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  • Sciences of the Text
  • David Herman

Sometime between 1966 and 1968, Roland Barthes began to lose faith that there might be a science of the text. This, to be sure, was not an individualized crisis of belief; it was part of a wider transformation at work in the history of literary and cultural theory—in France and elsewhere. Here I shall not try to document, let alone account for, every aspect of this sea-change in theory and criticism.1 My aims are far more restricted. I mean, first, to conduct a partial genealogical investigation of the notion “science of the text” in Barthes’s own discourse. On the basis of this inquiry, I shall then sketch arguments in favor of a research program that should not be dismissed out of hand, without a fair hearing. At issue is an agenda for research that rehabilitates textual science as a legitimate field of endeavor. And—provisionally, at least—I use the word science without scare-quotes.

My definition of the term science is, admittedly, a fairly broad one, closer perhaps to the sense of the German word Wissenschaft than to the narrower range of meanings associated with its English cognate. By science I mean the principled investigation of a problem (or set of problems) within a particular domain of inquiry. I acknowledge that “problems,” “domains of inquiry,” and the principles according to which investigation can be “principled” are historico-institutional constructs, not necessarily reflections of the way things truly are. That said, the present essay attempts to reinflect social-constructionist arguments pursued by proponents of the social study of science, for example. Scholars such as Malcolm Ashmore, David Bloor, and Steve Woolgar have demonstrated that scientific practice is always embedded in a particular social context. What counts as scientific, and more specifically what marks the border between “scientific” and “nonscientific” (e.g., humanistic) modes of inquiry, is historically variable. Thus, for Woolgar, “there is no essential difference between science and other forms of knowledge production” (Science 12). Rather, scholars must now “accept that science cannot be distinguished from non-science by decision rules. Judgements about whether or not hypotheses have been verified (or falsified), as to what constitutes the core or periphery in a research programme, and at what point to abandon a research programme altogether, are the upshot of complex social processes within a particular environment” (17). In this way “the ethnographic study of science... portrays the production of scientific facts as a local, contingent accomplishment specific to the culture of the laboratory setting” (“Reflexivity” 18).

But by the same logic, the boundary between humanistic and (social-)scientific research should be viewed not as fixed and impermeable but rather as shifting and porous. My essay centers around a particular instance of this general proposition, examining how the structuralist method articulated by the early Barthes involved an attempt to redraw the border between the science of language and the theory of literature. That attempt can now be reevaluated in light of more recent research in discourse analysis, the field of linguistics that studies units of language larger than the sentence. There were, it is true, important precedents for the structuralists’ efforts to span the disciplinary divide between linguistics and literature—a divide that might be better characterized as an unstable seam in the architecture of inquiry. For example, whereas Ferdinand de Saussure distrusted written data as a basis for the structural analysis of language (23–32), the great speculative grammarians of the Middle Ages used literary language to develop theories about the homology between vox (words), mens (mind), and res (things) (Herman, Universal Grammar 7–14). In contrast to the speculative grammarians of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, however, twentieth-century structuralists like the early Barthes were adapting linguistic methods and ideas at the very moment when language theory was itself undergoing revolutionary changes.

Those changes stemmed, in part, from emergent formal (e.g., generative-grammatical) models for analyzing language structure (cf. Chomsky’s 1957 and 1964 publications, Syntactic Structures and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax). But the changes also derived from an increasing concern with how contexts of language use bear crucially on the production and interpretation...

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