Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Roland Barthes: Against Language

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Roland Barthes: Against Language

Article excerpt

Roland Barthes is "against" language in two senses of that word. His work struggles constantly "against" those levels of language - communication, symbolism - which create discourse within the subject. Internalized discourse creates alienations from Self and world in several ways. Two of the most serious are, 1) it establishes false linguistic unities within, which the subject then misrecognizes as the Self; and 2) it traps the subject into a system of infinite referrals and deferrals, which destroys the capacity for immediate experience of either Self or world. But simultaneously and paradoxically, Barthes presses "against" language as one would a lover. He finds in language a third level of meaning, a troisieme sens, where signifiers somehow "mean" but have no assignable signifieds. This level was called "style" in the early days of Writing Degree Zero and later "signifiance." Both perception and Self are immediately embodied in this level of language without elsewheres, and accession to it yields the bliss of unmediated experience of reality. This paper explores the ways in which Barthes' writing 1) works to disrupt those conventions of language which produce discourse and 2) attempts to accede to the level of the third meaning. For Barthes the ideal writing would be one in which discourse is a mere backdrop or occasion for the play of signifiance.

Cortazar calls it "man's rape by word, the masterful vengeance of word upon its progenitor." Oliviera, his protagonist in the novel Hopscotch, "had found out...that an awful lot of people would set themselves up comfortably in a supposed unity of person which was nothing but a linguistic unity and a premature sclerosis of character." (1) This is precisely the plight of Roquentin, Sartre's historian in Nausea, until one day he realizes that his work on the Marquis de Rollebon is little more than a marriage of convenience, an arrangement wherein the living man gives his life's blood to an essentially linguistic-fictional character in exchange for the latter's unity and purpose. "M. de Rollebon was my partner; he needed me in order to exist and I needed him so as not to feel my existence." (2)

But this realization is nothing to the loss Roquentin suffers when simple words begin to desert him: stone, hand, face, root. When words withdraw, things begin to shed their categories and functions as well as their pasts and futures. Without the words "hand" and "face," he loses the sense of these things he had always taken for granted. The more his linguistic body recedes, the more terrified he becomes by the incomprehensible proliferation of its physical reality. Nature too - stone, root - begins to shed its tenuous verbal skin, and Roquentin fears that he is losing his mind. Without words, the numerous folds, depths, tones, colors, textures, patterns, which had been irrelevant to his purposes begin to emerge, to exist, and to exist intensely. When objects cease to be signs - substitutes for something else - they no longer refer to signs which refer to signs which refer. They refuse to enter into semiotic systems of infinitely deferred meanings and insist instead that they exist, here and now.

Finally, though, Roquentin's pain is mixed with pleasure. He has his famous vision of the root of the chestnut tree with "deep uneasiness," nausea even, but he acknowledges afterwards that it was "a horrible ecstasy," an "atrocious joy." Having lost its name "root," it suddenly surpassed human interpretations and was there, in all its wild and raw fact, bursting with myriad details, and with profuse, excessive, unseemly existence. The "flaunting abundance" of the root overflowed and fascinated him. While he'd always struggled against words, "down there [he] touched the thing." "[He] was the root of the chestnut tree." (3)

The false sense of the self as a linguistic entity and the experience of presence, which language typically deprives us of, are central issues in Nausea. …

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