Writing as value

I’ve now finished reading the selection of Roland Barthes’ essays published under the title Image, Music, Text. From these I can see how Barthes’ writings straddled both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, in that they very strongly reveal systems at play in texts, while adding a definite historical context and contingency to those readings.

There were a couple of things which interested me that I’d like to write about. First I wanted to take a quick look at the last text in the book: Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers (Barthes, 1971, pp. 190–215), in which he lays out the distinct roles that these take in relation to the social production and activity of the Text.

I have to admit this text confused me a little, with its serial nature, its plethora of discrete sections. I found it difficult to grasp an overall meaning or direction to the piece (more on that later).

Barthes speakes here of an entity named the ‘writer,’ which he determines as sitting apart in some way from the other two entities mentioned, the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘teacher’ who are both distinguished by the fact that they speak. And the latter two are also joined through a “fundamental tie between teaching and speech,” traced back to Rhetoric. He feels this sequence of entities warrants further analysis because of a political crisis in teaching at that time (the article was published in 1971 and makes reference to the revolutionary atmosphere amongst the post-’68 student body), Lacanian analysis of (empty) speech, and the development of an “obvious” “opposition between speech and writing.” (p. 190)

To be clear, the writer is understood not as “a social value” (p. 193) but as a practice, and is contrasted to the teacher/speaker as one whose message cannot be summarized, this being “a condition the writer shares with the madman, the chatterbox and the mathematician but which precisely writing . . . has as its task to specify.” (p. 194)

Writing begins at the point where speech becomes impossible (a word that can be understood in the sense it has when applied to a child). (p. 190)

Speech is presented as being irreversable, in contrast to writing: “it is ephemeral speech which is indelible, not monumental writing.” (p. 190) To be understood the spoken word must be clear and reductive of meaning, it must adhere to the “Law present in every act of speech” (p. 191) for its intelligibility. This adherance to the Law presents the speaker as Authority, with all the hierarchization implicit in the term, in Barthes’ examples specifically that between the teacher and the student (body).

Speech as such remains caught in this position of creating it’s own hierarchy by its own nature. The speaker finds that the act of speaking in itself actively subverts any value it might have as a revolutionary act.

Instead Barthes proposes writing as value, presenting this value as being “the materialist field par excellance” (p. 213) Materialism for Barthes is one of “the two great epistemes of modernity,” and he asks, and perhaps this is the main thrust of this essay, how can materialism, “the economy of relations of production,” and Freudian dialectics, “the economy of the subject,” be made to intersect? Inevitably this leads to the question: “what is the relation between class determination and the unconscious?” (p. 212)

He proposes that the answer is by language, by discourse. As I understand it, he is then saying that even if the proletariat lacks a language or a discourse, it is still through the unconscious of the speech of the bourgeois or the intellectual, as the Other of their discourses, that they are represented. I’m really not sure if I understand that correctly though, it’s a very confusing passage for me.

Barthes provides the following (perhaps) by way of an explanation, proposing a “mass gesture” available in writing alone. The final sentence seems to reflect the idea of the “explosion of meaning” which Barthes mentions in other essays and which has parallels with Deleuze, I think:

Though issuing from Marxism and psychoanalysis, the theory of writing tries to displace – without breaking with – that place of origin: on the one hand, it rejects the temptation of the signified, that is the deafness to language, to the excessive return of its effects; on the other, it is opposed to speech in that it is not transferrential and outplays – admittedly partially, in extremely narrow, particularist social limits even – the traps of ‘dialogue.’ There is in writing the beginnings of a mass gesture: against all discourses (modes of speech, instrumental writings, rituals, protocols, social symbolics), writing alone today, even if still in the form of luxury, makes of language something atopical, without place. It is this dispersion, this unsituation, which is materialist.

I also think there may be some connection between this and Walter Benjamin’s The Author as Producer, where it has become the writer’s responsibility to produce the conditions for the production of other writers amongst the proletariat. Benjamin’s text, although post-Freud, is pre-Lacan (it was originally published in 1934) and perhaps inevitably lacks a specific address to the unconscious which is central for Barthes:

What matters therefore is the exemplary character of production, which is able first to induce other producers to produce, and second to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers, that is, readers or spectators into collaborators. (Benjamin, 1934)

end

Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers, as a whole, seems to lack consistency. The strategy of breaking it up into discrete chunks, while a typical stylistic trait of Barthes’, has the tendency to lead to a juddering of the arguments presented. Unlike, say, Foucault, rather than presenting a clear, continuous (unitary?) theory, one point leading to another by a deductive, logical process, Barthes presents the stages of his argument as so many anecdotes which come across almost as extended aphorisms, leading to a feeling of disjunction in the reading.

This is the point, I would assume. One could say his writing is attempting to exemplify the theory it expounds – this “dispersion,” this “unsituation” of writing.

  • BARTHES, Roland (1971). Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers. First published as ‘Ecrivains, intellectuels, professeurs’, Tel Quel 47, Autumn 1971. Transl. Stephen Heath. In Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press, 1977. pp. 190–215.
  • BENJAMIN, Walter (1934). The Author as Producer. Address delivered at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, Paris, 27 April 1934. In FRASCINA, Francis and HARRISON, Charles (eds.). Modern Art and Modernism. A Critical Anthology. London: Routledge, 1982.
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