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
On April 25th and 26th of 2013, Claire Sommers and I, as members of the Comparative Literature and English programs at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, organized and hosted the second annual interdisciplinary conference on Critical Theory, in order to pay tribute to and initiate debate about Roland Barthes’s late writings. In light of the final publication from his lecture courses, How to Live Together (Comment vivre ensemble, 1976-1977), we invited presentations from all fields to explore any aspect of Roland Barthes’s oeuvre: the evolution of his writing and thinking, his engagement with literary or cultural texts, the tightrope his writings walk between the forms of the novel and the essay, and the relationship of his work not just to Critical Theory, but to any and all other disciplines. This special issue of The Conversant provides a venue for only some of the many outstanding essays presented during our two-day conference on issues ranging from Orientalism to autobiography, queer studies to photography, mourning to Marxism. Although our conference was designed to investigate the value of Roland Barthes’s late work, the underlying question of the conference was what exactly differentiated Barthes’s “late” work from his “early” work, as well as what ways the transformation in his thinking and writing might testify to and illuminate the major transformations in literary and cultural theory during the second half of the twentieth century. Nearly all the conference participants, and especially those whose papers are published in this collection, tackled these difficult questions and spoke to the importance of Barthes’s search for a new form that would not merely satisfy his own artistic and intellectual ambitions, but would more profoundly intervene into the contemporary discourse (literary, social, political) of Barthes’s era, and of our own.
In his keynote speech, a lecture revised and published in this collection, Jonathan Culler, the celebrated scholar who introduced much of the Anglo-American world to French literary theory, laid out the groundwork for the debate over the value of Roland Barthes’s early and late work. Culler’s primary argument remained unchanged from his original assessment of Barthes’s oeuvre in 1983, now available in Oxford University Press’s Barthes: A Very Short Introduction (2002). Culler concluded that Roland Barthes was no longer an unquestionable reference point and authority, stating unequivocally: “I would contend that the value, nay, the genius of Barthes lies not in the blend of knowingness or sentimentality of the late work but in the early work, which tries out possible sciences” (Culler 127).2 For Culler, and for many other critical theorists, Barthes’s early work, especially his Marxist-oriented semiology, exemplified by his magisterial Mythologies (1957), offered the theoretical perspective, methodology and terminology necessary to assess the insidious ways ideology over-determines our experience, especially by means of stereotypical representations that exonerate our frequently unjustifiable lifestyles and encourage us to assume as Common Sense (what Barthes calls doxa), as inevitable and natural, the most deplorable, yet avoidable, aspects of our culture and politics. Jonathan Culler is doubtlessly right to celebrate the importance of Roland Barthes’s contributions to, for instance, the field of semiology. Yet our conference raised the pressing question as to whether Barthes’s late work could prove especially useful in the face of political crises Barthes previously diagnosed and critiqued.
In the aftermath of May 1968, Barthes’s reflections on his early work called into question the Marxist critique of ideology he elaborated previously, and sketched out his intuition that the structure of contemporary doxa would only prove susceptible to modes of intervention and persuasion more sophisticated than discourse analysis. After explicating Barthes’s innovative critique of contemporary ideology, I hope to demonstrate briefly, before our contributors analyze and illustrate in more detail, that whereas Barthes’s early work exposes, critiques, and satirizes, Barthes’s late work baffles, resists and inspires. If Barthes’s early writings demystify our false consciousness, declaring that, so to speak, the emperor wears no clothes, Barthes’s late writings disrupt our stereotypical interpretations, bending genres and frustrating those reading practices that sustain our bad faith, surprising and inspiring us out of our modern cynicism whereby we know quite well the emperor wears no clothes, but still, we follow his lead.
