Semiotics of historical reflection - A study of Julian Barnes's 'Evermore'

Scientific Essay, 2006

12 Pages, Grade: A




Part I Poststructuralist notion of time

Part II ‘Master-Slave’ vs. ‘Fraternal Others’

Part III Linguistic Authority




In his Cross Channel: Evermore, Julian Barnes raises the issue of historical sites and the ways in which they form our discernment of the past. In the specific text, the process of signification which takes place on the ground of historical discourse is conditioned by three main interpretative factors. First, the postmodern (or poststructuralist for that matter) dialectics of time and place/space decentres the temporal level in favour of re place ment s that enable wider contexts to be involved in the procedure of establishing meaning. In this sense, spatiality models the situation of the interpreting subject who acquires personal view of temporal events. Second, the post-Hegelian master-slave relation is diluted by the relativism of deconstructionist theory into ‘fraternal others’ which procedure defers signification from being completed. Power relations are to a large degree dissolved. Third, the operations of history-referential language prove that the question of linguistic authority is no longer at stake for language is already embedded in a self-ruled ideology which is not a subject to further redefinition. It is, therefore, debatable to what extent the authority of language can be taken over and instituted by the interpreting subject. Barnes elaborates on these three points trying to deconstruct the metaphysics of a historical representation as well as certain fixed discoursive strategies employed while maintaining such representations.

Part I Poststructuralist Notion of Time

The intricacies around time and place, emphasis laid on the latter, result from the paralysing effect of time-based signification. As history is recorded with respect to temporal borders of human cognition, the individual consciousness is abstracted from a complete participation in the historical experience. Therefore, in the philosophy of poststructuralism, timing is considered to impose certain limits on the perception of the past where the only position available for an individual is passive reception of bare facts. By the same token, place is conceived of as mobile and erratic; it provides a multitude of contexts and perspectives. Place can be marked with all the oncoming meanings and interpretations that are being attached to it. On the whole, a historical site is enveloped in a discoursive struggle between time and place. In order for the latter to prevail, it takes some individual interpretations of facts to be produced. Barnes’s protagonist, Dr Holling, does just that:

[…] You followed signposts in British racing green, then walked across fields guarded by wooden martyred Christs to these sanctuaries of orderliness, where everything was accounted for. Headstones were lined up like dominoes on edge; beneath them, their owners were present and correct, listed, tended. […][1]

It can be concluded from the above citation that Dr Holling notices that apart from temporal labels, the site is also artificially ordered. Place has to be subdued and adjusted to the ideological content of such a site in order to adequately account for the historical truth. History is strongly related to time here and; consequently, the place and its semantic implications have to be constructed along the line of factuality. Barnes, obviously, notices that as long as history depends for its dialectics on time it is led astray and away from the social context which originates also in the present time. In this form, history is non-absorbent of local and/or personal geographies:

[…][…] The critical hermeneutic is still enveloped in a temporal master-narrative, in a historical but not yet comparably geographical imagination […] Space still tends to be treated as fixed , dead, undialectical; time as richness, life, dialectic, the revealing context for critical social theorisation. [..][2]

This remark straightforwardly addresses the idea of historical hermeneutics where the temporality of presence is chronicled before it has become the past. Barnes is quite conscious of the fact that time is liable to the deficiency of meaning and aims at reversing the reductionist approach toward space. Time is not to be removed but only spatialised. From theoretical point of view, space allows greater interpretative freedom because it stirs the mobility of historical consciousness. Moreover, space is more abstract and indefinite and as such it is more open to the voices of otherness. Hence, in the philological sense, the question of time and place/space is very complex. The ensuing discussion will touch upon two more issues that were already stated in the introduction.

Part II ‘Master-slave’ vs. ‘Fraternal Others’

One of the predominant consequences of defining history as parallel with time is the loss of the human context. The aforesaid local and personal practices of signification are swallowed up by the universalising potential of time. Hence, in the contemporary literary theory a shift from Hegelian hierarchy (master-slave) to Derridean economy (fraternal others) can be observed. This means, among other things, that master-narrative is challenged by mini-narratives also on the ground of spatial dialectics. Hi(story) is not only retold and/or ‘made up’, but also interjected into the place whose structure corresponds to the dominant ideology. The same idea is assembled by some post-Marxist critics like Foucault, for instance. He juxtaposed history with ideology treating the latter as an explanation of history always formulated so as to address bourgeois cultural interests[3]. This can be seen as an attempt at ascertaining social domination- Foucault’s often used term, which signifies deliberate manipulation of the masses. It is performed by stripping society members off their personal stories and denying them the possibility to participate in history legitimately; it is the history of facts not humans.

Master-narrative of history is not receptive of individuality or instant emotion, in order for emotions to come about in the process, history must be personalised. This does not imply anarchy of historical discourse- Barnes presents individual experience of history as fantasy which gives only an illusion of power and not the power par excellence. This motif is elaborated on in Cross Channel: Evermore:

[…] They blocked the view, these deaths and these dates; they demanded attention by their recency. She refused, she refused. […][4]


[1] Julian Barnes, Cross Channel, Picador, (London: 1996), p. 94.

[2] Edward Soja, “History: geography: modernity”, in: The Cultural Studies Reader, S. During (ed.), Routledge, (London- NY: 1993), pp. 136-137.

[3] Michel Foucault, „Powrot do historii”, in: Filozofia, historia, polityka. Wybor pism, tr. D. Leszczyński, PWN, (Warszawa-Wroclaw: 2000), p. 105.

[4] J. Barnes, Cross Channel, op. cit., p. 105.

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Semiotics of historical reflection - A study of Julian Barnes's 'Evermore'
University of Silesia  (University of Silesia)
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Semiotics, Julian, Barnes, Evermore
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Master of Arts Daria Przybyla (Author), 2006, Semiotics of historical reflection - A study of Julian Barnes's 'Evermore', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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