Rutland Weekend Semiotics

As I worked on my preface, I’m struggling over what to do with the distinction that I thought I understood) between genotext and phenotext. Not surprisingly, it turns out to be a more complicated theoretical point than I had understood at first; the rush of illumination that came with my apprehension of what I thought the distinction implied beclouded the exact nuances Kristeva applied to these terms. Kristeva’s interest in semiotics, seminalysis, draws much more heavily on Lacanian psychological discourses than I care to (“genotext as the unconscious of language, phenotext as the conscious”). Barthes, through whose “The Grain of the Voice” I came to the genotext/phenotext distinction in the first place, says of a musical expression,

the pheno-song. . . covers all the phenomena, all the features which belong to the structure of the language being sung, the rules of the genre, the coded form of the melisma, the composer’s idiolect, the style of the interpretation: in short, everything in the performance which is in service of communication, representation, expression, everything which it is customary to talk about, which forms the tissue of cultural values (the matter of acknowledged tastes, of fashions, of critical commentaries), which takes its bearing directly on the ideological alibis of a period (‘subjectivity’, ‘expressivity’, ‘dramaticism’, ‘personality’ of the artist). The geno-song is the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the space where significations germinate from within language and its very materiality’; it forms a signifying play having nothing to do with communication, representation (of feelings), expression; it is that apex (or that depth) of production where the melody really works at the language — not at what it says, but the voluptuousness of it sounds-signifiers, of its letters — where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work. It is, in a very simple word but which must be taken seriously, the diction of the language. (“The Grain of the Voice,” 182-183, from Image – Music Text)

In a rush of excitement, I took Barthes to be proposing that the pheno-song was the structure, the script, the staves and lyrics and textual apparatus of the song — but that doesn’t seem to gibe with what he writes here. Similarly, I understood the geno-song to comprise the un-specifiable performative aspects of the text (which I inferred from his reference earlier on p. 182 to “the materiality of the body, speaking its mother tongue” and his subsequent comments on two performers, Fischer-Dieskau’s irreproachably exact instantiation of the phenosong, contrasted with Panzera’s reaching beyond the “expressive reduction operated by a whole culture against the poem and its melody,” p. 184).

This all comes up because yesterday I remembered a wonderful example of (what I had taken to be) the distinction between genotext and phenotext, Eric Idle’s brilliant “Gibberish” sketch from the first episode of the Rutland Weekend Television series (aired May 12, 1975, according to one source, though the Wikipedia biographical entry for Idle asserts that the program aired only from 1973 to 1974; Idle reprised the sketch, unsatisfactorily, with Dan Akroyd on Saturday Night Live on April 23, 1977). The sketch involves Eric Idle and Henry Woolf conversing as talk-show host and guest; though they use perfectly intelligible words interspersed with conventional phrases (“Good evening and welcome,” “I see,” “drawn two, lost three”), their repartee makes no sense: “Rapidly piddlepot strumming Hanover peace pudding mouse rumpling cuddly corridor cabinets?” The actors read their lines, however, with the comfortable intonation of conventional interview dialogue. On the imprecise understanding of genotext and phenotext I had worked up before resuming research toward my preface, this sketch demonstrates the divergence of the [meaningless] genotext, the unintelligible sequence of ordinary words, from phenotext, the pattern of emphasis and pitch, the embodied communicative satisfaction of the participants. But after having re-read Kristeva and Barthes, now I’m mostly just confused.

Or, more precisely, I don’t assent to what Kristeva (and Barthes) evidently wanted to do with these terms, and trying to puzzle out the most satisfactory account of her usage and the relation of her theory to mine, all gives me a headache. And I need to write out what I’m thinking in the next week.

By the way, I’m quite confident that the transcription I link above misses several words. Their “rabbit and and futfutfooey jugs” should be “rabbit and ratatouille jugs”;

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