(No bliss) Can Occur in Mass Culture: On Roland Barthes and the (Dark) Schlemiel


Who doesn’t love mass culture today?  Millions of people watch Netflix, surf the internet, and occasion Facebook and Twitter to experience a daily dose of mass culture.   But not all artists agree. While an artist like Andy Warhol embraced mass culture and turned to pop art for meaning, many other artists felt that any turn to mass culture was a form of betrayal.   Recently, when I picked up Roland Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, I found two aphorisms that speak to a unique relationship and experience he has with language, one that mass culture cannot experience.   In language, Barthes finds pleasure and bliss.   Would he distinguish, then, between a Charlie Chaplin and a Seth Rogen – between one schlemiel and another?  Aren’t they both products of mass culture or is Charlie Chaplin closer to language than Rogen?  After all, Barthes, Benjamin, and Arendt found something blissful and “new” in Chaplin.

I am intersted in language because it wounds and seduces me.  Can that be a class eroticism?  What class? The bourgeoisie?  The bourgeoisie has no relish for language, which it no longer regards even as a luxury, an element of the art of living (death of “great” literature), but merely as an instrument of decor (phraseology).  The People? Here all the magical or poetical activity disappears, the party’s over, no more games with words: an end to metaphors, reign of the stereotypes imposed by petit bourgeoisie culture.  (38).

But in the midst of all this, language remains: “An islet remains: the text.  Delights of caste…pleasure, perhaps; bliss, no”(38).   People’s pleasures, in other words, are based on fake things, on stereotypes, not literature.  The pleasure in literature, on the other hand, can produce bliss.

Barthes nails this distinction down by offering more negative words about mass culture:

No significance (no bliss) can occur, I am convinced, in mass culture (to be distinguished, like fire from water, from the culture of the masses), for the model of this culture is petit bourgeoise.  It is characteristic of our (historical) contradiction that significance (bliss) has taken refuge in an excessive alternative….in an utopian idea (the idea of future culture, resulting from a radical, unheard of, predictable revolution, abut which anyone writing today nows only one thing: that, like Moses, he will not cross over into it. (39)

The utopian idea has an apocalyptic – and not simply a utopian – ring to it.   Barthes explains that what makes bliss bliss is the radical disruption of the social:

The asocial character of bliss: it is the abrupt loss of sociality, and yet there follows no recurrence of the subject (subjectivity), the person, solitude: everything is lost, integrally. Extremity of the clandestine, darkness of the motion-picture theater.  (39)

In a Heideggarian sense, one experiences the “nihilation of the nothing.”  Literature used to unsettle people; it still can.  And if that happens the experience of bliss – which is really an experience of shock, for Barthes – is possible.  Bliss, he writes, may only come “with the absolutely new, for only the new disturbs (weakens) consciousness”(40).  The loss of one’s sense of self and the experience of solitude is the optimal state – for Barthes – of the writer/artist and the reader/viewer.

This suggests that all of the affect one experiences on Facebook and on “twitchy” media may be pleasurable but it is not bliss.  Barthes is more interested in an apocalyptic kind of rupture.  To be sure, as a reader and a writer, that is what he is looking for while we are looking for something else.   The higher pleasure, in his reading, is something we can’t understand unless we learn how to read.

In Mythologies, Barthes makes a mass cultural exception: Charlie Chaplin.  As I have noted elsewhere, what Barthes finds special about him is that – in a film like Modern Times – his character’s comical, radical alienation and blinds him and makes him an asocial character.  He is not a part of the machine.  The schlemiel’s life opens up the possibility of bliss for us, the viewers, because it can dislodge us from the social.   It can if and only if we know how to read, in the Barthesian sense.  Does the schlemiel-text -so to speak – wound and seduce me?  Does it leave me feeling torn from the social fabric, radically alone, as it were, in a dark movie theater (after the Chaplin flick has ended)?

Reading this, I wonder about what I wrote about recently: namely the twitter exchange between Seth Rogen and Nicki Minaj over a line she dropped – with Seth Rogen’s name (“Seth Ro”) – in a song.  What happened, as I noted, was to be found “between the emojis.”  It was – to be sure – an exchange of what Barthes would call stereotypes.  Yes, there is a “pleasure” in this, but it is not bliss. There is noting “new” in this exchange.  We can find the same things in TV and filmic depictions of the schlemiel as cuckhold.   Lil Dicky, to be sure, has made an industry of this with videos that have tens of millions of views.

These are cheap thrills and they don’t leave us….solitary . The schlemiel can accomplish this – as Barthes himself notes by way of his reading of Charlie Chaplin – but, today, that schlemiel may only be found on the pages of novels by – for instance – Shalom Auslander or Jonathan Safran Foer.   However, of all the filmmakers out there, Noah Baumbach suggests a different, more dark version of the schlemiel.  Perhaps this is the only means to “bliss” today (via the schlemiel) because as Auslander and Foer know – one (dark) schlemiel must counter the other because the other one is too pleasurable and light.   As Barthes might say, something needs to happen if we are to pause in the empty theater.   Because the world we are in is inundated by schlemiels played by Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller (who have created the schlemiel norm), perhaps it makes perfect sense as to why Baumbach – and filmmakers like the Coen brothers – have taken a liking to a darker shade of the schlemiel (one we don’t expect or even want to see).  See for instance how Baumbach casts Ben Stiller in films like Greenberg (2010) and While We’re Young (2015).  Perhaps we need something more than just Larry David’s attempt to curb our enthusiasm, that is, if Barthes is in fact correct.  It all depends on what you think of pleasure and mass cult.

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