Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Barthes and Foucault by Tiphaine Samoyault

Though not an intimate friend, Roland Barthes  had attended a seminar by Jacques Lacan and had a few sessions with him in 1975 during the period when Lacan was seeing an average of ten patients  per hour twenty working days a month.  Barthes’ texts at the time, however, were imbued with psychoanalysis and he was familiar with Lacanian terminology due primarily to the influence of Julia Kristeva. His “On Leaving the Cinema’ sees the state of someone coming out of a movie as a kind of hypnosis, but also refers to two major Lacanian concepts: the trio of ‘RSI’ (‘Real, Symbolic, Imaginary’) and the mirror stage. ‘The Real’ knows only distances, the Symbolic knows only masks; the imagine alone (the image-repertoire) is close, only the image is “true” (can produce the essence of truth). Barthes played with these concepts, appropriating or distancing himself from them according, as he habitually did, what they meant ‘for me’, which is what he always asked his readers and students to do with  texts, lectures and seminars.

Lacan had established the psychoanalytic milieu in which anti-establishment intellectuals operated  in France during the 60s and 70s. In many respects Foucault and Barthes took different approaches in their studies; Foucault was primarily interested in history- the archaeology of ‘things’- Barthes in literature and writing . . .

The difference in style between Barthes and Foucault is [also] evident in the way they spoke and  wrote. Their inaugural lectures and their seminars at the College de France have often been compared and contrasted. This is an interesting parallel: in Barthes inaugural lecture, while setting out his own course, he also brings his discourse in direct dialogue with Foucault’s lecture, ‘The Order of Discourse’, delivered inn 1970 and published in 1971. In 1975, like Foucault, Barthes raised the question of the relations between        of the relations between spoken language and power. Foucault listed the ways in which ‘in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance elements, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality.’ According to Foucault, discourse is always a violent exercise against things, especially as it is generally a discourse in the thrall of a certain doctrine. Barthes picks up these three themes, the spoken words, power and violence., and links them to the problem of having to maintain a discourse  (the subject of the seminar he gave at the College between January and June). ‘Since, as I have tried to suggest, this teaching has as its object discourse taken in the inevitability of power, method can really bear only on the means of loosening, baffling, or at the very least, of lightening this power.’ These words are almost a literal repetition of the definition of teaching that Foucault gave in his inaugural lecture: ‘a distribution and an appropriation of discourse with its forms of power and knowledge,.’ The oppression that this gesture presupposes is high-lighted in Barthes’ own lecture: ‘To speak, and, with even greater reason, to utter a discourse is not, as is too often repeated, to communicate, it is to subjugate.’

Although the research  the two men were to pursue, set out as a program in their lectures, was quite different, they had a similar position: their relation to discourse, to the theatricality of the spoken word, was uneasy. But Barthes went much further than Foucault in extending the field of action, of violence in language as a whole: “But language- the performance of a language system- is neither reactionary nor progressive, it is quite simply fascist; for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech.’ This statement –‘over-the-top, exaggerated, scandalous, almost crazy’, could not be understood as it is literally untenable. On the linguistic level it is meaningless. On the logical level it radically reduces speaking subjects to the language itself. On the ideological level it picks up on the fashionable presumption, treating any manoeuver of authority as ‘fascist.’ The remark shocked everyone from the start and has since given rise to many attempts to explain it .For some it is  a symptom of stupidity; for others, a provocation. It has also been read as an attempt to go one better than Foucault. . .

Perhaps Barthes point simply concerned the salutary difference of literature as writing, which resists discourse, even if this requires playing tricks with language. That he should do on in an aphoristic, assertive way was typical,  he would always begin by affirming something before qualifying it. What is more surprising is that he was succumbing to a stereotype of the age, when he was usually so quick to demystify them. In other respects, Barthes was simply extending to language he  had long been making about the spoken word, its arrogance, its will to mastery, its authoritarian character. The radical nature of the formulation was in line with the radical nature of the response one can bring to language, namely, according to Blanchot, silence: either mystical singularity, described by Kierkegaard to describe Abraham’s sacrifice as ‘ an action unparalleled, void of speech, even interior speech, performed against the generality, the gregariousness, the morality of language’; or else ‘the Nietzschean  “yes to life”, which is a kind of exultant shock administered to the servility of speech, to what Deleuze calls its reactive guise.’ Compared to these sublime gestures, which presuppose a belief that Barthes did not possess, literature appears as the sole place where language outside power can gain a hearing. And it is here that Barthes replies to Foucault: the forces of freedom which are in literature depend not on a writer’s civil, person, nor on his political commitment – for he is, after all, only a man among others- nor do they even depend on the doctrinal content of his work, but rather on the labor of displacement he brings to bear upon the language.’ He takes up the notion that has been so crucial since Writing Degree Zero, the ‘responsibility of form’, to  set out the scope of this ‘loosening of power’. The Lecture, which began by hailing the College de France as a place ‘outside the bounds of power’, thus ends with this program of literature as a renunciation of all the servilities of language.

Letting go of power was also the basis for a form of teaching leading to research, to a quest, and not to knowledge or a fixed language. As opposed to the theatrical character of the lecture delivered from on high (also denounced by Foucault in The Order of Discourse), what is needed is a form of the spoken word that registers its own disquiet, that preserves its transitory, uncertain status, aware of itself and of the unease that had afflicted the academic system since May 1968.”

