Monday, September 29, 2008

Barthes at the College de France

Earlier today, wandering about in a bookstore, I found an attractively slim Points Essais edition of Roland Barthes’s inaugural lesson at the Collège de France. It is titled, boldly, Leçon.

Leçon is interesting, for instance, in light of Micheal Behrent’s article on Foucault. In as much as it is admissible to read the text as argument, and I’m not sure such a reading would be the most nuanced or productive, it must be admitted that Barthes’s argument rests on a certain conception of insidious and all-pervading power. Barthes is in this text, and at this moment, linked especially closely to Foucault. Foucault brought Barthes to the Collège de France, and in a sense it is Foucault’s space. So given this, we can say that Barthes is inscribing a whole project of literary inquiry in a Foucauldian space.

The most painful thing about reading the Leçon, for me, is Barthes’s suggestion that an ever-renewed investigation, a continual assault on foundational assumptions, could be an effective counter to this kind of power (which is not capital, but is also not not-capital). Perhaps the least ‘modern’ sounding of Barthes’ opinions is that desire is somehow to be opposed to power. The opposition of elemental and natural desire (albeit conceived as multiplicity) to power (albeit also conceived as multiple), seems simply naïve. Perhaps I have not understood. Yet I can only cringe when I read, near the end, “Ce qui peut être oppressif dans un enseignement, ce n’est pas finalement le savoir ou la culture qu’il véhicule, ce sont les formes discursives à travers lesquelles on les propose” (pg 42). Although I understand that, at one time, Barthes was something of an adversary for certain professional historians, he was also deeply concerned with History. Perhaps this is the issue: History, not history. Surely both can be oppressive?

What I ask myself is, does the above quote suggest that Barthes thinks something like what Behrent says Foucault thinks about the new configuration of power—biopower as opposed to discipline? This, or something like this, seems plausible to me partly because Barthes engages in a certain amount of self-historicisation of the sort I always find fascinating. For him, there was a coupure with the Liberation, but again with or around Mai ’68. I wonder if it would be possible to track his opinions of the changing shape of French society over these decades in the something of the same way that Behrent does with Foucault. In the end, I think it is a mistake to take Barthes seriously as a thinker of political or social issues. As a writer, yes; as a literary critic, yes; but not as a thinker of the social. And I think he would agree with this. The Leçon suggests as much. It is too bad that he is read as ‘political’ by so many Anglophone critics.

As far as this particular text is concerned, it seems to me that it is best to heed the warnings Barthes gives at the beginning, that he only ever writes essays, “genre ambigu où l’écriture le dispute à l’analyse” (7). More plainly, I think we should take everything Barthes says here (I would go so far as to say, ever) as essentially a first person statement. It is about pleasure, about his own pleasure—we are invited to participate, and to get what we can from it, but the basic principle is always, as he says, “cette disposition qui me porte souvent à sortir d’un embarras intellectuel par une interrogation portée à mon plaisir” (8). He is a writer, and he is engaged in “un combat assez solitaire contre le pouvoir de la langue” (25). The thing of it is, I always enjoy reading him. I find that, while I often disagree with what he says, I agree profoundly with what I understand his project to be. I think next, perhaps when I run across it in a bookstore, since I have no professional excuse at the moment, I will take up La chambre claire.

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