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Barthes and Performance

‘ To stay still and to step aside, both pertain in the end to a method of performance, to play. So it is not surprising that on the impossible horizon of the anarchy of language, at that point where language tries to escape the power inherent in it, to escape its own servility, one finds something that relates to theatre. To indicate the impossible limit of language I have cited two authors : Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Both of them write , nevertheless. But what was at sake for both of them was the very inverse of identity; it was the performance, the extreme risk of the proper name, one with a recurrent recourse to pseudonyms, the other moving at the end of his life, as Klossosski has shown, towards the limits of the histrionic. One could say then that the third force of literature, its properly semiotic force, is to perform signs rather than to destroy them, to submit them to the machinery of language, but a to a machinery whose securing bolts have shot; in brief the force of literature is to institute, at the very heart of servile language, a veritable heteronymy of things.’

Roland Barthes, Inaugural lecture at the Collège de France.

‘The theatre, the isolated stage, is the site par excellence of vénusté, that is, of Eros as spectacle, Eros illuminated by psyche with her lamp. All it takes is for a secondary, incidental character to exhibit a reason to desire them , this reason could be perverse, not motivated by their beauty, but by a detail of their body, the grain of their voice, a way of breathing, even to something clumsy about them, for the whole play to be redeemed. The erotic function of theatre is not secondary, since only the theatre, of all figurative arts (painting, cinema) gives bodies, and not the representations of bodies. The theatrical body is essential and contingent at the same time: essential – you cannot possess it ( it is magnified by the prestige of nostalgic desire); contingent, you can possess it, since you only have to be insane for one second ( it’s in your power) to jump on to the stage and touch what you desire. The cinema, on the contrary, excludes, through a fatal flaw, any passage a l’acte; the image, in film, is the unredeemable absence of the represented body’.

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes.

I am posting these excerpts in the hope to start a discussion thread about Barthes and performance. So not philosophy as such, but close enough, perhaps. The first excerpt is taken from Barthes’ inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, January 1977. The whole lecture is concerned with the possibilities of ‘cheating’ with language, so as to loosen the hold that power has in it, proposing, after Foucault, that power is imbricated in discourse, in the language one speaks, and that it is only through very specific kinds of operation that it possible to neutralise or ‘baffle’ the ‘arrogance’ of speech ( as he puts it in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes). So what he proposes in this instance, in particular, is that one of the forces of literature – which is where he thinks the ‘cheating’ of power can best take place, is to ‘perform signs’. In keeping with many other instances in his writing where he appeals to dramatic or theatrical motifs; this suggests that the servile or instrumental use of language is interrupted so to speak by a distance, a displacement. To perform a sign is to take a distance from it and to put it into play rather than to use it, as expression or reference. I think the first expression is fascinating too. Barthes, in reference to the capacities the writer has to evade the capturing of his image by the Doxa, by power, says that he can either persist stubbornly with what will probably become an outmoded style, or to move elsewhere. To persist, or endure, to stay still, to displace oneself. In my translation I moved the sense more towards the sense of physical movement. Staying still or moving aside. I’m interested in the potential to understand Barthes’ terms here less directly in relation to literature, to writing, and more in relation to movement. And I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who has predominantly worked on written documents, has little familiarity with the theatre or with performance, and no grasp of a language one could use to talk about it.  But I think there is something worth holding onto in Barthes’ proposition – to perform signs. It resonates with Mallarmé’s Un coup de dès, and with his utopian project, Le Livre, which he – Mallarmé- envisaged as something that would be performed, embodied, and with the legacies of this in the US eg. in the work of Cage or Cunningham.

The second excerpt is taken from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, the critical (‘performed’) autobiography Barthes wrote for the French écrivains de toujours series (in response to a commission). The general impetus is the same – towards a playful and subtle distance in relation to the image of himself that comes back at him, in relation to the demand of the other. In other words Barthes wants in some way to ironise and perform himself in order to evade being captured by, lured into, the image. Image, here is proposed as seductive, as a lure, but also as a trap, fixing and ultimately draining the life out of the individual thus captured like some kind of carnivorous insect. The erotic, for Barthes, comprises anything that disturbs this process, an element that interrupts the smoothness of the image, which looks like a seamless, unresponsive surface, and instigates a dynamic of desire, or a dynamic as such, in so far as desire for Barthes seems to imply the necessity or perhaps just the possibility of a response. So Barthes finds desire in the theatre, or might find it, contingently, in elements that distract, that disturb, the intended spectacle, and he does not find it in the cinema. I wonder if Barthes’ recourse to the hope of touching the body of the actor is just a naive romantic trope. I wonder if what he says here just dismisses the whole notion of the haptic developed by recent film theorists, or whether there are ways in which, contra Barthes, one could think of cinema, or perhaps just the film, provoking desire in his sense. Are there properly ‘philosophical’ stakes in this, and what might they be?

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