Saturday, February 28, 2009

Barthes and Being Bourgeois

Inspired by Michael's recent talk, I've been reading Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes over the past couple of days. The book is a kind of autobiography, written in fragments, arranged alphabetically (and elegantly translated by Richard Howard). Topics are various, but tend to recur: writing, reading, childhood, France, politics, ideology, the body, Japan, Barthes' own works, his own mental and compositional habits and procedures, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin.

One theme that comes up a lot is his deep, deep worry about being bourgeois. On one level this seems to me silly, and sad, and symptomatic of the cultural context of 1970s France far more than anything else. On another level, however, as a child of the potentially disappearing middle class, I can relate, especially as Barthes turns to defining himself in relation to the avant-garde; and, silly or not, I must say Barthes treats the theme more thoroughly and fascinatingly than anything I've read before. The theme of the bourgeois enters Barthes par Barthes in one of its most purely autobiographical passages, from the early section "L'argent (Money)":

Poverty made him a desocialized child, but not déclassé: he belonged to no milieu (he went to B., a bourgeois site, only for vacations: on visits, and as though to a performance); he took no part in the values of the bourgeoisie, which could not outrage him, since he saw them only as scenes of language, something novelistic; what he took part in was the bourgeois art de vivre. This art subsisted, incorruptible, amid every financial crisis; not misery, as a family experience, but embarrassment; i.e., a terror of certain terms, the problems of vacations, of shoes, schoolbooks, and even food. This endurable privation (as embarrassment always is) may account for a little philosophy of free compensation, of the overdetermination of pleasures, of ease (which is the exact antonym of embarrassment). His formative problem was doubtless money, not sex. (45)

To be bourgeois, for Barthes, is not a matter of money, nor values, but of the art of living: even as he is classed below the bourgeoisie in financial terms and to the left of it politically he still recognizes his ideal life in the middle class comfort, middle class care of the self. So this petit bourgeois class position survives, in the adult Barthes, in the form of habits, pretensions, and, most of all, a disposition toward viewing his habits as pretensions ("An early-morning fantasy: all my life, I have dreamed of getting up early (a class desire: to get up early in order to 'think,' to write, not to take the commuter train)…"). It survives in a tendency to characterize himself in a certain way, and to criticize those self-characterizations: "I have got into the habit of saying migraines for headaches (perhaps because the word is so lovely). This unsuitable word … is a socially accurate one: mythological attribute of bourgeois woman and of the man of letters, the migraine is a class phenomenon: who ever heard of the proletarian or the small businessman with migraines? The social division occurs within my body: my body itself is social" (124).

Every once in a while, Barthes will allow himself to believe that his practice as a writer separates him from, even opposes him to, his bourgeois social origin: "The Amateur (someone who engages in painting, music, sport, science, without the spirit of mastery or competition) … is anything but a hero (of creation, of performance)… he is — he will be perhaps — the counter-bourgeois artist" (52). At other times, though, it appears to him that his writing — not just the content of what he writes but his style, the mark of his bodily presence — has always been inherently bourgeois. Even his self-professed hedonism, which one would think would mark him as an aristocratic libertine, make him legible as a bourgeois: "Being a hedonist (since he regards himself as one), he seeks a state which is, really, comfort: but this comfort is more complicated than the household kind whose elements are determined by our society: it is a comfort he arranges for himself (the way my grandfather B., at the end of his life, had arranged a little platform inside his window, so as to obtain a better view of the garden while he was working). This personal comfort might be called: ease. Ease can be given a theoretical dignity ('We need not keep our distance with regard to formalism, only our ease'), and also an ethical force: it is the deliberate loss of all heroism, even in pleasure" (43-44). And it is indeed "ease" (along with the related term "pleasure") that Barthes exemplifies as a critic, although it's clear from this and several other passages of this book that he feels somewhat uneasy about that.

At the same time, Barthes stubbornly maintains the terms "
bourgeois" and "petit bourgeois" as all-purpose terms of abuse, used in order to designate whatever it is he hates and opposes in French culture at any given time: "The Doxa (a word which will often recur) is Public Opinion, the mind of the majority, petit bourgeois Consensus, the Voice of Nature, the Violence of Prejudice" (47). Because they are so loaded for him, they also exert a purely structural fascination, as "operators": that is, he becomes fascinated at how they can flip anything, any word or concept, in the direction of the negative. He even provides a metacommentary on this function in a section entitled "Partitif (Partitive)":

Petit bourgeois: this predicate can be fastened to any subject; no one is safe from this evil (naturally enough: all of French culture, far beyond the books, is subject to it): in the worker, in the executive, in the professor, in the student protest leader, in the militant, in my friends X, Y, and in me, of course, there is something petit bourgeois: a massive-partitive. Now, there is another object of language which affords the same mobile and panic character: the Text: I cannot say that this or that work is a Text, but only that within it there is something of the Text. Text and petit bourgeois thereby form one and the same universal substance, on the one hand noxious, on the other exciting; they have the same discursive function: that of a universal operator of value. (144)

The danger of being purely and only bourgeois surfaces continually for Barthes, and he fends it off with paradoxes, minor structural adjustments. But this structuralist solution doesn't change the fact that Barthes can't escape the bourgeoisie, whether objectified in "public opinion" or embodied in his own consciousness. Again and again he emphasizes that his impetus to write is nearly always a reaction against bourgeois doxa, a desire to avoid "the stupid word," often one he has generated himself: "what he writes proceeds from a corrected banality" (137). A companion concept to the doxa and the bourgeois is the "stereotype" (a term which, incidentally, was coined by the American social critic Walter Lippmann in 1922; I wonder if Barthes was aware of its provenance?): "Frequently he starts from the stereotype, from the banal opinion which is in him. And it is because he does not want that stereotype (by some aesthetic or individualist reflex) that he looks for something else; habitually, being soon wearied, he halts at the mere contrary opinion, at paradox, at what mechanically denies the prejudice (for example: 'there is no science except of the particular'). He sustains, in short, counter-relations with the stereotype — familial relations" (162). This is an occupational hazard of the culture critic: his discourse is fated to be determined by what it opposes.

But there's a further problem, beyond mere repetition and paradox, for this automatic opposition to stereotype leads Barthes into political, moral, and even aesthetic inconsistences. This is because the stereotype, he shrewdly realizes, is constituted as such only by its social context:
"The stereotype can be evaluated in terms of fatigue. The stereotype is what begins to fatigue me … In 1971, the expression 'bourgeois ideology' had gone considerably sour and was beginning to 'fatigue,' like an old harness; he then undertook (discreetly) to write: 'the so-called bourgeois ideology.' Not that he denies this ideology its bourgeois stamp for a moment (quite the contrary: what else would it be?), but he must denature the stereotype by some verbal or graphic sign which displays its wear (quotation marks, for example)" (89). We have here a confession — one of many in Barthes par Barthes — of mild dismay toward the ascendancy of the post-'68 left in France, and the radicalization of the avant-garde: "This movement, one of pure form, accounts for the progressions and regressions of the work: it is a pure language tactic, which is deployed in the air, without any strategic horizon. The risk is that since the stereotype shifts historically, politically, it must be followed wherever it goes: what is to be done if the stereotype goes left?" (162)
Barthes' answer is to oppose the stereotype of the radical avant-gardist by identifying himself with the skeptical, timid bourgeois. (This might be interesting to consider in conjunction with his famous claim to be "at the arrière-garde of the avant-garde," and with William Marx's recent volume Les Arrière-gardes au XXe siècle, which includes a chapter on Barthes — and which I haven't read. Is arrière-garde just another term for bourgeois?) Sometimes he sounds a little agonized and self-accusing about this: "Surrounded by political upheaval, he plays the piano, paints watercolors: all the false occupations of a middle-class maiden in the nineteenth century" (52). At other times he's merely sheepish: "His (admissible?) dream would be to transport into a socialist society certain charms (not values) of the bourgeois art of living (such a thing exists, indeed there once existed several): this is what he calls the contretemps. What rises up against this dream is the specter of Totality, which demands that the bourgeois phenomenon be condemned entire, and that any leak of the Signifier be punished" (60). At others, he claims a strategic intention, a desire to subvert the bourgeoisie from within: "Suppose that the intellectual's (or the writer's) historical function, today, is to maintain and to emphasize the decomposition of bourgeois consciousness. Then the image must retain all its precision; this means that we deliberately pretend to remain within this consciousness and that we will proceed to dismantle it, to weaken it, to break it down on the spot, as we would with a lump of sugar by steeping it in water" (63). Or could it be that he is transgressing against transgression: "Political liberation of sexuality: this is a double transgression, of politics by the sexual, and conversely. But this is nothing at all: let us now imagine reintroducing into the politico-sexual field thus discovered, recognized, traversed, and liberated … a touch of sentimentality: would tht not be the ultimate transgression? the transgression of transgression itself? For, after all, that would be love: which would return: but in another place" (65-66). Or he is taking some kind of private risk: "It is certainly when I divulge my private life that I expose myself most … Yet 'private life' changes according to the Doxa one addresses: if it is a Doxa of the right (bourgeois, petit bourgeois: institutions, laws, press), it is the sexual private life which exposes most. But if it is a Doxa of the left, the sexual exposition transgresses nothing: here 'private life' is trivial actions, the traces of bourgeois ideology confessed by the subject: confronting this Doxa, I am less exposed in declaring a perversion than in uttering a taste: passion, friendship, tenderness, sentimentality, delight in writing then become, by a simple structural displacement, unspeakable terms" (82-83). Or! Maybe his work is avant-garde all right, it's only his life that's bourgeois (after the manner of Flaubert), and this book, as opposed to all the others, reflects the life: "His 'ideas' have some relation to modernity, i.e., with what is called the avant-garde (the subject, history, sex, language); but he resists his ideas: his 'self' or ego, a rational concretion, ceaselessly resists them. Though consisting apparently of a series of 'ideas,' this book is not the book of his ideas; it is the book of the Self, the book of my resistances to my own ideas; it is a recessive book (which falls back, but which may also gain perspective thereby)" (119).

