Towards a Sociocritical Theory of the Text

, by Edmond Cros

Going back to the 1960s we observe a radical reconfiguration of the idea of the text, resulting from the rapid expansion of general linguistics and literary semiology. This idea was detached from the “philosophy of truth ; it defined a “new object” that was described as a “translinguistic device”and considered as a signifying practice that never ceases to work and that is irreducible to objective signification. While retaining the theoretical concepts implicit within this idea, socio-criticism is essentially concerned with that which the text transcribes, which is to say, the modalities of incorporation of history, not at the level of content but at the level of forms. For socio-criticism, the plurality which Roland Barthes describes as being “at the heart of signifying practice from the outset, in the form of contradiction” is the product of the dynamic and dialectical process of history. It is because it incorporates history in a way that is specific to it that the text presents itself as a translinguistic device. It is these paths of complex, heterogeneous and contradictory meaning that I seek to mark out and to identify both in their nature and in their effects.

Socioriticism aims to bring out the relations existing between the structures of literary (or cultural) work and the structures of the society in which this work is deeply rooted. This theory claims that the encounter with ideological traces and with antagonistic tensions between social classes is central to any reading of texts.
Unlike most sociological approaches to literature which leave the structures of text untouched, it assumes that the social nature of the literary work must be located and investigated within the text and not outside. That’s why we have to elaborate a patient and exacting reconstruction of the semiotico-ideological elements in order to show how the historic process is deeply involved in the writing process.
Indeed, we have to deal with the different ways of incorporating history in the text. On this point, a series of questions must be emphasized:
Which kind of historic material we have to ask for?
How is the text supposed to incorporate this historic material?
Which theorical and methodogical approach does enable the critic to bring into view the process of the history’s incorporation?
Before we answer these questions I shall recall that every theory is founded on two points:
1- a philosophical conception which implies a point of view toward history, questioning what is the process of history,
2- a poetic conception refering to the functioning of the text
So,what is the process of the history? What is the text? How does the text work?
Regarding to the first point, I am refering to the marxism which links the discursive formation to the ideological and social formations. There is indeed a relation between the infrastructure and the superstructure but this relation is neither automatic nor direct. Between the two levels ( and inside) we have to distinguish a series of various instances, belonging each one to various historic times. At any given moment of the history some ones look like advanced, in advance, instances and other ones like delayed, behind the time. Insofar as the delayed is always atracted by the advanced one, the gap existing between the two instances and the series of the gaps existing in the totality of the system produce the dynamism of the process.
These historic gaps produce semiotico-ideological traces and various kinds of effects in the literary work, observables especially in the textual spaces of the contradictions. That’s why in my critic reading I start from the intratextual microsemiotics organized by these contradictions which enable us to reconstruct the social and ideological formations.
Now, how does the text function? When it begins to start up, the text begins to set its rules of repetition: it repeats a short series of messages but it does not repeat them in a monotonous way ( o exactly similar way), it repeats its messages through the different levels o categories of the texts ( I mean: time, space, discursive material, myth, topics and so on... Every text can present specific categories...) These messages are born from an abstract intratextual space which I name Genotext.

Genotext and Phenotext
The genotext is a semiotic field which appears to be ordered but at the sometime torn and ruptured by “ ideological junctures “. It is made up by a combinatory system of genetic elements responsable for the global production of meaning and vectors of conflict. All these genetic elements are functioning in a pluriacentuaded form and I assume that these contradictions reproduce the contradictions of the social and ideological formations.
But the genotext does not exist in the text: in the text only we deal with the phenotexts. Materializing, actualizing the genotext , the phenotexts appear in all the categories of the text and every category tears and deconstructs the genotext acording to the specific rules of his own functioning. The expression of the time, for example, give a result, an actualization very different from the actualization operated by the expression of the space.
These terms don’t refer to the J. Kristeva notions but I am borrowing them from the human geografy. In order to understand what I mean we have to recall the notions o Phenotype and Genotype. The mediterranean woman is a genotype but she does not exist, only exist various women who live on the different shores of the mediterranean sea with similar characteristics. From (and by the means of) this characteristics we have elaborate an abstract figure.
The genotext is not exactly a structure but it is to become a structure by structuring itself within the different phenotextual actualizations of the same text.
In the phenotext, the ungramaticalized enunciation of the genotext and the caracteristics apropiate to a given level are both operating in the framework of a signifying process 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 actualization-phenotexts- and it corresponds to an abstraction reconstituted by the analyst.

Genotext and history
In sofar as the genotext is the way through which the text incorporates the history we can understand that the elements incorporated, in the form of strong contradictions, are the fundamental ones which carry out the future of a given society and constitute its more important stakes.

How does operate the Genotext? Where does it come from?
Using a spatial metaphor, we may imagine the point of intersection of two axes, a vertical and a horizontal. On the first axis is the interdiscourse, which materialzes both mental structures and ideological formations produced by a social formation. The discourse of time upon itself is read on this axis, in other words, interdiscourse translates into semiotic operations the sociohistorical conditions in which a speaker is inmersed.
On the horizontal axis is the intertext, ( preasserted, preconstructed, preconstrained) that is all the linguistic material destined to give shape to meaning.

