Thursday, July 25, 2013
Deconstruction means 'not a not-deconstruction'
In my last essay, I talked about the phrase 'Death of the Author', a structuralist essay that's somehow wound up a pop-culture catchphrase without retaining very much of its original meaning. Critical theories, like many other cultural movements, tend to have a trickle-down effect, and last century's radical innovations become this century's popular conventions - or at least, an approximation of them does. But those approximations sometimes bear little resemblance to the original; so it is with Barthes, and so it is too with Derrida. Because if 'the death of the author' is a phrase much thrown around on the Internet, here's a word that's inescapable: 'deconstruction.'
What does it mean? In its current usage, usually it means an essay, either written or spoken, usually about a work of art or a cultural phenomenon, and that takes issue with the politics or implications of that work. And as with the phrase 'death of the author', that's a very long way from where it started. 'Death of the author', in its current popular form, is an orthodoxy that attributes more than what was originally said, but 'deconstruction' is the opposite: a usage that reinscribes the very thing the word was created to subvert. If current uses of 'death of the author' involve assumptions that would have surprised its creator, current uses of 'deconstruction' involve assumptions that the author built a grand philosophy against.
'Deconstruction' is a word - an analytic and philosophical technique, in fact - pioneered by the famous critic Jacques Derrida, a man whose influence on twentieth-century cultural thought can mildly be described as 'major'. His work inspires both passionate opposition and profound devotion because it forcefully advances an entire approach to culture that is, to say the least, both widely applied and counter-intuitive, but one cannot properly discuss the history of the humanities disciplines in the twentieth century without spending a good amount of time talking about Derrida.
So, what was he getting at?
In attempting to describe what Barthes meant by 'Death of the Author', I acknowledged that it's difficult to summarise semiotics. Now, plot Barthes on a graph, move Derrida forward in time a little bit, and imagine a geometric progression of complexity between the two of them. That'll give you some idea of just how abstruse and difficult Derrida is. Derrida's systems of thought are such that he needed to invent new words to describe his ideas - made a point of it, in fact, because he was interested in freeing oneself of old ways of thinking. One cannot summarise Derrida in ordinary language without hearing him groan in his grave; however, I'm going to make a very simplistic attempt at it.
Semiotics, which is the school of thought out of which Derrida grew, is a method of studying linguistics, and one of its tenets is that words have meaning not only by what their definition includes, but what it excludes. Let's take an example; for convenience, we'll use the same word I used when talking about Barthes: 'chair'. In its primary sense, leaving aside the metaphor of 'chairing a meeting' and the euphemism of 'getting the chair' meaning getting executed, usages that derive from the primary meaning, 'chair' means a piece of furniture that can accommodate a single sitter. So, that's what the word 'means'. But it also has to not mean lots of other things if it's going to make sense: it cannot simultaneously mean a four-wheeled vehicle painted green, a crime involving the hurling of gelatine products, a phosphorescent deep-sea fish, a method of artificial insemination used upon imaginary animals and an uncut loaf of bread - or at least, not without some further distinguishing indicators. Otherwise, if someone said 'chair', we wouldn't know what they were talking about. Or, to take a less silly example: 'chair' can mean a small wooden dining chair or a broad, padded arm chair, but if a piece of furniture gets broad enough to accommodate two sitters, then it's no longer a chair but a sofa, or possibly a bench. If we're speaking to the manager of a furniture shop, it has to be understood that 'chair' means not only 'chair' but 'not-sofa' if we want to be shown to the right item.
