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