I've been giving a lot of thought lately to formative texts. Many of mine fall into the category of theory. Roland Barthes's S/Z is near the top of my list, both because it was one of the first theoretical pieces I read and because I read it at a time of pain and possibility. The passage that has influenced my thinking the most over the years -- I refer to at least once a week -- is the one where Barthes, after explaining the five codes he will use to analyze Balzac's short story "Sarrasine," explains how they relate to each other. When I first read this passage, during a night of mournful wandering that I will recount here soon, I really didn't understand the distinction he makes between the different codes. To be honest, I'm still not sure I have a firm grasp on all five. But I completely understood the point he makes here:
The five codes create a kind of network, a topos through which the entire text passes (or rather, in passing, becomes a text). Thus, if we make no effort to structure each code, or the five codes among themselves, we do so deliberately, in order to assume the multivalence of the text, its partial reversibility. We are, in fact, concerned not to manifest a structure but to produce a structuration. The blanks and looseness of the analysis will be like footprints marking the escape of the text; for if the text is subject to some form, this form is not unitary, architectonic, finite: it is the fragment, the shards, the broken or obliterated network -- all the movements and inflections of a vast "dissolve," which permits both overlapping and loss of messages. Hence we use Code here not in the sense of a list, a paradigm that must be reconstituted. The code is a perspective of quotations, a mirage of structures; we know only its departures and returns; the units which have resulted from it (those we inventory) are themselves, always, ventures out of the text, the mark, the sign of a virtual digression toward the remainder of a catalogue (The Kidnapping refers to every kidnapping ever written); they are so many fragments of something that has always been already read, seen, done, experienced; the code is the wake of that already.
Indeed, my almost total lack of experience in reading theory and my limited understanding of literary criticism actually made it easier to discern the deeper implications in this passage because my mind was not closed off by expectation. Barthes begins S/Z with the statement that, "there are said to be certain Buddhists whose ascetic practices enable them to see a whole landscape in a bean." This notion of reading clearly informs the interpretive feats he performs in, over, around, and under "Sarrasine." It also inspired me to discern a way of life in the passage I quoted above. The idea that structuration is preferable to structure because it makes room for more freedom has motivated my intellectual work over the past fifteen years. While I usually fail to meet the high standard I set for myself -- the fixity of structure is hard to avoid, particularly when one is writing sentences -- I've developed enough restraint to make myself a good teacher. In the flow of classroom discussion, I'm pretty adept at the "weaving of voices" that Barthes promotes. Somewhere between the erasing of one whiteboard and the filling of another, I come close to achieving the structuration he envisions. When I first read this passage, though, I was still four years away from my first teaching stint. Back in 1989, his words inspired me to approach my day-to-day existence in a new manner. The fruits of that experiment define my life today. For one thing, I can see a whole landscape in a Bean.