In other words, one can look at language as a form that depends on oppositions in order to function: to understand that something is a chair, one must also accept that there is such a concept as 'not-chair'. And in fact, navigating these concepts can tell us a lot about how we navigate the world; take a semi-verbal child to the park and you may find yourself genuinely challenged when called upon to explain why this isn't a chair, it's a bench, or that isn't a door, it's a gate: to distinguish, we have to accept some quite sweeping conventions to do with usage and function - what counts as inside or outside, or what mechanical or aesthetic traditions we've inherited from our craftsman ancestors. What a word excludes, even a relatively neutral one, carries within in a great deal of conceptual history. Now, this may be a practical necessity when one is talking about furniture - but what happens when one starts talking about less concrete, more fraught concepts? When one says 'man', for instance, one is saying 'not-sofa', but one is also saying 'not-animal', 'not-boy' and 'not-woman'. And as animals, boys and women have often found to their cost, this is not a neutral distinction: throughout human history, 'man' is conceptually defined as superior to all of these 'not-man' states - and consequently, entitled to dominance over them. A dog beaten for disobedience, a boy forced through a painful rite of passage to 'manhood', a woman blamed for wearing that short skirt: all of these unfortunates are suffering from the conceptual elevation of 'man', from the fact that those who accept the dominant concepts must denigrate the 'not-man' to preserve the meaning of 'man'. And this is Derrida's point: 'In a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy.' Bigotry, by Derrida's logic, is built into the very way we define meaning: to elevate one over another is to create the preconditions without which oppression cannot take place. Conception and language are the raw materials of violence ... and yet, if we're going to distinguish between anything and anything - if language is going to have any meaning, any function at all - such betrayals are all but impossible to avoid.
This is where deconstruction comes in. The term is a translation of Heidegger's 'Destruktion', but Derrida deliberately chose to translate it (into French) as 'deconstruction' rather than 'destruction' to make it clear that the ethos was to be precision, not violence. Conceptual violence is what deconstruction exists to oppose. A deconstruction of a text identifies the opposing concepts within it and begins by overturning the hierarchy between them - not to destroy the distinctions or define new ones, because 'the hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself', but to 'mark their difference and eternal interplay'. In other words, one doesn't draw conclusions: one identifies conclusions and moves upwards into a state of mind where one can see them from the outside, see the opposition without taking sides. Derrida advanced the idea that we should defer meaning rather than differentiate - which led to some incredibly dense writing, as you can imagine - but despite the intensely academic style, philosophically it's almost Zen: one plays with opposites instead of attaching oneself, because attachment to an opposed distinction is, in Derrida's terms, inherently violent.
With me so far?
Now, this is a gross oversimplification: I am no Derridan, and he's notoriously difficult to understand and intentionally difficult to paraphrase. But as a basic introduction, let's chalk it up as a temporary meaning, since temporary meanings are probably more in his spirit than fixed ones. What does it mean in terms of writing a 'deconstruction' of a text?
Well, in these terms, 'deconstruction' is a deliberately high standard of approach. One must, in a deconstruction, identify the opposing concepts in a text and perceive the hierarchy between them ... but by close reading in the appropriate state of understanding, start to show how they unravel. A deconstruction does not merely point out the sexist, racist, classist or otherwise bigoted concepts in a work: it reads them in such a way as to find that the text 'deconstructs' itself - which is to say, simultaneously advances the opposite meaning from the one it presumably intends.
One does not surpass oppositions altogether, because without oppositions language simply doesn't work at all - try shopping in an outlet that refuses to distinguish between 'sofa' and 'not-sofa' and see where it gets you - but one notes them and sets them in tension. Derrida was careful to state (with a reliance on oppositions that one must suppose justified on the grounds that he never said oppositions should be got rid of altogether) that deconstruction was not ... well, quite a lot of things. Not a method, because not mechanical; not a critique, because one cannot entirely free oneself of the baggage of cultural dogma to the extent that would be necessary to reach the state of neutrality a critique would require; not an analysis, because that implies breaking the text into discrete units of meaning and Derrida favoured a more holistic, interrelated approach. It's just ... deconstruction, its own way, its own state of mind.
It's a profoundly difficult concept, difficult to understand, difficult to perform, difficult as all get-out to define in layman's terms. But it's also a profoundly idealistic one: rigorous, self-questioning, resistant to easy answers, exploratory, reaching for some kind of integrity in the utterly, inherently compromised human condition.
And if you're an undergraduate required to study it in all its abstraction and extremity, it can be a genuine headache or a genuine high, depending on your personal preferences. But if nothing else, it is a definite, if difficult, meaning. A 'deconstruction' is, definitionally, not a 'not-deconstruction.'