Barthes’s early work, his essays of cultural semiology, sought to analyze the “myths” that structure our ideology and control the way we understand, and misunderstand, the material conditions of our lives. Like Foucault’s, Barthes’s work investigated the distortion of ideology at the hands of power, of capitalist relations of production and imperial hegemony. Barthes’s Mythologies stands as one of the most thorough and accessible attempts to demystify the structures of our ideologies that remained hidden, so to speak, in plain sight, pervading the most quotidian aspects of life, from the French love of wine to wrestling matches, from news reports on colonial wars to celebrity gossip. However, Barthes’s “Preface to the 1970 Edition” of Mythologies carefully disavows the methodology, formal techniques and ideological assumptions that undergirded his project in the 1950s (Barthes wrote the essays that constitute Mythologies between 1954 and 1956). In his “Preface,” Barthes writes that, in the aftermath of May 1968, “this book could today no longer be performed in the same way” and clarifies that, “In other words, I could not, today, write new mythologies in their previous form” (Mythologies ix). Why is Mythologies, in the aftermath of May 1968, no longer the model for the ideal critical intervention? Barthes gives a hint when he insists that “ideological criticism, precisely when the need for it was brutally obvious (May 1968), has become or at least ought to have become more sophisticated” (ix). A year later, in his essay, “Change the Object Itself: Myth Today” (1971), Barthes reflects on his early work to explain more thoroughly why Mythologies was and is no longer sufficient as ideological criticism and political activism, why Barthes, “could not, today, write new mythologies in their previous form” (ix).
If Barthes’s essay “Myth Today,” appended to Mythologies, provides a theoretical blueprint for his semiological method, in his later essay, “Change the Object Itself: Myth Today,” Barthes enumerates his previous argument’s “theoretical articulations” before calling into question their basic assumptions. Barthes explicates his former argument as follows: 1) “Myth” is “close to what Durkheimian sociology calls a ‘collective representation,’” a socially determined “reflection” of material conditions; 2) the “reflection” is “inverted,” as “the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical,” no matter how unjust and unnecessary, are interpreted to be “natural,” ahistorical and unavoidable; 3) contemporary European “myth” in particular is “discontinuous,” no longer a dominant fixed narrative as the Church once imposed, but only “discourse,” a “corpus of phrases (of stereotypes),” and therefore all the more “insidious”; and finally, 4) “semiology” was at one time capable of unveiling and reorienting the “mythical inversion,” enlightening those who misunderstood the actual state of affairs by “breaking up the message into two semantic systems” and revealing what we take to be “natural” as actually historical, artificial, even arbitrary (Image, Music, Text 165-166). At the time he wrote Mythologies, Barthes’s theory of myth was in keeping with the traditional Marxist theory of ideology as false-consciousness, and his method of discourse analysis was meant to provide therapy for the ailing eyesight of the masses. After Barthes’s retrospective survey of his own manifesto, however, he concludes, “Thus appeared, thus at least appeared to me, myth today,” before he coyly asks, “Has anything changed?” (166). In fact, Barthes insists “French society” has not changed, “at any rate, not at this level, mythical history having a time-scale different to that of political history” (166). Neither have “the myths, nor even the analysis” altered—“in our society, the mythical still abounds, just as anonymous and slippery, fragmented and garrulous, available both for ideological criticism and semiological dismantling” (166). Rather, what Barthes concludes has changed in the last 15 years is “the science of reading under whose gaze myth, like an animal long since captured and held in observation, does nevertheless become a different object” (166). In this vehement survey of “Myth Today,” Barthes insists that “denunciation, demystification (or demythification)” has itself become “a mythological doxa,” “discourse, stock of phrases, catechistic declaration,” as “any student can and does denounce the bourgeois or petit-bourgeois character of such and such a form (of life, of thought, of consumption),” but to no end—the ruling ideology, the mythic discourse that enables injustice, Barthes realizes, has appropriated the “science of the signifier” (166-167).3
