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: