Do you think Barthes technique would be helpful in identifying plural meanings in a historical text?
Short answer, yes. I can make a case for at least three of the codes: HER, ACT, and REF.
Long answer–I’ll break it down code by code.
HER (hermeneutic code): this code pertains to any unanswered questions or loose ends presented by the text. To me, the HER code brings to mind detective work which is more or less what historians do–through our writing, we present evidence to support a version of the truth (a.k.a., an argument).
Elements of the HER code, such as unanswered questions, also create space for other historians to enter into the same discussion. This is what we do with secondary sources in our historiography. For example, I’m reading a book by Sandra Barney about medical reform in Appalachia from 1880-1930 that focuses on the roles of women and gender in this reform. Although this book shares the same topic as my thesis, I’m approaching it differently by focusing on the persecution of folk healers. So my thesis aims to tie up a loose end presented by Barney’s work.
ACT (proairetic code): the ACT code implies future action, or what I would call “suspense.” Historians don’t necessarily use suspense as a writing tactic, but we do present an argument that we spend the rest of the time supporting. It’s a stretch, but our thesis statement sets up our paper’s future action. We present a claim to our readers that implies what our argument is and leaves them to find out how we will support it.
REF (cultural code): this code has the strongest significance for historians. Our work not only consistently and purposefully points to larger bodies of knowledge, but also directly contributes to them. We also examine the elements of the cultural code in our work. For example, my thesis examines a particular shift in a scientific body of knowledge, from the atmospheric theory of disease to biomedicine and germ theory–and specifically how that shift played a role in Prohibition Era reform in Appalachia.
What is your own favorite book, and why? What is your favorite literary and/or scholarly passage? Give us the passage and then break it down for us –the vocabulary, the literary devices, the form and the meaning.
My favorite book is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It is the only assigned book from high school that I actually enjoyed. Ishmael follows an unnamed narrator’s philosophical journey with his teacher/mentor, a giant gorilla named (you guessed it) Ishmael. Ishmael and the narrator tackle the major problems with the human race by tracing the truth behind biblical myths back to the Agricultural Revolution. I won’t ruin the purpose of the book, but it’s enlightening and a wonderful read.
Here’s my favorite passage. Ishmael speaks first (his dialogue is typically longer), then the narrator.
“The Takers will never give up their tyranny over the world, no matter how bad things got. How did they get to be this way?”
I goggled at him.
“They got to be this way because they’ve always believed that what they were doing was right–and therefore to be done at any cost whatever. They’ve always believed that, like the gods, they know what is right to do and what is wrong to do, and what they’re doing is right. Do you see how they’ve demonstrated what I’m saying?”
“They’ve demonstrated it by forcing everyone in the world to do what they do, to live the way they live. Everyone had to be forced to live like the Takers, because the Takers had the one right way.”
“Yes, I can see that….”
[really long, irrelevant-to-this-blog section about being able to choose between agriculture and hunter-gatherer lifestyle]
“…It’s going to be hard as hell for them to give it up, because what they’re doing is right, and they have to go on doing it even if it means destroying the world and mankind with it.”
“Yes, that’s the way it seems.”
“Giving it up would mean . . . what?”
“Giving it up would mean . . . It would mean that all along they’d been wrong. It would mean they’d never known how to rule the world. It would mean . . . relinquishing their pretensions to godhood.”
“It would mean spitting out the fruit of that tree and giving the rule of the world back to the gods.”
There are LOADS of literary devices in this passage. The most notable is the biblical reference to the fall of Adam. This is a clear cultural code (REF), where Ishmael is referring to a large body of knowledge–Christianity and its book. There’s a vague reference to the story of Abel and Cain that the two characters explore further in the next chapter.
Ishmael and the narrator use biblical tales to examine human error and the destruction that results from civilization. This places humankind’s current predicaments in a much longer history that directly ties modern industrialization to the Agricultural Revolution (REF).
There are several connotations at work as well, the most obvious being the use of Takers to describe agriculturalists. Hunter-gatherers (some of whom practiced agriculture, which Ishmael acknowledges) are referred to as Leavers. This presents a clear dichotomy between “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples. Takers are presented negatively as greedy destruction machines that need to control and claim everything in their conquest of the world. Leavers are discussed in gentler, nobler terms as their more sustainable lifestyle is meant to appeal to the reader (SYM).