Nov 122018

Today is the birthday (1915) of Roland Gérard Barthes, French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of many schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism. His book, Mythologies (1957), originally a series of essays on the interpretation of popular culture published periodically, was an influential work in anthropology because it introduced anthropologists to semiotics – the analysis of signs and how they operate. Barthes’ work had its vogue in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially because he was a French intellectual whose writings were somewhat clearer and more readable than those of many of his contemporaries, and they appeared to be fertile ground. I always felt that his analyses were trivial, and most of the social scientific world now agrees with me – with the exception of holdouts in France. No worries: I despaired of French social scientists and philosophers a long time ago.

Barthes was born in Cherbourg in Normandy. His father, a naval officer, was killed in a battle during World War I in the North Sea before Barthes’ first birthday. His mother, Henriette Barthes, and his aunt and grandmother raised him in the village of Urt and the city of Bayonne. When Barthes was 11, his family moved to Paris. He claimed that his attachment to his provincial roots remained strong throughout his life – although he does a fair imitation of the bored, Parisian, left-bank intellectual that you could easily be fooled.

Barthes spent from 1935 to 1939 at the Sorbonne, where he earned a degree in classical literature. He was plagued by ill health throughout this period, suffering from tuberculosis, which often had to be treated in isolation in sanatoria. His repeated physical breakdowns disrupted his academic career, affecting his studies and his ability to take qualifying examinations. They also exempted him from military service during World War II. His life from 1939 to 1948 was largely spent obtaining a degee in grammar and philology, publishing his first papers, taking part in a medical study, and continuing to struggle with his health. He received a diplôme d’études supérieures from the University of Paris in 1941 for his work in Greek tragedy. In 1948, he returned to purely academic work, gaining numerous short-term positions at institutes in France, Romania, and Egypt. During this time, he contributed to the leftist Parisian paper Combat, out of which grew his first full-length work, Writing Degree Zero (1953).

In 1952, Barthes settled at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where he studied lexicology and sociology. During his seven-year period there, he began to write a popular series of bi-monthly essays for the magazine Les Lettres Nouvelles, in which he examined “myths” of popular culture (gathered in Mythologies). The essays in Mythologies were reflections on French popular culture ranging from an analysis of soap detergent advertisements to a dissection of popular wrestling. Though knowing little English, Barthes taught at Middlebury College in 1957 and befriended the future English translator of much of his work, Richard Howard.

Barthes spent the early 1960s exploring the fields of semiology and structuralism, chairing various faculty positions around France, and continuing to produce more full-length studies. Many of his works challenged traditional academic views of literary criticism and of renowned figures of literature. His unorthodox thinking led to a conflict with a well-known Sorbonne professor of literature, Raymond Picard, who attacked the French New Criticism (a label that he inaccurately applied to Barthes) for its obscurity and lack of respect towards France’s literary roots. Barthes’ rebuttal in Criticism and Truth (1966) accused the old, bourgeois criticism of a lack of concern with the finer points of language and of selective ignorance towards challenging theories, such as Marxism.

By the late 1960s, Barthes had established a reputation for himself and traveled to the US and Japan. During this time, he wrote the 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” which, in light of the growing influence of Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction, would prove to be a transitional piece in its investigation of the logical ends of structuralist thought. Trust me. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you don’t want to know. Derrida, Bourdieu, Foucault . . . are all names that have me running for the exit.

Barthes continued to contribute with Philippe Sollers to the avant-garde literary magazine Tel Quel, which was developing similar kinds of theoretical inquiry to that pursued in Barthes’ writings. In 1970, Barthes produced what many consider to be his most prodigious work, the dense, critical reading of Balzac’s Sarrasine entitled S/Z. Throughout the 1970s, Barthes continued to develop his literary criticism; he developed new ideals of textuality and novelistic neutrality. In 1971, he served as visiting professor at the University of Geneva.

In 1975 he wrote an autobiography, and in 1977 he was elected to the chair of Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France. In the same year, his mother, Henriette Barthes, to whom he had been devoted, died, aged 85. They had lived together for 60 years. The loss of the woman who had raised and cared for him was a serious blow to Barthes. His last major work, Camera Lucida, is partly an essay about the nature of photography and partly a meditation on photographs of his mother. The book contains many reproductions of photographs, though none of them are of Henriette. On 25th February 1980, Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris. One month later, on March 26th, he died from the chest injuries he sustained in that accident.

I was going to gather together a series of pithy quotes from Barthes as a small homage, but as I re-read his work I realized that I detest his writing so much that I could not find a single one I like. Here’s a small sample:

Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure.

