Youna Kwak: Avert Your Eyes: Roland Barthes and the Ethics of Intimacy

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I. Intimacy

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

Is it authorial evasiveness that obscures our understanding, or rather a readerly tendency to take things too literally? Does he say too little in these works, so that we constantly must supply our own meanings, or do we listen too ardently, hearing language where there is only rustling? Are we misled by our own affective investment in his personal life, thrilled by his new proximity to us, in thrall to the elegiac mood we interpose onto works that we know (as he did not) would be his last?

In his foreword to the published text of Barthes’s 1976 lectures entitled How to Live Together,4 Éric Marty warns of a dissatisfying discrepancy between what Barthes promises and what he delivers. The lectures are “disappointing,” he writes, because for all of their lushly layered erudition, they seem to aim nowhere, toward no particular philosophy or theory. Barthes engages in a “positive exploration of a field of knowledge” without any seeming interest in incorporating his discoveries “into a personal phenomenology” (xiii). Even as Marty recuperates this “disappointment” by claiming it as deliberate, generative, and central to the project of giving a lecture, his defensive repetition of the word “disappointment” only serves to convince the reader of its inevitability. And the question implicitly posed in the very title of the seminar—“Can we live together?”—seems to be answered at every turn, as Marty admits, in the negative. Disappointing indeed.

Of course Barthes opens the How to Live Together seminar by envisioning the idiorrhythmic Living-Together, in which “each subject lives according to his own rhythm,” as a fantasy (6)—and surely no word adheres more pertinently to the word “fantasy” than “disappointment.” The fantasy of idiorrhythmy is founded in an aporia under permanent threat of collapse, that can be described as the difficulty of maintaining a tolerable distance from one another:

Living-Together, especially idiorrhythmic Living-Together, implies an ethics (or a physics) of distance between cohabiting subjects. The problem is a formidable one—without doubt the fundamental problem of Living-Together and consequently of this lecture course. (72)

For Barthes, there is no greater obstacle at the heart of Living-Together than achieving this distance, and thus perhaps no more fraught scenario, or one with greater potential for disappointment. An irresolvable ambivalence concerning desire for the other is at the heart of the aporia: if closeness to other bodies is what arouses desire, then to defuse desire’s tumult, we try to keep other bodies at a distance. But distance succeeds all too well in extinguishing desire, and to live without desire is to be closer to death than to life: “If I’m never unsettled by someone else’s body, if I can never touch anyone else, what’s the point in living?” (73).

Closeness is thus impelled by distance, a tension that both recalls the non-dialectical nature of fantasy itself, in which “there’s nothing contradictory about wanting to live alone and wanting to live together” (4-5), and is reproduced at the scene of reading. Just as Living-Together requires sufficient distance to temper desire without quenching it completely, Barthes suggests that the practice of reading similarly depends on a carefully calibrated distance from what or whom we encounter as we read. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes writes that to devote one’s full attention while reading a text is to miss out on its greatest pleasures, as if looking at it too closely would be to fatally miss its rewards: “[The text] produces, in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else” (24-25). “The best pleasure” results from the reader’s inattention; in the service of that pleasure, we must read as if eavesdroppers, attuned to other conversations. Something else must always compel our attention. However our reading is not only distracted, but derives its pleasurable aspect precisely from this quality of distractedness, as if inclining away from the text in front of us places us at a more auspicious angle to appreciate its charms. Indirection—looking away—is a necessary condition of pleasure. The practice of reading involves constantly adjusting how closely one interacts with the text, in order to counterbalance distraction with attention, admitting our desire without being undone by it.

III. Reading

The reader, like any other subject, cannot live without desire. If the text does not excite our desire, what are the stakes of our reading? Although we may find ourselves disturbed by the revelation of the author’s private life in a text, reading without this intimate presence seems dissatisfying. And yet the distance the reader keeps from the text allows something in the text to escape notice, to slip away undetected, thus forestalling the complete apprehension that would strip it of its seductiveness: “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?” (Pleasure 9). It is not what is baldly apparent but what is barely and only momentarily visible that signals the presence of eroticism, the sliver of flesh intermittently seen. For Barthes, the passages in texts that are skipped, skimmed over, or remain unread by the reader likewise constitute the reader’s secret relationship with the text, his idiosyncratic and idiorrhythmic choice of what not to read, and thus indicate his particular pleasure: “a rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text; our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or to skip certain passages … we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations” (Pleasure 11-12). What makes this relationship secret? Strangely, its very physicality, apparent in the French words “survoler” (to skim, but also to fly over), “enjamber” (to continue across a line break, but also to step over), and “sauter” (to skip from passage to passage, but also to jump), used to describe the movements of the reader’s eyes (Plaisir 21). The practice of reading is a secret the body keeps, sending its eyes here and there on clandestine missions that are imperceptible to others. No praise here for eyes fixed in concentration, the steady, plodding non-rhythm of the “long-term contract,” which for Barthes is “an excellent way to erase desire” (Incidents 164); instead their dynamic movements follow eroticism’s rhythm of intermittence, marked by “the flash [that] seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance” (Pleasure 10).

