Dead Writing: Barthes and Posterity

On March 1, 2016 by admin

My photo b & w

Supriya Chaudhuri



Posteritati (To posterity)

In 1971, Roland Barthes gave an interview, originally intended for a series of televised broadcasts recorded under the title ‘Archives of the 20th Century’, in which he was asked to reflect on his life and work in response to a detailed questionnaire prepared by Jean Thibaudeau. This was four years before he published his idiosyncratic ‘auto-biography’, Roland Barthes (1975), translated into English as Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1977). The interview was never televised so far as I am aware, not even, as Barthes speculated it might be, after ‘the death of the author’. This playful reference to a physical event, the cessation of a human life, through a phrase that the author had himself made famous as metaphor, comes at the very beginning of the published text of the interview in Tel Quel, Issue 47, a special issue devoted to Roland Barthes. The responses – which were in any case a ‘game’ to Barthes and Thibaudeau — had been rewritten for publication. Nevertheless, Barthes insists that ‘the effect of enunciation’, rather than the protocols of writing, is at work through the text, producing ‘an entirely imaginary and continuous first person’ (Barthes 1998: ‘Responses’, 249), rather like the subject of a novel who shared his birth date, 12 November 1915, with Barthes himself. Reflecting on the form of the interview, Barthes says: ‘What writing never writes is ‘I’; what speech always says is ‘I’; what the interviewer should solicit is thus the author’s imaginary, the list of his phantasms, in as much as he can reflect on them, speak of them in that fragile state’ (266). In Roland Barthes, he begins with the proviso, ‘It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel.’ (Barthes 1994: 1)

It is this Barthesian imaginary, this phantasm, then, who towards the close of the interview tells his interviewer:

As for posterity, what can I say? It’s a dead word for me, which is giving it its dues since its validity is only established on the basis of my death. I consider I have lived well up to now … buried in the archives (of the twentieth century) perhaps one day I will re-emerge, like a fugitive, one witness among others in a broadcast of the Service for Research on ‘structuralism’, ‘semiology’, or ‘literary criticism’. Can you imagine me living, working, desiring, for that? If one day the relations between the subject and the world were to be changed, certain words would be dropped, like in a Melanesian tribe in which at death a few elements of the lexicon are suppressed as a sign of mourning; but it would be rather as a sign of joy; … this would happen doubtless to the word ‘posterity’, and perhaps to all the ‘possessives’ of our language, and, why not, to the word ‘death’ itself. (266-67)

But posterity is not a possessive, as Barthes knew well: it is a substantive based on the Latin posteritas (‘descendants’), from posterus (‘coming after’, from post ‘after’). That Barthes links it to all the ‘possessives’ of our language indicates that he has in mind the genealogical notion of descent, that he wishes to disclaim the unborn generations claiming filiality with the dead author, and to say that they are dead to him. That is, we, who celebrate Barthes today, who call upon him to bear witness to structuralism, semiology, literary criticism, we are dead to him: and ‘if the relations between the subject and the world were to be changed’, both posterity and death would disappear from the lexicon. Rarely has an author spoken with more authority from his grave to disallow a memorial celebration.


