Textual Functions III - Genotext and Phenotexts

, by Edmond Cros

Textual Functions III
Genotext and Phenotexts

The discussion in Chapter 5 demonstrates how a problem may be approached seriatim only for convenience of exposition, for obviously the textual phenomenon is the product of a complex of elements operating simultaneously. But how, precisely, does this complex of elements function and from what point in the text?
Using a spatial metaphor, we may imagine the point of intersection of two axes, a vertical and a horizontal. On the first axis is interdiscourse, which materializes both mental structures and ideological formations produced by a social formation. The discourse of time upon itself is read on this axis, or, in other words, interdiscourse translates into semiotic operations, through multiple ideological traces, the sociohistorical conditions in which a speaker is immersed. On the horizontal axis is the intertext –the preasserted, the precon-structed, the preconstrained, that is, all the linguistic material destined to materialize and give shape to meaning (see the accompanying diagram). On the horizontal axis, as on the vertical, are preestablished paths of meaning offering a more or less strong resistance to textual modeling, inside which they maintain semiotic pockets, microspaces of reading capable of producing zones of conflict under the effect of the narrative instance’s possible monosemic project. It is at this intersection that we must imagine the process of transfor-mation of observable reality under the effect of codes of mediation: the complexity of the elements in play proves at once the necessary polysemy of the fictional text, the impor-tance of its distancing with respect to referential reality, as well as the resistance it offers to critical examination. Within this crucible, however, arise lines of force, centers of meaning around which new semiotic operations and semantic models are organized, that is, a whole complex of elements that thrust textuality into a state of becoming; the conceptual frame-work is thus put into place that will ensure the autonomy of the text/sign with respect both to the consciousness that is supposed to produce it and to the originally invested reality.


To borrow a term from Julia Kristeva, 1 shall call this focal point of meaning a genotext. The work of writing is a constant deconstruction of this composite in the form of phenotexts destined to actualize at every textual level the syntax of previously programmed messages, depending upon their specificity.
The use of these terms can be problematic, to the extent that my use of them does not correspond to Kristeva’s,1 who borrows them herself from the generative theories of the Soviet linguist Saumjan-Soboleva.2 Kristeva introduces these notions in the context of a theory of meaning, conceived as a germination process related to semanalysis, a discipline distinct from semiotics, and confined to “gathering . . . . signifying truth.” Kristeva is concerned with distinguishing a state from its production, a signified structure from the process of generation of the same signified. If the term phenotext is clear insofar as it refers to the printed text, conceived as one of the possible actualizations of language (in the Saus-surian sense of langue), the term genotext demonstrates something more complex if not more ambiguous. Indeed, it refers in Kristeva both to a linguistic process at work in lan-guage, at an abstract level of linguistic functioning, and to a state: “the genotext is the infi-nite signifier which cannot ‘be’ a ‘this’ for it is not in the singular; it would be denoted more accurately as plural and infinitely differentiated ‘signifiers,’ with respect to which the signifier that is present here, the signifier of the present-formula-of . . . -the-said-subject, is only a milestone, a named-place, an ac=cidence (that is, an approach, an approximation added to signifiers while its own position is abandoned)” (p. 283). Kristeva’s concept of genotext, consequently, situates textual actualization within a broad and undifferentiated whole to the extent that “the genotext can be presented as the mechanism (dispositif) of the history of the language and of the signifying practices that textual actualization is capable of knowing: the potentialities of every existing and future concrete language are ‘given’ in the genotext before falling back, masked or censored, into the phenotext” (p. 284). As for printed texts, or phenotexts, these “are to be envisaged as formulas of significance in the natural language, as modifications or successive revisions of the fabric of language; formulas that would occupy a parallel position as important, if not more so, for the constitution and transformation of monumental history as discoveries in mathematics and logic” (p. 286). Thus, we can better understand why it may be claimed that “semanalysis protects itself from psychological thematics as well as from the aestheticizing idealism currently competing for the monopoly of what has been called écriture (Derrida)” (p. 279).
Everything Kristeva writes on this point is extremely suggestive, but, as we have seen, it is not at this level that I intend to pose the problem. I intend to use these notions to establish a rigorous parallelism between two states of the enunciation characteristic of a text; the first functions with conceptual categories and corresponds to an ungrammatical-ized enunciation, in the sense that this enunciation is not yet formulated. It is not a struc-ture, but it is to become a structure by structuring itself within the different phenotextual actualizations of the same text. Indeed, the text opens onto different levels (narrativity; the multiple signifying wholes that are, among other things, characters and codes of symboli-zation; the chain of meanings of signifiers; etc.), in which linguistic categories and those appropriate to these levels are both operating in the framework of a signifying process tending to actualize in an apparently incoherent and fragmented way the semantic latencies of the same utterance: the genotext. This genotext exists only in these multiple and concrete actualizations –phenotexts– and it corresponds to an abstraction reconstituted by the analyst.
Between these two states of the utterance (énoncé) is the functioning of the various codes of transformation, that is, the process by which the signifying system is generated, what Kristeva (by another displacement of terms) means, in part, by the notion of genotext. This conception of textual functioning, moreover, must not be confused with the distinction generative grammar introduces between deep structure and surface structure. Indeed, for Chomsky, deep structure is postulated as the archetypal reflection of performance, as Kristeva pertinently notes: “The components of depth are structurally the same as those of surface, and no transformational process, no passage from one type of component to another, from one type of logic to another, is observable in the Chomskyan model. Thus, generative grammar does not, properly speaking, generate anything at all: it is only posing the principle of generation by postulating a deep structure that is only the archetypal reflection of performance” (p. 282).
In order to illustrate the type of relation I am proposing to establish between genotext and phenotext, let us return to Citizen Kane to isolate a series of phenomena to be considered as forms of reference.

