What is S/Z?

Monica Lancini, English 111, 1999

Barthes' reading of Balzac's Sarrasine displays a general methodological approach to literature, whose basic concepts are fragmentation and multiplication. The short story, which is particularly rich in cultural nuances and sous-entendus, is a starting point in the reconsideration of some of the literary tools and categories we are most used to. The process of description, as I will try to make it clear, takes place at multiple levels.

S/Z works like a bifocal lens, focusing both on the textual analysis of Balzac's short story as well as on a theoretical speculation, which abstracts the specificity of the text. Barthes' process of redefinition starts from the two basic agents of communication, the addresser (the author) and the addressee (the reader), then it turns to the message (the text). His final considerations are about the general conception of literature and criticism.


"The Author himself [...] can or could become one day a text like another; he has only to avoid making his person the subject, the impulse, the origin, the authority, the Father, whence his work would proceed, by channel of expression; he has only to see himself as a being on paper and his life as a bio-graphy [...] a writing without referent, substance of a connection and not a filiation (212-3). He is an "irresponsible figure caught up in the plural of its own text." (Ibiden)

This quotation reminds us to what Barthes says in Authors and Writers about the death of author.


"The goal of literary work (of literature as a work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text" (4).

"The more plural the text, the less it is written before I read it" (10).

In reading Sarrasine , Barthes attributes a complexity of meanings to the text, which might not be what Balzac had originally in mind. As literature is an indirect form of speech, the reader is the one who, all things considered, has the last word.

"Whereby we see that writing is not the communication of a message which starts from the author and proceeds to the reader; it is specifically the voice of reading itself: in the text, only the reader speaks"(151)


"In the ideal text, the networks are many and interact, without anyone being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning, it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one [...] for the plural text, there cannot be a narrative structure, a grammar or a logic" (6).

This is the exact definition of hypertext, in the same words we use today. If the network structure is manifest, like in the electronic environment, then the role of the reader as the only truth holder is unquestionable.

Most important, according to Barthes the text is made of lexia , "blocks of signification"or "units of reading." The dimension of a lexia is empirically determined. It is not a syntactic division, a sentence or a paragraph, but a unit based on meaning. All these lexia are interconnected. How? By connotation. Connotation is what disseminates the meaning. In reading Sarassine, Barthes plays both with denotation and connotation, but not only, also with metaphors - "multipliers [of] one form of language"- and irony "destroy[ing] the voice which could give the text its ("organic") unity"(44).

The concept of the lexia is itself hypertextual. The fragments on the screen are units of meaning, whose length is not determined by a physical delimitation differently from the printed page a document is scrollable but corresponds to a mental line of demarcation. And again, the way we join fragments together the link is basically an association of ideas, therefore a process based on meaning only.

Fragmentation takes place not only at a linguistic and structural level, but also as far as characters and descriptions:

"The character is a product of combination [...] this complexity determines the character's personality [...] The proper name acts as a magnetic field for the semes"(67).

La Zambinella is a fragmented being, "divided, anatomized." Its body is reassembled by the reader while trying to understand whether it is a man or a woman. That's what a character looks like in hypertext, a Patchwork Girl.

"The portrait [...] is not a realistic representation, a related copy, an idea such as we might get from painting; it is a scene made of up by blocks of meaning, at once varied, repeated, and discontinuous [...] In other words, the reading of the "realistic"portrait is not a realistic reading: it is a cubist reading ...."(61).

The episode becomes a "byte", in computer terminology, "a section of program fed into the machine"(78, lexia n. 122). The narrator is undistinguishable, his identity is concealed:

"the more indeterminate the origin of statement, the more plural the text. In modern texts, the voices are so treated that any reference is impossible: the discourse, or better, the language speaks: nothing more. By contrast, in the classic text the majority of utterances are assigned an origin ..."(41)

Needless to say, polyphony is the essence of hypertext.


If a text is the result of the dynamic combination of all these elements,

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 departure, a narrative or poetic Law, but a perspective [...], whose vanishing point is nonetheless ceaselessly pushed back, mysteriously opened: each (single) text is the very theory (an not a mere example) of this vanishing, of this difference which indefinitely turns, insubmissive (12)


As a consequence, even our way of dealing with text changes:

"All criticism rests in the notion that the text contains insignificant elements [...] the meaning is supposed to take its preeminence from an "over meaning"[...] now, the notion of structure does not support the separation of foundation and design, insignificant and significant [...] everything signifies something". (51)

In this new reconfiguration of the reading process, the critic too looses his mediating function. Everything is important in the text, first because everything is interconnected, and second because the meaning, in an anti-hierarchical and democratic structure, is everywhere we want to find it.

discussions of S/Z

Cyberspace Web Main screen critical theory