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The Medley Is the Message

Though a parallel has often been drawn between Barthes’s writing and that of the American “New Critics” (since both were attacking the manuals of an inert and genteel literary pedagogy), in fact Barthes—politically radical, psychoanalytic in his approach, and informed by linguistics and anthropology—resembled very little the New Critics, who were politically conservative, and philological rather than psychoanalytic in their approach to a text. Had he been born in America (futile hypothesis), Barthes would have been protected from the two wars that, in Europe, made life inescapably political. Barthes’s father, after all, had died in World War I; and Barthes himself was of draft age (though exempt because of his tuberculosis) during World War II; he had seen the defeat of France by Germany, and the division of France between supporters of Pétain and supporters of De Gaulle. Barthes came to intellectual maturity in the shadow of Sartre; and Susan Sontag has suggested that Barthes’s first book, Writing Degree Zero (1953) was in fact a riposte to Sartre’s “What is Literature?” (1947), rejecting Sartre’s notion of style as the servant of content.

Barthes had to find, against Sartre, a way to describe the engagement or free ethical commitment of the writer, one that addressed the full exercise of the act of writing, not simply political content. To this end, Barthes argued that the writer encounters two necessities and one freedom. He inherits, as given, both the entire historical past as it is embodied in language and his own personal past as it has issued in the style of his temperament and his personality.

A language is therefore a horizon, and style a vertical dimension, which together map out for the writer a Nature, since he does not choose either…. In the former, he finds a familiar History, in the latter, a familiar personal past.

But beyond history, both past and biographical, the author, according to Barthes, makes a personal choice in the form taken by his writing. He chooses the mode through which he will enter history; his form is committed to certain techniques and conventions, certain ideas of the relation between style and content, depending on “the social use which he has chosen for his form, and his commitment to this choice.” Barthes concludes, in Writing Degree Zero, that “writing is thus essentially the morality of form, the choice of that social area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature [i.e., the historical givens] of his language.”

Though this argument from Writing Degree Zero can be attacked on several fronts (not least in its separation of “style” from “form,” and its singling out of choice as exempt from destiny), it represents Barthes’s will to locate writing—the activity of the writer—in the mobile act of signifying rather than, with Sartre, in the immobile content of what is signified. At this point, Barthes is still conceiving of writing as an authorial production; later, he came to link it far more strongly with the reader, as his interest shifted from the author (that monument conscrated by past literary history) to the Text, for him a shimmering force-field of signifying, into which the reader enters and by which the reader is “traversed.”

Through the Text the reader becomes a writer, producing meaning; the reader produces writing of his own only as a response to a previous experience of a Text. Critics are perhaps to be defined, Barthes suggests, in the same way as other writers—as “those who read in order to write.” The circulating of writing from author to reader, from Text to Text, came to seem to Barthes like the circulation of money, on the one hand, and of desire, on the other, leading him to use about literature various metaphors (of expenditure, of erotic combination, of “cruising”) that offended readers more accustomed to the decorum of conventional literary language.

His frequent use of metaphor is in fact the first characteristic suggesting that Barthes was more a “writer” than an “intellectual.” In “Outcomes of the Text” (1973) in The Rustle of Language, he repudiates the denatured, falsely impersonal language of intellectuals as an inauthentic form of writing, to which he gives the pejorative name of écrivance:

Ecrivance, which is not writing (écriture), but its inauthentic form, ordinarily censures [censors] the work of what, in language, is both its center and its excess; have you ever seen a metaphor in a sociological study or in an article of Le Monde?

One might not see metaphors in the writing of intellectuals, but one would see them, often at a crucial moment of argument, in Barthes, as in this essay on Brecht:

Have you ever seen a Japanese pin? It is a dressmaker’s pin whose head is a tiny bell, so that you cannot forget it once the garment has been finished. Brecht remakes the logosphere by leaving the bell-headed pins in it, the signs furbished with their tiny jingle.

Finding the sequentially argued essay as limiting as denatured écrivance, Barthes increasingly turned to the fragment, allying himself thereby with Pascal and Nietzsche—writers, not (degraded species) intellectuals. The arbitrary alphabetical arrangement of topics in both Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse (1977) satisfied Barthes’s wish for a combination in which topics would succeed each other in the fixed order A, B, C (so that Art would come before Conscience, e.g.); but the order would be arbitrary, not logical or narrative, thus breaking with the usual laws of expository writing.

