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Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text: An Erotics of Reading The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes; Richard Miller

Review by: B. R. McGraw boundary 2, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Spring, 1977), pp. 943-952 Published by: Duke University Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 07/06/2013 07:01
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Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text:

An Erotics of Reading.*

B. R. McGraw
On dirait que I'idde de plaisir ne flatte plus personne. Notre societ6 paraft a la fois rassise et violente: de toute maniere frigide.
- Roland Barthes

Barthes's obvious intention in writing The Pleasure of the Text was to associate a theory of the text with a concept which had been totally neglected during the apogee of structuralism, that of pleasure. Recently, Barthes appears to have exceeded the systematics of his earlier studies (S/Z, Systdme de la mode, etc.) to affirm the pleasure one should take in reading as against the "indifference of (mere) knowledge,"1 on the

*Roland Barthes. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.


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one hand, and the prudery of an "obedient, conformist" (PT, 6) language on the other. What this means, then, is that for the first time in the history of criticism we have, side by side, a poetics and an erotics of reading as well. In the early days of his research, Barthes, feeling the pressure exerted by structuralism, had turned to linguistic models to give literary studies the serenity and rigor of a science. The postulate most bandied about then was the Saussurian sign concept with its bipartition in a Signifiant (Sa) and a Signifid (S,).2 It is with this model that Barthes semiologically explained the articulation of myth in his celebrated Mythologies.3 But the flight into abstract structures, although valuable in linguistic and communication theories, soon proved to be too positivistic for Barthes's antidogmatic stance. He promptly concluded that linguistic models, whether structural or generative, cannot be used, by themselves, in the explanations of literary texts. To do so is to run the risk of abstracting all the elements of a text to the point where the analysis no longer reflects its idiosyncratic and iconoclastic features. At the same time, the reader's individual appreciation and personal intuition are ignored. If pleasure (in the sense Barthes uses it) is to free literary semiotics from an acute case of structural technicism, certain adjustments in our reading experience must be made. These imply a complete reappraisal of the importance we give to understanding a text rationally. For pleasure is a friable, precarious principle which cannot be spoken of as a positivistic science. "Its jurisdiction is that of a critical science" (PT, 52). To ground his critical practice in pleasure, the reader, according to Barthes, must be willing to "combat both ideological repression and libidinal repression (the kind, of course, which the intellectual brings to bear upon himself: upon his own language)" (PT, 35). The remarks that follow address themselves primarily to Barthes's analysis of these two forms of alienation and to their impact on the reader. The practice of extending to the notion of text the principles of linguistic analyses is what Barthes has called a "scientific scandal." If it is true that the predicative syntax is viewed in scientific circles as "the form of a logic, of a rationality" (PT, 49-50), the fact remains that a text does not use the sentence for its model nor is reading a text simply an act of the understanding of units of signification, as it is in the case of language. The problem is that our desire for intellection has deliberately been sacrificed to our need to organize things in a logical and formal way. Organizing everything into a shape gives us the impression of having achieved real knowledge. The need to impose "form upon content"4 is, however, the result of a long rationalistic tradition. Indeed, it is our Cartesian heritage which causes us to view language "as a formal system reflecting a 'logic' presumably inherent in the mind and hence exterior to language."5 But as Benveniste so aptly remarked, by unconditionally accepting this view, we have constructed "naivetes and tautologies." 944

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Inspired by the latest psychoanalytical tendencies, Barthes, Kristeva, and many other theoreticians are seeking to bring about an understanding of texts which would not be based strictly on the rationality of the predicative sentence or on criticism modelled after it. For rationalism is one of the philosophical systems which, in the structuralist aftermath, has been denounced as man's way of doing violence to himself by repressing his non-rational powers. Ego psychology - a direct heir to Cartesian rationalism - has also come under vehement criticism, especially in the seminars of Jacques Lacan.6 Indeed, it is through rationalism that man has established the unity of his ego. But to become conscious of himself (his ego), man had to set himself up as a distinct pole of reference by transcending the world of things. At the other end of the polarity he constructed ontological domains such as "theory," "fiction," even "reality," according to Sollers.7 The Cartesian cogito ergo sum has always been an ego cogito. Seldom, in our logocentric culture, have we been allowed to question the unity of man's ego. As a result, man has created a schism within himself between his rational and non-rational powers. Even the binary nature of his language (form/content) or, more recently, of the linguistic sign (Sa/S6) has enforced this dualistic view of himself. Thus our Western civilization "has become increasingly identified with the rational and positivistic view of the world and of life, and its constraint on the human mind has been increasingly more violent."8 Our concept of literature, which is historically and socially determined, has done little to relieve this tension. "We are engaged in a homogeneous practice" (PT, 37) which consists of passing literary judgments based on rational conventions such as order, linearity, unity, and emphasis. These artifacts are to a high degree cultural: created by rhetoricians, grammarians, and teachers, they are a function of how we view literature at a given time. Without them, the text would lack logical and chronological continuity. Furthermore, and as is the case in communication theory, the reader is able to receive a text because it is written according to the constraints of a syntactic code. A (the writer) meets C (the reader) because they share a common syntactical competence manifested in B (the message). However, it is a fallacy to consider language as the locus where all shall meet. Instead it must be seen for what it is: a set of specific codes and forms imposed upon such meetings. Notwithstanding the basic necessity for language categories (logical, intercommunicational, "illocutional") which make the text legible, language, as a social contract, is an instrument of coercion. More specifically, language coerces the reader into accepting a text. "We are delivered to the sentence, to the phrase as we call it in French (and hence: to phraseology)" (PT, 50). Although a narrative depends upon a certain number of codes for its organization, it also embodies many elements that remain beyond the reach of codification. A text, as Kristeva observes, is not simply an "act of 945

