Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Amicable Return of Roland Barthes

Assistant Professor of English and film at the University of North Florida

It seems to me that, for a writer, the issue isn’t how to be “eternal” (mythological definition of the “great writer”) but how to be desirable after death.

—Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel (303)

Almost every journalist I’ve read who invokes Roland Barthes’s most famous and commonly assigned essay, “The Death of the Author,” gets it wrong. She or he always thinks that pointing out the survival of the significance of authors is enough to disprove Barthes’s claims. It is important to recognize that before Barthes’s thesis could congeal into a maxim, he shifted his position and began to imagine the “amicable return of the author.” We are now faced with the ironic problem of the literal death of the author Roland Barthes, and speculations about his “intentions” regarding the still continuing posthumous publication of his work. In “The posthumous life of Roland Barthes,” Éric Marty pictures the special ring of hell reserved for “the posthumous author,” a “fate” whereby Barthes’s critics manage to reduce his writing to the implicit confessions of a closeted homosexual, especially his posthumously published Incidents. Editor François Wahl justified this publication seven years after Barthes’s death by the fact that the manuscript was evidently prepared for publication, and Barthes had published an essay in Tel Quel, “Deliberation,” in which he considered whether it was worth keeping a journal with a view to publication, and included excerpts from two diaries.

It was thus fascinating to see Wahl and Marty engage in an editorial quarrel in Le nouvel observateur about the more recent posthumous publications: Barthes’s Mourning Diary and Travels in China. They do not address the publication of Barthes’s notes for (and audio recordings of) his courses at the Collège de France: How to Live Together, The Neutral, and The Preparation of the Novel; however, within the courses, Barthes himself speculates about whether publication might overly monumentalize—as “books”—courses that are by their very nature more ephemeral.

In what follows, I do not intend to “take a side” in this dispute. Nor do I intend to review the works in question in any comprehensive fashion. (This has already been done admirably by Michael Wood, and by Semiotext(e) editor Sylvère Lotringer.) Instead, I will follow Marty and D.A. Miller (Bringing Out Roland Barthes) in looking at the appearance within these works of homosexuality not as a confessional topic but as a form of “desire” (or something “desirable,” as Foucault would have it). I will also consider problems of inflection, translation, and “monumentalization.”

Like Barthes’s distinction between Proustians and Marcelians, this will primarily be directed to “Rolandians.” Barthes insisted that it was preferable to be seen as “egoistic” to avoid the greater evil and arrogance of pretended scientific objectivity. I was particularly convinced by my student William Petersen’s classification of two literary personas Barthes creates in his later writing: the lover and the curmudgeon. Incidents and Travels in China feature both, though Travels is primarily the curmudgeon speaking (often in response to a sense of obligation, responsibility, or political blackmail). The question remains whether the publication of Barthes’s self-reflexively “us/them” China notebook now, at our present historical moment of China’s rise to global superpower, has a kind of historical or critical value. Yet like Empire of Signs or his Moroccan “Incidents”—which represent, respectively and symbiotically, a utopian and dystopian fantasy of the Orient according to Diana Knight’s “Barthes and Orientalism”—there are also novelesque descriptions of fleeting moments of homosociality and boyishness that Barthes finds charming and classifies in his index to the manuscript under the term “homosexuality.”

Homosexuality also plays a role in Barthes’s Mourning Diary and The Preparation of the Novel, but most often it is mentioned “in passing.” To me, this is not proof of the closet, but is rather proof of the relatively “exoteric” status of homosexuality for Barthes. I am struck by the fact that Barthes includes gay culture as an intertext and handy example in the course. For example, Barthes explains that “to come to terms with a loss, a bereavement, is to transform it into something else; Separation shall be transformed into the very material of the Work, into the concrete labor of the Work (cf. to come to terms with one’s Homosexuality=to transform it)” (298).

While there is a great deal of overlap between this course and Barthes’s published lecture “Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure,” many of the selected quotations and examples are unique to The Preparation of the Novel, in particular examples bearing on gay culture. Barthes uses an implicitly gay porn theater as an example of the literary concept of mise-en-abyme (170), and US gay personal ads as an example of the coding of fantasies and to explain his “writing fantasy” (11). This question of coding and fantasy, or recuperation of something that seems transgressive, was a problem that interested Barthes in an early interview about homosexuality in “Arab countries” that he excerpted in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. In both of these examples, there is a degree of “othering” of the problem (as typical of the USA or Morocco, places Barthes visited), but this is complicated by the fact that Barthes makes these observations as if his interlocutors can immediately see their relevance to his work, as if they are commonplace examples rather than evidence of some personal minority experience, and as if it is obvious that questions of literary form and homosexuality are intimately intertwined.

An attempt to “illustrate” Barthes’s desire for Moroccan young men can be seen in the recent republication of Incidents in a new translation by Teresa Lavender Fagan with photographs by Bishan Samaddar. While this might be intended as a kind of “corrective” to Barthes’s Orientalism/fetishism, in fact it participates in it unwittingly, in particular by muddling “The Orient” since the photos were taken in both Morocco and India, and by fetishizing both the brown-skinned bodies of the men pictured and Barthes’s own desire in a way that is both literalizing and stereotyping (I am grateful to Robert Summers for our conversations about this problem). While Barthes’s Orientalism/Critique of Orientalism is a complex problem (addressed by Diana Knight, Pierre Saint-Amand, and Dalia Kandiyoti, among others), the disservice here seems mainly to a critic whose own reflections on the relationship between photographs and written text are far more complex and subtle. A better corrective might be found not by means of photographs illustrating Barthes’s desire, reducing his writing to a kind of “caption,” but rather by supplementing Barthes’s texts with other texts, for example Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army (touted as by the first “out” gay Moroccan writer). To me, this would be a more open dialogue.

Thus, while I remain “neutral” on the editorial debate between Wahl and Marty about the morality and ethics of posthumously publishing Barthes’s manuscripts, I believe that these problems need to be reckoned with in the case of the republication of Incidents with this dossier of photographs, as well as the case of the original US publication of Incidents bound with Miller’s Bringing Out Roland Barthes. Miller clearly doesn’t have the Final Word, and neither does Barthes. What Barthes has is “A Last (but not Final) Word” in The Preparation of the Novel in which he supplements Nietzsche’s famous injunction to “Become what you are” with Kafka’s saying “Destroy yourself … in order to make yourself into that which you are.” (304). While these have some bearing on the problem of homosexual identity (for both Barthes and Foucault), they also aptly describe Barthes’s tactic of destroying the Author in order to make himself into that which he is for his readers: desirable after death.


Nicholas de Villiers is assistant professor of English and film at the University of North Florida, and author of Opacity and the Closet: Queer Tactics in Foucault, Barthes, and Warhol.

"In a significant contribution to a growing body of work on queer ethics and subjectivity, Opacity and the Closet describes the tactics of disappearance and latency so crucial to survival in the postwar period. Attending to minor genres such as the fragment and the interview, Nicholas de Villiers traces the careers of some unlikely queer heroes—shy, matte, neutral figures who did not so much refuse the closet as suspend it."
—Heather Love, author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

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