Roland Barthes: The Discourse of Desire and the Question of Gender Author(s): Lawrence D.

Kritzman Source: MLN, Vol. 103, No. 4, French Issue (Sep., 1988), pp. 848-864 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 17/02/2010 11:20
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

The Johns Hopkins University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to MLN.

The Discourseof RolandBarthes: Desire and the Questionof Gender
D. Lawrence Kritzman
In place of hermeneuticswe need an erotics of art. Susan Sontag,
Against Interpretation(1964)

Dans ce qu'il ecrit, chacun defend sa sexualite. Roland Barthes, Roland Barthespar Roland Barthes (1975)1 Barthes' rhetoric of sexuality transcribes the text as a body imbued with libidinal energy and capable of generating fantasies through a figurative language that articulates theoretical fictions. In the process of delineating these critical texts, writing aspires to the status of matter. What Barthes terms the "grain of the voice"-la materialite du corps parlant sa langue maternelle" (00, 238)-comes to signify how the body speaks in writing through verbal choreographics which involve positions of passion, its drives, controls and
I I quote from the following texts: Le Degrg zero de l'9criture (Paris: Seuil-Collection Points, 1972), [DZE]; SurRacine (Paris: Seuil, 1963) [SR]; Sade, Fourier,Loyola (Paris: Seuil, 1971) [SFL]; SIZ (Paris: Seuil, 1970) [S/Z]; Le Plaisier du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1973) [PT]; Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (Paris: Seuil, 1975) [RB]; Fragments d'un discours amoureux (Paris, Seuil, 1977) [FDA]; "Introduction a l'analyse structurale du recit," in Poetique du recit (Paris: Seuil, 1977) [ASR]; La Lecon (Paris: Seuil, 1978) [L]; Sollers 9crivain (Paris: Seuil, 1979); La Chambreclaire (Paris: Gallimard Seuil, 1980) [CC]; Le Grain de la voix (Paris: Seuil, 1981) [GV]; L'Obvieet l'obtus.Essais critiquesIII (Paris: Seuil, 1982) [00]; Le Bruissementde la langue. Essais critiquesIV (Paris: Seuil, 1984) [BL]. For a discussion of figuration see Steven Ungar, Roland Barthes: The Professor of Desire (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983). I wish to thank Gerald Prince for his helpful comments during the writing of this essay.



rhythms. "La figuration serait le mode d'apparition du corps erotique ... dans le profil du texte" (PT, 88). The Barthesian subject "essays" the languages of culture (art, literature, music, photography and food), and through that process it searches for the laws of its own desire. The writer's critical discourse links the sensuous and the conceptual in a phenomenal relation that ultimately becomes a form of self-knowledge: "Qu-estce que la signifiance? C'est le sens en ce qu'il est produit sensuellement" (PT, 97). Subjectivity is indeed a rhetorical effect that is related to the body's gesture, a metaphoric bond between the graphic and the corporeal, which transcribes figures of drive and defense in the spectacle of writing. The text takes the form of an erotic body with which the writing subject, who sees language and is sensitive to its figurative choreographics, has a relationship that reconciles semiotic analysis with the languages of love.2 For Barthes, the signifying process exemplifies the libidinal energy of phenomenal experience by means of psychic tropes through which the aesthetic and the sexual coalesce and stage a critical act transforming the abstract into the sensually concrete. By ascribing value to theoretical fictions whose rhetoric constitutes allegories of sexuality, Barthes transforms analytical narrative into a reflection on desire ("un empourprement de plaisir" [RB, 107]), that is accepted as an exemplary moral gesture. The visual arts afford Barthes the opportunity to study women as semiotic objects mediated by shaped or mastered languages. In a preface to a collection of drawings by the fashion designer Erte (Romain de Tirtoff ) Barthes examines the female figure as a morphemic unit sketched out by the interplay between the graphic qualities of the letter and the sensuous contours of the body. In drawing upon the mythological stereotypes associated with the image of the woman in Western culture, Barthes characterizes Erte's conception of the female body as a fetishized textual object. Each letter of his alphabet represents a synecdoche of femininity inscribed within the silhouette of writing. Unlike the conventional concept of the fetish as a fragment severed from the whole body, it takes on new significance here, in the form of a cultural artifact submitted to the mortifying gesture of a totalized harmonious
2 Francoise Gaillard describes what she terms "un 6rotisme de 1'intelligibilite" in "Roland Barthes 'Semioclaste'?," L'Arc 56 (1974), 22-24. Upon completion of this essay, I learned that Naomi Schor also discusses the notion of Barthes's "eroticization of aesthetics" in her Reading in Detail (New York: Methuen, 1987), 96.

850 .


figuration. "Femme entierement socialisee par sa parure, parure obstinement corporeifiee par le contour de la Femme" (00, 103). The silhouette becomes a fetish for Barthes because the corporeal part object and vestimentary image merge as a composite whole that links the ornamental and the bodily in an erotic, albeit paradoxically desexualized, relationship. Upon closer inspection, it seems that Barthes's gaze is drawn to Erte's gynecography by its violence, through which the female body is dismembered and subsequently integrated into a series of discrete units belonging to an alphabetic order mediated by a graphic materiality. La Femme de Erte n'est pas non plus un symbole, l'expression renouvelee d'un corps qui preserveraitdans ses formes les mouvements fantasmatiques de son createur ou de son lecteur (comme il arrive 'a la femme romantique des peintres et des ecrivains):c'est seulement un chiffre, un signe, renvoyant 'a une feminite conventionnelle (enjeu d'un pacte social), parce qu'elle est pur objet de communication,information claire, passage vers l'intelligibleet non pas expression du senles sible: ces femmes innombrablesne sont pas les portraitsd'une idWe, essais d'un fantasme, mais, tout 'al'oppose, le retour d'un morpheme identique. (00, 100-101) In a very real sense, Barthes's analysis of Erte sees him as fitting women into the coherent structure of an intelligible signifying system. At the same time, he discovers her derivative function within that system by submitting her body to the grammatical exigencies of a highly aestheticized language in which women are situated at the locus of graphic abstraction: "Le lieu du depart signifiant, chez Erte, ce n'est pas la Femme (elle ne devient rien, sinon sa propre coiffure, elle est le simple chiffre de la feminite mythique), c'est la Lettre" (00, 109). The semiotician therefore discovers in the female body a decorative relic, a verbal icon, liberated from the occult forces of the erotic by linguistic functions that legitimize the obliteration of her libidinal power. The desexualization of the female body is more than a turning away from femininity; it represents a sterilized object of play whose true value emanates from the u-topic space of a two-dimensional image. A similar interest in fetishized textual objects draws Barthes to the Physiologie du gout and to the amorous relation which BrillatSavarin maintained with a language that can literally be characterized as that of a gourmand. Gastronomist and semiotician alike de-



sire words in their material presence and consequently establish a fetishistic relationship with language, which represents the oral aspirations of the psychic body.3 "B.S. desire le mot, comme il desire des truffes, une omelette au thon, une matelote; comme tout neologue, il a un rapport fetichiste au mot seul, cerne par sa singularite meme" (BL, 294). Orality is evoked here because it enables Barthes to project via analogical metaphors the sexual onto the verbal. As a result he transforms language into discrete physical objects capable of enacting libidinal functions; orality is but an exercise of language that actualizes the pleasures of the body: "On sait combien la modernite a mis d'insistance 'adevoiler la sexualite qui est enfouie dans l'exercice du langage: parler, sous certains censures ou certains alibis. .. est un acte erotique [le concept d'oralite] ... B.S. fournit ici ... une transition:celle du gout, oral comme le langage, libidinal comme Eros" (BL, 294). Barthes's discussion of Brillat-Savarin situates the erotic locus of both food and language in the same bodily organ, the tongue, without which there would be neither taste nor speech: "Manger, parler, chanter (faut-il ajouter: embrasser?) sont des operations qui ont pour origine le meme lieu du corps" (BL, 293). The economy of desire adheres to the exigencies of a linguistic appetite which produces a delight that is diffuse and yet totally permeates the sensations of our internal body, through the very movements of the tongue. Language is indeed an element of erotic nurturance, and food acts as the gustative metaphor of a narrative that develops in time. "Un peu 'a la facon d'un recit, ou d'un langage: temporalise, le gouft connailt des surprises et des subtilites; ce sont les parfums et les fragrances, constitues 'a l'avance, si l'on peut dire, comme des souvenirs: rien n'euft empeche la madeleine de Proust d'etre analysee par B.S." (BL, 286). Like the field of discourse which is subject to the action of degrees, gustative sensations produce meaning subsequent to their first reception and ironically evoke the pleasures of reference just when they appear to trace their very absence. Here Barthes's analysis uncovers an erotics of the table, the voluptuous effects of cenesthesia,which exemplifies an idealized desire that is destined to produce euphoria
genealogy and the gay science-to 3"[Barthes] uses Nietzsche's methods-the overcome the death drive encountered in his fetishism, thus transforming a perversion into a technique of critical production"; Gregory L. Ulmer, "Fetishism in Roland Barthes' Nietzschean Phase," Papers on Language and Literature 14 (1978), 334-55.



