Academic journal article French Forum

The "Political" Barthes: From Theater to Idiorrhythmy

Academic journal article French Forum

The "Political" Barthes: From Theater to Idiorrhythmy

Article excerpt

Although Roland Barthes was never one of these public intellectuals who mingle with and vocally discuss political matters, he had a moment of "glory" in the 1950s. The publication of Mythologies in 1957, a volume gathering most of the articles he had written from 1954 to 1956, under the title of "les petites mythologies du mois" as a regular column in the journal Les Lettres nouvelles, brought him immediate public attention. These brief pieces of social criticism on current affairs, ranging from satirical commentaries on new commodities such as detergents or the fashionable Citroen DS, to more straightforward ideological issues such as his counterattack on the anti-intellectual Poujadism, all denounced the "mystification" of the petty-bourgeois ideology and its pervasive infiltration into the very fabric of the everyday collective unconscious. Barthes, who quickly made a name for himself as a talented essayist, viewed himself as a "critique engaged". (1)

During the same period, Barthes was also regularly reviewing theater events in articles that were no less politically charged--indeed, perhaps even more--than the "petites mythologies." Between 1953 and 1961, he wrote more than seventy articles on contemporary theater, most of them for the journal Theatre Populaire, which he never collected into a volume equivalent to Mythologies. (2) Among them, more than fifteen were devoted to Bertolt Brecht, whose theater he celebrated as an "authentic synthesis between the rigor of the political project (in the highest sense of the word) and the freedom of the dramatic art." (3) Around i960, however, Barthes distanced himself from theater. He stopped attending performances, a shift in interest that coincided with a noticeable restraint from his use of the Marxist lexis. In the 1960s and 1970s, when he revisited Brecht's writings, his focus was no longer on the dramatist's "political project," but on more theoretical and general concerns of discursivity.

The late Barthes turned further away from politics. In the courses he gave at the College de France (1977-1980), he never addressed political issues in any substantial way. Moreover, he voiced an increasingly vigilant skepticism toward the notion of community. His first year lecture course, devoted to the theme of "How to Live Together," (4) ended on a strong note of disenchantment vis-a-vis all major forms of cohabitation. Only one model managed to survive: the Utopian fantasy of idiorrhythmy, a concept he had discovered while reading Jacques Lacarriere's L'Ete grec. (5) Borrowed from the Greek orthodox monastic vocabulary, idiorrhythmy refers to the distinctive organization of monks, who, while administratively attached to a monastery, live alone, separated from their brothers. Its principle consists in allowing each member of the community to live freely according to his own rhythm. The word and the concept of idiorrhythmy seem to have instantly crystallized one of Barthes's deepest fantasies, that of a collectivity that would not infringe on individual distance. Unfortunately, Barthes did not fully develop the social and political implications such an archaic and Utopian form of living-together had for him.

How should one understand Barthes's "evolution" from the early pugnacious social critic who described himself as a "Sartrean and Marxist" (6) to an intellectual with a critical spirit whose dream had become that of a withdrawal from social demands? How did the early "political" Barthes turn into a late "apolitical" Barthes? Is it excluded that in spite of this change, Barthes's ways of dealing with the "political" remained relatively constant? If he embraced idiorrhythmy, his last model of community, as a fantasy-like Utopia, was some form of this Utopia already at work during his "militant" years, present at the core of his involvement with "Popular Theater"?

Barthes's self-comparison with Brecht on their respective relations to politics might be a good way to approach these questions. …

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