Reading Scripture with Roland Barthes

In celebrating a great post-structuralist thinker through lectionary readings and a homily, it seems only appropriate to “go meta.” What, then, can Roland Barthes teach us about how to read the scriptures, as we try to use the scriptures to read Roland Barthes? In what follows, I’m going to put today’s readings in conversation with key works and concepts from Barthes’s varied career.

1. Mythologies (1957) studies how the French bourgeoisie attached meaning to common cultural activities or artifacts (wrestling, bottles of wine). Jesus, too, showed persistent interest in thinking about the distance between signs and the things they putatively represent. He famously rails against Pharisaical hypocrisy: they see in their tithes of anise and cumin the fulfillment of the law, but in Jesus’s eyes these efforts fail to signify the weightier matters. The external signs of righteousness combine to form myths of holiness that in reality serve as a smoke screen for spiritual death and decrepitude. What of the external signs of Roland Barthes? The man, for instance, smoked—a big Mormon no-no—but must this signify an inward irredeemability?

2. “The Death of the Author” (1968, collected in Image—Music—Text [1977]) argues that authors “die into writing”—that is, once there’s text on the page, whatever the author may have “meant” in the abstract is no longer recoverable. Instead of authors creating original works out of their imaginations, we have scriptors, who combine ready-made signs in new ways (à la Marcel Duchamp). Consider Paul’s use of scripture in Romans 11:26-27, which presents Isaiah 59:20-21 and Isaiah 27:9 as a single text in service of his point that Israel will be saved once the Gentiles have been gathered in. Seen in light of Barthes, we can appreciate such decontextualized reading (which was common practice in the 1st century) as a kind of art, instead of merely pooh-poohing it for failing to conform to modern historicist practice.

3. Going farther still, “From Work to Text” (also in Image—Music—Text) invites readers to go beyond thinking of what they read as “works”—fixed repositories of wisdom—to “texts” enmeshed in broader networks of meaning. The Psalmist posits the word as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, which on one level might suggest a single verse shining a point of light on the way ahead, but, then again, our paths through life rarely amount to a single road running in an obvious direction. We live interconnected lives, and the scriptures can illuminate this complexity in a way that goes well beyond the static truths of proof-texts. Nephi’s radical reappropriation of Isaiah’s prophecies are a case in point. He insists that these prophecies are plain and not plain at the same time. The lack of plainness comes because his people do not know the ways of the Jews—presumably including information about Judah’s war with the Syrians and the Ephraimites in the 8th century BCE—but he introduces a different kind of plainness by exploiting features of the prophetic text, especially those having to do with diaspora and gathering, that apply more directly to his relocated 6th century people and their descendants. If he treated Isaiah as a “work,” his prophetic “text” would have remained unimaginable.

4. Near the end of his life, Barthes became increasingly disconcerted with the ways that popular language seemed always intent on reducing things to categories or “choosing sides.” In response to this he attempted what he called “neutral writing,” defined by its openness to experience. The nearest the scriptures come to neutral writing has to be Ecclesiastes, which explores the range of human experience and finds it all vanity, merest breath, a puff of wind. Just as Barthes responded to the strictures of popular culture in his time by writing about hedonism in The Pleasure of the Text (1975), Ecclesiastes enjoins us to enjoy what life brings before it fades away. Ecclesiastes offers further counsel, though, about how to navigate a world characterized by polarizing language: talk less, for “with many dreams and vanities come a multitude of words.”

5. In the last book published during his lifetime, Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes investigates his own interest in photography. Eventually he works out that the photographs which make greatest claim on his attention have two elements: studium (the web of contextual information that the photograph conveys) and punctum (something that pierces the viewer and brings the context home). In 1829 Oliver Cowdery encountered the nascent Restoration: Jesus’ light shining in darkness. He observed this as a phenomenon without being drawn in quite at first. Then, a revelation recalled to him a private moment of peace, and this arresting burst of divine knowledge fixed the scene in his mind and in his heart. If Church teachings and the cycle of Sunday meetings form a studium in the lives of Latter-day Saints, without the punctum of personal revelation these remain nothing more than so much bland background.