Neither Foucault nor Barthes were happy with the ‘high society’ aspects of lectures which ‘turned teachers into performing animals.’ Both resisted having some of their lectures published,. Barthes wrote that he thought ‘part of a life’s activity should always be set aside for the ephemeral: what happens only once and vanishes, it’s the necessary share of the Rejected Monument.’ Never-the less some of their lectures have been published. Even if both Barthes and Foucault prepared their lectures with great care, we need read them with the awareness that they are tentative  in nature; to hear the repetitions and corrections, the tone and grain of the voice. Reading the courses or listening to their recordings also brings out the differences in style.

Foucault spoke in a lively, sometimes staccato way; Barthes spoke slowly, in a voice that was at once clear and deep. In particular, Foucault based his discourse on the retrospective gesture, on the archaeological method, going over things that he had already said, correcting and accentuating ideas as he engaged in new readings and new dialogues. Barthes’ teaching, conversely, was entirely forward-looking, based on a fiction or a fantasy. The disquiet occasioned by going back over something is not the same as the disquiet of desire. The former deepens what is already there, and is still concerned with producing knowledge; the latter goes beyond the given, and endeavors to displace knowledge through the ‘for me.’ These two distinct forms of disquiet find an expression in the way the two wrote their books, rejecting systems in very different ways. Foucault undermined them by deconstructing them; Barthes renounced them by scattering them in fragments. What brings them together is the analysis (explicit in Foucault, implicit in Barthes) of the importance of the process of subjectivation.

Their difference, and their sporadic differences of opinion, lay less in theoretical divergence than in ways of being. Barthes paid a great deal of attention to his appearance and the context in which he lived his life, and had a profound love of music, Foucault showed a large degree of indifference to clothes, food, the décor of life. He claimed to like music, but he was not dreamy enough (being more sensitive than sentimental) to need it. Foucault demonstrated exuberance and generosity in all he did, in his coming out as a homosexual, in his commitment to prison reform, in the affirmation of the positions he took, Barthes presented himself in his singularity and his rejection of hysteria. His benevolence was perceived by all, but it did not have the same energy as Foucault’s generosity. It could appear, to those that did not see the fictional dimension of the posture, as a withdrawal into his ‘self’. It is was not always easy for other people to see the difference between ‘living in accordance with literature’, as Barthes put it in ”Fragments pour H”, and living in accordance with the norms that generally regulate our relations with others. Most people who knew Foucault and Barthes preferred Foucault – he was more unbridled, more generous, more amusing. At a party, in the café, Barthes, especially as he grew older, would often seem bored or distracted and might leave early.

As Barthes legitimacy as an intellectual an scholar grew he was increasingly in demand as a thesis supervisor. H supervised doctorates and was  very often invited to sit on examining boards (between fifteen and twenty per anum in the years preceding his entry into the College de France. Indeed, it was on one of these juries that Marty first met Barthes. ‘Barthes had started by saying he would have liked to writes this thesis, which had caused something of a stir in the audience. Then he continued his patient and benevolent reading.’ The archives preserve most of the thesis reports that Barthes meticulously composed and that indicate how much time he spent on reading student work. He was generous in his comment and listened closely to what the candidates were saying. But he mainly tried to be fair, not hesitating to formulate a criticism when necessary, when a candidate confused a word with a referent or merely juxtaposed different disciplines or used puns too systematically – Barthes claimed to be impermeable to these puns even when it was a student in his own close circle.

Barthes almost always began his report with a declaration of modesty, saying that he was not a specialist, emphasizing the personal, improvised nature of his considerations, leaving it to the other members of the jury to pronounce on the scientific relevance of certain projects. He spoke of the ‘feeling of solidarity’, or even ‘complicity’ that he could sometimes feel for a particular piece of work. He often noted that he would not stand in front of the work as a whole to pass judgment on it, but merely indicate a few individual points at which the work overlapped his interests, He liked to unveil, behind the institutional postulation that the work submitted, its ‘clandestine’ posture of desire and liberty. For example, in discussing Michel Chaillou’s thesis on L’Astree, he noted that in just one point did ‘this piece of writing pick up something of the trappings of the institution-paradoxically enough, the bibliography: ample, varied, surprising.” He told Raymond Carasco that his thesis, the freedom of whose montage he admired, was ‘a kind of Festival”. He congratulated Chatel Thomas, who had written a thesis on Sade, for not having sought results, but to write a reading: she had produced a ‘very fine text, a very successful text.’ He also recognized the breadth, the responsibility and the power of the work Christian Prigent had done on Ponge. He admired they way Lucette Finas had overstepped structural analysis. Sometimes, albeit rarely, he would express his own inclinations. When Denis Viart was defending his thesis on Andre Gide’s early work – Barthes was there with Julia Kristeva and Hubert  Damisch- he noted, ‘I must  in any case take into account my own relation to Gide, which h is not indifferent- but it is enigmatic. So with regard to you I feel esteem and closeness, but also the hiatus of a little difference.”

All this time-consuming and, after all, rather obscure labor shows how seriously Barthes took his job as a teacher.

Barthes; A Biography, Tiphaine Samoyault. Translated by Andrew Brown; Polity, 2017, mostly from Chapters 15 &16

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