For which reason, it's rather a shame to see the word used so broadly, applied to pieces that are not, by the terms of the man who invented the word because he needed a new word for his new concept, actually deconstructions. An essay that identifies problems in a text's implications is not, by Derrida's terms, a deconstruction, because it rests on a 'violent hierarchy' of its own: the hierarchy between problematic and non-problematic. It's one thing to note that a text, say, carries some deep presuppositions about what constitutes 'man' and what constitutes 'woman'; to say that a text is wrong in how it handles gender is, by purist standards, implicitly accepting that there's a right way to handle gender. There's a new hierarchy in place: rather than positioning gender identity as a set of spinning plates, one is instead stacking them in a different order. In political terms, it may be an entirely defensible order, but it's not a deconstruction. It's a re-construction. It's perfectly okay to prefer re-construction - it certainly comes more naturally to most people's understanding, my own included - but if it were a deconstruction, those plates would still be up in the air.
Now, you may argue that it's in the nature of language to change, that words mean only what people understand them to mean - the sign is not the signified, after all - and that a lot of people understand 'deconstruction' to simply mean 'essay', which is just how language moves. 'Decimate', in a modern context, no longer means 'kill one in ten', for instance, even though this confuses those of us who first learned the word in its original Roman context. It now has a new meaning, similar to 'devastate' (assonance with which is, I suspect, the origin of the change), but it actually has a meaning that 'devastate' doesn't quite have: 'decimate' in the modern context means 'kill everyone or nearly everyone present and/or lay waste to their environment'. It may nag at Classical purists - it certainly nags at me - but it's an entirely defensible change; the modern word 'decimate' has its own meaning for which there is no exact synonym. We have, therefore, gained a new semantic distinction. That's what language is for.
But while language flow is indeed a natural part of its process, we can still question how and why words change, and whether this is always useful. 'Infer', for instance, is often used to mean 'imply', not because of the need for a new word but because some people just don't know the difference - and that's a case where I'd argue that everyone would benefit if everyone bothered to learn the original distinction between the two words. We don't need two words that mean the same thing, and if 'infer' stops meaning 'draw an inference', we have lost not just a word but a meaning: we have no word to replace it. We are linguistically poorer for the change. Likewise, people often use 'literally' as an emphasiser when they're speaking metaphorically - 'I literally jumped out of my skin', say - and we're poorer for that change too: we have enough emphasis words to get by with already, we don't have another word that means 'in the literal sense', so we're a meaning down if that change takes permanent hold.
Those are language changes where we wind up losing a distinction rather than gaining one, narrowing rather than expanding our ability to communicate. And that, I think, is the effect of calling any political essay that treats of fiction or culture a 'deconstruction'.
'Deconstruction' is, as I've said, a word that was specifically created because there wasn't a word for the concept, and created to demarcate a deconstruction from other forms of analytic, critical or philosophical writing. If we lose the meaning of the word, we've lost our ability to make the distinction.
And, too, considering the pains Derrida took to define what a proper deconstruction was, it's worth remembering that it's not just a definition but an accolade, a high, idealistic term created to praise a way of thought that its author considered morally necessary. Lifting an accolade isn't just inaccurate, it's appropriative. One may or may not care for Derrida's philosophy - it's a very specific taste, often a divisive one, and as with every other critical school, having both proponents and opponents probably does us the best service in the end - but it was, at least, an idealistic one, and there's something sad about employing a word specifically created to serve a set of ideals without consideration for those ideals. It's an imprecise use of a word employed to value precision, a generic use of a word employed to create and promote new and specific concepts, a no-entry-fee application of a word designed to be difficult to win in order to encourage people to reach towards a complex intellectual accomplishment. It is, ultimately, an unthinking use of a word created to push people into new forms of thought. It's a pity.
But does it benefit people re-using it? Not particularly. If all one means by it is 'a piece of writing that discusses culture and/or considers the implications of a work of art', there are already words for that meaning: essay, analysis, commentary, critique - all perfectly respectable terms used in academia, in fact, that represent no drop in status or seriousness. The more accurate term for 'question a socio-political assumption' is probably 'interrogate'; to take a well-deployed example, look at this extract from Laurie Penny's recent essay 'I Was A Manic Pixie Dream Girl'
In recent weeks I’ve filled in the gaps of classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl films I hadn’t already sat through, and I’m struck by how many of them claim to be ironic re-imaginings of a character trope that they fail to actually interrogate in any way.