and yet remain incomplete. This unsatisfied wish perhaps accounts for the paradoxical nature of unelaborated desire. Like a dream, it is built on felicitious memories that evoke an intense pleasure devoid of any real sensuality, yet that remain on the threshold of joyful expectations: "Lorsque j'ai l'appetit d'une nourriture, est-ce que je ne m'imagine pas la mangeant? Est-ce que, dans cette imagination predictive, il n'y a pas tout le souvenir de nos plaisirs anterieurs? Je suis le sujet constitue d'une scene a venir, dontje suis le seul acteur" (BL, 300). If ideality is an issue in Barthes's critical fictions, his essays on romantic song, and Schumann's lieder in particular, recall a world in which desire and its object were once continuous. In these texts, musicality becomes a mode of figurative language for a subject who seeks asylum in the narcissistic pleasure of internalized bliss. Emphasizing the delight of the original dyad, Barthes glorifies the desire to preserve the unravished purity of illusion whereby the subject is engaged in the undifferentiated unity of symbiotic dependency. To sing in the romantic voice is indeed an act that is self-consuming and capable of producing a mode of orgasmic pleasure which enables the ideal and the real to coalesce in the body of desire; romantic song is a performative act that assigns to the psychic body the function of mediator of dreams: "Toute la musique romantique, qu'elle soit vocale ou instrumentale, dit ce chant du corps naturel: c'est une musique qui n'a de sens que si je puis toujours la chanter en moi-meme avec mon corps ... Car chanter, au sens romantique, c'est cela: jouir fantasmatiquement de mon corps unifie"' (00, 255). While the love song presupposes an imaginary interlocution, it indeed emanates from a loss that is the result of an absent other. The subject is forced to seek refuge in a musical form that is "continu'ment refugiee dans l'ombre lumineuse de la Mere" (00, 263) and that consequently disengages the self from the constraints of Oedipalization. The phantasmatic rhythms of romantic song produce the illusion of a narcissistic fulfillment through an art that is appearance without reality: "Fantasieren: 'ala fois imaginer et improviser: bref, fantasmer, c'est-a'-dire produire du romanesque sans construire un roman" (00, 257). In renouncing the semblance of referentiality, the love song fantasy engages the singer in a mode of figurative expression that marks a certain sensitivity to the institution of the novel.4 It also affirms
4 "Car s'il est chez lui [Barthes] une continuity, c'est bien celle d'une intelligencedu romanesquesi aigud, si seduisante qu'elle ne cesse d'6clipser lutopie' plus secrete



that art can reshape matter through form, reality through the openness of music as a nostalgic quest that is "une errance pure, un devenir sans finalite"' (00, 257). The singing subject dramatizes the relation with the other in as much as it becomes the ostensible catalyst of his very own sense of loss: "Je lutte avec une image, qui est 'a la fois l'image de l'autre, desiree, perdue, et ma propre image, desirante, abandonee" (00, 256). What is remarkable about Barthes' essay on romantic song is its exemplary allegorization of a discourse of desire which refuses the demands of the symbolic order and opts instead for pre-Oedipal bliss. Barthes's encomiumof the lieder is catalyzed by the will to transcend the Oedipalized typology of the opera lyric and the need to (re)discover the dream of omnipotence in a romance of union, represented as a conflict-free relation liberated from the laws of gender overdetermination. Dans notre societ6 occidentale, 'atraversles quatre registres vocaux de l'opera, c'est l'Oedipe qui triomphe ... ces quatre voix familialesque le leid romantique, en quelque sorte, oublie:il ne tient pas compte des marquessexuellesde la voix, car un meme liedpeut etre indifferemment chante par un homme ou une femme; pas de "famille"vocale, rien pourrait-ondire, dans la mesure meme ouiil qu'un sujet humain, unisexe est amoureux: car l'amour ... ne fait acception ni de sexes ni de r6les sociaux.5 (00, 254) The passionate romantic love to which Barthes alludes is one that

d'un autre reve d'&criture qui, depuis les annees d'apprentissage, habite les pages ecrites comme le songe d'un songe"; Philippe Roger, Roland Barthes, roman (Paris: Grasset, 1986), 31. 5 Even during the pseudo-scientific positivism of the 1960's, Barthes advanced the hypothesis that the birth of narrative is contemporaneous with the story of Oedipus. The loss of the Oedipal master narrative would be the end of storytelling and writing in the figurative sense. It would ostensibly signify the absence of the anxious desire for the disappearance of the father in all its multifarious manifestations. "La mort du Pere enlkvera a la litterature beaucoup de ses plaisirs. S'il n'y a plus de pere, a quoi bon raconter des histoires? Tout recit ne se ramene-t-il pas a l'Oedipe? Raconter, n'est-ce pas toujours chercher son origine, dire ses demes avec la Loi, entrer dans la dialectique de l'attendrissement et de la haine?" (PT, 75-76). For a more complete analysis of Barthes' anti-Oedipal discourse see my essay "Barthesian Freeplay," Yale French Studies 66 (1984), 189-210. The study of narrative from a post-Lacanian Oedipal perspective has been undertaken in The Fictional Father: Lacanian Readings of the Text, ed. Robert Con Davis (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981) and Juliet Flower MacCannell, "Oedipus Wrecks," MLN 98 (1983), 910-40.



