Reading Roland Barthes
For someone trained in the art of close reading, reading Barthes raises problems. Consider the following passage:
As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.
Before we get into Barthes’ peculiar distortion of the nature of text so he can ride his favorite hobby horse about origins and destinations, we can ask some simpler questions of this passage. In what sense is the thing being narrated a fact? If it comes from a text such as Balzac’s Sarrasine, it derives its possible status as a fact only from the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary contract entered into by the reader and the text. Even so, there is no thought that this phenomenon, transparently masquerading as a fact, has any direct relationship with reality, a relationship which Barthes blithely assumes but never actually demonstrates. Is Barthes talking about the stipulated reality of the text or the world at large? We do not know. Without greater clarity on the context of “reality,” it is difficult to assign this statement much meaning. The passage moves by indirection and rhetorical sleight of hand.
We are told that when this nebulous “fact” does not act directly on a nebulous “reality,” it is acting “outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself . . .” In what sense does a symbol have a practice? Is he suggesting some kind of agency for the symbol, a reasonable assumption given that he posits a function for a fact? If so, what is it? The point is these words float free of any context and become reflections of each other. They only have meaning if one assumes a context which Barthes does not provide. As a result, by the end of the passage, we end up with the meta-concept, “writing,” called into being by a rhetorical flourish that demands belief instead of offering proof.
In the previous paragraph, after quoting a passage from Balzac’s Sarrasine, Barthes asks the rhetorical question: “Who is speaking thus?” He answers his rhetorical question, claiming, “We can never know.” But he is wrong. The answer to his rhetorical question is complex, but not difficult. The sophisticated reader knows very well that narrators vary in degree of knowledge from omniscient to deficient and vary in reliability from trustworthy to perilous. Those narrators who are not reliable range from naïve to outright mendacious. There is a complex relationship among author, narrator, persona, and character that the skillful writer uses to his advantage and in which the less skillful writer becomes trapped. Balzac was a master at playing with those kinds of ironic distances and is enjoyable to read as a result.
Barthes isolates one thread from this complex tapestry and elevates it into the meta-concept, “author.” He reduces the authorial voice into one version of it and claims that the one version represents the whole thing. It does not. This reduction creates a straw man that he knocks over with ease. Later in the essay, he elevates the meta-concept, “author,” into the “author-god” and posits the existence of a “scriptor” to counter that malevolent deity. The scriptor seems to be a literary sub-atomic particle that exists only at the moment of utterance. Its existence can never be proved or disproved, only inferred from the existence of the author-god. But Barthes has failed to dent my atheism. Since he has not convinced me to believe in his author-god, I cannot believe in his scriptor.
But Barthes doesn’t stop there. He tells us:
The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice.
Again, his terminology is full of loose and baggy monsters. What is “ordinary culture?” Is he talking about philistinism, the received ideas prevalent among the unsophisticated, or is it something else? If it is the beliefs of the unsophisticated, does it really have the kind of influence on those who are more sophisticated about culture that he claims for it? If “ordinary culture” gets the “image of literature” wrong, does that wrong image determine the shape of criticism? There may be critics who say those things about Baudelaire, Van Gogh, and Tchaikovsky, but to claim that “criticism” consists of those kinds of statements is false. Critics who might make such statements are simply doing bad, unreflective criticism, yet Barthes elevates that bad criticism into the meta-concept, “criticism,” and throws it over.
In all three instances, Barthes has used questionable, uninvestigated premises to construct meta-concepts which are reductions of the issues they are drawn from. In negating these meta-concepts, he is knocking over straw men constructed for the purpose. The problem is that what he counters to these specious meta-concepts are equally specious because they are merely their reverse images. Barthes is at least guilty of intellectual laziness, if not intellectual dishonesty.
But wait! There’s more! He gives us yet another meta-concept, the “reader:”
The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet the destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.
Really? Is the reader some kind of bloodless tabula rasa, entirely divorced from any culture whatsoever whose job is to ensure the unity of the text? Can such a reader exist? Such a creature would be required, given Barthes’ concept of the text. But Barthes cannot simply call this creature into being like some kind of critic-god without calling into question the concept of the text that demands it.
The problem is that there is a term missing from Barthes’ equation, i.e., the world. Barthes imagines the text as an infusion of the writer’s mind into the reader’s mind. But the origin of the text is not the writer’s mind. The text emanates from the writer’s engagement with the world and the engagement with language. The destination is not the reader’s mind, but the reader’s engagement with the world and his ability to use language to penetrate that world. Barthes wants to imagine the text as an entity unto itself, divorced from the world, so he imagines a reader divorced from the world to ensure the unity of that text. It is Barthes’ concept of unity that is specious. The book, from cover to cover, is merely a provisional boundary, a convenience for the purposes of analysis.
Perhaps the unity of the text lies neither in the origin nor the destination, but in the relationship of those two as mediated by the world. There is a large and influential body of work that says so. The great nineteenth century poet-critic, Matthew Arnold, pointed out that the relationship between the writer and the reader is determined by the historical moment in which the text emerges and that there is a primary relationship between the text and the historical moment. John Ruskin wrote voluminously about the idea that taste and artistic style are related to the social and political conditions of the society that produced that style. Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde built on these foundations. More recent critics, such as Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton have taken this tradition in a more political direction. All of this work impinges on what Barthes is trying to say. The person familiar with this body of work will find Barthes’ ideas rather thin soup.
The absence of the world in Barthes’ aesthetic philosophy I find characteristic of French academicism in general. It leads to a sterile oscillation between opposing forces, imagined as reductions of more complex phenomena. In Barthes’ work, it is the oscillation between origin and destination, between writer and reader. In the work of Jacques Lacan, for instance, there is the oscillation between the self and the other. Once you add the world, however, these oscillations lose reality and credibility. Barthes treats the Rationalism vs Empiricism debate very much like the general whose solution to the Viet Nam war was to declare victory and go home. Barthes has declared the victory of Rationalism and then pothers on as though the world and experience no longer need to be considered
In After Theory, Terry Eagleton points out that someone who knows he is profound seeks clarity and that someone who wishes to be considered profound seeks obscurity. At the very least, Barthes does not seek clarity. I do not see much of value in this essay. Barthes’ reasoning is poor and circular. He bullies you with the voice of certainty into believing assertions he never bothers to prove and then creates false conclusions based on these presupposed certainties. I see little here but an ego strutting across the page.