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understanding or a system of communication, even if it is accomplished infallibly.. . with language."9 These unyielding elements, therefore, are not reducible to either linguistic formality or to units of signification which, in language, assure communication. In fact, they are often part of different, even conflicting, kinds of systems. Multiple and contradictory systems characterize all literature. For example, a historical novel invites the reader into at least three types of conflicting structures: that of the text, that of the socio-historical conditions it alludes to, and that of the subjectivity of the reader which animates the other two. To accept these contradictory systems, however, is to run the risk of being accused of illogical and incongruous thinking. For Roland Barthes, he who defies such supercilious accusations is some kind of anti-hero: "Who can endure contradiction without shame? Now this anti-hero exists: he is the reader of the text at the moment he takes his pleasure" (PT, 3). The real question now confronting us is: What kind of anti-heroic deed must the reader perform in the attainment of his pleasure? Reading is an enterprise that must be undertaken under very specific conditions. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes makes the following observation: "it seems that writers have never written: by a strange lacuna, they are only read" (PT, 37). Obviously, only a special type of reader can bridge the reader/writer gap and bring the text to life. Most readers, however, out of habits developed during the course of their literary education, look for those rational and traditional devices which unveil the meaning of the text (a meaning which is presumed to be already present in the text), subsume its contradictions, and tame its incoherence. But then, interpreted in this way, the text is like a completed sentence and, if we believe Julia Kristeva, "any completed utterance runs the risk of being ideological" (PT, 50). It was remarked earlier that a text not only displays accepted norms and organizational attributes but ambivalent and contradictory qualities as well. Therefore, the possibility exists of determining its position vis-a-vis the dominant cultural ideology: the more a text subverts specific literary codes and conventions, the more it seeks to reject or, at the very least, transform cultural conformism which imposes these codes. "The avant garde is never anything but the progressive, emancipated form of past culture: today emerges from yesterday, Robbe-Grillet is already in Flaubert, Sollers in Rabelais" (PT, 20). Examples of progressive activities can be found not only in the so-called "marginal" texts of Artaud, Sade, Bataille, and many others, but also in a growing number of contemporaries - especially the members of the Tel Quel group. These writers are always "on the blind spot of the system, adrift" (PT, 35). Their ultimate objective is to combat ideological repression. Traditional literary discourse (i.e., a grammatical, rhetorical discourse) is encased in an ideological framework which constitutes an infrastructure between the structure of language and that of society. A certain way of using language is identified with a certain 946

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way of viewing society. Barthes has already pointed out the relationship between rhetorical formulae and ideological positions: a rhetorical system constitutes a particular vision of society.10 Thus it stands to reason that the intrusion of new rhetorical devices in a semantic system can restructure our vision of society. However, theirs is a more radical position, for what is suggested here is a total dislocating of the traditional coupling between the semantic units and the expression units. In Philippe Sollers' Lois, "everything is attacked, dismantled: ideological structures, intellectual solidarities, the propriety of idioms, and even the sacred armature of syntax (subject/predicate)" (PT, 7). In short, the text has lost its foreclosure. It is projected "outside any imaginable finality" (PT, 52). The hierarchy of the sentence is overthrown: "language in pieces, culture
in pieces .... No alibi stands up, nothing is reconstituted, nothing

