At first blush, the author of ‘The Death of the Author’ may seem a somewhat paradoxical choice of subject for a biographer. Au contraire, argues Tiphaine Samoyault in Barthes: A Biography, originally published in France in 2015. Just shy of five hundred pages long, excluding notes and index, it is, to date, the most comprehensive portrait of Barthes’s life and times. Calling it definitive — which in many respects it is — would be to miss the point, however. Memories being open to constant recomposition, Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone. He hoped his own might be limited to a few ‘biographemes’ – ‘a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections’ – which, ‘like Epicurean atoms’, would perhaps touch ‘some future body, destined to the same dispersion’. The ideal biography would thus come in the form of a book in a box, like something by Marc Saporta or B S Johnson, the unbound pages of which could be shuffled around like the index cards Barthes wrote on. The stand-alone paragraphs of his own memoir, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975), were arranged in alphabetical order so as to obviate narrative continuity and its attendant teleological bias. While cleaving to a traditional, broadly chronological format, Samoyault goes to great lengths to ensure that Barthes does not end up pickled in aspic. In a prologue, she retraces his last steps on the day in 1980 when he was knocked over by a van, an accident that led to his demise (from pulmonary complications) one month later. ‘The Death of Barthes’ is, in effect, cordoned off, lest his life be reduced, retrospectively, to a fixed, univocal reading, akin to the ‘“message” of the Author-God’ he had once lambasted.
Barthes regarded death as the only event that truly eludes language. All the rest is discourse, as he argued in Mythologies (1957), a book in which he took reading out of the library and into the world. Rather than drawing up a laundry list of the different hats he wore, we should probably regard Barthes, above all else, as a reader. In bringing literature to life (‘every text is eternally written here and now’), the act of reading rewrites ‘the text of the work within the text of our lives’. Textual pleasure climaxes, he contends, when a book ‘succeeds in writing fragments of our own daily lives’ — when, in other words, it reads us. He even confessed to deriving more enjoyment from the ‘abrasions’ his distracted perusal imprinted upon ‘the fine surface’ of a text than from the narrative itself. It is through the prism of these abrasions — the interface between life and art — that Samoyault succeeds in getting a purchase on Barthes’s eclectic oeuvre.
Having famously described literature as the space ‘where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes’, Barthes increasingly sought out the inscription of this physical presence, ‘the hand as it writes’. Samoyault traces his penchant for self-portraiture back to the time he spent in sanatoria and the repeated diets he went on, turning his body ‘into an object for analysis’, which he read ‘like a text’. She avers that ‘going back to the body’ implied ‘viewing writing as a material production of signs that placed it on the same level as any other artistic practice’. Between 1971 and 1975, Barthes painted every day, inspired by the ‘absolute corporeal gesture’ of calligraphy he had discovered in Japan, a partly fantasised land that seemed to herald ‘a civilisation of the signifier’. Samoyault insists that this activity was ‘inseparable from his thoughts about writing’. In several essays and reviews, Barthes reflects upon the tradition of ‘illegible writing’ in the works of artists such as Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly or Bernard Réquichot, going as far as to claim that André Masson’s semiography achieved the ‘utopia of the Text’. His own graphic productions — he was reluctant to speak of artworks, preferring to see them as a form of handicraft — were, according to Samoyault, neither words nor paintings, but the ‘union of the two’. Describing them (there are 380 paintings and drawings by Barthes in the Bibliothèque Nationale’s archive), she observes that they ‘can be very close to writing when it forgets to make sense, when it turns into a trace, remembers the productions of childhood, the scribbling’. If they are indeed reminiscent of the doodles of yesteryear, they are also — perhaps more importantly — post-verbal. She explains that they allow us to enter a world free from ‘any formed language, any preconstructed thought’ – a world ‘exempt from meaning’, to use Barthes’s recurring phrase. In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, he described language as ‘fascist’ because it compels us to think and talk in a given manner. The world is therefore always already written; the ultimate purpose of literature, in his eyes, is ‘to unexpress the expressible’, to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion: ‘For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible’.