Barthes does not decide — no doubt he would want to say something like it's undecidable — which of these rationalizations of his arrière-garde status he wants to put forward: he only knows he's irresistibly drawn to admit himself to be bourgeois, to "recede" into that class position, to let it mark his discourse. Much of Barthes par Barthes seems animated by a sense of surprise at being, for once, not quite at the forefront of the avant-garde, at feeling, viscerally, antipathies toward the avant-garde:
"He regretted not being able to embrace all avant-gardes at once, he regretted being limited, too conventional, etc.; and his regret could be illuminated by no sure analysis: just what was it he was resisting? What was he rejecting (or even more superficially: what was he sulking over) in one place or another? A style? An arrogance? A violence? An imbecility?" (176) All of these terms recur elsewhere in the book, but "violence" seems an especially significant one: in "La scène" he says, "He had a low threshold of tolerance for violence. This disposition, though constantly verified, remained quite enigmatic to him; but he felt that the reason for this intolerance was to be found in this direction: violence always organized itself into a scene … in all violence, he could not keep from discerning, strangely, a literary kernel … In short, all violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype" (160). It's hard to know what particular violence he has in mind here — the rhetoric, if not the action, of post-'68 France could probably supply any number of suitable examples — but there's something brave, and brilliant, and consistent, about Barthes' insistence that his opposition to this violence is not principled or moral but instinctive and reflexive; that it may owe much to his class position, but if so then that class position is not where he is, but is within him; that his resistance to the forms of political violence — even the rhetorical ones — is, in some deep and ineradicable sense, aesthetic:

Aesthetics being the art of seeing the forms detach themselves from causes and goals and constitute an adequate system of values, what could be more contrary to politics? Now he could not rid himself of the aesthetic reflex, he could not help seeing in some political behavior he approved of, the form (the formal consistency) which it assumed and which he found, as it turned out, hideous or ridiculous … Thus … he came to the point of being disgusted by the mechanical character of these operations: they fell into the discredit of all repetition: another one! what a bore! It was like the refrain of a good song, like the facial tic of a handsome man. Hence, because of a perverse disposition to see forms, languages, and repetitions, he gradually became a political misfit [a bad political subject]. (169-170)

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Keats is still kind of the median of English-language poets: metrical but not too torqued, flashy but not "decadent," thinks poets have no personalities, talks about gods but doesn't really believe in them.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Emily on me

"You're a very smart guy, but sometimes the basics of cause and effect seem to elude you."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I Can Feel It Coming in the Burly Air Tonite

Technically, this should go on "Name to Conjure," but why kick a failed experiment when it's down?