To enumerate all of Barthes’s rebellions against the literary training of his youth would be to retell the story of his life. His gadfly instincts precipitated him into controversy, as in the bitter dispute over philological and historical constraints on interpretation that followed his book on Racine and led to his impassioned Critique et vérité (a book inexplicably still untranslated into English), in which he argued the right of every century to interpret the classics anew through the vivifying lenses of new intellectual systems (as he had reinterpreted Racine in the light of anthropological and psychoanalytic speculation).

But though Barthes rose sharply to conflict, it was not conflict that interested him most. Rather, he wished to find a nonideological form of discourse (a utopian desire, perhaps). If ideology (as he defines it in Roland Barthes) is “what is repeated and consistent,” it is by its very consistency, as he continues, “excluded from the order of the signifier,” that is, of language-in-process, with its continued search for synonyms and its ambiguity. Counterideology, or ideological analysis (by which one shows the hidden ideological underpinnings of phrases such as “law and order”), is therefore also an ideology. “How escape this? One solution is possible: the aesthetic one”: and Barthes finds his exemplar in Brecht:

In Brecht…counter-ideology creeps in by means of a fiction—not realistic but accurate. This is perhaps the role of the aesthetic in our society: to provide the rules of an indirect and transitive discourse (it can transform language, but does not display its domination, its good conscience).

We know this solution already from Sir Philip Sidney: “The poet nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.” But the “indirect and transitive” discourse of fiction was not available to Barthes (who seems not to have possessed the interest in others’ lives inseparable from the fictional imagination). We consequently see him, in all these essays, combating the inherently assertive nature of the sentence itself (which he fully recognized), and trying for a lightness or urbanity of tone, a historical skepticism, and a figurative language that would remove his essays from the earnest assertiveness, uninvaded by irony or figure, inseparable from the systematic intellectuality of ideological writing.

Barthes is a figure of great contemporary interest in his recognition both of the human necessity of belief systems (“mythologies”—what we think with) and of the mortality of such systems (they are what succeed each other). He made lists of his own such belief systems—“He had always, up to now, worked successively under the aegis of a great system (Marx, Sartre, Brecht, semiology, the Text)”—and of his own phases and influences, situating himself within that “intertext” which echoed in his mind. He often quoted, with approval, Brecht’s words about the intertext: “He thought in other heads; and in his own, others besides himself thought. This is true thinking.” Barthes comments:

True thinking is more important than the (idealist) thought of truth. In other words, in the Marxist field, Brecht’s discourse is never a priestly discourse.

In addressing the form of discourse, Barthes argues that any urging of a truth as the truth is only theological discourse by another name. He attacked the medieval notion of signification as a signified kernel of meaning inside a husk of signifier chaff. To that notion, or the notion of meaning as the pit of a fruit, Barthes opposes his metaphor of the onion, which consists of its successive peelings. Or he compares the braidings of various “codes” in a text to the interweavings of polyphonic music, where no single strand is definitively “the” music. In either case, Barthes argues against the separation of essence from surface—always an aesthetic argument.

The essays collected in these two volumes, then, are the work of someone who believes in the activity of signifying as one of the fields of human freedom, and as one of the processes by which the “human subject,” the thinking and feeling mind, is created. The irreducible plurality of signifying is set against ideological consistency. And the Barthesian “pleasure of the text” is above all the joy of the exercise of creative freedom, as the reader cooperates with the printed text to render it alive once more within a human mind. Since any system, no matter how revolutionary to begin with, passes with time into received opinion, the mind (he writes in The Rustle of Language) which is committed to freedom and to freshness must forever seek a new way of writing. This prescription will not be unfamiliar to readers of Emerson, Whitman, or Stevens: it is a utopian prescription, as Barthes often remarks, but it is preferable to its opposite, the hobgoblin of theological or ideological consistency, which both creates and maintains ideological interest groups.

Barthes’s own consistency lies in his praise of “the great theme proper to the signifier, sole predicate of essence it can actually support, metamorphosis.” It has also been called difference. In this, Barthes is loyal to his own experience: as his commentators have often pointed out, his place in French society was always that of an outsider. He was fatherless, poor in youth, a Protestant, a non-combatant, an inhabitant of a tuberculosis sanitarium, a homosexual, unmarried. (Later, in academic settings, he was a non-agrégé, i.e., he never took the examination required to teach in secondary schools.) One of the most revealing passages in Roland Barthes places him at a Catholic wedding:

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