Exposure, Failure, and Rhythm: Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes


Roland Barthes, the famous French thinker and essayist, is best known for S/Z, Mythologies, A Lover’s Discourse, Camera Lucida, Writing Degree Zero, Empire of Signs, and The Pleasure of the Text.  For many years, these books have had a great impact on critical theory, philosophy, comparative literature, anthropology, sociology, and even the academic studies of photography and cinema.  Although I enjoy these books and have learned a lot from them, my two favorite texts of his are his lecture notes for a course he gave in Morocco in 1978 (entitled The Neutral) and his autobiography Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes.

What interests me most about these two books are his reflections on weariness, the neutral, failure, rhythm, gesture, and himself.  Taken together, they disclose something that I also find in Walter Benjamin: an awareness of failure juxtaposed with an aesthetic sensibility that craves intoxication.  As in my readings of Benjamin, I have been reading Barthes with a desire to find his weak point; namely, his sense of vulnerability, innocence, and shame.  I have found this sensibility in a few of Barthes’ passages.  And it is in these passages where Barthes becomes small, humble, and most revealing.

In this blog entry, I will not be focusing on the lecture course; rather, I want to look at a few of Barthes autobiographical reflections which disclose exposure, failure, and a desire for protection, distraction, and aesthetic relief.  Like any good writer with a taste for the esoteric, Barthes leaves it to the reader to connect the dots, so to speak, between one reflection and another.  I would suggest that Barthes wants us to pay close attention to the rhythmic alteration between one reflection and another.  It is in the lacunae between one reflection and another that we can interpret and glean some type of wisdom.

The reflection entitled “Le retentissement – Repercussion” caught my eye.  In this passage, Barthes (who calls himself “him” rather than “I” so as to denote otherness and the fact that he sees his autobiography, as his epigram states, in terms of being a novel of sorts: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel”) fears the “repercussion” his words and the words of others about him or his words will or may have:

Every word which concerns him echoes within him to an extreme degree, and it is this repercussion which he dreads, to the pint of timidly avoiding any discourse that might be offered about him.   The language of others, complimentary or not, is tainted at its source by the repercussion it might have…The link to the world is thus always conquered starting from a  certain fear (156).

Barthes’ fear of repercussion is a fear of exposure.  He knows that his words expose him to possible ridicule and rejection.  His words, in the mouths of others, have repercussions -meaning that they are sounded again but by another and in a way that is other.  Needless to say, the re-percussion (in the sense of a sounding or beating-again) makes him fearful and timid.  Such a confession implies that he, a well-known and highly respected writer in Europe, is exposed and vulnerable.  He is not self-possessed.  Apparently, nothing can secure him from this fear since he has no control over the repercussions of his words.  He has no control over how they will echo back to him.  Barthes language implies that, most likely, the recounting of his words will have negative repercussions – that is, they will expose him to possible damage.  He feels that the repercussions of his words will make him vulnerable and powerless.

Immediately following this reflection is yet another which deals with fear and vulnerability.  It is entitled Reussi/rate – Success/failure.  Barthes, here, reflects on Barthes “re-reading” himself. The effect of this re-reading is, yet again, a kind of exposure. This time it is an exposure to failure:

Rereading himself, he discerns in the very texture of each piece of writing a singular cleavage: that of success/failure: in gusts, felicities of expression, good patches, then bad ones, swamps and deserts which he has even begun to inventory.  Then no book is successful throughout? – Perhaps the book on Japan.

In the midst of his reflection on failure, he turns to success as a balm. And what he finds is a discourse that does not doubt itself and does not fear that its words fall flat. Rather, he finds “the continuous, effusive, jubilant happiness of the writing: in what he writes, each protects his own sexuality.”  But, given what he has just written, we have reason to be suspicious of these lines.  They are literally a distraction. The italics don’t change a thing. To be sure, his “sexuality” cannot be protected by his “continuous, effusive, jubilant” happiness of writing.  After all, didn’t Barthes say that he fears the repercussions of his words? And when he reads himself, he sees discontinuity and failure?  Is Barthes saying that writing, in differentiation to reading, is absent minded?  Is he suggesting that writing is distracted while reading is not?