Still, if Barthes disclaims posterity, he does not in fact disclaim death, which may be why Jacques Derrida, in the first chapter of The Work of Mourning, uses the possessive case to speak of ‘The Deaths of Roland Barthes’. In effect, this is to remind us not only of the dead author – dead in physical fact at the time of writing – but also of the deaths by which he was moved and of which he wrote, the inscription of death in his writing, contrasted with the ‘literal’ impossibility of his actually saying ‘I am dead’ (Derrida 2001: 52, 64-65). Yet, as Barthes says elsewhere, ‘the voice is always already dead, and it is by a kind of desperate denial that, we call it living; this irremediable loss we give the name of inflection: inflection is the voice insofar as it is always past, silenced’ (Barthes 1994: 68). Writing insistently, obsessively, of death, throughout his life as a writer, Barthes may seem to avert his face from ‘his posterity’ (I use the possessive deliberately), but he is always addressing the ghosts, the spectral presences, released by the knowledge of death, his own and those of others. In his ‘auto-biography’, Roland Barthes, published five years before he died, Barthes positions himself, as Petrarch had done six centuries earlier in his ‘Letter to Posterity’, (‘Posteritati’, Seniles 18.1) within the binary of portrait and biography: offering us a choice of two representational modes, synoptic and chronological. The first is a selection of photographs mainly from his childhood and youth, haunted by that deathliness that Barthes associates with the form of the photograph itself; the second is a set of notes about a historical person, incomplete because he is still living, but anticipating death as the punctum that will make them meaningful. Yet, curiously, Barthes associates narrative with the first form of representation: the photographs tell a story, though one that is entirely ‘imaginary’, they are a succession of images, of a body now irrevocably lost, no longer that of the writer, ‘figurations of the body’s prehistory – of that body making its way towards the labor and the pleasure of writing’ (Barthes 1994: 3). That remembered, imagined narrative of youth is interrupted by the subject’s fall into text:

Once I produce, once I write, it is the Text itself which (fortunately) dispossesses me of my narrative continuity. The Text can recount nothing; it takes my body elsewhere, far from my imaginary person, toward a kind of memoryless speech which is already the speech of the People, of the non-subjective mass (or of the generalized subject), even if I am still separated from it by my way of writing.

The image-repertoire will therefore be closed at the onset of productive life (which for me was my departure from the sanatorium). Another repertoire will then be constituted; that of writing. (Barthes 1994: 4)

If this is not quite the Lacanian transition from the Imaginary to the Symbolic, it is close enough to provoke some reflections on the limitations of the image and the ‘demon of analogy’. Indeed Barthes claims that he always uses the term ‘imaginary’ in a strictly Lacanian sense, and he is conscious that in composing an auto-biography, he is enacting the roles of both the deluded, self-loving youth Narcissus and the enamoured nymph Echo in the classical myth: he reproduces his ‘image-repertoire’, and he iterates the echoes of other texts, other voices, in his cultural continuum.


Yet once the transition to writing has taken place, the Barthes of the written text, described in the third person, is openly distrustful of the image and its verbal counterpart, the adjective. And this is in keeping with his professed dislike of the analogical arts (cinema, photography) because of their reliance upon similitude, their assertion of resemblance as natural or ‘truthful’:

When I resist analogy, it is actually the imaginary I am resisting: which is to say: the coalescence of the sign, the similitude of signifier and signified, the homeomorphism of images, the Mirror, the captivating bait. (44)

To the lure of the image the writer opposes a ‘structural’ allegory of pure form, the Ship of Theseus, ‘le vaisseau Argo’, which remains the same although its individual parts are endlessly substituted and replaced: ‘Argo is an object with no other cause than its name, with no other identity than its form’ (46). In effect, though we may not have noticed it, Barthes is building up a thought-repertoire to succeed the ‘image-repertoire’ of his opening pages, and in the process he is gesturing – no more than that – towards a history of Barthes the writer, the critic, the cultural analyst: a biography ‘without narrative continuity’, presented as observations sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first, about life made text. The ‘He’ about whom he writes, like Kafka’s third-person subject in his ‘Notes from the Year 1920’, is credited with opinions, preferences, philosophical realizations: the ‘I’ records the body, with its daily experiences of banality, of pain and pleasure – all or mostly in the present tense. What emerges is the impossibility of writing a life, writing the body, where two texts collide:

In what he writes, there are two texts. Text I is reactive, moved by indignations, fears, unspoken rejoinders, minor paranoias, defenses, scenes. Text II is active, moved by pleasure. But as it is written, corrected, accommodated to the fiction of Style, Text I becomes active too, whereupon it loses its reactive skin, which subsists only in patches (mere parentheses). (43)

The ‘He’ and the ‘I’ travel side-by-side through the text, right up to the anatomical drawing (‘writing the body’) and the ‘biography’ (list of life-events) of the close, and never completely coincide. At the same time, there is a third in the equation:

Every utterance of a writer (even the fiercest, the wildest) includes a secret operator, an unexpressed word, something like the silent morpheme of a category as primitive as negation or interrogation, whose meaning is: ‘And let that be known!’ (157)

This desire to be known, like Hamlet urging Horatio to ‘report me and my cause aright/ to the unsatisfied’, to whom is it addressed? What is the object of this self-representation, if not the dead generations that are to come, as much as the readers born with the death of the author? If Barthes is not addressing posterity, a ‘dead word’ to him, he is, both here and in the interview with which I began, producing himself as ‘imagined contemporary’ of his own present time, a witness not so much released from history as caught in its reflection:

In the same way, I am only the imaginary contemporary of mv own present: contemporary of its languages, its Utopias, its systems (i.e., of its fictions), in short, of its mythology or of its philosophy but not of its history, of which I inhabit only the shimmering reflection: the phantasmagoria. (59)


The Contemporary

In what follows, I would like to examine questions of time, history, and the contemporary in Barthes’s writings, not through a serial account of his politics or the phases of his development as a cultural theorist, but symptomatically, asking what it means for us to read Barthes today, here. Is he our contemporary? He would certainly have preferred this to being our forebear. In an essay called ‘What is the Contemporary?’ placed third in a slim volume titled What is an Apparatus? Giorgio Agamben cites a note by Barthes – summarizing Nietzsche – in his lectures at the Collège de France: ‘the contemporary is the untimely’ (Agamben 2009: 40). The rest of the essay (the text of a seminar) takes off from Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations in the main, but with intermittent, oblique, intertextual glances towards Walter Benjamin and to Barthes himself. It seems to me that Barthes is a theorist who is caught between two destinations (fatalities, he might have called them): on the one hand there is the direction of his historical time, his coming to maturity during the second World War and writing for Camus’s journal Combat, his early Marxism, his philosophical training; and on the other is the inclination towards privacy and detachment caused by his life-long illness, his attachment to his mother, his sexuality, his bourgeois predilections, and above all his delight in the ‘adventure’ of language:

His (admissible?) dream would be to transport into a socialist society certain charms (not values) of the bourgeois art of living (such a thing exists, indeed there once existed several): this is what he calls the contretemps. What rises up against this dream is the specter of Totality, which demands that the bourgeois phenomenon be condemned entire, and that any leak of the Signifier be punished. (Barthes 1994: 60)


Barthes is suspended, we might say, like a fly in a web, in the nets of history and ideology: at the same time he is constantly engaged in a struggle to disentangle, decompose, analyse (in the strict sense of analusis, ‘unknotting’) them, by finding a way to be their ‘untimely’ contemporary in the Nietzschean sense: witness to their structure, as to their formal repetitions, recalled in the image of the Argo, or Ship of Theseus that he uses as a controlling exemplum. The idea of a structure, which comes to him quite early in his account, is this ‘luminous’ image of a ship whose parts can all be replaced without changing the whole: ’the system prevails over the very being of objects’ (46).

Let me begin by posing an ‘academic exercise’ that Barthes himself proposed on the basis of a single experience – or the memory or fiction of one:

Entre Salamanque et Valladolid

~ Between Salamanca and Valladolid

One summer day (1970) driving and daydreaming between Salamanca and Valladolid, he diverted himself by imagining a kind of new philosophy which he forthwith baptized “preferentialism,” heedless, there in his car, whether it was frivolous or guilty: against a materialist background (a cliff?) in which the world is seen as no more than a fabric, a text unrolling the revolution of languages, the war of systems, and in which the subject—scattered, deconstructed— can grasp himself only by means of an image-repertoire, the (political, ethical) choice of this apparent subject has no establishing value: such a choice is not important; whatever the style—pompous or violent—in which it is declared, it is never anything but an inclination: in the presence of the world’s fragments, I am entitled only to preference.

