Monday, March 13, 2017

The Pleasure and Bliss of the Text by Roland Barthes



[The pleasure of the text ‘for me’, for Roland Barthes- individual- and therefore by degrees, recondite.]

No “thesis” on the pleasure of the text is possible; barely an inspection (an introspection) that falls short. Eppure si gaude! [yet he rejoices]. And yet, against and in spite of everything, the text gives me bliss*.

At least some examples? One envisions a vast, collective harvest: bring together all the texts which have given pleasure to someone and display this textual body in something like the way in which psychoanalysis had exhibited man’s erotic body. However, it is to be feared that such a labor would end explaining the chosen texts; there would be an inevitable bifurcation of the project: unable to speak itself, pleasure would enter the general path of motivations, none of which would be definitive (if I assert some pleasures of the text here, it is always in passing, in a very precarious, never regular fashion). In short, such a labor could not be written. I can only circle such a subject – and therefore better to do it briefly and in solitude than collectively and interminably; better to renounce the passage from value, the basis of the assertion, to values, which are effects of culture.


As a creature of language, the writer is always caught up in the war of fictions (jargons), but he is never anything but a plaything in it, since the language that constitutes him (writing) is always outside-of-place (atopic); by the simple effect of polysemy (the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase) the warrior commitment of a literary dialect is dubious from its origin. The writer is always on the blind spot of systems, adrift; he is the joker in the pack, a mana, a zero degree, the dummy in the bridge game: necessary to the meaning (the battle) but himself deprived of fixed meaning; his place, his (exchange) value, varies according to the movements of history, the tactical blows of the struggle: he is asked all and/or nothing. He himself is outside exchange, plunged into non-profit, the Zen mushotuka, desiring nothing but the perverse bliss of words (but bliss is never taking: nothing separates it from satori, from losing.) Paradox: the writer suppresses this gratuitousness of writing (which approaches, by bliss, the gratuitousness of death): he stiffens, hardens his muscles, denies the drift, represses bliss: there are very few writers who combat both ideological repression and libidinal repression (the kind, of course, which the intellectual brings to bear upon himself: upon his own language).


No significance (no bliss) can occur, I am convinced, in mass culture (to be distinguished, like fire from water, from the culture of the masses, for the model of this culture is petit bourgeois. It is characteristic of our (historical) contradiction that significance (bliss) has taken refuge in an excessive alternative: either in a mandarin praxis (result of an extenuation of bourgeois culture), or else in an utopian idea (the idea of a future culture, resulting from a radical, unheard-of, unpredictable revolution, about which anyone writing today knows only one thing: that, like Moses, he will not crossover into it).

For hours on end I read Zola, Proust, Verne, The Count of Monte Christo, the Memoirs of a Tourist, and Sometimes even Julian Green. This is my pleasure, though everyone can testify that this pleasure of the text is not certain: nothing says that this same text will please us a second time; it is a friable pleasure, split by mood, habit, circumstance, a precarious pleasure (obtained by a silent prayer addressed to the Desire for ease, and which that Desire can revoke); when the impossibility of speaking about this text from the point of view of positive science (its jurisdiction is that of critical science: pleasure is a critical principle.)


This is my pleasure but not my bliss: bliss may come only with the absolutely new, for only the new disturbs (weakens) consciousness (easy? Not at all: nine times out of ten, the new is only the stereotype of novelty.) The bliss of the text is not precarious, it is worse: precocious; it does not come in its own good time, it does not depend on any ripening. Everything is wrought to to a transport at one and the same moment. This transport is evident in painting, today’s painting: as soon as it is understood, the principle of loss becomes ineffective, one must go on to something else. Everything comes about; indeed in every sense everything comes - at first glance. The text is (should be) that uninhibited person who shows his behind to the Political Father.

Emotion: why should it be antipathetic to bliss? It is a disturbance, bordering on collapse: something perverse, under respectable appearances; emotion is even, perhaps, the slyest of losses, for it contradicts the general rule that would assign bliss a fixed form: strong, violent, crude: something inevitably muscular, strained, phallic. Against the general rule: never allow oneself to be deluded by the image of bliss; agree to recognize bliss wherever a disturbance occurs in amatory adjustments (premature, delayed, etc.): passionate love as bliss? Bliss as wisdom (when it manages to understand itself outside its own prejudices.

If it were possible to imagine an aesthetic of textual pleasure, it would have to include: writing aloud. This vocal writing (which is nothing like speech) is not practiced, but it is doubtless what Artaud recommended. Let us talk about it as if it existed.

In antiquity, rhetoric included a section which is forgotten, censored by the classical commentators: the action, a group of formula designed to allow for the corporeal exteriorization of discourse: it dealt with a theater of expression, the actor-orator ‘expressing”: his indignation, his compassion, etc. Writing aloud is not expressive; it leaves expression to the pheno-text, to the regular code of communication; it belongs to the geno-text, to significance; it is carried not by dramatic inflections, subtle stresses, sympathetic accents, but by the grain of the voice, which is an erotic mixture of timbre and language, and can therefore also be, along with diction, the substance of an act: the art of guiding one’s body(whence its importance in Far Eastern theaters). Due allowances being made for the sounds of language, writing aloud is not phonological but phonetic; its aim is not the clarity of messages, the theater of emotions; what it searches for (in the perspective of bliss) are the pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony; the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language.

