is emitted relies on how the language, the code, is organized: the form it takes. It is through form that the text becomes a coherent document for public consumption. In this essay I will illustrate, with a reference to Roland Barthes, that the responsibility to form in literary output is tenable, defendable to social commitment. To who is the text dedicated to when the writer sets out or the critics when they give their views or stance for a literary tradition of any period? Undoubtedly writing is dedicated to the reader, to the society. Without form literary output runs the dilemma of becoming banal, what will be the point of literary output if the reader is not accommodated by the text. It is through form that the reader is accommodated; form brings the text, literary output to accessibility. In order to address what Barthes means by ‘the responsibility of form’ this essay focuses on both the role of the writer and that of the critic in literary production by referring to Roland Barthes. By a simple demonstration I will show how form influence the way we arrive at meaning. Secondly after establishing what form is I shall move on to reflect upon what is it that Barthes think is the role of the writer. At this point in the development of this essay I shall refer to barthes 1960 essay entitled Authors and Writers. Lastly, I discuss the role played by the critic in literary production. Form In the English language the norm is for syntactic constructions to be arranged in such a way that we have Subject – Verb – Object combination. But what happens when this norm is deviated from? When the arrangement of words in a sentence does not conform to this form? Let us look at the following sentence: up flower Nontombi the picked. It will be realized immediately that this sentence deviates from the normal Subject – Verb – Object norm of the English language. What we have is a cumbersome uttering which not only forces us to wonder what the sentence is trying to say but also the syntactic construction encourages us to rearrange the words into an intelligible combination which can be written as: Nontombi picked the flower up.

Now that the sentence has been rearranged we can decipher its meaning. The components of the sentence are arranged in such way that the norm S V O in a syntactic construction is restored. Thus this syntactic arrangement makes the meaning intelligible. The way the words have been organized, the form they take makes the meaning of the sentence clear. Through this analogy we arrive at a junction that form (which is an arrangement) is responsible for the way meaning is deciphered in syntactic constructions. The effects of form can be observed in narratives that deviate from the original sequence of the story, by positioning the reader in the middle of the events or in the end. Such a consequence of positioning the reader either at the end of the narrative or in the middle of a climax compels the reader to journey shoulder to shoulder with the narrator to fill in the gaps. By default in this situation the reader has to read the entire narrative in order to play the restorative act of making the entire narrative complete and cohesive in their mind through the process of reading. In South African Literature one such narrative that positions the reader in the middle of events is A Ballad of Oyo1 (1967) by Eskia Mphahlele. At the outset of this narrative the narrator places the reader in medias re (in the middle of events). The reader learns of Ishola’s abusive marriage and her sudden death while on her way to the market. At a certain point of the narrative the narrator pauses and rejoins the narrative at the point where the conflict leading to the Death of Ishola. When the reader completes the reading of the text, the reader has to rearrange illogical flow of the narrative and come up with a coherent flow of events in order for the text as a complete work can be appreciated chronologically. We can also see the effects of form in poetry. In poetry the form which the text takes influences its reception, poetry is rich in deviating from the normal every day language usage in order to draw attention to the organization of the words themselves and how they relate to one another in syntactic constructions as well as in syntactic boundaries. The poem enia2 (1995) by Seithlamo Motsapi, the lyrical I spreads his message about is love for the addressee over extended syntactic constructions. Reaching the end of the poem through the activity of reading the reader realizes that the Lyrical I is describing the nature of the love that he has rather than directing his meditation at a lover. What we see is that the conveyance of the content of these works relies on the form that these works have been given. Their organization or rather arrangement commands that these work’s content be received in a particular way by the reader. Form is responsible for the reception of the literary works. We shall proceed by discussing the role of the writer and that of the Critic as far as Barthes is concerned. I shall refer to a larger extend to Roland Barthes’s preface to his Critical Essays (1972); and briefly, as I have already pointed out above, to an essay contained in this compilation entitled Authors and Writers (1960). I shall refer to a lesser extend to Mythologies (1957 trans.1972). In mythologies (1972) Barthes points out that a voluntary acceptance of myth can in fact define the whole of our traditional literature. He adds that our according to our norms [sic] this literature is an undoubted mythical system: there is a meaning, that of

