Barthes, Bourdieu, and Blogwars

This has been bothering me for a few days, and it took me till last night to put my finger on why.

Clarissa’s blog pointed me in the direction of FeMOMist’s blog, which had a gently acerbic fun-poking post (which of course erupted into accusatory mayhem) at HistoriAnn’s blog, in which that blogger attempted to explain why, in all her blogging, she had never self-identified as a mother on her blog.

Please feel free to follow those links and come back.

Done? Okay, we’ll continue.

One comment bothered me and continues to bother me; it was left by Fie On This Quiet Life. Quoth she:

“There is a body of theoretical evidence that states that the reader’s response to a piece of writing is where meaning lies, regardless of the author’s intentions (Roland Barthes, etc.). So it doesn’t matter whether H meant to make me feel something. I felt it nonetheless. And that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with ME. There is something wrong with the patriarchal system in academia! We women should be on the same side about this, and yet, we are divisive and complicit with the system in many, many ways…”

I left a comment on the site identifying the surface level issue I had with this comment, but as I continued to think about it, I realized that this exact misapplication of litcrit reader appropriation is at the core, or at least somewhere in the stormy magma, of probably every single blog skirmish I have ever witnessed.

(Okay, slight exaggeration. Some of them were due to outright assholes. But leave me to my hyperbole.)

It’s not even really just about literary criticism, honestly–it’s all wound up in that whole “when you said this you made me feel X Y and Z” crap we hurl at each other like so much 3-day-old roadkill, blog in and blog out. But this comment was the first time I’ve ever heard anyone attempt to use literary criticism techniques to justify it.

Which I appreciated, honestly. That’s why I enjoy academic blogs, especially women academics’ blogs and especially those in the humanities; they seem to engage in a level of self-examination with some outward link to some societally or academically (or societally academic) rooted legitimacy.

In this case, though, the outward link IMO does not stand up to scrutiny–or at best, invites further probing and more links which cause the initial assertion to break down.

Now I freely admit that litcrit is not my field; I only have worked with it as a tool in my own. But even so…

Okay, we’ve got Barthes. Reader-originated meaning, no anchor in the author’s intent so the reader’s reaction, whatever it is, is valid. Something like that; I don’t have time to craft a Perfect Explanatory Paragraph.

But then we’ve also got Bourdieu, for whom the whole reflexivity thing was key–yes, the reader’s response to a text is absolutely 100% valid and true, no we do not get to dismiss it just because the author did not mean to put it there, but–this is due to the relationship of text and reader. And part of the reader’s responsibility in that relationship is to examine her habitus, her “place” from which she comes, all the stuff she brings to the reading.  The relationship is not between author and reader, it is between text and reader. Then we’ve also got Ricoeur, who laid out very neatly the three-fold examination of looking “behind the text,” “in the text,” and “in front of the text,” holding out each one as crucial for examining a piece of literature (or whatever–works for music too).  The three perspectives are different and fairly distinct, and remembering their distinctness is pretty important for making it all work and make sense. Three different “worlds” of the text.

Which is a long, rambly, and not at all footnoted (do your own Google searches if you want) way to say that while the author does not have any right to tell a reader s/he got something “wrong” when she read a particular Something into a piece of writing, likewise the reader maybe should think twice about blaming the author for something s/he took from what was read. This stuff only works if the text is its own distinct entity separate from what went into its writing. FieQuiet is reading in front of the text, saying, “this is how this made me feel.” HistoriAnn is writing behind the text, saying, “this is why I did this and what I was thinking and feeling at the time.” Each from her own perspective.

So when the accusatory back-and-forthing begins (not just this debate, pretty much any such online personal debating of this kind, and there’s a lot of it), it seems to boil down in the end to “that’s not what I said” “is too” “is not” “is too” “is not,” which eventually just gets sort of pointless.

Seems like there’s a level of boundary-setting that, if it could happen, might help people get less pissed off with each other, and maybe also enable better communication in the process.

But maybe I’m reading too much into it.



  • Even though I’m a literary critic, in such cases I prefer to rely on one of the tenets of Gestalt psychology: “Nobody can be responsible for what another person feels.”

  • J.

    Clarissa, I totally agree…but we (blogosphere in general, not particularly I and Thou) have this weird tendency to HOLD one another responsible for what each other feels, and now that so much of this kind of communication happens in writing, it might help everyone just deal better if we could let the words be the words, you know what I mean?

    And there’s this whole world of social conditioning and power and strategic political relationships where various groups tell or imply to one another that they ARE responsible for others’ feelings…just saying, “nope, it’s just untrue, no one’s responsible for others’ feelings” doesn’t seem to cut it. Wish it could, because I totally believe it’s true…

    This all got me thinking about the giant “Racefail” debacle of a couple of summers ago, and all the screaming back and forth about who was telling whom what they could think or feel or say, and I got so incredibly bewildered at the whole mess and being asked “how dare you make this sweeping generalization about people of color, and who the hell are you to tell me not to get mad and don’t EVEN say that’s not what you meant because obviously it is” and all that stuff…still trying to make sense of it. Not that I expect to succeed, just can’t help trying. 🙂

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