Being a Marxist (and not a politician), he was dedicated to a rigorous egalitarianism, and, being an intellectual, he was a private man. By the rules of Communism the two traits are irreconcilable; a private man by virtue of his distance is an elitist: a bourgeois elitist. But he was a French intellectual, and, therefore, was a Communist and a private man.
In fact, Barthes, in common with all Communist French intellectuals, kept private wealth, taught in bourgeois schools, and was greatly entertained by bourgeois culture (as an object of social-anthropological study). The Communists needed French intellectual allies — especially famous ones — to display, for which reason he was largely free to pursue his own path. He made no demonstration of wealth. He taught from a context of strict egalitarianism that fortuitously equated to a dedication to unbiased observation. He analyzed bourgeois culture which conveniently precluded his being absorbed by it. All of these traits were absolutely sincere in him.
But, while it is easy enough to see why the Communists approved of Barthes, it is not so easy to see why, all of the above being true, he approved of the Communists. In a phrase, he did not want to be a Communist so much as he wanted not to be a bourgeois. To not-be a bourgeois and to not-be a Communist was dangerously close to being a solipsist. At the very least it meant that one played no part in the debates of the day: that one was inaudible. Barthes sincerely and profoundly wanted to not-be a bourgeois and to not-be inaudible. This defines his Communism.
With this as context, the book Writing Degree Zero is an incisive study about anti-bourgeois writing. It demonstratively includes Communist theory when Communist theory happens to coincide closely with the author’s own observations and quietly shifts to semiotic and anthropological perspectives when Communist theory does not. In this way, the author has access to an enthusiastic audience and the potential of actually affecting events. In this way, the reader is presented with alternatives to the insupportable simplifications of Communism that he or she may incorporate without being accused of heterodoxy. In this way, there is protection against the effects of expulsion by the bourgeoisie. In this way, free and unbiased inquiry is possible.
It is unlikely, however, that he needed Communist affiliation to give him protection from counter-persons. The bourgeoisie had competition at that time. A faction stays closer to its moral foundation when it feels that it is fighting for its existence. Once it has fought its way free of all meaningful competition, it claims still to be fighting for its existence in order to justify abandoning its moral foundation.
So then, Writing Degree Zero is about escaping from bourgeois Literature into egalitarian communication: from obfuscation and ornament into transparency and utility. It quite correctly reports that, from Flaubert onward, writers struggle to escape bourgeois opacity. It quite correctly reports that, from Rimbaud onward, writers realize that the struggle can only be successful by trying to escape from Literature altogether.
Because Barthes is an anti-bourgeois rather than a Communist proper, he deftly avoids all of the habitual pitfalls of the theorist of egalitarian communication. For one thing, he can cite Flaubert regardless of the fact that the author of Madame Bovary was resoundingly defending aristocratic values by his sardonic portrait of a young bourgeois woman and seething portraits of the inhabitants of Yonville. He can cite Mallarmé and Rimbaud regardless that they desired a profound individualism that amounted, in the former, to radical estheticism, and in the latter, to anarchy rather than Communism or even egalitarianism.
A Soviet theorist would, perhaps, have found himself in Siberia for this sort of breach, his publisher beside him. Both bourgeois theorist and publisher would know better than to antagonize the market upon which their wealth and reputation wholly depend. Counterpoised against the Gulag Archipelago is the Burger Joint Archipelago. (The jury is still out as to which method of intimidation is more effective.) By virtue of his incisive observational skills, and the freedom he secured for himself to use them, Barthes possessed the tools for an unusual clarity.
In the United States, that is to say, the situation was entirely different and exactly the same. ‘Communist sympathizers’ were blacklisted, for which reason the American intellectual of the time was forced into simplifications comparable to those which fettered Communist intellectuals. Not surprisingly, we find that the French intellectual was at least free of the simplifications to which his American and Soviet counterparts were generally obligated.
American counter-culture, however, was largely composed of individuals too insignificant to be worth hauling before the news-reel cameras and pursuing from workplace to workplace. The long tradition of Socialism in the United States continued in the form of Trade Unionism and street-artists, both of which were deeply divided amongst themselves and tended to cobble together ideologies to meet the exigencies of their immediate situations or to reflect the politically spurious rise of individuals to prominence.
