Roland Barthes and the Urgency of Nuance

By Philip SayersNovember 4, 2018

Roland Barthes and the Urgency of Nuance
SHORTLY AFTER the 2016 presidential election, it seemed that Roland Barthes was having a moment again in the academy. The previous year had been the centenary of his birth, and the renowned philosopher and literary critic’s place in the intellectual consciousness seemed more secure than ever, with Tiphaine Samoyault’s comprehensive biography, an exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the launch of the new journal Barthes Studies, and Laurent Binet’s noirish critical theory satire La septième fonction du langage (released in English two years later). Accompanying these works honoring Barthes, who died in 1980, were several new collections of his previously uncollected or untranslated work: Columbia University Press published a three-volume compendium of Barthes’s lectures and seminars from the late 1970s, and Seagull Books put out five short volumes’ worth of his essays. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which took its title from a line in Barthes’s quasi-memoir Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, was only the most prominent of a number of books of creative nonfiction, often by queer and feminist writers, to pay tribute to his influence both as a philosopher and as the writer of personal, fragmentary, essayistic texts like Camera Lucida and A Lover’s Discourse.

Unfortunately, Barthes’s moment was short-lived. Post-election, the mood in the academy had suddenly shifted. Barthes’s subtle attention to the pleasures of literature, his willingness to foreground his own subjectivity, and above all his allegiance to nuance seemed, in a freshly repoliticized United States, indulgences at best. Today, things feel starker still: appeals to “nuance” are the trademark of a bad-faith both-sides-ism that gives cover stories to abusers, which makes it hard not to cringe when the same term appears in Barthes’s work as the highest goal of critical writing. It wasn’t just a tonal mismatch between his languorous, humble prose and the anxiety, anger, and urgency that characterized much political discourse in late 2016. It was the sense that what was needed at that particular moment was direct, committed thinking that would address unflinchingly a clear and present danger. In this context, for all his virtues, Roland Barthes was not the thinker to turn to.

For those of us who had welcomed Barthes’s return to the spotlight, this sudden reversal was a bitter pill. “Hasn’t Trump already done enough?” one colleague observed. “We can’t let him take away Barthes too.” As someone whose work has been deeply influenced by Barthes, I have been prompted by the change in political climate to question my approach: Was there still a case to be made for reading a thinker who seemed so out of step with the present? Could there be something useful in Barthes’s evasiveness, his interest in figures of neutrality, and his allergy to direct political commitments? Was there still value to the “neutral,” a notion Barthes developed over the course of his 1977–1978 lectures at the Collège de France?

What Barthes meant by the neutral was a way of thinking that eludes the clear and binary oppositions that structure our understanding of the world: yes and no, Republican and Democrat, male and female, straight and gay. This manner of thought — elusive, evasive, opaque — is characteristic of much of Barthes’s oeuvre, especially in the final decade of his life, and how it strikes you may very well determine where you fall on the question of how useful or not his thinking is. In certain situations, the slipperiness of “the neutral” can be liberating: it points us away from simplistic, rigid, binary thinking. It’s Barthes (and this is the argument that Nicholas de Villiers makes in his 2012 monograph Opacity and the Closet) at his most tantalizingly queer. It’s Barthes doing his best Prince: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.”

In other situations, though, evading the choice between two opposed options can risk coming across as insipid — or insidious. Refusing to take a clear position, declining to commit to one side and to refute the other, can be a simple failure to take responsibility and act. Or it can be a strategy of derailment, a way of hindering real and concrete action taken to correct an urgent injustice. Claiming that there isn’t a simple answer to a question can just, as Andrea Long Chu recently reminded us, be a way to deny the legitimacy of those asking. This gets to the crux of why reading Barthes in 2018 can be so jarring. If there’s one thing that makes him bristle, it’s being told that you’re either with us or against us. But against the background of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter on the one hand and a highly visible far right on the other, you’re either with us or against us feels less like a veiled threat and more like an urgent appeal for political commitment.

This isn’t to say, of course, that “it’s complicated” is always an underhand way to shut down an inconvenient demand. When I say that the question of whether or not Roland Barthes is still relevant in 2018 doesn’t have an easy yes-or-no answer, what I’m grappling with is a very 2018 dilemma: is it still worth thinking about writing and art made by people whose words or deeds might disappoint us, personally or politically? Cards on the table, then: Barthes’s work, especially when read today, can be disappointing. There’s nothing in Samoyault’s Barthes: A Biography to give readers reason to be queasy about his life, but his work nevertheless frequently frustrates in terms of its gender politics or its attempts to represent East Asia. Ultimately, though, I want to make the case that, for all Barthes’s shortcomings, it would be a mistake to let the tremor of November 2016 recast him as the indulgence of a simpler time, before appeals to nuance were co-opted by the kind of people who write editorials decrying supposed Twitter mobs for being insufficiently civil.

