top banner

After a Fashion: Reading Roland Barthes Today
by Steve Evans

First published in the Poetry Project Newsletter February/March 2000: 9-12

It has been twenty years since Roland Barthes succumbed to injuries sustained in a grotesquely absurd accident while crossing the rue des Écoles after lunch with François Mitterand, then first secretary of the French Socialist Party and soon to be president of France. That a sinister violence always lurked in the pedestrian had long been a theme of Barthes's writing; in the month-long agony following the accident this violence coupled with the structural vulnerability of a 65-year old man who had already endured, between 1934 and 1946, a protracted bout with tuberculosis. The lungs that had prevented Barthes from acceding to the École Normale Supérieure at 19—thereby irrevocably queering his intellectual trajectory—failed him definitively just three years after his vindicating induction to a chair (of Literary Semiology) at the prestigious Collège de France.

For much of his incredibly prolific intellectual life, Roland Barthes was understood to be the representative of something: of a tenaciously neutral, colorless mode of writing he christened "le degré zéro de l'écriture" and championed in the pages of Combat in 1947 before devoting his first monograph to it in 1953; of Alain Robbe-Grillet's adamantly objectivist novels of the 1950s; of the theoretical avant-gardism of Tel Quel as it sought the grail of "textuality" from 1960 forward; of "le nouvelle critique" as attacked into existence by a Sorbonne professor incensed by Barthes's "delirious" reading of Racine's drama; of "French post-structuralism" as it was polemically inserted into an Anglo-American academic situation robbed of its complacency by civil rights and student activism and uncertain whether to mourn or celebrate the "death of the author" Barthes, playing Zarathustra for an atypically muscular moment, brought news of in 1968.

Castigated (or worse, trivialized) for his "fashionability" by everyone from Hugh Kenner to Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, this writer who imagined himself perpetually demodé—untimely in the Nietzschean sense—has perhaps only now found the condition of atopic legibility he long coveted, not that of the representative man pendant to a necklace-noose of approbative or opprobrius adjectives, but that of the singular, irreducible and irreplaceable, body of work, the corpus risen out of and returned to pleasure, the writing an insatiable appetite for reading yielded to one who, like his American contemporary Hannah Wiener, cherished a malady diagnosed by the words "Je vois le langage" ("I see language").

The irrepressible profligacy of this vision (I deliberately choose a formulation with sexual overtones: Barthes's absence of allegiance to monogamy is a defining textual and biographical trait) is behind his distinctively insouciant performance of "method," one reminiscent of Frank O'Hara's casual deflation of metrics in the "Personism" manifesto or John Ashbery's bemused manipulations of poetic "meaning" in any number of post-Three Poems texts. Responding to a questionnaire in 1971, it was "ease"—as opposed to censure or distance—that Barthes counseled as the proper (and most subversive) attitude to adopt toward "formalist" strictures. Without abjuring the labor of formalization, Barthes brings to it a light touch. His texts are worked without being laborious, they think outside the equation—established by the perspiring faces of Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar, object of an especially penetrating and humorous "Mythology" called "The Romans in Films"—that "to sweat is to think—which evidently rests on the postulate appropriate to a nation of businessmen, that thought is a violent, cataclysmic operation, of which sweat is only the most benign symptom" (28). To O'Hara's maxim "just go on your nerve," Barthes adjoins the composed corollary: "don't sweat it."

Barthes's most characteristic intellectual movement is inductive and essayistic rather than deductive and systematic: each object of analysis—be it Garbo's face or a Cy Twombly canvas, a still from Eisenstein or a page from Elle, a concept of Jakobson's, a scene from Brecht, a theme of Michelet's, a devotional regime concocted by Loyala, or a sex-act as described by Sade—is addressed first in its specificity; the object is presumed innocent of language until it betrays otherwise (as eventually it almost always does). Though not especially fond of "dialectic" as a term, Barthes nevertheless practices an intimate form of dialectical thinking that moves with an ease unrivaled even by Adorno or Benjamin between particular, and often inconspicuous, objects and the universality in which they often unconsciously partake.