While they were fiercely anti-Communist, the Unionists could not surrender certain ideas which the Eugene Debs inspired movements of the 1890s had retooled for Capitalist workers. While the street-artists were at base far too anarchic to accept the rigorous discipline of the commune, they found in the aesthetic of the Communist movement the authorization to deny the bourgeois critics that had rejected them. This composed a decidedly non-theoretical agenda.
The American street-artist was a romantic for anarchy. His or her language was neither transparent nor utilitarian regardless that he or she often coöpted the vocabulary of theoreticians, just as their drifting was not Zen regardless that they often coöpted the vocabulary of Zen. One of the many proofs of this is the superiority of the work of those who did rise at least occasionally to theory and Zen, such as Ginsberg, Snyder, Kerouac and Miller.
Rather than struggle to reach the degree zero, the street-poet cast off the fetters of form and traditional meaning for more predictable alternatives. He and she fiercely defended the Subjective Self. The poem was empowered, regardless of its form or content, or lack thereof, as purely personal expression. To require anything of it at all was considered oppressive, a crime of psychic mutilation.
All of the popular forms of mysticism were engaged in. Magical relations are the necessary stuff of both popular mysticism and the Subjective Self. As each grows, the word and object take on a value entirely outside of what history or function can support.
A small group of crypto-intelligentsia, who were well versed in the history of bourgeois Literature, also found their voices in this movement. Their more structured work found in these circumstances a ready-made audience for crypto-political positions that were rawly anti-bourgeois: political anarchism, deviation from bourgeois sexual norms, free use of psychedelic drugs, etc.
The resoundingly apolitical, and generally naive, Subjective Self was a thin but fertile soil for whatever seed was sown in it. It formed the grassroots of a movement, then, lead by a crypto-political leadership, and strewn throughout with small numbers of persons whom the bourgeoisie had rejected as petty criminals, sexual deviants, alcoholics and drug-addicts. As a result, the American anti-bourgeois movements of the late-50s, the 60s and 70s, were an ever shifting combination of naivete, cynicism and hedonism, which forced the individual back upon the Subjective Self as his or her sole constant.
The Poet of the Subjective Self was hemmed-in by the need for this same constant or was liberated by a submersion in all that was at base not real, not self. The former reaction recognized the impossibility of overcoming the disorientation in favor of any new orientation while the Subjective Self remained the only fixed point. The latter reaction was simply a giddiness at having managed to get free of bourgeois restraint.
The more sophisticated experimental poetic effort was circumscribed by the necessity of arriving at a final result not a heresy before a Subjective Self which would have no other god before it. The alternatives were to go a-begging to the bourgeoisie or to indulge in the solipsism which had daunted Barthes when it had been available on considerably more favorable terms.
Predictably, the conditions of the American movements could not be maintained for any period of time. Only the gratifying howls of the bourgeoisie empowered them to last as remarkably long as they did. What seems daring to persons under 25 years of age quickly grows old. The quality of leadership was kept low by this fact and by the failure to develop any viable alternative to hierarchical organization. The constant rate of turn-over prevented the formation of any dependable old-guard. The growing phenomena of cynical-opportunism and sexual-predation eventually made the experience too degrading for those who sought it as a rite-of-passage.
The bourgeoisie was scarred but fundamentally unchanged. In fact, it was revitalized by the influx of new blood which resulted from the turn-over and eventual collapse referred to above. Thrilled to accept any order immediately at hand, the rank-and-file of the movements became the dedicated entrepreneurs and stock-analysts gloated over to this day. Thrilled that the movements were over, the bourgeoisie was only too pleased to absorb as much of the Subjective Self as the market would bear.
It did with the Subjective Self what it does with all things: it made a commodity of it. The Subjective Self became a service industry and conveniently provided the crypto-intelligentsia an alibi, an exit-strategy and a highly attractive business opportunity. The infamous Me-Generation was born.