(1) The first corresponds to a sentence written on a card that appears in the newsreel sequence devoted to Kane’s death: “Last week the largest and most extraordinary funeral of 1941 took place at Xanadu.” In order to understand how this inscription is functioning, let us recall that the shooting of the film was finished on October 23, 1940, its editing was completed at the beginning of February 1941, and its first performance was scheduled for some time in mid-February. (The first performance did not take place until April 9, owing to the scandal caused by William Randolph Hearst, who claimed the film was a caricature of his own life.) The film’s first audience was thus being offered, in the framework of a newsreel, a reconstruction of Kane’s past projected into the audience’s own future (the end of 1941, implicit in the formula “the most important of the year”). We might, no doubt, observe that the film is presented to us as a pure fiction, were it not for the fact that this formula, in which the past and the future are being confused with the present time of performance, is discernible elsewhere in the film.
(2) The sequence that, in Bernstein’s account, describes the move of a team of report-ers from the Chronicle to Kane’s Inquirer can be reduced to a similar schema. The reporters are shown lined up in a double row in a photograph displayed in the win-dow of the Chronicle as Leland, Kane, and Bernstein pass by. Suddenly, this pho-tograph is taken apart, each man freeing himself from the pose he had assumed. Kane’s arrival on the scene makes us understand that what is involved this time is a photo taken at the offices of the Inquirer. Six years have elapsed between the two instances of diegesis which have been evoked. In reality, what has happened. no doubt fleetingly, is that an effect of reading has been constituted to take us back to a time prior to the first photograph. This reading effect has us pass from the instant when photo 1 is perceived as already taken to the instant when it is being taken, that is, from moment 2 to moment 1, before canceling itself in a new effect which makes us understand that this anteriority is but a false anteriority insofar as this moment 1 is actually linked to photo 2. The first effect of reading corresponds, in common with photo 1, to an image of the past bearing an already accomplished future at the very moment it is perceived. Thus past and future are colliding, as it were, in a point that implies the present time of viewing. Inscribed in the past, the future presents itself as an “already there.”
(3) This coincidence of the future and the past in one point, which has been semantically focused in its category of the present, will be actualized again and again in the dia-logue. I shall quote only two examples: the first is readable only in the context of the analogical series which we are in the process of reconstructing: “I am, I have always been, I shall never be anything but an ordinary American citizen.” The second, on the contrary, hardly needs to be made explicit; it concerns the words spoken by the voice-over of the newsreel journalist to describe Kane’s last years spent at Xanadu: “Alone in his never-to-be-completed [future], and already [present] cracked [past], palace, withdrawn from the world, receiving only infrequent visitors.”

