From the Desk of Roland Barthes

This article appeared in the Vol. 18 No. 2 / Fall 2011 issue of West 86th. This is an exclusive online preview of his forthcoming article.

In this essay, the author examines a brief account by the historian Jacques Le Goff of Roland Barthes’s years as an administrator in the Sixth Section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (which eventually became the EHESS). This account provides an opportunity for a more sustained reflection on writing, paperwork, and the problem of the materiality of communication. The author argues that some recent scholarship in book history, media studies, and related fields has neglected the unconscious dimensions of communication.

So you will find here, mingled with the “family romance,” only the figurations of the body’s prehistory—of that body making its way toward the labor and pleasure of writing.

—Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes 

Not long after the death of Roland Barthes in 1980, the journal Communications published a series of tributes in his honor. Perhaps the most unusual came from Jacques Le Goff, the great medieval historian, who had long served as president of the Sixth Section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (now the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales).

In his short essay, Le Goff recounts how one of his first tasks upon becoming president of the École had been to constitute the bureau, or central committee. It was a small committee, five people in all, responsible for managing the school’s day-to-day affairs. But Le Goff believed that one person should be specially charged with the bigger picture, envisioning the school’s place in France, in the world, and in the future. He decided to ask Barthes. “I didn’t have much hope,” Le Goff writes, “because I assumed that he would be completely devoted to his teaching, his writing. I couldn’t imagine him taking on even the minimal amount of bureaucratic work that went along with this position.”

“It turns out I didn’t know him very well,” Le Goff writes. After taking a few days to consider the request, Barthes agreed to a term of two years, nonrenewable. In fact, he served as a membre du bureau for two and a half years. For North American academics this may not seem like much, but his French colleagues considered it an extraordinary gift. Evaluating student thesis proposals, overseeing the academic appeals process, revising university statutes, negotiating with union representatives–it turned out that the great theorist of the detail had an eye for it as well. His famous sensitivity to language even extended to the minutes of the weekly meetings, where he routinely “replaced commas, selected more appropriate words, restored nuances, recalled the exact terms that had been used. Even in these humble texts he was never satisfied with platitudes or inexactitudes.”

The result could be funny or profound. Le Goff recalls meetings with ministerial functionaries who sat there in awkward silence as Barthes meticulously “read” through some proposal or another that they had brought with them. But it was at the regular committee meetings that he comported himself most magnificently. On Wednesday mornings the committee would settle in to figure out this or that small matter pertaining to the school. “As we reviewed a page of the budget the epistemologist would suddenly awaken,” Le Goff wrote. “Barthes used to say that he approved of dramatizing knowledge; he shared with us the pleasure of dramatizing paperwork…For ‘wilted’ language he encouraged us to substitute ‘fresh’ language, and thus fresh thought. Seated there with his empty coffee cup, his overflowing ashtray, Roland, like a magician, would take us on a magic carpet ride around the offices.” And so it went, for two and a half years, until Barthes moved to the Collège de France. “For two and a half years, as he performed his tasks, he was a man of justice, a poet, and a worker. Precise, discreet, and collegial.”1

The last decade or so has seen what we might call a “technical turn” in the humanities. Inspired largely by science studies, humanists have started to think seriously about the technics of knowledge, its material conditions, infrastructures, and mediations. With respect to my own field, the history and theory of paperwork, we can probably trace this approach back to Bruno Latour’s essay “Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” which illustrated how science studies might illuminate the production of other kinds of official or quasi-official knowledge. “The ‘rationalization’ granted to bureaucracy since Hegel and Weber has been attributed by mistake to the ‘mind’ of (Prussian) bureaucrats,” argued Latour. “It is all in the files themselves. A bureau is, in many ways, and more and more every year, a small laboratory in which many elements can be connected together just because their scale and nature has been averaged out: legal texts, specifications, standards, payrolls, maps, surveys.”2 Since then, Latour’s call for an “ethnography of inscription” has fulfilled its intellectual promise time and again, not least in his own study of jurisprudence, The Making of Law: An Ethnography of the Conseil d’État.3

The technical turn might be seen as the culmination of (post)structuralism’s fascination with writing. Despite the emphasis on the “materiality of the signifier,” we learned very little about its materials. We could read Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero, Derrida’s Of Grammatology, or Cixous’s “Laugh of the Medusa” without learning much of anything about how anyone actually wrote. Materiality tended to be a metaphor for materiality rather than materiality as such–that is to say, the stuff that is either there or not there when you need it. These days, though, stuff is all over the place. Latour’s book on the French law, for example, features photographs of papers and paperclips, cabinets and shelves. The book gives us a feel for the law that even the most ingenious reinterpretation of the Kafka parable “Before the Law” could never provide. Thus Latour: “On this particular warm day in June the examination begins badly for the reporter who suffers a slight loss of authority by allowing himself, quite unusually, to be interrupted in the middle of the reading of the note by the reviser, who addresses the sub-section in the following terms: ‘There has been an omission here, because there is an argument that has not been cited.’”4 Through such subtle observations the ethnographer is able to reconstruct the law’s specific mode of truth production in all of its wondrous tedium.

