Lucy O’Meara: Some Remarks on Roland Barthes’s Lectures

OMeara PhotoI 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 What was “late Barthes” has been superseded by “later Barthes.”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.

The full title of the first lecture course Barthes gave at the Collège de France in 1977 is How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Everyday Spaces. Its title seems to promise an overall preoccupation with shared concerns: questions of community and space. A certain fantasy is present here. With willful provocativeness, Barthes stated in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in January 1977 that he wanted his future teaching at that august institution to be explicitly informed by a subjective fantasy: “I sincerely believe that at the origin of teaching such as this we must always locate a fantasy, which can vary from year to year” (Barthes, Inaugural Lecture, 477). The fantasy that Barthes articulates in this lecture course is rooted in the word “idiorrythmie” or “idiorrhythm,” a word which, as he explains, he found when reading a study of the monks of Mount Athos by Jacques Lacarrière (1976).1 Lacarrière describes the Athos monastic communities as being lightly-regulated; each monk lived at his own individual “rhythm” or pace. For Barthes, idiorrythmie means a fantasised form of living which manages to reconcile the problems of social living and of a life too lonely, balancing the needs for both companionship and solitude. The How to Live Together series is, says Barthes, a search for “idiorrythmie,” the ideal community. But we realise on closer examination of the course that Barthes is much more concerned with the position of the individual within the community than with the topos of community itself. Indeed, the recognised marginalism of groups which have an overt cause – communes, convents, phalansteries – is not of interest to Barthes, because the structure of these groups “is based on an architecture of power,” and so they are “openly hostile to idiorrythmy” (Barthes 2013, 8). Every community, he concludes as the course goes on, ends up being to at least some extent sclerotised by dogma, whether it be religious or political. Concomitantly, every community brings about a reduction of individual nuance.

So, given Barthes’s constant interest in and valorisation of individual experience over generality, How to Live Together is perhaps ultimately more concerned with aloneness than it is with togetherness. Many of the figures explored reflect this: figures such as Akedia or “accidie,” the monk’s sense of futility or loss of faith; Xeniteia, the idea of voluntary exile. Barthes’s interest in Robinson Crusoe, also, is tellingly oriented around Robinson’s solitude on the island. What Barthes likes most in Defoe’s novel is its account of “a day-to-day existence with no events […], [Robinson’s] domestic set-up, the hut, the vines, the bucolic.” When events and people interrupt this focus on the slow everyday rhythms of the castaway, “the powerful charm of the book” is lost for Barthes (2013, 84).

In some ways, then, one can argue that How to Live Together doesn’t answer the question implied in its title. Barthes freely admits this, saying at the end of the lecture course that he can’t “construct […], in front of you, a utopia of idiorrhythmic Living-Together” (2013, 130). This might indicate that the late Roland Barthes is incapable of thinking through questions of shared commonality: incapable by temperament, or by an unwillingness to make unqualified truth claims (this unwillingness is much more marked in his late work than it was in his earlier material). Incapable also, perhaps, by method: famously, Barthes is an exponent of fragmentation and of aleatory order: in most of his late work he refuses linear or cumulative exposition of ideas.

Barthes is, in fact, profoundly concerned with questions of relationality. As Youna Kwak explained in her paper at this conference, in How to Live Together, an ethics of distance is a means of remaining proximate: maintaining distance allows intimacy to occur. The fact that Barthes’s thinking about community is subtended by individualism is not a paradox. In fact, it is the very unwillingness to speak for others, or to articulate a discourse couched in anything other than subjective, personal terms, that bespeaks a profound concern for the other – for us, for his audience (remember, these are lectures). We are always exhorted to do what we want or need to do with the materials presented. Barthes constantly reminds us, in his first two lecture courses at the Collège de France, of the fact that he is merely opening a dossier of ideas, which subsequently we should explore (or not!) as we wish.2 How to Live Together contains no real answer to the question of how to live together, but presents us with a lot of musings on what makes living together difficult, or easier. Barthes is interested in ideas about the spaces between us and around us. Throughout How to Live Together and The Neutral, Barthes’s fantasies are situated, spatialised, involving a dream of an unmediated and vibrant relationality: “distance and respect, a relation that’s in no way oppressive but at the same time where there’s a real warmth of feeling. Its principle would be: not to direct the other, other people, not to manipulate them, to actively renounces images. […] = Utopia in the strict sense, because a form of Sovereign Good” (2013, 132).