This transition was not the long reach it might seem to have been. The narcissism of the Me-Generation conveniently forestalls effective anti-bourgeois political coordination. It closely enough resembles Adam Smith’s doctrine of economic self-interest to amount to a remarkably successful marriage of convenience.
Although Smith’s Wealth of Nations was first published in the same year as the American Declaration of Independence it had little concern with democratic government. The Doctrine of Self-Interest was the crystallization of an idea (in the same fashion that Capitalism is a crystallization of the bourgeois ideal itself) which had been omnipresent in bourgeois culture for six hundred years, to that point, under whatever political system, or lack of system, it found itself at a given time or place. The fact that, within some twenty years, it was inextricably intertwined with all of the democratic principles codified by the American forefathers is testament to the power of simplification. That it should find subjugating the Subjective Self light work is hardly surprising.
By the time the movements of the 60s had ended, the Poetry of the Subjective Self had already been adapted by the mainstream market. Robert Lowell, a remarkably capable poet, having retreated in shambles into the gray world of lithium-carbonate and self-indulgence, found himself in a crisis in the early 60s: he was one of the few poets in the world with a large audience and was no longer able to write more than middling drafts.
His conversational talents, however, remained considerable and his credentials guaranteed him an endless supply of teaching positions and reading tours. Shrewdly assessing his market strengths and weaknesses, he inaugurated a new egalitarian poetry too humble to stoop to ‘gigantism,’ or, to be more direct, an aesthetic of middling, conversational drafts.
With a grasp of the prevailing market fundamentals which was nothing less than astonishing, he even designed an anti-bourgeois style replete with two-bathroom Cape Cod houses and three martinis (very dry), chased with mild self-deprecation (also very dry), before dinner. His holdings having been down-graded to common-shares, he almost single-handedly converted all outstanding common-shares of poetry into preferred voting-shares. For millions of common-share holders, relieved that they would no longer have to pay the price of preferred-shares, Lowell was a hero and his new aesthetic profound in its implications. He was clearly a man of his times.
Nor did it end there. The romance of the mad poet, which has again and again riveted audiences at least as far back as ancient Greece, was also money in the bank. Lowell was a visionary poet by virtue of his madness. He was a visionary poet without vision by virtue of his medication. His anti-vision was one of enlightenment through frequent hospitalization and the resulting humility which it could not help but bring with it.
The field of psychiatry, which had been consigned largely to lobotomizing, drugging and electro-shocking unsightly members of society, toward no particular gain in sightliness or grant-monies, found in Lowell’s celebrity a resource. He was the class of patient for whom they had been angling for years and sufficiently self-absorbed to believe that his personal experience represented the human condition.
On the alert, as always, for novel ideas with a bit of academic panache, the mainstream critics found what they needed as well. Lowell was primped and applauded. Virtually every word he wrote was acclaimed. The tiny niche markets of private practice and forensic psychiatry, gained through years of effort, rapidly expanded into vast, lucrative territories. Suddenly, poets and artists of every stripe began to succumb to psychosis at a rate that could only validate Lowell’s vision.
Coincidentally, the still more infuriating societal discontent was discovered to be psychotically anti-social: a trendy borderline personality, or depressive, perhaps,
if he received the news of his illness well, dangerously schizoid, if not. He was not a hateful but a sick person urgently needing society’s help. Soon society would be enlightened to the point where it understood that such abnormal thinking is not a matter of laws and constitutions but of correctable chemical imbalance.
These are among the reasons that Barthes’s books all seem so contemporary — so much more modern than virtually all of those books published within the past ten years. In Writing Degree Zero we find the following almost tortured observation about contemporary poetry:
Each poetic word is thus an unexpected object, a Pandora’s box from which fly out all the potentialities of language; it is therefore produced and consumed with a particular curiosity, a kind of sacred relish. This Hunger of the Word, common to the whole of modern poetry, makes poetic speech terrible and inhuman. It initiates a discourse full of gaps and full of lights, filled with absences and over-nourishing signs, without foresight or stability of intention, and thereby so opposed to the social function of language that merely to have recourse to a discontinuous speech is to open the door to all that stands above Nature.[Note 1]
In a book that has taken pains not to indulge in stylistics, suddenly there is the opaque ‘Pandora’s box’. Words leap out of it in lieu of demonic forces. Clearly, poetry makes people crazy.