has not encountered the trials and tribulations of difference. It reflects the desire for a primary relationship of narcissistic wholeness, in which the other and the one are the same without attributes recognizable as either specifically masculine of feminine: Double, "En somme, l'interlocuteur du lied, c'est le Double-mon affreuse du miroir c'est Narcisse: double altere, pris dans la scene fendu . . ." (00, 257). This narcissistic overestimation in the case of object-choice reveals not only a regression to the realm of the Imaginary, but also the apparent need to invent a gender-neutral world in which the body is, nevertheless, bound up with the rhythms of the semiotic. Perhaps the most revealing of Barthes's critical fictions is the notion of the text, which is described as a fetishistic object of pleasure in which the "devirilized" son loses himself in the web of the maternal body.6 The writer-child engages in an erotic activity in which the joyful pleasure derived from playing with the mother's body is but a colonization and merging with that body. The distance between mother and son has been reduced to catastrophically narrow proportions whereby the latter is fatally drawn into the vertiginous path of Arachne's labyrinth:7 "Nous accentuons maintenant, dans le tissu, l'idee generative que le texte se fait, se travaille 'a travers un entrelacs perpetuel; perdu dans ce sujet s'y defait, telle une araignee qui se tissu-cette texture-le dissoudrait elle-meme dans les secretions constructives de sa toile" (PT, 101). For Barthes, then, the writing subject develops the ability to become that "beautiful land" through the loss of its opacity, symbolized by the mother's body, and thus merge with the vanished corpus of childhood bliss. However, the body in question here represents not the mother's invention, but rather the child's drama of artistic creation. Barthes's text transcribes the mother as object of scriptural production and not as its dynamic subject: "L'ecrivain est quelqu'un

6 See The (M)other Tongue: Essaysin FeministPsychoanalytic Interpretation,ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane and Madelon Sprengnether (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985). Domna Stanton, in "The Mater of the Text: Barthesian Displacement and Its Limits" [L'Espritcrgateur25 (1985), 57-72], has coined the term "devirilized son." 7 "The discourse of the male weavers rhetorically stages 'woman' without in any way addressing women"; Nancy K. Miller, "Arachnologies: The Woman, The Text, and the Critic," in The Poetics of Gender, ed. N. K. Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 271.



qui joue avec le corps de sa mere ... pour le glorifier, l'embellir ou pour le depecer, le porter 'ala limite de ce qui, du corps, peut etre reconnu" (PT, 60). In passing from passive to active persona, the Barthesian subject-in actualizing a Kleinian intertext-reappropriates the maternal body which was destroyed in fantasy.8 He actively remodels it through a creative act-"la main . .. pour rassembler et entremeler les fils inertes" (S/Z, 166)-which is but a sublimated version of the urge for reparation. To be sure, the impulse to satisfy the mother is inextricably linked to the symbolic recreation of the maternal body by a male writer who paradoxically feminizes himself through the symbolic representation of the fetishistic female braid, which the text emblematizes in its very materiality. Thus, in characterizing the maternal body as "ce qui peut etre tresse"' (00, 103-104), the Barthesian subject ascribes to the scriptural act the masturbatory pleasures associated with narcissistic drives. The writing of the text embodies the transgression of the forbidden satisfaction derived from the maternal. Yet it exercises an obsessional attraction for a self which, paradoxically, becomes a substitute object of nurturance that sustains the order of the imaginary. In order for the text to keep the fiction-making machine alive, its most fundamental law within Barthes's critical fantasy must be to render the satisfaction of desire incomplete. The fictional must outwit the death drive of the pleasure principle. The enactment of narrative produces a discourse of desire which represents temporality as the deferral of meaning. The writing of the text transforms a reflection on desire into a kind of resonance of language that erases the object of its articulation. Barthes's concept of the text openly thematizes the inability to repress castration and, with it, the refusal to incarnate the Law. Accordingly, the braiding of the pubic hair, as it is evoked by the Barthesian subject, enacts the fable of his demands. It is a mere metaphor for the symbolic positioning of desire and the denial of castration. Like the child who arrives at the fetishistic solution as the only means to defeat the castration threat, the theorist opts for the cacophony of mutually interfering sign systems as a way to perpetuate the exigencies of
8 Melanie Klein, "The Importance of Symbol-Formation in the Development of the Ego," in Love, Guilt, and Reparation and Other Works, vol. 1 of The Writings of Melanie Klein, ed. R. E. Money-Kyrle (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1975). See also "Infantile Anxiety-Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and in the Creative Impulse," Writings, I, 210-18.