recuperated. The text of bliss (jouissance) is absolutely intransitive" (PT, 51-52). While many texts display this type of activity with varying intensity, avant-garde texts clearly belong in a category which Barthes has defined as writeable. This is in keeping with Jacques Derrida's concept of Ecriture, which is reserved for texts that are so written as to make a referential reading impossible.1 1 Now, one cannot read a writeable text; one must write it. In other words, the reader makes the text function by "writing [his] own text of which the writer's markings are no more than a pre-text."12 Instead of receiving the text as the object of the message of the authorial persona, the reader, goaded into action, can now come into being as subject. By writing his own text, the reader-as-subject can defer the intended meaning of the writer (the Derridian "differance" is seen here as a principle which results in an impeding or obstructing of meaning upon a given segment of language. It corresponds to Artaud's expression "faire glisser le sens"), or, better yet, he can produce his own meaning(s). For it is in the production of meaning, and not in its content (the object of linguistics and of traditional literary criticism), that the reader/writer can take a stand against ideological and libidinal alienation. The level of the reader's commitment to the reading/writing process will be in direct proportion to his success at becoming emancipated. The more a text is writeable, then, the more it offers the reader-as-subject the opportunity to defect from the written text's ideology: "Once the text is perceived in terms of writing . . . bliss appears" (PT, 37), and if the sentence (symbol of institutionalized language) is dismantled, then, "the system is overcome, undone" (PT, 29). Who is this anti-hero? He is the Democritean reader who refuses to be objectified by the written text. "Although," according to Barthes, "the theory of the text has specifically designated significance [i.e., the production of meaning] as the site of bliss, although it has affirmed the simultaneous erotic and critical value of textual practice, these propositions are often forgotten, repressed, stifled" (PT, 64). Yet libidinal emancipation (the release of pleasure as 947

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enunciated by Freud) is as vital to the reader who takes his pleasure as is emancipation. An erotics of reading must include a ideological psychoanalytic understanding of the reader as subject. "When I write myself as subject," Barthes says, "it is my body of bliss I encounter" (PT, 62). It has already been suggested that a text cannot be reduced to linguistic codification; that, in fact, it is part of different systems, a mingling of contradictory interplay which Julia Kristeva has called signifying practices. Inasmuch as these practices are translinguistic (they include socio-historical, psychoanalytical, and linguistic systems set into parallel motion), it is possible to detect, in the articulations that subtend them, the production of meaning (significance). "A signifying practice," Kristeva observes, "is a complex process which assumes a (speaking) subject . . discernable in the modifications of his discourse but remaining irreducible to its formality alone, since they refer back, on the one hand, to unconscious-instinctual processes and, on the other, to the socio-historical constraints under which the practice in question is carried on."13 Yet, and in spite of Freud's statement that the id is the most important part of our mental apparatus, we continue to address ourselves almost exclusively to the formality of our discourse. As early as December 19, 1909, Freud, in a letter to Jung, was already saying: "It is remarkable, though, that we human beings find it so difficult to focus attention equally on both of these opposing drives [the Id and the Ego], so that we carry this antagonism between ego and libido right into our observations, which should impartially encompass both of them."14 Discursive and linguistic formality alone cannot, therefore, explain the instincts which motivate the utterance of the subject since these instincts are antecedent and subjacent to language. To inscribe literary practice within the tight network of linguistic codes is to insure that there will not be any overflow from the text; that all the instinctual drives, which are part of that very complex signifying process described above, will be contained within the institutional framework.15 But libidinous flows (the Deleuzian "machines ddsirantes") escape coding and flee in all directions. "My pleasure," Barthes says, "can very well take the form of a drift" (PT, 18). The pleasure of reading proceeds from certain breaks caused by the irruption of the unconscious battling against the logic of identity on the one hand, and dismembering "the canonical structures of language itself" (PT, 31) on the other. The energy released by the affective charges of the unconscious is manifested in vocal and kinetic rhythm. According to Freudian theory, a mode of significance can be constituted by the of instinctual forces and by the primary processes of activities displacement and condensation which translate into metonymy and metaphor. The investment of instinctual energies in textual practice combats the reader's inhibitions, subsequently releasing the accumulated tension which is the basis of unpleasure.16 It is important to realize, 948