The most compelling instance of the way that Barthes’s writing can simultaneously enable and exasperate is, to my mind, the seminar he gave in early 1977, as a newly appointed professor at the Collège de France, under the title “Qu’est-ce que tenir un discours?”: “What is it to hold forth?” His subject, as he explained in the inaugural lecture he delivered a few days prior to the beginning of the seminar, was to be power, and his ultimate goal was to outwit it. Or rather them: “Our true battle,” he proclaimed, “is against powers in the plural, and this is no easy combat.” This is Barthes taking a cue from the man who had recommended him for the prestigious professorship, Michel Foucault. If Foucault’s best remembered contribution to the theory of power is the argument that it is everywhere, dispersed throughout lived experience rather than emanating from a single sovereign source, then Barthes takes up this premise as a challenge to think about how we might carve out spaces of shelter from the relentless power-play. Or as he puts it: “[W]e must inquire into the conditions and processes by which discourse can be disengaged from all will-to-possess.”

Barthes is not generally understood as a theorist of power, nor even as an especially politically minded thinker. At least prior to the publication of the Collège de France seminars, the standard critical narrative had been that, after a youthful burst of political passion (on full display in the pop ideology-critique of 1957’s Mythologies), Barthes went soft and bourgeois over the course of the 1970s; his attention turned increasingly inward, culminating in the deeply personal and aesthetically complex (but ultimately apolitical) Camera Lucida, published shortly before his death in 1980. The Collège de France years unsettle this narrative: they show a version of the critic for whom the personal and the political are deeply and unavoidably entangled. But they also demonstrate Barthes’s desire to disentangle them: his dream of a life unsullied by the “parasite” of power. It’s too simple to say, then, that the late Barthes is apolitical: he accepts that life is from the beginning caught up in politics. It’s just that his response to that isn’t to seek to dominate the apparatus of power, or to overthrow it, or even, in a Foucauldian vein, to subvert it from within. It’s to seek out refuges, from which we might catch a glimpse of alternative, less oppressive social arrangements. He finds such sanctuaries in the ascetic communities he discusses in the 1977 lecture course “How to Live Together,” and above all in literature. This isn’t an abandonment of politics so much as a sidestepping, in the service of a sustained attempt to find ways of living together in the world without resorting to authoritarian power structures — which is one way of understanding precisely what politics is.

Barthes’s inaugural lecture, then, outlined his intention to investigate the relationship between discourse and power. The following week, he set about fulfilling this goal, via two parallel courses: the lecture series, “How to Live Together,” and the seminar, “What Is It to Hold Forth?” Whereas the former developed Barthes’s longstanding interest in utopian thinking, the latter took a gloomier tack. In the lectures, he considered how best to make a life in a world shared with other people; in the seminar, he turned his attention to situations where those other people seem uninterested in sharing their world with you — where they appear as intimidating, arrogant, tiresome, obnoxious.

This is what Barthes means by “holding forth”: a way of speaking, and a way of carrying oneself, that intimidates and coerces, that goes on and on, repetitively and ostentatiously. It can be charismatic at times, but it’s ultimately oriented more toward shoring up one’s own power than actually communicating. The language of holding forth is, he writes, a language “whose intention is to shut the other up — and at the same time a language-garment that’s theatrically and ritually donned as a piece of clothing that bears the stamp of authority.” In that first session of January 12, 1977 (of the remaining 10, Barthes himself led only the final two, inviting other speakers for the remainder), the 2018 reader encounters an analysis of the way people assert themselves over others that’s at once both extremely familiar and discomfiting, that feels simultaneously prescient and off the mark.