The episode is followed by the suggested exercise:

Exercice scolaire ~ Academic exercise

1. Why does the author mention the date of this episode?

2. How does the site justify “daydreaming” and “diversion”?

3. How might the philosophy the author describes be “guilty”?

4. Explain the metaphor “fabric.”

5. Cite the philosophies to which “preferentialism” might be opposed.

6. Meanings of the words “revolution,” “system,” “image-repertoire,” “inclination.”

7. Why does the author put certain words or expressions in italics?

8. Characterize the author’s style.

We could certainly adopt Barthes’s proposal and try to answer his questions, which have political as well as aesthetic implications. However, I will follow a somewhat different trajectory. The reminiscence, I suggest, is linked, perhaps unconsciously, to a moment of epiphany recorded in Claude Levi-Strauss’s autobiographical narrative Tristes Tropiques (1955), a chapter titled ‘The Making of an Anthropologist’, where the author traces the discovery of structure to an early passion for geology and hiking in the Languedoc:

Every landscape appears first of all as a vast chaos, which leaves one free to choose the meaning one wants to give it. But, over and above agricultural considerations, geographical irregularities and the various accidents of history and prehistory, the most majestic meaning of all is surely that which precedes, commands and, to a large extent, explains the others. A pale blurred line or an often almost imperceptible difference in the shape and consistency of rock fragments, are evidence of the fact that two oceans once succeeded each other where, today, I can see nothing but barren soil. As I follow the traces … I seem to be proceeding in a meaningless fashion. But the sole aim of this contrariness is to recapture the master-meaning, which may be obscure but of which each of the others is a partial or distorted transposition.

When the miracle occurs, as it sometimes does; … when at the same time two ammonites with unevenly intricate involutions can be glimpsed in the rocks, thus testifying in their own way to a gap of several tens of thousands of years suddenly space and time become one: the living diversity of the moment juxtaposes and perpetuates the ages. Thought and emotion move into a new dimension where every drop of sweat, every muscular movement, every gasp of breath becomes symbolic of a past history, the development of which is reproduced in my body, at the same time as my thought embraces its significance. I feel myself to be steeped in a more dense intelligibility, within which centuries and distances answer each other and speak at last with one and the same voice. (Levi-Strauss 1978: 68-69)


No reader first encountering this passage, as I did as an undergraduate, could fail to be swept up into its remembered moment, one that serves as an allegory for the structuralist revolution itself. ‘Steeped in a more dense intelligibility,’ Levi-Strauss finds himself able to convert space into time, history into system: his body, in its labour and sweat, reproduces the passage of the ages. What he suddenly sees or feels, in that ‘new dimension’, explains the world to him.

Is Barthes recalling this moment? If he is, it is less as an influence than as a mark of his own deviation. In his recollected daydream, driving rather than climbing, it is not the discovery of the structural ‘master-meaning’, the physical excitement (sweat, muscle, breath) of being ‘steeped in a more dense intelligibility’ that shapes the moment: caught against his cliff of languages, systems, cultures, he asserts his right to prefer, to study one image-fragment over others, without making a totalizing claim for his political or ethical choice. It is not that the structural master-meaning is not acknowledged: in early Barthes it is asserted with some degree of confidence. In an undeniable respect it serves as the frame of all his subsequent investigations. But increasingly, in the course of his writing and teaching, he moves away from the claim to one meaning to the production of several, plural, intertwined meanings, and this is connected to a preference for the ‘neutral’, the middle term, passages of petty detail (‘schedules, habits, meals, lodging, clothing, … dreams, fantasies of mediocrity … “today’s weather” … it is this weather that has not aged, not Amiel’s philosophy’ Barthes 1983: 408). At the same time, as he tells himself: ‘How can I manage to keep each of these fragments from never being anything but a symptom? —Easy: let yourself go, regress (Barthes 1994: 172) Therefore, I do not want to posit a kind of evolutionary progress from early to late Barthes, from structuralism to post-structuralism, modernism to post-modernism, valid though these categories might be in describing the time of cultural history against which Barthes finds himself, as subject, ‘scattered, deconstructed’, so that he can grasp himself only by means of an image-repertoire. Like Walter Benjamin, to whom he has not been adequately (in my opinion) compared, Barthes is an historian of the fragment, a picker-up of trifles, a rag-picker in the refuse-heap of capitalist culture, from which he can deduce (say) the fashion system, the culinary code, the photographic message. Far more than Benjamin, he is interested in language, and in literature as ‘the Utopia of language’, but like his predecessor, he is seduced, charmed, teased into thought, by text-segments, individual objects, certain photographs – like the ones he discusses in Camera Lucida or reproduces in Roland Barthes, remembered episodes.

It is for this reason that Barthes is our contemporary, an untimely witness to his time as to ours: though not because we necessarily agree with him (on narrative, on the photograph, on culture, definitely on cinema, I often disagree). He is our contemporary by refusing to be our ancestor, by interposing himself into a curious fold in historical time, the fold of reflective (or reflexive) observation that has not yet hardened into ideology. What binds us to his readings is often a quality of perception, something between affect and intellect, something that draws us to reflect on the most trite or banal elements of our daily experience, the surfaces of things as symptomatic of their structures (such as the fact that Julius Caesar himself, in Mankiewicz’s film of that name, does not perspire: ‘The Romans in Films’, Mythologies, 28). At the same time, it would be wrong to underestimate Barthes by taking his claim to ‘preferentialism’ too seriously. His training in philosophy and language is fundamental to his desire to analyse texts, to grasp meanings, to offer formal, symbolic equivalents. It leads him sometimes to generalize his own immediate responses and produce what we might describe as a ‘false universal’. Thus though the distinction between studium and punctum in the photograph appears brilliantly valid still, we might not agree to equate studium to the photographer’s intentions, while punctum is necessarily something that pierces from an external point unanticipated by the photographer (Camera Lucida: 26-30). Barthes is not really the best judge of photographs, and certainly he does not anticipate the developments of the form. Nevertheless he is supremely qualified to comment on the material phenomena of our modernity, precisely because he is not handcuffed to history, but appears as its ‘imagined contemporary’. (Robert Browning, in his poem ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’, coincidentally placed this personage in Valladolid, though his figure has far more of the sombre overtones of the spy).


Agamben defines the contemporary as ‘that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism’ (Agamben 2009: 41). Fashion to him is a good example of this, although he does not specifically mention Barthes’s massive work on The Fashion System (1967) Fashion, says Agamben, is the introduction into time of ‘a peculiar discontinuity that divides it according to its relevance or irrelevance, its being-in-fashion or no-longer-being-in-fashion.’ It is required to anticipate itself (the style of the season, the new look) while once that style is realized, it is over: this Agamben describes as the ‘ungraspable threshold between a ‘not yet’ and ‘no more’. At the same time, following the same gesture by which the present divides time according to a ‘no more’ and ‘not yet’, it establishes a curious relationship with the past and with the future: it can cite the past (the Empire look, the 60s style) and invoke the future. ‘It can therefore tie together that which it has inexorably divided – recall, re-evoke, and revitalize that which it had declared dead.’ (50) Fashion is therefore always contemporary, always ‘untimely’, and always different from itself. Should we describe Barthes as our contemporary in these terms? Is Barthes the fashion, or rather ‘in fashion’? Not precisely: though I would certainly argue that Agamben’s excursus on fashion adopts many of its categories from Barthes himself and his analytical style. Barthesian contemporality, like Benjamin’s, is much more closely tied to the desire to ‘make sense’ of the present. In consequence, it is wholly dependent on a certain effect of distance, an ‘untimely’ interstice between the observer and the observed. Let me conclude, therefore, with a fairly late passage from Barthes on ‘Leaving the Movie Theater’, published in Communications in 1975 and reprinted (in English) in The Rustle of Language, 1986. Barthes tells is that for him the film image is a lure, confining the spectator within the experience of viewing, binding her to it.