Samoyault suggests that Barthes’s life can be partly explained by what it lacked. Together with his homosexuality and Protestant roots, tuberculosis (‘incontestably the major event of his life’) led to missed opportunities, contributing to a lifelong sense of marginalisation. Barthes spoke about the ‘great Oedipal frustration’ of having no father figure to slay. His mother’s death, in 1977, accelerated the autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn that began with the publication of Empire of Signs in 1970. ‘It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me,’ Barthes declared, though whether this urge would have taken the shape of a novel remains a moot point. Although Barthes left only an eight-page outline for his projected ‘Vita Nova’, Samoyault believes that much of the material that has been published posthumously, as well as large chunks of the unpublished writings in archives she was given access to, would eventually have found their way into some magnum opus.
Barring a few approximations — inevitable given the Herculean task — Andrew Brown’s translation is excellent. Chris Turner has also done a sterling job with Seagull Books’ beautifully presented five-volume series of essays by Barthes and interviews with him (£14.50 each), which is the perfect companion piece to the biography. Organised thematically, these occasional articles, reviews and texts are all briefly but expertly introduced, and in the process are made available to an anglophone audience for the first time. Some, like those where Barthes agonises over the definition of left-wing literature, are very much of their time, but they provide snapshots of his mind at work and confirm Samoyault’s premise that the unity of his life and oeuvre is to be found in the ‘desire to write’.
My review of Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language will appear in the FT tomorrow. It was posted on their website today. Here is an extract:
In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes contends that language, ceasing to be merely instrumental, “loses its origin” when it enters the fictive realm. A thinly veiled reference to this theory recurs throughout Binet’s novel. The reader’s quest for the narrator’s identity gradually forms a phantom plot that shadows (and even overshadows) the overt whodunnit, sending us on a wild-goose chase. A description of Bayard sitting in a café is interrupted by a parenthetical aside: “Which café? The little details are important for reconstructing the atmosphere, don’t you think?” Pleading ignorance, he (or indeed she) enjoins us, à la Tristram Shandy, to picture the superintendent wherever we so please.
Here, Binet reprises a theme tackled in HHhH, where the author’s stand-in frets over the minutiae of historical reconstitution: the colour of the Nazi security chief’s Mercedes, for instance. Such “little details” are important in fiction as well as history books: they produce what Barthes called the “reality effect”. Highlighting their contingency — why this Latin Quarter café rather than another? — is a ruse by which the narrative voice enhances the reality effect while seemingly undermining it. After all, a fallible storyteller is far more credible than an omniscient one (with the added convenience of allowing Binet to paper over a few gaps in his research).
The strands of the plot are skilfully interwoven through a dual process of fictionalisation of the real and realisation of the fictional. At one stage the narrator observes that it is difficult “to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980”, as though this were not the case with any real-life person at any given moment. A similar statement is later made about one of the fictitious protagonists, about whom anything could be imagined: “We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?”
Or are we? As the plot thickens, Simon feels increasingly “trapped in a novel”: “How do you know you are not living inside a work of fiction? How do you know that you’re real?” This growing ontological crisis — doubtless stemming from Barthes having read the world like a text — sends us back to the opening sentences: “Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so”.
I was asked to write and read an essay on Roland Barthes as part of a series entitled ‘Signs and Mythologies – The Significance of Roland Barthes’ for BBC Radio 3‘s The Essay programme. It first aired on 26 November 2015 at 10:45 pm and was repeated on 11 May 2017 at 10:45 pm. The other essays were written by Andrew Hussey, Nick James, Penny Sparke, and Michael Wood.
Here is the presentation from the BBC Radio 3 website:
An encounter as a teenager with Roland Barthes and an orange moped inspired the magazine editor Andrew Gallix, who now teaches at the Sorbonne, with a fascination for the ideas of the great French theorist. In this week of essays celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth, Andrew reflects on what Barthes meant by ‘The Death of the Author’.
Across the week five authors write about Barthes’ significance to them and discuss the influence the maverick cultural philosopher has had upon their own work. Over the week they create a picture of a literary figure whose writing was fun, accessible and is still deeply influential on the way we look at the world. Barthes’s literary output was not only prolific, but also eclectic. During the course of his life his thinking influenced the development of theories of structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design, anthropology and post structuralism. A powerful blast of fresh air in post war cultural thought, his carefully argued, accessible and sometimes mischievous examinations of philosophical, cultural and social ideas continue to influence contemporary writers and thinkers.