Some anthropologists find this kind of thing useful in interpretive analysis. I find it a complete waste of time. He rails against bourgeois culture, yet this sort of writing could not be more elitist. How many coal miners or steel workers are going to be intrigued by his words? How are these sentiments going to help them in their daily struggles? I have no time for this kind of self-centered, self-congratulatory twaddle, and I am glad to say that a great many intellectuals now agree with me. Einstein once said that if you cannot explain something simply, you do not understand it. Roland Barthes and his kin want to turn that sentiment on its head: “If you cannot make a simple idea impenetrable to the masses, you are not trying hard enough.” “Confusing” is not a synonym for “nuanced” or “profound.” Ask yourself, in the cracks, why every one of my photos of Barthes here shows him smoking.

This video, Semiotics in the Kitchen by Martha Rosler, is a perfect parody of semiotics and Barthes. Also perfect as my recipe du jour. That is, at the end of the video you will not have learned anything new, you will not have help in creating a dish, and you will still be hungry.



Oct 112017

Today is the birthday (1896) of Roman Osipovich Jakobson (Рома́н О́сипович Якобсо́н), Russian–American linguist and literary theorist whose work on the structural analysis of language became the dominant trend in linguistics during the first half of the 20th century and greatly influenced structural anthropology which was very much in vogue when I was a doctoral candidate in the early 1970s. The influence of structuralism in general declined during the 1970s and I gave it up for more fertile fields as I read more widely. But there are some core ideas that linger (somewhat transformed). I’ll try not to be too technical here: the danger of knowing too much about a subject. Mostly I want to talk about Jacobson’s influence, and why I moved in the opposite direction. Jakobson’s brand of linguistics is all about making the study of language into a science, and I believe that this is a misguided enterprise. Science wants to find RULES in the midst of seeming complexity – known technically as reductionism. I don’t like RULES – personally or professionally – and I don’t believe that human behavior (linguistic or otherwise) can be reduced to rules: just the opposite. Human behavior is inherently complex and is irreducible in my oh-so-humble opinion. I want the opposite of reduction: complexity. Before continuing with this, let’s have a little biographical context.

Jakobson was born in Russia a well-to-do family of Jewish descent, the industrialist Osip Jakobson and chemist Anna Volpert Jakobson, and he developed a fascination with language at a very young age. He studied at the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages and then at the Historical-Philological Faculty of Moscow University. As a student he was a leading figure of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and took part in Moscow’s active world of avant-garde art and poetry. The linguistics of the time was overwhelmingly neogrammarian and insisted that the only scientific study of language was to study the history and development of words across time (the diachronic approach, in Saussure’s terms). Jakobson, on the other hand, had come into contact with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, and developed an approach focused on the way in which language’s structure served its basic function (synchronic approach) – to communicate information between speakers. Jakobson was also well known for his critique of the emergence of sound in film.

1920 was a year of political conflict in Russia, and Jakobson relocated to Prague as a member of the Soviet diplomatic mission to continue his doctoral studies. He immersed himself both into the academic and cultural life of pre-World War II Czechoslovakia and established close relationships with a number of Czech poets and literary figures. Jakobson received his Ph.D. from Charles University in 1930. He became a professor at Masaryk University in Brno in 1933. He also made an impression on Czech academics with his studies of Czech verse. In 1926, together with Vilém Mathesius and others he became one of the founders of the “Prague school” of linguistic theory.

Jakobson escaped from Prague in early March 1939 via Berlin for Denmark, where he was associated with the Copenhagen linguistic circle, and such intellectuals as Louis Hjelmslev. He fled to Norway on 1 September 1939, and in 1940 walked across the border to Sweden, where he continued his work at the Karolinska Hospital (with works on aphasia and language competence). When Swedish colleagues feared a possible German occupation, he managed to leave on a cargo ship, together with Ernst Cassirer (the former rector of Hamburg University) to New York City in 1941 to become part of the wider community of intellectual émigrés who fled there.

In New York, he began teaching at The New School, still closely associated with the Czech émigré community during that period. At the École libre des hautes études, a sort of Francophone university-in-exile, he met and collaborated with Claude Lévi-Strauss, who became the leading light of structuralism in anthropology. He also made the acquaintance of many “American” linguists and anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Benjamin Whorf, and Leonard Bloomfield. When the US authorities considered “repatriating” him to Europe (i.e. condemning him to a concentration camp), it was Franz Boas who intervened to save his life. In 1949 Jakobson moved to Harvard University, where he remained until his retirement in 1967.

Usually historians divide Jakobson’s work into 4 stages. In the first stage, roughly the 1920s to 1930s, he helped develop the concept of the phoneme, the core of phonology. Basically, every language has a distinct set of phonemes: sounds that change the meanings of words. Thus “bin” and “pin” are different words in English, so /b/ and /p/ are distinct phonemes. Whether you pronounce the /p/ with a puff of air or not (aspirated versus unaspirated) does not make a difference to the meaning of “pin” in English. But aspirated versus unaspirated /p/ makes a difference in Burmese. So, they are different phonemes in Burmese (something I had to struggle to hear when I lived in Myanmar).

