The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Codes: Organizing principles and assumptions underlying a text that facilitate (or occasionally resist) interpretation. Although widely used by modern practitioners of hermeneutics (the theory of interpretation), as well as by practitioners of various critical approaches, the term codes is most often associated with structuralist critics such as Roman Jakobson, a Russian-American linguist; Claude Lévi-Strauss, a French anthropologist; and Roland Barthes, a French theorist. Structuralists believe that all literary works — indeed, all elements of human culture — can be understood as part of a system of signs that includes numerous conventions. For instance, audiences aware of the fact that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602) is a revenge tragedy and who understand the conventions of that genre know, even without reading or seeing the play, that the story will probably involve a son’s or father’s quest to avenge the other’s death as well as a dramatic and probably violent showdown between the protagonist and villain. Similarly, Renaissance comedies nearly always have a happy ending involving marriage.

Jakobson used the term code to refer to language, one of the elements of communication. According to Lévi-Strauss, codes are grounded in the binary oppositions that permeate Western discourse, including literary works. For instance, the opposition head / heart — and all the other dualities it implies — not only underlies countless texts, shaping the structure of their plots, the struggles of their characters, and the patterns of symbols they contain, but also drives our interpretations of those texts.

By contrast, Barthes identified several different types of codes, including five in S / Z (1970): the hermeneutic, which comprises the binary questions and answers that serve to provide suspense in a narrative; the semic, which allows readers to distinguish characters and understand their behavior; the symbolic, which guides the reader’s understanding of figurative language, including metaphors and symbols; the proairetic, which governs ideas regarding the work’s plot and its likely development; and the referential, or cultural, which involves social assumptions, such as those concerning the tradeoff between tradition and change. In later writings, Barthes acknowledged that codes may not always be sufficient or reliable as interpretive tools. He recognized, for instance, that readers themselves bring to the hermeneutic process assumptions and experiences (including experiences with other texts) that affect reading outcomes. He also argued that experimental (scriptible, or “writerly”) texts may use language to create ambiguous and even contradictory references, thereby flouting conventional associations and expectations. This latter development in Barthes’s theory of the interpretive process and ideas about intertextuality is one of many indications of his shift from structuralism toward poststructuralism.

Jacques Derrida, a French theorist of poststructuralism closely associated with deconstruction, suggested that the dichotomies forming the binary oppositions so firmly embedded in code-rich Western discourse are not simply oppositions but also valuative hierarchies in which one component is viewed as positive or superior whereas the other is considered negative or inferior, even if only slightly so. For instance, “active” is considered the more positive term in the opposition active / passive.

Derrida’s insight has made the term code increasingly useful to feminist and gender critics interested in the representation of gender and sexuality, as well as to new historicist and cultural critics interested in the literary representation of race and class. For instance, recurrent references to characters of one race or gender in terms of physical and emotional traits and to characters of another group in terms of intellectual traits can convey racist or sexist attitudes in cultural “code.” That is because words and ideas associated with “body” and “feeling” within the pairs mind / body and thought / feeling generally carry inferior connotations.

These understandings of the term code, complex as they may seem, do not differ radically from what people think when they conclude that a statement like “I just want to be friends” is code for some other communication that the speaker wishes to be understood — but would prefer to leave unsaid.