The significance of Barthes’s claim that “demystification” has itself become “a mythological doxa” anticipates an increasingly well-respected work of cultural criticism published shortly after Barthes’s death, Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason (1983). In Critique of Cynical Reason, Sloterdijk identifies the transformation in the ruling ideology’s structure that incites Barthes to shift gears from his early to his late work. Sloterdijk argues that contemporary Western society, as well as many prior historical periods, especially the most totalitarian and imperial manifestations of late capitalist society, depend not so much on an ideology of false consciousness, but rather on what he terms “enlightened false consciousness,” or “cynical reason” (Sloterdijk, 5). In The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), Slavoj Žižek succinctly distinguishes the two modes of ideology identified by Sloterdijk, while emphasizing the consequences for politically-committed critical theory and art. For Žižek, the most elementary formulation of false consciousness comes from Marx’s Das Kapital: “they do not know it, but they are doing it” (Žižek, 28). Žižek clarifies that such a theory of ideology implies a “basic, constitutive naiveté: the misrecognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, a distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representation, our false-consciousness of it” (28). In other words, the theory of false consciousness posits that, as in the example of commodity fetishism, individuals under capitalism misinterpret social relations, the material relations of production, and the interconnections between the base and superstructure. To this end, Žižek observes that the traditional “critical-ideological procedure,” exemplified even for Žižek by Barthes’s Mythologies, is designed to “lead the naïve ideological consciousness to a point at which it can recognize its own effective conditions, the social reality that it is distorting, and through this very act dissolve itself” (28). However, in contradiction with the theory of false consciousness, modern “ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical” (29). As Žižek puts it, the “cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less insists upon the mask” (29). Žižek’s pithy formula for Sloterdijk’s proposition is therefore: “‘they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it’” (29). This fetishistic disavowal, Žižek argues, is the “paradox of an enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it” (29). To this end, Žižek insists that an ideology of cynical reason “renders impossible—or, more precisely, vain—the classic critical-ideological procedure” (29). Satire, irony and sarcasm only sustain the ruling ideology’s cynical reason—the traditional critique of ideology, especially demystification, according to Žižek, is insufficient, even counter-productive, in the face of those who in bad faith enjoy their luxury not just at the expense of the poor and the foreign, but, these days, to the detriment of our very planet. Whereas, then, an ideology of false consciousness would prove susceptible to artistic and critical methods that, as György Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre previously advocated, disturb and remove the veil of illusion in order to reveal the actual material conditions and ulterior motives perpetuating an oppressive system, an ideology of enlightened false consciousness takes into consideration, even sarcastically thrives off, the revelation of an unjust state of affairs.
For Barthes, then, as for Sloterdijk and Žižek thereafter, the ruling “mythological doxa” that cynically tolerates “denunciation, demystification (or demythification)” is precisely what makes the critical essays of Mythologies no longer effective. Barthes concludes his essay “Change the Object Itself: Myth Today,” by attempting to sketch a new “programme,” or what Barthes, in his humble way, qualifies as “perhaps only an ‘inclination’” (Image, Music, Text, 169). The “task” of this new programme is “no longer simply to upend (or right) the mythical message, to stand it back on its feet, with denotation at the bottom and connotation at the top, nature on the surface and class interest deep down, but rather to change the object itself, to produce a new object, point of departure for a new science” (169). For Barthes, as his late work makes clear, a new science involves a new approach to literature and art that, in the vein of reception theory, can assess the personal, social and political effect of aesthetic and critical modes of communication, while also, in the vein of deconstruction, seeking to destabilize the binary systems of reason that undergird ruling ideologies. To this end, in his third-person, aleatory autobiography, Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes (Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, 1975), Barthes, at once the ironic aesthete and committed stylist, clarifies his intentions to reach and affect the reader: “Speaking of a text, he credits its author with not manipulating the reader. But he found this compliment by discovering that he himself does all he can to manipulate the reader, and that in fact he will never renounce an art of effects” (Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, 102). For Barthes, a new science also demands new “forms” that can reach a wide audience before proceeding to undermine the binary relations that structure ideology and discourse, disrupting those polarized stereotypes that allow the contemporary reader to resort in bad faith to a cynical doxa (167).4 In the face of a populace that, especially after the failed revolution of May 1968, knows quite well the injustice it’s leisure depends upon, and even goes so far as to make fun of its own half-hearted illusions, Barthes argues in “Change the Object Itself: Myth Today” that “it is no longer the myths which need to be unmasked (the doxa now takes care of that), it is the sign itself which must be shaken; the problem is not to reveal the (latent) meaning of an utterance, of a trait, of a narrative, but to fissure the very representation of meaning, is not to change or purify the symbols but to challenge the symbolic itself” (167).