Skipping, skimming, and leaving passages unread are readerly techniques that recall the habituation of Christian monks who must abide by a litany of rules mandating how far apart they must stand, sit, and sleep from one another, in order to regulate their desire. For Barthes, the “meticulous rigor of the monastic rules with respect to distances between bodies” is exemplary:

It is forbidden to wash your entire body while naked. It is forbidden to wash or anoint anyone else’s body; it is forbidden to speak to anyone else in darkness. It is forbidden to hold anyone’s hand; instead, whether standing or walking a distance of one cubit (around fifty centimeters) from others must be respected at all times. (How to Live Together 189)

In the service of achieving a tolerable “distance between bodies,” these “spatial and metrical” restrictions seek to control eroticism without annihilating it—that is, without resorting to repression or castration (73). Although like all rules, they enumerate prohibitions. For Barthes, the constraints they impose have a positive valence, for they represent “the best of distances, because there’s investment in an activity, a labor of distanciation: alert; keeping your body on alert, in control” (74).

IV. Cruising

The image of the alert body, actively invested in keeping the object of desire at a distance, recalls the concurrence of distracted reading and cruising recounted in the diaristic entries that make up Barthes’s posthumously published “Evenings in Paris.” The solitary nights he spends reading books or newspapers at the Parisian cafés he frequents are punctuated by a symphony of glances and greetings from acquaintances and gigolos, who interrupt his reading or alternatively are solicited by his wandering eyes. Reading and cruising are rhythmic counterparts, two activities simultaneously pursued by the reader’s digressive gaze, which alights on both pages and faces in pleasing alternation. What Barthes claims for theory in The Pleasure of the Text, he enacts in practice, sitting alone at the Deux Magots reading Pascal, “looking up often but still getting something out of [the Pensées]” (Incidents 154). His distraction does not diminish but rather heightens his pleasure in the various objects—book and boys alike—taken in by his restless look: “I went to the Flore to resume Pascal’s Pensées and smoke my cigar. A tall dark gigolo, whom I know by sight, came to say hello, he sat down, ordered a lemonade” (Incidents 154). If reading is cadenced by the eyes’ skimming and skipping, unsurprisingly, cruising is also modulated by the look.

Renaud Camus’s “cruising memoir” Tricks, for which Barthes wrote the preface, reads as a primer in both the syntax of cruising, animated by bodies in motion, brushing up against each other, following each other or standing noticeably still, the better to be seen; and in its diction, comprised of a typology of looks including, among others, the quick glance, the indiscreet peek, and the slow stare. The dozens of brief accounts of spontaneous, mostly joyful sexual encounters that comprise Camus’s book affirm that the eyes are never deprived of an object of desire, as long as they know where to look. Both the Manhattan, the club where Camus meets most of his tricks, and Le Palace, the club to which Barthes pays homage in his essay “At the Palace Tonight,” provide the terrain for inexhaustible opportunities for observation: “Le Palace is indeed a place devoted to seeing: you spend your time looking around the room, and, when you come back from dancing, you start looking again” (Incidents 120).

Among the many kinds of looks in Camus’s inventory is one that is, paradoxically, a look away. The look away most closely mimics the gesture of the inattentive reader, who lifts his head while reading, and thus represents a curious specimen within the catalog of looks that the trick deploys in the choreographed exchange that will culminate—or not—in an invitation to action:

He was standing quite still, but as soon as I noticed him, he stopped looking in my direction and moved away, disappearing from my field of vision. … Three or four minutes later, the cowboy was back. … This time he gave me the chance to see him better … At the moment he shifted position, his eyes were on me. It seemed a clear invitation. (Camus 184, my emphasis)

Just as Barthes’s reader lifts his head to listen elsewhere, the trick averts his eyes, not simply to feign inattention in a mode of seduction, but to offer up the non-reciprocity of gaze as a gift. To avert his eyes in this context is to create a space of privacy, without which the man cruising him could not luxuriate in “the chance to see him better,” as Camus writes of another trick: “I had trouble looking at him because he didn’t take his eyes off me” (13). Being looked at too closely can interfere with the pleasure of looking, so that only when the trick consents to turn away can the other look freely, as long and as much as he likes. The distance that is created by the trick’s averted eyes both invites and is the prerequisite for closeness and pleasure.