Unlike those linguists who cannot discuss language without converting it—consciously or not—into a protagonist of awesome subtlety and protean mutability (Chomsky comes to mind), Barthes communicates a derogatory and antagonistic vision of language as that which bores (here the life-long apprenticeship to Proust is evident) and that which bullies (dominant or doxic languages certainly, but also their militant contraries). From the opening pages of Writing Degree Zero (1953) to the last fragment of Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes maintains this fundamentally critical stance toward the rule of language as acculturation and intimidation: it comprises not a theme among others, but a commitment so primordial that his oeuvre would be unimaginable without it.

Two modes of activity—or to use the Sartrean idiom of the early work that Barthes retains and revises throughout his career: modes of "responsibility"—follow from this commitment, the one seeking to endure the rule of language, the other to exceed it. Barthes's "structuralism" is of a primarily ethical, not a scientific, cast: its intention is to furnish knowledge that might permit one to endure the adversity of signs, codes, and systems, and perhaps even to put into practice counter-systems like those detailed in Sade / Fourier / Loyola (1971). The sheer stamina manifested in works like S/Z (1970) or The Fashion System (1967) attests to Barthes's ethical will to outlast, and whenever possible to outwit, dominant systems of meaning. Like the Manny Farber of the movie criticism, Barthes burrows into these systems, dwelling with embarrassing insistence on what seems to "go without saying" (va de soi), robbing messages of their obviousness, dislodging connotations from their presumptively denotative shell, patiently retracing the routes by which received ideas enter the heads and escape the mouths of those self-elected delegates of discursive normalcy who repeat with unreflexive confidence the tautologies of manufactured social "consciousness" (myth, ideology).

What is referred to as Barthes's "post-structuralism" corresponds not to a discrete period of his career (everything following The Pleasure of the Text in 1973, say) but to the prodigious desire invested everywhere in his oeuvre to the search for exceptions to the rule of naturalized norms, arrogant discourses, and hypostasized images. "He has no affection for proclamations of victory," Barthes wrote of himself in 1975. "Troubled by the humiliations of others, whenever a victory appears somewhere, he want to go somewhere else" (Roland Barthes 46).

Barthes exercises considerable invention in demarcating this "somewhere else," space of exception, exemption, excess: jouissance escapes the economy of readerly pleasure, it is an ecstasy that transforms both terms in the reader-text equation; the punctum of Camera Lucida literally ruptures or punctuates the banal surface of the photograph, it exits the arena of studiously posed meanings for an adventure in fascination; the seminar is subversive of the university's will-to-knowledge, it is a "phalanstery" whose work is "the production of differences" emerging from individuated desires.

But the most abiding name assigned this space is simply l'ecriture, writing. This is the word "whose ardent, complex, ineffable, and somehow sacred signification gives the illusion that by [it] one might answer for everything" in Barthes's text (though it should be noted that he himself, in the section on "mana-words" in Roland Barthes, proposed rather the body). In fact, writing is less Barthes's "answer for everything" than the question that he never tired of responding to: "Qu'est-ce que l'écriture" is not only the first chapter heading of his first book, it is the rubric invisibly inscribed at the top of every page to which he committed his hand.

Writing Degree Zero commences with a series of definitions meant to show what writing is not. It is not language, that ordered, collective, apparently "natural" (but actually historical) horizon of social experience (if Barthes has read Saussure at this point he has certainly not yet begun to think with his categories); neither is it style, the residue—always somewhat crude—of a given author's biology (body) and biography (past). Between these two predetermined necessities, these forms that impose themselves and that the writer may transform but not refuse, writing emerges as a third term, a value more than a fact, a possibility rather than a destiny, a stance more than a substance. "A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing is an act of historical solidarity" (14). Solidarity with what or whom? Again Barthes proceeds by negation: not with a specific set of "consumers" to whom the writing is addressed, but with a counterfactual community whose convening value is not a "freely consumed language" but "one freely produced" (16).

In a gesture seldom to be repeated in his work, and in a tone seldom again heard—one of awe before a solemn and sublime object—Barthes turns to post-Symbolist poetry as an exemplary site for the autonomous production of writing. After Rimbaud, he argues, poetic writing disposes with the constraints of consumption, does away with grammar and conventional syntax, liberates itself from the social burden of communication. What remain are words, vertical and vertiginous, that jut like "monoliths...into a totality of meanings, reflexes and recollections" (47). Isolate, explosive, emphatically phallic, the poetic word is encountered "frontally," received "as an absolute quantity," accepted in "all its possible associations": "The Word, here, is encylopaedic, it contains simultaneously all the acceptations from which a relational discourse might have required it to choose. It therefore achieves a state which is possible only in the dictionary or in poetry—places where the noun can live without its article—and is reduced to a sort of zero degree, pregnant with all past and future specifications" (48). By becoming an "absolute object," the sublime lexeme of modern poetry—pure paradigm shorn of all syntagmatic bonds—enters the real on its own terms: it is a thing among things, indifferent to humanity and to history (or more carefully put: irreducible to them).

Apart from a furtive allusion to René Char, few proper names attach themselves to this description of a poetic writing driven to extremes: clearly what interests Barthes is more a limit than any concrete instance. This abstraction aside, one is unmistakably in the realm of the avant-garde, of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and the Surrealists; of the futurist "word as such" (Russian) or "words at liberty" (Italian); and of the American extension of that tradition, too subterranean to be noted abroad in 1953, in the works of Charles Olson (whose "Projective Verse" bears notable affinities to Barthes's manifesto) and Jack Spicer (whose unsparing, linguistically-aware "realism" aspired not only to include "real objects"—the "lemon" of the Lorca letters—but to transcend poetic subjectivism in the direction of a co-objectival condition: "Hello says the apple / Both of us were object").

Much later, twenty years in fact after the publication of Writing Degree Zero (but only a few after Annette Lavers and Colin Smith first translated it into English in 1968), Ron Silliman would find in Barthes's remarks on modern poetry an adequate description for the emergent writing then interesting him. In "The Dwelling Place," Silliman presents to the readers of Alcheringa a small gathering of poems by Bruce Andrews, David Melnick, Barbara Baracks, Lee DeJasu, Barrett Watten, and others, borrowing his title from a phrase in Barthes's text ("it is the Word which is 'the dwelling place'"), and his explanation of "diminished referentiality" from Barthes's paean to the "infinite freedom" of the radically decontextualized word." Not overlooking John Ashbery's inclusion of Barthes's early essay on Dutch painting, "Le Monde-Objet" (translated by Stanley Geist as "The World Become Thing"), in Art and Literature 3 (1964), or poet Richard Howard's admirable translations of many of Barthes's works, Silliman's references to Writing Degree Zero announce something like the advent of Barthes's impact on American avant-garde poetry, an impact soon to reverberate throughout the poetic community. The second number of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (April 1978) carries an longer excerpt from Writing Degree Zero on its cover and the penultimate issue of that magazine's regular format run (June 1980) is largely devoted to Alan Davies's "Essai à Clef," a posthumous appreciation of Barthes in which Davies writes: "It is enough to say that this magazine owes its existence, or if not, the meaning of that existence, to the significant desire-producing language mechanisms which Mr. Barthes constantly refurnished with his analyses of/as text."

Hegel says somewhere that one can no more think for a person than one can eat for them. The same is true for reading, though a whole caste of delegate readers—the critic, the reviewer, the professor—has sprung out of the failure to recognize this fact. When Alan Davies asserts that "excellent critical, attentive, writing knows its task to be the reading of the writing of a text," he pinpoints a value that Barthes brought into increasingly forceful articulation from the early 1960s forward. "There remains one last illusion which it is necessary to renounce," he writes at the close of Criticism and Truth (1966), a book that exceeds its immediate occasion as a rebuttal of Racine-scholar Raymond Picard's indiscrimate attack on the "new criticism" practiced by Barthes and others: "The critic can in no wise substitute himself for the reader. In vain will he presume—or will others ask him—to lend a voice, however respectful, to the readings of others, to be himself but a reader to whom other readers have delegated the expression of their own feelings as a consequence of his knowledge or his judgment, in other words to exercise by proxy the rights of the community in relation to the work. Why? Because even if one defines the critic as a reader who writes, that means that this reader encounters on his path a redoubtable mediator: writing" (91).

