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There is “no signal” in the Empire of Signs: Roland Barthes and Poetry

no signal

Roland Barthes and Poetry

Last week I was at The University of Leeds presenting a paper called The PoetryFilm Archive 2002-2015 at the AHRC’s Pararchive conference. Whilst in Leeds, I was invited to another conference, also taking place at the university campus, on the topic of Roland Barthes and Poetry. I was able to attend one of the sessions and I heard two very interesting papers about Barthes and Mourning (Neil Badmington), and about Barthes and Haiku (Marcio Renato Pinheiro da Silva), followed by a stimulating discussion. The above photograph was taken during a technical moment and was coincidentally appropriate in the context of Barthes. Copy from the press release is below*.

*The purpose of this conference marking the centenary of the birth of the French literary critic Roland Barthes is to consider a theme in his writing and his subsequent influence that is not normally highlighted, but which could be considered, paradoxically, to be central to his oeuvre. Very little of Barthes’s literary criticism nor his own reading habits generally are, ostensibly, concerned with poets or poetry; and yet his very first book-length essay, on the degree zero of writing (1953), attempts, in one chapter, a definition of ‘poetic writing’.

Indeed, Barthes’s university specialism at the Sorbonne, in the late 1930s, was in Ancient Greek incantations, his reading diet at the time being Michaux, Valéry, Baudelaire and Whitman. Later he worked closely for periods of time with a number of important French post-war poets (Jean Cayrol, Francis Ponge, Marcelin Pleynet), and with the Moroccan poets Abdelkébir Khatibi and Zaghloul Morsy. More widely, Barthes’s writing is peppered with references to the ‘poetic’, from ‘Myth, today’, through an analysis of the Encyclopedia, the bodily pleasures of poetry (rhythm, sound, performance), the erotics of the text rather than a hermeneutics, to his writing on Haïku.

This conference sets out to complement others taking place in the UK next year (at Cardiff and at the British Academy), by focussing on poetics as a general theory of communication and of human signifying practices in and beyond language as a central Barthesian concern, be it in the work of the Hellenist George Thomson, or the poetic theory of Roman Jakobson. Indeed, poetry – especially in the work of German Romantics, and in the Romantic ‘Lieder’ too – becomes a crucial support for Barthes in the last years of his life following the death of his mother.

Poetry and poetics, the conference hopes to suggest then, are so important in Barthes’s theories and writing that we could even see a Pan-poetics in his work, so fundamental that it is not usually named as such. One of the main aims of the conference is therefore to suggest the place of poetry in Barthes’s work. A second aim of the conference is to look at the ways in which poets have responded to Barthesian poetic theory, especially in the case of American avant-garde poetry of the 1950s-1970s. Here the influence is marked, especially in the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E grouping based in San Francisco, but it can also be traced in the ‘Sound poetry’ revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.

Roland Barthes and Poetry: Abstracts

Roland Barthes: ‘Terreur dans la poésie’

Claude Coste

Dans Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, Barthes oppose la poésie classique et la poésie moderne (qui commence avec Rimbaud). Plutôt que le continu du vers ou de la phrase, la poésie moderne privilégierait le mot, renouant ainsi avec une forme de « terreur ». Que faut-il entendre par « terreur » ? Comment l’explorer ? Comment la conjurer ? Comment rétablir une forme de continu et de liaison pour lutter contre la solitude du mot? C’est tout le rapport de Barthes à la poésie qui se trouve impliqué dans la réponse à ces questions.

‘The Word shines forth’: Barthes and Prose/Poetry

Adam Piette

The paper will be exploring Barthes’s distinction between and fusion of poetry and prose in Le Degré Zéro de l’écriture (‘Y a-t-il une écriture poétique?’) and arguing for the potential for a prose poetics when reading Barthes’s own style. The paper will argue that the act of neutralizing that a fusion of prose and poetry effects at the level of syntax and sentence-sound, which I compare to the ‘langage de l’abolition’ created by the braiding of the ‘je’ and ‘I’ as theorized in ‘Sollers Ecrivain’, also acts as a channel for more covert acts of writing: the ‘blanc de voix’ that Barthes talks about in ‘La musique, la voix, la langue’; the double-tongued release of energy created by Chateaubriand’s anacoluthon; the pulsional body-language which ‘l’écriture à haute voix’ generates. A close reading of the final paragraph of Le Plaisir du texte will test how far Barthes’s own writing enacts this double-tongued prose poetics.