V. Listening

In both cases—reading and cruising—distance is put into place in the service of proximity. Barthes does not specify precisely what compels the reader to lift his head—nor does the trick who looks away feel compelled by a different man who attracts his notice. Indeed, the compulsion is not to look at but rather to look away; what the attention actually turns towards is of secondary importance. The gesture is not one of promiscuity but, rather of intimacy; not one of attraction but rather, of discretion. The look away is an act of modesty that softens the aggression of encounter; direct address is replaced by indirect address as the trick’s eyes withdraw their question in a momentary suspension of desire, just as, for Barthes, monastic rules of distance redirect and suspend desire without abolishing it.

In like manner, the reader’s look away from the text is also an act of discretion, a willingness to suspend both desire and judgment in the face of the text’s potential to disappoint, and its tendency towards the incomplete. For the text leaves something out. It contains only all that can be said, not all that can be expressed, as Barthes notes: “My suffering is inexpressible but all the same utterable, speakeable” (Mourning 175); “pleasure is speakable, jouissance is not” (Plaisir 187, my translation). There remains a node of opacity, an affective core that, for Barthes, remains unrepresentable. Nevertheless, he does not resign himself to silence, but rather, turns his desire, like an object, over and over in his hands, worrying it, trying to say its name, committing himself to a kind of speaking that he knows in advance will not—and cannot—say what he most needs it to say. And so the reader lifts his head, listening elsewhere, for nothing in particular: a missing piece, a remainder, an ambient discourse carried along by the wind: “I am not necessarily captivated by the text of pleasure; it can be an act that is slight, complex, tenuous, almost scatterbrained: a sudden movement of the head like a bird who understands nothing of what we hear, who hears what we do not understand” (Pleasure 25). Like a bird who is unable to decipher speech yet who is acutely attuned to inchoate sound, the listener’s idiosyncratic hearing is not a failure but rather the product of both discretion and attentiveness.

Barthes invokes an ethics of distance in the service of living together; in his idiorrhythmic fantasy, we keep our distance from each other as a means of remaining proximate. And indeed, the intimacy of Barthes’s late writings calls for a practice of reading that must constantly negotiate its distance from the text. The reader must tread lightly, remain at a certain distance from the text, keep an ear cocked for what is unsaid, and in exchange, the “I” will try to say his suffering and his desire, even knowing the extent to which it must remain inexpressible. Barthes notes that the writer’s pleasure is not automatically reciprocated by the reader; rather, the writer “must seek out the reader (must “cruise” him) without knowing where he is” (Pleasure 4). To achieve intimate distance, readers must learn when and how to look away, out of an ethical concern for the integrity, privacy, and vulnerability of the writer. Here, Barthes seems to say—remain at a distance to keep close to me, avert your eyes and listen.


1) The handwritten epigraph to this “autobiography,” Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, reads: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel” (trans. Richard Howard).

2) In his 1968 essay “Deliberation,” Barthes diagnoses what he calls “diary disease” as the following “insoluble doubt”: “The question I raise for myself: ‘Should I keep a journal?’ is immediately supplied, in my mind, with a nasty answer: ‘Who cares?’ or, more psychoanalytically: ‘It’s your problem’” (The Rustle of Language, 359-373, trans. Richard Howard).

3) The “Winter Garden Photograph,” an old photo that Barthes discovers of his mother at the age of five, is arguably the founding document of his book Camera Lucida, despite the fact that it is not reproduced anywhere in its pages.

4) Published by Seuil in 2002, Comment vivre ensemble comprises not a transcription, but rather the preparatory notes that Barthes wrote for his first series of seminars at the Collège de France in 1976-1977, and to which he hewed surprisingly closely in his lectures. The English translation of the text by Kate Briggs was published in 2013.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. Print.

—. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces. Trans. Kate Briggs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Print.

—. Incidents. Trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. London: Seagull Books, 2010. Print.

—. Mourning Diary. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Print.

—. Le Plaisir du texte. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973. Print.

—. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.

—. “Preface.” Tricks. By Renaud Camus. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1981. vii-x. Print.

—. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Print.

—. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986. Print.

Camus, Renaud. Tricks. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1981. Print

Youna Kwak was born in Seoul, Korea. Her poems, articles and translations have appeared in journals including the Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Cerise Press, The Horizon Review, Left-Facing Bird, Muthafucka, Neo, Po&sie, and West Branch Wired. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of French at New York University.