desire: "On connailt le symbolisme de la tresse: Freud, pensant 'a l'origine du tissage, y voyait le travail de la femme tressant ses poils pubiens pour fabriquer le penis qui lui manque. Le texte est en somme un fetiche; et le reduire 'a l'unite du sens, par une lecture abusivement univoque, c'est couper la tresse, c'est esquisser le geste castrateur" (S/Z, 166). To cut the braid is thus tantamount to halting the drive and the kinetic energy that is the source motivating desire. The suspension of meaning activates the euphoria derived from an eroticized language which resists the quiescence of a castrative hermeneutics: "Chez lui, le desir du mot l'emporte, mais de ce plaisir fait partie une sorte de vibration doctrinale" (RB,

In effect, Barthes's notion of the text represents the desire to escape the fate of monumentalization and to transcend the limits of interpretation as well as the problems of classification. The notion of organic totality must be fractured in order to produce a feeling of ecstasy emanating from the site of a loss. A seam, a cut, or a discontinuity in the textual fabric stimulates the erotic energy of the reader, whose affective sensibilities are attuned to the rhetoric of fragmentation. As Barthes claims, a naked body is infinitely less erotic than the spot where the garment gaps. The fragmented corpuswhich constitutes an ideal representational mode entices the reader and transports him into the realm of the senses: "Quand j'essaie de produire cette ecriture courte, par fragments, je me mets dans la situation d'un auteur que le lecteur va draguer. C'est le bonheur du hasard, mais d'un hasard tres voulu, tres pense, epie, en quelque sorte" (GV, 218). Barthes's corpus morceleenacts the fantasy of his own body in bits and pieces, a corporeal pose that implies a certain loss of self and seduces because of this very absence. The Roland Barthespar Roland Barthes puts forth an unquestionably idealistic view of sexuality that attempts to transcend the psychic mythology of the binary prison through a process of self-negation: "Il songe 'a un monde qui serait exempt de sens" (RB, 90). The concept of the neuter becomes a scriptural metaphor in the quest to transcend the integrity of meaning in language and the threat of reification due to taxonomies. Barthes therefore problematizes the possibility of essentialized gender identities and suggests that the very idea of a "happy sexuality" can only become possible when sexual difference is disavowed. In essence, Barthes seemingly refuses those identities of man and woman as fictions of



oppression imposing closure. Within this context, sexuality is characterized as more than merely the biological. In fact, it is portrayed as a textual phenomenon that is plural and disengaged from the contingencies of a priori roles. Des lors que I'alternative est refusee (des lors que le paradigme est brouillk) l'utopie commence: le sens et le sexe deviennent l'objet d'un jeu libre, au sein duquel les formes (polysemiques)et les pratiques(sensuelles), liberees de la prison binaire, vont se mettre en 6tat d'expansion infini. Ainsi peuvent naitre un texte gongorien et une sexualite heureuse. (RB, 134) To be sure, the utopia of sexuality evokes a pleasure that refuses to name itself and is situated at the locus of its root-meaning, no place. The free-play in question here is integral to the quest for an amorphous sexuality; it suggests that it can only have felicitous consequences through an excess of meaning. By equating utopia with the neuter, Barthes opts for a higher form of sexuality that reaches beyond social constructions in the name of the transgressive imperatives of desire: "Le neutre .. . est une notion purement qualitative, structurale; il est ce qui deroutele sens, la norme, la normalite. Avoir le gou't du neutre, c'est forcement se degouiter du moyen"(SFL, 113). In a sense, then, the coupling of the erotic and the semiotic in the figure of the neuter produces a radical signifying practice that challenges closure both in gender (i.e. the institution of heterosexuality) and in language. To go beyond the constraints of normality is, in fact, an attempt to reject the fictional signs of plenitude associated with the quantitative equilibrium of the so-called mythological mean. The abnormal therefore becomes the signifier of the neuter, with pleasure defining itself as a form of perversity: "Le plaisir est un neutre (la forme la plus perverse du demoniaque)" (PT, 102). Perversion becomes an issue because it generates a blissful surplus of meaning, a libidinal flow which frees sexuality from a totalizing homogeneity and allows it to transgress the obstacles of social censure through the active quest for the neuter. "Le pouvoir de jouissance d'une perversion (en l'occurrence celle des deux H: homosexualite et haschisch) est toujours sous-estime. La Loi, la Doxa, la Science ne veulent pas comprendre que la perversion, tout simplement, rend et heureux;ou pour preciser davantage, elle produit un plus dans ce plus vient se loger la difference . . ." (RB, 68).



