Monday, October 29, 2012

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975)

Here we begin thoughts and "discussions," in reading Roland Barthes' earlier work, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. The foreword is by Adam Phillips.

According to Phillips, autobiography is a fiction. Barthes suggests that one is stuck in the arresting identity one creates in the simple documenting of one's life. (v)

What must be in autobiography?
1) an account of the parents;
2) childhood memories and likes and dislikes;
3) something of a person's sexuality;
4) the story must make sense of a life, find a meaning or a pattern. (vi)

This is an autobiography without an author.

Philips states, "A sign system is a consensus in which there has never been an initial agreement; a language is a contract that no one has ever digned." (viii) He goes on to talk about the Barthes of Mythologies, who, it seems, is visited throughout the text by the :established" Barthes (newly instituted, at the time) in the Collège de France.

We learn here of Barthes' favourite motto: Larvatus prodeo (I advance pointing to my mask), which suggests "an ironic self-consciousness." (x)

Phillips suggests that the text can be skimmed, something I always felt was what Barthes wanted (Phillips refers often to the short book, The Pleasure of the Text, and I always thought it was in that book that the idea of skimming Barthes first appeared). For Phillips, the book is "about how we might sustain our pleasure without losing our interest, and about how we might sustain our interest without losing our pleasure." (xiii)

The body of the book:

The first 42 pages consist of photographs. Barthes starts off by stating that he has finished the book; the photos are additions, a "treat" for the author (it will be too difficult to paginate my quotations here, as the first 42 pages are unpaginated).

His first comments seem to foreshadow what he ends up doing in Camera Lucida, in discovering why images enthral him. On the first page of substantial text, Barthes suggests that a childhood photograph shows his body "from underneath." Is he just suggesting that it shows his younger self (prehistory)? What does he mean by "from underneath"?

We encounter a photograph showing Barthes' knee-high socks, previously mentioned. In these photos, Barthes mentions boredom. I wonder what he means by this (a recent book, Travels in China, seems a kind of paean to boredom).

Barthes painted!

The last photo (42) is most often used as a kind of "official" photograph. Any ideas as to why this might be?

This is the first section of the book. The next parts are based on much writing, though fragmentary (and thus accessible, in form anyway). This text will be a bit more difficult to read through, and perhaps less applicable to the study of the photograph in crisis. But, then again, he just spent 42 pages showing us photographs, in attempting to show us his life. There must be something there, then, on which to comment.

1 comment:

Phil Wiebe said...

“You constitute yourself, in fantasy, as a ‘writer,’ or worse still: you constitute yourself” (v) – this is one of Barthes’ humorous phrasings that make me wonder if he did such things on purpose. He posits that when we write an autobiography, we do not represent our true self, but our imagined self, or selves! Which in turn alters our true self by ‘fixing it’ (in the sense of fastening or pinning). Then again, Barthes seemed to think that all ideas of self were just fictive identities, and thus autobiography becomes a refined form of fiction.

The paradox of the autobiography, specifically in the case of Barthes, is that Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes is “an autobiography without an author that is the autobiography of an author.” This is amplified by the autobiography’s position as a life constituted through language – no necessity to it at all. The only thing that speaks necessarily in it is the self-evident, and the self-evident is, according to Barthes, is beyond interpretation (insofar as it is beyond question

I like how Barthes connects interpretation with disillusionment – it captures the denotative (the removal of illusions) and connotative (disappointment). Also, another Barthes gem (I can never tell if he is being grave or lighthearted): “It is true that wine is a good and fine substance” (ix).

With his opus Mythologies, Barthes laid bare the myths of modern culture; with Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes he produced his own myth – ‘transforming history into nature, abolishing complexity in favor of simple essence, and showing the Barthes that is natural and goes without saying.’ I’m glad he made it cruisable – Barthes should be commended for making a ‘readerly text,’ especially compared to Camera Lucida.

Barthes is only enamored with the images of his youth because they are ‘other’ to his current position. I enjoyed looking at the pictures and reading his stories, but I felt as if though they were only for him. He certainly seemed to like gardens, tall socks, neighbourhoods, and their residents. His critiques, especially of his family, are incisive and quietly revealing (I think Proust was more important to him than the rest of his extended family). There was also a feeling of comedy when he lists panel discussions, lectures, etc. as boredom and then goes on to provide specific photographs of each coupled with an emotive description. Who are the other people in the photograph captioned “… among friends” ? Another Barthes classic: “The intellectual’s mythology: To become thin is the naïve act of the will-to-intelligence.” Do any of Barthes’ paintings survive (a quick search yielded only a piece in crayon [of all things!])?

I like the ‘official’ photograph of Barthes – it carries no sense of pose and yet every one of poise. It is Roland in his natural environment (lighting up a cigarette, and paying no attention to the camera). It is the photograph he each chose for himself, as Geoff Dwyer notes in the foreword to Camera Lucida. And yet it is a fundamentally ‘constructed’ photograph: it is a mirror image (the attentive reader will notice that his hair is parted in the wrong direction), however, Barthes really was left-handed: it is a false image that reveals the truth.

This may be what Barthes’ autobiography is, then. A fiction that is truth.