We can see the potential of such an approach when we juxtapose the account of Barthes’s paperwork provided by Jacques Le Goff with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1963 portrait of Barthes in his office (fig. 1). The photo is lovely, erotic even, especially in the sinuous line described by the bridge of the nose, the buttons of the collar and sweater, the crease of the pants. But it is the studium that, in its very unstudiedness, suggests how ideas take shape, how they become knowledge. We can see one of those midcentury wall units that were once merely functional and that are now merely decorative. From this perspective, at least, the shelves hold a few books and plenty of papers, sorted, stacked, filed horizontally and vertically. A ruler protrudes from an open cardboard box stuffed with still more scraps. Two wooden file boxes are latched shut. On top of them, alongside two more boxes that look as if they might contain microfilm, is a newspaper casually tossed aside; next to them is what appears to be a bottle of correction fluid and a replacement typewriter ribbon. Other photographs from the same session, taken from slightly different angles, reveal a transistor radio and an almost-empty bottle of wine on the desk to Barthes’s right. Barthes’s office could be yours or mine, just tidier.

“Do you have a method of working?” the journalist Jean-Louis de Rambures asked Barthes in a 1973 interview for Le Monde. “It all depends on what you mean by method,” Barthes replied. “As far as methodology is concerned, I have no opinion. But if you’re talking about work habits…”5 As he recounts his routines, we discover that the openness of his intellectual style is predicated on the exactness of his procedure. After describing in detail his preference for fountain pens over felt-tip or ballpoint, after recounting his experiments with the electric typewriter at the suggestion of Philippe Sollers, after detailing how he organizes his workplace and schedule in Paris and in the provinces, Barthes tells Rambures about his index-card system, which is based on slips of paper precisely one-quarter the size of a usual page: “At least that’s how they were until the day standards were readjusted within the framework of European unification (in my opinion, one of the cruelest blows of the Common Market).”6

We get the sense that he’s joking, but only sort of. Knowledge emerges out of arrangements and rearrangements of paper. Formats and protocols matter. Matter matters. “Insignificance is the locus of true significance. This should never be forgotten,” Barthes tells Rambures. “That is why it seems so important to me to ask a writer about his writing habits, putting things on the most material level, I would even say the most minimal level possible. This is an anti-mythological action.”7 In their portrayals of the great critic surrounded by the everyday tools and tasks of academia, Le Goff and Cartier-Bresson demonstrate the intellectual generosity as well as the critical potential of the reductio ad minimum that has accompanied the technical turn.

And yet…scattered through Barthes’s reflections on his experience of writing we encounter another theme, not quite a subtext, more a pretext, where “pre” means something like the “pre” of Freud’s “preconscious.” Consider the opening paragraph from Barthes’s preface to Roger Druet and Herman Grégoire’s La civilisation de l’écriture (1976):

I have often asked myself why I enjoy writing (manually, that is) to such a great extent that usually the pleasure of having a nice sheet of paper and a good pen in front of me (as if it were the work bench of the bricoleur) makes up for the often thankless tasks of intellectual labor. Even as I reflect on what I should write (as is happening at this very moment), I feel my hand move, turn, connect, dive, rise, and often enough, as I make my corrections, erase or even obliterate a line. This field expands until it reaches the margins, thus creating, out of seemingly functional and minuscule traces (letters), a space which is quite simply that of art. I am an artist, not because I represent an object, but more fundamentally, because, as I write, my body shudders [jouit] with the pleasure of marking itself, inscribing itself, rhythmically, on the virgin surface (virginity being the infinitely possible)…Writing is not only a technical activity, it is also a bodily practice of jouissance.8

Barthes returns to this theme in another short essay about his writing practices published in Les nouvelles littéraires the following year. The editors had invited him to take part in a forum on how writers were taking to the portable tape recorder: did he ever dictate to the machine? He answers with a firm no:

I love to write, and not speak, and when I write it’s by hand, not on a typewriter. Several factors contribute to this choice. First there is a refusal: my body refuses to speak out loud to … nobody. Unless I’m certain that another body is listening to me, my voice gets stuck, I can’t get it out. If, in a conversation, I notice that that somebody isn’t listening to me, I stop speaking, and it is simply beyond my power to leave a message on an answering machine (I don’t think I’m alone in this). Voices are made to reach out to the other; to speak alone, with a tape recorder, strikes me as terribly frustrating. My voice is literally cut off (castrated). There is nothing to be done, it is impossible for me to be on the receiving end of my own voice, which is the only thing the tape recorder has to offer me. My writing, meanwhile, is immediately destined for everybody. Its slow pace protects me: I have the time to dangle the wrong word from the tip of my pen, the word that “spontaneity” never ceases to generate. There is a great distance between my head and my hand and I take advantage of it in order to avoid saying the first thing that comes to me. Finally, and this is probably the real reason, the challenge of tracing words on paper has a truly sculptural jouissance [une véritable jouissance plastique]. If my voice brings me pleasure, that is only out of narcissism. Writing comes from my muscles. I abandon [jouis] myself to a kind of manual labor. I combine two “arts”: the textual and the graphic.9

Here, we might say, is the reductio ad minimum at its most minimalist. And yet isn’t something missing here? Indeed, isn’t there something strained, even symptomatic, about this overt eroticism? The sex is all rhythm and muscularity and penetration, not exactly what we would expect from the author of The Pleasure of the Text or A Lover’s Discourse–the “second” Barthes.10 Perhaps he is having a bit of fun with his readers, his interlocutors, himself. In any case, I would argue that we are also witnessing the impasse reached by a certain kind of hypermaterialist mode of interpretation. The theory’s unconscious wants to let us know that desire also matters, but can only do so by reducing desire to pure physicality, as if there were such a thing, as if fantasy did not also matter.

The Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi once warned against answering the child’s question “Where do babies come from?” with a lesson in physiology. “It may be a good beginning, but it does not give full consideration to the internal needs and strivings of the child,” Ferenczi wrote. “It is interested, of course, in this question as it is interested in astronomy, but it is much more desirous of having the admission from parents and educators that the genital organ has a libidinous function, and as long as this is not admitted by the parents, no explanation is satisfactory.”11 There has been a tendency in some recent scholarship to answer the question “Where do our thoughts come from?” with a similar literalism, which is to say, a similar evasiveness. Yes, it is “technically” true that our thoughts come from pens, papers, and desk drawers. And yet this only partially explains what we are up to when we produce even the most ordinary texts for the most mundane purposes. I imagine that few, if any, of us experience the bliss that Barthes associates with tracing words on a page. However, I also imagine that most, if not all, of us derive some kind of satisfaction from a well-turned phrase, a persuasive argument, a felicitous speech-act, even if it will only ever be read by some anonymous clerk in the registrar’s office. In such texts, however briefly, however incompletely, we have the opportunity to fulfill fantasies of power and powerlessness, revenge and love. Any theory that purports to explain the technics of knowledge must take these fantasies into account. Le Goff mentions with regret that Barthes never wrote about his experiences as an administrator of the École. I wonder what sort of labors and pleasures he might have described if he had only had the time.

Ben Kafka, a Contributing Editor for West 86th, is an assistant professor of the history and theory of media at New York University and a candidate at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPA). His first book, The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork, will be published by Zone Books. He is currently working on a history of graphology.

  1. 1. Jacques Le Goff, “Barthes administrateur,” Communications 36 (1982). All translations are my own.
  2. 2. Bruno Latour, “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” in Michael Lynch and Steve Woolgar, eds., Representation in Scientific Practice (Cambridge, M.A.: MIT Press, 1990), 29.
  3. 3. See Bruno Latour, The Making of Law: An Ethnography of the Conseil d’État, trans. Marina Brilman (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2010).
  4. 4. Bruno Latour, The Making of Law, 129.
  5. 5. Roland Barthes, “An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments,” interview originally published in Le Monde, September 27, 1973. Reprinted in Barthes, The Grain of the Voice: Interviews, 1962–1980, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), 177.
  6. 6. Barthes, “An Almost Obsessive Relation to Writing Instruments,” 180.
  7. 7. Barthes, “An Almost Obessive Relation to Writing Instruments,” 177.
  8. 8. Roland Barthes, “Écrire,” Oeuvres complètes, ed. Eric Marty, 5 vols. (Paris: Seuil, 2002), 4:422–423. Originally published as the preface to Roger Druet and Herman Grégoire, La civilisation de l’écriture (Paris: Fayard/Dessain et Tolra, 1976).
  9. 9. Roland Barthes, “Une sorte de travail manuel,” in Oeuvres complètes, ed. Eric Marty, 5 vols. (Paris: Seuil, 2002), 5:392–393. Originally published in Les nouvelles littéraires, March 3, 1977.
  10. 10. A label that Antoine Compagnon, among others, rightly finds problematic. See Antoine Compagnon, “Who Is the Read One?” in Jean-Michel Rabaté, ed., Writing the Image after Roland Barthes (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).
  11. 11. Sándor Ferenczi, “The Adaptation of the Family to the Child: Being Free Associations on Children’s Education,” in Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psychoanalysis, ed. Michael Balint (New York: Basic Books, 1955), 70.

Fig. 1. Roland Barthes, 1963, photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Courtesy of Magnum.

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