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however, that in order to achieve an erotics of reading (here, the release of accumulated tension) a text must exhibit and maintain the law (here, the linguistic apparatus) which implicitly invites its transgression. As a matter of fact, Julia Kristeva, in a way parallel with Barthes, has demonstrated that all signifying practices (and these include poetry, non-literary arts, myths, etc.) display two modalities standing in dialectical opposition. The conscious modality (the phenotext) is the logic of the linguistic structure. It is established by "schooling, good usage, literature and culture" (PT, 37). Its function is to repress the instinctual, subversive forces of the genotext which work towards dismantling the linguistic structure. Even though the focus of research has now shifted to the activities of the unconscious, i.e., the generative process of the semiosis, it does not imply that the analytical procedures of conventional semiology have been dismissed. A former student of Barthes, Kristeva has recently written a monumental work - La r'volution du langage podtique17 - which, in fact, can best be described as a rigorous analysis of the effects of the psychic drives and the sociological determinations on the production, circulation,and interaction of semiose in avant-garde texts. Instincts and drives consist of non-verbal articulations similar to rhythms and unassimilable to linguistic categories. Their function is to shift the linguistic system back to its drive-governed bases of sound production. Kristeva calls the internal dynamics of semiosis the semiotic chora, a term borrowed from Plato's Timaeus. But unlike the conventionally used term "semiotic," Kristeva has narrowed its definition to center on the flux and the production of semiose. The semiotic chora perpetually modifies the structures and explores the "unconscious, instinctual, linguistic translinguistic rhythm inscribed in the national tongue but, through it, aiming at Another Scene."l'8 Avant-garde texts (for example, those of Joyce, Artaud, Bataille, etc.), with their emphasis on instinctual drives and disruptive forces represented as corporal motility, remarkably display this semiotic inscription. These are the texts for which Barthes and Kristeva reserve the Derridian concept of Ecriture (Writing). The unconscious drives (normally constrained by the social/linguistic code) perpetually modify the discourse of the subject, thereby preventing substantification of its meaning. Without the logic of the linguistic structure to inhibit the thrust of instinctual forces, "the text behaves like a neurosis,"19 i.e., it functions in the manner of a split ego the symptoms of which are discernable in anomalies of the syntactic code, free associations, phonic disturbances, and distorted lexical meaning.20 Irremediably shaken by the internal dynamics of the semiosis, the text can no longer maintain its rational, logical assertion. The semiotic modality, then, contests the very principle of ideology in that it opens up the unity of the subject (the ego) and of his discourse. As a result, the text is no longer viewed as the finished product of a unitary subject. Instead, it is "a perpetual interweaving (text means tissue)" (PT, 64) in which "the subject unmakes himself, like a spider 949

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dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web" (PT, 64). And if the text consists of several contradictory systems, the subject, on the other hand, is no more than a locus of relationships. As Anthony Wilden puts it, "We do not know what a subject is anymore than we know what an electron is, but we do know how it behaves in certain relationships and how it is related to functions which intersect in it."21 This argument shatters the illusion of consciousness and the ego's claim to unity. Animated by everchanging articulations, the subject, yielding to the instinctual drives which subtend it, becomes a subject-in-process (the sujet en proces, in Kristeva's terms). Having liberated his non-rational forces, what the reader-as-subject searches for, in the perspective of pleasure, according to Barthes, are "the pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of the consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language" (PT, 66-67). Freud once remarked that if we took away the neuroses we would be left with the miseries of everyday life. To an intellectually and emotionally aware reader such as Barthes, this warning did not go unheeded. For in the text of pleasure the violent tension exerted by the rational/non-rational dichotomy has been released, "the opposing forces are no longer repressed but in a state of becoming: nothing is really antagonistic, everything is plural" (PT, 31).22 And so, a new "erotic and critical" practice, reconciled with the neuroses, can, perhaps, deliver us from the indifference of knowledge and the drudgery of mere scholarship. Kansas State University NOTES
1 2 The Pleasure of the Text, p. vii. Henceforth referred to as PT in text. It should be noted that the divisive bar of the Sa/Sd resulted in a shift in the object of linguistics: instead of concerning itself with the problem of the production of meaning, linguistics has centered around the "content" of meaning, i.e., it presupposes that meaning already exists and that linguistic studies are limited to the articulation of units of pre-existing meaning. Yet it is on the production (and not on the content) of meaning that post-structuralist scholars (Derrida, Kristeva, Barthes, and others) are focusing their attention. A new semantics of the 6nonciation (Benveniste), however, can only be formulated through a complete understanding of the instincts which motivate the 6nonciation and not through the content of the 6nonc6. Barthes, Mythologies (Paris: Seuil, 1957). See my interpretative reading, "Myth: A Semiological and Ideological Definition," Iowa State Journal of Research (special issue), 51, No. 2 (1976), 159-63. Claude Ldvi-Strauss,Anthropologie structurale (Paris: Pion, 1958), pp. 21-22.