Like Theodor Adorno’s pessimistic aestheticism, Barthes’s skepticism about the effectiveness of traditional modes of ideological criticism brings into light the political potential of works of art and criticism that do not teach so much as unteach, that do not preach the truth to the choir so much as resist the interpretation of those who already cynically tolerate an unpalatable truth. Barthes’s response in Writing Degree Zero (Le degré zéro de l’écriture, 1953) to Jean-Paul Sartre’s foundational essay of post-war criticism, What is Literature? (Qu’est-ce que la littérature, 1948) bears much in common with Adorno’s own devastating retort to Sartre’s essay in “Commitment” (1962). Throughout their lives, both Adorno and Barthes increasingly turned against Sartre’s call for “la littérature engagée” (“committed literature”) that would clearly communicate the writer’s political commitment to a demystifying critique of the status quo. Hence in “Cultural Criticism” (1967) Adorno concludes that “The traditional transcendent critique of ideology is obsolete. In principle, the method succumbs to the very reification which is it critical theme” (Adorno, 33-34).5 In this way, Barthes’s late work does not abandon Marx any more than Adorno’s does; instead, in Barthes’s conclusion to “Change the Object Itself: Myth Today,” he figures his theoretical and methodological development as a “move—with all due allowance for difference in importance (obviously) and according to Althusser’s scheme—from Feuerbach to Marx, from the young Marx to the mature Marx” (Image, Music, Text, 169). Whereas Adorno’s pessimism and anti-utilitarianism may well have gotten the better of him, at best arguing in favor of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett’s work as politically subversive for refusing to satisfy the recipient’s desire for the type of closure that capitalist commodities usually provide, Roland Barthes, after spending the first half of his life analyzing the structures of late capitalist and imperial ideology, committed, however ambivalently, the rest of his life to examining, formulating and experimenting with alternative modes of aesthetic persuasion and resistance. If both Adorno and Barthes mark within their theoretical oeuvre a crucial turning point not only in the theory of the politics of aesthetics, but in critical theory more generally from structuralism to post-structuralism, Barthes’s late works provide one of the most illuminating series of experiments for cultural critics and artists today who seek not only to discover and to reveal, but to persuade.
In light of the contemporary ruling ideology’s immunity to traditional modes of critique, rational persuasion and demystification, Barthes’s late writings, from his more nuanced, lyrical rendition of mythologies in Empire of Signs (L’Empire des signes, 1970) to his elegiac writings on photography in Camera Lucida (La chambre claire : note sur la photographie, 1980), should appear as valuable attempts not merely to give the lie to a cynical doxa, but to give Common Sense a taste, so to speak, of its own medicine. As exemplified by Barthes’s turn to autobiographical writing after demystifying, like Foucault, the insidious role of the ritual of confession in systems of surveillance and containment, Barthes’s late writings deploy and distort the popular genres that his earlier writings critiqued. In this way, Barthes’s search for a “third form” was in keeping with his still underexplored concept of “le neutre” (“the neutral”); the “third form” would, like the neutral, baffle and outplay, bypass and short-circuit, the paradigm of the novel and the essay, art and criticism, representation and demystification. For Barthes, the “third form” would not synthesize,as Hegel would have it, the novel and the essay, but rather, would outwit (“déjouer”) the binary division that limits both writer and reader. To this end, Barthes’s conceptualization of “the neutral” serves as the theoretical foundation for his exploration of alternative, aesthetic modes of persuasion—rhetorical strategies exemplified by his resort to fragmentary, paradoxical, and aleatory modes of writing, from the haiku to the notation, from the Zen koan to the lyrical essay. As Lucy O’Meara argues in her scholarship on Barthes’s late lectures (as well as in her essay published in this collection), his lecture notes, published and translated in the new millennium, at times approximate more than any other work by Barthes the enigmatic, fragmentary, yet novelistic and subversive “third form” that his last lecture course, The Preparation of the Novel, fantasized so exhaustively. And yet, if for many critical theorists, Barthes’s emphasis in his late writings, especially in The Pleasure of the Text (Le plaisir du texte, 1973), on “readerly” and “writerly” pleasure comes across as all-too-bourgeois, it is important to note that Barthes’s genre-bending writings, such as his popular A Lover’s Discourse (Fragments d’un discours amoureux, 1977), serve, at the very least, to make the reader’s stereotypical role less pleasant, and, at best, to deprive, paralyze, or over-satisfy into a state of jouissance the reader’s politically-inflected hermeneutic approach. After demystifying contemporary doxa in his early work, perhaps, finally, Barthes’s greatest and most positive achievement in his late work was to stage cautiously his desire and search for the neutral as a possible model (by no means a “masterful” one) for just how pleasurable living in good faith in a relatively demystified society can be.
