Thursday, May 14, 2009

Writing Degree Zero

by Roland Barthes

Translated by Annette Lavers & Colin Smith

Preface by Susan Sontag

In the face of both aesthetic diversification and a porous dispersal of information precipitated by technology such as the internet, it is no longer possible to consider language as a centralized body. As language increasingly gives way to code, it is our responsibility to question and rediscover language’s significances and dimensions. What are the origins of language and writing within the framework of a body? Does information possess a body, or does it manifest within vessels? Let’s consider the notion that writing relates to the body in such a way as writing itself constitutes a body. The great Roland Barthes, in his first book, 1957’s ‘Writing Degree Zero,’ states “We know that a language is a corpus of prescriptions and habits common to all the writers of a period.” Here we see language anchored to a fixed time and place within a Historical body. Further, Barthes pursues, and defines, style. The Language on a whole, which is a great enclosing body, “…is therefore on the hither side of Literature. Style is almost beyond it: imagery, delivery, vocabulary spring from the body and the past of the art. Thus under the name of style a self-sufficient language is evolved which has its roots only in the depths of the author’s personal and secret mythology…” Yet this definition assumes a degree of privacy, as well as a character of division between private and public, which may have applied to the mid-twentieth century, but fails to capture our contemporary moment, fifty years hence. There is something here, though, which bears inspection.

Barthes’ localization of style within the body still warrants consideration, even as our understanding of what constitutes a body has since shifted. Style, as Barthes defines it, “…has always something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention, and, as it were, a vertical and lonely dimension of thought. Its frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical…” Ah! Now here is something I can hold onto! Locate style as a biological or biographical object, and not one suspect to the temporal, and one removes the privilege of History from style.

Language, then, remains locked within the bourgeois stricture of History, while style operates outside that boundary. Language is a body, while style comes from the body – a carnal structure instead of a social one. According to Barthes, “the Novel and History have been closely related in the very century which witnessed their greatest development…,” that of the nineteenth century. We see in the nineteenth century the Novel and History as “…plane projections of a curved and organic world…” The Novel “…aims at maintaining a hierarchy in the realm of facts.” It attempts to realize a bourgeois coherency to social reality that had become obsolete by the time Barthes was writing in the fifties, and is without a doubt no longer relevant in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The Novel, as established in the nineteenth century, “…presupposes a world which is constructed, elaborated, self-sufficient, reduced to significant lines, and not one which has been sent sprawling before us, for us to take or leave.” What possible literary forms exist other than the Novel to elaborate upon a moment other than the bourgeois moment? The concept hinted at here of a sprawl is prescient, as in the contemporary moment it is no longer possible to conceive of the world as an ordered map as much of a discontinuous sprawl of intersecting maps.

Barthes’ statement also highlights the concept of choice: “…for us to take or leave.” A few months back on his blog, poet Ron Silliman considered the contemporary function of the anthology, concluding that it was no longer possible for an anthology to enclose the entirety of a poetry, instead anthologies can only offer possible entry points. Barthes approaches a similar, if not identical, conclusion as Silliman. If the bourgeois Novel anchors us to outmoded ideas of craft and History, “…when the Narrative is rejected in favor of other literary genres, or when, within the narration, the preterite is replaced by less ornamental forms, fresher, more full-blooded and near to speech… Literature becomes the receptacle of existence in all its density and no longer of its meaning alone.” This qualitative move made by Barthes away from a hierarchy of meaning is incredibly important. The preterite in the Novel “…is a lie made manifest, it delineates an area of plausibility which reveals the possible in the very act of unmasking it as false…the preterite is the very act by which society affirms its possession of its past and its possibility.” Outside of the Novel, then, we find other possibilities for a writing that does not assume possession. The Novel, “…and within the Novel, the preterite - are mythological objects in which there is, superimposed upon an immediate intention, a second-order appeal to a corpus of dogmas, or better, to a pedagogy, since what it sought is to impart an essence in the guise of an artifact.” It is instead, “…the poet, who accepts the most momentous of all breaks, that from the language of a society…” By such a break, then, the poet offers a possibility of language, instead of a possession. We are talking about potentiality, not assumed reality.

Barthes sees a break in the difference between prose and poetry in the classical period and the contemporary. For the classicists, “…prose and poetry are quantities, their difference can be measured; they are neither more nor less separated than two different numbers, contiguous like them, but dissimilar because of the very difference in their magnitudes.” Poetry, in the classical mode, was “…felt to be merely an ornamental variation of prose, the fruit of an art (that is, a technique), never a different language, or the product of a particular sensibility.” Classical poetry, then, is concerned with reaching a higher register within a language, instead of investigating possibilities of language – the neologistical element of contemporary poetics. This ornamental concern of the classical continues to plague poetry, which is uniquely suited to developing a utopia of language. Too often, we forget Barthes’ observation “…that a modern masterpiece is impossible… either the object of the work is naively attuned to the conventions of its form, Literature remaining deaf to our present History, and not going beyond the literary myth; or else the writer acknowledges the vast novelty of the present world, but finds that in order to express it he has at his disposal only a language which is splendid but lifeless.” So, then, we should reimagine language’s potential as a function, a source for discourse, instead of as an object we can decorate. Not a well-crafted poem, but a poetry itself.

Let’s further investigate the break between the classical and the Modern, which we can extend through the Postmodern and into the contemporary. “Poetry is then no longer a Prose either ornamental or shorn of liberties. It is a quality sui generis and without antecedents. It is no longer an attribute but a substance and therefore it can very well renounce signs, since it carries its own nature within itself, and does not need to signal its identity outwardly…” Barthes finds style residing within the body of the writer. This centralizes style at a specific point.

I believe this above observation to be one that no longer applies verbatim, but instead one that we must necessarily extrapolate from if we wish to reach a useful understanding of our present situation. What about the present moment, in which we stand in the presence not of a utopia of language, but of diversified utopias? If a body does indeed exist from which a style as well as a poetry springs, then it is now fractal in nature. We must not consider the writer in the contemporary moment as a creator, but as an organizer. Uncreative writing instead of creative writing. Barthes hints at the fractal nature we now find ourselves before within contemporary poetry, as “…under each Word in modern poetry there lies a sort of existential geology, in which is gathered the total content of the Name, instead of a chosen content as in classical prose and poetry.” Faced with the sheer fractal diversity of the Word, we must forgo intention in lieu of organization if we hope to pursue a writing, and particularly a poetry, which aims to address and function within the contemporary moment. Consider the Google search engine, which doesn’t generate websites and images. Instead, Google organizes possible avenues for the user.

We are face to face with the encyclopedic Word, which is “…no longer guided in advance by the general intention of a socialized discourse; the consumer of poetry, deprived of the guide of selective connections, encounters the Word frontally, and receives it as an absolute quantity, accompanied by all its possible associations.” The organizer of the Word, the writer, is here deprivileged – writer and reader at last reach an equivalency! “The Word, here, is encyclopedic, it contains simultaneously all the acceptations from which a relational discourse might have required it to choose. It therefore achieves a state that is possible only in the dictionary or in poetry… Each poetic word is thus an unexpected object, a Pandora’s Box from which fly out all the potentialities of language…” Let us no longer conceive of the word as a vessel for information, but as a door in addition to being the actual information itself, since “…modern poetry is a poetry of the object.” On top of that, since “…there is no mode of writing left, there are only styles…,” by which we arrive at a place where there are only men and objects.

Discourse, then, is not beholden to the Classical model - since “Classical language is always reducible to a persuasive continuum, it postulates the possibility of dialogue, it establishes a universe in wwhich men are not alone, where words never have the terrible weight of things, where speech is always a meeting with the others.” This is a direct relationship, with no mediating agents. Let us then allow words to be objects. Let us then allow words to the possibility of many objects existing within the same space and time. This, then, decentralizes the word, this displaces the preeminence of a linear, Hegelian History. The fractal character of our time disavows the viability of such a Hegelian model.

Perhaps the difficulty in a language whose “…secret is recollection locked within the body of the writer…” is that the significance of the body in the contemporary sphere is as yet undefined. In discussing the coalescence of a language, Barthes writes that “for as long as a tongue is still uncertain about its very structure, an ethics of language is impossible; modes of writing appear only when the language, being established on a national scale, becomes a kind of negativity, a line which separates what is forbidden from what is allowed, without asking itself any more questions about its origins or the justifications of such a taboo.” I would argue that we now occupy a moment in time in which the body has become similarly uncertain in terms of its definitions. With the inception of a decentralizing information technology, a disembodied information-based social network, we must, if not jettison the concept of the body, at least reconfigure its significance. It would be naïve to assume we are posthuman or post-physical – that just isn’t that case. What we are, and what the body is, remains at the present moment unknown, and ripe for investigation. We must conceive of language within the context of a body, yet it is the body whose context is at this contemporary moment a frontier we must explore.

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