A certain art of singing can give an idea of this vocal writing; but since melody is dead, we may find it more easily today in the cinema. In fact, it suffices that the cinema capture the sound of speech close up (this is, in fact, the generalized definition of the “grain” of writing) and make us hear in their materiality, their sensuality, the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence of the human muzzle (that the voice, that writing, be as fresh, supple, lubricated, delicately granular and vibrant as an animals muzzle), to succeed in shifting the signified a great distance and in throwing, so to speak, the anonymous body of the actor into my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.




*   Richard Miller  has come up with the readiest plausibility by translating jouissance ( for the most part: Barthes himself declares the choice between pleasure and the more ravaging term to be precarious, revocable, the discourse incomplete) as “bliss”; but of course he cannot come with “coming”, which precisely translates what the text can afford. The Bible  they translated calls it “knowing” while the Stuarts called it “dying”, the Victorians called it “spending,”  and we call it “coming.”… Pleasure is a state, bliss (jouissance) an action, and both of them, in our culture, are held to be unspeakable, beyond  words. Here for example is Willa Cather, a writer Barthes never heard of, putting in a plea of nolo contendere, which is, for all its insufferable air of customary infallibility, no more than symptomatic:

The qualities of a first-rate writer cannot be defined, only   experienced. It is just the thing in him which escapes analysis that makes him first rate. One can catalogue all the qualities that he shares with other writers, but the thing that is his very own, his timbre, this cannot be defined or explained any more than the quality of a beautiful speaking voice can be.

In the puritanism of our expressivity, what can be said is taken to be no longer experienced, certainly no longer enjoyed.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Philippe Desan's Anti-Liberal (Historicist) Rant


“A man must be a little mad if he does not want to be even more stupid. My style and mind alike go roaming.”- Montaigne



[This is certainly the sense I took Essays when I originally read them many years ago. I had no certain knowledge of the times  in which Montaigne wrote, their original political purpose, nor the various  revisions and additions he made in the 1582, 1588  editions or the 1592 one he was working on when he died. I suppose I did have something of a philosophical or moral purpose in mind but it was the  ruminative style of the book that captured my interest and gave me the most pleasure its 'subversive' aspect, by comparison to contemporary prose styles, as did Doughty’s “Travels in the Arabian Desert” or whatever works I have read by  Derrida. I like it when I am not sure what an author is up to, I welcome discursive mayhem, as it might be called, as long as it is NOT stupid: a litany of half-formed thoughts and impossible inferences characteristic of so much of the public discourse these days - in the era of Trump). Here’s Desan’s rant, from Chapter 11 of his biography, Montaigne’s Political Posterity]:

“ The twentieth century has been largely occupied with determining what made Montaigne a modern and fundamentally secular scholar. Why are the Essais considered the first great text of modern philosophy, a work foreshadowing the arrival of Descartes on the scene of metaphysics. This question seems more interesting than ever. In fact, the idea of Montaigne’s modernity is not a recent one; every century has commented on it and explained it in its own way. It refers to our ability ceaselessly to reinterpret works from the past and too re-appropriate these objects so that they can be adapted to our current concerns. To do that, we accommodate  the texts to our present human condition, which is perceptible in our everyday life, on a moral level and in our cultural and scientific practices. Determining Montaigne’s modernity is supposed to consist in locating in the Essais what we have become today. As if the questions that the author of Essais asked were also our questions. There is no need to say that such a procedure can be gratifying, because it offers proof of a development or an implacable evolution towards progress and wisdom. Montaigne has finally been appropriated by philosophy.

The message is simple: the individual triumphs and always liberates himself from systems of thought that prevent him from expressing his most personal convictions. Montaigne is supposed to be the best proof of this unconditional freedom of the subject and of the victory of private judgment over systems or schools of thought. The birth of philosophy is supposed to coincide with a certain conception of of individual liberty and its expression. Modern liberal thought and discerns in Montaigne the starting point in its history. This is notably in the case for readings that see in the Essais a quest for freedom, that is, and intellectual posture that gives priority to freedom of thought and freedom of expression to the detriment of political action, which is deemed to be inessential and is thus relegated to the background. But let us make no mistake: most of the strictly philosophical readings of Montaigne are the expression of a form (unconscious) ideological appropriation that aims to place the universal subject on a pedestal, to the detriment of its historical and political dimension. The risk has always been that a philosophical Montaigne would be universalized at the expense of the political Montaigne whose writing situates him in his period and demands to be read in its immediate historical context This kind of philosophical  appropriation serves principally to reassure us by giving us the illusion of irresistible progress towards a better life in which the individual blossoms and finally asserts himself in all the complexity of his subjectivity. Confronted by this utopia of a Montaigne father of universal thought, it is essential to warn readers against  the  danger of a strictly philosophical approach that reinforces the myth of a universal subject.