Frustrated with this thought, Barthes turns to a third option, but even this option cannot lift him from being shamed and exposed.  And he, ironically, notes this:

A third category is possible: neither success nor failure: disgrace: marked, branded with the imaginary.

To be sure, his disgrace, his exposure to failure, is “branded” by the “imaginary.”  In other words, writing does not simply distract him from shame, it marks his shame, brands it.  This implies that the imaginary, that is, writing, is not a balm.  Rather, his personal disgrace is in a violent relationship with writing; it is as if writing, which is still a distraction from exposure, has forced itself upon his disgrace.

Writing tries to brand or mark shame. And this suggests ownership.  But can one’s exposure to failure ever escape writing and the distraction it offers?  Given what we have been saying about Benjamin and his interest in distraction, this is a legitimate question to ask.

Interestingly enough, the two reflections that follow are superficial and imaginary. They displace the negative affect of these two reflections by way of distraction.  The first reflection is entitled “Du choix d’un vetement – Choosing Clothes” and the second reflection is entitled “Le rhythme – Rhythm.”  Both of these reflections are, so to speak, escape routes.

In “Choosing Clothes,” Barthes likens the books one chooses to the clothes one wears.  He reads this in terms of “preparing himself to sustain…the discourse of truth starting from an economy which is that of his own body.”  In other words, these books clothe the body and protect it from negative repercussions that will inevitable ensue in “the discourse of truth.”

The reflection entitled “Rhythm” turns to another way of relating to exposure.  Barthes notes that he (that is Barthes) “always put his faith in that Greek rhythm, the succession of Ascesis and Festivity.”   In his 1978 lecture, Barthes also relates Ascesis to the “succession of paroxystic and opposite states: many collective celebrations, but between each of these festivals a period of retention, abstention, sobriety”(84).  In other words, there is a “rhythm” between one extreme state and the other in the “succession of Ascesis and Festivity.”  He contrasts this rhythm to the “banal rhythm of modernity” which alternates between work and leisure.  This rhythm is different.  Barthes refers to a “Slavic or Balkan” custom in which one “shuts oneself up for three days of festivity.”  He then suggests that one go back and forth between this kind of festivity and sobriety.   Or, I would suggest, a rhythm between exposure (reading) and distraction (writing).

The rhythm he speaks of is built into his text.  The reflection that follows this one, in fact, is all about exposure.  It is entitled “Que ca se sache – Let that be known.”  In this reflection, Barthes admits that “every utterance of a writer (even the fiercest, the wildest) includes a secret operator, an unexpressed word, something like the silent morpheme of a category as primitive as negation or interrogation, whose meaning is: “And let that be known!

In other words, Barthes realizes that in everything he writes, even with words written with great conviction (words that are fierce and wild), there is a snag.  There is something that will expose one to judgment.  By noting this, Barthes is, in effect, arguing that no matter how wild or angry he is – no matter how courageous, powerful, or self-possessed he may sound on paper– there will be something in his words – something undetected – that will render him powerless.

But does powerlessness have the upper hand in these reflections?

From what we have seen, Barthes insistence on rhythm and on protection suggests that powerlessness is, at times, sovereign.  In other words, at times one is made to be a fool.  At moments when one feels at the top of ones game, there will always be repercussions.  But, and this is Barthes point, one must know that one is always exposed to failure, judgment, and repercussions, while, at the same time, operating according to a rhythm.  Barthes suggests that style, writing, and sexuality are attempts to pull away from shame and exposure.  They distract us. However, as we saw above, imagination brands shame.  In other words, writing looks to mark exposure with its power.  But, the fact of the matter is that even though shame is marked by the imagination, shame remains.  Nonetheless, it is branded and, so to speak, re-markable.

And this is where the art meets ethics.  The exposure one has to failure, the timidity that comes with writing to others and re-reading oneself, is ethical, but this exposure is always branded by the imagination which looks to protect the body and vulnerability from too much exposure.    Or as Barthes suggests, the terror of reading oneself is tempered by the distraction of writing oneself.

What I find so interesting about Barthes’ suggestions is that they speak directly to the schlemiel and the reader of the American schlemiel.  Even though Barthes often fails to be comical (since he’s much too serious about himself), he does provide a structure which is best exemplified in the comedy of the American Schlemiel.