Similarly, some 'deconstructions' are actually just mockeries with a political slant, and there are words for that too, like 'roast' or 'snark-fest' or 'skit'. Whatever the style or depth, there is no shortage of alternative words.
To say a piece of writing is not a deconstruction is not to say that it isn't a good essay, analysis, critique or skit, any more than it's a condemnation to say that the discovery of a new species of bird isn't a feat of geology. Distinctions are, as Derrida has it, necessary for language to mean anything, and one can identify them in a non-violent way. But language changes can destroy meanings as well as create them, and 'deconstruction' is a word deliberately invented to express a very particular philosophy ... and unless you're going to sign up for a whole lot of Derridan thought, you may want to put yourself on the non-deconstructionist side of the line. Otherwise, it's a usage that actually kills the word's intended meaning. Death of the Author, perhaps, but a death that depletes our inheritance.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
The Death of The Death of the Author
Okay, so I've been on holiday, I've been ill, and now I'm in the middle of a freelance project as well, so the ever-open maw of the blog has gone unfed for a while. In the name of providing some kind of content in line with the literary theme here, I'm therefore going to put up a couple of old essays on literary theory. (The first, this one, has been published elsewhere in a different form; the next, I never put up before. I'll follow it shortly, as this one isn't new: it'll be on Derrida and the concept of 'deconstruction'.) If the Opening Line posts are masterclasses in close reading, consider these posts a masterclass in very, very rough approximations of the ideas of famous literary philosophers.
It's a slogan one seems to encounter on the Internet: 'The author is dead'. Some of the time it's said to defend an interpretation of fiction that contradicts the author's stated intention, but as often as not it's said to declare that an author has no business, or at least authority, stating 'facts' about characters in a book that's already finished and published - J.K. Rowling telling scriptwriters not to write the wizardly headmaster Dumbledore as heterosexual because she'd always pictured him as gay, for example. Google 'Rowling', 'Dumbledore' and "the author is dead", and at the time of writing this, you'll turn up a staggering 412,000 hits. This phrase is serious business. Sometimes it's even produced to state that authors have no right to object to fan fiction, as if the author were literally dead even though they claim to be walking around alive. Often it's said with great anger: Rowling faced a considerable fan backlash about that Dumbledore thing, and of the criticisms I read at the time, many of them seemed less about the character itself and more about the fact that she presumed to make an extra-book statement at all.* Rowling was actually bringing it up in the process of collaborating with an ongoing film project, of course, but even so, many people I read were outraged, as if she'd violated some principle - and that principle was most commonly expressed as 'the author is dead'. When I see people talking about the 'death of the author' online, frequently they seem to be arguing that the author needs to shut up.
And that's really not what the phrase means.
'The Death of the Author' - and please note the capital A - is an essay by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, written in 1967. In a way it's not surprising that its title is so often quoted counter to Barthes' actual argument, because the essay contains phrases like this:
As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs...
Barthes was not writing for a popular audience. Instead, he was an influential part of a critically significant movement - structuralism, post-structuralism and semiotics - which by its nature, by its fundamental design, resisted easy understanding and simple explanations. To explain Barthes in straightforward terms is, to some extent, to misrepresent him; however, I'm going to have a go, because I think it's time somebody tried to clear up this misunderstanding.
To begin with, 'The Death of the Author' is not an actual death certificate. It's a single manifesto that formed part of an evolving and discursive philosophical tradition, one that is still evolving and shifting today, and one that placed a great emphasis - in a very abstracted and rarefied way - on the notion of intellectual playfulness. To understand Barthes, it helps to understand his context, because here's the thing: Taking anything that any member of this tradition said too literally is a chancy business. Jouissance is the name of the game, the pleasure of saying something for the sake of saying it, and perhaps saying something different later. Structuralists were provocateurs much more than they were scientists. It's probably unwise to try to summarise this critical school, but to put it simply: the origins lie not in the study of literature, but in the study of linguistics. Structuralism approached language, as the name suggests, as a structure - but more than that, as an almost numinous phenomenon that was not so much used by individuals as acting through them.