The generosity and much of the importance of the Collège de France courses inheres, I think, in this concern with relationality, as it is displayed thematically and also methodologically, in the care given to the listener’s experience of and investment in the lectures. To this extent, How to Live Together and Le Neutre, which I’ll talk about in a moment, really do respond to what Barthes sets out in his inaugural lecture as being an imperative: to try, in one’s teaching, to attenuate the power and the arrogance of language; to analyse dogmatism, and to try not to practise it oneself.3This is a goal that is entirely consonant with his early work, notably the cultural analyses of Mythologies (1957). Indeed, Barthes reminds us in the mid-70s that all of his work proceeds from the same impulse – that of analysing what appears to be natural, and showing that it is in fact culturally constructed. He explains this by using a quotation from Brecht: talking about the idea of ‘“what seems natural to most people” in a 1975 interview, he says this:

It’s a very familiar theme in my writing, one already at work in Mythologies, which present themselves as a denunciation of “what goes without saying”. It’s also a Brechtian theme: “Underneath the rule discover the abuse”. Under cover of the natural, discover history, discovery what is not natural, discover abuses (“Twenty Key Words,” 208).

This demystificatory urge is more clearly critical in early work such as Mythologies – not least because in that work it is allied to an obviously political, Marxist discourse – but it has by no means gone away in the later work. One could argue, as Jonathan Culler did this morning during his keynote address on “Late Barthes,” that the viability of the critical power of Barthes’s later work depends on what has gone beforehand, what has been set up in the previous work to then be implicitly relied on in the less directly counter-ideological later work. Be that as it may, I think the critical power of the later work is intact, and is of a piece with earlier demystificatory work, if stripped of certain critical appurtenances, notably the use of Marxism and of a discourse of social class.

The lecture course on The Neutral has many of the same preoccupations as How to Live Together – the fantasy here is of a neutral mode of discourse and of being, in which conflict would be minimised. The Neutral is informed throughout by Barthes’s concerned distaste for the conflictual bases of interaction and of intellectual discourse. Thus, like How to Live Together, this lecture series is informed by a fantasy that is in reaction against the prevailing norms of Barthes’s society, and specifically, his political and intellectual context. These lectures articulate a negative: “The Neutral is this irreducible No: a No so to speak suspended in front of the hardenings of both faith and certitude and incorruptible by either one” (2005, 14).

The Neutral is in many ways a more confident series than How to Live Together. Both series articulate many very similar desires. But in How To Live Together, Barthes makes very extensive use of material taken from other sources – the novels referred to in the “novelistic simulations” of the subtitle, lots of religious texts about monastic life, encyclopedia entries and so on – and often his own desires and critical views are put forward under the cover of this other material. The Neutral is a bit more upfront, and one of the things it is upfront about is Barthes’s aversion to the often combative nature of intellectual discourse. Instead, he relishes what he calls “beside-the-point answers” (2005, 109): he is fascinated by modes of discourse – such as Zen koans, for example – which avoid the conflictual logic and competing truth claims that structure our own public discourses. Koans tend to rely on principles of rupture and disconnection. Their responses, by refusing to answer unsought questions directly, allow other ideas and forms of dialogue to resonate. Barthes imagines, in one of his lectures, having the audacity to try something similar:

Imagine for an instant that to the large, pompous, arrogant, pedantic questions, of which our social, political life is excessively woven, the stuff of interviews, of round tables, etc. ([…] “Do you think that the writer seeks truth?” “Do you think that writing is life?” etc.), imagine that someone answers: “I have bought myself a shirt at Lanvin’s,” “The sky is blue like an orange,” or that, if this question is put to you in public, you stand up, take off a shoe, put it on your head, and leave the room → absolute acts because baffling all possibilities for a complicitous reply, all possibility of interpretation. (117-18)

