Roland Barthes began as a structuralist and in S/Z, he began to branch off into post-structuralism. S/Z is a three hundred page dissection of a short story by Balzac called Sarrasine. The plot of Sarrasine is relatively uncomplicated. A sculptor falls in love with a woman who is actually a castrato, a man who has had his penis surgically removed. In an earlier published article, "The Death of the Author," Barthes uses Sarrasine as a starting point that leads toward involving the reader in a multi-faceted exploration of the story's plurality of voices even as he diminishes the role of the writer. Barthes greatly expanded this premise into a full-length book, S/Z. Critics have often wondered how to perceive it. Most agree that Barthes takes the basic concepts of structuralism and expands them so hugely that the result is less a scholarly treatise on structuralism than some weirdly lumped parody of it. Whatever traditional elements of structuralism are examined, by the time that Barthes finishes, structuralism as a working and generally accepted theory of literary criticism has been so thoroughly sliced and diced that its remaining strands seem wispy, fragmented, and totally unable to account for the plurality of discourses that Barthes insists are right there to be discerned. Reading S/Z requires one to reach a mindset that judges it as either an exhilarating voyage that embraces a new way to read established texts or as an upsetting deconstructing of long held assumptions that used to divide the universe into emotionally satisfying and complete entities.
Prior to the publication on S/Z, most critics tended to view literature as exemplifying the belief in the Universality of Man--that man had a basic and eternal soul that represented a series of fixed and basically wholesome attributes. The literature that man wrote subordinated a myriad of free-floating pluralities of thought to inhere within a centered core of meaning. The result was that both reader and writer assumed that man and his universe could harmonize in a mutually receptive collaboration that seemed to be as "natural" as it was eternal. This tendency for the reader to accept passively the author's explicit and implicit set of themes and assumptions in a conventional and predictable manner Barthes called "readerly." Barthes then threw an intellectual fragmentation grenade into the collective and overly composed psyches of readers whom Barthes saw as needing a weaning from their smug complacency. In this new paradigm of reader involvement, Barthes urges his readers to recognize that whatever the nature of the text that they are reading, that text is not composed of "new" elements. In fact, all texts are merely recombinants of previous texts, and these texts are similarly composed of other and earlier recognizable elements. It is the readers' duty to perceive that these texts are codes which operate within an overarching cultural network, leading readers to expand their vision outward as they follow an infinitely expanding set of philosophical and literary threads. To do this well demands that readers work much harder than their readerly peers. These readers must involve themselves more closely in the act of reading. They are far more likely than one who is readerly oriented to reinvest the text with a plurality of previously submerged meanings. In fact, Barthes suggests that when this reinvesting reaches a critical point, a brand-new text emerges, one which is a function of an aggressive reader interacting with a text that is no longer seen as closed or complete. This tendency for the reader to create a "new" text merely by following the recursive and infinite loopings of delineated codes Barthes called "writerly."
Barthes writes of authors, mostly of the classical sort, who created novels that focused on not upsetting the literary applecart by avoiding contradiction and welcoming a centering of meaning. These novels had clearly defined hierarchies. These inward-looking novels were of the readerly sort that encouraged readers not to question the Way Things Were. Modern novels, by contrast, demand of the reader not only to question underlying assumptions and ideologies but also of the author to engage the reader to do precisely that. As far as textuality was concerned, readers could decode any text--even otherwise readerly ones--in a writerly way by whisking away the bland illusion of unity and coherence to discern the fragmented unreality that simmered underneath.
The "codes" that Barthes uses to configure all texts are the same codes that can be used to give shape and form to virtually all aspects of culture from books, to art, to television commercials, and even to professional wrestling. Barthes never assumes that any code comes in a pre-packaged ball of reality that is a subset of some ultimate context. Rather, these codes are people dependent, the meanings of which have relevance only to those who are already conversant with them. Since readerly texts, in Barthes' opinion are no more than the enervated relics of discarded ideologies, it is essential that writerly texts step into this literary vacuum as a shield against the predations of a thuggish ruling class that once needed such linguistic chicanery to retain the reins of power. In S/Z, Barthes writes of a way of thought that is light years from traditional structuralism and very closely mirrors the soon to be felt impact of the deconstructionists who followed just a few years later.