Thursday, February 23, 2017

Roland Barthes and the Insurrections of May 1968

"Roland Barthes recognized that the nature of the discourse and the events in France  gave a completely new power to the spoken word and the taking of power by the spoken word. May 1968 was the historical consummation of a process of mass communication based both on the media and the immediate, on the message and the ephemeral, on unreflective imagination and the need for mastery. Barthes was merely denouncing an anti-intellectualism that he had rejected ever since the polemics around his controversial  On Racine that did indeed threaten any possible cultural critique. “There is an intellectual Poujadism* that is always possible: a brutal distrust of language, a dismissal of forms that are always considered sophistical, the accusation of “jargon”, the rejection of writing, etc.’ In saying this, he was repeating his position against the arrogance of the spoken word. His disaffection for theater, earlier in the 1960s, was already evidence of a similar difficulty with the spoken word that was always, when it was imposed and violent, on the side of the law. Yet again, he contrasted it with the polysemia of writing, where everything always needs to be invented: writing alone can be the site of a real revolution.

This is a leitmotif in Barthes’ work: it expresses his disdain for the spontaneity of events and his conviction that a written text - not as a transcription of the spoken word, but as a reflection of the plurality of meaning – could bring together the cultural and the political. “We will regard as suspect any eviction of writing, any systematic primacy of speech, because, whatever the revolutionary alibi, both tend to preserve the old symbolic system and refuse to link its revolution to that of society. As cultural capitalism has merely strengthened its grip since Barthes wrote these lines, we can simply point out how acute his analysis was.

The other point on which Barthes proved to be a real visionary was the advent of technocracy as a moment in capitalism less concerned with human labor than with the profitability of science.In his lecture of 21 November 1968, he said: “The present day is certainly a turning point or at least a significantly new emphasis. How are we to define it? The conjunction or confluence of an ideology and a politics: an ideology, that of the human sciences, and a technocratic politics. The objective alliance between the human sciences and technology risks invading our schools, with its technological demands (research, specialization, qualification) shared by bodies and assemblies set up in May (the document of the reform committee: ‘Cutting-edge or very specialized sectors,’ etc.). Elsewhere, he pointed out how the slogans of ’68 on the university system, if they were assembled like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, form an image which ‘resembled the contemporary American university.’ This denunciation of everything that sacrificed culture to efficiency is such an accurate projection of the university system as we find it now that we cannot accuse Barthes of having adopted a reactionary attitude in 1968. It was always in the name of the same principles that he established his line of behavior. While his relation to writing included the possibility of contradiction, in the name of plurality and the fragmentation of meaning, his political behavior and the reasons for his rejections or his denunciations did not alter."

* The movement's "common man" populism led to antiparliamentarism (Poujade called the National Assembly "the biggest brothel in Paris" and the deputies a "pile of rubbish" and "pederasts"), a strong anti-intellectualism (Poujade denounced the graduates from the École Polytechnique as the main culprits for the woes of 1950s France and boasted that he had no book learning), xenophobia, and antisemitism especially aimed against Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France (claiming "Mendès is French only as the word added to his name"), who was perceived as responsible for the loss of Indochina. Poujadism also supported the cause of French Algeria.
   Tiphaine Samoyault in Barthes, A Biography

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