Unable to perform such feats, Barthes can only describe them as a fantasy. His notes for The Neutral reveal a writer and public intellectual whose opinion and judgment are in constant demand – even during a period when he is in a period of deep mourning for his recently-deceased mother. The only way of avoiding being “targeted” by these demands, he comments, would be by means of a drastic physical retreat: “I can’t ‘suspend’ my presence to the world (except by making a total, definitive decision: the monastery, the desert – eremetism)” (2005, 205). With this comment, we can see, retrospectively, some of the reasons underpinning the choice of the depopulated scenes that were so central in How to Live Together: the desert island, the private lair, the hideout.

It’s easy to identify with Barthes’s own example here of his desire to get away from letters and telephone calls, from incessant demands for his opinion on this book or that thesis, from requests and offers. It’s a banal example, too. But there’s an important point at stake. And this is where we come back, I think, to the question of community, and to Barthes’s relationship to his own intellectual community. In How to Live Together and The Neutral, as well as in other late work, we find in Barthes a determined resistance to the currents and trends of intellectual thought. This is a thinker who in his previous work has been either identified with, or has helped to create, major trends in critical thought – Marxism, for example, in his theatre criticism and Mythologies of the 1950s; structuralism in the 1960s, the turn to post-structuralism with S/Z in 1970. He’s a thinker who has, as Jonathan Culler was saying this morning, always shifted position, partly because of a lack of willingness to continue to carry the flag for a movement of thought that has already crystallised. But in these late lecture series, we find more than a desire to move on to the next thing. There is a more deep-rooted desire to abstract himself completely from the currency of intellectual discourse. The lectures show Barthes in open reaction against collective explanatory discourses. Marxism and psychoanalysis in particular are at this point associated by Barthes with a pernicious “arrogance”: “one is assaulted by the arrogance of discourse everywhere there is faith, certitude, will-to-possess, to dominate” (2005, 152). The refusal, in How to Live Together, to articulate an ideal of community seems to me entirely of a piece with this objection to “arrogance.” Now, in some respects, I think Barthes’s refusal to perpetuate what at this time Jean-François Lyotard was beginning to refer to as the “grand narratives” of theory is a sign of the times: there was an anti-totalising turn in French thought at this time, partly due to the fact that Marxism was quickly losing its legitimacy within intellectual discourse (the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in France in 1974 was an important event in this context, as was the belated but decisive end to the Tel Quel journal’s infatuation with Maoism in 1976). Lyotard, for example, in Instructions païennes (“pagan instructions”), published in 1977, advocates an end to the “piety” that the grand theoretical narratives of Marxism and Freudianism have inspired in their followers – he thinks it is precisely the question of intellectual faith that is problematic: “L’injustice que [le récit marxiste] engendre procède de la piété même qu’il appelle et qu’il exige” (“The injustice engendered by the Marxist narrative comes precisely from the piety which it demands”). The terms Lyotard uses here resonate with Barthes’s own distrust, articulated several times in How to Live Together and The Neutral, of intellectual faith in generalising, conceptual theories:

the law always springs from the signified in that the signified is what’s presented and received as final. The effects of [an] exemption from faith – in whatever form it presents itself (political faith included, now the substitute for religious faith for the entire intellectual caste) – are for the moment incalculable, almost intolerable. For what it’s a matter of lifting, outmoding, trivializing are the generators of guilt. (2013, 12)

In terms of the overlap with Lyotard, Barthes’s disavowal of membership of an intellectual community in some ways makes him part of one: he’s not the only person making this kind of statement at this time. But his position is one of a more extreme retrenchment into the self, into subjectivity and contingency, than that of any other comparable thinker at this time (an aside: Barthes’s interest in fostering and protecting one’s own subjectivity, as set out in How to Live Together and The Neutral, could be said to anticipate Foucault’s work several years later on the Care of the Self (1988)). The retrenchment into the self is why late Barthes has been castigated: in his late work – not only the teaching but also in the many essays from this period – he is concerned with personal taste, with the articulation of individual aesthetic response, with an insistence on contingency. For this reason, it can be argued that his late work is solipsistic, and that because it’s reduced to the sphere of the self, it lacks the use-value of his earlier work. But I think the work itself, and especially How to Live Together and The Neutral, disproves this thesis, because of their careful consideration of shared ethical and social questions, and because of their address to and implication of the listener.