The basic argument is this: language is in effect a fiction. The word 'chair' is not a chair; the signifier is not the signified. Instead, language is a system, one that an individual speaker does not originate and does not use with full conscious understanding; Marxism, which was fashionable at that time, argued that one's economic and social position determined one's speech and opinions, and structuralism tended to the belief that language itself acted upon people in the same way that a Marxist would say the economy did. (Though this is oversimplifying both Marxism and structuralism, I fear; complex ideas do not lend themselves to simple explanations.) Because we speak language, language speaks through us, and what we say is determined by the system of signs that acts upon us. It is, in short, a viewpoint that treats language as a force that tends to dominate free will.
With that attitude - a philosophical viewpoint that is not fundamentally about art but about language and culture, and that treats art as an example of how these phenomena function rather than as a separate case - you can see where the attitude towards artists is tending. If we are largely determined by our linguistic context, then any artist is a person through whom culture speaks rather than an individual speaking for themselves ... but before one gets too excited about this and starts running around insisting that artists have no right to take any credit for anything, it should be pointed out that in this philosophy, everybody is determined by their cultural context. (Even, perhaps, the critics making this argument. In which case, one can question the legitimacy of what they say in an entirely impersonal manner, or indeed consider their pronouncements symptomatic of their cultural position rather than authoritative, and you can go round and round that carousel until you're dizzy. And that's before you even factor in the presence of the translator if you're reading the essay in anything other than the original French.) The artist is 'spoken through' by culture, but so is the reader. Understanding culture and language being a difficult feat that requires much education to even begin it, what we're seeing is a certain school of criticism assuming an almost priestly role as interpreters of a quasi-divine force.
So, to Barthes. It's important to remember that his essay was addressed to a narrow circle - critics and academics - who could be relied upon to understand the philosophical context he spoke from: it's an easy essay to misunderstand precisely because he used a lot of terms to mean something other than their conventional, common-sense interpretation. What was he saying?
To summarise the essay: Barthes begins by asserting that within a given text, one cannot conclusively know whether any given sentence is the opinion of the character or narrative voice saying it, the author as an individual, the author assuming a public role, 'universal wisdom' or anything else - in other words, one cannot confidently identify what the author thinks based on their writing because the writing is not the author. (The sign is not the signified, remember.) He then goes on to blame 'French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation' for what he sees as the modern tendency to treat the author of a work as the capital-A Author: the figure whom critics must study to, he argues, a destructive degree. To quote one of his simpler sentences:
The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice.
He goes on to discuss the way different critics, authors and artists have dealt with this issue, but his fundamental contention is that criticism-as-biography is limiting.
And that's basically what 'Death of the Author' means. Not death of the author as individual; it's important to note that the examples he cites - Balzac, Proust, Mallarme, de Quincey, Baudelaire, Brecht, Flaubert (the author of the cited Bouvard et Pecuchet), the Greek tragedians, and Tchaikovsky and van Gogh too - were all, at the time of publication, literally dead, mostly of them for decades at the very least. They were not present to make any kind of assertion about their work. They were gone, and all that was left was the text; when Barthes asserted
Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I...
(and note that he's explicitly speaking 'linguistically' rather than artistically, historically or personally), he was in a strong position to speak of the author as a linguistic phenomenon because that was all that was left of the authors he chose to illustrate his arguments.
So if someone argues that, say, an author shouldn't get to control their copyright because there's no such thing as originality and uses the phrase 'death of the author' to substantiate it, or that an author, being 'dead', shouldn't make post-publication remarks about their books, one needs to remember that Barthes was saying nothing at all about the conduct of authors. Any actual behaviour from the authors he mentions was a matter of historical record, not social interaction. And, too, his take on originality was heavily linguistic: when, for instance, he states that 'the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original', one needs to understand that to Barthes, there was no such thing as originality in writing because there was no such thing as originality in speech: one does not originate words, so any word one ever says is inevitably a quotation. He is not using the word in its common sense of 'unusually dissimilar to whatever has come before', but in an absolute sense: unless one invents an entirely new word, every word we speak is not, linguistically, original. And even if we invent a new word, we build it from phonemes that precede us ... and also, if this new word is to have any meaning, concepts and systems of meaning will already be part of the cultural-linguistic context that lives through us. There's really no getting away from it: speakers and language, to a structuralist, are almost analogous to computers and code, and we can't say anything without the code defining how we operate. This is, as I said, a philosophy not of art but of language; it's difficult to refute, but at the same time it reduces the concept of originality to such an absolute state that it's also difficult to apply in any common meaningful sense.
That priestly role is relevant here; he talks about the 'Author-God'. Since I am not a Barthesian I feel no obligation to leave Barthes the man out of the question, and I consider it worth pointing out that academics and criticism are competitive professions. Barthes is explicitly challenging what he sees as a critical orthodoxy (and for that reason, repeating 'the author is dead' as a new orthodoxy is doing his rebellious spirit no favours), which is to say that he's bidding for dominance against other critics. But he's also bidding for dominance in terms of the 'Author': when he concludes with a flourish that 'the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author', let's not forget where he's positioning himself here: as a reader. This essay may or may not be a convincing critical position - a healthy culture contains different schools of thought, and so it's to everyone's benefit if some people are convinced and others are not - but it's also a priest of linguistics taking aim on a rival faith. By appropriating the authority and kudos formerly attributed to authors, reader-critics stood to gain a great deal, and should not be regarded in the same light as a disinterested doctor seeking in vain for a pulse. The critic's profession is not to report on the battlefield but to out-duel your rivals.
Of course, you may prefer to take Barthes on his own terms, excluding consideration of Barthes the Author from Barthes the author. But if you're going to do that ... well, you have little ground for rejecting his assertion that 'I is nothing other than the instance saying I.' (In other words, the word 'I' is not a person, and any statement containing the word 'I' is therefore not to be taken as a clear representation of the actual person, or their thoughts, intentions or personality.) Which will, at best, problematise any sentence you write in which you use the phrase 'I think,' or 'I like,' or 'in my opinion.' In the name of consistency, if you want to consider the Author dead, you should probably accept that by writing anything you are rendering yourself equally dead, and your essay, post or comment is therefore equally open to any interpretation a reader chooses to put upon it - which in this philosophical tradition will necessarily include readings that are directly opposite to the meaning you intended and set out to destabilise whatever values you profess. (That's the original meaning of 'deconstruction', which I'll address in the next post.) According to the terms of structuralism, after all, you are subject to the system of language and cultural influence: if any language speaker is simply a conduit for language, that includes you. This is a major reason why structuralist and post-structuralist writings can be so dense and evasive: in this philosophy, the critic must be a gadfly, alighting and flying again, dodging in and out of the rules, engaged in a playful duel with the very concept of meaning. When language is seen as a system that acts through us, it cannot be our servant, and will do nothing so docile as obediently express the opinions we wanted to share. I said above that it can be dizzying when you think about this too hard, and the structuralist's common response is to start whirling too, to accept the absurdity of where this logic leads as an existentialist might accept an absurd universe, and to play the game. You can dance with language, but it's a fast and dangerous dance and you need to be light on your feet, and simple statements like 'This writer is wrong' are going to get their toes pretty thoroughly trodden on.
In short: if you're going to criticise the behaviour of a living author, or to argue that you see something in their text that they would personally deny, then that's perfectly legitimate - but citing Barthes is not going to help you as much as you'd think. Barthes was talking about something else, something altogether more abstruse ... and something that has, by now, started to drift out of critical fashion. Like every living discourse, criticism moves on, and Barthes was writing half a century ago: the new and exciting ideas of one generation become the tiresome orthodoxies of the next, and while Barthesian thought occupies an important place in the history of criticism, it is not its culmination and stopping point. 'The Death of the Author' is a contention, not a coroner's report, and a contention that takes for granted an attitude towards language and art that you might very well not want to sign up for.
*If you were a person or read people who were angry for other reasons, fine, but we're talking about Barthes and literary theory, and the Harry Potter books are just an example, so please don't derail with posts about the rights and wrongs of them: this is not a fan board and I don't want it turned into one. I know most people are more likely to have read Rowling than Barthes and hence find her an easier topic to post about, but that's precisely why I'm explaining Barthes: to either point you towards him or, if you find his style too dense, attempt an explanation of him. Do a blogger a favour and stay on topic here. If everyone is good about this, I'll do an Opening Line post on J.K. Rowling later. (Assuming people would like to see one; let me know in comments. But derail with fan-chat, and you won't get one.)