Barthes is loath to appear to suggest a return to bourgeois poetry and is
forced to equivocate. There are no compliments here but the condemnations are caught in the throat. Here we are presented with the glory of having failed where failure can only seem superior to any known version of success. In the world of the French intellectual, almost anything is better than surrendering hard won ground to the bourgeoisie.
The passage, in fact, is an utter condemnation of poetry as a means of ‘getting anything done.’ Barthes has a habit throughout his work of dismissing modern poetry out of hand, in the most sweepingly general terms, and choosing not to consider it in any wider context or greater length. If historically it ever ‘got anything done,’ or displayed possibilities in that regard, he saw no reason to say as much. Egalitarian discourse, for him, was entirely a matter of prose.
Barthes wanted a perfectly egalitarian communication. He wanted it as an essential step toward a perfectly egalitarian act. He didn’t even know what act, but it didn’t matter, because he could see all too clearly that the very conditions of discourse might make failure inevitable. First things had to come first.
Writing, Barthes asserts, must reach ‘the state of a pure equation, which is no more tangible than an algebra’ in order to be entirely egalitarian. At that point, ‘the problematics of mankind is uncovered and presented without elaboration...’.
Unfortunately, nothing is more fickle than a colourless writing; mechanical habits are developed in the very place where freedom existed, a network of set forms hem in more and more the pristine freshness of discourse, a mode of writing appears afresh in the lieu of an indefinite language.[Note 2]
Even under the best of conditions, however, writing slips back into a ‘mode,’ and the pastiche of appetites and defensive positions which we have described could hardly be called the best of conditions.
The Hunger of the Word, then, which Barthes recognizes as commonplace as early as 1953, has lived for another fifty years as two successive new modes have tyrannized over poetry. The ‘indefinite’ language — the language which goes at it new every time — which is necessary to continue the revolution has been formalized on an ironic level. The forms have been democratized by being reduced to a least-common-denominator. Commodification has absorbed the original egalitarian ideal into the strangely utilitarian language-aesthetic of advertising. Commodification has become synonymous with egalitarianism. The least-common-denominator approach of advertising has become synonymous with transparency.
In fact, the ingredients that make up a good advertisement are precisely those that are presently judged to make a good poem. Both must say something that leaves an impact in a short time, almost without concern for what impact so long as recognition of the product name is enhanced. For this reason, both succeed by making curious use of sex, violence, sentiment, and disorientation. Neither can involve complexity the which will surely perplex and tune-out its audience.
The poet’s debilitating weakness is that he or she has nothing to sell but him or herself. When history is not oppressive or propaganda it is at best boring. Literature is condemned as elitist. All but a handful of ideas are too complex or an attempt to inflict psychic mutilation. That handful of ideas, itself, can not be explored but rather composes a laundry-list of approved (if not required) references. The end result is simply personal anecdote carefully devoid of complexity, ‘gigantism,’ or idea, which inevitably ends in a wistful trailing away which suggests that something beyond the words has been said.
For this reason the poetry is rarely as interesting as the biographies of the poets. We as readers become voyeurs, want to know about the style of their kitchen chairs, the antics of their cats, the impact of their significant-other’s wasting illness, in what room they do their writing, on what machine. The poet’s egalitarian masterwork is his or her best interview.
The uncommon exceptions that might be advanced do no more than prove the rule. They are invariably written by the members of two groups: 1) poets over the age of sixty who have managed to establish themselves as marquee-names and feel obligated to speak approvingly of the new New Egalitarianism in spite of their reservations; 2) a lingering group of anarchists who bore people to tears, or draw bad-boy applause, at open-mic poetry evenings.
The point has not quite been reached, however, at which the individual has come to terms with being him or herself a commodity. Utility has not yet quite come to be synonymous with success in selling a product. We observe the poet cast after uses within the range of his or her ‘transparent’ language only to be rebuffed again and again and to fall back upon the purely subjective, the emotional value of the word.
