No text is an isolated island. (Professor Byron Hawk, GMU, Virginia)
Roland Barthes’s writings do not fit well within the category of ‘literary criticism’ in any conventional sense; nor, indeed, does he limit himself to the critique of that which is conventionally called ‘literature’; in Barthes’s view, “work of every form and worth qualifies for citizenship in the great democracy of ‘texts’” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xi). For Barthes, there is nothing that cannot be treated as ‘text’: everything is literature — a ‘text’ open to that challenge whose function and intention is to call into question the very nature of things. But this assertion represents but one side of a binary: the other side of the argument embodies the notion that “all objects are created, and subjects constituted, by … language” (Lavers, 1982: p13).
Dr Jack Solomon — in the Introduction to The Signs of Our Time — states that his book is “about codes and the way that ordinary words, objects, and activities can be signs that point to hidden systems of cultural belief” (Solomon, 1988: p2). He explains that “The ideological nature of signs is particularly marked in the political arena, where a battle over words may have much more than mere semantic significance” (Solomon, 1988: p3).
Solomon sets out two principles which may guide us as we attempt to decipher the meaning of any ‘text’: Solomon’s “first principle [of semiotics] tells us to distrust what is called ‘common sense’ …| According to the second principle … a cultural interest lurks behind our most fundamental beliefs” (Solomon, 1988: pp9-10).
Annette Lavers (1982: p13), regarding the recognition of the observer’s involvement in what he or she observes as “probably the main lesson of twentieth century thought,” argues that “when extended from perception to language, [this idea] leads to the conclusion that all objects are created, and subjects constituted, by this same language.” In other words: “We make ourselves, and what we make is perceived as reality” (McLuhan & Powers, 1992: p10). (Sir Francis Bacon somewhere states that “Men prefer to believe what they prefer to be true.”)
Glancing quickly today through some of the pro-Christian/anti-postmodern materials I found on the web, it was soon clear to me that the reading and interpreting of biblical texts is much more than “a battle of words”; the issues are ideological and political, moral and ethical … and might ultimately be about power.
In his online Introduction to Semiotics 101, Byron Hawk aptly explains: “Interpreting culture is not simply a description of culture, nor is it mere opinion. The cultural meaning in a particular sign comes from its historical context. By itself, an ad is just selling a product, and a movie is just entertainment (denotation). But examined in the context of the other cultural signs that provide a backdrop for the ads’ or movies’ presentation, it becomes clearer that they carry additional meaning (connotation).”
Niall Lucy encapsulates an invaluable insight: “Imposing an order on the world, myths give shape to it — and this shape is what comes to be accepted as ‘natural’, ‘given’ and ‘true’” (Lucy, 2001: p17).
Professor Byron Hawk taught English 101-006 (Composition) in the Spring of 2006 at George Mason University (often referred to as GMU or Mason) — a public university based in Fairfax County, Virginia, United States, south of and adjacent to the city of Fairfax. Read more about GMU here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Mason_University
Here is a link to the Semiotics 101 online notes: http://classweb.gmu.edu/bhawk/101/semiotics/
Niall Lucy is an Australian writer and scholar best known for his work in deconstruction. Wikipedia has an incomplete piece on him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niall_Lucy
Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
Lavers, A. 1982. Roland Barthes : Structuralism and After. London: Methuen & Co.
Lucy, N. 2001. Beyond semiotics : text, culture and technology. London: Continuum International Publishing Group
McLuhan, M & Bruce R Powers. 1992 (“first published in 1989 by Oxford University Press”). The Global Village : Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press.
Solomon, J. 1988. The Signs of Our Time : Semiotics: The Hidden Messages of Environments, Objects, and Cultural Images. Los Angeles: Jeremy P Tarcher, Inc.