These experiments in Barthesian reflections on the scriptures turn us back to the man himself, who is now not a work to be quoted merely, but a text, a part of our own peculiar web of meanings or, to use Sam Brown’s phrase, our chain of belonging. We cannot separate ourselves from his life or work, and if we cannot make sense of the world tout court, whatever sense we do make will be richer if it includes him.

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Roland Barthes, philosopher, 1980

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 (NRSV); Psalm 119:105-112 (NRSV); Matthew 23:23-31 (NRSV); Romans 11:26-27 (NRSV); 2 Nephi 25:1-4; D&C 6:20-24

The Collect: Most mysterious God, who alone can comprehend all: grant that we, veiled by our partial apprehensions of your creation, might be open, in the spirit of your servant Roland Barthes, to the people who pierce our realities and, through the workings of the Holy Spirit, reveal the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, whose own piercing allowed him to see, and therefore also to save, the full reality of human experience. Amen.

For the music, here is something suitably modern: Joseph Schwantner’s setting of Agueda Pizarro’s poem “Black Anemones,” whose imagery of stories figured as roots and webs seems quite in keeping with Barthes:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmL7sMJaFX8]

Here’s the text of the poem:

Mother, you watch me sleep
and your life
is a large tapestry
of all the colors
of all the most ancient
murmurs,
knot after twin knot,
root after root of story.
You don’t know how fearful
your beauty is as I sleep.
Your hair is the moon
of a sea sung in silence.
You walk with silver lions
and wait to estrange me
deep in the rug
covered with sorrow
embroidered by you
in a fierce symmetry
binding with thread
of Persian silk
the pinetrees and the griffins.
You call me blind,
you touch my eyes
with Black Anemones.
I am a spider that keeps spinning
from the spool in my womb,
weaving through eyes
the dew of flames
on the web.

Comments

  1. Very well said as to Nephi: “If he treated Isaiah as a ‘work,’ his prophetic ‘text’ would have remained unimaginable.” This is so true. Prooftexting does indeed have its place, as many ancient writers and teachers have amply shown, including but not limited to Amos, Hosea, Malachi, Nephi, the authors of the Gospels, Jesus, and Paul.

    “If Church teachings and the cycle of Sunday meetings form a stadium in the lives of Latter-day Saints, without the punctum of personal revelation these remain nothing more than so much bland background.”

    This is such a valuable reflection and integration of Barthes’ ideas into the Mormon life of faith.

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    The man, for instance, smoked—a big Mormon no-no—but must this signify an inward irredeemability?

    When did we ever presume that a person who did not adhere to a standard they had not covenanted to keep was irredeemable? I don’t understand this straw man.

  3. Jason K. says:

    FWIW, I agree with you that holding people to standards they haven’t covenanted to keep is ridiculous. I meant that line as a kind of metonymy for “what on earth is a Mormon blog doing celebrating an atheistic postmodern philosopher?”–a trifecta of which we tend to be much more suspicious than the smell of cigarettes. Perhaps I should have been more direct.

  4. Barthes S/Z was one of two books that convinced me not to go to law school and to go to graduate school in English (the other was Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism). Until I read S/Z, I did not really understand the power of a sustained, intensely close reading of a text. This was 25 years ago, and I have still not gotten over it. Thanks for this reflection!

  5. Just yesterday I got into a little bit of Barthes with regards to the death of the author. I hope you don’t mind if I run my ideas by you, Jason, if only to see what you think of them.

    Basically, my approach to the death of the author dovetails with the worship of and obedience to dead prophets. The dead prophets have no priesthood authority over us, thus entailing that what they meant by their writings is not binding scripture for us in original sense. Unfortunately, Barthes tried to appropriate the authority of the author (in this case prophets) to the reader which in his mind looked an awful lot like a literary academic. Wouldn’t it make more sense, within a Mormon context, however, to say that scripture is binding upon us, not because of the expired authority of the original author, since he no longer has any over us in and of himself, but because of the authority that modern day prophets – who do have authority over us – bring to it? In other words, dead prophet retain what authority they continue to have over us solely in virtue of the authority that the living prophets now have over us. Thus, the scriptures are binding as God’s word to the extent that our priesthood leaders bring authoritative interpretations to them. (Of course, we are all able to bring our own private revelation to bear on the scriptures, but this has nothing to do with public forums like sunday school.)