The word has always been more centrally the tool of poetry than prose. When the word becomes a separate entity in prose, we describe the result as ‘poetic prose’. As Barthes himself has pointed out, in other related works, more than ten years old, the fundamental unit of prose is the paragraph.
What we have described is nothing less than the evacuation of the word. There is always an on-going processal transformation of the word. In our turn we have undertaken to transform it into the vessel of the subjective, into the vessel of popular mysticism, into a commodity, a symptom, a power-word: all categories which have exiled the irrefrangible word and emptied the word which is serviceable until only a vague emotional value remains. Words do not mean much anymore.
This is not to say that prose does not have its ironic forms, as well. The novel has largely become — or strives to become — the made-for-tv-movie that justifies the advertisement. The train or airplane hurdling out of control, or variations on the same, are only too familiar as bourgeois formulae. The terrorist has replaced the cruel headmaster. The formulation of 400 pages being altogether a different matter than 32 lines, comic-book plots must be utilized in order to sell the product to sufficient numbers of consumers: in order to be egalitarian.
Thus we have Barthes’s discourse, ‘...full of gaps and full of lights, filled with absences and over-nourishing signs, without foresight or stability of intention...,’ today, with a virulence which makes Writing Degree Zero more contemporary than it was in 1953. The Hunger of the Word has so long been the tyrannizing mode that the hunger has reached the form of its dotage — a form which Barthes himself did not intend to describe — The Fetish Object of the Word.
Poems are filled with cinnabar and turquoise, endless moons and refinished hardwood floors, forsythia and teak, dormers and banisters, brie, brio, salt and bone. None of these objects is meant to provide the poem with anything more than a vague sense of wellbeing or exoticism. The reader does not even need to know the color of cinnabar, for example: it is the feel of the word on the tongue for which it is chosen. Cinnabar has recognizable market value. It could be placed on a tote board and compared with the value of Timbuktu, linoleum, and Betelgueze. The moon alone, by virtue of its connection with menses, perhaps exemplifies some tenuous connection with fact or symbol, while its primary value is the undifferentiated value of popular mysticism.
By the commodity-supply-and-demand model all products actively seek the lowest possible production cost to gain the highest possible selling-price. Freighting language with content and ideas is production-cost and is kept to the minimum necessary in order to successfully conduct business. What value the product has must then derive from other attributes, by no means the least of which is a curious and harmless way to fill leisure time. The product is valuable, in the final analysis, for what it is not and what it does not say.
With each successive New Egality, the bourgeoisie grows in strength as it can only do given the successive disempowerments of the word. In the Brave New World there are no more revolutions, only fads, as perfectly bourgeois as each new collectable toy line with which our children are trained. Or rather there are endless revolutions: several every election cycle, every painting style, every change in the formula of laundry-detergent, and so on ad infinitum. Commodification has become synonymous with egality; each new advertising-cycle with revolution. Everything is under control.
No one gets more at the vital problem of egalitarian writing than Barthes, but, ironically, Barthes is now a member of the elite. He had concluded that the true degree-zero is journalistic prose. All of his work is a remarkable success at trying to write incisive and intelligent work in this genre, carefully guarding against embellishment. Yet, quite aside from the fact that his intellectual milieu has passed on, he is unreadable to the entire body of people who his prose was so carefully designed to include and empower.
This is a pattern that we see again and again with the advent of the Subjective Self. It is a clear reversal of the slow but steady growth of cultural literacy since the beginnings of the public school movement of the early nineteenth century.
The simple utilitarian prose of a Mill is now impenetrable. The radically egalitarian prose of a Shelley is hopelessly overwrought. Both the poetry and prose of Whitman are read by an elect few who escape the accusation of elitism solely because the name Whitman has tremendous fetish-value. The list is almost endless. All of the history of egalitarianism itself is rendered inaccessible — unreadable.
It is not unreasonable to wonder if anything written over ten years ago isn’t now considered history or elitism or simply an insufficiently profitable commodity. Perhaps the best one can hope for is that a young minimum-wage clerk from the New Egality could not distinguish Barthes from the thousands of egalitarian works which no one can reasonably expect to maintain a readership after their advertising campaigns have come to an end.
