The Reader’s Role in the Construction of Meaning (Blogging, Authorship, and Roland Barthes’s Authobiography, Part III of IV)

Here's a wordle visualizing the keyword-frequency of Part III of this talk. Click to visit Wordle.net for a larger version. A blog, though built and maintained by a writer, is an unweildy and restless semiotic object. Once configured, named, and populated with a handful of texts, a blog’s complexity begins to facilitate all sorts of emergences. Writers have habits and preoccupations, blind spots and projects. And as a writer takes on the practice of blogging, he becomes a blogger. And as his entries proliferate, Barthes would suggest that the illusion of an Author emerges. But we will get to that later in the presentation. Now I want to focus for a minute on one organizational element of blogs that constructs a blog’s readers as the arbiter of meaning. And that element is the database.

Though a blog’s interface may look a lot like a traditional webpage, a blog’s front page is really just a way of interacting with the underlying database. Without getting overly technical, suffice it to say that there are essentially two levels of meaning for every entry on a blog.

There’s the primary prose element which most people consider the heart of the entry. But there’s an entirely different (though not separate) level of information built into each entry. Most bloggers, coders, or designers refer to this information as ‘metadata.’" Though these elements can be left blank, each blog entry is assigned a "category." It’s "tagged" with relevant keywords. It can be linked to other entries in a "thread." And the user interface for most blogs allows users to manipulate, search, and reconfigure the entries as to create an entirely new semiotic experience as they find and expose different patterns and relationships. This experience is different for every reader each time he or she visits the blog. And just as readers can manipulate the text to expose various themes, so too can the blog’s author. (there’s a lot more to be said here, but that’s for another day. alas)

This semiotic reconfiguration of the text itself returns us to Barthes’s reading of Balzac in S/Z. Although Balzac hasn’t overtly constructed “Sarrasine” in such a way as to afford the literal reconfiguration to which Barthes submits the story, Barthes argues that he is merely making explicit and textual the types of semiotic operations inherent in reading. To read is inevitably to rewrite.

In "From Work to Text," Barthes suggests that "the text is plural… it accomplishes the very plural of meaning: an irreducible… plural. … it answers not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination. The plural of the Text depends, that is, not on the ambiguity of its contents but on what might be called the stereographic plurality of its weave of signifiers" ("From Work" 159). Any reading of a text must be understood as one of an infinite multitude of possible readings. Thus meaning and infinite signification no longer contradict each other. But fundamental to such a theory of the text is the advent of the reader in the meaning making process. Barthes, likening the text to a musical score, writes that "the text is very much a score of this new kind: it asks of the reader a practical collaboration. Which is an important change, for who executes the work?" (163).

Barthes was working toward something at once both personal and critical. He wanted to demonstrate a particular style or strategy of reading that was constructive rather than receptive. Barthes offers up a pair of neologisms, "readerly" and "writerly" to differentiate between these to strategies (S/Z 4). He suggests that "the goal of literary work… is to make the reader no longer a consumer [as readerly texts do], but a producer of the text [as writerly texts do]" (4).

And at this point, I have to pose the question: If I have a blog, and that blog, though written by me, is constantly reconstructed by various readers, some of whom I don’t even know, how can that blog possibly represent me? And this question brings me to my third point of analysis… (Part IV will post tomorrow.)

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