But this idealized sexuality that Barthes puts fojth is suspended somewhere between the satiety of pleasure and its ostensible absence. In a 1979 preface to Renaud Camus' novel Tricks, Barthes portrays a utopian erotic rapport as a fiction in which no one player would have a position of dominance over the other. It is, like the imaginary contract of prostitution, an encounter which takes place only once and engages its players in a drama which passes without regret. A trick is indeed more than simply an act of cruising, but it is often infinitely much less than love. It is a metaphor of many clandestine adventures that can potentially engage the amorous subject in a theatrical event, in which the ludic strategies of the players reduce libidinal intensity into surfaces and sexuality into a form of haiku that permits asceticism and hedonism to coalesce. In its very essence, then, a trick is a pseudo-affective mode. It induces a tropistic interaction through a seductive choreographics that absorbs the self into the facticity of illusion. The trick thus enables the passage from the sexual to the discursive and thereby becomes a metaphor of mystical experience. "Le trick quitte ... la pornographie (avant d'y avoir aborde) et rejoint le roman ... le trick ... c'est un amour virtuel, stoppe volontairement de part et d'autre, par contrat, soumission au code culturel qui assimile la drague au donjuanisme" (BL, 329-30). The dramaturgy of the desiring subject transmits an intensity that is kept in check. Barthes is ostensibly drawn to Camus's narrative by its ability to represent homosexual encounters without ever directly speaking about them. The narrative allows him to reflect the essence of the neuter, which is unquestionably an entity without essence beyond the plenitude of being. It is, however, in the Fragmentsd'un discoursamoureux(1977) that Barthes reconceptualizes the discourse of love as separate from sexuality, therefore problematizing once again the issue of gender. Out of the lover's discourse emerges a persona who is described as being sexually indifferent and inscribed in a constellation of figures that simulate the amorous subject as a feminized being, one who is gender-marked and who experiences a devastating sense of passivity as the object of desire. Difference is, in fact, not determined by sexual identity, but rather by the shifting loci of object relations that define a redistribution of power: "Tout amoureux qui recoit un coup de foudre a quelque chose d'une Sabine ... qui a ete ravi-est toujours implicitement f6l'amoureux-celui minise" (FDA, 223).



Femininity undoubtedly leaves itself open to libidinal colonization; the function of this feminized subject is to be possessed through a form of domination. The production of a lover's discourse depends to an unsuspected degree on the binding of the energy of an amorous subject who is trapped within the entropy of a male-centered cultural division of gender roles. But if Barthes enables the masculine to become feminine, it is in order to explore and put into question the association of sexual inversion with feminization; gender identity is conditioned by the language of love, which transforms the amorous subject into a transvestite of sorts whose subversion is realized by the enunciative reversibility of masculine and feminine: ". . . dans tout homme qui parle l'absence de l'autre, du fbminin se declare: cet homme qui attend et qui en souffre, est miraculeusement f6minise. Un homme n'est pas f&minise parce qu'il est inverti, mais parce qu'il est amoureux" (FDA, 20). Falling in love makes the male figure genuinely a man-woman and inscribes him in the phallocentric plot of female subjection: "C'est leur situation dans le rapport de force qui verse les uns dans la virilite et les autres dans la f6minite, sans egard 'aleur sexe biologique" (SR, 25). By distancing himself from the anatomy of the gender-marked body, Barthes sets it free, in order to reify the myth of the eternal feminine which takes the masculine as its point of origin. Ironically, the subject in quest of the neuter finds himself imprisoned within the parameters of the binary law: "Je suis oblige de toujours choisir entre le masculin et le f6minin, le neutre ou le complexe me sont interdits" (L, 13). Barthes evokes the passivity of the lover only in order to prioritize the primal relationship between the subject and the imaginary (m)other who engenders the birth of desire. In the lover's discourse, the maternal imago not only becomes the center of the subject's identity, but remains an internalized principle of sensuality and corporeal experience whose absence constitutes a symbolic castration-"se voir abandonne de la Mere" (FDA, 59)-that is indeed the very symptom of this tragically terminal disease. The absent mother therefore symbolizes a lost harmony and emblematizes the pain of separation associated with all love relationships. In a sense, the desired return for the maternal figure offers the amorous subject renewed hope for symbiotic bliss, while at the same time serving to imprison him in the femininity within himself: "Ce quej'attends de la presence promise, c'est une sommation inouie de plaisirs, un festin; je jubile. comme l'enfant qui rit de voir



