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
Roland Barthes’s late works enfold the reader in a disquietingly intimate embrace. Not because the glimmers of personal life he delivers up for inspection are particularly shocking; on the contrary, the fact that our prurient interest can be aroused by such slender offerings is the source of our trouble. It is not what he shows us, but rather our eagerness to look that makes us blush—an eagerness that we did not know we felt, having kept it buried so long by mutual contract with the coolest of critics, whose disarming obliqueness leaves us ill-equipped to answer intimacy’s summons.
Barthes seems to share our discomfort. Having set the stage for intimacy, he finds it difficult to follow the script. In texts such as Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, the posthumously published Mourning Diary and Incidents, and his last seminars at the Collège de France, he makes a skittish tour guide to his affective interior. He gives vague directions to places that don’t seem to exist. He beckons us to follow only to disappear around a corner. He offers us an “autobiography” consisting of aphoristic fragments in which he refers to himself in the third person.1 He occupies himself by writing diaries while publishing an essay proclaiming the uselessness of such a project.2 He constructs a critical reflection on photography on the basis of an image of great personal significance that he nevertheless refuses to reveal.3
The call for papers for “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes” conference maintains that “the brilliance, theoretical significance, and formal innovation of his late work, especially his lectures, has yet to receive the international attention it deserves.”1 Now there has certainly been a renaissance of Roland Barthes in France. Although, in the years after his death, he came to be celebrated as a writer, a lover of the French language, a commentator on everything from art to dieting, from sport to laziness, in France during the past decade, there has been a great renaissance of scholarly interest, with a new five volume complete works, biographies, critical studies, and, especially, the editing and publication not just of the courses at the Collège de France, now all translated into English in three volumes, but the editing of Barthes’s nachlass, with publication of the materials used in the production of books such as S/Z, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, and Fragments d’un discours amoureux. Specifically, this involves the materials from the seminars at the Ecole des hautes études on “Sarrasine,” on Le discours amoureux, and on Le lexique d’auteur. There is also a huge illustrated edition of Mythologies, about two feet tall, which presents the visual and textual materials on which Barthes was commenting in his analyses. There is a veritable Barthes industry.
I would like to discuss Roland Barthes’s lectures at the Collège de France. He was elected to the Chair of Literary Semiology at that institution in 1976, and between 1977 and his death in 1980, he delivered four lecture courses there. In 2002 and 2003, Barthes’s lectures notes for these series, as well as recordings of most of the lectures themselves, were published by Seuil. Barthes’s growing posthumous corpus provides us with the means to reconceptualise what we think “late Barthes” is. What was “late Barthes” has been superseded by “later Barthes.” Jonathan Culler spoke during this conference about La Préparation du roman (The Preparation of the Novel) – the last series of the lectures to be delivered by Barthes, from 1978 to early 1980. The notes of these lectures were published in English translation in 2011. For my part, I’d like to make some remarks about the first and second lecture courses Barthes gave – the first one, Comment vivre ensemble (How to Live Together), ended up being the last one to be translated into English, with Kate Briggs’s translation appearing just a few months ago. The second lecture series, Le Neutre (The Neutral), was the first to be translated, presumably because the title was attractively and recognisably Barthesian in preoccupation.
In November of 1977, a French translation of Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography was included in a special issue of the prominent Parisian magazine, Nouvel Observateur. Re-titled Les analphabetes de l’avenir, the essay was only the second translation of Benjamin’s Kliene Geschitchte der Photographie to appear in French (Iversen 71),1 with the original 1931 German version having been published in the Berlin periodical Die literarische Welt during the last years of the Weimar Republic (Benjamin 528).