It is during Barthes’s late period, the period when he seems to look inward, rather than creating outward-moving, systematising thought, that he is, let’s remember, more in the public eye than he has ever been. His work is more famous, and his audiences are bigger. At the Collège de France, he has to address his lectures to a large and fairly diverse audience. He worried about how to make his discourse more “human” for this listenership. And he succeeded in doing so, by staging his own subjectivity, and by using subjective concerns as a means to discuss shared, universal concerns: how to have space, how to avoid dogmatism, how to be well in your work, how to respond to demands. There are interesting tensions and distances in Barthes, especially with regard to the idea of intellectual community. I find it fascinating that during his late period, in the work which is often seen as merely self-indulgent, he is in fact very much disposed to thinking about common, communal questions, via what he underlines as personal fantasy. It is at his most personal that Barthes gains his most universal relevance. This is seen to best advantage in his final book, Camera Lucida (2000 [1980]), the crux of which is the problem of how to reconcile the individual and society, how to reconcile the particular response and universal norms. Aesthetic judgment – judgment of photographs in this instance, but this applies also to judgment of literature and other aesthetic objects – is, of course, the arena within which this oscillation between subjective response and more universal importance takes place. At the Collège de France, it is because of his desire, outlined in the inaugural lecture, to try to attenuate the “will-to-power” inherent in discourse, that Barthes’s lecture material is articulated around the axis of the personal fantasy – the fantasy of the ideal inter-personal distance in How to Live Together, the fantasy of neutral discourse and being in The Neutral, the fantasy of the mode of writing that would manage to express the emotion inspired by one’s loved ones in The Preparation of the Novel. In the Collège de France lectures, he manages to resolve the problem of wanting to articulate particularity, but also wanting that particularity to have general validity without being oppressive. This is perhaps the major achievement of this teaching. For this reason, this work is resonant and inspiring: we as listeners (or readers), the great unknown public to whom the lectures were read, have our place in this work, and it can thus continually reward us.


1) Idiorrhythm: “idios,” the individual, and “rhuthmos,” rhythm.

2) In his summary of How to Live Together, Barthes stated that “the research […] consisted in ‘opening dossiers.’ The responsibility for filling those dossiers was assigned to those attending the lectures, who were invited to do so in their own manner, the principal role of the professor being to suggest ways of structuring the themes” (2013, 171-2).

3) “We must inquire into the conditions and processes by which discourse can be disengaged from all will-to-possess” (Inaugural Lecture, 459).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Vintage, 2000.

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

—. Inaugural Lecture, Collège de France. Trans. Richard Howard. In A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. London: Vintage, 1992. 457-78.

—. Mythologies. Paris: Seuil, 1957.

—. The Neutral. Trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. Ed. Thomas Clerc. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

—. The Preparation of the Novel. Trans. Kate Briggs. Ed. Nathalie Léger. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011

—. “Twenty Key Words for Roland Barthes.” Interview with Jean-Jacques Brochier for Le Magazine littéraire, February 1975. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. Trans. Linda Coverdale. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 205-32.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, vol. 3: The Care of the Self. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Vintage, 1988.

Lacarrière, Jacques. L’Été grec. Une Grèce quotidienne de 4000 ans. Paris: Plon, 1976.

Lyotard, Jean-François. Instructions païennes. Paris: Galilée, 1977.

Lucy O’Meara is Lecturer in French at the University of Kent, UK. She is the author of Roland Barthes at the Collège de France (Liverpool University Press, 2012) as well as of several articles and chapters on Barthes’s work. She has also published on crime fiction, the Oulipo group, and French literary responses to Japan.