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Mary Wiseman WHEN A VIRGIN HEARS AN ANGEL'S WORDS In 1969 Roland Barthes concluded a short piece called "Is Painting a Language?" with the claim that "something is being born, something which will invalidate 'literature' as much as 'painting' (and their metalinguistic correlates, 'criticism' and 'aesthetics'), substituting for these old cultural divinities a generalized 'ergography', the text as work, the work as text."1 "Text" is here being construed as a methodological field traversed by the various theories of the twentieth century and their discourses—feminism, linguistics, materialism, psychoanalysis, structuralism —distributed as they are across traditional disciplinary boundaries and genres. When the discourses are conjoined, this distribution begins to disturb the fixity of traditional boundaries. Why, then, should they be conjoined? Suppose, first, that each theory casts some light on what it analyzes and none is clearly or demonstrably superior to any other; second, that language and conceptual schemes are inextricably linked and, therefore, that the constitutive power of language is at least as great as that of the faculties ofthe human mind theorized in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the developing forces of history theorized in the nineteenth ; and, third, that works bear the press of those who made them and that some of the works handed down by tradition have excluded classes of people whose lives are nonetheless marked by the tradition. It becomes clear that with these suppositions, there is reason to treat the paintings as fields of energy released by the activity of associations, contiguities, cross-references which coincides with a liberation of symbolic energy, as texts achieved by the serial movement of dislocations, overlappings, variations. Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 246-262 Mary Wiseman247 What is to be treated as a text can be a discipline (art history), a genre (still-life paintings), an individual work (Matisse's TL· Conversation) so long only as it is something that comprehends all and only what falls under it and whose language is transparent to the meanings it captures or produces. Such things are cultural artifacts, "works" to be distinguished from "texts," although "work" is usually reserved for individual productions within a discipline or a genre. The work is to be penetrated, the text is not. For the text is constituted by its activity; it is the working of language and is like language in lacking center and closure. If language is a network ofvariables whose values are those ofall the universes ofdiscourse there are or may be, then the text is the activity ofassigning values to the variables. To assign a series of values to a work is to textualize it.2 The values are related in much the same way as Hume found ideas to be associated in the mind, namely, by resemblance, contiguity in space or time, and causation; and as Freud found ideas to be related in the unconscious, by condensation and displacement, strategies themselves more or less obedient to Hume's laws ofassociation. Barthes is midwife to this something that when born will replace literature, painting, criticism, and aesthetics by ergography. This essay is intended to serve as one kind of test of whether what is birthed is stillborn or live. Two of Titian's Annunciation paintings are treated as ergographs, as labors of language that as such are never completed once and for all. The paintings are the traces of Titian's having performed activities characteristic of painting and ofacts of interpretation. Interpretations are called "reading" when done with such ease and spontaneity as to approach mere recognizing, and "writing" when done deliberately, laboriously, productively.3 The distinction between the way of reading that consumes works already made and the way that makes them into fields of energy is spelled out in Barthes's SIZ (1970), a sustained example of what he calls a writerly reading of Balzac's short story, Sarrazine. The distinction's application to painting is complicated by the fact that painting has no lexicon or general grammar, no rules of combination and substitution. Since paintings are not structured like a language, it is not easy to see how they can be textualized. Nor is it easy to see how a painting can be fragmented and some...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 246-262
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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