In this environment, literary journals of reputation openly require poems that are not ‘difficult’. Almost across-the-board, length limitations begin to establish themselves at around 32 lines. Although the elite journals generally advertise their dedication to all styles and lengths, a brief dip into their contents makes clear that the new criteria are becoming the unspoken rules throughout the field.
If a journal of Science or Mathematics were to establish such guidelines, of course, they would justifiably be laughed out of the business. But Science and Mathematics exist in order to do something. While their practitioners fall resoundingly within the common definition of an elite, they promise that we will someday live forever and with the perfect security of ever more powerful and intelligent warheads and laser defenses. Even the present round of terrific weaponry and 80 year life span could not possibly be maintained by the egality should it seek to impose a right to do so. Improvements upon them would be out of the question. The egality merely smolders and devours a simplified vision of the future that is wisely advertised on a continuing basis. The Subjective Self can only wish to live forever.
The mistake is to believe that poetry does not exist to do anything, that it ‘makes nothing happen’, as Auden wrote. Every act, every direction cries out that presently the craft itself believes that it does not.
There are certain ironic advantages at hand should that perception change. Modern poetry has never had much of market to begin with. The poet’s subservience to market ideology is little more than another (and perhaps the least rational) aesthetic theory. This is yet another reason why the poet so often elicits a chuckle outside of his or her charmed circle of acquaintances.
Barthes himself, in Writing Degree Zero, takes the time, toward the end of his book, to equivocate about Literature. He realizes that he may have overstated his case. With certain writers, he explains, it ‘no longer implies pride or escape’:
it begins to become a lucid act of giving information; as if it had first to learn the particulars of the social differences by reproducing them.[Note 3]
It strives toward ‘giving information’. As a step in that direction, it may do so by portraying for the reader the particulars of behavior and social differences. These particulars, he goes on, are stored in language:
...every man is a prisoner of his language:...[Note 4]
We have observed in our own time that this is resoundingly the case.
The fundamental unit, the first concern, of poetry is the word: the quantum of language. If it can be said to ‘live’ in poetry, then it is a paltry life unless it has a memory of its own past to guide and enrich it. If it is merely a tool, it is a poor tool that can perform any task it is put to and none well. If poetry is to have a use, if it is to do something, it must return to the business of filling the word. The poet must struggle with the word again, or, perhaps better said, the problematical nature of the word. The prison in which each man and woman resides needs to be expanded, less restrictive. This is the only viable definition of egalitarianism.
Inasmuch as that expansion counts upon the word, only poetry has all the necessary tools available to it. The freedom that may seem to come from emptying the word is an illusion emptier than the language it breeds.
Poetry must assist in the struggle to be more functional. It must give its unique information through the medium of more functional words. That information may be the raw data of our lives or it may go beyond. It may attempt to be anything from lucid to playful to etiological to algebraic, but it must avoid the vaguely emotional and subdue the anecdotal.
If the Subjective Self cries out that this is elitism and wholesale psychic mutilation, it must simply be borne. The writer — the poet — must attend to this as a challenge also of his or her craft. Whether he or she should choose to defend or attack, yield or stand ground, seek privacy or publicity, appeal to the rational or the irrational, the struggle which it will inevitably entail corresponds directly to the struggle to write well. The alternative is to empty one more word of meaning: the word ”poetry”.
The also predictable claim that any alternative will necessarily arrive at nothing more than another mode, is not as easily answered. It may further be said that an age of experiment, in which each poem must be new, in the sense that it will have no demonstrable predecessor, does not promise any better success. Between each new start and subsequent mode, the only answer is a constant diligence — a constant dialectic between past experience and present hope.
So long as egality is equated with the least-common-denominator, elites will not only be inevitable but they will be essential. To see them, then, as uniformly sinister behind-the-scenes manipulators, invisible but predictable, is as useful as painting an on-coming car on one’s windshield in order always to be prepared for the eventuality of a head-on collision. So long as self-interest is reduced to absurdly simplistic terms it will be destructive: an enemy to an egality which can not help but embrace it all the closer. There is, it would seem, a great deal that needs doing.