Now, the best essay in Reflections is “The Critique of Violence,” but I have read that enough times that I decided to give it a miss. Instead, I read “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.” Benjamin had a bunch of really interesting ideas about the value of translation, and this is the second most obvious place to go to get some sort of understanding of them. The upshot is that the plurality of human languages are fragments of a true originary language, in which the names humans gave to things genuinely corresponded to their natures. The value of translation is that by finding what is common in the before and after of translation you get a glimpse of the pure language to which we no longer have access. It’s a pretty cool idea, but without the stained-glass metaphor of the most obvious place to hear about Benjamin’s ideas about translations, it’s not quite as effective.
Almost all of Benjamin’s writing is sufficiently religious that someone like me (or, in a couple of important essays, Jacques Derrida) needs to do a bit of filtering in order to come away with something of value, but this piece in particular is very religious, taking Genesis as literal truth. This introduces some fruitiness (har har) about the knowledge of good and evil being “prattle” rather than any kind of knowledge as such, and an intriguing argument about why the linguistic crisis of the Tower of Babel was inevitable from the moment of the fall. There is also a very definite sense that if we were able to make some messiah-enabled return to original language that we would definitely be all having our words corresponding to things as they really are &c.
This stuff is all quite charming, but not that interesting. I’m pretty sure that this is an earlier work, and it’s grasp of things isn’t as nuanced as they get later on. I suppose it is also the case that Benjamin’s ideas about language were never as interesting as ideas about psychology. Perhaps it was a commitment to the religious fundamentals that made this the case.
So I have sort of bogged down in the reading things. This is a little disturbing, but what’s really odd about it is that it happened during “Myth Today,” which is something I really love. When I was at NYU I once joked that I wasn’t ever going to bother reading anything new, and that I was only going to devote time to gaining a complete understanding of stuff I had already read, but maybe “Myth Today” doesn’t have anything else to say to me right now (except for the joke about the bourgeois lion; that will kill me every time until the end of time.) This isn’t to say I’m done with it. No, “Myth Today” is an astounding piece of work, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy reading it again at some point in the future.
On a more personal note, I have finally succumbed to West Coast life, and become a total weakling when it comes to the cold. I guess it could also be the fact that I’m becoming less comfort-averse in my old age, or that there is something about the creeping cold in houses that weren’t made to keep it out that is somehow worse than a blizzard whipping along Delancy (if you are of a certain disposition.) At any rate, we’re short of thawings here, and that could be better.
When I think “maybe I should read Barthes,” and then think “eh,” I have been prone to reading Something To Tell You by Hanif Kureishi. I have been a huge Kureishi fan since about the middle of the second chapter of The Buddha of Suburbia, but it hasn’t always been easy. I remember reading a book that contained both Intimacy and Midnight All Day and thinking that he probably wouldn’t ever write about anything other than how hard it was to dump your wife and have a much younger mistress (as if he’d turned from an English author into a French director), and in any other tone than gratingly melodramatic.*
Well, Something To Tell You is fucking incredible, and I’m quite pleased to have been in error. One of the things that I loved so much about Buddha and The Black Album is that their treatment of race, counterculture and sexuality were so free from resentment. The divorce-fiction was, naturally, one-hundred percent resentment (or even RAY-ZON-TAY-MONT as Nietzsche might say.) At any rate, we’re done with that now, and back to being arch brilliant. Good stuff all around.
* I have no idea why authors agree to have collections of short stories published. Because people gravitate naturally towards certain themes in writing, collections of short stories always end up being tedious repetitions of a particular piece of material.
S/Z is a book in which Barthes looks very closely at a story by Balzac, exploding the core-text’s 20 or so pages into something on the order of 200 pages of codes, unpacking of nested meanings, references and various other things that an author hides, both consciously and unconsciously, in a text. I read through the introduction where he makes an introduction to this project and talks a bit about his methods.
Like The Pleasure of the Text and Camera Lucida there is a romanticization (or indeed an eroticization) of the act of interpretation, but S/Z gives a lot less credence to the personal than either of those works. Barthes was the last and greatest haute-modernist and it is really on display here. Like some kind of super-Hegel he derives from Zola’s story not just its time, but subsequent history as well, all against a matrix of types of semes.
Like The Pleasure of the Text, Camera Lucida is really, really fruity. In it Barthes starts by making an investigation into what he finds compelling about photography, and from there proceeds to outline broader insights gained by this investigation. The personal origin continues to exert its hold throughout, with an element that “wounds” the viewer (referred to as a punctum) being the criteria for a great photograph.
Photography criticism feels a little weird to me because I’m ambivalent about its remarkably-consistent central trope. The technophobia that a photograph seems to instill in its viewers probably dates all the way back to the point when a smudge became a spoon under the watchful eye of Niepce. Camera Lucida is beautiful and full of insights about culture and meaning, but even Barthes can’t quite convince me that the relation between the photograph and death isn’t basically shooting the messenger.
