Tag Archives: semiotics

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).


Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.