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Wednesday 9 May 2018

Review: Neil Badmington, The Afterlives of Roland Barthes

Advice to writers:

1.      If you want to be remembered for the works you have signed off on – the works which have been printed – then make damn sure to burn all your drafts, notebooks, lecture notes, correspondence, shopping lists. That way, readers have no choice about what to read - and nor do the professors.

2.      If you want to be remembered for your work, and think you are in with a chance of being remembered, then make sure you file all your drafts, notebooks, lecture notes, correspondence, shopping lists. It will guarantee you at least academic attention for even those who claim to be against biographical approaches believe that the unpublished stuff will prove (richly) inter-textual with your printed words.

Roland Barthes died at sixty five after a traffic accident so you could say he didn’t live to decide between the two options. Though he once said that he only wrote to order (Je n’√©cris que sur commande – I am afraid that is from memory; I can’t give the source), it seems that was very untrue. He wrote all the time and he left behind a great deal of unpublished handwriting, much of it since published. Neil Badmington examines and deploys some of it in this interesting and readable book.

In the opening two chapters, he makes out a good and probing case for the inter-textuality between the mourning diary which Barthes kept for two years after the death of his mother in 1977 and published with some controversy in 2009, and his signed-off for publication book on photography La Chambre Claire, written in the same period. Theorising about photography goes hand in hand with finding ways to both put away and memorialise his mother.

I am more doubtful about the third chapter which criticises the usual suspects: the biographical fallacy (“biographers write the obituary of textuality” p 76), the illusion that the signifier can be a transparent vehicle for expression (“The signifier has no magic, no future, if it has a signified which is guaranteed by an individual” p 76), and so on. But there are paradoxes lurking here. If the author is dead, if writing is the destruction of every origin, then why is it important to assemble into one category all and only the words penned by one individual, Roland Barthes? Surely, that just is a biographical principle of classification. Likewise, why are both structuralists and post-structuralists, modernists and post-modernists, so keen that a novel should be written by just one person? Why do jointly authored novels just not cut it? 

In relation to painting, a related question would be this: Why are we so troubled by the idea of the perfect forgery? If only ‘text’ matters, then the fact that something is a forgery does not matter at all. In relation to film, why do we classify and write about them by their directors, even if we say we no longer believe in auteurism?

Roland Barthes was a very close reader of texts, very obviously so in his S/Z which Badmington invokes in his last chapter reading of Alfred Hitchock’s film Under Capricorn. But there is a paradox, or at least a puzzle, here too. I think it was Roger Scruton who said that S/Z reads like a very traditional explication de texte. It is not a new idea that a text may suggest more than it seems to state, or even alternatives to what it states, that it may in this way be more open than critical attempts to close it assume. There are various ways of theorising this, including most simply the psychoanalytic way which tells us that the unconscious finds its way unbeknown to us into what we write. Other ways point to our unavoidable dependence on signifiers which have histories and structural ramifications vaster than we can ever take account of. And so on. Sometimes we let a line stand in a text precisely because we do not know quite what it means, but it sounds (or looks) good. And our readers may agree and the game commences.

Barthes appreciated such ways of thinking not least because there was a part of him which had hankered after system and science and even closure – as is obvious in such works as Elements of Semiology, the long essay on classical rhetoric, the abortive doctorate on the fashion system, and so on. But he couldn’t complete the systems to his satisfaction(and saw that the whole project was maybe misguided) and he could not resist a digression. When he gave a seminar, he didn’t use standard lecture notes; he used small cards (fiches) which had the advantage that he could always pause between cards and digress or invite a question and either way, ensure that no one was bored.

As a Leverhulme European student, the reviewer attended Roland Barthes’ 1971-72 seminars at L’Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. His most recent work which involves reference to Barthes is Prose Improvements (2017). 

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