02 February 2011

Novel Ideas: Hejinian v. Barthes?

In a comment to the foregoing post, Christoper Higgs from HTMLGIANT asserts: "I think that for Hejinian an open text means something different than it does for Barthes." I fail to see a difference, but am open to enlightenment.

My reading is that Hejinian falls prey to the myth of the closed text which Barthes has gone to great pains to explode. She uses the notion of the closed text effectively as a foil to advance her advocacy of her notion of the open text. Which is fine. Contra Hejinian, Barthes would never make the claim that, say, either pretentious, epiphanic lyrical poetry or detective fiction are closed. They are open to all manner of cultural, dare I say, contaminations which renders them "moderately plural". Here are the relevant quotes.

"The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is form that provides an opening. ... The essential question here concerns the writer’s subject position. ...We can say that a “closed text” is one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it [emphasis mine]. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity. In the “open text,” meanwhile, all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work. ...The “open text,” by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive. The writer relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive. The “open text” often emphasizes or foregrounds process, either the process of the original composition or of subsequent compositions by readers, and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification."
Barthes, an early (if not the earliest) proponent of Robbe-Grillet, understands what an open text is. [Readers might be interested in my six-part look at how R-G went about opening up the rules of detective genre fiction in The Erasers.] What he wants to show in S/Z is that the notion of a closed text is a false one; there really is no such thing. No text is closed, despite the claims for it. There is no single reading of even such a traditionally-viewed and even avowedly closed text as the Balzac novella "Sarrasine". Quoth he:
"To interpret a text is not to give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it. Let us first posit the image of a triumphant plural, unimpoverished by any constraint of representation (of imitation). ... the systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language. ... it is a question, against all in-difference, of asserting the very existence of plurality, which is not that of the true, the probable, or even the possible. ... denotation...is ultimately no more than the last of the connotations [emphasis mine]."
The notion of the open text is so radical, so revolutionary, that any understanding of it opens up ALL texts, all literature.
"The writerly text is a perpetual present, upon which no consequent language (which would inevitably make it past) can be superimposed; the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages."


Frances Madeson said...

Not for nothing, but I think Levi Bryant just pitched you a WoWball over at Larval Subjects. (Take a swing, Tiger. Hit it outa the park.)

Christopher Higgs said...

Hi, Jim,

Thanks for this thoughtful engagement.

I've been reading your posts on R-G's The Erasers, and finding them quite enjoyable and thought provoking. It's been a few years since I've read The Erasers, but your posts have encouraged me to pull it off the shelf and dust it off.

One passage from your post dated June 21st, struck me as particularly relevant to this consideration of open/closed texts. You write:

"Robbe-Grillet attempted to create an art form that is radically open. As the author he refuses to provide the reader with a clean solution—murder, culprit, motive, investigation, solution, etc.—or a clear picture of the objective reality of the world of the novel he has created."

Your description of R-G's open text seems to directly correspond to Hejinian's notion of an open text, while your counterpoint, "As the author he refuses to provide the reader with a clean solution" seems to correspond directly to her notion of a closed text.

You position R-G's book in contrast to something. You mark it. Distinguish it. In your words, he is refusing the reader "a clear picture of the objective reality of the world of the novel." This oppositional position is exactly what I had attempted to articulate in my post, by using Hejinian's useful concept of the closed text.

By your own volition, as evidenced in the above quotes, there ARE such things as closed texts, i.e. texts that "provide the reader with a clean solution."