discourse; there is a signifier (for my purpose the syntactic construction I have introduced earlier above, which had to be rearranged in order to make sense: Nontombi picked up the flower) which is the same discourse as form or writing; there is a signification, which is the literary discourse. More over Barthes defines writing as nothing but a mythology of literary language. He argues that writing is a signifier of literary myth, he affirms, a form which is already filled with meaning and which receives rom the concept of literature a new signification (1972: 134). The writer The writer and the critic use language to communicate heir ideas. They have a responsibility to what is signified by their language. For Barthes the writer is ‘a public experimenter’ who in performing the act of writing grapples with content and theme. He content of the writer’s work, Barthes highlights, is is contained in what the writer says through his battles, values, ideologies, his themes. Form persists within theme and it functions to signify the imaginary which [sic] is to say the very intelligence of the world. At this point, though Barthes does not explicitly say it, but by the very intelligence of the world he alludes to ideology as an influence what the writer says ultimately (1972:xii). This is further argued when we read along and Barthes laments for the writer position that: It is just when he (the writer) detaches himself from the past ‘dogmatically’(by a refusal to inherent, a refusal to be faithful), that the world ask the writer to take responsibility for his work; for social ethics require of him a fidelity to form: what binds him (in his own eyes) is not what he has written but the persistence to write (1972:xiii) Moving on Barthes points out that in order to write in such a way that the message is intelligible to the reader the one who writes must move, to the frontiers of language, that is the point where language is in practice, where it can be consumed by other people because in the frontiers of language, Barthes points out, the writer writes for others. Language according to Barthes is not a private entity, its ownership is impossible. Viewed as a social entity, language as well as the writer and the private individual [sic] are subjected from the start to vary (modify) their original messages (so that they can be understood) and, since connotation is inevitable, the one whose indirectness (however ridiculous) least distorts not what they want to say but what they want to make understood (1972: Xv). In order to illustrate this point further Barthes makes an example of himself writing a letter of sympathy to a friend, in such a case, Barthes points out, that even though the message must be brief, the writer (he) must use words that are full of message to rely the sympathy because the writer is therefore a man for whom [sic] speaking is immediately listening to his own language; thus is constituted a received language (though it be created one), which is the very language of literature. Writing, Barthes argues is on every level, the language of others...for no direct message can subsequently communicate that one sympathizes, except by falling back into the signs of compassion: only form permits us to escape the parody of feelings; because form is

the very technique whose goal is to understand and dominate the theatre of language (1972:XV). Here we reach concord with what I have said from the onset of this essay that the writer has at his disposal form to make his writing or utterance – language, which is of course a code-understood. In his 1960 essay entitled Authors and Writers Barthes raises interesting remarks concerning the two synonyms: Writer and Author. I would like to briefly refer to this essay because it reflects more on what Barthes thinks the role of the writer is. And of course by referring to an author it, the essay, gives an alternative role of the writer as an author can play in literary production. Author In the essay Author ad Writers Barthes, differentiating between the two synonyms, highlights that the author performs a function and the writer an activity (1972:144). The Author’s function involves two kinds of norm: technical (of composition, genre, perfection)...the Author is a man who radically absorbs the worlds’s why in a how to write (1977: 144). The Author’s language in its application, it is sensitized to technicalities such as composition and genre. The writer on the one hand, is a ‘transitive’ man, he posits a goal (to give, to explain, to instruct), of which language is only a means; for him language supports a praxis (Practice as opposed to theory), it does not constitute one (1972: 147). For the writer then language is a point of departure, it is a vehicle through which the writer’s ideas are communicated. For what defines the writer, Barthes insists, is the fact that [sic] his projects of communication (language) is naïve: he does not admit that the message is reflexive, it reflects upon itself (my italics), that it closes over itself, and that we can read in it, diacritically (distinguishingly), anything else but what he means irreversible explanation (1972:147). The writers writing is about the process of writing itself. Barthes maintains that the author’s language is transitive (direct) while the writer’s language is intransitive. Bartes position the author as a practitioner who operates within academic institution, as someone who gets a salary, whose role can be likened to that of a priest. What is of a paradox in this set up of practice, for Barthes, a far as writing is concerned is that the society consumes transitive language, the writing of the author, with more reservation than a intransitive one (1972: 147 – 148.) For Barthes the writer participates in clerk’s role, the writer’s production [sic] always has a free but somewhat ‘insistent’ character: what the writer offer’s society is what the society does not ask of him: he is situated on the margin of institutions and transactions, his language appears paradoxically individual, at least in its motifs (theme), than the authors language: the writer’s function is to say at once and on every occasion what he thinks; and this function suffices, he thinks, to justify him, whence critical, the critical, urgent aspect of the writer’s language: it always seems to indicate a conflict between thoughts’ irrepressible character and inertia of a society