    This is a very conservative point, so I am expecting quite a bit of push back here.

  6. Jason K. says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful comment that tries to take Barthes’s thought seriously. I think you’re right, from a Barthesian perspective, about the insufficiency of ancient authority for scripture, but I think that your point applies in just the same way to modern prophetic interpretations, which after all come to us textually (and plug in here Derrida’s argument about the primacy of writing to speech). Your comment suggests a view of modern prophecy more or less in keeping with Barthes’s idea of a “work” that signifies fairly transparently; I think he’d view their interpretations as “texts,” inextricably enmeshed in webs of interpretation.

    None of this, of course, addresses the question of whether Barthes is right about how meaning and authority work. For my part, I think that he’s basically right about meaning, but that the authority stuff is more complicated. I like the postmodern account of authority in David Foster Wallace’s essay “Tense Present” (republished as “Authority and American Usage”), but I’d have to think some more about how it applies to the specific case of prophets.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    I think there’s two moves one can make for that Jeff. I don’t think it’s just the “death of the author” in that the author can’t offer more direction. Rather it’s how the texts are supposed to function. Are scripture supposed to be read the way legal documents are? If they are supposed to be read like laws then we have to deal with the absence of author since legal documents – especially by legislatures – are meant to be divorced by the speaker and what counts are the words and not intent. (Usually – there are still approaches that worry about intents) However if scripture is more a catalyst then the function is quite different. That catalyst approach is what Jim Falconer and Elder Oaks tend to push.

    Of course it’s never an either/or relationship.

    I do think though that you’re right that having authority outside of the text – the brethren – undermines scripture as a free floating signifier. How much the brethren act as that is an other question though. In the 19th century there appeared to be a lot of contradictory interpretations and more willingness to give speculation. That undermines authority in some ways. In the late 20th century the brethren speak far less and are far more unwilling to commit to interpretations. That gives the places they do act more authority but also leaves more of the scriptures open.

    So I think you’re right in your analysis and I think it arises naturally out of the poststructural view of texts. (Although one can arrive at the same place without the structuralist/poststructuralist divide — take Seattle’s corporate meaning versus authorial intent for instance)

  8. Jason and Clark,

    But isn’t the rejection of author-ity basically a moral claim such that we are freed up to assume that no person has an unequal right to interpret for others? I can see how outside of a prophetic tradition, this leads to the total death of the author, thus making way for the (supposedly) detached scholar, but why must we assume that each person’s contribution to the meaning of a text is on all fours with everybody else?

    Why can’t we accept the moral claim that some persons do have more authority than somebody else to answer questions of meaning and interpretation of a text? One version of this – the version that I think the death of the author is revolting against – would be the old doctrine of maker’s knowledge and maker’s sovereignty, in that be mixing one’s self and labor with a document, they come to constructively know and own that document. Why cannot another version claim that by receiving priesthood keys a person comes to constructively know and own the document in the way that used to be associated with the author?

  9. Read the Wallace article: it argues (persuasively, in my view) against the idea that under the conditions of postmodernity all interpretations are equally authoritative.

  10. Thanks for the tip!

  11. Clark Goble says:

    No I don’t think so. In the post-structuralist movement you have say Umberto Eco in the 60’s and 70’s noting the double movement between the Open Text and the Closed Text. In the analytic tradition you have Searle and the Speech Act approach noting that language is something we do. An author can be intending to say something but the meaning is in terms of what he said not what he intended to say. I might not intend to offend you with something I say but what I produce has a meaning independent of me as author. I’m attempting to make use of those structures to fulfill my intentions but I can never do it perfectly and quite often I do it poorly. Again moving to poststructuralism I think it really shifts the focus from what happens in language when everything goes right to paying attention that the standard situation isn’t everything going right. There are powerful implications of that.