An eclectic group of essayists celebrate the range of influence his writing has had. Andrew Hussey examines Barthes’ impact in Europe in the 1960s. Other essayists over the week include design historian Penny Sparke, film journalist Nick James, the editor of 3 A.M. Magazine and teacher at the Sorbonne in Paris, Andrew Gallix, and cultural historian Michael Wood.
Here is the text. The passages that were cut are in square brackets:
I never met Roland Barthes, but I did spot him once, walking down the street[, at what I recall to be a brisk pace]. It was in the Latin Quarter, where he lived most of his life and seldom strayed from. I must have been fourteen at the time, fifteen at a push. The day before this sighting, I had chanced upon a Barthes profile in a weekly news magazine. Despite skimming it in a most cursory fashion, I gathered that he was a prominent intellectual. It was the accompanying picture — in colour, if memory serves — that allowed me to recognise him. The thing that struck me — and almost struck him — was that orange moped he narrowly avoided when crossing the road. In hindsight, it is difficult not to view this near escape as a dress rehearsal for his iconic (but also ironic, in light of his deconstruction of detergent commercials) encounter with a laundry van — an accident that would eventually lead to his demise in 1980. The feeling that I had conjured him up simply by reading about him was nonsense, of course, but also quite fitting given that Barthes — unbeknown to me — had extolled the creative powers of the reader, whose symbolic birth was the flip side of the death of the author.
‘The Death of the Author’ is not only Barthes’ most famous essay (at least in the Anglophone world) but also the most misunderstood. As though enacting one of its central themes — literature as palimpsest and collage — it first appeared in an American journal: the 1967 original was thus, in effect, already a copy; an English translation of a French text that would remain unpublished until the following year. As it was only anthologised a decade later, the essay was photocopied and distributed samizdat-fashion on campuses the world over, which no doubt enhanced its subversive appeal. For many, on either side of the barricades, it symbolised the emergence of what came to be known as Theory. Malcolm Bradbury’s satire of post-structuralism, Mensonge, is an extended joke on the death-of-the-author trope. The eponymous character — whose name means ‘lie’ in French — is a shadowy intellectual, a former student and collaborator of Barthes, who takes elusiveness to the point of illusiveness, so that the reader, and indeed the narrator, are never even quite sure whether he is meant to exist or not. Much comic capital is derived from the misconception — deliberate, I presume — that Barthes believed books wrote themselves, or that he was denying the very existence of writers, when in fact what he was challenging was the notion of authorship. Take a love letter someone sent you years ago, when people still sent letters and loved you. [An epistle you had mislaid perhaps.] You read it again. The content remains the same, although the person who penned it now hates you with a passion or, worse still, has forgotten about your very existence. The author is dead — detached from his or her work, which endures independently. Let me reassure you: Barthes’ essay, however brief, is far more subtle and interesting than that.
Barthes’ premiss is a sentence lifted from a novella by Balzac[, which cannot be attributed to anyone with any degree of certainty]. He argues that as soon as writing becomes ‘intransitive’ — as soon as language is no longer an instrument, but the very texture of a text — ‘the voice loses its origin’. [In literature, as Mallarmé, Heidegger, and Blanchot had already claimed, it is essentially language that speaks.] The ‘scriptor’ — whose existence coincides with the composition of a text — replaces the ‘Author-God,’ whose absence implies that a work can no longer be assigned a single, ultimate[, ‘theological’] meaning. Barthes also undermines the authority of the critic, whose traditional remit was precisely to decipher the Author-God’s message; to explain a work of fiction through the life (frequently the private life) of its progenitor. Every text, he concludes, is always ‘written here and now’ — by the reader.
Roland Barthes took reading out of the library and into the world, which, he believed, was structured like discourse. In Mythologies, his 1957 bestseller, he exposed the ideological underpinning of what usually goes without saying in everyday life, from the world of wrestling to the art of striptease [through steak and chips], thus demonstrating that the world is always already written. Language — as he put it, somewhat provocatively, [during his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977] — is ‘fascist’: it [speaks us,] compels us to think and talk along certain lines. In one of his numerous television appearances, he ventures that death is the only true event — in that it escapes language — while all the rest is words, words, words.