What do I mean by interdiscourse ?
To understand what is for me, we have to recall two notions of Lucien Golman: the transindividual (collective) subject and the level of the no-conscious.
1- Each of us belongs at any moment of our life to a series of collective subjects (generation, family, geografic origin, profession...)We pass through many of them in the course of our existence. These different collective subjects, when we pass through them, offer us their social values and world vision by the means of their specific discourses.Every transindividual subject inscribes in its discourse the indexes of its spatial, social and historical insertion and consequently generates specific microsemiotics.
The totality of the discursive material we use along the live is made up with this mosaic of discourses. That’s why the text does not select its signs within language but within the totality of semiotic expressions adquired/proposed by the collective subjects.This transindividual subject invests the individual consciousness of each individual participating in it by means of specific microsemiotics. These microsemiotics transcribes in signs the totality of aspirations, frustrations and vital problems of the group. They provide a kind of “readout” of the ways each group is inmersed. Reconstructing these microsemiotics enables us to reconstruct the social formation in which is inmersed the writer.

The Goldmann’s notion of transindividual subject called for further precision insofar as it seems to operate for him only at the level of the implicit values of a literary work. That’s why I sought to describe its effects in a more precise way. I tried to describe the levels where these indexes may be found. It seems to me that the most obvious traces are located on the paradigmatic axes, on the ready-made expressions and the “lexies”. The way they become lexicalized transcribes social values systems. The changes that modify them transcribe modes of living and of socioeconomic insertions, the evolution of mental structures of the milieus producing them.

How does the transindividual’s discourse (function) operate?
Goldmann distinguishes three levels of consciousness; to the first two (unconscious and alert consciousness) he adds the no-conscious. The no-conscious is a creation of the collective subject. It is different from the freudian unconscious in that is not repressed and does not need overcome any resistance in order to become conscious but has only to be brought to light by scientific analysis. Indeed reproducing social and discursive practices of the collective subjects we are saying much more than we know o whish, and so we are reproducing usually the social values of different collective subjects. That is the space and the level of the genetic process more interesting for sociocriticim. From and inside this point of view we can better deal with the basic and following question: while the social and personal visibility of writer is very short, we do assume that the literary work’s visibility is some times very large. How does the critic can explain this difference? This difference, for me, results from the functioning of the no-conscious. As a matter of fact, beyond the field of social visibility properly speaking extends another one interiorized but no conscious responsable of the intratextual microsemiotics which reproduce the social values of the different collective subjects convocated by the writer. Relations with the world are neither perceived nor perceivable at the level of inmediate experience. The behaviors and the discourses of the subject always hold more meaning than they know o wish. This supplement of meaning is stocked in the intratextual micosemiotics made up by and around the semiotic material of the noconscious of the collective subject implied in the writing process. By making semiotic system work in writing, the writer always says more than he or she understands and more than he or she aparently grasps.
In order to make this presentation more clear, I suggest a cursory glance over a text of the spanish Golden Century, edited between 1597 and 1604. I shall use the english translation of James Mabbe (1622-1623), emphasizing the linguistic differences, insofar as mi approach implies, as a matter of fact, the necesity of taking into account the exact verbal materiality of the signs invested in the text.
First of all, let us evoke briefly the social formation in the Spanish Golden Century. If we try to give a panorama of the various social interests, we have to note the prosperous position of the commerce and of the brotherhood of the great cattebreeders regrouped in La Mesta, happening at the expenses of the clothmakers and the agricultural producers. The government of Charles The Fifth encourages the exportation of the best wool to the North of Europe and imports the clothes which Spain then exports to Indias. So, for example, the cattles have the privilege of passing through the cultivated fields of the country, devasting the cultures. The Aleman’s text is written at the very moment when the flood of silver coming from America reached its maximum, generating a strong polemic opposing two systems of thoughts that have coexisted and fought with one other concerning the role of gold and precious metals in a State’s prosperity: is the gold the “only sign of individual prosperity or of the greatness of a state? Or, quite to the contrary, it is the beginning of the dissolution of true wealth that consists only in the production of the good necessary for life?” From this point of view we can better realize the new contradiction opposing the production of agricultural and industrial goods to the accumulation of money ( by the means of the commerce or of the importation of precious metals) as the best way to create economic prosperity. As a matter of fact the interests of the cattlebreeders are linked to the trade’s and bankers’ activities.
The text examined is supposed to praise the faithfull and true friend who give you all he posseses without asking anything back. It develops a commonplace, a topos, the praise of the Earth’s fecundity, the myth of th Golden Age, the early man’s life in a natural world when Nature gave its wealthes in a spontanous way (Lucretius, De natura rerum). The man only has to extend his hands and he collects the fruits. He does not need to work. This theme is loaded withe the condamnation of adventure, by land or by sea, for a commercial gain and of individual property. From it are banished effort, work and private wealth. Later, with the Georgics appears another formulation of the myth developping the idea that the Earth is fecund if it is well cultivated. This new formulation is linked to the notion of progress in agriculture owing to the beneficient intervention of the gods. I recall that the Georgics were written as a request of Maecenas who thus gave support to the Octavian’s plan to restaure in the Roman people the ancient virtues of the races, especiallly the taste for agriculture. This theme creates at the heart of the first one a space of conflict insofar as it translates the same notions (happiness and virtue) into condradictory figurative languages (effort vs idleness- private property vs colectivism). From the De natura rerum to the Georgics, the commonplace of the praise of the Earth changes from an atheistic discourse to an ethico-religious one in the service of a political project.
The Aleman’s text operates in the hollow of this commonplace. The honey and he other wild fruits of the Latin descriptions have been left out; only remains the much more general form of “fruit”. Four products are added: metals, grass, cloth, water. From grass to cloth and to sheep is constructed a panegyric movement glorifying breeding. Let us observe what occurs with the water, traditionally linked to the life (“without water no man no other animal can sustain life”). Here, on the contrary, its chief merit is to permit trade and comminication among the most distant people of the world. This perspective on overseas adventures stressing on the importance of the international trade and the animal breeding unvails the point of view deconstructing the topos. The interdiction of commerce observable in all the Latin texts is being transgressed and occupies the entire textual space. The commonplace is being completely inverted.
That’s why the concision of “dandonos telas” (giving us clothes) is remarkable: it erases all the process of material transformation. As a matter of fact neither the agriculture’s field nor the industrial’s one are invested in the text. This absence, this gap, reproduces obviously the lags existing in the social formation between distint historic times.
Let us now investigate the writing itself. I observe, on a first reading, some phenomena of semantic and semiotic diffractions or deconstructions of set phrases:
1- the first one concerns “piedras de precio” (costly stones and not the precious stones corresponding to the ready-made expression, piedras preciosas). On the original formulation has thus been superimposed the concept of monetary exchange of valuable stones at the expenses of the metaphorical virtualities of objects that would be estimable in relation with other criteria emotional or aesthetic for example.
2- The ready-made expression “cubrir y abrigar”( to clothe and to shelter) is changed in ”cubrir y adornar” ( to clothe and to adorn). From a product of the first necessity, cloth becomes adornment, an index of social position, an object of covitousness as much as silver or god.
3- Another similar deconstruction appears in “fiel amigo y verdadero” (faithfull and true friend). The usual formulation is: “buen y verdadero amigo” (good and true friend) The spanish term used in this text is very interesting, insofar as the term fiel indicates for example the servant who does nor rob his master and is, too, the name of the people who checks officially the weights and the prices of the goods in the markets.
4-”Son contados” (litterally in english: counted). In the paradigmatic axis the more broadly used adjectives are raros, pocos, escasos ( rare, few...). In this paradigmatic axis the text selects as a matter of fact a term obviously connoted in a similar way just as the other examples we are mentioning.
5- But he more surprising deconstruction is offered with the expression : donde nos guarda en fiel depósito”( litteraly in english: where we are in a safe bank deposit) The english translator understand very well, he develops and explain that the spanish expression belongs to the bank’s vocabulary.
6 -We could add a series of set expressions belonging to the commercial law’s vocabulary ( in dotted lines in the text published here) like: “conforme a lo cual” (acording to) , “por escrito estan” ( set down in writing)
The semiotic material of the discourse is thus seen as a representation of the world of transaction seen with its activities, its values, its rules of behaviors and juridicial organization. Tracing in this manner the textual markers of a dominant discourse it reveals the the ideological system responsible for the deconstruction of the topos.