I hope that this collection of essays, offering only a selection of the outstanding work scholars presented at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Conference, “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes,” will serve to justify further the value of Barthes’s last writings and lectures as models for the methodological approaches and stylistic interventions ever more necessary in our increasingly cynical, hyper-polarized and unjust society. Barthes was always a technician, and the writings that follow, by graduate students and faculty alike, will testify to the importance of Barthes’s late work not just for scholars of literary criticism and theory, but for the wide range of disciplines that constitute the humanities, as well as for artists and writers more generally who, at both micro and macro levels, seek to change the minds of those who will not be persuaded.
We begin The Conversant’s special issue on “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes” with Youna Kwak’s elegant essay that unties the stylistic knot of intimacy in Barthes’s late writings. Just as Barthes once famously asked, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?,” Kwak’s essay itself unveils, without fully disclosing, not only herself as the reader who cruises, but Barthes, the writer who flirts—a little suspicious of the reader’s curiosity, but also, more than ever before, peeking out between the lines of his posthumous, autobiographical texts, Incidents (1987) and the Mourning Diary (Journal de deuil, 2009). By breathlessly meditating upon the distance a reader must maintain in order to both, paradoxically, get close to the text (and by proxy, the writer), and also productively look away from the text to the world, Kwak introduces and engages with the dilemmas of reception theory and the ethics of writing that concern the contributions that follow. After Kwak’s overture, Jonathan Culler’s assessment of Barthes’s late work in the context of his oeuvre serves as a wonderful introduction for newcomers and specialists alike, providing at least in the Anglophone context the foundational assessment of Barthes’s late writings that any contemporary scholar must take into consideration. Lucy O’Meara’s contribution extends her thorough research on Barthes’s lecture courses, while also taking into consideration her panel discussion with D.A. Miller and Diana Knight during our conference. Her paper at once provides a useful introduction to Barthes’s lecture courses while still delving deeply into their most complex contradictions, from the strange way Barthes’s lecture course, How to Live Together, searches for a pleasant and productive way to live alone, to the relationality that lies at the heart of Barthes’s fantasies, a relationality and ethical commitment that remains ignored by simplistic critiques of Barthes’s late work as solipsistic.
After laying out the playing field, we turn to Russell Stephens’ fascinating meditation on Walter Benjamin and Barthes’s approaches to the reception aesthetics of photography. Stephens explores Barthes’s unspoken debt in Camera Lucida to Benjamin, whose contributions to critical theory very well may have inspired the late Barthes as much as such acknowledged influences as Friedrich Nietzsche.6 Stephens’ essay provides the groundwork for further contributions in this collection on Barthes’s writings on photography, especially by situating Barthes’s phenomenology of photography’s reception within the Marxist context that many critics denigrate his late writing for lacking (for instance, Stephens points to the possibility that what Barthes terms the punctum may prove most capable of stimulating and reorienting the contemporary recipient’s postmodern, ahistorical consciousness). From another angle, David Greetham’s provocative and complex meditation upon Barthes’s dichotomy between work and text, the actual and the ideal versions of a text, injects Barthes’s nuanced thinking into the most vital debates in textual studies. Greetham’s bravura performance, weaving etymological and genealogical divagations, raise a series of foundational questions on the integrity of the text that prove crucial not just to Barthes criticism, but to textual scholarship and literary criticism more generally. Expanding further the range of Barthes’s writings and the media he celebrated and analyzed, Margot Note examines Barthes’s understudied writings on the photography of architecture in order to trace the transformation of Barthes’s object of study and his mode of intervention in tandem with his gradual shift in theoretical approach from structuralism to post-structuralism until, in Camera Lucida, Barthes achieves what amounts to another compelling instance of “the third form.” Not only does Camera Lucida disclose, as Note explicates, how the recipient experiences photography according to structuralist and post-structuralist frameworks, but Barthes’s ambiguously confessional text presents a phenomenology of photographic reception that can come to terms with those slippery components of the “image” that traditional semiological analysis struggles in vain to pin down.
