Major C

In a 1971 interview, Roland Barthes was asked to reflect on the use of traditional literary criticism, reading a text “for its own truth, its final meaning”. He answered that he did, of course, have a preference for what he called a “non-alethic” criticism, a semiotic criticism rather than a hermeneutics, which is to say,  a way of reading that did not look for the one true meaning of a text but, rather, a “polysemic” reading “just this side of criticism” (as the interviewer puts it). But he also offered a neat defense of traditional criticism:

It’s always possible to imagine critical roles and their continuation, even the continuation of traditional roles, which will not necessarily be useless; Schönberg said that even after the eventual triumph of avant-garde music–and that was the music for which one ought to fight–it would still be possible to make beautiful music in C major. I would say that it will always be possible to write good criticism in C major. (The Grain of the Voice, pp. 147-8)

I like this way of putting it a great deal. When I was a PhD student, we eschewed traditional criticism in the name of a “minor literature” (a concept we drew from the work of Deleuze). We were a bit too willing, perhaps, to declare the “death of the author” and the “end of the book”. Indeed, Barthes even goes on to say that

one could very well imagine a time when ‘works’ in the traditional sense of the word would no longer be written, and the works of the past would rewritten endlessly, “endlessly” in the sense of “perpetually”: there would be an activity of proliferating commentary, branching out, recurrent which would be the true writing activity of our time.

We liked this way of talking. We were ready to produce those “writerly” texts. We were ready to believe that there was no such thing as a final interpretation of a text, only its proliferation in other texts. We were happy to concede that there was no authority (no author) to decide whether a text, even our own, was true or false, well or badly written. There was just the question of what you could do with a text, what “effects” it could have, what connections could be established between one text and another, through the “intertext”, which, of course, was often the writing we did ourselves. It was invigorating and heady stuff.

But something was also lost: the beautiful music in C major that Schönberg was talking about. We said it bored us. More often, I must now concede, we found it daunting. The beauty of “major” writing was obvious (many of our heroes, we had to admit, wrote beautifully in a major key) and its absence, in any of our attempts to produce it, would be correspondingly glaring. We were afraid to mean something in a straightforward and traditional way because we might say something that was incorrect, and our errors would be as plain as day. So we learned always to defer our “true” meaning to the “proliferation” of the reader’s critical activity. We did not assign a role to the serious critic, from whom we might learn how to write more effectively or to analyze the world more accurately.

I think it’s time to return to the fundamentals of criticism. It is time to ask, again, whether our texts are clear, coherent and conventional expressions of justified, true beliefs. They don’t always have to be this, nor even mostly. It is possible that the “avant-garde”, i.e., postmodernism, has triumphed and there are no longer meanings to speak of, only signs to play with. Indeed, its not incidental that Barthes imagined the disappearance of “works” of literature “in the traditional sense”. But traditions have a way of staying around.

The end of work is the beginning of play. But someone has to do the work of writing down what we know — just as surely as someone has to do the work of advancing our knowledge itself — and their readers must do the traditional work of criticism in a major key. They must look earnestly for the meaning of what we write. We must write in way that respects their sincere desire to understand what we are talking about. This is the major C. It’s not as much fun, perhaps. But there is some beauty in it.

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