Who? Roland Barthes
When? 1960’s – 1980’s
This page follows from the one about Structuralism and it is best to read that one first. The key point is that Structuralism pointed out that there was no intrinsic, reliable or real link between a word and the thing that it refers to. For example – the word ‘monkey’ has no specific relation to the thing monkey. The word just means monkey because it is part of a system of words that we have all agreed to use in a certain way.
However, the problem then comes when we consider whether we can be sure that we are all using the words in the same way. If there is no real link between the word ‘monkey’ and the thing monkey then how can you and I be sure that we are talking about the same thing when we use that word? In this way, every word that is spoken can be interpreted in a number of different ways and what the writer ‘meant’ when he wrote it may be different to what I understand when I read it which might also be different to what you understand when you read it.
This sounds more like philosophy than English. So, how does it affect our study of literature? Essentially it means that texts are massively ambiguous and can be interpreted in an unlimited number of different ways. Barthes is most famous for talking about ‘The Death of the Author’. What he means is that the idea that the author was in control of his text and knows what it really means is wrong. The reader has complete freedom to interpret it in any way that they wish.
Barthes also argued that authors (he called them writers because the word ‘author’ suggests that they have too much control over what they write) should be aware of this uncertainty and make use of it when they write. Authors should play with ambiguity, confusion and multiple interpretations in their texts. As such, many of the modern texts that we read at IB are post-structural because they can be interpreted in a number of ways and the writers are aware of this and leave their texts ambiguous intentionally. Kiss of the Spider Woman is a great example of this.
In addition, there is a sense in which readers have a responsibility to be aware of this unavoidable uncertainty when they are reading and, rather than forcing texts to mean just one thing, they should embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty and attempt to read or interpret a text in as many ways as possible. The existence of one interpretation can exist side by side with the completely opposite interpretation. This adds to the richness of a text and should be exploited in your essays.