Whereas in Writing Degree Zero Barthes had principally (though not exclusively: his remarks on Raymond Queneau's plural/oral texts point in another, less remarked direction) associated l'écriture with negation—an operation of subtraction (in Camus's "colorless" writing) and abstraction (in the vertical, worldless words of modern poetry)—his emphasis shifts in the 1960s from a valorization of the neutral in writing to a valorization of the plural. This transition was hastened perhaps by the publication of Umberto Eco's theory of the "open work" (l'oeuvre ouvert) in 1965, but Barthes's essays—starting with "Écrivains et écrivants" in 1960, where he first advances the formula that writing is an intransitive act, and gathering momentum in pieces such as "To Write: An Intransitive Verb" (1966), the "Death of the Author" (1968) and "From Work to Text" (1971)—develop the theme immanently and insistently right through to its aphoristic culmination in The Pleasure of the Text (1973).

By the "intransitivity" of writing, Barthes means to invoke a condition in which the writing subject disperses into an irretrievable contemporaneity with their practice: "the modern scriptor is born at the same time as his text," Barthes writes in "The Death of the Author," "he is not furnished with a being which precedes or exceeds his writing, he is not the subject of which his book would be the predicate; there is no time other than that of the speech-act, and every text is written eternally here and now." This dispersion invests every syntagm of the text; the work of signification—previously conceived by Barthes as the explosion of potentials concentrated at a paradigmatic level—is refigured as a spasm that convulses the surface of language and calls forth a corresponding seism in the reader, from whom is shaken not an exegesis or judgment, both of which would reinstate the "transitive" dimension of the message (what it is "about," what adjectives engulf it), but another text, desirous, productive, and intransitive as the first.

That critical writing should extend, rather than enclose, the realm of textuality is a proposition that retains its force even after the initial euphoria of its articulation has faded. Much of what we presently call "poetics" is an attempt—of necessity various in its accomplishments—to take that proposition seriously in conditions that remain severely adverse. After all, reviews remain for the most part the adjective-choked chatter of people with no facility for reading or writing; "scholarship" is still largely defined by the limits it imports from an impoverished institutional nexus and imposes without reflexivity or mercy on its "objects." But even "poetics," in the elastic acceptation given the word by contemporary avant-gardists, misses the mark more often than not, satisfying itself with displaced sociology, half-comprehended linguistic concepts, and more than a common amount of flat-out mysticism. It would take more than a thorough re-reading of Barthes to counter-act these tendencies, but his ethical, secular, pleasurable attention to the "responsibility of forms" remains a proof, past all fashion, that something more is possible, should we so choose.

A Note on Available Texts: For those who read French and have ample bank-accounts (a combination of suspicious frequency in the American context), a three-volume Oeuvre complètes edited by Eric Marty appeared from Seuil several years ago. Much of Barthes has been well-translated into English and kept in print by Hill & Wang. A Barthes Reader edited by Susan Sontag in 1982 remains readily available and is a good introduction to his work through the lens of his best-stationed advocate in the U.S. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, independently or taken together, constitute a alternative entrance to the oeuvre, as does Stephen Heath's edition Image / Music / Text. For Barthes the essayist, The Rustle of Language is the best single collection. For methodology, The Semiotic Challenge is indispensable, S/Z inexhaustible. A Lover's Discourse: Fragments was a best-seller upon its French publication in 1977, going through sixteen print-runs and attracting wide publicity to its author. Louis-Jean Calvet's biography of Barthes (translated in 1994) is journalistic but passable. Jonathan Culler's respected critical overview for the Fontana Modern Masters series (1982) can usefully be read on the way to inspired interpretations by Naomi Schor, Steven Ungar, and Réda Bensmaïa, among others.

back to ensembleback to index