Three forms of reference, we have said, but also three levels of the filmic text, if we accept the distinction between the editing (case number I) and the use in situ of the syntax of im-ages (here, the series of lap dissolves of case number 2), each of which has its own signi-fying system and rules of functioning, and which, in the very same text, do not play the same role. However, these forms of reference are all saying the same thing, and this same thing they are saying corresponds to an utterance (énoncé) of the genotext. This utterance is being deconstructed and redistributed by the specific components of each of the three levels that, in their fashion, structure phenotextual modeling.
In the case of Citizen Kane, this statement, in its own schematic form, repeats –as we have just seen in these three cases– that “what will happen is already there,” a concept actualized on the level of that other textual category –narrativity– by the system of prolep-ses and all the premonitory signs of Kane’s destiny (his failures in love and politics, his lack of political insight, etc.). The same might be said about the codes of symbolization that have been chosen (Tower of Babel, Pygmalion, etc.), in which the signs of the future failure of Kane’s projects are inscribed at the very moment he undertakes them. Does the plot itself not tell us, by an effect of reversal, that the answer to our eventual query and, at any rate, to the problem that the film poses as its objective –to solve the question, Who or what is Rosebud? – was present from the very first sequences?
However, the most interesting case to consider is that of the figurative language en-acted in the very first frames. Indeed, we remember how the evocation of Kane’s death is reconstructed in the perspective of a transitus mortis, which is itself concretized by re-course to the thematics of the mirror, envisaged as the dual poetic locus of transgression and diffraction; this thematic constitutes the figurative support shaping the filmic text and thus generating a systematic fragmentation. Here the mirror functions contradictorily, as a symbol of a threshold to cross and as a reflecting surface, a sort of buffer against which temporal linearity is shattered and can, henceforth, only develop in reverse. In this way, past and future merge with one another. Thus, by multiple paths, we are constantly brought back to the first statement (énoncé), the genotext.
The genotext can be considered, in turn, as an ideological product. In the case of Citizen Kane we shall compare this first state of enunciation (“what will happen is already there”) with the theories of predestination (“what must happen is already there”) of a Puri-tanical society. We shall also reexamine from this perspective (relations between the ideo-logical element and the genotext) the sociocritical reading of Scarface I am proposing.

On Textual Semantics

It is important to keep in mind, as the basis of our reflections, Yuri Lotman’s definition of the text: “the text is an accomplished sign, and all the isolated signs of the broadly conceived linguistic text have been reduced to the level of elements of the sign.” This concept is based on the fact that in an artistic text “a semanticization of the extrasemantic (syntactic) elements of the natural language is produced. Instead of a clear separation of semantic elements, a complex interlacing is produced: a syntagmatic element at one hierarchical level of the artistic text becomes a semantic element at another level.” This disappearance of an opposition between the semantic and the syntactical transforms the limits of the sign, since it is the syntagmatic elements that mark these limits and “segment the text into semantic unities.”3 This argumentation entails a first consequence, namely that the text generates its own semantics, displacing and homogenizing the meaning of every element inscribed within it.
To illustrate this remark of Lotman’s, I shall return to the initial frames of Citizen Kane, in which, when we approach the window at which Kane has just died, a flashback reconstructs the last moments of his agony. The last word he utters refers, we learn later, to the sled he used as a boy and to the name given it, while the snow-covered hut alludes to the second-rate guest house run by his parents when Thatcher comes to get him to give him an education worthy of his new wealth. Thus, both of these frames exteriorize the interior-ized discourse of the dying man; in this context, the flashback, which must he considered as a syntactical element in the film because it organizes the composition of shots, plays a role in the constitution of a discourse on memory and time. But a more nuanced approach to the film informs us that the myths of Genesis and the Tower of Babel are invested in it: the thematics of confusion and chaos are connected to these other centers of semanticization. They are perceived in the landscapes preceding the construction of Xanadu, in which water and earth are mingled, or in the superimposing of the various foreign-language periodicals, as much as in the unfinished nature of this demiurge’s arrogant construction projects. In the second part of the film, however (The News on the March), the opposite concept –construction, order, classification (of cultural objects, of animal species), capitalist organization– comes to the fore.
Curiously, three other technical devices, also related to the syntax of images, func-tion here in a contradictory manner. The first, lap dissolve, in which, from the very first sequences, the landscape and its reflection merge, generates whole sets of superimposed, blurred, and jumbled signs in which objects lose their definition. Insert, the technique of shooting that enlarges to the point of distortion and makes it impossible to identify the ob-jects being filmed, helps to create the same effect; the insert is used in the presentation of the crystal ball in which the reality being referred to is not immediately perceptible to the eye, which can focus on it only when the lens moves back to a close-up. Consequently, one can understand how the insert and the lap dissolve, as elements converging toward the same center of meaning that they are themselves helping to establish, can have the same semantic value as other related signs (Genesis landscapes, confusion of elements, thematics of incompletion, disordered accumulation of matter, the primitive, etc.). In the allusions to the building of the palace, we see, quite the contrary, a will engaged in a creative effort, assembling and ordering this wealth in an architecture of synthesis, separating the animal species from one another, labeling them and bringing them back to life again in the secon-dary universe of culture, cataloging its objects, and defining itself as zoo or museum. In this latter case, the succession of frames is done by means of the wipe off, a device generally employed in newsreels at the time the film was made in order to arrange subjects in a series and thus punctuate the presentation of the news. These wipe offs inscribe the category of order and a certain type of rationality, in the sense that they are the markers of thematic differentiation, of the separation of shots and frames. For that very reason, they are presented in Citizen Kane as semanticized in turn by the semiotic text, which I described earlier as expressing construction, order, classification, and capitalist organization. The opposed pair of terms (chaos vs. creation) is thus actualized at the level of filmic syntax. Although, at first glance, this syntax consists of extrasemantic elements, it is apparently being semanticized by the two centers of polarization of meaning that have been brought to light.
Another example is provided by the initial frames of Scarface. They are organized as a single sequence shot, which would not be significant in itself if it did not include, in succession, an exterior shot followed by an interior shot, a sequence that is generally a function of editing: without stopping the motor during the shooting, the camera, which at the start of the scene is in the street, ostensibly passes through the wall of the cabaret to get into the interior, revealing the thickness of this wall as it moves along. This is tantamount to saying that it causes a visual obstacle to appear at the very moment when it is, nevertheless, crossing and piercing it. Filmic syntax, that is. the syntagmatic chain of images and focal planes, is thus integrated into a semiotic text that problematizes the concepts of transparency and opacity. a text that is prolonged in the following sequence (the interior of the newspaper office) by means of a reversal of the givens: the glassed-in cubicles, easily discernible as so many indexes of a sort of visual continuum, are being invested as markers of a closed space, presented as such by painted letters, which, seen in reverse, are interpretable as designating spaces forbidden to the public.
As far as the literary text is concerned, I shall refer to the following explication of a text from the Buscón of Quevedo, in which the grammatical actualization of aspect (that is, the contrastive use of the imperfect and the simple past, or of the imperfect and the pluper-fect) obeys the laws governing the deep structures of the text and is being semanticized by them. It thus combines them, as constitutive elements, with a semiotic text reproducing the image of a caste society in which the individual is defined as a function of his or her social origin, and group/individual relations are problematized in terms of social exclusion or assimilation. We shall see as well, in the same passage from the Buscón, a syntactic sys-tematics of inversion (aunque, sino que, solo diz que, etc.) entering, as an element semanti-cized by the corresponding center of meaning, a semiotic network signaling the modalities of investment of the language practices of Carnival within the textual fabric.
Our last example is La muerte de Artemio Cruz, by Carlos Fuentes. Here the reality at the origin of the fiction is of an exemplary simplicity: a dying old man, in front of a mir-ror, remembers his life. This element, the mirror, focuses and semanticizes the entire pro-duction of meaning: the splitting into two of the narrator, who projects himself as the object of his own gaze; the systematic division of all the characters; the breakup of time into present, past and future; the correlative play of personal pronouns (I, you, he); the dislocated, contradictory, or complementary images of the facts; the fragmentation of the narrative; the modulations of the thematics of reflection by means of those other mirrors –tape recordings of the voice, memory or even writing itself. These various elements all pass through the same point –the focal point of the mirror, as it were– the consciousness of the narrator at that tragic moment of truth when Time stands still and, in standing still, loses its linearity. The mirror is, in this context, the iconic sign of consciousness, but also the metaphor of the narrative pretext, of the concept of the threshold of the beyond, of the inversion of Time, which can now only flow backward. The extrasemantic elements are effectively being semanticized here, not by the theme directly, but by its figurative treat-ment. It is not the idea of death that entails textual production (nor, moreover, a hypotheti-cal project that is autobiographical in style), but one of its iconic reproductions. Death is seen in the perspective of tránsito de la muerte, a mental representation that, in turn, is given material form in the plastic image of the mirror, as a poetic locus of crossing. At that point, every textual phenomenon creating effects of diffraction, at any level, reproduces the iconic image of agony. We shall observe in passing that referential reality (the death of Artemio Cruz) enters a transformational process governed by structures of mediation (di-dactic literature; a surrealist vision of the world supported textually by the metaphorical use of the mirror) that, inside textual structures, encode this same reality in the form of figurative language.
I shall approach from this direction the problem of the establishment by fictional writing of the system that, to use Pierre Zima’s terms, “suspends the conventional (social) value of verbal signs”4 and weakens the referential dimension of language. We have just followed one of the processes that shows Lotman’s critical acuity when he writes that “signs in art do not have a conventional character, as they do in language, but an iconic, figurative character.”5 Let us reread from this point of view the text of Guzmán de Al-farache. The theme of the passage is the praise of true friendship, but this theme is treated as an apparently coherent chain of allegories; when it is read more attentively, all is not so simple. The Earth embodies friendship, we see first, only to find next that, at our death, the Earth alone will receive in its bosom our putrid corpse “while no one, not wife, not father, not son, nor friend can stand us.” Is the Earth, then, a friend or not, or something more than a friend? It would be wrong to denounce here the inconsistency or the negligence of the narrator; what has happened is that the signified has been displaced; the characteristic common to both the Earth and true friendship –stability– has now become the object of discourse. It is, thus, a new signified that selects another signifying vector, that of the Mother, whose dominant feature, abnegation, will in turn be metaphorized by the figure of the sheep. This last detour precedes a return to the maternal image in which is inscribed the desire of the subject tempted by regression to the fetal state.

Signified Friendship
Signifier Earth g Signified Stability
Signifier Mother g Signified Mother
Signifier Lamb // Signified Mother
Signifier Earth

Like the mirror in La muerte de Artemio Cruz, which is the vehicle of the surrealist concept of the passage toward the beyond, the figurative image is embedded. as it were, in textuality, where it develops centers of semanticization. The slippage from one signified to another creates strata of signification that overlap and give rise to zones of conflict. Let us pause to consider them. If we accept the interpretation of the nostalgia of a fetal state bearing the promise of a rebirth (“to bring us to a new and eternal life”) as the textual ex-pression of an infratext in which a profound feeling of insecurity is inscribed, this would mean that the “surface” text says the same thing in inverted form, or rather, in displaced form, since we have seen the value of stability foregrounded in it. Thus the Earth is op-posed to the unstable. But Guzmán de Alfarache, as we shall see, establishes an identity between money and instability, which, by turns, can he signifier and signified of each other. Textual semantics tells us that the Earth is to money as stability is to instability (Earth vs. money// stability vs. instability). There is all the more reason to see in this figurative language the signifier of a socioeconomic signified since the beginning of the text makes an obvious apology for mercantilism. In other words, figurative discourse is ordered according to a chain of meanings which problematizes the more denotative discourse of the beginning (“The Earth gives us precious stones, gold, silver, and other metals”). It follows, on the one hand, that “the language of art” –at least as far as the fictional text is concerned– is not uniformly figurative, contrary to what Lotman and, to a lesser extent, Zima, give us to understand; on the other hand –and this remark seems much more important– if it is true that “the connotative devices of literature tend to weaken the conceptual (and referential) dimension of language,”6 they cannot entail even a relative autonomy with respect to the socioideological structure that has engendered the fictional text. On the contrary, we have just seen that the figurative image (the symbolic in this case) becomes the signifier, the vector of ideological traces.
Textual semantics is inscribed not in signs but in the relations among them, outside, beyond, or above syntagmatic sequences. Even if it is true that syntagmatic elements are semanticized at a second level, they nevertheless perform their conventional function at the first level such that this textual semantics is a duplication of conventional semantics and cannot in any way nullify it. On the contrary, it is this “complex interlacing” that permits the play of the polyvalence of the word against the background of its univocality.
Thus, the fictional text encodes a first syntax of messages within its relational sys-tem: in this framework, the sign institutes its meaning in a zone of coincidence marked out by oppositions and contiguities that multiply its expressive possibilities. From this per-spective, in an analysis of two poems in Pablo Neruda’s Residencia, I bring out a number of analogical series that are then organized in a contradictory system: on the one hand, signs transcribing emptiness, but also a color (green) signifying death; on the other hand, the color red, the idea of plenitude, which, by investing the sign “coffin,” undermines the sign’s conventional semantics and makes it mean the opposite of what it means in language, that is, transforms it into a figure of life.7 On this point, one may also read the study of the Continuous and the Discontinuous in the work of Octavio Paz, observing that again this textual semantics, although founded on connotative devices, unfailingly retraces the contours of a socioideological reality.8 I thus agree totally with Zima’s remark opposing scientific discourse, “which creates a particular convention in order to avoid the polyse-mousness of spoken language, in order to render discourse univocal,” to the fictional text, in which “every word can acquire a diflerent meaning from the one attributed to it by social convention”9 in order, on the contrary, to achieve polysemousness.

[From Edmond Cros, Theory and Practice of Sociocriticism, Translation by Jerome Schwartz, Foreword by Jürgen Link and Ursula Link- Heer, University of Minnnesota Press, Minneapolis, Theory and History of Literature, Volume 53, 1987]