An American schlemiel, like Phillip Roth’s Portnoy or Larry David, is humiliated and exposed in what they say and in what they do.  But because their words are couched in the imagination, witty gesture, and style, they are innocent and, to some extent, are protected from extreme damage.  But, in the end, these schlemiels are still exposed. They are the subject of ridicule.  Their victories are, by all means, temporary.   As Barthes might say, the American Schlemiel is caught up in a rhythm of distraction and exposure.

To be sure, we love this rhythm; otherwise, we wouldn’t watch Woody Allen’s films, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, or Andy Kaufmann’s embarrassing comic routines (to take only three examples). These shows invite us to witness how shame, in rhythmic variation, is “branded” by the imagination.   It shows us how distraction and exposure alternate.

Here’s Andy Kaufmann with a few rhythms of his own:


Wink, Wink! Walter Benjamin’s Childhood Secret and His Prophetic Calling to Schlemieldom


As a rule, careful writers are careful readers and vice versa.   A careful writer wants to be read carefully.  He cannot know what it means to be read carefully but by having done careful reading himself.  Reader precedes writer.  We read before we write.  We learn to write by reading.  –Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing

When you’re in on a joke, don’t forget to wink.

When you wink, you imply that there is something that only some people can see.  Winking is not a straightforward gesture.  It is oblique.   And it is immediate, like a blink of the eye.  The wink indicates that the person you shared your secret with now knows something that only you know.

The esoteric, hidden meaning, is esoteric precisely because it signifies by way of an oblique gesture.  The conveyance of the esoteric (secret) message is gestural – like a wink.  There are esoteric writers and readers.  The esoteric writer winks at the reader.  But the reader must be looking for the wink, in advance.  To be sure, if the esoteric reader is to find a secret (or secrets, plural) she must “read between the lines.”

Throughout their work, Walter Benjamin and Leo Strauss were attentive in their readings of texts.  There eyes were either looking for the wink or winking at their readers.  And from such reading practices, they learned how to wink too.

For both, the good reader and the good writer knows how to wink and be winked at.

One winks at the reader, so to speak, through writing.  But one must be able to see the wink.  And that takes practice. One must learn to read for “allusions” – for things that are said obliquely.

But this is not simply a willed activity.  To be sure, both knew that inherent in language is the power to allude and hint at things.  This force astonished Benjamin and Strauss.   Built into language, there is a revelatory aspect. But the revelation of language is not simply a revelation of something outside language.


They knew that their allusive writing style didn’t simply allude to something other than themselves.  Although they would never say it directly (since that is the point of the esoteric), they believed that their allusions referred, in some way, to themselves.

What Benjamin and Strauss desired most was to read and to write: to wink and be winked at.  They wanted to share their secrets.

Leo Strauss’s language is thick with such implication – it winks at his readers.  When he says that “a careful writer wants to be read carefully,” he is obliquely telling his readers his desire which, ultimately, comes from careful reading.  After all, as Strauss says in the epigram: “Reader precedes writer.”  When Strauss writes these words about Baruch Spinoza, he is speaking about himself and his deepest desire as a writer.  His words are autobiographical.

Strauss wants to be read well.  But this is not for his own sake.  He wants to read well so that he can write well.  Writing is not for himself; writing, for Strauss, is shared (partage, as Derrida would say); writing is for a community of careful readers and writers.  What Strauss calls “persecuted writers.”  (Derrida, in his essay on Emmanuel Levinas entitled “Violence and Metaphysics” calls it the “community of the question.”)

To get into the community, you simply need to know how to read the wink when-it-happens and how to write-slash-wink.  We can have no doubt that Benjamin saw himself as a part of such an esoteric community of readers and writers.  He knew that the wink signifies that we know something that many people don’t.   He knows that his knowledge, because it is esoteric and hidden from society, might be dangerous.  This is why Strauss would call it “persecuted”: the author cannot, under certain societal circumstances, reveal this knowledge directly.  S/he must wink.

But the wink doesn’t simply reveal a secret that may endanger society; it also tells us something about the writer that we may not know.  After all, a wink tells us one thing: you’re in on my secret.