If reading was a means of engaging with the world, it could also be a personal, even intimate, activity. For Barthes [reading literature involves ‘rewriting the text of the work within the text of our lives’.] Textual pleasure climaxes when a book ‘succeeds in writing fragments of our daily lives’ — when it reads us. Life and text even become synonymous in what he called ‘life writing’: writing as a way of life, whereby life becomes the text of the work [— a text to be produced, not deciphered]. Barthes, who, for better or worse, popularised the use of the word ‘text’ instead of essay, novel or book, went back to the etymology of the word, which, in Latin, refers to a textile. [This fabric, he argued, is traditionally regarded as a ‘ready-made veil’ concealing meaning (which can only be unveiled through interpretation).] He suggests we consider text as a piece of material that is constantly in the process of being woven, prompting him to compare Proust’s work to that of a seamstress. As early as ‘The Death of the Author,’ he had pinpointed the ‘radical reversal’ operated by Proust. Barthes said of Proust, ‘instead of putting his life into his novel, as is so often maintained, he made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model’. In his last series of lectures, entitled The Preparation of the Novel, he reaffirmed his assessment of Proust: ‘the positioning of the life as work,’ he declared, ‘is now slowly emerging as a veritable shift in values’. In Search of Lost Time, he went on, is ‘entirely woven out of him, out of his places, his friends, his family; that’s literally all there is in his novel’ — and yet it is not an autobiography.
Barthes had little time for the sanctity of books. What interested him was the interaction between life and writing. He claimed, for instance, that he derived more enjoyment from the ‘abrasions’ that his distracted reading imposed upon ‘the fine surface’ of a text than from the narrative itself: ‘I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again’. He established a famous distinction between the Book (capital B) and the Album (capital A). The former is a total artwork[: the Absolute in codex form]. The latter — aphorisms, scrapbooks, journals, collages, and so on — remains resolutely fragmentary in nature. According to Barthes, ‘the future of the Book is the Album, just as the ruin is the future of the monument’: ‘What lives in us of the Book’ — a quotation, for instance — ‘is the Album’. Similarly, what lives in us of the biography is, what he called, the biographeme, akin to a textual snapshot: ‘Photography,’ he writes in Camera Lucida, ‘has the same relation to History that the biographeme has to biography’. If someone were to write his life, he once remarked, anticipating his own memoir, he hoped it would be limited to a few ‘biographemes’ — ‘a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections’ [— which, ‘like Epicurean atoms,’ would perhaps touch ‘some future body, destined to the same dispersion’]. Barthes felt that lives should not be written in stone since the past never stands still and identity is open to constant recomposition. His oeuvre is punctuated with [prefigurations or] echoes of the biographeme, which, I think, attests to the centrality of this concept. One finds ‘the Surprise, the Incident, the Haiku’ — presented as near synonyms — or the punctum, the accidental detail in a photograph (as opposed to its ostensible subject), which moves the observer to the extent that his or her involvement becomes deeply personal.
Surprising though it may seem, Roland Barthes had nothing against biography per se, and even toyed with the idea of composing one himself. Susan Sontag observed that he started his career by writing about André Gide’s journal and ended up reflecting upon his own. Barthes was always fascinated by the moment when authors like Stendhal or Proust switched from diary to novel, and seemed to be about to follow suit. His work took a decidedly autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn with the publication of Empire of Signs in 1970. This was followed by a memoir in fragments (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes) and what he described as an ‘almost novel,’ a novel ‘without proper names’ (A Lover’s Discourse). The subject (himself, his life) is real, but the narrative voice belongs[, of necessity,] to the realm of fiction. This is why it is prefaced with the following caveat, which, significantly, appears in the author’s own elegant script: ‘It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel’. Readers often suspect novels of being thinly disguised biographies; Barthes sensed, contrarily, that biographies were novels that dare not speak their name. The appeal of authors’ diaries is that they are repositories of what he described as the ‘fantasy’ of the writer figure, that is to say ‘the writer minus his work’. In truth, though, a writer cannot dissociate him or herself from the act of writing, just as it is impossible to discuss language in nonlinguistic terms. Barthes, I suspect, felt that he somehow produced himself through his work.