In the second stage, roughly the late 1930s to the 1940s, Jakobson developed the notion that “binary distinctive features” were the foundational element in language. This idea lies at the heart of structuralism: the notion that even complex human behavior can be broken into binary oppositions, and that human thought is the product of these binary oppositions – e.g. nature/culture, male/female, black/white . . . etc. – all nested together.

In the third stage in Jakobson’s work, from the 1950s to 1960s, he worked with the acoustician C. Gunnar Fant and Morris Halle (a student of Jakobson’s) to consider the acoustic aspects of distinctive features. The following diagram gives the basic idea. Don’t worry for the moment if it seems a bit opaque. Note you have 2 binary oppositions – compact/diffuse and grave/acute – which yield a triad of sounds. I used a similar analysis once to describe what happened on the 2nd and 3rd days of creation in Genesis. On the 2nd day God created the sky and created the binary opposition of up/down. On the 3rd day he separated sea and dry land.  Thus, you have three zones: air (up), ocean (down and wet), habitable land (down and dry).

In the 4th stage, late 1960s on, Jakobson distinguished six communication functions, each associated with a dimension or factor of the communication process. I’ll give them to you without much elaboration or explanation:

referential (contextual information)

aesthetic/poetic (auto-reflection)

emotive (self-expression)

conative (vocative or imperative addressing of receiver)

phatic (checking channel working)

metalingual (checking code working)

Just as an example, the metalingual (code checking), could be something like, “do you know what a verb is?” where you are using language to talk about language. This kind of reduction of language to six types or functions is, for me, laughably rigid and pointless. Where do you place the poetry of e.e. cummings? Is it aesthetic? metalingual? conative? emotive? or some combination? If it’s a combination, what are the percentages and how are they combined? The exercise all seems ludicrously reductive and pointless to me. Many linguistics now agree with me that structural linguistics is a dead end. It’s attempting to reduce the irreducible.

For the past 5 years I have been teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in China, Italy, and Myanmar. It’s an extremely instructive enterprise if you pay attention. Most EFL teachers just teach the “rules” of grammar, and if the students are lucky, they teach some exceptions as well. I grit my teeth when I teach the “rules” because the cascade of “exceptions” is painfully obvious to me right from the start.  Teaching English prepositions drives me bonkers. Just the other day I wrote to a former Italian student that “these days I wake up with nothing to do . . .” and he asked “is ‘with’ the correct preposition?” Yes, it is. Why? Because it is !!! I find that learning a new language is best accomplished by imitating native speakers and not worrying too much about the “rules.”

Let’s get back to binary oppositions. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss turned Jakobson’s phonological analysis into a cultural one by reducing human thought to certain basic binary oppositions. For Lévi-Strauss the nature/culture opposition was fundamental to all human societies because all humans want to distance themselves from “nature” even though they are a part of it. The quintessential opposition in this regard is natural/artificial. If animals make something it’s natural; if humans make something, it’s artificial. Bees make honey from nectar and it’s natural; humans make plastic from petrochemicals and it’s artificial. Bees live in hives and it’s natural; humans live in apartment complexes and it’s artificial. Or let me ask you a question: Is there a mammal you are especially fond of? I asked this of my students every year. No one ever said, “My mother.” Humans are mammals, but we don’t automatically think in those terms.  We want to separate nature (out there) and culture (in here). My mother is a mammal, yes, but she’s also not (in my head). Mammals are “other.”

Lévi-Strauss changed Jakobson’s phonological triangle (above) to create the culinary triangle where the nested oppositions are culture/nature and changed/unchanged to create three categories – raw, cooked, and rotten. All are foods in different cultures, with different “meanings.” Raw versus cooked is easily understood; rotten is a bit more complex. Blue cheese is one possible example of rotten: cheese that has been injected with mold and left to “rot.” Fermented foods are, by this definition, rotten also. I find this all hopelessly reductive and simplistic. Why are microbes used to make blue cheese “natural” but fire is “cultural”? They are both natural yet manipulated by culture. Even raw foods are washed and cut before being eaten. We transform everything we eat (and so do animals to varying degrees).

We can use Lévi-Strauss’ (false) culinary triangle to make a dish to celebrate Jakobson’s legacy: a salad of greens (raw) with grilled chicken breast (cooked) and blue cheese (rotten).

That appeals to me but I’ll leave you to be creative. Come up with any raw/cooked/rotten combination you fancy.