The Afterlives of Roland Barthes

Neil Badmington discusses his fascination with the work of Barthes, the continuing relevance of critical theory, and his own approach to academic style
Neil Badmington, The Afterlives of Roland Barthes (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Neil Badmington, The Afterlives of Roland Barthes (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What led you to write The Afterlives of Roland Barthes?

‘Who’ rather than ‘What’, really. It’s all the fault of my good friend Jürgen Pieters, who has repeatedly led me, with our conversations over the years, in new directions. In 2006 Jürgen and Kris Pint (who was Jürgen’s PhD student at the time) organised a conference at their home institution of Ghent University on Barthes’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, which had recently appeared in print for the first time. I’m not sure why I was invited to participate: the other speakers were people with formidable reputations in the field of Barthes studies (Andy Stafford and Claude Coste, for instance), while I’d never written extensively about Barthes. His work had often informed mine up until that point — he’s there in Alien Chic and even the Posthumanism anthology, for instance — but he’d not been the primary object of analysis: I’d written with Barthes, not on Barthes. And the Barthes with whom I’d written had been the familiar Barthes, the ‘classic’ Barthes — the Barthes of S/Z and Mythologies, for example. But the unexpected invitation from Jürgen and Kris led me to look closely at the various volumes bearing Barthes’s name which had been published long after his death, and I was struck by how a different Barthes, another Barthes, was emerging gradually into print — not just the Barthes of the Collège years, but the Barthes of Travels in China, the Barthes of the seminars at the École pratique des hautes études, and the Barthes of Journal de deuil (or Mourning Diary, to give it its English title). It was the appearance of the latter in French in 2009 which really convinced me that The Afterlives of Roland Barthes needed to be written, in fact. I remember reading it at the time and realising as I turned the pages that it was altering my established perspective on Camera Lucida. This ‘new’ Barthes was reshaping the ‘old’ Barthes. In short, then, I wrote Afterlives to take stock of some of the posthumous publications which have appeared in recent years, and to ask how they might lead us to reconsider our understanding of the well-known publications which appeared during Barthes’s lifetime.

How do you define the term ‘afterlives’?

The book was originally going to be called Spectres of Barthes, but one of the readers who looked at the proposal for Bloomsbury thought that this nod to Derrida’s Specters of Marx didn’t quite work; I think, on reflection, that he or she was right. And so The Afterlives of Roland Barthes was chosen instead, quite late in the day. I did think twice about using the term ‘afterlives’ because of its religious, mystical connotations. (Andy Stafford uses the phrase ‘posthumous life’ in his recent critical life of Barthes; perhaps that’s a better way of putting it, even if, as Stafford points out, Barthes would have seen the term as a case of ‘non-sense’.) But I went with it in the end because it seemed to me to capture what the book is addressing: Barthes died in 1980, but his work is still being read widely and, more than that, new works bearing his name continue to appear and invite us to think again about what the name ‘Roland Barthes’ signifies in its ongoing resonance. I settled on ‘afterlives’ (in the plural) instead of ‘afterlife’ because of the many different directions opened up by the posthumous publications. Barthes lives on, then, not in any mystical sense, but in writing. This seems fitting to me.

What is it about Roland Barthes’ work that fascinates you?

How long have you got? I could write a whole book in response to this question, so I will, in the interests of time and space, simply give you a list that recalls the ‘I like, I don’t like’ section of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes — except that I don’t have anything to say under ‘I don’t like’, which makes me more like Woody Allen’s character speaking into the tape recorder near the end of Manhattan, I suppose. I should preface all of this by saying that I’m only really fascinated by the later Barthes — the Barthes of around 1967 and onwards. I like the earlier work, of course, but I’m not completely seduced until we get to the poststructuralism and the signifier takes priority over the signified, over structures.