Yesterday, in my cursory reading of the childhood section Benjamin’s book One Way Street, I pointed out how Benjamin’s sections on children are autobiographicalThe section begins with reading but ends with hiding.  I explained how Benjamin was identifying with the child and, in effect, becoming-child.  Most importantly, we must remember that this becoming happens in a world or micro-world.

One doesn’t become in a vacuum.  This means that Benjamin’s reading practices are ways of opening up and hiding in microworlds.   But he didn’t just go into these worlds for no reason.  No, as I pointed out, Benjamin was running away from terror as the child runs from a “demon.”  We can say that he was persecuted.  His words on The Idiot (and on hiding) tell us that he knows that his terror comes from childhood damage.  But this is not simply knowledge.  In writing about this terror, it is practiced: Benjamin, in the two aphorisms we read yesterday, demonstrates that he must live the life of a child if he is to be safe or as Jacques Derrida would say in his essay “Faith and Religion,” sacred, that is, removed from danger, “autoimmune.”

At the beginning of One Way Street, Benjamin prepares us for his venture into childhood and its safe havens.  We see this in an aphorism entitled “Vestibule.” Here he gives the reader his prophesy of childhood and his calling.

In the aphorism, Benjamin notes how, in a dream, he “visits” the home of the famed German writer, thinker, and poet: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  He notes that even though he was in Goethe’s house, “he didn’t see any rooms.”

Benjamin tells us how the interior of his dream space appears to him from his angle-slash-perspective: “that it was a perspective of whitewashed corridors like those in a school.”  This implies that he feels like a young student in Goethe’s house (or, rather, school of thought). In the house-slash-school, there are “two elderly English lady visitors and a curator.”  They are only “extras.”  They lead him to the secret, which, we must underscore, is to be read and written.  The curator asks that he and the two elderly ladies “sign the visitors’ book lying open on the desk at the end of the passage.”

When he opens the book to sign, he has a revelation about his name and his prophetic calling:

On reaching it, I find as I turn the pages my name already entered in big, unruly, childish characters.

He realizes that he doesn’t have to sign!

This is the prophetic calling of the schlemiel.  To be sure, his name is “already” written in “big, unruly, childish characters.”  The words literally wink at him: Benjamin is in on a big joke.   This passage suggests that we all know that Benjamin was always meant to be a fool.  Moreover, it is written in the book of Goethe: the prophet, so to speak, of all German scholarship.

But this revelation, lest we not forget, comes through a dream.    This is significant since one of the ways prophesy comes to man, in Judaism, is through dreams.  In exile, it is through the oblique and indirect way – the way of the dream – that God communicates with man.  In Benjamin’s prophetic dream, he realizes that he is a man-child.  His name is, after all, written in “big, unruly childish characters.”

His name, his essence, is childish.  Yet, at the same time, Benjamin is a man hiding in Goethe’s imaginary schoolhouse.  Most importantly, he didn’t name himself a child or schlemiel.  He didn’t sign his name in a childlike manner, someone else did!

Wink, wink!

Hide and Seek: Walter Benjamin’s Reading of Children and Childhood – Take 2


Yesterday’s blog ended with several questions which puzzled over why Walter Benjamin or Georges Bataille would be so interested in “returning to childhood” or describing the “true child.”

Before going to sleep last night, I thought about these questions.  But instead of simply thinking about them, I thought about myself.  After all, I am as intrigued with childhood and the fool as they were.  But was I fascinated for the same reasons?

In thinking about this, I turned to a blog entry I wrote earlier this week entitled “Damaged Childhood: Fools, Self-Destruction, and Reclaming Youth,” There, I pointed out how Walter Benjamin, in his essay of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, argued that Dostoevsky’s book was a response to the “failure of the youth movement” and a “damaged childhood.”

I noted how Benjamin goes on to claim, after writing on failure, that a “return to childhood” – a return to “childlike simplicity” – promises “unlimited healing powers.”  But then it hit me: if the youth movement already failed, and if the purpose of that youth movement was to “return to childhood,” why was he insisting that we try again?

At this point, I realized that Benjamin (and Dostoevsky, as Benjamin reads him) were involved in what Freud would call a “repetition compulsion.”  According to Freud, in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the repetition compulsion is a response to trauma, that is, a response to a damaged childhood.  Benjamin is repeating the failure to return to childhood by insisting on doing it again.