Barthes was brutally structuralist enough to write a book called The Death of the Author, but he still makes something alterior out of the indelible stillness of the photograph. When he observes that one thing that distinguishes writing from photography is the latter’s capacity for self-authentication I have to shake my head. “Joaquin,” you might say, “Adobe didn’t release the program that would define creature feep forever until ten years after Barthes’ death!”*
But a true technophile knows in her or his black little heart that there is precious little “new.” Falsifying photographs may, in fact, be slightly older than reacting to them technophobically. The exposure times required by early film makes the majority of photography’s corpus a lie. Thinking of the photographic image as self-authenticating is inherently naive (although, like all technology-related naivete, photographic expertise offers no buffer against these misunderstandings.)
The slightly more worldly (languidly taps ash off end of cigarette) understanding of the “reality” of the photograph is to notice that it is precisely as self-authenticating as any experience. The flimsiness of photography’s apparent authority provides substantial insight into the flimsiness of experience’s apparent authority. To obfuscate this with a bunch of haute-romantique drivel about death is bupkus, even from the pen of Roland Barthes.
* A friend of mine had, once upon a time, gotten it into his head that the truck that struck Barthes down was carrying books to a library. A hilarious and romantic image. The truth, that it was a laundry truck, is not as literary, but truly beautiful in its own way.
I have been reading “Camera Lucida,” and I’ve also been having a massive geek-out and entries about each of those things are coming up. Also, the latter has still-unresolved drama so stay the-fuck tuned.
This is a really fruity book about the sorts of ways that people enjoy things. Even though it is very short, I found it kind of interminable, mostly because the context that it represents is way more interesting to me than anything that it contains. That phase of history when all the French psychoanalysts were obsessing over realization. Barthes tosses out a snide dismissal early on of people who decry pleasure, a sort of holding in the mouth already of the ashes of the apocalypse,* that is sort of illustrative of the terms of this project. In particular, it’s very eurocentric. You can’t really be telling people to reify their potential by casting off restraints (which, ultimately, is what we’re after here, all books aside) if you’re seriously considering the condition of the (third/post-colonial/take your damn pick) world. The whole thing was a bit of a funny bubble, which is part of the reason why Lacan gets sidelined for Derrida and Foucault.**
Of course, Barthes knows better than this. The flagship (har har) metaphor of “Myth Today” shows that he’s attuned to the larger world and (as I was surprised to discover) Le Plaisir du texte was published in 1973. I guess what we can take away from that is that Barthes saw fit to live in something of a capsule (albeit one he ventured beyond ably and often) pretty much until his tragic demise. That’s probably an important part of his contribution to philosophy, although it’s also an angle people play when they try to label him a lightweight.
* This is a Derrida joke. You can bet your sweet ass we’ll be coming back to it when we cover Specters.
** 1) This is not a weigh-in on this fact.
2) I didn’t say it was this way, Slavoj did.***
*** In a way.
So I was standing in line at the Safeway down the street and I glanced, as I often do, at the tabloid racks. One of them was purporting to publish a list of the people Obama “wants silenced.” At the bottom of the cover was a picture of Whitney Houston, and for a minute I thought that Whitney was one of Obama’s mortal enemies. Sadly, closed examination revealed that there was an unrelated story about Whitney still being “addicted to” Bobby Brown. Too bad, I would have bought the paper.
Note to tabloid writers: I will take out a lifetime subscription to you magazine if you can write even a single story linking Obama to the Jon-Benet Ramsey case.
I’m gonna skip this one. It’s good to have read (and even re-read it recently), but it’s not good to talk about. On to Barthes!
The Poetics has a couple of big advantages over The Ethics. For one thing, it’s shorter. That’s always good with old stuff. Back in the day people weren’t really into keeping things to a reasonable length. Like Dickens. Guy wrote two good books, and they’re his too shortest. Let that be a lesson to all of you.
At any rate, the other advantage is that the assertions aren’t as ontologically grounded. While both books are all about what’s good, talking about good plays is easier to do without sounding sanctimonious. Also, The Poetics includes an intriguing look at early understanding of the parts of speech, including defining nouns and words that don’t require tenses to make sense.
So I don’t know. I’ve never been a big fan of Aristotle, and I definitely haven’t had any changes of heart here.
So this is pretty much a classic, and even more dull than that label would imply. I read the second section, which is where Aristotle outlines the foundation of his ethical structure which, to summarize crudely, is the assertion that balance between two extremes is what constitutes the good (or maybe The Good, or even THE GOOD.) The only thing that I found particularly intriguing about all of this was the certainty with which Aristotle uses words. It’s always a little amusing to me to come across things that are old enough to have a bit of that.
Well, that was a bit dull, and the next book is Aristotle too. Following that the As round out with “Imagined Communities,” because apparently I’m just too free-spirited to actually alphabetize things. A grim stretch, to be sure. Once I muddle through, however, there are a bunch of Barthes volumes in a row, so that should be good for a change of pace.