The Pleasure in/of the Text

About the Joys and Perversities of Reading

by Fabien Arribert-Narce (Volume editor) Fuhito Endo (Volume editor) Kamila Pawlikowska (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VI, 170 Pages
Series: European Connections, Volume 43


Reading is a peculiar kind of experience. Although its practice and theory have a very long tradition, the question of aesthetic pleasure is as perplexing as ever. Why do we read? What exactly thrills us in the text? One of the most prominent scholars having addressed these questions in the twentieth century is undeniably Roland Barthes, who distinguished between the «ordinary» pleasure of reading and bliss (jouissance), a delight so profound that it cannot be expressed in words. Taking his work as a central reference, and revisiting some of his seminal publications on the subject such as Empire of Signs (1970) and The Pleasure of the Text (1973), this collection of essays adopts a similar interdisciplinary approach to explore a broad range of themes and issues related to the notion of readerly enjoyment, between form and content, emotion and reason, and escapist and knowledge-seeking responses to the text: how do literary and ideological pleasures intersect? In what ways do perversions, madness or even fatigue contribute to the pleasure of the text? How do writing and signs, sense and significance, but also image and text interact in the intermedial process of reading? How can paratexts – i.e. the margins of the text, including footnotes – and metatexts play a part in the reader’s enjoyment?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction (Fabien Arribert-Narce, Fuhito Endo and Kamila Pawlikowska)
  • PART I Perversity, Madness and Projective Reading, at the Margins of the Text: Image and Paratext in Barthes
  • 1 The Perverse Footnote: Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text (1973) and the Politics of Paratextuality (Alex Watson)
  • 2 To Enter Madly into the Image : Reading Projectively in Barthes (Patrick ffrench)
  • PART II On Pleasure, Fatigue and Death in/of the Text: Textual Exhaustion and Oscillations
  • 3 Pleasure and Fatigue of the Barthesian Text (Kohei kuwada)
  • 4 Genealogy of Textual Necrophilia or Death Drive: Barthes, Freud, De Man and Mehlman (Fuhito endo)
  • 5 Tragicomic Pleasure and Tickling-Teasing Oscillation in John Marston’s Antonio Plays (Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone)
  • PART III Barthes and Japan, the ‘Empire of Signs’: Signifiance and Undialectical Writing
  • 6 Taking Signs for What They Are: Roland Barthes, Chris Marker and the Pleasure of Texte Japon (Fabien Arribert-Narce)
  • 7 The Barthesian ‘Double Grasp’ in Japan: Reading as Undialectical Writing (Andy Stafford)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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Fabien Arribert-Narce, Fuhito Endo and Kamila Pawlikowska


Reading is a peculiar kind of experience. Although its practice and theory have a very long tradition, the question of aesthetic pleasure is as perplexing as ever. Why do we read? What exactly thrills us in the text? When it comes to the pleasure of reading, authors often feel entitled to instruct readers as well as other writers. Aristotle maintained that, in its capacity to excite and purge dangerous emotions, art can be therapeutic. Shakespeare sought both to entertain and instruct, while Coleridge proposed ‘suspension of disbelief’ as a condition of readerly enjoyment. Sterne seduced his readers with digressions and figurative meanings, while Rousseau directly spoke of solitary readers whose ‘reading with one hand only’ invited analogies between the physical body and the body of the text. In the nineteenth century, many novelists used imagination, material detail and writerly craft to achieve ‘solidity of specification’, resulting in vivid, ‘believable’ pictures. Many at that time searched for moral edification and ‘truth’, while others denied that these can be pleasurable. Oscar Wilde addressed the allegedly universal desire for truth and insisted that creative writing (‘lying’) can be a source of delight to both writers and readers. Russian formalists rejected the pleasures of ‘visualisation’ altogether and suggested that reading strange descriptions of familiar objects would pleasantly stimulate readers’ senses as they guess and rediscover them anew. According to Natsume Sōseki, readerly pleasure is generated by trimming down the descriptions to striking essentials, by reducing them to what he called ‘sweet fire’. Sartre, on the other hand, argued that the pleasure of the text cannot be felt directly but must be hidden; the readers, he claimed, ‘must be solicited by the charm that they do not see’. Drawing ←1 | 2→on the pleasure-pain binary, Adam Phillips introduced the notion of a ‘tickling narrative’. According to him, the readers delight in blurred points characteristic of this kind of narrative: they are able to experience an intensely anguished (and pleasurable) confusion ‘because the tickling narrative, unlike the sexual narrative, has no climax’. Instead of taking a ‘close-reading’ approach, Susan Sontag drew attention to the political context of the reader. She noted that reading is circumstantial and may have a liberating and transvaluing effect, as well as reactionary and stifling.

