Fragmentation of Texts (Blogging, Authorship, and Roland Barthes’s Autobiography, Pt. II of IV)

Here's a wordle visualizing the keyword-frequency of part II of this talk. Click to visit Wordle.net for a larger version. One of the most recognizable attributes of blogs is their reverse chronological organization. More simply put, their content (also known as “entries” or “posts”). Bloggers post entries at any sort of frequency they wish. Some bloggers post several times daily. Others post only a few times a week or even less frequently. And most entries are relatively short, usually a couple hundred words, but not often pushing past a thousand. Now, stretch these two features out over a sporadic chronology and the experience of reading a blog is fragmentary. Coming to any given blog for the first time, a reader encounters a text revealing itself backward, one theme being dropped for another, only to be returned to later, or should I say returned to earlier? With blogs, there can be no illusions of linear cohesion. Only fragments.

And Barthes was no stranger to fragments. One can see this development over the course of his career. His early work on Michelet and Racine, as well as his theoretical essays in Writing Degree Zero are written in relatively standard academic prose. But with Mythologies, we see the atomization of his arguments into much smaller units, and in S/Z Barthes deals more fully with texts as fragments. Barthes breaks up Balzac’s “Sarrasine” into his own idiosyncratic fragments and works to reconstruct them into a text more of his own meaning. Barthes suggests, in essays such as “Theory of the Text” or “Death of the Author,” that this reader-imposed textual fragmentation, whether conscious or not, is how readers, generally, make meaning within a text.

Eventually, Barthes goes so far as to adopt “the fragment” as an overt and essential element of his own texts such as A Lover’s Discourse and Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. He constructs each of the texts from prose elements of varying lengths. He refers to these fragments as “lexias,” or “blocks of signification” (S/Z, 13).

Barthes explains this textual construct in Barthes on Barthes: “I have the illusion to suppose that by breaking up my discourse I cease to discourse in terms of the imaginary about myself, attenuating the risk of transcendence; but since the fragment (haiku, maxim, … journal entry) is finally a rhetorical genre and since rhetoric is that layer of language which best presents itself to interpretation, by supposing I disperse myself I merely return, quite docilely, to the bed of the imaginary.” (95)

Over the course of his career Barthes cultivates an argument against the idea that any meaningfully coherent concept resembling an “author” is impossible across a set of texts. So, too, is a static meaning impossible within a single work as constructed by an author. Meaning must be constructed by the reader, not the author, by following the play of signifiers within “a polysemic space where the paths of several possible meanings intersect” (“Theory of the Text,” 37).

And so, too, are the readers of blogs presented, not with fragments, but with posted entries. Some of those entries connecting to the previous. Some connecting with several not immediately previous. Barthes describes these variously evolving and interconnected networks of meaning a “field” or a “text.” However, bloggers would more likely understand similar semiotic organizations of texts as post threads, sets of content tags, or categories.

And this brings me to my next point of discussion… (Part III will post tomorrow.)

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