‘It is the word that is the dwelling-place’: Roland Barthes and the Early Language Poets

Calum Gardner

In 1975, the magazine Alcheringa published a mini-anthology of nine experimental poets called ‘The Dwelling-Place’, accompanied by an essay by Ron Silliman entitled ‘Surprised by Sign (Notes on Nine)’. This is now seen as one of the first attempts to group, and to justify grouping, the poets of the San Francisco Bay Area who were to become the nucleus of what we now know, albeit somewhat contentiously, as ‘Language writing’. ‘The Dwelling-Place’ takes its title from Roland Barthes’ essay ‘Is there any poetic writing?’ inWriting Degree Zero, and Silliman refers to this essay frequently throughout the piece as theoretical justification for his own assertions about the nature of poetry, as well as claiming Barthes as a ‘source’ for the poets themselves. The use of Barthes by these writers has often been mentioned and indeed assumed in the literature but little-analysed. This paper closely examines Silliman’s claims with particular reference to the work of Clark Coolidge, Ray DiPalma, and David Melnick, and attempts to establish the historical importance of Barthes as a theoretical basis for English-language avant-garde poetry. The choice of that particular essay (‘Is there any poetic writing?’) will also be discussed, given the context of English translations of Barthes and other theorists that were popular and available at the time. I conclude by suggesting what particular ideas and qualities attracted poet-critics who were already working to adopt Barthes into their practice at that moment.

For Henriette’s Tomb: Barthes, Mallarmé, Mourning

Neil Badmington

What is the relationship between Barthes’s diary about the loss of his mother, Henriette, and Stéphane Mallarmé’s notes for a work in response to the death of his young son, Anatole? There are some obvious points of connection, of course – each text is fragmentary, was written in grief upon small slips of paper, and remained unpublished until after the death of its author – but I want to go further. Some have already addressed the obvious, primary place of Proust in Barthes’s diary, but there are also more subtle echoes of Mallarmé’s fragments, which Barthes had read and even performed. I address this trace of Mallarmé by looking at the ways in which Barthes’s diary echoes Mallarmé’s notes by both linking the experience of grief to the physical surroundings of grief and by failing to develop the notes into an actual work – a literary ‘tombeau’. I connect this lack of a tombeau for Henriette to Barthes’s failure to develop his sketches for the Vita Nova into a completed work. The mythical Vita Nova, had it been written, would have been in part at least a work of mourning. But, like Anatole, Henriette receives no gift of a tombeaufrom the writer, from he who lives on. Each is recognised and remembered elsewhere, otherwise, in posthumously published fragments that reach for words and works which will not come.

Roland Barthes, From History to Haiku

Marcio Renato Pinheiro da Silva

This paper is dedicated to the temporality of eastern haiku according to Roland Barthes’ ‘The Preparation of the Novel’. The hypothesis sustained here is that, from the unique critical perspective assumed by Barthes (his explicit affiliation not to science, but to writing), the temporality of the haiku projects a notion of present time and of history very close to Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Second Untimely Meditation: On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life’ and to Giorgio Agamben’s ‘What is the Contemporary?’. From this, we intend to think about some of the possible relationships between subject, writing (especially poetry) and history as conceived by Barthes.

The Hatred of Poetry: Barthes/Bataille

Jean-Michel Rabaté

I will draw a parallel between Barthes’s and Bataille’s attitudes facing Surrealism. They seem to evince similar views about poetry. I assume that Barthes and Bataille can be united by a paradoxical ‘hatred of poetry’. This hatred does not entail a rejection of poetry, but more simply registers a deep ambivalence about its value and function. In fact, poetry can only be appreciated after it has been negated. This is why we find such a hedging admission that Surrealism also contributed to the disappearance of the author in ‘Death of the Author’. Barthes’s half-hearted endorsement of Surrealist protocols is caught up in an arc going from Mallarmé to Bataille, both important beacons of modernity. This insight will lead me back to Writing Degree Zero that I will present in the context of post-war discussions of Surrealism and the Nouveau Roman. Beckett, as a prose writer and as a poet, will provide an unexpected link between Bataille and Beckett. All three would agree in critical assessments of the power and limitation of poetry in an age that has seen the demise of historical avant-gardes.

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