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Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek, Miami Linguistics Series No. 8 (Florida: University of Miami Press, 1971), p. 63. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966). On the subject of ego criticism see also Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalisme et Schizophr6nie, L 'Anti-Oedipe (Paris: Minuit, 1972), in which the authors develop the concept of the unconscious as a "desiring machine." See Philippe Sollers, Logiques (Paris: Seuil, 1968), coll. Tel Quel: lainotion de r~alit6 tant elle-mdme une convention et un conformisme, une sorte de contrat tacite pass6 entre I'individu et son groupe social: est d6clar6 reel, dans des circonstances historiques donn6es, ce que le plus grand nombre a travers le nombre au pouvoir, et pour des raisons 6conomiques pr6cises, est obligd de tenir pour r6el. Ce r6el, d'autre part, n'est pas manifest6 ailleurs que dans un langage, et le langage d'une soci6td, ses mythes, est ce qu'elle d6cide 6tre sa r6alitd. (p. 236)

8 9 10

Marcel Raymond, From Baudelaire to Surrealism (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 2. Julia Kristeva, "The Subject in Signifying Practice," Semiotext(e), 1, No. 3 (1975), 19. See Mythologies and "Rhdtorique de I'Image," Communications, No. 4 (1964) pp. 40-51. Another example can be found in Umberto Eco's A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976): It is not likely that a Communist would indicate the necessity of the Third World's struggle against the Western powers by the phrase /the defense of the free world/ even if he considered the autonomy of colonial people to be the only form of freedom for which it was worth fighting. The rhetorical formula /defense of the free world/ is henceforward strictly associated with political positions which are identified with the United States, their allies and their ideological vision. Naturally the same operation could be accomplished on a formula such as /brotherly help to the socialist allies./ (p. 312)

11 12 13

See Jacques Derrida, L'1criture et la diff6rence (Paris: Seuil, 1967). Leon S. Roudiez, "Notes on the Reader as Subject," Semiotext(e), 1, No. 3 (1975), 75. I am indebted to Roudiez for this particular point. "The Subject in Signifying Practice," p. 19. A former student of Benveniste, Kristeva is in the process of refining a theory of the speaking subject based on Benveniste's concept of the 6nonciation. Quoted by Max Schur, The Id and the Regulatory Principles of Mental Functioning, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association Monograph Series, No. 4 (New York: International Universities Press, 1966), p. 18, my italics. In An Outline of Psycho-Analysis (London: Hogarth Press, 1964), Freud most pertinently states: "The processes which are possible in and between the




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assumed psychical elements in the id (the primary process) differ widely from those which are familiar to us through conscious perception in our intellectual and emotional life; nor are they subject to the critical restrictions of logic, which repudiates some of these processes as invalid and seeks to undo them" (p. 198). 16 See Chapter VII of The Interpretation of Dreams (London: Hogarth Press, 1953): "the accumulation of excitation... is felt as unpleasure and ... sets the psychical apparatus in action with a view to repeating the experience of satisfaction, which involved a diminution of excitation and was felt as pleasure" (p. 598, my italics). Kristeva, La r6volution du langage po6tique (Paris: Seuil, 1974). Kristeva, La r6volution, p. 212. Translation mine. Earlier, in Recherches pour une s6manalyse (Paris: Seuil, 1969), Kristeva had posited the semiotic alternative: "Tout le probleme de la s~miotique actuelle nous semble Otre lb: continuer de formaliser les systimes simiotiques du point de vue de la communication .. .ou bien ouvrir 5 I'intdrieur de la problimatique de la communication (qu'est inevitablement toute problmatique sociale) cette autre scone qu'est la production de sens antbrieure au sens" (p. 38). Michael Riffaterre, "Paragram and Significance," Semiotext(e), (1974), 73. 1, No. 2

17 18

19 20

Already, in Les Mots anglias (Oeuvres completes [Paris: Gallimard, 19451), Mallarmdhad written: "Au poete ou mime au prosateur savant, ii appartiendra par un instinct sup6rieur et libre, de rapprocher des termes unis avec d'autant la musique du langage, qu'ils plus de bonheur pour concourir au charme et & arriveront comme de lointains plus fortuits ..." (p. 921, my italics). The Language of the Self (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), p. 182. Freud also stated, in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis: "The governing rules of logic carry no weight in the unconscious; it might be called the Realm of the Illogical. Urges with contrary aims exist side by side in the unconscious without any need arising for an adjustment between them. Either they have no influence whatever on each other, or, if they have, no decision is reached, but a compromise comes about which is nonsensical since it embraces mutually incompatible details" (p. 169).

21 22


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