Following these contributions to Barthes’s bravura writing on literature, photography and architecture, Claire Raymond’s analysis of Barthes’s theory of photography and “the third meaning” in relation to Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series serves to call into question the problematic critical reception of Mendieta’s oeuvre. Raymond’s essay, thereafter, draws out through Barthes’ theoretical writings the subversive potential of photography and performance art that ambiguously represents freighted issues of racialized and gendered subjectivity, orphanhood and exile. Finally, we conclude The Conversant’s “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes” with the revised version of Rosalind Krauss’s keynote on Barthes’s concept of “le neutre,” a lecture that performs a profound, even dizzying, analysis of Gramscian neutralization in order to assess the significance of Barthes’s late work as a post-structuralist intervention into ideological discourse.
I would like to thank first and foremost Claire Sommers, as well as Professor André Aciman, for their tireless, quasi-magical work in putting on one of, if not the largest Anglophone academic conferences devoted to Roland Barthes to date. I would also like to thank all our sponsors at the CUNY Graduate Center: the Center for Humanities, the English and Comparative Literature Programs, the Writer’s Institute, the Doctoral Students’ Council, the English Students’ Association, the Office of the Provost, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, and Columbia University Press. I would furthermore like to thank all our participants at “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes”conference, especially our invited speakers, Jonathan Culler, Rosalind Krauss, D.A. Miller, Lucy O’Meara and Diana Knight, as well as the Graduate Center faculty who kindly moderated each of our panels. Finally, I’m grateful to The Conversant for providing an important digital and multi-media venue where such an array of scholars can reach a wider audience than most print journals allow (much less your typical conference proceedings that enter that uncanny genre known as “grey literature” which only Barthes could have properly analyzed). In particular, I want to thank Andy Fitch and Cristiana Baik for their support over the last year as I sent out CFPs, reviewed submissions and edited this exciting collection. I would also like to thank their editorial staff, Ching-In Chen and Caleb Beckwith, for their assistance in the final stages of editing this special issue. Finally, I’m grateful to my dissertation advisor, Wayne Koestenbaum, not only for first introducing me to Barthes’s late lectures during his course, “The Desire to Write,” but for his attentive guidance throughout the last few years of my doctoral studies.
If Barthes’s last wishes were to transform himself and the reader, for both writer and reader to be, in some way, reborn, it is worth concluding with Barthes’s last words during his last lecture of his course, The Preparation of the Novel, where he figured such a rebirth, such a conversion, such a discovery of a “third form,” through the medium of music. At the conclusion of his lecture, Barthes retells the story of Friedrich Nietzsche’s moment of revelation before the pyramidal rock on the shore of Lake Silvaplana. After paraphrasing Nietzsche’s account of his vision of the Eternal Return as the “rebirth of the art of hearing,” Barthes admits that he too is waiting for his “Hearing to be transformed,” a transformation he imagines to be “the real dialectical becoming,” one in which you, as Nietzsche put it, “Become what you are,” or, as in Kafka’s saying, you “Destroy yourself…in order to make yourself into that which you are” (The Preparation of the Novel, 304). In light of this inspiring paradox whereby, according to Barthes, “the distinction between the Old and the New would quite naturally be abolished,” and after noting Arnold Schönberg’s optimism that “it’s still possible to write music in C Major,” Barthes gives us his last enigmatic hint of what his future work, the “third form” beside the novel and the essay, would have been like: “There, to bring things to a close, you have the object of my desire: to write a work in C Major.”