What’s most striking about it is what Barthes says — and what he doesn’t say — about gender. Having spent a few pages unpacking the connotations of the phrase, Barthes concludes his introductory session with a series of examples, most taken from everyday life, of people who hold forth. Some of these are banal: a taxi driver yammering sanctimoniously, oblivious to his passenger’s lack of interest, or a motorcyclist loudly showing off. Others have a kind of charisma, even charm: a man whom Barthes cares for eating breakfast in a peculiarly vigorous, performative way. But the most conspicuous is the lengthiest, one that he describes as “more irritating, more corrosive”:

On the train, a “young specialist nurse” (traveling with a secondary-school teacher who’s clearly in thrall to her and whom she dominates): a succession of competing signs of affirmation: (a) a big tape player in our compartment, (b) a loud, booming voice, (c) unembarrassed discussion of all sorts of subjects, (d) lolls over two seats, (e) takes her shoes off, (f) eats an orange, (g) cuts in on my conversation with my traveling companion. In short, she holds forth.

Barthes’s catalog of irritating behaviors here is sharp and perceptive. It gets at the fact that holding forth isn’t just about what you say, nor even just about how you say it (loudly, and without embarrassment). It’s also in the way you arrange your body, the way you occupy space (especially public space), and the way you employ inanimate objects as props in a performance. The holder-forth speaks and acts loudly and confidently — and does so, crucially, to the exclusion of others, whether they are “in thrall” to the holder-forth, or (like Barthes, interrupted mid-conversation) quite the opposite.

But to a reader in North America in 2018 — one used to reading critiques of powerful, authoritative men who hold forth by Rebecca Solnit or Chris Kraus — this is a jarring passage: it’s hard not to feel surprise that it’s a young woman whom Barthes uses as his example, when the behaviors in which she so unmistakably engages are ones that, here and today, have come to be coded as masculine. Put in contemporary terms, Barthes’s young specialist nurse is a manspreading, manterrupting, mansplainer.

In some sense, then, the seminar is remarkably prescient in its analysis of the small-scale intimidations of everyday life. But if Barthes is insightful on the how of holding forth, he’s suspiciously evasive when it comes to the who and the why. Barthes conceives of holding forth as something that everyone engages in. What he seemingly refuses to conceive is the possibility that, depending on who you are, the way you hold forth might have lower or higher stakes — that, in short, holding forth has a gendered dimension. It’s not, to be clear, that you have to be a guy, or any kind of privileged subject, to be an obnoxious jerk. But the stakes are clearly different when the jerk in question has the authority (symbolic and material) to make his obnoxiousness hurt. Barthes’s young nurse on the train, it seems fair to surmise, doesn’t, which makes his decision to reserve his most withering invective for her feel like punching down. Even in a more generous reading, it’s exactly the kind of false neutrality that muddies and derails rather than opening up hitherto unthinkable possibilities.

So why persist in reading him? What value abides in an approach that’s so determined to evade the realm of gender politics? The answer, I think, has to do with scale. What draws Barthes to the idea of “holding forth” is that, as theaters of power go, the taxi cabs and train carriages that he observes, are somewhat underwhelming. Focusing on interactions like these — interactions that feel trivial, everyday, small — is a way for him to fly low, under the radar of the political categories we’re used to dealing with, so as to better attend to the delicate and shifting operations of power in the social sphere. His approach is the opposite of the kind of big thinking that characterizes much of our own political moment: mass marches, global crises, climate catastrophe. It’s a micro-theory rather than a macro-theory. This, I think, is key to Barthes’s continued appeal to writer-thinkers like Maggie Nelson and Wayne Koestenbaum, Brian Dillon and Brian Blanchfield, Kate Briggs and Mari Ruti.

Do you want to go mano a mano with power so as to enact large-scale material change? Or are you more drawn to the search for micro-level tactics that can help us navigate the folds of everyday life and forge more bearable ways of being within them? Both approaches are valuable, no matter who’s in the White House.

I wouldn’t recommend a Barthes-only reading diet to anybody. Our world needs forms of thinking that aren’t afraid to shout back, that emphatically resist attempts to shut us up. We need forms of thinking that enable us to grasp the largest of scales: the planetary, the geological. And the scale at which Barthes does his most effective work is the smallest. His is what Diana Leca calls a “philosophy of minimal demands,” which makes him an uneasy fit for a moment in the United States that feels maximally demanding. But in life as it is lived, those demands often face us in everyday, small-scale contexts: on the street, in a taxi, on a train. There are few better guides to negotiating them — with sensitivity, creativity, and, yes, nuance — than Barthes.


Philip Sayers is a PhD candidate in English and Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto.

LARB Contributor

Philip Sayers is a PhD candidate in English and Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto. Before that, he lived and studied in the United Kingdom. His academic publications include articles on Judith Butler, William Faulkner, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace, and he will defend his dissertation — on how contemporary writers and theorists think about authorship — in fall 2018.


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