Text as a Field of Contention
“Text” has proved to be a particularly problematic—and productive—term in both the critical theory with which Roland Barthes is associated and in the textual and editorial scholarship in which I have operated for most of my professional life. Perhaps inevitably, there is often considerable consensus on usage and meaning in the two fields. And equally inevitably, a good deal of dissent. A large part of my agenda as a textuist has been to discover the common threads and to demonstrate that there is much to be gained (for both groups) in an attempted understanding of the theoretical and practical operations of both dispensations. It was this belief that motivated my founding of the determinedly interdisciplinary Society for Textual Scholarship in the late 1970s (together with the journal Text, now Textual Cultures, the ongoing series of international conferences of STS. And this same conviction has driven the composition of most of my major publications, including Theories of the Text (1999) and The Pleasures of Contamination (2010). This current essay, in which I address the “renaissance” of Barthes from the two perspectives, is another attempt to show that, while we may seem to be speaking different languages and to have different critical aims, “critics”—in the bailiwick of structuralism, poststructuralism, and so on—and textuists have much to learn and profit from each other
Photographs are artifacts of moments past and forever lost. They provide a “fugitive testimony” to history (Camera Lucida 93). Throughout his work, Roland Barthes examines photography’s mnemonic features that testify to the absence of the subject depicted while simultaneously giving evidence that it existed. Barthes regards architecture as a visible index to the past and explains that ancient societies built structures to immortalize themselves. He writes, “memory, the substitute for life, was eternal and that at least the thing which spoke Death should itself be immortal: this was the Monument” (93). Photographs as “natural witness[es] of ‘what has been’” have replaced monuments (93). As handmaidens of memory, they stand in place for structures that no longer remain. Barthes notes that historical photographs have a “defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die” (96). Thus, images articulate an anterior future tense as they conjure the past, present, and future concurrently. Susan Sontag observed that photographs, akin to monuments, become more desirable through the passage of time. Both acquire an aged look and a detachment from the prosaic that enhances their aesthetic value (79-80). Photography forges a symbiotic relationship with architecture. Through one artistic medium, another is better understood.
Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.
-Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
With thanks to the estate of Ana Mendieta for their kind permission to show the images in this essay.
The photograph, Roland Barthes reminds us, is invisible: all that we see in it depends upon an image that reminds us of a displaced plenitude (material, pastoral, maternal). Where is the Winter Garden Photograph? Look for the Winter Garden Photograph, in Camera Lucida, and one finds an elision that keeps it elsewhere, never seen (Camera Lucida 73). The unseen core of Barthes’ Camera Lucida is this photograph never shown. Around this not-shown garden Camera Lucida spins a compelling theory, analytical and ontological, of the photograph. In the Winter Garden Photograph, Barthes seeks his dead mother, and this configuration of a connection that cannot be severed and also cannot be fulfilled governs the book, Camera Lucida. The photograph’s connection to its referent, as Barthes argues, makes it a signifier of a singular kind, a signifier that is “never distinguished from its referent” even as it may convey, along with other information, a “message without a code” (Camera Lucida 76; Rhetoric of the Image 120) A photograph records a physical space or object at a point in time: that is its referent, from which it cannot be divorced (Camera Lucida 80). Yet the image’s lamination onto its referent both causes and elides that aspect of the photograph which Barthes calls “the melancholy of Photography,” this quality of bearing meaning that exceeds code, showing the very ground that is gone in the presence of the image (Camera Lucida 79). It remains ambiguous, in Camera Lucida, whether the Winter Garden Photograph consoles or only obsesses.
Reading the call-for-papers for this “Renaissance of Roland Barthes,” I was struck by the historicist focus on the subject: its constant emphasis on the distinction between early and late Barthes, its desire to determine the moment of his departure from structuralist to post-structuralist thought.
Reading this, I could not but think of that poignant moment at the beginning of Sade, Fourrier, Lyola, where Barthes characterizes the treatment he, himself, would desire: “Were I a writer , and dead,” he cautions, “how I would love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer, were to reduce itself to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections, let us say: to “biographemes” whose distinction and mobility might go beyond any fate, and come to touch, like Epicurean atoms, some future body, destined to the same dispersion; a marked life, in sum, a Proust succeeded-in-writing his,-in-his-work, or even a film in the old style, in which there is no dialogue and the flow of images is intercut, like the relief of hiccough, by the barely written darkness of the inter-titles, the casual eruption of another signifier; Sade’s white muff, Fourier’s flower pots, Ignatius’s Spanish eyes” (Sade/Fourier/Loyola, 9).