Before becoming a modern author, Montaigne was necessarily an author of his own time. Historicizing his thought is hardly fashionable in a time when everything is supposed to converge at the present moment – as if history, since Antiquity, had been nothing more than a long phase preparatory to our period in which everything suddenly takes place. The ahistorical view of human thought lets us glimpse an ideology that conceives history only as a state of the present and systematically de-historicizes the thought of earlier centuries. Economic liberalism has forced systems of thought to adapt in order to relate them to the only possible view of its own notion of universal progress, of which  modernity is supposed to be the outcome. The best texts of the past would be the ones that include germs that prefigure our present human condition. This idea of an evolution of thought is in itself a problem of which Montaigne seems to have been fully aware: his interpretation of today- the moment when he was writing- never surpassed the one he had offered the day before. Still in the spirit of this liberal appropriation of Montaigne, he has even been seen as the first blogger, as if it were impossible to read Montaigne without relating him to our present activities, even the most insignificant ones. Montaigne’s modernity is said to be his anticipation of Twitter or Facebook, and even the invention of the “selfie.” The question that arises is how one is supposed to read Montaigne outside his history. Is it really necessary to reify Montaigne in our social networks and universalize the Essais as a blog of modernity?


There is no doubt that what appeals to us in Montaigne is his hyper-subjectivity with regard to a world that is increasingly objectified and globalized. For this reason, in the last ten years, Montaigne has become a truly ‘global’ author, bringing him sudden, worldwide celebrity. He is no longer regarded as a specifically  French or European writer and his thought has become internationalized and universalized. His readership has expanded world-wide and the Essais are now accessible in more than thirty-five languages,. Most often, the freedom of judgment, outside schools, is emphasized in order to prove that the subject can always understand the world by himself. His self-sufficiency of the subject, removed from his historical reality, is the trap par excellence of many contemporary commentaries on the Essais. We might say that in Montaigne the reader finds too few actions, but too many reflections. We like to see in him in the moment of introspection, of withdrawal and self-sufficiency. The possibility of a theoretical truth of the world confirms the dominant ideology, because it isolates the subject from his social and political environment. Montaigne, in retirement in his tower, anticipates Descartes closed up in his stove. Each in his own way, Montaigne and Descartes are said to have left the world to give us philosophy. This idea, which seek to essentialize  human experiences, expresses  expresses an abandonment of politics, because it transforms all reflection into a mediation in which action is relegated to the crowds or the masses who agitate outside good sense, and usually without good reason. By doing away with time, philosophy has separated itself from its history in order to produce the illusion that human beings are stable [their identities ‘fixed’]. Montaigne’s universality is supposed to save us from modernity’s insecurity. That is how Montaigne has been emptied of his political dimension, in the name a modernity  without history that refers us to a view of man as powerless to effect the events that surround him and has no solution other than to take refuge in his inwardness (his interieur), or in Montaigne’s case, in his tower, his inner fortress (fort interieur).

But the events of Montaigne’s life exercise an incontestable influence on the composition of the Essais. On the basis of that obvious  fact, I have undertaken to trace the practices, rules, decorum, ritualism, etiquettes, conventions, habits and customs that governed the milieus Montaigne frequented. Where is was not possible to verify particular attitudes and actions, I have appealed to the habitus of orders, clans, families, clienteles, and the constituted bodies; social and political practices that emerged from the rivalry between the different social orders out the importance of corporatist and clientelist behaviors, notably in the parlementary, diplomatic, and administrative milieus in Bordeaux, without forgetting Montaigne’s accession to the middle-level nobility of Guyenne, the outcome of the Eyquem family’s long social ascent. As an ambassador extraordinaire, representative, mayor and governor of Bordeaux, negotiators between Henry III and Henry Navarre, and as a man the Catholic League imprisoned  ‘as a reprisal,” Montaigne constantly saw himself as a political actor and navigated between different groups, sometimes abandoning his natural allies to join his former enemies . . . no matter what the author of the Essais says about it, his public life remains inseparable from his private life, because after many trials and tribulations during the civil wars, it was his political efforts (essais en politique) that enabled him to find the right tone for a literary and philosophical genre that prefigured modernity."

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Mayor of Bordeaux by Philippe Desan




A brief glance at Montaigne’s everyday routine as mayor of Bordeaux has allowed us to see the diversity of his activities and the amplitude of his ambitions during the years 1581-85. Although he had begun his term ( by the appointment of King Henry III) with an open political affinity that placed him resolutely on the side of the nobility to which he belonged, political reality on the ground quickly led him to adopt a pragmatic politics that often contradicted his own convictions and aristocratic aspirations. It was only after 1585 that his political career was considerably compromised, though not entirely halted. The failure of the negotiations between Henry III and Henry of Navarre pushed Montaigne to the sidelines. His subdued passage through the mayor’s office in Bordeaux led him to glimpse a new orientation for his literary activity. Thus the third book of Essais- written after this experience as mayor- offers us several testimonies to his recent disillusionment with offices and honorific rewards.

Montaigne shows an attitude that is critical of but no less grateful to the ‘duties of honor’; and ‘civil restraint,’ because he had entered politics as the result of a favor or reward ( not only the King’s but his more wealthy noble patrons). On this point, the addition of the word recompense (reward) in the Bordeaux Copy is revealing:

Now I hold that we should live by right and authority, not by recompense. How many gallant men have chosen rather to lose their lives rather than own them! I avoid subjecting myself to any sort of obligation, but especially any that binds me by a debt of honor. I find nothing so expensive as that which is given me and for which my will remains mortgaged by the claim of gratitude, and I more willingly accept services that are for sale. Rightly so, I think: for the latter I give only money, for the others I give myself. The tie that binds me by the law of honesty seems to me much tighter and more oppressive than is that of legal constraint.

What conclusion can we draw from Montaigne’s two terms as mayor of Bordeaux? The economic situation at the times of the War of Religion greatly influenced his contemporaries’ judgment. In October 1585, Gabriel de Lurbe sketched a rather critical  picture of the city’s economic activity. According to him, the city and the region were in a wretched state, but he admits that the religious conflicts were largely responsible for this crisis.

A few people spoke out to reproach Montaigne for his political weakness and lack of involvement in the everyday affairs of the mayor’s office. He was a decent manager, but no one ever saw him as a visionary. Some read the Essais in the light of Montaigne’s administrative functions. For example, in his Entretiens, Guez de Balzac recounts the following anecdote:

Our man tried to persuade us that the selfsame Montaigne had not much success as mayor of Bordeaux,. This news did not surprise Monsieur De La Thibaudiere, and he remembered well that in my presence he had one day told Monsieur De Plassac-Metre, the admirer of Montaigne who praised him that day to the disadvantage of Cicero: you can esteem your Montaigne more than our Cicero all you want: I could not imagine a man who knew how to govern the whole earth was not worth at least as much as a man who did not know how to govern Bordeaux.


The author of the Essais did not contradict his criticism “Some say that my administration passed without a mark or a trace. That’s a good one! They accuse me of inactivity in a time when almost everyone was convicted of doing too much.” Montaigne could have done more, but the political price would have been higher. The acceleration of public life resulted in the multiplications  of negative judgments  after Montaigne’s two terms as mayor, but most of these reproaches ignored the necessity of political stability in times of political and religious troubles – his constant preoccupation for social stability was perhaps less visible for his critics but no less essential for Montaigne. In politics, Montaigne never felt at ease with quantifiable results. He always defended the qualitative to the disadvantage of the quantitative, even if it made him seem nonchalant and indolent. “Some say about  this municipal service of mine (and I am glad to say a word about it, not that it is worth it, but to serve as an example of my conduct in such things) that I went about it like a man who exerts himself too weakly and with a languishing zeal; and they are not all that far from having a case.” Haste was never his strong point, and he almost always us favored reflection and the status quo.

Montaigne’s role was more of an intermediary than that of a leader. He was expected to promote dialogue between Navarre and the king, under Matignon’s supervision, nothing more. From the outset, he had been chosen mayor of Bordeaux to calm people down and slow somewhat the rhythm of political action in the region. And on this point Montaigne had succeeding in calming things. It should not be forgotten that, as a “Protestant,” Henry Navarre was forbidden to sojourn within the city walls. None-the-less, he was the uncontested political and military leader in the southwest because he had succeeded in gaining the support of an appreciable number of members of the middle-level nobility  (including a number of Montaigne’s relatives).

Montaigne considered the mayor’s office as a privileged space that could have positive repercussions on the national scale, and on this point he was not wrong. Aware of the reproaches being made against him, he nevertheless said that his conscience was clear and that he felt he had done his duty: “I did not leave undone, as far as I know, any action that duty genuinely required of me.” However, this claim- made shortly after the fact, since Montaigne expressed it in the 1588 edition of Essais- still shows a trace of bitterness. As had been the case fifteen years earlier in the parlement of Bordeaux, Montaigne was unable to avoid personal conflict,.. The mayor’s office had never been a goal in itself, because managing the city remained rather distant from his conception of public life (the King’s envoy to the Pope is the position he was angling  for just before his appointment as mayor). From the moment that his administrative function allowed him to acquire visibility on the national level, he distanced himself from the jurats, (members of the municipal body- judges of fact rather than law) to play in the big leagues and try to influence politics on the national scale. In his slow , round-about return from Italy he took up his duties as mayor almost a year late, and detached himself from activities related to the office before the end of his second term. Montaigne was engaged full time in the work of this office a little more than two years out of the four he held it. Thus as we might expect for a mayor of the fifth largest city in France who managed to be absent half the time, his record of achievement is rather slim. The political situation in Guyenne might have required greater attention, but Montaigne – in the course of 1585- had finally ceased to believe that he could influence the state of affairs that was constantly being redefined by the various episodes of a merciless war between the Catholics and Protestants.

Montaigne’s service as mayor was a failure so far as the reconciliation between Henry III and Henry Navarre was concerned. The duke of Guise and his supporters had not made this rapprochement any easier. The edict of Nemours issued on July 7, 15855 made Navarre an outlaw. When Montaigne left the mayor’s office, nothing remained of the compromises envisioned a few months earlier. The end of his term as mayor marked the beginning of a new chapter in the Wars of Religion. The division between Catholics and Protestants was greatly exacerbated by the rise in power of the duke of Guise, who was now acting on his own. The house of Lorraine was gaining the ascendant among the people, and particularly among the bourgeois in the large cities. Montaigne- and his moderate Catholic position-  was sidelined by the omnipresence of the Catholic extremists. The rise of this third party upstaged him and complicated his plans.

[ As mayor, Montaigne had defended the bourgeois merchant classes  against the prerogatives of 1) Catholic nobles who controlled two strong fortresses with armed retinues within the city, 2.) the lesser noble magisterial classes of which he was a member 3) the king’s commissioners appointed from the parlement in Paris who deemed to arbitrate  legal and mercantile matters  and, 4)  Royal concessions that deprived the city of its tax revenues. He reported to the King’s military governor in Guyenne whose own power  was circumscribed by the great Lords of the region both Catholic  and Protestant- got that? The practical concerns of his administration were regulating the wine trade, proper certification of the various crafts, warehousing, and harbor control, managing city ‘militia’, removing garbage and sewage from the streets and  provision for the poor- about  20% of the population- J.S]

In the third book of Essais, Montaigne inserted a chapter devoted almost entirely to his experience in the public sphere. “On husbanding your will” (III:10) answers many of the questions and reproaches that were addressed to him by his friends and contemporaries regarding his management of the city or his style of governance. Montaigne explains himself, presenting an image that is distinguished from the realpolitik often formulated at the time, first of all by Machiavelli. This chapter was for the most part written immediately after his service as mayor, when he returned to his chateau after having been on the road for almost six months, keeping away from the plague that was raging in Guyenne.

 [ It was also becoming more and more dangerous to travel once the eighth war of religion had begun because the roads were taken over taken by deserters, foreign mercenaries and highway robbers. Since Montaigne’s own estate was as ‘the hub’ of the war in Guyenne, and having barely escaped with his life on at least two occasions, Montaigne would soon be forced to flee with his wife and a few servants in a comparatively destitute state since his fields were sacked and famine stalked the land]


Montaigne admits that he could sometimes seem detached from the responsibilities  incumbent on him “I do not engage myself easily. As much as I can, I employ myself entirely upon myself” ( he actually set up a special office in Bordeaux where he could withdraw somewhat from incessant demands upon his time but often simply removed himself to his own estate). He developed an individualist position with regard to social relationships: “My opinion is that we must lend ourselves to others and give ourselves only to ourselves," or again: ‘The main responsibility of each of us is his own conduct.” This judgment after the fact is an understandable reaction. Montaigne’s setbacks in politics forced him to work out a theory of turning inward on himself. That was when what modern criticism learned to appreciate in him was born: an introspection that allows the subject to judge and ‘ “taste” himself.

Not being able to list or comment on his successes as an administrator and politician, Montaigne begins to talk about himself, for lack of a better subject. His political defects thus naturally became human qualities. For example, he confesses his lack of commitment, which he transforms into a positive attribute : “I do not know how to involve myself so deeply and so entirely. When my will gives me over to one party, it is not with so violent an obligation that my understanding is infected by it. In the present broils of this state, my own interest has not made me blind to either the laudable qualities in our adversaries or those that are reproachable in the men I followed.”

Montaigne failed in politics because he was “too human; that, at least, is the idea he would like to spread. His unconditional confidence in people is supposed to have caused him to be deceived. In the same way, his alleged difficulty in conceiving people as aggregates or groups sharing a single ideology is supposed to be revealed as a disadvantage for someone who  felt at ease only in individual relationships. He was never a party man, and his personal judgment was ill adapted to political platforms or positions based on unnatural alliances. Ultimately, Montaigne was a lone wolf in his political behavior. The Essais allowed him to invert his experience and to emphasize the positive flip side of a coin that had been considerably tarnished by his experience as a public man . . .

If people have sometimes pushed me into the management of other men’s affairs, I promised to take them in hand, not in lungs and liver; to take them on my shoulders, not incorporate them into me; to be concerned over them, yes; to be impassioned over them, never. I look at them, but do not brood over them.


Montaigne notes that by nature, people like to serve, continuing on the theme of voluntary servitude that had fascinated him in La Boeti : “Men gives themselves for hire”, he  writes, but in doing so they lose their judgment and freedom. But we might wonder about his election to a second term as mayor. Did he not owe it to the temporary alliances he was able to form – in a purely political way- with the bourgeoisie?  Did he realty think that chance alone made it possible for him to be elected? ”Fortune willed to have a hand in my promotion, "he wrote. However, this remark is contradicted by reality. Even if politics always involves a element of chance, since Machiavelli we know that the essence of politics  consists in minimizing  the role played by fortune in order to increase the role played by free will. Whatever he says, Montaigne knew Machiavelli well enough to be aware of this fundamental rule in politics.

 Montaigne engaged in a literary exercise that consisted in producing a theory of detachment when faced with the proximity of events: “We never conduct well the thing that possess and conduct us." For Montaigne, when a politician is called upon to serve, he must become a technician or a technocrat:

He who employs in it only his judgment or skill proceeds more gaily. He feints, he bends, he postpones entirely at his ease according to the need of the occasions; he misses the target without torment or affliction, and remains intact and ready for a new undertaking; he always walks bridle in hand. In a man who is intoxicated with a violent and tyrannical intensity of purpose we see of necessity much imprudence and injustice; the impetuosity of his desire carries him away. These are reckless movements, and, unless fortune lends them a hand, of little fruit.

 Moving things along without becoming too involved is in a way a good manager’s modus operandi. What was perhaps only a character trait thus becomes a political  philosophy .Being reproached for inaction became a mark of honor for Montaigne, who criticized those who act without having weighed the consequences of their actions. The author of Essais thinks that “most of our occupations are low comedy,” scenes independent of one another and of limited value in the tragedy of the Wars of Religion. . .

We must play our part duly, but as part of a borrowed character. Of the mask and appearance we must not make a real essence, nor what is foreign is our very own. It is enough to make up our face, without making up our heart.

 After his political career was over Montaigne wrote;

For my part, I stay out of it; partly out of conscience (for in the same way that I see the weight attached to such employments, I see also what little qualification I have for them) partly out of laziness. I am content to enjoy the world without being all wrapped up in it, to live merely an excusable life, which will merely be no burden to myself or others.


After 1588, Montaigne even claimed to have always been motivated by the search to discover the character of men he made met in the course of his public service. The political realism of the time was based on the Machiavellian principle that gave priority to appearances over reality. Montaigne very early opposed this modern paradigm of politics and defended the possibility of judging human actions in a general way, apart from particular actions and words. This idealism with regards to politics was nonetheless contrary to his experiences as mayor of Bordeaux, four years during which he had shown realism and political pragmatism. Despite this Machiavellian apprenticeship, Montaigne persisted in believing in a form of sincerity that transcended history and its events, leaving to others what he called ‘The chicanery of the Palace of Justice.

[Thus the contradiction in Montaigne’s political philosophy, at once the humanist and the technocrat, a man who judges by universal standards of virtue abstracted from History, and the man who plays ‘lazily’ in the mirage of current circumstances.]


You must not consider whether your action or your word may have another interpretation; it is your true and sincere interpretation that you must henceforth maintain, whatever it costs you. Your virtue and our conscience are addressed; these are not parts to be put behind a mask. Let us leave these vile means and expedients to the chicanery of the Palace of Justice.

After the first year as mayor in which he was rather proud to have been a ‘nonmayor’, Montaigne rapidly caught up with the political game, hoping to make use of his position to seek further responsibilities on the national level. He did his best to administer a  city  that could serve him as a springboard to higher office on a national level and secure the title to nobility wrestled from the obscurity of the merchant class from which his  grandfather had come. Confronted by the rising power of regional parlements, the mayors office was supposed to serve as a counter-authority to provide a firmer basis for royal power and to emphasize Montaigne’s competence as a proven negotiator ([a notion that  was the prime motive behind the first editions of Essais]. His mission was to be Matignon’s eyes and Henry III's herald in a city that had a long tradition of administrative and political independence, indeed even of uprising against royal authority. The Wars of Religion had only poisoned  a situation that had been tense for generations and Montaigne had not succeeded in imposing his conception of politics. He did not regret any of his decisions, and ended up attributing success – and his failure – in politics  to chance.

Leaving office after two terms as mayor of Bordeaux, Montaigne felt that he had performed his function well. If he had been able to do it over again, he would have made exactly the same decisions.  A good administrator judges things on the spot, while a humanist puts things in a universal perspective. The two positions were thus irreconcilable, and that is perhaps why Montaigne’s municipal service can be considered a failure. Too humanist to become a good manager, and too concerned with resolving current problems to leave a mark on the political history of his time. Montaigne did not succeed in establishing his way of seeing of politics during his time as mayor of a municipality riven into pressure groups defending irreconcilable interests and ideologies. The practice of politics led him to discover what he called his “natural disposition” and the self could then be constructed on the ruins of politics.




Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Barthes and Foucault by Tiphaine Samoyault

Though not an intimate friend, Roland Barthes  had attended a seminar by Jacques Lacan and had a few sessions with him in 1975 during the period when Lacan was seeing an average of ten patients  per hour twenty working days a month.  Barthes’ texts at the time, however, were imbued with psychoanalysis and he was familiar with Lacanian terminology due primarily to the influence of Julia Kristeva. His “On Leaving the Cinema’ sees the state of someone coming out of a movie as a kind of hypnosis, but also refers to two major Lacanian concepts: the trio of ‘RSI’ (‘Real, Symbolic, Imaginary’) and the mirror stage. ‘The Real’ knows only distances, the Symbolic knows only masks; the imagine alone (the image-repertoire) is close, only the image is “true” (can produce the essence of truth). Barthes played with these concepts, appropriating or distancing himself from them according, as he habitually did, what they meant ‘for me’, which is what he always asked his readers and students to do with  texts, lectures and seminars.

Lacan had established the psychoanalytic milieu in which anti-establishment intellectuals operated  in France during the 60s and 70s. In many respects Foucault and Barthes took different approaches in their studies; Foucault was primarily interested in history- the archaeology of ‘things’- Barthes in literature and writing . . .

The difference in style between Barthes and Foucault is [also] evident in the way they spoke and  wrote. Their inaugural lectures and their seminars at the College de France have often been compared and contrasted. This is an interesting parallel: in Barthes inaugural lecture, while setting out his own course, he also brings his discourse in direct dialogue with Foucault’s lecture, ‘The Order of Discourse’, delivered inn 1970 and published in 1971. In 1975, like Foucault, Barthes raised the question of the relations between        of the relations between spoken language and power. Foucault listed the ways in which ‘in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance elements, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality.’ According to Foucault, discourse is always a violent exercise against things, especially as it is generally a discourse in the thrall of a certain doctrine. Barthes picks up these three themes, the spoken words, power and violence., and links them to the problem of having to maintain a discourse  (the subject of the seminar he gave at the College between January and June). ‘Since, as I have tried to suggest, this teaching has as its object discourse taken in the inevitability of power, method can really bear only on the means of loosening, baffling, or at the very least, of lightening this power.’ These words are almost a literal repetition of the definition of teaching that Foucault gave in his inaugural lecture: ‘a distribution and an appropriation of discourse with its forms of power and knowledge,.’ The oppression that this gesture presupposes is high-lighted in Barthes’ own lecture: ‘To speak, and, with even greater reason, to utter a discourse is not, as is too often repeated, to communicate, it is to subjugate.’

Although the research  the two men were to pursue, set out as a program in their lectures, was quite different, they had a similar position: their relation to discourse, to the theatricality of the spoken word, was uneasy. But Barthes went much further than Foucault in extending the field of action, of violence in language as a whole: “But language- the performance of a language system- is neither reactionary nor progressive, it is quite simply fascist; for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech.’ This statement –‘over-the-top, exaggerated, scandalous, almost crazy’, could not be understood as it is literally untenable. On the linguistic level it is meaningless. On the logical level it radically reduces speaking subjects to the language itself. On the ideological level it picks up on the fashionable presumption, treating any manoeuver of authority as ‘fascist.’ The remark shocked everyone from the start and has since given rise to many attempts to explain it .For some it is  a symptom of stupidity; for others, a provocation. It has also been read as an attempt to go one better than Foucault. . .

Perhaps Barthes point simply concerned the salutary difference of literature as writing, which resists discourse, even if this requires playing tricks with language. That he should do on in an aphoristic, assertive way was typical,  he would always begin by affirming something before qualifying it. What is more surprising is that he was succumbing to a stereotype of the age, when he was usually so quick to demystify them. In other respects, Barthes was simply extending to language he  had long been making about the spoken word, its arrogance, its will to mastery, its authoritarian character. The radical nature of the formulation was in line with the radical nature of the response one can bring to language, namely, according to Blanchot, silence: either mystical singularity, described by Kierkegaard to describe Abraham’s sacrifice as ‘ an action unparalleled, void of speech, even interior speech, performed against the generality, the gregariousness, the morality of language’; or else ‘the Nietzschean  “yes to life”, which is a kind of exultant shock administered to the servility of speech, to what Deleuze calls its reactive guise.’ Compared to these sublime gestures, which presuppose a belief that Barthes did not possess, literature appears as the sole place where language outside power can gain a hearing. And it is here that Barthes replies to Foucault: the forces of freedom which are in literature depend not on a writer’s civil, person, nor on his political commitment – for he is, after all, only a man among others- nor do they even depend on the doctrinal content of his work, but rather on the labor of displacement he brings to bear upon the language.’ He takes up the notion that has been so crucial since Writing Degree Zero, the ‘responsibility of form’, to  set out the scope of this ‘loosening of power’. The Lecture, which began by hailing the College de France as a place ‘outside the bounds of power’, thus ends with this program of literature as a renunciation of all the servilities of language.

Letting go of power was also the basis for a form of teaching leading to research, to a quest, and not to knowledge or a fixed language. As opposed to the theatrical character of the lecture delivered from on high (also denounced by Foucault in The Order of Discourse), what is needed is a form of the spoken word that registers its own disquiet, that preserves its transitory, uncertain status, aware of itself and of the unease that had afflicted the academic system since May 1968.”

Neither Foucault nor Barthes were happy with the ‘high society’ aspects of lectures which ‘turned teachers into performing animals.’ Both resisted having some of their lectures published,. Barthes wrote that he thought ‘part of a life’s activity should always be set aside for the ephemeral: what happens only once and vanishes, it’s the necessary share of the Rejected Monument.’ Never-the less some of their lectures have been published. Even if both Barthes and Foucault prepared their lectures with great care, we need read them with the awareness that they are tentative  in nature; to hear the repetitions and corrections, the tone and grain of the voice. Reading the courses or listening to their recordings also brings out the differences in style.

Foucault spoke in a lively, sometimes staccato way; Barthes spoke slowly, in a voice that was at once clear and deep. In particular, Foucault based his discourse on the retrospective gesture, on the archaeological method, going over things that he had already said, correcting and accentuating ideas as he engaged in new readings and new dialogues. Barthes’ teaching, conversely, was entirely forward-looking, based on a fiction or a fantasy. The disquiet occasioned by going back over something is not the same as the disquiet of desire. The former deepens what is already there, and is still concerned with producing knowledge; the latter goes beyond the given, and endeavors to displace knowledge through the ‘for me.’ These two distinct forms of disquiet find an expression in the way the two wrote their books, rejecting systems in very different ways. Foucault undermined them by deconstructing them; Barthes renounced them by scattering them in fragments. What brings them together is the analysis (explicit in Foucault, implicit in Barthes) of the importance of the process of subjectivation.


Their difference, and their sporadic differences of opinion, lay less in theoretical divergence than in ways of being. Barthes paid a great deal of attention to his appearance and the context in which he lived his life, and had a profound love of music, Foucault showed a large degree of indifference to clothes, food, the décor of life. He claimed to like music, but he was not dreamy enough (being more sensitive than sentimental) to need it. Foucault demonstrated exuberance and generosity in all he did, in his coming out as a homosexual, in his commitment to prison reform, in the affirmation of the positions he took, Barthes presented himself in his singularity and his rejection of hysteria. His benevolence was perceived by all, but it did not have the same energy as Foucault’s generosity. It could appear, to those that did not see the fictional dimension of the posture, as a withdrawal into his ‘self’. It is was not always easy for other people to see the difference between ‘living in accordance with literature’, as Barthes put it in ”Fragments pour H”, and living in accordance with the norms that generally regulate our relations with others. Most people who knew Foucault and Barthes preferred Foucault – he was more unbridled, more generous, more amusing. At a party, in the café, Barthes, especially as he grew older, would often seem bored or distracted and might leave early.

As Barthes legitimacy as an intellectual an scholar grew he was increasingly in demand as a thesis supervisor. H supervised doctorates and was  very often invited to sit on examining boards (between fifteen and twenty per anum in the years preceding his entry into the College de France. Indeed, it was on one of these juries that Marty first met Barthes. ‘Barthes had started by saying he would have liked to writes this thesis, which had caused something of a stir in the audience. Then he continued his patient and benevolent reading.’ The archives preserve most of the thesis reports that Barthes meticulously composed and that indicate how much time he spent on reading student work. He was generous in his comment and listened closely to what the candidates were saying. But he mainly tried to be fair, not hesitating to formulate a criticism when necessary, when a candidate confused a word with a referent or merely juxtaposed different disciplines or used puns too systematically – Barthes claimed to be impermeable to these puns even when it was a student in his own close circle.


Barthes almost always began his report with a declaration of modesty, saying that he was not a specialist, emphasizing the personal, improvised nature of his considerations, leaving it to the other members of the jury to pronounce on the scientific relevance of certain projects. He spoke of the ‘feeling of solidarity’, or even ‘complicity’ that he could sometimes feel for a particular piece of work. He often noted that he would not stand in front of the work as a whole to pass judgment on it, but merely indicate a few individual points at which the work overlapped his interests, He liked to unveil, behind the institutional postulation that the work submitted, its ‘clandestine’ posture of desire and liberty. For example, in discussing Michel Chaillou’s thesis on L’Astree, he noted that in just one point did ‘this piece of writing pick up something of the trappings of the institution-paradoxically enough, the bibliography: ample, varied, surprising.” He told Raymond Carasco that his thesis, the freedom of whose montage he admired, was ‘a kind of Festival”. He congratulated Chatel Thomas, who had written a thesis on Sade, for not having sought results, but to write a reading: she had produced a ‘very fine text, a very successful text.’ He also recognized the breadth, the responsibility and the power of the work Christian Prigent had done on Ponge. He admired they way Lucette Finas had overstepped structural analysis. Sometimes, albeit rarely, he would express his own inclinations. When Denis Viart was defending his thesis on Andre Gide’s early work – Barthes was there with Julia Kristeva and Hubert  Damisch- he noted, ‘I must  in any case take into account my own relation to Gide, which h is not indifferent- but it is enigmatic. So with regard to you I feel esteem and closeness, but also the hiatus of a little difference.”

All this time-consuming and, after all, rather obscure labor shows how seriously Barthes took his job as a teacher.


Barthes; A Biography, Tiphaine Samoyault. Translated by Andrew Brown; Polity, 2017, mostly from Chapters 15 &16