For this special issue of The Conversant, guest-edited by Alex Wermer-Colan, we explore what it would mean to document a conference in print. We were particularly interested in the Renaissance of Roland Barthes as a topic because Barthes exemplifies “embodied inquiry” that The Conversant hopes to engage across its larger editorial practice.
—The Editors of the Conversant
In response to French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes’s tragic death in 1980, Michel Foucault observed that Barthes seemed “completely developed” during his lecture course at the Collège de France only a week before the accident. Foucault recalled thinking at the time: “He’ll live to be ninety years old; he is one of those men whose most important work will be written between the ages of sixty and ninety.” Although Barthes passed away before he could create the rest of what scholars categorize as his “late” work, these last writings were, for Barthes, the result of a transition period that approximates the clichés of a mid-life crisis. In light of his mother (his closest companion) recently passing away, Barthes explores, in his final lecture course, The Preparation of the Novel (La Préparation du roman, 1978-1980), his subject position at a pivot point between his middle and his old age, and he comes to realize he must urgently prepare for what he imagines will be his actual “late” work. Barthes’s Preparation of the Novel staged the search for a vita nuova, a new life, a way of coming to terms with his mother’s recent death, and being reborn, motherless, with renewed purpose, dedicated to a project that would transcend the limited forms and genres his writing had previously taken. Barthes figures his anticipated conversion in terms of a Proustian search for a “third form” between or beyond the Essay and the Novel that, in the manner of what Barthes termed “the Neutral” (“le neutre”), would baffle or outplay (“déjouer”) the paradigm of theory and literature that his contemporary readers expected. Even if we can only hypothesize what hybrid or alternative work of critique and narrative, essay and novel, Barthes would have gone on to create, the brilliance, theoretical significance and formal innovation of his late work, especially his lectures, has yet to receive the international attention it deserves. We can, therefore, at the very least, celebrate the renaissance of Roland Barthes in Anglophone cultural and literary studies, as a series of posthumous publications and translations introduces to a larger public Barthes’s most innovative but underappreciated work.1