Brooklyn, New York
June 15th, 2014
1) In Roland Barthes at the Collège de France, Lucy O’Meara provides a thorough account of the complex legal and literary reasons Barthes’s late lectures weren’t even published in French until the beginning of the new millennium, more than twenty years after his original lecture courses took place.
2) To this end, Culler disagrees with Foucault’s prediction that Barthes would have been “one of those men whose most important work will be written between the ages of sixty and ninety.” Culler writes in the lecture revised and published in this volume: “I completely disagree. The death of Barthes’s mother in 1977 left him thoroughly demoralized, struggling for a raison d’être.” Culler continues: “So I disagree with Foucault, whose ostensible praise was doubtless a way of slyly denigrating the structuralist Barthes. Rather than imagine that the late Barthes would have produced great works, we should think about the value of what we have, in La préparation du roman, for example. What we have is above all a paradoxical operation . . . . The determination to renounce metalanguage is central to this attempt to change perspective and to write not as a critic or theorist, who offers metalinguistic categories to describe the literary objects studied, but to write from the perspective of the writer preparing the novel.” Culler concludes diplomatically: “Though the regressions of late Barthes seem to me dangerous in that they might seduce readers into ignoring Barthes’s earlier compelling analyses, astute readers should be capable of keeping those analyses in play so as to profit from them, while still finding stimulation in the late Barthes and in the possibilities his conflictedly metalinguistic writing provides. In sum, the Renaissance of Roland Barthes must entail substance as well as saveur, early Barthes as well as late Barthes.”
3) It is worth noting that Barthes, as ever, anticipated his critique of ideology as cynical even in “Myth Today,” where, on the one hand, he acknowledged myth as functioning according to the theory of false consciousness (“myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear”), and, on the other hand, Barthes also identified myth’s plasticity: “it is very difficult to vanquish myth from the inside: for the very effort one makes in order to escape its stranglehold becomes, in its turn the prey of myth: myth can always, as a last resort, signify the resistance which is brought to bear against it” (Mythologies, 231, 246).
4) In Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, Barthes identified in a similar vein the potential for ideologues to cynically tolerate discourse analysis, before arguing that the aesthetic offers a privileged means of resistance: “Ideology: what is repeated and consistent (by this last adjective, it is excluded from the order of the signifier). So ideological analysis (or counter-ideology) need merely be repeated and consistent (by proclaiming on the spot its validity, by a gesture of pure clearance) in order to become, itself, an ideological object.
How escape this? One solution is possible: the aesthetic one. In Brecht, an ideological critique is not made directly (or else it would have once more produced a repetitive, tautological, militant discourse): it passes through aesthetic relays; 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)” (Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, 104).
5) In “Cultural Criticism,” Adorno continues: “There are no more ideologies in the authentic sense of false consciousness, only advertisements for the world through its duplication and the provocative lie which does not seek belief but commands silence” (Adorno, 34). It is in light of the twilight of false consciousness that Adorno’s famous aphorism on “poetry after Auschwitz” should be understood: “The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation” (34).
5) In Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, Barthes explains how such writers as Nietzsche, and perhaps Benjamin as well, influenced his thinking: “Hence there must be a distinction between the authors about whom one writes, and whose influence is neither external nor anterior to what one says about them, and (a more classical conception) the authors whom one reads; but what comes to me from the latter group? A kind of music, a pensive sonority, a more or less dense play of anagrams. (I had my head full of Nietzsche, whom I had just been reading; but what I wanted, what I was trying to collect, was a song of sentence-ideas: the influence was purely prosodic.)” (Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, 107).
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Alex Wermer-Colan is an English doctoral student at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. In addition to co-organizing the “Renaissance of Roland Barthes” conference at the Graduate Center on April 25th and 26th of 2013, he also organized the “William S. Burroughs Centennial” conference on April 25th, 2014. His essay, “Implicating the Confessor: The Autobiographical Ploy in William S. Burroughs’ Early Works,” was published in Twentieth Century Literature, and his translation of Jean Cocteau’s “Letter to the Americans” will be published by New Directions in the Spring of 2016. He is currently writing his dissertation on decadent aesthetics as a counter-discourse to cynical imperial ideology.