In the wake of the death of his mother, with whom he lived most of his life, the French theorist famously declared: ‘It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science’. During a lecture delivered a mere two months before his death, he even disavowed ‘The Death of the Author,’ dismissing it as modish structuralist excess. He goes on to confess that he has ‘sometimes come to prefer reading about the lives of certain writers to reading their works’. Barthes had seemingly forgotten to reread his own essay, just like his numerous detractors who never bothered to read it in the first place. Let it be said once and for all, then: the death of the author is that of the ‘Author-God’. Barthes never denies the very existence of the writer, which would be patently absurd. [When he states that, from a linguistic standpoint, ‘the author is never more than a man who writes,’ he recognises that he or she is never anything less either.] When he speaks of literature being an experience of identity loss ‘beginning with the very identity of the body that writes,’ he acknowledges that a body is doing the writing. [It is the presence of this body that he would increasingly seek out in his work.] The author [‘who leaves his [or her] text and comes into our life,’ as Barthes put it,] is primarily a physical presence devoid of psychological [or chronological] unity (a body, not a person). The text dispossesses the writer of his or her ‘narrative continuity’: ‘it takes my body elsewhere,’ he says. [The subject unmakes him or herself in the making of the text, ‘like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web’. However, it is also through these very secretions that the subject resurfaces, in disseminated form, ‘like the ashes we strew into the wind after death’. These ashes are ‘biographemes’].
Roland Barthes never considered himself as a visual artist, but he derived a great deal of pleasure — ‘a kind of innocence,’ he said — from the sheer physicality of drawing or painting. His most interesting artworks are multicoloured squiggles that resemble a preliterate child’s impression of writing[: writing as ludic abstraction]. What he found most attractive about Japanese calligraphy was that it allowed writing to take flight into painting. Barthes devoted several essays to the tradition of ‘illegible writing’ in the works of artists like Cy Twombly. He even produced some elegant doodles of his own, which we would now describe as asemic writing — a purely gestural form of writing with no semantic content whatsoever. The care with which he fashioned the file boxes for his famous index cards indicates that he also considered writing as a handicraft, as do the corrected proofs of his manuscripts, with their lovingly redacted lines in blue felt-tip that look like erasure poetry. His beautiful handwriting is as distinctive as the legendary grain of his voice. Barthes, it is often said, wrote from the body. He sought to inscribe ‘the hand as it writes’ — his very desire for writing, rather than his psychological subjectivity — into the body of his texts. Given the fascist nature of language, the utopian mission of literature is ‘to unexpress the expressible,’ to take the intransitivity of writing to its logical conclusion by relinquishing meaning altogether: ‘For writing to be manifest in its truth (and not in its instrumentality) it must be illegible’. Roland Barthes, the arch-interpreter dreamed, paradoxically, of a world ‘exempt from meaning’ — an unwritten world, that simply is.
The great critic’s life can certainly be seen in his work, but — as one would expect from the man who pronounced the Author dead — in more complicated ways than we are used to
Life in writing … Roland Barthes in 1978. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a piece on Roland Barthes shall be prefaced by a sarcastic reference to “The Death of the Author“. Especially when the centenary of his birth is commemorated with the publication of a third biography. Tiphaine Samoyault — who had access to a wealth of fresh material — is no ordinary biographer, however. Her premise is that a writer’s life is understood by what it lacks, as much as by the events it encompasses. She highlights the dangers of trying to explain the work through the life, or vice versa, as they are two “heterogeneous realities”. She also wastes no time in reminding us that the death of the writer (following an accident in 1980) is not The Death of the Author (1967).
When Barthes wrote his much-maligned essay, academic criticism in France had barely evolved since the days of Sainte-Beuve. The key to a work of literature was sought, ultimately, in the life — often the private life — of its author. Barthes argued that the latter’s authority was fundamentally undermined by modern fiction. As soon as writing becomes “intransitive” — as soon as language is no longer an instrument, but the very fabric of literature — “the voice loses its origin”: “to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality … that point where language alone acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘oneself’”. The “scriptor” — “born simultaneously with his text” and dismissed from it once it is finished — replaces the “Author-God”, whose death implies that a text no longer has an “ultimate meaning”. Every text is “eternally written here and now,” first by the scriptor, and then by the reader, whose creative power Barthes unleashes. (Ironically, this theory could lend itself to a textbook psychological reading, with the author standing in for the absent father.)