    It’s true that in the hermeneutic tradition that arises in modernity there are three moves that reduce the authority of someone to interpret for me. First is the rise of science as a way of interpreting the world around us as opposed to priests telling us what there is. Second is the rise of scriptural interpretation with the idea of a priesthood of all believers and the authority of the text within Protestantism. Finally there’s the rise of legal hermeneutics as laws are said to have authority/power independent of the rulers (and rule of law means that even the ruler is subject to the laws). While these don’t develop cleanly I think they all move away from the old medieval models of authority and have had a powerful influence on society and how we read.

    I don’t think we have to buy into the relativism that everyone has equal authority. Clearly when I’m driving down the road the police officer’s interpretation of law means a lot more than my interpretation of law. Yet simultaneously it’s not absolute. The police can do a lot but I can argue against their interpretations.

    The implication (and again this isn not just a poststructuralist position) is that what matters is what we do with texts. And once we move into actions then we are in a more complex game of power. Texts act within that system of power but there is no absolute authority. So if the question is whether I have power over the text, the answer must be no. (How could that be true) It’s a very complex web we find ourselves within.

  12. Jeff, even though you characterize your proposal as a very conservative approach, I actually think that it would make even the most conservative of Church leaders uncomfortable. Each of them has continuously promoted the primacy of scripture. Ezra Taft Benson, as an apostle, mused about living prophets having a priority over dead prophets. This supports your position to some extent. But Church leaders have also consistently maintained that the scriptures are the standard by which their own words need to be measured. For example, one teaching, within the last 20 years or so, holds that Church leaders’ statements either will always or always ought to (can’t remember the exact phrasing at the moment) conform to the teachings in the scriptures. I believe a promise was even made that Church leaders’ current teachings will not contradict scriptural teachings, if I remember correctly.

    Scripture is canon, and the Church has a process for canonization of new or additional scripture, for a good reason.

    So, what I see in your proposal, ironically, is an invitation for a dichotomy in teachings (ironic because of your criticism/ridicule/dismissal elsewhere of fellow Mormons as “liberal” faithless Trojan-horse-bearing assailants for expressing interest in having Church leaders delineate their teachings to identify when they specifically claim to be speaking for the Lord or speaking officially — prophets only when speaking as such, to paraphrase several former Church leaders — with a default setting that when they do not make such a delineation they are sharing their own carefully considered personal interpretations, opinions, preferences, or ideas about a matter, which of course should also be given significant due deference as such, given our collective reverence for the individuals and the offices they hold).

    The dichotomy that your comments implies should be necessary (to save the authority of the scriptures and the concept of a canon) would need to look something like this:

    1. The teachings in the scriptures, in their general, commonly accepted interpretations, control as official doctrine/teachings/beliefs binding on all members.

    2. If a Church leader feels constrained to alter an interpretation, contradict an accepted reading, change an accepted meaning, or declare something scriptural to be incorrect, no longer in force, a result of ancient apostasy or mistranslation, etc., then it is incumbent on that Church leader to do so based on a clear statement of revelation as the basis for doing so, thus establishing that “the author is dead” as to that point and the authority is vested in the currently presiding/functioning Church leader(s) and that new canonical material is being generated.

    (2a. If a Church leader does not feel the confidence to say, “Thus saith the Lord,” about a particular idea or teaching that he wishes to preach, then that should serve as a natural and intuitive check/balance against undermining or preempting the authority inherent in the scriptural passage at issue, in its general, commonly accepted interpretation, thus preserving the canon.)

    (2b. Together with the office that a Church leader holds should come a greatly heightened sense of responsibility relating to the teachings one promulgates, which should motivate the Church leader to make the greatest possible human efforts to resist the temptation to use his position to implement personal aesthetic or political preferences as official Church policy or teachings.)

    3. If the Church leader is not speaking based on a literal communication from the Lord, such that he can confidently and accurately say “Thus saith the Lord” about a particular new or current teaching (and my sense is that he most definitely would feel confident to make this statement if the Lord had actually spoken directly to him), then if the Church leader still believes it necessary to promulgate an idea that in some way runs contrary to scripture as a new or current binding teaching, then he should feel the responsibility to identify the particular form of the revelation or inspiration that has led to this use of current authority to depart from the inherent authority of canonized scripture.

    Without some kind of dichotomy similar to this, I don’t see how the concept of scriptural canon survives, at least in the formulation you’ve laid out above displacing the authority of the scriptures with the authority of current Church leaders.