I’m fascinated by: the restless reinvention; the discarding of previously held convictions; the resistance to being pigeonholed; the call to live a life ‘according to nuance’; the attention to pleasure — not just sexual pleasure, but the sensual charm of everyday objects and what he called the ‘pleasure of language’; the range of reference and the unashamed eclecticism (has any other critic written on so many different cultural forms?); the commitment to the signifier instead of the signified; the writing of criticism as if it were a novel or a poem; the mischief; the gift for opening sentences and final lines; the style; again, the style.

The book offers a series of reflections on topics ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to ink to boredom. Could you say a little bit about the book’s structure?

There are five main chapters: ‘For Henriette’s Tomb: Mourning with Mallarmé’, ‘Punctum Saliens: Mourning, Film, Photography’, ‘The “Inkredible” Roland Barthes’, ‘Bored with Barthes: Ennui in China’, and ‘Hitchcock Hapax: Realism Revisited’. I was playing around with the order of the chapters right up until the day on which the typescript went off to Bloomsbury. (Five uneasy pieces.) I think that I intended originally to open with the chapter on ink, have the Hitchcock chapter in the middle as a kind of ‘interlude’, and then bow out with death and mourning. Or maybe death was going to go at the heart of things, as is only right. I can’t quite remember now. But then a colleague of mine, Ann Heilmann, read a draft of the chapter on Mallarmé. We talked about why I’d written it and why I’d raised a tiny cryptic monument after its final sentence. (Mentoring becomes psychoanalysis.) Ann encouraged me to make that chapter the beginning. I looked back over the rest of the manuscript and realised that, yes, the book had in essence come out of mourning, so the two chapters on different aspects of Barthes’s Journal de deuil became the welcoming party. Those sections were hard personally to write, but the closing chapter on Hitchcock was hard to write for other reasons. I knew all along that I wanted to put Barthes to work in the book. Barthes remains, for me, primarily a cultural critic, a reader of culture, so it would have felt wrong not to examine how the analysis of cultural forms is affected by the posthumous publications. I also knew that I wanted to address a curious fact which only became apparent in 2009, with the publication of the Mourning Diary: there is just one reference to Alfred Hitchcock in Barthes’s entire body of work. It’s a very brief reference, too, and it’s somewhat uncharacteristic, in that Barthes looks through the fiction for fact, for a referent. Why, I wanted to know, did Barthes write in detail about other film directors (Eisenstein, Antonioni, and Kazan, for example), but say next to nothing about Hitchcock, who’d been the most famous director of all for much of Barthes’s professional life? And so, after months of abandoned plans, despair, and self-loathing, I at last figured out that the final chapter needed to be about the posthumously published notes on the 1967-69 seminar devoted to Balzac’s Sarrasine (which led to S/Z in 1970), realism, and Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn — the film which Barthes mentions in the Mourning Diary, simply because Ingrid Bergman reminds him of his mother. This chapter is the one in which I found myself furthest from Barthes, really, because I wish that he’d read the realism of Hollywood film as he read the literary realism of Balzac: against the grain, microscopically, explodingly.

How would you characterise Barthes’ writing on issues of grief and mourning?

The Mourning Diary is the posthumous text by Barthes to which I return more than any other. Every time I revisit it, I’m struck by the desperate, impossible tension in its brief sighs of sorrow. (I think that Philippe Sollers is onto something when he says, in L’Amitié de Roland Barthes, that the journal is more about sorrow than it is about mourning.) On the one hand, there’s an articulation of wanting to write something in response to the death of his mother — the ‘book on Photography’ which would become Camera Lucida, or Vita Nova, a grand unrealised project. He turns to the term ‘monument’, but he’s also wary of it. On the other hand, we encounter Barthes the reader of Saussure, of modern linguistics, who’s aware that language is impersonal, general, purely differential, and who therefore has what he calls a ‘fear of making literature out of’ the grief. All he has is writing, but writing can’t ever do precisely what he wants it to do. This is a work of mourning in some ways, then, but it’s one which stages the impossibility of producing an adequate work of mourning. I’m also fascinated by the textual quality of Barthes’s grief. He’s devastated by the loss of a unique individual — his mother —  but it’s not long before the diary makes the mourning as thoroughly textual as the passion of A Lover’s Discourse. He can’t write the loss without invoking earlier writings of loss. Proust is the main point of reference, but the opening chapter of my book proposes that Mallarmé is an unspoken companion in the work of mourning.

You are Editor of the open-access journal Barthes Studies, now in its second volume. What might readers expect from it?

Barthes Studies is an online journal which publishes research in English that is engaged in some way with the work of Roland Barthes. As you’ve mentioned, it’s a fully open-access affair: no one pays to publish in the journal, and no one pays to read it. I founded Barthes Studies with financial support from a Research Leave Fellowship awarded to me by Cardiff University, and the first volume came out on 12 November 2015 — the day on which Roland Barthes would have turned one hundred. I’m keen to publish work by PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, as well as work by more established critics. In the first volume, therefore, we had wonderful essays by Diana Leca and Sam Ferguson – a PhD student and a Junior Research Fellow, respectively, at the time – alongside contributions by people like Michael Wood, Armine Kotin Mortimer, and Marie Gil. That commitment to involving newer voices also manifested itself in the appointment of Calum Gardner as Reviews Editor. Calum was a PhD student of mine until recently – he’s just been appointed to a post at the University of Leeds and will soon be running the world – and he organised the big ‘Roland Barthes at 100’ conference in Cardiff with me in early 2015. We publish one volume of the journal per year, and the second volume (on Barthes and poetry, guest-edited by Calum) came out in November 2016. We’re working on the third volume at the moment — an unthemed, general issue — with a view to publication in late 2017.

What do you see as the role and purpose of critical theory today?

Editing The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory for the last few years — first with David Tucker, now with Emma Mason — has brought home to me just how diverse and divergent what we often call ‘critical theory’ has become. I think that the field is simply too vast (and sometimes simply too contradictory) to think in terms of ‘role and purpose’ in the singular. I’ll give a very limited answer, and one which addresses my own discipline, English literature. For me, ‘theory’ (still) means French poststructuralist theory – Barthes and Derrida above all, but also Lyotard and, to a lesser extent, Foucault. It’s sometimes said that these figures are passé. I refuse to accept this, and I do so because English literature, as I see it, continues repeatedly to revolve around the figure of the Author; to view language as transparent, as instrumental, and as the straightforward expression of inner feelings; to privilege the signified (often in the form of ‘themes’) over the signifier; and to view itself as a body of bordered knowledge which needs to be transmitted from generation to generation. People have told me that I’m guilty of caricaturing here, but just take a look at what actually goes on every day in English departments. There has been a timid disciplinary regression into biography and humanism in recent years, and poststructuralist theory remains, for me, an antidote to such thin banality. If we’re not interested in the signifier as the signifier, if we prefer instead to privilege the life or the ‘themes’ to which the signifier apparently points, then we might as well call it a day as a discipline. If you want to talk about people’s lives, do ethnography, become a sociologist, or host a chat show. (There’s nothing wrong with any of those professions, but they’re qualitatively different from cultural or textual analysis, in my view.) If you work in an English department and make the lives of writers your ultimate focus, you are, as I see it, effectively telling the world this: ‘When it comes down to it, the fiction doesn’t really matter, and I am utterly incapable of doing the work of textual analysis.’ It’s a bit like a dentist asking a patient to open his or her mouth and then saying, ‘Sorry, I don’t do teeth. Let me tell you about global warming.’ All of this explains why I see Barthes’s later work as crucial to the ongoing analysis of culture (in all its forms): it doesn’t shy away from, in his phrase, ‘the magic of the signifier’, the effect of the signifier, and the plural opacity of the signifier. Barthes can save us from mediocrity!

“It took me a while to realise professionally that writing is like playing a musical instrument: if you don’t practise every day, you fade. […] Even if I don’t have the opportunity in a given day to sit down and write a substantial section of a chapter or an essay, I’ll find time to write something in a notebook on the train or on a slip of paper in the office.”

How do you approach writing and academic style?

How do I approach writing in a practical way, you mean? It took me a while to realise professionally that writing is like playing a musical instrument: if you don’t practise every day, you fade. (I’ve played guitar for thirty-five years and used to do so daily. I no longer have time for this, and my fingers have turned soft and utterly disobedient.) Even if I don’t have the opportunity in a given day to sit down and write a substantial section of a chapter or an essay, I’ll find time to write something in a notebook on the train or on a slip of paper in the office. It’s just part of my job to do this, I feel very strongly. I share Barthes’s ‘almost obsessive relation to writing instruments’, so I always have countless pens, inks, and notebooks on the go: the physical act of writing has to remain one of pure pleasure. Why else would you go on? (There might be a legal contract with a publisher, but such things are nothing without desire.) This daily routine, for me, is all about the ongoing flirtation, or maybe feud, with the signifier. Signifiers are all I have to work with, and they’re tricky customers. If you leave them to their own devices for a few days — if you don’t stroke them — they get a little too sure of themselves. Some of these daily rehearsals will end up going nowhere, but some will find their way into a piece of work, and every piece of work for me is assembled bit by bit, slowly, maddeningly, in handwritten form; I don’t move to the word processor until I have something in continuous prose, although I do still sometimes make changes at the keyboard. I’ve spent hours playing around with single sentences on paper because something just doesn’t feel right. (It was a relief to hear Don DeLillo, one of my great loves in my non-professional incarnation, speak of wrestling for an eternity with the opening sentence of Cosmopolis because the rhythm of earlier versions was out.) This brings me to your question about academic style. Three things in reply. First, I am convinced that some people — often men, but not always — who write theoretically informed work produce prose which is far more dense and difficult than it needs to be. At the same time, those who write in a clear way about theory are sometimes accused of dumbing-down, of being simplistic. I just don’t buy the equation of clarity with the simplistic: it’s a myth peddled by those who would rather hide their lack of understanding or lack something new to say behind an impenetrable wall. Clarity is crucial for me, then. Second, I have no time for mimicry. I don’t know what it is about theory which sometimes produces a desire to copy the master at the level of style. Derrida’s work, for instance, is hugely important to me, but I don’t have the patience to read the commentators who try (unsuccessfully, of course) to write like the great man himself. I have a somewhat traumatic memory of sending a draft of one of my very early PhD chapters to my supervisor, Catherine Belsey. I’d been reading a lot of Derrida at the time and had got a bit too derivative in my style. Kate send the chapter back with a note which said, in essence: stop dancing on the head of a pin, get on with it, and ditch the half-baked mimicry. I did, and I’d like to think that I haven’t looked back. Third, I want writing which has, well, a sense of style. If a text doesn’t seduce me at the level of the signifier, if it doesn’t draw me close and make me want to stay close, it’s a failure. Why would I want to read on if there’s no pleasure on offer? Barthes’s style, particularly his later style, never fails to sweep me off my feet. There’s a delicate care, a beckoning awareness of how language works upon the reader. He’s a writer, an écrivain, just as much as he’s a ‘theorist’. There’s sometimes a tendency in the anglophone context, I think, to see style as secondary and as a kind of embarrassment. It’s all about the ideas, we’re told. Better to begin with ‘This essay argues that…’ than go all continental and unfurl something that looks like it’s been crafted and designed to seduce a reader, the argument runs. But anyone who believes that ‘ideas’ and style are two separate things, that we have the former first and then merely find the words later, clearly hasn’t understood a word of poststructuralist theory. Style is a contentious area, of course. In fact, one of the anonymous readers who looked at what I’d sent to Bloomsbury when I was seeking a publisher for Afterlives took great offence at my style. The opening line of my final chapter runs as follows: ‘For a long time, I went to bed early, disappointed that Roland Barthes had nothing to say about Alfred Hitchcock’. It’s a playful incipit, yes, and it’s light-hearted. Deliberately so. But I always want an opening line to act as a kind of hook, as something which might enlist the desire of readers and make them want to continue. ‘What’s this about? Where’s this going to take me? Why was he disappointed that Barthes had nothing to say about Hitchcock?’, and so on. This is precisely what Proust’s famous opening sentence, which I was parodying, does. Criticism could be a bit more like fiction sometimes, I think, when it comes to the incipit. Think of those novels whose magnificent first lines draw us in: ‘Call me Ishmael’; ‘Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over’; ‘Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin’; ‘Here they come, marching into American sunlight’; ‘Mrs Bantry was dreaming’; ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning’; ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’, and so on. Some critics — the smarter ones — have clearly learnt from fictional openings of this kind: ‘It all began when my mother died’ (Catherine Belsey); ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead’ (Stephen Greenblatt); ‘The first things we bought were an old pine table and a concrete chicken’ (Marjorie Garber); ‘We have no more beginnings’ (George Steiner). There’s a wink of storytelling there, a sense of ceremony and invitation. (Note the repeated references to beginnings. They’ve found new ways to say ‘Once upon a time…’, and they know why this matters.) Barthes is a master of seductive opening lines, too, of course: ‘All of this should be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel’; ‘Gide was reading Bossuet while going down the Congo’; ‘There are said to be certain Buddhists whose ascetic practices enable them to see a whole landscape in a bean’; ‘Hébert never began an issue of Père Duchêne without introducing the odd “fuck” and “bugger”’. In each of the cases above, I want to read on; the first line makes me want to continue to the second line and beyond; my desire is awakened. But ‘For a long time, I went to bed early, disappointed that Roland Barthes had nothing to say about Alfred Hitchcock’ was deemed utterly inappropriate for an academic monograph by this one reader. I can only presume that he or she wanted something like ‘In this chapter I argue that…’ as an incipit instead, but why on earth would anyone then want to read on? And why would you write about Roland Barthes in that way?