The death of the author is that of the Author-God. Barthes does not deny the very existence of the writer. Neither, to be fair, does he deny that biographical elements may come into play during the writing process. When he states that, from a linguistic standpoint, “the author is never more than a man who writes,” he clearly recognises that he or she is never anything less either. When he speaks of literature being an experience of identity loss “beginning with the very identity of the body that writes,” he clearly acknowledges that a body is doing the writing. It is, in fact, the presence of this body which he would increasingly strive to highlight in his intensely personal work.
During a lecture delivered a mere two months before he died, the French theorist disavowed his landmark essay. He shrugs it off as modish structuralist excess, and goes on to confess that he has “sometimes come to prefer reading about the lives of certain writers to reading their works”. Barthes protests too much. There was no “sudden about-face,” simply a shift of emphasis. If in Sade Fourier Loyola (1971) — published only four years after “The Death of the Author” — Barthes mentions an “amicable return of the author,” he hastens to add that this is not a resurrection of the Author-God. First of all, this is the author as he or she is experienced by the reader: “the author who leaves his text and comes into our life”. Secondly, this author has “no unity,” whether psychological or chronological. Finally, this author is primarily a physical presence: “he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body”.
The intersection of life and writing was always at the heart of Barthes’s project. Tiphaine Samoyault traces back his interest in self-portraiture to his sanatorium days, the diseased body being his original object of analysis. Susan Sontag shrewdly observes that he started his career by writing about Gide’s journal and ended up reflecting upon his own. He was fascinated by the moment when authors like Stendhal or Proust switched from diary to novel, and seemed to be about to follow suit. His work took a decidedly autobiographical — and indeed literary — turn with the publication of Empire of Signs (1970). This was followed by a memoir in fragments (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 1975) and what Barthes described as an “almost novel” (A Lover’s Discourse, 1977). In the wake of the death of his beloved mother, he declared: “It is the intimate which seeks utterance in me, seeks to make its cry heard, confronting generality, confronting science”.
If Barthes presents biography with a problem, it is not because he is absent from his work, but on the contrary because he is inseparable from it. Etymologically, a text is a piece of cloth, one that, in Barthes’s view, is constantly in the process of being woven. In this making, “the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web” (The Pleasure of the Text, 1973). However, it is also through these very secretions that the subject resurfaces, in disseminated form, “like the ashes we strew into the wind after death” (Sade Fourier Loyola, 1971). These ashes are what he called “biographemes”. Barthes also came to identify “life writing” — whereby life becomes the text of the work, à la Proust — as a viable way of voicing the intimate. Beyond that, and even beyond meaning itself, he dreamed of a purely gestural writing that would inscribe “the hand as it writes” — his very desire for writing — into the body of his texts.
In literary biography, the life of an author is traditionally read as leading to the work. After Proust and Barthes, the biographer must treat life and work as two separate entities, which both converge and diverge. Samoyault does everything one expects a conventional biography to do, and more, bringing to life the changing intellectual climate of Barthes’ time, making — to take one iconic example — his silence after the events of May 1968 seem perfectly comprehensible. But with Barthes, it is the work that seems to lead to the life, or at least to biography. If our interest in Barthes’ work draws us to investigate the author, then it is not enough to consult the letters, diary entries and ticket stubs of traditional biography. In the end, our biographical investigations must lead us back to the work itself.
Hauntology: A Not-So-New Critical Manifestation The new vogue in literary theory is shot through with earlier ideas
[Haunting presence … Jacques Derrida, who coined the term hauntology, in a still from the documentary Derrida]
Hauntology is probably the first major trend in critical theory to have flourished online. In October 2006, Mark Fisher — aka k-punk — described it as “the closest thing we have to a movement, a zeitgeist”. A mere three years later, Adam Harper prefaced a piece on the subject with the following caveat: “I’m all too aware that it’s no longer 2006, the year to blog about hauntology”. Two months ago, James Bridle predicted that the concept was “about six months away from becoming the title of a column in a Sunday supplement magazine”. Only four months to go, then. My hunch is that hauntology is already haunting itself. The revival starts here.
