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Showing posts with label Writers Intellectuals Professors Roland Barthes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writers Intellectuals Professors Roland Barthes. Show all posts

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you at least academic attention for even those who claim to be against biographical approaches believe that the unpublished stuff will prove (richly) inter-textual with your printed words.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 He wrote all the time and he left behind a great deal of unpublished handwriting, much of it since published.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). 

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Essay: Some Doubts about Universities and the Humanities

I have always had my doubts about universities. If you take the long view, they have rarely encouraged scientific enquiry or tolerance of different opinions. Often enough, they have not been so very different from overtly theological seminaries which don’t even pretend to value Science or Toleration. Both universities and seminaries recruit from the same age groups and – until very, very recently – they have only been interested in recruiting those biologically sexed as male.  The teachers have been even more exclusively male, often with a requirement of Celibacy or (what used to be called) Bachelorhood. In the long view, the history of a university like Oxford makes you wonder why we bother. 

It’s easy to think that things have changed and it is not like the bad old days. I’m not so sure and I’m not so sure it could be otherwise.

Ironically, it is in those countries and cultures which appear most attached to the values of Truth and Tolerance that sceptical (“deconstructionist”), relativist (anti – “humanist”) and anti-realist (anti – “essentialist”) theories have been in vogue among university teachers who then – unable to appeal to any notions of Truth or Right – substitute Disapproval or Outrage for any kind of considered Judgement on the ill-considered opinions of their students or the misguided views of colleagues who shouldn’t be.

I’m thinking about places like Literature Departments in British and American universities, bursting at the seams with young seminarians anxiously working out what they must say to please their professors.

Of course, the kinds of science in which Literature departments could engage are not the same as those deployed by the Physics departments, though there may be some overlap. As places where Texts are read, the essential discipline for a Literature student is the ability to pay attention to the Text. From there, it’s possible to go on to respond to and Interpret it in an indefinite number of ways – as Comic, Tragic or Pornographic; as the Expression of a personality, as the (witting or unwitting) vehicle for an Ideology, as belonging to a Tradition, as embodying a distinctive Voice, as in (acknowledged or unconscious) Dialogue with other Texts – and so on and so forth. As you respond and Interpret, so the Text itself may re-focus: you notice things you didn’t notice the first time round. So Interpretation has no obvious end (as the deconstructionists would agree), though it may approach it asymptotically by which I mean that sometimes we exhaust the plausible possibilities and supposed new interpretations seem arbitrary and forced.

At their worst (and this is not something new), a course in a Literature department is about putting a text through a Grinder. In the past, it was sometimes a Marxist Grinder - made bearable by the introduction of a distinction between “Naturalist” novels which were politically correct but, unfortunately, boring and “Realist” novels which were bourgeois but much more fun. Today, the Grinder is more likely to be some version of Deconstructionism-cum-Feminism-cum-Queer-Theory. Whether these new theories accommodate a distinction between Boring and Fun I don’t know, which is probably a bad sign.

The Grinders are products of the university system, not of great Theorists or Theories. They are ways of making it possible for students to write term papers and for the term papers to be sufficiently alike for tutors to grade them. 

There seems an in-built tendency for the Grinders to produce essays which read less like (literary) Criticism and more like (political) Denunciation – or, occasionally, Endorsement, though I think  it’s harder (maybe intrinsically harder) to write an A grade essay for saying nice things about a book.

I think we might get better work done in the humanities and some of the social sciences without the seminaries. If people want to read books together, there can be evening classes, book clubs, residential weekends. We don’t really need the big bureaucracies, the professional career structure and the clubs of like-minded people giving each other a leg up.

In recent years, some of the best books I have read are the work of very clever people who haven’t followed the career path into university teaching but, instead, have become political activists or bankers or serious journalists.

I will mis-use a tripartite classification from Roland Barthes. Writers have no future as writers if they can’t write. Intellectuals need ideas - a vision even - or else no one will listen. But Professors can advance in their careers and hang their hats on a decent pension though quite unable to write and pretty much devoid of ideas. They have the power to make generations of students labour over unreadable and soon-to-be-demoted books which in a free world would be left unread and never promoted in the first place.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Essay: Writers, Intellectuals, Professors

One of the first things by Roland Barthes that I read was, "Ecrivains, Intellectuels, Professeurs" which appeared in Tel Quel (Issue 47, 1971) just as I turned up to enroll as Barthes' student at l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. It came to mind as I was reading Adam Phillips's On Balance (2010) - a book I can't review here because I didn't read it Cover to Cover: I skipped some of the book reviews.

Barthes (at least as I recall) carves up a space which can be occupied by different kinds of individuals (the ones he names in the title) and different kinds of writing (which, as it were, go with the job). Over time, the organisation of the space changes: roles and styles get (partially) interchanged; orders of dominance shift.

Nowadays, the professors and the academic style very much have the upper hand. The fundamental reason is economic.

Imagine. A Prof earns let's say 36 000 a year (dollars, euros, pounds- it doesn't matter) for a working commitment of 240 days (probably a bit less but it makes the arithmetic simple). So it's around 150 a day, before tax. Modest, but it pays the bills. In the United Kingdom, it would not be unusual for a third of those 240 days to be charged as "research". For a Prof in the arts and humanities, this is when he or she can read and write and get paid for it. Eighty days (plus whatever voluntary overtime you put in). And no one says (yet) into how many published words that must convert, though if no words are published then eventually the Prof will lose those 80 days back to teaching and "admin".

In contrast, the writer and the intellectual have to live off Royalties - which depend on number of books sold - and Fees - which usually depend on number of words commissioned. At the beginning of a career when you have no back list of publications generating continuing income, there is absolutely no way to make a living out of being a "writer" or "intellectual". Even many years later, only a few do. That is why you find novelists taking jobs teaching Creative Writing and critics taking jobs as Visiting Professors.

Adam Phillips is a figure to be honoured. Starting out as a working child psychotherapist (in the National Health Service), he has gone on to carve out a space for himself as a writer and (public) intellectual. He showed in his Fontana Modern Master Winnicott that he could do the kind of job only a very good academic could do; he has also done the kind of editorial work academics reckon is their job. But he has now worked for a couple of decades, without footnotes, exploring how we live our lives (or have them lived for us) in a way which is both creative and open-ended but also disciplined by an enduring commitment to a psychoanalytic paradigm - a paradigm which universities, at least in the UK, have never really endowed with salaries.

The pressure must sometimes feel immense.

Academics feel (peer - ) pressured to publish and end up finding outlets in unreadable (and unread) journals for work which is - what? - ninety percent of the time banal or simply repetitive of what they published in another journal last year. Unless they belong to a fraternity or sorority whose members swear to cite each other, the only person who will ever cite these publications is the author, in his or her CV.

Writers and Intellectuals look at their bank balances. The temptation to publish every last jot and tittle, if you can, must be considerable. The temptation to take on too much, ditto. Even in Adam Phillips there are times when I feel he multiplies his trade mark Questions because they provide the words on the page that he needs without consuming the hours it would take to craft considered Answers.

Roland Barthes had more elevated concerns in his essay than my Benjamin Franklin preoccupations, but he wrote as someone who himself made the transition from intellectual (writing newspaper columns even) to (rather uncomfortable) Prof.

In the year I studied with him, he was assigned a real theatre for his popular lectures. He sat modestly enough on the stage behind a small table, with a sign from the current production ("Le Petit Cirque" ) hanging in the background. But he abandoned the theatre for a seminar room the week after someone stood up in the Balcony and denounced his reactionary adherence to theories of Binary Opposition. Someone there was making a Category Mistake.