One of the most prominent scholars having addressed this issue in the twentieth century is undeniably Roland Barthes, who distinguished between the ‘ordinary’ pleasure of reading and bliss (jouissance), a delight so profound that it cannot be expressed in words. About fifty years after the publication of seminal essays such as Empire of Signs (1970) and The Pleasure of the Text (1973), that we would like to revisit in this volume, the long-lasting influence of his theories on readerly pleasure is still evident today in academia and beyond. This is reflected, for example, by the widespread use of some of the neologisms he coined in his post-structuralist works of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the distinction between studium and punctum in Camera Lucida (1980).1 More specifically, given its broad-ranging interdisciplinary grid of analysis encompassing formal and stylistic issues but also socio-historical, political and ideological aspects, the Barthesian transversal approach to the notion of ‘text’ has produced a range of critical tools which are still pertinent to evaluate the new ways and modalities of reading in the digital age, that some have called an ‘age of ←2 | 3→distraction’ dominated by screens and images.2 Also intermedial by nature and concerned with the interrelations between various art forms (paintings, photos, films, music and textual productions) and their reception,3 Barthes’s reflection on readerly pleasure oscillates between critical theory and a phenomenology of writing/reading, sensitive to the materiality of the artworks considered and to the emotional dimension of the readers’ response. For him, there is in fact a fundamental ambiguity attached to this notion from this perspective: ‘“pleasure” here […] sometimes extends to bliss, sometimes is opposed to it. […] I need to distinguish euphoria, fulfillment, comfort (the feeling of repletion when culture penetrates freely), from shock, disturbance, even loss, which are proper to ecstasy, to bliss.’4 ‘Pleasure’ therefore tends to resist our attempts to define it in this context, and to provide a systematic analysis: ‘No “thesis” on the pleasure of the text is possible; […] And yet, against and in spite of everything, the text gives me bliss’ (p. 34). To solve this conundrum, Barthes made a conceptual distinction between what he calls ‘texte scriptible’ (‘writerly’, bliss-giving text, which has a power of disruption) and ‘texte lisible’ (‘readerly’ text),5 which provides a cultural, civilised ‘pleasure’, and is ‘linked to a comfortable practice of reading’ (p. 14). Whereas the latter, that is, the text of pleasure, ‘contents, fills, grants euphoria’ and conforms to social and literary conventions, the text of bliss ‘imposes a state of loss’ and ‘unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language’ (p. 14). Barthes argues that in ‘texts of pleasure’, writing is understood as a transitive verb that requires a direct object. These texts refer to something ←3 | 4→beyond themselves in an attempt at representing reality – in this sense, there is pleasure in the text, that is, in the story or plot, in the characters and places represented, stemming from various forms of projected reality and a fluctuating degree of adequation between the text and what it refers to. This is potentially a refuge for escapist readings, but also for realism and narrative or romanesque pleasure. On the other hand, ‘texts of bliss’ always have a self-referential dimension according to Barthes, whatever they explicitly refer to. Being linked on a formal level with the pleasure of the metatext, but also with a certain sense of aesthetic hermeticism, they require an active role of the reader, effectively activating chains of signifiers to unlock potential meanings and enjoy the ‘layering of significance (signifiance)’ (p. 12) – which is defined as follows in The Pleasure of the Text: ‘What is significance? It is meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced’ (p. 61). From a Barthesian perspective, jouissance in the act of reading therefore implies an involvement of the whole (desiring) body of the reader, and multifold interactions with the (erotic) body of the text – or in other words, the text as body, if we follow this metaphor: ‘The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself)’ (p. 6).6 Barthes emphasises the complexity of this reception process, which is far from linear or unidimensional:

this body of bliss is also my historical subject; for it is at the conclusion of a very complex process of biographical, historical, sociological, neurotic elements (education, social class, childhood configuration, etc.) that I control the contradictory interplay of (cultural) pleasure and (non-cultural) bliss […]: anachronic subject, adrift. (pp. 62–3)

Ruptures, disruptions (of language) and (self-)contradictions can be a source of bliss for Barthes, who even suggests that joy and perversion are inextricably linked in the process of reading – and writing – a text, with an interplay of erotic and masochistic impulses. If the potential danger of reading is a well-known topos in the history of literature, with several great ←4 | 5→classic novels such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary showing their eponymous characters overwhelmed by the books they read and unable to distinguish fiction from reality, Barthes argues that the pleasures and perversities of the text should be addressed concomitantly given their structural interdependence and multiple practical and theoretical entanglements. In this respect, his aesthetic and ethical approach to reading/writing (and to pleasure) is based on the Proustian notion of intermittence:7

Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no ‘erogenous zones’ […]; it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance. (pp. 9–10)

This dynamic process of reading is made of holes and gaps, interruptions and fragmentation, the emotional investment of the punctum puncturing the studium surface of the text – these two elements ‘composing’ as Jacques Derrida put it, and therefore needing each other.8 Beyond the artificial separation of form and content, this is how the ‘plurality’ of the text can be revealed,9 and its ‘flesh’ or signifiance fully appreciated.

Taking the work of Barthes as a central reference, and in a dialogue with the various approaches described above, the aim of this collection of essays is to investigate a variety of themes and issues associated with the question of readerly pleasure or, more precisely, of pleasure ‘in’ and ‘of’ the text. What conditions should be fulfilled to satisfy readerly expectations? How do specific ways of reading – psychoanalytic, feminist, post-colonial, ←5 | 6→etc. – approach the problem of the pleasure of the text, and in what ways do these specialised readings, especially those which seek to uncover the ‘latent content’, such as Marxist, Freudian or Lacanian, help us understand our aesthetic pleasures? How can style be a source of readers’ enjoyment? How do literary and ideological pleasures intersect? What satisfaction can be derived from ‘historicised’ and a-historical reading? How do writers organise texts to maximise their effects? What is exhibited and what is relegated to the peripheries of the text (e.g. to footnotes)? To what extent do the margins of the text, or paratext, influence our ways of reading? How do intermedial configurations combining different art forms such as images and texts affect the transmission of pleasure? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in this volume.


VI, 170
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
Theories of reading readerly and writerly textual pleasure Roland Barthes The Pleasure in/of the Text Fabien Arribert-Narce Kamilla Pawlikowska
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. VI, 170 pp.

Biographical notes

Fabien Arribert-Narce (Volume editor) Fuhito Endo (Volume editor) Kamila Pawlikowska (Volume editor)

Fabien Arribert-Narce is Lecturer in French and Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh, where his current research focuses on the reception of Japanese culture by French writers and filmmakers since 1970 and on literary and artistic responses to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Fuhito Endo is Professor of English Literature at Seikei University, Tokyo. His research specialises in the history of British psychoanalysis and its relationship with contemporary Modernist literature. Kamila Pawlikowska currently teaches English, sociology and psychology at Rochester Independent College in Kent. Her research interests include images of the human body and face in literature and the visual arts, intercultural communication and global education.


Title: The Pleasure in/of the Text