Like its close relative psychogeography, hauntology originated in France but struck a chord on this side of the Channel. In Spectres of Marx (1993), where it first appeared, Jacques Derrida argued that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave. In the original French, “hauntology” sounds almost identical to “ontology”, a concept it haunts by replacing — in the words of Colin Davis — “the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive”.
Today, hauntology inspires many fields of investigation, from the visual arts to philosophy through electronic music, politics, fiction and literary criticism. At its most basic level, it ties in with the popularity of faux-vintage photography, abandoned spaces and TV series like Life on Mars. Mark Fisher — whose forthcoming Ghosts of My Life (Zer0 Books) focuses primarily on hauntology as the manifestation of a specific “cultural moment” — acknowledges that “There’s a hauntological dimension to many different aspects of culture; in fact, in Moses and Monotheism, Freud practically argues that society as such is founded on a hauntological basis: the voice of the dead father”. When you come to think of it, all forms of representation are ghostly. Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation. See, for instance, Borges‘s longing to capture in verse the “other tiger, that which is not in verse”. Or Maurice Blanchot, who outlines what could be described as a hauntological take on literature as “the eternal torment of our language, when its longing turns back toward what it always misses“. Julian Wolfreys argues in Victorian Hauntings (2002) that “to tell a story is always to invoke ghosts, to open a space through which something other returns” so that “all stories are, more or less, ghost stories” and all fiction is, more or less, hauntological. The best novels, according to Gabriel Josipovici, share a “sense of density of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words“. For the reader or critic, the mystery of literature is the opacity — the irreducible remainder — at the heart of writing that can never be completely interpreted away. The whole western literary tradition itself is founded on the notion of posterity, which Paul Eluard described as the “harsh desire to endure” through one’s works. And then, of course, there’s the death of the author… All this, as you can see, could go on for quite a while, so perhaps we should wonder if the concept does not just mean all things to all (wo)men. Steen Christiansen, who is writing a book on the subject, explains that “hauntology bleeds into the fields of postmodernism, metafiction and retro-futurism and that there is no clear distinction — that would go against the tension which hauntology aims at”.
As a reflection of the zeitgeist, hauntology is, above all, the product of a time which is seriously “out of joint” (Hamlet is one of Derrida’s crucial points of reference in Spectres of Marx). There is a prevailing sense among hauntologists that culture has lost its momentum and that we are all stuck at the “end of history“. Meanwhile, new technologies are dislocating more traditional notions of time and place. Smartphones, for instance, encourage us never to fully commit to the here and now, fostering a ghostly presence-absence. Internet time (which is increasingly replacing clock time) results in a kind of “non-time” that goes hand in hand with Marc Augé’s non-places. Perhaps even more crucially, the web has brought about a “crisis of overavailability” that, in effect, signifies the “loss of loss itself”: nothing dies any more, everything “comes back on YouTube or as a box set retrospective” like the looping, repetitive time of trauma (Fisher). This is why “retromania” has reached fever pitch in recent years, as Simon Reynolds demonstrates in his new book — a methodical dissection of “pop culture’s addiction to its own past”.
Hauntology is not just a symptom of the times, though: it is itself haunted by a nostalgia for all our lost futures. “So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants?” asks Owen Hatherley at the beginning of Militant Modernism, “Can we, should we, try and excavate utopia?” It might just be worth a shot.
Kicking off a new occasional series about the most influential literary theory, Andrew Gallix revisits a classic essay by Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes in 1979. Photograph: Fabian Cevallos/Corbis
Ecclesiastes famously warns us that “Of making many books there is no end” — the same, of course, applies to book commentaries. George Steiner has long denounced the “mandarin madness of secondary discourse” which increasingly interposes itself between readers and works of fiction. For better or worse, the internet — with its myriad book sites — has taken this phenomenon to a whole new level. Since Aristotle’s Poetics, literature has always given rise to its exegesis, but now that no scrap of literary gossip goes untweeted, it may be time to reflect a little on the activity of literary criticism.
