French literary critic Roland Barthes proposed this distinction in the essay ‘De l'oeuvre au texte’ (1971), translated as ‘From Work to Text’ (1977), which together with Jacques Derrida's ‘La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discoursdes sciences humaines’ (1966), translated as ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences’ (1978), is generally regarded as one of the inaugural texts of post-structuralism, representing a sea change within Barthes's own thinking. Referring to the way Einstein's theory of relativity has necessitated that scientists take into account the relativity of their frame of reference, with the implication that there are no longer any absolutes in science (in their place are undecidable limit points), Barthes proposes that psychoanalysis, Marxism, and semiotics combined necessitate a similar kind of rethinking of the cultural object. This newly relativized cultural object—in which he includes the relations between readers, writers and critics—is what he wants to call text (he sometimes writes it as Text to underline the fact that it is an ontological distinction he is trying to make). In contrast, work refers to an older, Newtonian, conception of the cultural object, which is self-contained, singular and closed. He compares the distinction to the one Jacques Lacan makes between reality and the real: the work belongs to the order of reality inasmuch as it can be held in the hand, so to speak, whereas the text is of the same order as the real, which is to say it is a problematic or experimental field and not a concrete object. It is rather the limit through which a work must pass if it wants to attain what modernist critics praised as the new. The distinction between work and text restates and complicates the distinction Barthes previously made between the readerly (work) and writerly (text). See also readerly and writerly.
M. Moriarty Roland Barthes (1991).
Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.