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The discourse invested in the text and operating as producer of the deconstruction is thus clearly brought into view: is a discourse of a given collective subject, the merchant and the merchant capitalism which implies a determined historic time. This discourse generates the microsemiotic we are stressing on and constituted by the deconstructions of the ready-made expressions we have analized. This discourse does imply a fundamental value, the exchange, that is the contrary of the gift. Meanwhile the writer claimed that he was giving us the model of the perfect friend giving all he posseses without asking nothing back, he is unveiling obviously a very contradictory world’s vision. That’s why I can define the major element of the genotext as a contradiction between to give and to exchange. This functioning is brought into view at least in my analysis in three levels or three phenotexts: the explicit theme ( the total generosity of the faithful friend vs the range of the verbal material used for describing it ), the myth and the discursive material in itself. A more detailed analysis brings into view more textual categories functioning in the same way: the religious problematic, for example, questioning the relations between the human merit ( an exchange between the human acts and the salvation) and the God’s Holy Goodness who grant us the salvation without checking if we merit it. Last but not least, I have to mention the confessed social commitment of Mateo Aleman who supports the reform of begging in Spain, pleading that we have to give alms only to the poor who can’t work. This new conception introduces the notion of merit and consequently of the exchange in a contradictory way with the catholic traditional conception that does not permit any limit to the charity. If we rely on a letter he wrote to a friend, Aleman composed his book in order to give his support to this social reform born in the protestant countrys of Europe, reform that brought about strong polemics in Spain.
So now we can better understand that the historic material invested in the genotext corresponds to the major stakes of a society at a given moment of his history and observe that this historic material is the vector of the textual production’s dynamic process.