I have chosen to inaugurate this series with a few considerations on “The Death of the Author” because of its truly iconic nature: it symbolises the rise of what would come to be known as “theory“. Even if he never names them, Roland Barthes (like Proust before him) launches an attack on the traditional biography-based criticism à la Sainte-Beuve or Lanson which still dominated French academia in the sixties. The paradox, of course, is that this essay — with its symbolic slaying of the paternal “Author-God” — could lend itself to a textbook psychological reading given that Barthes lost his own father before his first birthday. The “Death of the Author” theme itself takes on added meaning, in hindsight, when you consider that Barthes’s critical career was, at least in part, a displacement activity to avoid writing the novel he dreamed of. Does any of this invalidate his theories? I’ll let you be the judge of that…
In 2002, the prestigious Pompidou Centre in Paris devoted a major exhibition, not to an artist, philosopher, scientist or novelist, but a literary critic: Roland Barthes. Now that the “theory wars” — which had once torn apart literature departments on both sides of the Atlantic — were largely over, it served as a reminder of a time when a posse of structuralists and post-structuralists superseded the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre as France’s premier intellectual icons. Many of them were primarily philosophers, anthropologists, historians, linguists or psychoanalysts — Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva et al. — but the locus of this intellectual revolution was undoubtedly literary criticism.
La nouvelle critique was flavour of the month, much like its culinary counterpart, nouvelle cuisine, albeit more of a mouthful. Critics-cum-thinkers such as Barthes himself — who was equally at home at the lofty Collège de France or down the trendy Le Palace nightclub — achieved bona fide celebrity status. Their works often became bestsellers in spite of their demanding and iconoclastic nature. Soon, NME journalists were peppering their articles with arcane references to Baudrillard while Scritti Politti dedicated a postmodern ditty to Jacques Derrida. The whole movement seemed as provocative, and indeed exciting, as Brigitte Bardot in her slinky, sex kitten heyday. Its defining moment was the publication of a racy little number called “The Death of the Author“.
As if mimicking one of its central themes, Roland Barthes’s article first featured in an American journal in 1967: the original (an English translation of a French text) was thus, in effect, already a copy. With a nice sense of historical timing, it appeared in the critic’s homeland in the quasi-insurrectionary context of the 1968 student protests. As it was only anthologised much later (first in Image-Music-Text in 1977 and then in The Rustle of Language in 1984), the essay was photocopied and distributed samizdat-fashion on campuses all over the world, which enhanced its subversive appeal.
Subversive, it certainly was. In France, perhaps more than anywhere else, the secularisation of society (compounded by the Republic’s struggle against the Roman Catholic Church) had led to the adoption of art and literature as substitute religions. Nietzsche had announced the death of God only to see Him replaced by the “Author-God”. Enter Roland Barthes.
His starting-point is a sentence lifted from Sarrasine (1830), a little-known Balzac novella about an artist who falls in love with a young castrato he believes to be a woman. Barthes (who was gay) was so taken with this gender-bending tale of mistaken identity that he would study it at length in S/Z (1970). Here, he draws a parallel between the ambiguity of Sarrasine’s feelings and the ambiguous identity of the speaker who, ironically, describes the castrato as the essence of womanhood. Is it the deluded, love-struck protagonist? The narrator? Balzac the writer? Balzac the man?… Having exhausted all possibilities, the critic draws the conclusion that it is impossible to say for sure who the sentence should be attributed to. He goes on to describe literature as a space “where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes”. The death of the author marks the birth of literature, defined, precisely, as “the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin”.
Indeed, the “modern writer” — or “scriptor” as Barthes calls him — can only mimic “a gesture forever anterior, never original” by recombining what has already been written. Whereas the “Author-God” maintained with his work “the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child,” the scriptor “is born simultaneously with his text”: for him, “there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now”. As Barthes puts it, apropos of Mallarmé, “it is language which speaks, not the author” — or the scriptor for that matter. Works of fiction are palimpsests and as such are devoid of any “single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God)”. The key to a text is not to be found in its “origin” but in its “destination”: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.
Next time, I’m planning to investigate the notion of mimetic desire — unless there’s anywhere else you’d rather visit first. Suggestions on future topics are most welcome…