Neil Badmington on Academic Writing, Theory, and Barthes

Britt Grootes (GEMS) talks to the prominent Barthes scholar about his life and work

On Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

What draws me back to the late Barthes above all, I think, is his attention to ‘the magic of the signifier’, to nuance, to all that is light and delicate. His restless invention and reinvention. Drift. Then there’s the unclassifiability and the mischief. And the style, of course — that elegant, seductive style. (We often call him a ‘theorist’ in the anglophone world, but ‘écrivain’ is much closer to the mark in so many ways.) Barthes knew a thing or two about the seduction of the reader with only the signifier. When I open something like Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, I’m his. [Read More]

On Academic Writing and Style

rhodia_webnotebook_orange_01_FULLMy intellectual debt to Catherine Belsey is beyond calculation. […] If the relationship could be likened to a repayment mortgage, I’ve barely begun to make a dent in the interest.) I couldn’t possibly list everything that I’ve learnt and continue to learn from her, so I’ll simply single out, in no particular order:

– A commitment to clarity, even when writing about theories which make life difficult for the reader at the level of the signifier. (Even enlisting that phrase ‘the level of the signifier’ brings Kate [Catherine Belsey] to mind. As does the term ‘enlisting’, come to think of it…) Take a book like Culture and the Real. There’s some hugely complex theoretical work under discussion in its pages, but find me a sentence of Kate’s which isn’t clear.

– A belief that anything which signifies is open in principle to analysis. My heart sinks when I hear academics in English departments telling their students that Stephen King, for example, is not ‘literature’ and is therefore not suitable material for discussion. I’m not a fan of Stephen King, and I have no desire to read his work, but why on earth would I want to deny someone else the opportunity to do so within the space of the university? What kind of narrow, petty, reactionary mind would work in such a way, and to what ends? If something signifies, it’s suitable.

– A resistance to mimicry of ‘the master’s style’. I don’t think that we really need another book or article on Derrida, say, where the prose apes Derrida’s. I admire much of Derrida’s style, and I adore Barthes’s, but I don’t see why discussions of their work need to be stylistic imitations. (Such things always look like pale imitations, too.) [Read More]

On Theory

Marjorie Garber

‘Theory’ to me means French poststructuralist theory. (I know that there are other forms of theory, of course, but they hold little interest.) Something I take from theory in terms of history, then, would be History as the antidote to Nature. (I’m using Barthes’s capital letters.) If any discourse which presents itself as natural, as eternal, as obvious, as common sense, can be shown to have a very precise history, then nature loses its hold on how we think and act. That’s what we read again and again in Mythologies, of course, but also in something like Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Discipline and Punish or, more recently, Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests. (Garber is another critic who knows how to seduce a reader with style.) [Read More]

On Books vs. Digital

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

I’ve never done any genuine archival work so I’ll confine my response to libraries. I understand completely what digitalization makes possible, and I’ve often turned to electronic versions of, say, Barthes’s writings in order to track down in seconds an elusive phrase which would have taken days to find if I’d only had access to print. But, for all my posthumanist past, I refuse to embrace the digital. I need the bodies of books, their shape and their scent. I don’t want my entire library in a single, slender device made of sunshine; I don’t want waves and radiation. I want a physical presence which invites me to bend my way of living to its stubborn bulk. My own history is bound up in the volumes on my shelves, too, because I always write the date on which I bought a book inside its front cover, along with the place. Pulling one at random from the little working shelf which sits on my desk, I can see that I bought Barthes’s Camera Lucida on 4 November 1993 in Exeter, which is where I studied as an undergraduate. My handwriting looks childish, naive. I’m suddenly reminded of lost time, of being in my early twenties, of a period of textual awakening which is unthinkable to me now. A Kindle couldn’t do that; a Kindle is not a madeleine. [Read More]

You can read Britt Grootes’s full interview with Neil Badmington at the GEMS (Group for Early Modern Studies, Ghent University) website.

Neil Badmington is the editor of the open-access journal, Barthes Studies, which is available to read online. He tweets at @BarthesStudies.

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