Archive Theory: S/Z

(Continued from this post and this post.)

This project began as a spreadsheet documenting the church passages for a term paper in a Proust seminar. It was subsequently compared by someone else in a textual scholarship seminar to Roland Barthes' S/Z. The comparison holds on two counts: the arranging of passages in a cross-referenced grid system and the inclusion of interpretive keys as paratexts.

Barthes' method in S/Z, a narratological analysis of Balzac's novella Sarrasine, breaks down the entire story into passages (which he calls "lexia"), beneath which appear his analyses according to five semiotic codes: the hermeneutic (HER), semantic (SEM), symbolic (SYM), proairetic [or actional] (ACT), and referential (REF). This enables him to perform a step-by-step reading that remains attentive to the plural of the text. This method,

through its very slowness and dispersion, avoids penetrating, reversing the tutor text, giving an internal image of it: it is never anything but the decomposition (in the cinematographic sense) of the work of reading: a slow motion, so to speak, neither wholly image nor wholly analysis; it is, finally, in the very writing of the commentary, a systematic use of digression (a form ill-accommodated by the discourse of knowledge) and thereby a way of observing the reversibility of the structures from which the text is woven; of course, the classic text is incompletely reversible (it is modestly plural): the reading of this text occurs within a necessary order, which the gradual analysis will make precisely its order of writing; but the step-by-step commentary is of necessity a renewal of the entrances to the text, it avoids structuring the text excessively, avoids giving it that additional structure which would come from a dissertation and would close it: it stars the text, instead of assembling it. (12-13; Barthes' emphases)

To a contemporary reader, Barthes' digressions take a form remarkably similar to blog posts with category tags and commentary. Each segment of the book is anywhere from one to about five pages in length and begins with a number, a title, a passage from Sarrasine, and then commentary that incorporates any of the five semiotic codes that might be present. And they progress rigidly in chronological order according to the tutor text -- as we sometimes say of the seriality of blogs under the "tyranny of the timestamp" (but which can be "adjusted"). He uses the codes as a system for both teasing out the plural of the tutor text in the act of reading and for referring to other passages containing the same types of signifiers, which is like tagging in Web 2.0.

One of the true innovations of Barthes' approach in S/Z is the simplicity of the overall structure. In using only the basic procedures of analysis, labeling, and cross-reference, without the inhibiting burden of organizing them around large themes or an articulation of the whole text, he is able to use the digressive episodes to mine each lexia for its plurality. Each segment becomes a self-contained discourse on the lexia it falls under, making connections as it pleases. Or as he says:

If we want to remain attentive to the plural of the text (however limited it may be), we must renounce structuring this text in large masses, as was done by classical rhetoric and by secondary-school education: no construction of the text: everything signifies ceaselessly and several times, but without being delegated to a great final ensemble, to an ultimate structure. Whence the idea, and so to speak the necessity, of a gradual analysis of a single text. Whence, it would seem, several implications and several advantages. The commentary on a single text is not a contingent activity, assigned the reassuring alibi of the "concrete": the single text is valid for all the texts of literature, not in that it represents them (abstracts and equalizes them), but in that literature itself is never anything but a single text: the one text is not an (inductive) access to a Model, but entrance into a network with a thousand entrances; to take this entrance is to aim, ultimately, not at a legal structure of norms and departures, a narrative or poetic Law, but at a perspective (of fragments, of voices from other texts, other codes), whose vanishing point is nonetheless ceaselsessly pushed back, mysteriously opened: each (single) text is the very theory (and not the mere example) of this vanishing, of this difference which indefinitely returns, insubmissive. (11-12; Barthes' emphasis)

The notion of Literature as a single hypertext of voices, "a network with a thousand entrances," is where the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive begins its own construction (though I hadn't studied S/Z until long after the search engine was built). It singles out one strain of the narrative in order to examine up close the multiple voices and "entrances" and "vanishing points" of the Recherche. The purpose is to read Proust in a way that hasn't been done before, and also to further the study of narrative by using new tools (search engine, blog, taxonomic and folksonomic organization, hypertext) that were foreshadowed but unavailable to narratologists during the 1970s:

to take up the structural analysis of narrative where it has been left till now: at the major structures; it is to assume the power (the time, the elbow room) of working back along the threads of meanins, of abandoning no site of the signifier without endeavoring to ascertain the code or codes of which this site is perhaps the starting point (or the goal).... (S/Z 12)

In more selectively culling its lexia but less selectively organizing its interpretive codes (the uncategorized associations), the Ecclesiastical Proust Archive highlights both the entrances and vanishings of the text -- where each instance of the church motif begins and ends and the voices and codes that weave therein, that channel them from other parts of the narrative but are amplified and cut off. (In much the same way, the church is for Proust's narrator both the origin and the end, the orienting post.) And for the sake of recalling these instances it uses the advantages of the digital medium to archive and reorganize the text(s), to build itself accretively on its voices, just as a church or a book embodies those voices (of history, of love, of war, of strife and hope).