The image is there, in front of me, for me: coalescent (its signified and its signifier melted together), analogical, total, pregnant: it is a perfect lure. I fling myself upon it like an animal … it sustains in me the misreading attached to Ego and to image-repertoire. In the movie theater, however far away I am sitting, I press my nose against the screen’s mirror, against that ‘other’ image-repertoire with which I narcissistically identify myself. .. the Real knows only distances, the Symbolic knows only masks; the image alone (the image-repertoire) is close, only the image is true. … the Ideological would actually be the image-repertoire of a period of history, …. is not the stereotype a fixed image, a quotation to which our language is glued? And in the commonplace have we not a dual relation: narcissistic and maternal? (Barthes 1986: 347-48)

How to ‘come unglued’ from this representation, asks Barthes? The answer is in a certain perversity, a ‘taking-off’, a self-alienation, a readiness to fetishize not the image but what surrounds and exceeds it – the sounds, the hall, the popcorn, the mass of other bodies. As I’m sure we are all aware – and this passage is uncannily applicable to our own experience of popular cinema in our time – this doesn’t necessarily work. Yet for Barthes ‘what I use to distance myself from the image – that, ultimately, is what fascinates me: I am hypnotized by a distance: and this distance is not critical (intellectual); it is, one might say, an amorous distance: would there be, in the cinema itself (and taking the word at its etymological suggestion) a possible bliss of discretion?’ This complex, ambiguous ending may serve to remind us that we have not commented on Barthes as lover, as hedonist of the (pleasurable, literary, cultural) text. Despite the fact that Barthes here seems to be echoing many of the complaints about the culture industry voiced by, say, Theodor Adorno and Siegfried Kracauer (I am thinking of the latter’s essay ‘The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies’), I think it’s worth holding on to this Barthesian notion of a distance. It is this distance, both analytical and amorous, that makes for the production of the look, the gaze, the viewer’s perspective: and finally, the atemporal contemporality of Barthesian criticism and theory.


Barthes today is both near in the sense of being our contemporary, and far because he has to maintain the distance that qualifies him to be lover, spectator, ‘theorist’: perhaps we should recall that theoros is the Greek word for a spectator at the civic games. He has to speak to us from the grave, having claimed death, many deaths, for himself as the property of writing. Derrida reminds us in The Work of Mourning that Barthes begins his career, in Writing Degree Zero, by saying that ‘the Novel is a Death: it transforms life into destiny, a memory into a useful act, duration into orientated and meaningful time’ (Barthes 1967: 34). And in his last major work, Camera Lucida, he speaks of the photograph, in its pure deictic referentiality, as ‘Total-Image, which is to say Death in person’ (Camera Lucida: 14):

Everything he wrote, with such insistence on displacement, on death, on the theme of death, if you will, if indeed there is such a theme. From the Novel to the Photograph, from Writing Degree Zero (1953) to Camera Lucida (1980) a certain thought of death set everything in motion, or rather set it travelling, on a sort of journey toward the beyond of all closed systems. (Derrida 2001: 52)

Between these two deaths is a life, which is both a lived duration and a self-producing image-repertoire: within this space too there are many experiences of death. For Derrida, the thought of Barthes, reflection, memory, friendship – could we say studium? is deeply pierced by the punctum that is the thought of his death, or, as he prefers, deaths. ‘The punctum’, he writes, ‘implies the “return of the dead” in the very structure of both its image and the phenomenon of its image.’ (53) In remembering Roland Barthes today, here, that punctum must give force and urgency to our deliberations.



Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 2009. What is an Apparatus? and other essays. Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Barthes, Roland. 1983. Selected Writings. Introduced by Susan Sontag. London: Fontana.


Barthes, Roland. 1986. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. Oxford. Basil Blackwell.


Barthes, Roland. 1994. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Barthes, Roland. 1998. ‘Responses’. In Patrick ffrench and Roland-François Lack, ed. The Tel Quel Reader. London: Routledge. 249-68.


Derrida, Jacques. 2001. The Work of Mourning. Ed. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1978. Tristes Tropiques. Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.



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