For newcomers to Barthes and his work, can you recommend any places to start?

I want to say S/Z, which remains the most breathtaking and enabling of Barthes’s works for me, but it’s probably too breathtaking and disorienting to be a starting point. Maybe Camera Lucida (1980) would be a better way in for someone new to Barthes’s work. It’s a short, beautiful, touching book about the meaning of photography, about the effect that photographs can have upon us. It’s also a work of mourning written in the wake of his mother’s death in 1977, so photography and death are bound together in the pages. I read it first when I was a twenty-two-year old undergraduate. I loved it but I think that my main focus then was on Barthes’s distinction between the punctum and the studium of a photographic image. (What did I know about death in 1993?) I barely notice that element of the book these days, nearly a quarter of a century on. What overwhelms me now is the discussion of time, of death, and the very fact of being overwhelmed.

What’s next for you?

A book on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope for the ‘New Horizons in Cinema’ series published by SUNY Press. I have a rule of never writing more than one book on the same topic, which makes life somewhat difficult — higher education in the UK is now set up for routine repetition — and which also explains why I went from aliens to Hitchcock to Barthes with the first three monographs. I was worried that writing on Hitchcock in the next book would be breaking my own rule and going in the wrong direction, but I said next to nothing about Rope in Hitchcock’s Magic, so I don’t think that having two elegant young gentlemen strangle me and lock my lifeless body in a wooden chest is necessary. Yet.

The Afterlives of Roland Barthes is available from Bloomsbury.

About the Author

Neil Badmington is Professor of English at Cardiff University, UK. His previous books include Hitchcock’s Magic (2011) and Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within (2004). He is the editor of Barthes Studies.

1 Comment

  1. Your blog is becoming dangerous territory I’m afraid. I’ve come to appreciate Barthes at a much later point in life than many and it his later work that resonates so deeply with me. This sounds like an essential book—I just have to decide if I can justify the cost, it does not come cheap. Thank you for this interview.

    Liked by 1 person

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