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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Taking the Low Road with Roland Barthes

I love Roland Barthes (1915-1980). I am not always the most faithful of lovers: breaking free of his enticements to route march through the stark rationalist landscapes of the razor-sharp Gillian Rose; sneaking out on the staccato of his sublimely crafted fragments to languish in the metaphysical meanderings of the beguiling Rebecca Goldstein. But I never stay away for long. In the end, I always find my way back to Barthes. To borrow from Carly Simon, nobody does it better. Not when it comes to textually pleasuring me, that is. To read Barthes, I always feel, is to lay myself bare to the shrieking, piercing, throbbing sensuality of words. He literally leaves me breathless, which is precisely what Barthes intends. As Susan Sontag reminds us, reading for Barthes was Eros. And writing, for Barthes, seduction. In other words, he plays his part and I play mine.

Sort of. 

Actually, not.

Fact is, if we're doing it better according to Barthes, we're both doing the writing - we're both producing the text. In my capacity as 'writerly reader' - a term Barthes uses to denote the reader who actively spins and weaves her own meanings out of the text(ile) trappings engulfing her - the pleasures (for they are multiple and often mingled) that come of the act of reading lie not in the consumption and ingestion of a seamless authoritative narrative. Rather, they lie in going against the grain of conventional wisdom and commonsense thinking; they lie in creating a polysemic space that is open to adventure and, more importantly, an open road. For the author may well be dead, as Barthes famously declared in 1968. But it is in the accompanying rebirth of the reader that we are finally released from structuralism's continuing allegiance to some universal and centralized stable Truth and handed, instead, free reign of the, er...post-structuralist reins.

Not surprisingly, this week's assigned excerpt from Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text (1975) provides fertile ground in which to explore these ideas, as well as experience firsthand what reading in the absence of a grain actually feels like. Not that the shrieks accompanying many of our philosophy club members' initial reaction to Barthes' unabashed celebration of literary hedonism could in any way be interpretted as whelps of pleasure. But no matter...We had post-structuralism's shattering of the Saussurian linguistic sign to get on with, and a world left high and dry without a transcendental signifier to contemplate. Add into the mix Barthes' trip to Japan in the early 1970s where, adrift in the blur of a language and culture he didn't understand, his clearest thinking around the link between the Western fixation on stable points of origin (like authors) and our tendency to do all we can within said culture to reduce the play of meaning began to percolate and find expression, and we were in for a real hoot of a time. 

Things lightened up, somewhat, and Barthes' popularity rating soared proportionately, as we took up pen, paper and a random fistful of scrabble tiles and experimented with Barthes' favoured writerly trope, the fragment. This was fun. And it helped to shed light on Barthes' insistence that we shift the attention away from (endlessly deferred and hence ultimately empty) meaning and put the pleasure back into good old textual encounters instead. One way to do this, Barthes maintains - and it served as a prompter for one of our writing exercises - is to make your language 'stutter': that is, to scatter it with neologisms, sudden U-bends, sly quotations which slip in unaccounted for, shaggy dog tangents that wag their tails only to trail off, not really going anywhere.  

Still juggling our fragments, we also struggled to come to terms with Barthes' hunch that the thing that moves us to pleasure in all that stuttering, in all those literary hiccups, can be sourced back to the writer. Not, however, the writer in the original producer of meaning sense. That writer - that behind-the-scenes manipulator of plot and a point to it all - is, of course, dead. No, the part of herself that the writer leaves behind in the text is, according to Barthes, her body: her semiotic drives and impulses, the tick-tocking of her fickle heart, the every breath she takes. In other words, in taking pleasure in the text as readers, we take pleasure in the writer's body. 

Armed with this potentially unsettling knowledge about reading and writing and what the whole darned affair should feel like as opposed to mean like, we took an honest stab at it: returning first to our assigned reading to sniff out any discernible bodily traces of the affable yet ever-restless Barthes; searching next in our recently produced repertoire of fragments for an echo of our own pitter-patter across the page. And though we didn't exactly find ourselves reinventing the literary wheel by the end of this third session in our current philosophy club series, we did part company with a somewhat more nuanced understanding of just how prevailing ideologies inscribe themselves into a practice as simple as reading a book, and just what it entails to stage a post-structuralist uprising against the system a la Roland Barthes. 

And still, I love him. 

With every last beat of my achy-breaky heart.