celle dont la seule presence annonce et signifie une plenitude le satisfaction" (FDA, 139). Barthes thus stages the lover's discourse as a catastrophic theatrical event characterized by the nostalgia for a lost maternal plenitude that is manifested as the projection of nothingness. The feeling of abandonment evokes a subject divided between the potential loss of what can never be recovered and the memory of what can never be forgotten: "L'amoureux qui n'oublie pas quelquefois, meurt par exces, fatigue et tension de memoire ... Enfant je n'oubliais pas: journees interminables, journees abandonnees, oi la Mere travaillait loin, j'allais, le soir, attendre son retour ... les autobus passaient plusieurs fois de suite, elle n'6tait dans aucun" (FDA, 20-21).9 Like the abandoned child, the lover finds himself in a state of solitude, the consequences of which reveal the inability to complete separation because of a past that cannot be extricated from the present: "J'invoque sa protection, son retour: que l'autre apparaisse, qu'il me retire telle une mere qui vient chercher son enfant" (FDA, 23). Desire, then, takes the form of a demand addressed to the (m)other, who, in essence, becomes a personification of that very need. Barthes' vocatives are choreographed as a series of fantasies of persecution by a maternal agent of evil who replaces the identical agent of good. The mother is split into contrasting opposites, with the menacing object being nothing more than the result of the excessive idealization of the perfect object: "Le fading de l'objet aime, c'est le retour terrifiant de la mauvaise Mere, le retrait inexplicable d'amour, le delaissement bien connu des Mystiques ... Je ne suis pas detruit, mais laisse la, comme un dechet" (FDA, 130). But if the bad mother is characterized as one who withdraws her love, the good son refuses to abandon his mother. From the perspective of the amorous subject springs forth the impulse to sustain nurturance and the need to reenact the infant's original pleasure. Quoting the Tao Te Ching, the lover evokes the singularity of his quest to cathect onto the figure of the mother: "Moi seul je differe des autres hommes, parce que je tiens 'a teter ma Mere" (FDA, 252). Nurturance is consecrated as an activity by virtue of the Kleinian definition of culture as an effort to repair
9 Steven Ungar very interestingly analyzes the symbolic value of the Sevres-Babylone bus stop in the Barthesian mythology by focusing on the root meaning of the word "sever": to wean, not yet detached from the mother (120).



the damaged world of the imaginary, through the symbolic rediscovery of the mother's body.'0 And it is through the correlation between writing and femininity that the amorous subject is able to compensate for this loss. The scriptural act constitutes itself as a gynotextual activity that elaborates the fiction of absence at the level of the logos, and thereby provides the amorous subject with a locus for the projection of the missing object; the wounds of love can be transcended by a discursive performance that bears that mark of the female voice: "Historiquement, le discours de l'absence est tenu par le Femme ... C'est la femme qui donne forme 'a l'absence en elabore la fiction, car elle en a le temps; elle tisse et elle chante; les Fileuses, les Chansons de toile disent 'a la fois l'immobilite . . . et l'absence" (FDA, 20). At the core of the discourse of desire is the rhetoric of the detail." This phenomenon is inextricably linked to the loss of the mother; it functions as a synecdoche that transcends what Barthes terms, in the context of photography, the realm of the studiumor a culturally coded discourse. Barthes delineates the notion of the punctum in La Chambreclaire as the aspect of the photograph that designates what punctures the studium and figuratively injures the spectator, even though he cannot articulate precisely why: "Un mot existe en latin [punctum] pour designer cette blessure, cette piqufre, cette marque faite par un instrument pointu" (CC, 49). In essence the punctum is that subliminal detail, that "objet partiel" (CC, 73) which touches the viewer and unchains a desire reaching a level of orgasmic pleasure, and produces a readerly response "'a la fois courte et active, ramassee comme un fauve" (CC, 81). This piercing detail, described as both certain and unlocatable, is a vestigial trace of something that is secretly familiar but which has undergone repression and exerted a symbolic exercise of force on the desiring subject: "Ce que je peux nommer ne peut reellement me poindre. L'impuissance 'a nommer est un bon sympt6me de trouble" (CC, 84). Thus the power of the detail catalyzes a pathetic struggle to keep memories alive and forestall the death of desire. "Peut-etre l'imagination du detail est-elle ce qui definit specifiquement l'Utopie ... le detail est fantasmatique et accomplit 'ace titre le plaisir meme du desir" (SFL, 110). In effect, the punctum is a tactic of delay that sustains the jubilant reading of a photographic

Klein, "Symbol-Formation," 220, 232. 1 See Naomi Schor, "Le detail chez Freud," Litterature37 (1980), 3-14.