Although he believes that this must be done, because a return to “childlike simplicity” has “unlimited” healing powers, he also admits, in the same essay, that it is desperate and pathetic.  We see this, Benjamin says, in the novel’s characters.

The Idiot, in effect, is not simply the illustration of a desire to return to childhood; it is a displacement of failure.

Its astonishing how Benjamin’s writing on children, in many ways, parallels that of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  It seems that, in the face of this political, secular messianist failure of the “youth movement,” Benjamin, in his own work, displaced his failure and turned to the micro-worlds of children.  In these worlds we see a “childlike simplicity.” We see micro-worlds that exist within the world of adults.  This retreat into micro-worlds may not only be seen as a response to a “damaged childhood” but it can also be seen as a response to a failed (or incomplete) political project whose goal is to “return to childhood.”

We see much evidence of this in Benjamin’s book One Way Street.    Even though Benjamin does address the political on and off throughout the piece (this is the part that many Benjamin scholars and Theodor Adorno focus on, in fact) he has an entire section on children.   It consists of several aphorisms.  The subtitles of each are the following: Child Reading, Belated Child, Pilfering Child, Child on Carousel, Untidy Child, and Child Hiding.

I would love to discuss all of them over the span of several blog entries.  For now, I just want to note a one (preliminary) thing and relate it to my own personal interest in the schlemiel and childhood.

Since I am a lover and practitioner of literary interpretation and exegesis, the first thing I did when I glanced over this section was to notice and think about the first and last entries.  The first entry is entitled “Child Reading” while the last one is entitled “Child Hiding.”

This, for me, states something meaningful about Benjamin and his response to a “damaged childhood.”  His reading, the reading of a child, is a way of hiding in a micro-world.  And, as Benjamin says at the end of that section, he is hiding from a “demon” and the places he finds to hide in are “magical.”  Reading, exploring space, and constructing micro-worlds (hiding places), are his “magical” way of avoiding terror (“the demon”).  To be sure, the entire section on childhood is prefaced by a line which gives us a clue of this response to trauma: “To be happy is to be able to become aware of oneself without fright.”

Indeed, Benjamin’s self-awareness, his awareness of his, so to speak, childhood demon, is terrifying.  But Benjamin, like the child, has found a reading strategy, a way of hiding that enables him, like a child, to becomes “happy” without fright.  Seeing himself as this child, the child in the text that he writes of, he finds a way to address trauma.   In his reading spaces he is hidden and sheltered from trauma.  To be sure, he seems to be alluding to this throughout his section on childhood.

To be sure, Benjamin, like a child, is more intrigued with his hiding spaces, his mirco-worlds, than with the world.  He goes to these places out of terror.  A schlemiel does this as well.  A man-child dwells and travels through spaces within the world, spaces that are unfamiliar to the world and its preoccupations.  Ultimately, these journeys through space that the schlemiel-slash-man-child takes are responses to something hidden, something he can’t understand.  The schlemiel, in his “childlike simplicity” just moves on.  He doesn’t notice the disaster, perhaps, because it would destroy him.

Growing up with a father who had a wild imagination, loved politics, liked to travel, tell stories, and often confused dreams and reality, I often felt like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote through space and time.  I inherited my father’s response to his own trauma, which, as I learned, is to find and create micro-worlds where one can hide.  The key, however, to such childish games is to know not simply how to read but how to tell stories.

Growing up, I felt that I had to listen to and interpret these stories. Each story, as it were, was what I would call a “traumatic imperative.”  But these stories were not simply told.   They were written over various spaces, people, and time.  My father’s micro-worlds were not in a book; they were found in this or that pocket of reality.  My (as Benjamin might say) “self-awareness” was caught up in these spaces.

When dream and reality overlap, reality becomes a book.  It comes to life.  However, its meaning, because it is confused, is unclear and, as Benjamin knew and my father always reminded me, terror seems to be waiting around each corner.  Like Benjamin, my father taught me that if you are to return to childhood, if you are going to live out your schlemiel-hood through time and space, you must know how to play hide and seek.

Its the game that every failed messiah – that is, every man-child who comes out of a damaged childhood – plays.