  13. Also, your formulation devalues the entire corpus of scripture into mere fodder for prooftexting; that is, the primary value of holy scripture becomes its simple ability to function as a prooftext for any particular current teaching of a current General Authority.

    That does not accord with my own understanding of the weight and authority that the scriptures — the prophecies, revelations, and teachings recorded in them, many of them specifically provided for the benefit of disciples in the “latter days” — are afforded not only generally by religious believers but also specifically in our own Church.

  14. it's a series of tubes says:

    such that he can confidently and accurately say “Thus saith the Lord” about a particular new or current teaching (and my sense is that he most definitely would feel confident to make this statement if the Lord had actually spoken directly to him)

    John, this is an interesting point. We don’t see this phraseology as often as we used to, but we do see it, or similar:
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1988/10/flooding-the-earth-with-the-book-of-mormon?lang=eng

    (next to last paragraph: “he has revealed to me…”)

  15. Angela C says:

    Excellent post. I love Roland Barthes! I often reflect on his point you outline in #2. Writing exists outside of the context of the author. It becomes its own thing. Author intent is interesting, but not necessarily the most important way to understand a piece of writing.

  16. You didn’t mention Barthes most delicious text: A Lover’s Discourse.

  17. Clark Goble says:

    John F, while I’m sympathetic to aspects of what you list, I suspect in practice it’s a tad more complex. Often for bad readings that once were common the Brethren just avoid talking about it until the interpretive practice falls away. (Think some of the embarrassing interpretations with regards to blacks and the priesthood) Typically the brethren just don’t comment often on particular interpretations. It’s true that Church practice (whether it be common proof texts or simply what ends up in manuals) changes. And of course those interpretations are still not really authoritative. (And with regards to some controversial CES readings, quite wrong)

    I also don’t think the brethren feel the need to say, “thus saith the Lord.” See for example OD2 which states it was a revelation but doesn’t express a revelation in first person. Even Joseph regularly didn’t do that. I know why some people want that phrasing, but it’s just not necessary. Also even in the modern era scripture has a complex authorship.

    In general also I think GAs can use scripture to make arguments to deal with (3). It says something about scripture as an open text – open to many readings – that typically one can find verses that say what one is pushing. Indeed it is a problem of the open text that this happens. But sometimes you can use this for your advantage.

    However I think the biggest thing is just speaking in inspiration in reading scripture is key. While scripture is in practice the most binding thing on members the fact it is so open tends to require some aspect of closure and there authorities can be useful.

  18. John,

    You’re right that I probably understated how conservative the point I am making has the potential to be. It’s not like we would ever expect a leader to say “the scriptures are only such because I say so.”

    However, I think the inversion of authority unifies a lot of Mormon practice and history.

    After all, how many prophets in the scriptures themselves were compelled to ignore or contradict the scriptures? Nephi, Abraham, etc.

    I also have in mind Joseph Smith’s “new translation” of the bible as well as the apparent anachronisms in the BoM. If legitimization moved backwards through time instead of forward, such problems largely evaporate.

    I also think our approach to Sunday school manuals makes more sense this way in that modern leaders draw our attention to those passage that they think are most relevant and guide us toward their particular interpretation of them to the exclusion of “less useful” passages.

    Joseph Smith’s preference for living constitutions over written ones and Elder Packer’s praise for the unwritten order of things makes more sense as well.

    Finally, I would suggest that church leaders claim to NOT need to say “thus saith the Lord” far more often than that the church president must bow before scripture. Indeed, there are numerous statements that say the pres. does not need to bow before them.

    I think such passages probably are meant to emphasize continuity with previous church leaders and the importance of people constraining their public statements to the church leaders’ interpretation of scripture….. which is just church members following living prophets.

    That’s how I see things anyways. Even if we might be concerned about the implication of this view, I think it more closely mirrors how things actually play out in the church.

  19. Like Weber said, if you have to appeal to your own authority, then you don’t really have any. For this reason, I would never expect a church leader to justify their decisions in terms of their authority. But this doesn’t change the fact that they have it or that we can justify some of our decisions in terms of their authority.