reluctant to consume merchandise which no specific institution normalize (1972: 148). And as we have seen the Authors production is normalized by the institution. Having covered these discrepancies that Barthes has reflected upon with regard to the Author and the Writer I shall now revisit the preface to his critical essay and reflect upon what he thinks the role of the Critic is, however I will first rejoin the preface by looking at the originality of literary production. Barthes remarks that originality is therefore the price that must be paid for the hope of being welcomed (and no merely understood) by your reader (1972: xv). The writer, as established earlier in his essay, does not exists in a void, he is born into a world already full of language, [sic] and there is no reality not already classified by men (society) my italics: to be born is nothing but to find this code (language) readymade and to be obliged to accommodate oneself to it (1972: xii). According to Barthes rhetoric [sic] whish is the art of varying the banal by recourse to substitutions and replacements of meaning; articulation, which is makes it possible to give a single message the extend of an infinite peripety (a novel, for example); irony which is the form the author gives to his own detachment; fragmentation or; one might say, reticence which makes it possible to hold back meaning in order to let it spread in the direction open to it. All these techniques are the results of the writer’s necessity to start from a word and a self which the world hav already encumbered with a name, seek to institute an indirect language at once persistence (provided with a goal) and circuitous (accepting infinitely varied stations) (1972: xiii) Or rather varied interpretations. Thus far in our discussion of Barthes regarding the role o the writer as far as literary production is concerned we see that the writer in order to deliver his/her message works with content of the code, which is language, through arrangement: form. The challenge lies, as Barthes remarks, in choosing the best congenial combinations of codes contextual to the situation within which communication must be facilitated; because in the end the message has to be understood by its recipients (the society). Moreover even though the message might be apparent to its recipients – in the case of a novel, it is the writer’s task to ‘ it in the direction open to it’ to vary it, bearing in mind that in reading, as an active activity, interpretation is not limited to one viewpoint of arrival, it is open to infinite interpretations. I now turn to the Critic and reflect upon what Barthes Thinks the role of the critic is as far as literary production is concerned. The Critic Barthes remarks that the Critic [sic] the critic’s ‘I’ is never in what he says but in what he does not say =, or rather in the very discontinuity which marks all critical discourse; perhaps his existence is too strong for him to constitute it as a sign; but perhaps conversely it is also verbal, too steeped in culture, for him to leave it in the state of an indexical (key) symbol. The critic will be the man who cannot produce the ‘he’ of the novel, but who also cannot cast an ‘I’ into pure private life, i.e. renounce writing: he is an aphasiac of ‘I’, while the rest of his language subsists, intact, marked

however by the infinite detours imposed upon speech (as in the aphasiac’s case) by the constant blockage of a certain sign (1972: xx) It surfaces that the Critic’s writing is orientated from within the perspective of the society of within which he/she writers, Barthes refers to culture as a paradigm, yes indeed scrutinizing the work of the Writer the Critic will base his or her arguments upon prevalent approaches to literary production. What about his own opinions, can the Critic ever pronounce his her pure opinion without reference to what has been produced and fabricated into the society – into ‘culture’ as far as literary practice is concerned? For Barthes the answer is flatly no. because the critic summons his/her arguments from the very culture itself, hence the critic’s ‘I’ cannot reflect its privae opinions, its own thoughts detached from what the society expect literary ‘criticism’ to be about. ...while the novelist (Writer), Barthe maintains, is a man who manages to infantilize his ‘I’ until it joints the adult of others, the critic is a man who ages his ‘I’, who improves, preserves, and forgets it, until he withdraws it, intact and incommunicable, from the code of Literature (1972: xxi). The writer has the leeway to develop towards maturity in his practice but the critic must be mature in what he says such that he does not speak from a perspective of continual development but communicates from a matured perspective devoid of his/her personal opinions which might reflect the ‘I’. The critic communicates from the collective perspective of the culture he /she is steeped in. Therefore his/her sign, code, language is a reflection of what society accept and rejects as literary output. Conclusion In all these levels of literary practice, writing or criticism it is very clear form plays a significant role because the text has to be coherent to its readers. A Writer has a freedom as to what he/she wants to communicate to the society, however form plays an important role in what is communicated in order for the writer to be understood. It is through the responsibility to form that the message of a text can be made coherent to the readers. The Critic, unlike the Writer, cannot reflect upon his/her private opinion as far as ‘criticism’ is concerned. The critic writes keeping within the society within which he/she practices as far as literary production is concerned. Therefore the form that the critic’s writing employs has to be steeped or grounded in culture – the Critic must write from an informed perspective. With points raised in this essay we can make the conclusion, that form persists in literary production, that form is a key for literary production (as well as criticism) to be accepted by the society. And that Literary production without form has no meaning and ultimately no relevancy to be pursued. 10 November late Spring

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2009


1. 1. This short story was written in 1967, while Mphahlele was in exile, I refer to a collection of his writing under the title The Unbroken Song published in 1981. I use the short story to illustrate the universality of how form is responsible to how a narrative is shaped and that it influences its reception (please see page 140 – 152 in this collection). 2. 2. Please see Earthstepper/ the ocean is very shallow (p. 62), the poem is part of an anthology of poetry by Seitlhamo Motsapi. Bibliography Barthes, R 1972. Critical Essays. Northwestern University Press. United States of America Barthes, r 1972. Mythologies. Vintage. London Motsapi, S 1995. Earthstepper/ the ocean is very shallow. Deep South Publishers. Grahamstown. Mphahlele, E 1981. The Unbroken Song. Rivan Press, Johannesburg.