image which surprises by the force of its very presence. "Le punctum est alors une sorte de hors-champ subtil, comme si l'image lancait le desir au-dela de ce qu'elle donne 'avoir ... Toujours, la Photographie m'etonne,d'un etonnement qui dure et se renouvelle, inepuisablement" (CC, 93, 129). The rhetoric of the detail reaches its most poignant level in Barthes's ruminations on images of the mother, in which the son in mourning fetishizes the photographic detail as mediator of desire for the mother, in an effort to master the trauma of her loss. Under the guise of a quest for the essence of photography, the analysis of the image in La Chambreclaire reveals not only the absent referent common to all photos, but, in addition, the ontological anxiety derived from the Barthesian subject's nostalgia for what has been. "Au gre de ces photos, parfois je reconnaissais une region de son visage, tel rapport du nez et du front, le mouvement de ses bras, de ses mains. Je ne la reconnaissais jamais que par morceaux, c'est-a'-dire que je manquais son etre, et que donc je la manquais toute" (CC, 103). Yet this equivocal remembrance enables Barthes to repress even momentarily the pain of separation and to compensate for the loss of a psychic illusion of unity; its stake is undoubtedly in the quest to reconstitute the lost maternal corpus from lacunary fragments and the agony and the ecstasy of that pursuit: "Tendu vers l'essence de son identite [that of the mother], je me debattais au milieu d'images partiellement vraies, et donc totalement fausses" (CC, 103-104). Barthes's affective investment reveals itself through the hypertrophy of single details that, at best, painfully approximate the image of the maternal body. "Le presque:regime atroce de l'amour, mais aussi statut decevant du reve . . ." (CC, 104). They function as a symptom of the need to keep desire alive and resurrect a simulacrum of the absent other, through a metonymic process which intermittently allows the part to exceed the whole. "Je vois, je sens, doncje remarque, je regarde etje pense" (CC, 42). The photo thus becomes an allegorical image in which temporality is paradoxically represented as both a triumph and a defeat; it makes a place for a body which, although "hers," had no meaning before this possibility of remembering. Fetishism is indeed an issue in La Chambre claire, because Barthes is caught in an imaginary relationship which nurtures an amorous preference for the mother. This relationship is predicated on the denegation of the maternal phallus, which serves as a means to



avert the threat of his own castration and thereby remain in an imaginary state of sexual indifference that maintains the Other as the Same.'2 "Devant la photo du Jardin d'Hiver, je m'abandonnais 'a Image, a l'Imaginaire" (CC, 117).13 Thus for Barthes the fetishistic attraction to the photographic detail becomes "a model for repudiating reality".'4 Accordingly, the maternal image carries within it a monument to repression, a spectrum that enables the orphaned spectator to avert the total renunciation of the object of narcissistic desire: "ce mot [spectre] garde 'a travers sa racine un rapport au 'spectacle' et y ajoute cette chose un peu terrible qu'il y a dans toute photo: le retour du mort" (CC, 23). In this context, Barthes's writing puts forth the desire to preserve the unravished purity of illusion in which the filial subject opts for symbiotic dependency with a singular maternal figure. After his mother's death, the amorous son, while pondering over a photo of her as a child in the Winter Garden scene, uncovers a utopia, the "ombre claire" (CC, 169), where wishes are fulfilled.'5 The photo becomes an object of intense affective investment that symbolically consecrates the union of mother and son as the only Nature acceptable to the amorous subject. Yet the moment Barthes sees his mother in the photo, he not only attempts to ward off the death he sees inscribed in her girlish picture, but also intercalates it with the story of his own life and the mortality that it implies. The future is imagined from the anticipatory standpoint of its having already occurred, and from the consciousness of impending death; unable to think the absence of
12 The fetishistic solution is the means to confront and defeat the castration threat. According to Jean Baudrillard fetishism incorporates the notions of "construction," "artifice," "fabrication," and "imitation by signs" ("Fetichisme et ideologie: la reduction semiologique" in Objetsdu frtichisme, Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse 2 [1970], 213-26). 13 Barthes tells us that the imaginary may be found "a travers la Mere, presente a c6t6 du miroir" (RB, 156). '4 "The fetish becomes the first model of all repudiations of reality"; Octave Mannoni, Clefs pour l'imaginaire (Paris: Seuil, 1969), 12. 15 "L'impossible par chance parfois devient possible: comme utopie. C'est bien ce qu'il disait avant sa mort, mais pour lui, de la Photographie du Jardin d'Hiver. Au-delA des analogies 'elle accomplissait pour moi, utopiquement, la science impossible de l'tre unique.' I1 le disait uniquement, tourne vers sa mere et non vers la Mre, mais la singularite poignante ne contredit pas la generalite, elle ne lui interdit pas de valoir comme la loi, elle la fklche seulement, et la signe"; Jacques Derrida, "Les Morts de Roland Barthes," Poetique 47 (1981), 277. According to Julia Kristeva, "la selection de Mere [in Barthes] ... resume tout, debut et fin condenses" ("La Voix de Barthes," Communications36 [1982], 148-49).



thought, the Barthesian subject conceives of its mortality through the death and separation from the (m)other. "Elle morte, je n'avais plus aucune raison de m'accorder 'ala marche du Vivant superieur (l'espece) ... Je ne pouvais plus qu'attendre ma mort totale, indialectique" (CC, 113). Just as the absence of the mother served as a template for uninterrupted desire in Fragments d'un discours amoureux, so the death of the mother evoked by the punctum of the Winter Garden photography functions as an uncanny harbinger of the death of desire. "Car ce que j'ai perdu, ce n'est pas une Figure (la Mere), mais un etre; et pas un etre, mais une qualite (une ame): non pas l'indispensable, mais l'irremplacable" (CC, 118).
Ohio State University

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful