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Happy Birthday Roland Barthes. Seriously having fun.

November 12, 2015


It’s fair to say that by the time Barthes taken proper time to consider the semiotics of a birthday cake, particularly if he were still alive to count all those candles.  The icing would have been covered with molten wax because I think he was the sort of person who enjoyed watching candles burn down more than blowing them out.

Sometimes people ask me “what do you read – just for pleasure” – and I like to answer – “everything I read is for pleasure. I take my pleasure very seriously.”

I’m not sure I’d have the (possibly misguided) courage to make that response if it wasn’t for Roland Barthes – who would have been ever so ever so old today (not that anything about his lifestyle suggested any kind of determination to live to witness today’s milestone).

More than anyone else – Barthes laboured seriously and frivolously to theorise pleasure.  In so doing, he worked to collapse form and function, tenor and vehicle.  Literary pleasure was, for Barthes, not the gift wrapping designed to advertise something more important – it was the thing that was important.  Or perhaps the pleasures of the text resemble a game of pass the parcel in which the final player unwraps a small empty piece of gift wrapping and then enjoys the pathos of disappointment.

The enjoyment of unraveling is always juxtaposed with the disappointment of final foreclosure.  Barthes agreed with Hobbes that the essence of life is desire, the sense of something wanting and out of reach.  When we cease to desire – we cease to be.

As a result of my stubbornly empirical upbringing, my introduction to literary theory was comparatively belated.  I’m not sure that this did me any harm.  Any “discipline” of English literature, if it is to cohere at all – has to either tell people what to read or else how to read.  I’m not sure which of the two risks being more coercive.

Barthes Pleasures of the Text was the culmination of many years of trying to vivisect fun without destroying it.  You could call him a structuralist or a poststructuralist but temperamentally and rhetorically he had next to nothing in common with the very puritanical and formulaic mob of pretenders to those schools who seemed to live in awe of what they believed to be the hard sciences.

From Barthes we can begin to theorise a politicised hedonism – to recognise the joylessless of foreclosed entertainment and the radical potential of meanings or potentialities  that cannot be manacled to predictive “intentions”. To be an enemy of intransitive “readerly” texts, you need to commit to a kind of radical responsibility for radical surprise – to have fun yes – but never the fun you’re exactly expecting.

Nobody was better than Barthes at thinking about how and why the codes of aesthetic construction are sexy and rewarding.  Nobody was better at Barthes at exhibiting the joy of interpretation.   Nobody has ever explained the haircuts in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar better.


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