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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 161-181 
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Performing Degree Zero: Barthes, Body, Theatre

Timothy Scheie

In the opening pages of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, a photograph shows the author as a young man, masked and playing in a Greek tragedy in the court of the Sorbonne. The caption reads: 

Darius, a part that had always given me terrible stage fright, had two long declamations in which I was likely to forget my lines: I was fascinated by the temptation of thinking about something else. Through the tiny holes of the mask, I could see only very high up, and very far away; while I delivered the dead king's prophecies, my eyes came to rest on inert--free--objects and books, a window, a cornice, a piece of the sky: they at least weren't afraid. I excoriated myself for getting caught in this uncomfortable trap--while my voice continued its smooth delivery, resisting the expressions I should have given it.1
Neither the emotionally engaged performer of method acting nor the knowing subject of Brechtian theatre, the distracted performer under the mask of Darius suffers from a wandering mind that can barely resist the transgressive desire to disrupt the faithful rendering of the ancient text. His apparent ability to maintain the façade (hollow as it may be) of the character Darius, of mimesis, and more generally of the "great" Western cultural tradition, while indulging in thoughts and desires that subvert the tragedy in a manner that generates anxiety on his part and, if this instability were palpable to the audience, for the spectator as well, constitutes a cultural intervention that would be the envy of contemporary performance art. It is not hard to imagine why Barthes includes this image, for it evokes many recurring motifs in his writing: the mask as an arbitrary and exterior sign of identity, desire that both generates and subverts signification, the lack of a coherent subject or agent that exercises authority over a text, the mixture of pleasure and fear in the vertiginous breakdown of meaning, representation, and "literature." The photograph and its caption invite speculation on the implications of Barthes's thought for theatre practice and theory. Barthes, however, offers little further encouragement in this direction. When he wrote this passage he [End Page 161] had for nearly fifteen years all but disavowed the theatre, and the most striking aspect of the photograph and its caption could be that in his later career he is addressing a specific theatre performance at all. 

Barthes was a fickle critic, and the object of his adulation one day might find itself castigated the next. The case of Albert Camus is typical in this respect; the author of L'Etranger was hailed as the founder of a new mode of writing, or écriture, only rather suddenly to find himself publicly responding to an acrimonious Barthes who exhibited all the wounded tone of a spurned lover. Alain Robbe-Grillet encountered a similar fate. Theatre seems to have also met with an abrupt if less harsh repudiation. In 1965, Roland Barthes wrote: "I've always liked the theatre and yet I hardly go there anymore."2 In itself, this statement does not shock for Barthes is hardly alone among theorists and critics when he directs his attention away from an art form that has become associated with the tastes of a bourgeois or intellectual elite, and whose relative importance is today greatly diminished among media and other systems of representation. At the time he made this remark Barthes himself had already broken new ground in the study of mass culture. His Mythologies (1957) arguably constitutes one of the founding texts of a field--cultural studies--that no longer privileges literature, dramatic or otherwise, as the nec plus ultra of cultural production, and in which the umbrella buzzword "performance" often relegates more conventional theatre to a marginal, conservative, and frequently ignored corner of the discussion.3 When situated in the chronology of Barthes's œuvre, however, this repudiation of theatre is more noteworthy and marks a change in the trajectory of his career. Barthes's university studies were on ancient Greek theatre--hence his participation in the production at the Sorbonne--and through his prolific theatre criticism of the 1950s he gained notoriety by using the journal Théâtre populaire, of which he was both a frequent contributor and co-editor, as a pulpit to issue an impassioned defense of Brecht in the face of skeptical French criticism. Barthes saw the stage as a necessary and powerful force in French society, one that bourgeois taste and money had tamed to a flaccid, ideologically insidious ritual of classist self-congratulation. A select few of his articles on this subject appear in his Critical Essays (1964). A review of his early writings in their entirety reveals the extent to which theatre dominated his critical output in the 1950s, especially in the years immediately following the publication of Writing Degree Zero (1953). His polemic reviews and commentaries on theatre outnumber, for example, the short texts that would eventually constitute the more well-known Mythologies.4

Barthes divided his career into existential/Marxist, structuralist/semiological, poststructuralist/deconstruction, and "nihilist" moments.5 Although somewhat arbitrary, these divisions prove meaningful for a discussion of his tenure as a theatre critic, [End Page 162] which coincides neatly with the duration of the earliest period. Critical evaluations of the successive "phases" (Barthes's term) and their relative importance have historically fallen into two opposed camps. Some critics view his structuralism as his most important contribution to literary and cultural studies, while more recent ones generally hail his enigmatic later writings as seminal texts in poststructuralist theory and, sharing Barthes's own view that his earlier interest in a literary science of signs and signification was a "delirium" from which he fortunately recovered, take a greater interest in Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (1980) or the posthumous Incidents (1987) than in On Racine (1963) and Elements of Semiology (1964).6 Whichever position they profess, scholars in both camps generally grant little more than a cursory account of the interest in theatre so evident in his early texts. Ironically perhaps, Barthes himself fueled the trend to overlook these writings. At the time of the structuralist quarrel that propelled him to international intellectual stardom, Barthes had already ceased to write about theatrical performance. The fact that he himself never drew out the implications of his later, more widely disseminated structuralist and poststructuralist thought for theatre practice could explain why his work on theatre remains little more than a fait divers in the monographs and biographies on his life and writings.7

Even given the episodic nature of his career, Barthes's repudiation of theatre remains something of a mystery. Why did he abruptly turn his critical attentions elsewhere after advocating for so many years a responsible theatre that could shake the yoke of bourgeois values and then finding such a theatre in Brecht's Berliner Ensemble during its visits to Paris between 1954 and 1956? The recent publication of his complete works has facilitated an exhaustive review of his writings on theatre, and a few critics have ventured explanations for his disavowal. Andy Stafford traces Barthes's association with Théâtre populaire, his shifting opinions of Jean Vilar's Théâtre national populaire (T.N.P.), the discovery of Brecht, and finally his disillusionment not only with French efforts to forge a truly popular theatre for the masses but with militant activism of any sort. Stafford argues that the tension between a "Trotskyian cynicism towards popular culture" and a "typically Communist Party cultural populism" confounded Barthes's impatient call for a viable popular theatre, the very possibility of which he soon began to question. He concludes that Barthes's exasperation [End Page 163] with mass culture, so evident in the Mythologies, drove him to the more esoteric structuralist enterprise of the early 1960s.8 Philipe Roger similarly suggests that Barthes championed an idiosyncratic vision of a truly popular theatre that he would subsequently deem impossible.9 Where Stafford contends that André Malraux's theatre reform of 1959 played into the hands of bourgeois culture and further alienated Barthes, Roger suggests that through the establishment of theatres and Maisons de la culture throughout France, Malraux--minister of culture under DeGaulle--actually realized a truly popular theatre, a disturbing success that impelled Barthes's silence lest he find himself praising the initiatives of a regime he reviled. Despite their differences, both critics agree that after 1960 Barthes's interest in theatre disappears along with his conflicted Marxist leanings, and consider his repudiation of the stage a function of this shift in his thought. 

It would be hard to dispute that Barthes had a love/hate relationship with mass culture--the Mythologies betray a curious mix of fascination and distaste--and his cantankerous theatre commentaries leave little doubt that he was thoroughly fed up with the state of French theatre as early as 1955. It is nonetheless unclear why, alone among systems of representation, theatre is inextricably linked to Barthes's failed reconciliation of his developing theories with a Sartrean Marxism, and that the disillusionment with one entails the rejection of the other. Barthes frequently expressed a dislike of cinema, photography, and literature on grounds similar to those that kindled his invectives against French theatre, a fact that did not prevent him from exploring these media from different theoretical perspectives throughout his long career. Far from precluding an analysis of theatre, the shift from an existentialist/Marxist analysis to a purportedly scientific semiology would more logically have opened new critical perspectives on theatre as a signifying system. Theatre's "density of signs," to use a phrase Barthes coined in 1954, had already provided a rich field of inquiry for the theorists of the Prague Linguistic Circle, Barthes's predecessors in the study of signs and signification. Furthermore, these arguments cannot explain the sustained absence of live performance in Barthes's later career, most remarkably in his failure to relate "the body," le corps, a key theoretical trope of his later phases, to the study of French theatre productions. Why, when he examined the poststructuralist body's inflection in literary texts, painting, photography, music and other media, did he use the word "theatrical" either as an epithet, a synonym for the "hysterical" representations he loathed, or else in a more general sense, as so many contemporary critics do, as a metaphor for theatre that denies live performance any specificity? The fact that the body, both as a figure and literally qua body, reappeared with force and preoccupied Barthes while theatre, when not scorned, lingered in the margins of his work, makes the question of his sudden dislike all the more perplexing. 

In pondering Barthes's fraught relationship to theatre, it is illuminating to broaden the inquiry from a narrow focus on his flirtation with Marxism and to consider his early writings in terms of the perennially thorny question of the body and its unsettling "presence." The body on stage clearly both fascinates and vexes Barthes, and generates a profound ambivalence that pervades his early articles and essays on [End Page 164] theatre and other topics. Two distinct bodies compete in Barthes's early writings: a clearly intelligible body-as-sign and a decidedly less articulate one that both intrigues and torments him. While Barthes elsewhere cultivates ambivalence to enhance his theoretical terms--the deliberately unclear distinction between plaisir and jouissance, for example--the studied ambivalence of this instability is notably lacking in his comments on theatre which seem to betray genuine misgivings. Could Barthes's conflicted appraisal of the performing body be construed as a provocatively unstable term? What caveats attend this potential? What comment can be gleaned from the performing bodies that weave in and out of his writings? 

The body as écriture

Unease with the body haunts Barthes from his earliest published writings, including the essays collected in Writing Degree Zero in which he critiques the ideal for committed literature Sartre had put forth in What is Literature? Where Sartre located engagement in a clarity of expression through prose, Barthes sees the responsibility of the writer in the choice of writing, écriture, a gesture that in itself signifies more heavily than the denotative content of a given text. Barthes anticipates the canon debate of the 1980s when he maintains that the discourse of "literature" also indicates an historical situation that an alibi of eternal or essential value obscures. Less convinced than Sartre of the individual's autonomy, Barthes carefully observes the limits on this freedom of choice by distinguishing between language, style, and writing. Language serves as a horizon within which the author must navigate, a "reflex response," a limit which a single author is free neither to set nor to choose. Style likewise offers no choice to a writer, but differs from language in that the writer's individual experience determines it, rather than an externally imposed and shared cultural situation. It is a "personal and secret mythology," a "form without destination," the "closeted memory" that, as does language, situates the author within a fixed set of coordinates from which to write and demands no responsibility on the part of the writing subject.10 Powerless against these two invariable axes, only in writing can the author exercise a narrow freedom and écriture marks the writer's sole possibility for commitment. Still following Sartre in his idiosyncratic way by advocating choice and responsibility, albeit limited, Barthes sets language and style aside to address the possibilities and pitfalls of écriture

The brief and often overlooked comments on style, however, sketch a startling portrait of the body's role in the generation of meaning. Style fascinates Barthes for reasons other than the measured arguments that characterize his discussion of écriture. Style springs from the "hidden, secret flesh" of the writer's body, forming a second horizon of possibilities "whose frame of reference is biological, not historical" (10-11). Using vocabulary worthy of an alchemist, Barthes continues: 

Style is always a secret; but the occult aspect of its implications does not arise from the mobile and ever-provisional nature of language; its secret is recollection locked within the body of the writer . . . what stands firmly and deeply beneath style . . . are fragments of a reality entirely alien to language. The miracle of this transmutation makes style a kind of supra-literary operation which carries man to the threshold of power and magic . . . . It is [End Page 165] the Authority of style, that is, the entirely free relationship between language and its fleshly double, which places the writing above History as the freshness of Innocence.
Though Barthes does not elaborate these thoughts on style at any length, they are surprising in the context of his greater argument and far more than a casual propadeutic aside. Style exceeds the apparent totality of history, language, ideology, and the social--and those familiar with his later work will perhaps be surprised to find in Writing Degree Zero a passage that would seem more at home in The Pleasure of the Text, "The Grain of the Voice," and other later essays. 

The corporeally manifested "zero degree" of meaning does not sit well with the Marxist and existentialist leanings Barthes still held at this period and that motivate the greater discussion of Writing Degree Zero. If it presages the poststructuralist dissemination of the subject, in the intellectual climate of 1953 the body of style evokes more the romantic notion of an autonomous Cartesian selfhood. Barthes's fascination with the "secret flesh" of style generates a palpable ambivalence: 

But when the poetic language radically questions nature by virtue of its very structure, without any resort to the content of the discourse and without falling back on some ideology, there is no mode of writing left, there are only styles, thanks to which man turns his back on society and confronts the world of objects without going through any of the forms of History or of social life.
Stripped of the insidious myth of literature, the "degree zero" paradoxically constitutes both writing's disappearance and its ideal. If Barthes longs for "innocence," "neutrality," and "transparency," in the next breath he discounts such writing as comprised of "only styles," exempt from meaning, extracted from history, and situated outside of the social arena of politics and ethics. Barthes also suspects that the zero degree might be an unattainable goal, that even the purest "white writing" will all too soon acquire an ideological shadow as a new myth of writing or a new literary mannerism. He notes that at the very moment of its appearance Camus's L'Etranger already runs this risk, and herein lies Barthes's most pointed answer to Sartre's faith in the clarity of prose unencumbered with literary or poetic ornament. Pursuing his attempt to reconcile Sartrean commitment with a Marxist critique of bourgeois ideology, Barthes brackets off the "occult," "magical," "miraculous" corporeality that drew his rhapsodic and nearly religious praise to explore the problems that écriture poses for a committed writer. 

The desire to engage an historical situation leads Barthes to invoke a second and very different body, one that holds no secrets and performs no magic. Three articles published the same year as Writing Degree Zero all vindicate a tidily semiotized body specifically in the context of live performance. In "Pouvoirs de la tragédie antique" ("Powers of Ancient Tragedy"), his first contribution to Théâtre populaire, Barthes appreciates in particular how the ancient Greeks' use of masks exteriorizes identity, establishing the character's words and deeds as a function of a position in a specific historical moment. Under the intelligible mask, there is no secret excess analagous to a writer's style, "no abyss in which an ineffable part of being could take refuge."11[End Page 166] Contemporary theatre, Barthes laments, has abdicated the "liberated collective unrest" that such exteriority incites, and that in the middle of the twentieth century only sporting events continue to achieve. In an early expression of his interest in Saussure, Barthes writes that the issue at hand is a distinctly semiological one: 

Take professional wrestling: what do you read? Signs of emotion, more than emotion itself. The combatants exhibit the state of their souls (pain, joy, rage, vengeance, normality), all their expressions are chosen to present to the masses an immediate and exhaustive reading of their motives. Here there is not the ambiguity of life.
[219, my emphasis]
Advocating a performance free of "life," Barthes challenges the importance and very existence of a performer's "liveness" or "presence" when he maintains that even an unmasked performer (the wrestler) can be an écriture, unencumbered by an occult or otherwise troubling excess. 

In "The World of Wrestling" and "Folies-Bergère," the first two of the many short articles on popular culture he began publishing in 1953, Barthes further asserts that the performing body can achieve a pure intelligibility. With a marked absence of the disdain that characterizes many of the later mythologies, Barthes relishes the "professional" wrestling matches, "the most intelligible of spectacles."12 The body, he recognizes, constitutes the key to the spectacle's success, and he admires the wrestler's ability to incarnate an outrageous, over-the-top and, most importantly, immediately readable persona at the expense of interior motivation and psychology. The body's transformation, furthermore, is complete: "Leaving nothing in the shade, each action discards all parasitic meanings and ceremonially offers to the public a pure and full signification, rounded like a nature."13 In a similar vein, a "complete intention of exteriority" characterizes the stylized signs of femininity inscribed on the Folies-Bergère showgirls.14 In the unclothed human body, the Judeo-Christian state of pure "naturalness," Barthes sees neither nature nor truth, but a system at work. The sight of the showgirls is nothing less than epiphanic: "I have cleared up the most tenacious mystery of existence, that of the other's body. This face which normally is nothing more than present, is here at last manifested to me as a product" (199, my emphasis). The showgirls circulate both as a commodity in an economy of exchange (the seats at the Folies-Bergère are expensive and the spectators demand a product in return for their money) and as clearly intelligible signs in a system of gendered codes. Both wrestling and the Folies-Bergère cleanse the body of any parasitic remainder that would attest to something, or more significantly to someone, behind the "mask" of a purely readable body. 

In many of the following mythologies Barthes further ascertains a semiotically pure corporeality unencumbered by "mystic" or "secret" remainders. The men of ancient Rome portrayed in Hollywood films, for example, are riddled with internal conflict. How does the spectator know this? Not by apprehending the character's interior psychology but by viewing a simple exterior sign: the beads of sweat on their [End Page 167] foreheads. In another example, l'Abbé Pierre's face seems to exude a goodness that wells from within, testifying even to the manifestation of a divine presence on earth in this tireless crusader against homelessness but which is nothing more than a montage of signs borrowed from a cultural code of saintliness. The myth "Striptease" further develops the arguments of "Folies-Bergère": as the stripper progressively peels off her clothes the conventions of the dance and the signs of eroticism reclothe her body under a code of nudity so opaque in its familiarity that it effectively obscures any real nakedness. Under the layers of cultural codes exists no "reality foreign to language," no "hidden, secret flesh." Barthes derides the tendencies of his much reviled petit-bourgeois public to mistake this code as true or real, to misrecognize these ideologically determined masks of identity as immutable nature. The harsh tone of many of these commentaries is absent in "The World of Wrestling" and muted in "Folies-Bergère," spectacles that unabashedly sacrifice truth to intelligibility and that do not purport to pass artifice and convention as true or real. 

French theatre constituted a consummate and particularly galling myth, and Barthes's first theatre reviews and criticism echo the urgent call for demystification. In post-war France, Barthes laments, one goes to the theatre not to experience collectively "man mired in the tyranny of a barbaric religion or inhuman civic law,"15 but to watch complacently in luxurious surroundings of velvet and gilt the tribulations of adulterers and broken families, all clothed in the latest fashions and circulating in elegantly appointed salons. The bourgeois spectator finds a "soothing mythology, just right for reassuring one's fears or to kill off one's remorse,"16 and leaves the theatre unflustered, confident that the price of the ticket was worth both the measure of high culture received and, perhaps more importantly, the spectacle of lavish costumes, sumptuous décor, and arduous over-acting, all in the name of realism. In place of this theatre of money, Barthes envisions one that breaks out of ideological servitude to bourgeois taste to foster the collective encounter with a dynamic historical situation that he so admired in Greek tragedy. 

Larvatus prodeo: "I move forward, masked." Barthes co-opted this Cartesian motto as his ideal for representation, often translating it as "I come forward indicating my mask with a finger."17 This acknowledgment of the mask, the refusal to pass as unmediated "nature," distinguishes the Greek tragedians, wrestlers, and showgirls from the other bodies that populate the Mythologies. This same distinction also grounds Barthes's critical evaluation of acting styles in the many reviews he began publishing in 1954. He is particularly impressed with the performance of Maria Casarès in a production of Julien Green's L'Ennemi. Casarès "inundates with clarity" her performance, thereby engaging the spectators who can no longer complacently witness the fulfillment of entrenched expectations. Barthes admires her face in particular: "When her face transforms, it deforms, it joins without reserve the folds of the ancestral mask through which pain, panic, or joy are signified."18 As with the ancient tragedian to whom Barthes compares her, Casarès exhibits pure and extreme emotions that oblige the spectators, as active readers, to observe the production of the play's meaning. Casarès [End Page 168] does not express an interior state, she signifies it; she does not serve a text, she reveals it to the spectator: "she throws onto the stage an excess and a distance that can only weary those who are lazy and disconcert the amateurs of easy salvation."19 A performer like Maria Casarès harmonizes with the residual existentialism of Barthes's first phase when, like the heroes of Sartre's own plays who realize that existence means accepting and assuming a situation in the world, getting one's "hands dirty" as it were, she rejects the familiar, anesthetizing myths of theatre and literature to take up a mask in a meaningful gesture, a profound if limited act of commitment. 

Barthes idealizes performers who assume their roles totally, sans réserve. Their bodies bear no trace of a reality outside of language, the "secret and decorative flesh" that exceeds history and language as the "freshness of innocence." The only excess to the body as writing that Barthes seems to acknowledge is the fetishized "presence" or "nature" that the reviled petit-bourgeois reader or spectator (itself a myth begging interrogation) misrecognizes as universal, natural, or true. Barthes wonders who among these complacent bourgeois theatregoers will want to see a performer like Casarès, whom he dubs the tragédienne sans public.20 The thought that there might be no spectators for his ideal theatre even when it exists betrays Barthes's incipient doubt that there can be a popular culture at all and presages his eventual disappointed realization that working class culture is ultimately dictated by petit-bourgeois sensibilities. If his disenchantment with Marxism and his misgivings about theatre are indeed related, it is in this respect: given the apparent hegemony of the petite-bourgeoisie, the only viable theatre is one that perpetuates the myth of autonomous subjects and truths rooted beyond the contingencies of representation.21

An unhealthy sign

Despite the preponderance of neatly semiotized bodies in Barthes's early discussions of theatre and performance, his 1954 preface to an edition of Baudelaire's complete works, reprinted in Critical Essays as "Baudelaire's Theatre," reveals that writing's "fleshly double" was not an anomalous musing of Writing Degree Zero. In a frequently cited passage Barthes consider all aspects of theatrical representation, including bodily specific elements such as gesture, an artificial "density of signs," an "exterior language" that evokes both the choice of écriture he describes in Writing Degree Zero and the literal or figurative masks that convey an emotional state.22 Barthes argues Baudelaire was first and foremost a poet, not a playwright, and that his dramaturgy suffered from a weak and too abstract sense of the multivalent registers that constitute this theatricality. A notable exception draws Barthes's comment: "[Baudelaire's] authentic theatricality is the sentiment, indeed one might say the torment, of the actor's disturbing [troublant] corporeality" (27). The recognition of this [End Page 169] troubling body abruptly sends Barthes's argument straying from the path of clarity and intelligibility: 
Baudelaire had an acute sense of the most secret and also the most disturbing theatricality, the kind that puts the actor at the center of the theatrical prodigy and constitutes the theatre as the site of an ultraincarnation, in which the body is double, at once a living body deriving from a trivial nature, and an emphatic, formal body, frozen by its function as an artificial object.
The double body establishes the opposition between writing and style specifically in terms of live performance, and in conceding a "natural" body Barthes opens a Pandora's box of questions that "Powers of Ancient Tragedy" and the Mythologies kept tightly closed. The performing body stands apart from the rest of theatre's "density of signs" as a troubling object of fascination, leading one to conclude that in his ideal performances described elsewhere--Greek tragedians, wrestlers, Casarès--Barthes less resolves than represses the question of a performing body's disturbing corporeality. The contradictions spawned by this mystic "ultraincarnation" unsettle the arguments of the Baudelaire preface itself. The performer's "tormenting" corporeality, the redeeming attribute and sole manifestation of theatricality in Baudelaire's dramaturgy, fascinates precisely where it exceeds the "artificial" signs that comprise the theatricality ("density of signs") it supposedly epitomizes. 

A distinctly Artaudian sense of dramaturgy informs Barthes's theorization of the "tormenting" body under the mask and outside of writing, and though there is no evidence it was his intention the Baudelaire preface could be construed as a site where discordant Brechtian and Artaud-inspired dramaturgies meet, and its troubled logic a consequence of their irreconcilable goals. Unlike his well-known interest in Brecht, Barthes's references to Artaud are few and far between, usually no more than a name on a list of writers who envisioned the limits of language (Lautrémont, Mallarmé, and Sollers are often his companions). However, the language of the Baudelaire preface and even his initial description of style in Writing Degree Zero--"magical" and "double" bodies, a tormenting "ultraincarnation"--summon the intertext of Artaud's The Theatre and its Double. The "secret and disturbing theatricality" resonates with echoes of the Theatre of Cruelty, which also shatters the surface of language, reason, and intelligibility. Barthes's appreciation of the "density of signs" could be considered a rearticulation of Artaud's call for a new dramatic language that frees the entire theatrical apparatus from the tyranny of the written text.23 Barthes's unflagging suspicion of metaphysics of any sort would, of course, forbid too close a rapprochement with Artaud; he would certainly not identify theatre's "double" with the archetypal recesses of the human soul. Nonetheless, the two share a revulsion of psychological theatre and both promote a vision of the performer's body as a palpable but inarticulate "speech before words."24

These "fragments of reality alien to language" and "above History" inevitably collide with the proclivities that led Barthes to Brecht. Soon after the Baudelaire [End Page 170] preface, the discovery of Brecht and a concurrent rise in his interest in Saussurian linguistics radically reset the parameters of his thought. Barthes first discovered Brecht during the Berliner Ensemble's 1954 visit to Paris, and later writes that he was incendié, "set afire," by the production of Mother Courage he saw. His initial review in Théâtre populaire is no less emphatic: "The performance proved to us that this profound criticism has created that theatre . . . which we had dreamed of and which has been discovered before our eyes, in its adult and already perfected form."25 Brecht's "epic" theatre furnished a fully formulated answer to the bourgeois theatre of money Barthes despised. After 1954 Brecht would figure as an ubiquitous point of reference in his work, from the first reviews of Mother Courage through Camera Lucida. No such coup de foudre characterized Barthes's discovery of Saussure but the same year saw a marked increase in the Swiss linguist's influence which would soon surpass even that of Brecht. The principles of structural analysis were already evident in Barthes's idealization of the mask, figurative or literal, which brings out the subject's function in a given system of relationships at the expense of any inherent or essential identity. Despite obvious differences between Brecht's profound sense of history and Saussure's synchronic analysis of structures, the two do not clash in Barthes's work. For Barthes, the Saussurian principle that a sign has no value in and of itself and makes no sense outside of the whole system from which it differentially derives its meaning, or even its very existence, is analogous to the Brechtian gestus that reveals how the characters' identity and worldview are shaped by the social, economic, and political situation in which they find themselves, and to which they are often blind. The task of a Brechtian/Saussurian critic is to find the means to alienate the apparent autonomy of an individual entity, be it a character in a play or a sign, to reveal its situation in the system in which it circulates and that grants it meaning.26

Barthes's zealous espousal of Brecht and Saussure predictably lowers his threshold of tolerance for transhistorical metaphysics and occult excesses to the sign. After the Brecht epiphany, the performer's "natural" body haunts his writings on theatre more as a problem than a "secret" or "magical" presence worthy of celebration, a shift clearly apparent in the 1954 essay "The Diseases of Costume." Barthes executes further his conjugation of Brecht and Saussure when he proposes gestic properties as the touchstone of a production's semiological "health": "Every dramatic work can and must reduce itself to what Brecht calls the social gestus, the external, material expression of the social conflicts to which it bears witness."27 The ideal costume, like all aspects of a production, serves this gestic function: "The costume is nothing more than the second term in a relation which must constantly link the work's meaning to its 'exteriority.' Hence everything in the costume that blurs the clarity of this relation, that contradicts, obscures, or falsifies the social gestus of the spectacle, is bad . . ." (42). Barthes deplores the typical costume's attempt to impress an audience through values, esthetic appeal and historical accuracy (for example), that do not contribute directly to the argument of the play or reveal the attitudes adopted by the characters towards [End Page 171] each other. He praises the costumes of the Berliner Ensemble's production of Die Mutter that signify rather than reproduce or painstakingly imitate the poverty of the characters, and in which the spectator can see the deliberate choices made by the costume designers and the work that went into constructing them: "the good sign must always be the fruit of a choice and of an accentuation" (48). They are "healthy" because they are readable signs, the clear result of meaningful decision on the part of designers, directors, and performers. This favorable prognosis allows Barthes to continue his deft juggling of Marx via Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt, Sartre's committed choice, and Saussure's sign. 

In the midst of this discussion of a theatre where clear, artificial, and at least somewhat arbitrary signs circulate, the tormenting corporeality of the "mystic" body makes an unexpected interruption: "Another positive function of the costume: it must create a humanity, it must favor the actor's human stature, must make his bodily nature perceptible, distinct, and if possible affecting [déchirante: more closely translated as "tearing" or "rending"] (48-49). The choice of the term déchirante is noteworthy and--again more evocative of Artaud than Brecht--suggests a body that wreaks destruction on the theatre of intelligible signifiers Barthes advocates elsewhere.28 What is this inherent "human quality" that distinguishes the body and conscripts the other, apparently subordinate elements of theatre (set, costume) to its service? Barthes does not define this excess beyond a curious and vague humanism. He also exhibits less an Artaudian inclination to celebrate this body than a Brechtian worry over this excess, and charges the ideal costume with another important function. If the healthy costume "respects" the troubling corporeality of theatre, it does so not merely by being a readable sign itself but by actively shaping the body into one as well, "sculpting" the body, carving out its "silhouette" for the spectator, and reinscribing it as écriture. This transformation is particularly important for the performer's face: "The costume must be able to absorb the face; we must feel that a single historical epithelium, invisible but necessary, covers them both" (49).29 The costume's function is less to reveal the troubling corporeality of the performing body than to mitigate it, to enclose it, to reconcile its "humanity" with the systems of language and history Barthes brings together in his conjugation of Brecht and Saussure. By his own standard the body is a decidedly "ill" sign, and the task of a good costume is to nurse it back to health. The ideal costume effectively neutralizes the "liveness" of theatre, and if the performing body's unique and "miraculous" properties persist, they demand the concerned vigilance of designers and directors. 

A disembodied ideal

With the exception of a few French productions (Vinaver, Planchon, Sartre's Nekrassov), after 1955 Barthes increasingly considers the contemporary stage a problematic, semiologically muddled mode of representation. Even the enlightened example of Brecht cannot redeem French theatre; the state funding necessary to maintain [End Page 172] such a theatre, the audience who can understand it, and the theatre company who can execute it are all sorely lacking.30 The volume of Barthes's theatre criticism falls sharply, and the few reviews he continues to produce lack his earlier energy as outrage over the state of French theatre devolves into a repetitive lament of its misguided efforts.31 In the late 1950s, Barthes turns his critical attention away from the theatre and devotes more and more energy to semiology and structural analysis. 

A comparison of "The Diseases of Costume" with a 1957 article in the journal Annales, "Histoire et sociologie du vêtement" ("History and Sociology of Clothing"), reveals how the abstraction of the live performing body permits a more precise semiological study. The arguments of the earlier article become quickly mired in the question of the body, whose "human" quality the clothing brought into focus. In stark contrast the body is virtually absent in "History and Sociology of Clothing" where Barthes is more interested in the mutations of costume within an impersonal sociology, and any idiosyncratic deviations draw his interest only as inflections of a greater system. Barthes evokes Saussure by name and profusely deploys a vocabulary borrowed from linguistics--signifié, signifiant, indices, structures--that signals a departure from earlier criticism in which he had not embraced the terms of structural analysis so systematically.32 Barthes no longer needs to charge the clothes with the task of serving the body's "humanity," precisely because in his general study of clothing as it might appear in drawings, documents, painting, photographs, or simply (as in this article) on an abstract level the body is missing, replaced by a study of generic categories and populations that, untroubled by "tormenting" excesses, clearly benefits from its absence. 

Structural analysis might avoid the "sick" sign of the performer's body but it cannot cure it, and when the discussion turns to questions of theatre the "magical" body continues assiduously to haunt Barthes's writing. In one of his last and longest articles on Brecht's theatre, a 1960 preface for an edition of Mother Courage, Barthes offers a final mise-à-point of his dual conception of the performing body.33 After praising the intelligible artificiality that in Barthes's eyes is Brecht's hallmark, he once again issues a now familiar disclaimer in a passage that merits quoting at length: 

But perhaps it is necessary to go further: behind this meaning there is still a cipher. Even more than in the range of materials [in the costumes] . . . this cipher can be discovered in some fresh, fragile substances . . . in the half-open collar of a shirt, the skin of a face, a bare foot, the childlike gesture of a hand, a topcoat that is too short or only half-buttoned. This cipher, which is the true Brechtian cipher, is the vulnerability of the human body. And like this vulnerability, Brecht never says it aloud but confides its evidence in the spectacle, and just as man's corporeal tenderness is the cipher beyond which there is nothing more to decipher, the most clearly offered meaning is the most hidden: man is lovable [aimable].34[End Page 173]
This commentary is remarkable for several reasons. Barthes embarks on a lyrical foray into language and ideas--tendresse, aimable--that contrast sharply with the dry scientific discourse of his structuralist phase which, by 1960, was nearing full swing; these notions anticipate his later thought and indicate a clear connection between his theatre criticism and the "lovable" bodies that populate his later works (in particular A Lover's Discourse: Fragments and Camera Lucida). Barthes concedes that the body somehow exceeds the costume and the rest of theatre's "density of signs"; the gap in clothing is no longer foreclosed with a nudity that is just another sign (as with the strippers and showgirls) but is left open, exempt from meaning. In this gap he locates the "human" quality that the healthy costume sculpted into a readable sign, and if Barthes no longer situtates it absolutely "outside of history," it nonetheless lingers at the threshold of intelligibility, on the brink of the unthinkable au-delà, the "beyond." Instead of worrying over or pathologizing this excess, he marvels at it as the horizon of semiosis and the raison d'être of theatre itself. Barthes's vocabulary once again invokes Artaud, and the curious usage of the distinctly Artaudian term "cipher" (chiffre) to describe the performing body of Brecht's theatre is particularly striking. The vision of an ideal theatre is, in effect, where Brecht and Artaud meet; where history, ideology, and writing reach their outer limit beyond which there is nothing more to alienate, nothing more to say; where one can only affirm--body degree zero. 

One could say that Barthes thus closes his career as a theatre critic by indulging in a final celebration of the performing body's attributes that his semiological analyses could not tolerate. After 1960, references to French theatre, directors, performers, or any specific moment of theatre practice all but vanish, along with the lyrical praise of the performer's fascinating, "vulnerable" corporeality. Compare the review of Mother Courage to the following passage from the 1963 "Literature and Signification": "Brecht divined the variety and relativity of semantic systems: the theatrical sign does not appear as a matter of course; what we call the naturalness of the actor or the truth of a performance is merely one language among others."35 Brecht persists as a theoretical figure in Barthes's writing, but one displaced from questions of theatre practice to a more general discussion of signification. Barthes's silence on the dynamics of theatre performance is at times deafening. On Racine, for example, offers a textual analysis of Racine's plays that elides questions of performance in all but his discussion in the short second section of the alexandrine's delivery. Even then Barthes idealizes a falsely pure alexandrine, removed from the body that pronounces it and thereby cleansed of any potential "parasitic" extra-linguistic remainder that might adulterate the text's semiological purity. An even more egregious example is the systematic and lengthy structuralist analysis of The Fashion System in which Barthes establishes the rhetoric and syntax of fashion not by studying the clothing itself, nor even fashion photographs, but tellingly by examining instead the captions and the accompanying articles. In the brief mention of the body in this work, he amplifies his earlier remarks on the costume: the body interests him only when it enters the language of fashion ("small, fine traits are in style this year") or when the clothes, or more accurately the description of the clothing, shape the "sensitive" body into a complex of clearly intelligible signs. Nudity enters his analysis not as a body that exceeds the clothing system, but as a mere word, a signifier that, in his system, is a function of clothing: the [End Page 174] bare arm between the shoulder and the glove is part of the whole "look."36 He has regained the semiological purity of the body-as-sign of Mythologies, but only by subsuming his semiological analysis into an exclusive study of language.37

In the same 1965 article in which he announces he no longer goes to the theatre, Barthes himself wonders why: "What happened? When did it happen? Was it I who changed? Or was it the theatre? Do I no longer like it, or do I like it too much?"38 Could he have so quickly forgotten the body that haunted his writings on theatre as both cause for celebration and an unwelcome excess? Is he genuinely oblivious to the incompatibility of his early theorization of corporeality with a structural analysis and a Saussurian-inspired semiology? Diana Knight has remarked the "desire to conceive utopias either within or beyond language" that characterizes Barthes's work throughout its many phases.39 In the case of the body of theatre, Barthes attempts to conceive of both at once, hence the profound ambivalence and attendant anxiety that pervade his remarks on the live body of theatre and make it a uniquely fraught area of inquiry--as a rigorous semiologist who considers all the world a text to be decoded, he no longer likes it; as one who still dreams of a zero degree exempt from meaning, he likes it too much. 

"Writerly" theatres

In the years following his self-reflective questions on theatre, the parameters of Barthes's thought undergo another seismic reordering. Between 1967 and 1970, the publication of Jacques Derrida's On Grammatology and Writing and Difference, Julia Kristeva's Semiotica: Research for a Semanalysis, and the work of other writers associated with the Tel Quel review, as well as the growing interest in the work of Jacques Lacan, all contribute to the rise of a current of thought recognized as poststructuralist. The name is appropriate insofar as it suggests the extent to which this new way of thinking implicates Barthes's earlier work. In a 1970 letter to Les Lettres Françaises, Barthes acknowledges this influence: "Derrida was among those who helped me to understand the stakes (philosophical, ideological) of my own work: he unhinged the structure, he opened the sign."40 While Saussure and Brecht continue to figure as frequent points of reference, after 1969 Derrida, Kristeva and Lacan become Barthes's preferred interlocutors, and the language of deconstruction and psychoanalysis supplants the pseudo-scientific discourse of his structuralist phase. 

If Barthes was already exhibiting little tolerance for the body's mystic "humanity," the intellectual climate of early deconstruction further troubled such notions. The dream of theatre's immediate, heart-rending corporeal presence in particular draws the critical eye of Derrida, who dedicates two essays in Writing and Difference to a [End Page 175] deconstructive reading of Artaud's The Theatre and its Double. Derrida hones in on the passage where Artaud himself concedes that the most brute, primitive, archetypal theatre exists as the "image of something subtler than Creation itself," and that the purported theatre of the here and now is therefore always already a repetition. Artaud's theatre is cruel not by its searing presence, but because it manifests "the gratuitous and baseless necessity" of representation; there is no body outside history, exempt from language or under the sign.41 Barthes hails Derrida's reading of Artaud as a watershed: "His literary interventions (on Artaud, on Mallarmé, on Bataille) have been decisive, by that I mean: irreversible."42 He is also quick to revise his earlier thoughts on theatre. The fragments on Japanese bunraku theatre in The Empire of Signs, his last discussion of any length of a specific theatrical performance, purge the stage of a mystic Artaud-inspired immediacy and issue a scathing indictment of Western theatre practice. 

Japan--or rather the semiological paradise that Barthes calls "Japan"--represents the antithesis of the myth-ridden petit-bourgeois culture dissected in Mythologies. Where the French masses misrecognize the sign as nature or immutable reality, Barthes's Japanese delight self-consciously in their semiotized society. In this "atheist" economy of signs, there is no outside to signification, and not really any signification at all--only floating signifiers. Like many other aspects of Japanese culture, bunraku emblematizes the ultimate lack of interiority or inherent value Barthes idealized since the article on Greek tragedy. Bunraku successfully shifts the spectator's focus away from the body as product, structure, or a signified, to the gesture of meaning's production, its "structuration," and the play of its signifiers. There is no stable performer, no psychology or interiority under or within the body, but in their place the weave or text of a plurality of signifying gestures, the construction site of an imaginary subjectivity. 

Western performers, to Barthes's dismay, simultaneously execute all three of the gestures--the character's movement, the production of this movement, and the delivery of the lines--that bunraku so elegantly disperses. This coincidence in time and space blurs distinction between these gestures and, thus unified, leads to a perception of the Western performing body not as the realm of productive possibilities or as performance, but as the mark of a producer, a unified subject, a performer who exists outside of and before the performance itself: 

We conceive lyric art as the simultaneity of several expressions (acted, sung, mimed), whose origin is unique, indivisible. This origin is the body . . . Western spectacle is anthropomorphic; in it, gesture and speech (not to mention song) form a single tissue, conglomerated and lubrified like a single muscle which makes expression function but never divides it up: the unity of movement and voice produces the one who acts; in other words, it is in this unity that the "person" of the character is constituted, i.e. the actor.43
To borrow the terms of S/Z, published the same year as The Empire of Signs, Western theatre is chronically readable, a theatre not of production but of consumption, not of [End Page 176] plural strands woven together but of a flat seamless surface, a "single tissue" that "congeals" into apparently fixed meanings and expressions. Bunraku so delights Barthes because it keeps the play of signifiers open, and any interiority or subjectivity accorded to the "actor" (the puppet) is not a presupposed origin but clearly results from multiple gestures of production. This writerly theatre, however, comes at a heavy price, no less than the abstraction of the live performing body itself: "Bunraku . . . does not sign the actor, it gets rid of him for us" (58). Barthes's exemplary theatre is a disembodied ideal. 

The bunraku passages could be considered Barthes's own response to The Theatre and its Double, in particular the "On Balinese Theatre" and "Oriental and Occidental Theatre" essays, in which he issues a corrective, informed by Derrida, to his earlier thoughts on the body and theatre. Artaud applauds the "systematic depersonalization" of the Asian performer that reveals a deeper, truer state of life. Barthes likewise recognizes an excess to the corporeal sign, but strips it of the "magic," "torment," and "tenderness" so evocative of Artaud. No longer cause for celebration or the hint of the au-delà, the body is a lamentable dysfunction of the sign and its "presence" an illusion, the hysterical symptom of a stale but exigent epistemology of the subject. Hence the "trap" of Western theatre that he felt so anxiously in the court of the Sorbonne: even under the mask of Darius and an expressionless voice, his was not only a body that generated signification but one doomed to represent a somebody.44 The bunraku discussion effectively marks the end of Barthes's career as theatre critic. 

It is a great irony of Barthes's career that at the very moment he issues his sweeping condemnation of live theatre and Western theatre practice, both theatre and the body reemerge as fruitful, even privileged, metaphors for the very textuality denied to the Western stage. S/Z finds La Zambinella, the castrato of Balzac's novella "Sarrasine," "staged" on several occasions, literally in a woman's operatic role on a Roman stage and figuratively in the "theatre" of a small antechamber in which a portrait of the castrato posing as an effeminate but fully endowed Endymion draws the admiration of the narrator's companion. La Zambinella's body is the perfect metaphor for textuality. Voyeurs, listeners, readers, and spectators must each create this body anew and throughout the novella the castrato is repeatedly painted, sculpted, and narrated as both male and female, but always laced with ambiguity, always demanding further rewriting. There is no "truth" about the castrato's gender, no language in which to express it--it is the "neutered" body that has no place, no meaning, it is that which must be rewritten. The body proliferates into infinity as a copy with no authoritative origin, no "ulterior predicate of a primal body."45 Like Balzac's text itself, the castrato possesses a writerly value that "makes the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text."46 Similarly, in Sade Fourier Loyola, Barthes dubs a room in Sade's Château [End Page 177] of Silling the "theatre of debauchery" where the libertines congregate daily to hear stories that they then act out in their loge-like niches: 

Thus the Sadian theatre (and precisely because it is a theatre) is not an ordinary place where we prosaically pass from speech to fact . . . but the stage of the primal text, that of the Storyteller (herself the product of how many anterior codes), which traverses a transformational space and engenders a second text, whose primary auditors become its secondary auditors: an unending movement (are we not in turn readers of both texts?) which is the attribute of writing.47
In discussions of Sade, Balzac, Saint Ignatius, and other texts, the theatre and the performing body enjoy a renaissance as theoretical figures. Barthes deploys allegories of a productive theatre, a writerly theatre, where the bodies of both performer and spectator are written, rewritten, and lose their credible claim to identity or truth outside this infinite chain of inscription. 

These theatrical stagings of textuality taper and become more abstract as Barthes nears the end of his career, but the body's role as the text and the site of its rewriting persists as a key theoretical trope. In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Barthes explicitly names le corps the figure of excess, the "joker" in the deck, his "mana" word. This descendant of the idealized "degree zero" continues to proliferate in the "such" (tel) of the absent loved one in A Lover's Discourse: Fragments and perhaps most strikingly in the ontology of photography, the "it was there" of his final work, Camera Lucida. These textual, writerly, lovable bodies remain figures, however, and even when presented through theatrical imagery, none joins the "tormenting" bodies of his early theatre criticism on a contemporary French stage. Barthes's thought never comes quite full-circle or, if it does, like Vico's spiral (to invoke one of his favorite images) it returns on a different plane; though they come very close, both the "such" and the "it was there" are still figures of absence, shielded by deferral in time from the unsettling "it is there" of live performance. Despite the many aphorisms on theatre in his later writings, Barthes never rescinds the damning critique lodged in The Empire of Signs. One might even conclude that only by being relieved of the live body's uniquely troubling properties can both le corps and theatre become such rich figures in his later work. At the time of his untimely death, Barthes was editing a volume of his collected writings on theatre and suggested that he might add a few new articles--whether he would have reopened the case of French theatre can only be a matter for speculation.48

Coda: a queer Barthes?

In the 1973 essay "Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein," Barthes reiterates his suspicion that no matter how fragmented the art, no matter what talent for "epic" theatre or montage, an artist cannot avoid the same fetishist charge remarked by Diderot that transforms the separate facial features sketched on an artist's pad into a human face. Even when Brecht "indicates the mask with a finger," this is not a gesture of pure deixis; the index, this phallic finger, is an excess to the mask, the fetish of a knowing self or a position of truth subjected by the "Law": "In the theatre, in the cinema, in traditional literature, things are always seen from somewhere . . . . This point of meaning is always the Law: [End Page 178] law of society, law of struggle, law of meaning. Thus all militant art cannot but be representational, legal."49 Barthes concedes theatre's need for such subjugation if it is to be at all political in the traditional sense, but ends the essay with a plaintive question: "in a society that has not yet found repose, how can art stop being metaphysical, that is to say: meaningful, readable, representative? Fetishist? When will there be music, text?"50 What, one might wonder, will this new theatre and new "non traditional" politics look like? What does Barthes leave contemporary theatre practice and criticism beyond a profoundly dissatisfied ambivalence? 

There is a second theatre scene in Sade Fourier Loyola in which Barthes makes a uniquely personal reference in his later career to his experience as a spectator. After remarking that Sade can only articulate the body's beauty through banal clusters of clichés--"Venus-like beauty," "perfection," and so on--Barthes finds a way of giving this tedious myth a textual existence: 

This way is the theatre (as the author of these lines understood when he attended one evening a drag performance in a Parisian nightclub). . . . [I]t is this abstract body's theatricality which is rendered in dull expressions (perfect body, ravishing body, fit for a painting, etc.), as though the description of the body had been exhausted by its (implicit) staging: perhaps this is the function of this touch of hysteria which underlies all theatre (all lighting) to combat the touch of fetishism contained in the very "cutting" of the written sentence. However that may be I had only to experience a vivid emotion [une vive commotion] in the presence of the lit bodies in the Parisian nightclub for the (apparently very tame) allusions Sade makes to the beauty of his subjects cease to bore me and to glitter in their turn with all the illumination and intelligence of desire.51
Unlike the Folies-Bergère showgirls or the strippers in the Mythologies, the drag performer is not only readable, but opens a gap in the code in which the spectator/reader (Barthes) can project his desire. Barthes has assumed the place of the sculptor Sarrasine watching La Zambinella at the opera or the libertine who listens to and re-enacts the narration in Sade's "theatre." He does not consume the body as a product, but must produce it himself or, even more perversely, leave it unwritten. Of the body framed and brilliantly illuminated on stage, one can only repeat stereotypes of beauty ("perfect," "ravishing") so inane in themselves that they betray beauty as another sort of zero degree that cannot be described or predicated, only affirmed. The drag performer's body is a text in which Barthes takes pleasure, and he briefly offers a glimpse of a theatre, literal and live, that harmonizes with his poststructuralist thought. 

This performing body exempt from meaning that must always be rearticulated differently, viewed through the lens of Barthes's (barely) tacit homosexual desire, might lead a contemporary reader to wonder: is Barthes theorizing a "queer" performance avant la lettre? Much has been made of Barthes's discretion on the subject of his homosexuality.52 Barthes deliberately keeps his sexuality a blind spot, the empty center [End Page 179] of peripheral hints and references--his presence at the drag show, for example. One might situate him in the tradition of Wilde and Gide, for whom homosexuality was often less a secret than a glaring unnamed truth. Barthes, however, refuses to let his pleasures be pinned down, to "congeal" (prend) into a fixed position of sexual identity from which he might write, even if it is a secret one. Instead of a truthful etiology that explains his many symptoms, Barthes leaves his sexuality open as a generative realm of possibility, a text that his readers, like himself in the cabaret, cannot passively consume but must rewrite themselves or, again more perversely, refuse to rewrite and appreciate as such. What is queer if not the "joker" in the deck of a heteronormative epistemology, the term of excess that must be rewritten anew with each utterance as either epithet or reappropriation, and whose meaning will never be definitive, never congeal? 

Barthes's "joker," however, is a profoundly ambivalent term and if its exemption from fixed meanings and stable categories represents a provocative excess, it cannot both retain its instability and speak its name, even if it dared. In Roland Barthes, Barthes imagines Brecht's reproach to his refusal of traditional politics and briefly envisions a non-traditional political subject: 

He is quite willing to be a political subject but not a political speaker (the speaker: someone who delivers his discourse, recounts it, and at the same time notifies it, signs it). And it is because he fails to separate political reality from its general repeated discourse that politics is barred to him. Yet out of this preclusion he can at least make the political meaning of what he writes: it is as if he were the historical witness of a contradiction: that of a sensitive, avid, and silent political subject.53
Barthes's political subject joins his sexual one as a partner in silence, "sensitive, avid and silent," who unlike Balzac's castrato does not induce a perpetual play of articulation and rearticulation but instead abstains from the fray. It is not what must be rewritten, but what cannot be rewritten. Unable to kill the political "father," unwilling to join the din of political babble to speak against him, thus bound and gagged Barthes can only silently turn and, as he puts it, "show him his derrière."54 What, one might wonder, compels the father figure to pay this irreverent gesture any heed, or to refrain from filling the silent "gap" Barthes so perversely offers with an arrogant, phallogocentric discourse? 

Barthes's tacit politico-sexual subject would seem to make a poor model for a resistant rearticulation of the injurious terms of patriarchy. Barthes was never sanguine enough about the transformative power of his politics or his sexuality to warrant an easy reconciliation of his thought with the optimism that underlies many invocations of queerness. To reclaim his experience at the drag show as queer would inflect this term with the disabling ambivalence that elsewhere pervades his thoughts on both politics and theatre, a threat that has not been lost on queer's critics. Moreover, by all evidence, Barthes would have chafed under the appellation "queer." Once spoken--perhaps as soon as it is spoken--even the slipperiest term risks becoming a myth of its own, repeatable and readable. Camus's zero degree of literature in [End Page 180] L'Etranger, one might recall, quickly spawned imitations that made it just another literary manner. When read alongside Barthes's more general misgivings towards theatre and live performance, his passing remarks on drag in Sade Fourier Loyola do not offer a bold vision for a new theatre practice, writerly, queer or otherwise. For Barthes, the ideal theatre, like the political climate in which he can at last speak without becoming mired in the repetition of the doxa, remains a tantalizing vision--"tormenting" even, to give new resonance to the term he used earlier for the body on stage--whose realization lies on the far side of a still unforeseeable epistemological rift. 

Timothy Scheie has published numerous articles on French and American theatre in Theatre Journal, College Literature, Text and Performance, and other journals. He is an Assistant Professor of French at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, where he teaches in the humanities department.


1. Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977), 33. Note: published English translations exist for much of Barthes's work and I have used them wherever possible. For Barthes's early articles and reviews that have not been republished in English, I have consulted his Oeuvres complètes volumes I and II, ed. Eric Marty (Paris: Seuil, 1993-95). Translations from these are my own. 

2. Barthes, "Témoignage sur le théâtre" (1965), Œuvres complètes I, 1530. 

3. Jill Dolan laments that the discourse of cultural studies deploys a theatrical vocabulary to examine seemingly everything but theatre, and calls for discussions of "performativity" and "performance" that do not exclude or subsume the specificity of conventional theatre practice. See "Geographies of Learning: Theatre Studies, Performance, and the 'Performative,'" Theatre Journal 39.2 (1993): 417-42. 

4. Andy Stafford makes this observation in "Constructing a Radical Popular Theatre: Roland Barthes, Brecht and Théâtre Populaire," French Cultural Studies 7 (1996): 33-48. It should also be noted that some of the Mythologies address the theatre as well. 

5. Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 145. 

6. Leslie Hill notes how both Annette Lavers in Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982) and Jonathan Culler in Roland Barthes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) view Barthes's scientific structuralism as the zenith of his career, and what follows as decadent and self-indulgent. See "Barthes's Body," Paragraph 11 (1988): 107-25. Most recent critics, including Hill, consider the works of his later "phases" the more provocative part of his œuvre. 

7. Along with Lavers and Culler, Barthes scholars have given little more than a passing nod to his work in theatre. These include Philip Thody, Roland Barthes: A Conservative Estimate (London: Macmillan, 1977); Steven Ungar, Roland Barthes: The Professor of Desire (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983); Philipe Roger, Roland Barthes, roman (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1986); Michael Moriarty, Roland Barthes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991); Rick Rylance, Roland Barthes (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994); and Diana Knight, Barthes and Utopia: Space, Travel, Writing (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997). The omission is particularly egregious in Moriarty's study and in Louis-Jean Calvet's otherwise thorough biography, Roland Barthes: A Biography (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994). Both contain chapters ostensibly dedicated to Barthes's theatre years and offer discussions of his discovery of Brecht and its implications, but very little discussion of contemporary French theatre (with the exception of Sartre's Nekrassov, Vilar's Théâtre national populaire and a few other topics addressed in Barthes's theatre criticism). Moriarty has recently moved to fill this lacuna with "Barthes's Theatrical Aesthetic," Nottingham French Studies 36.1 (Spring 1997): 3-13. 

8. Stafford, 47-48. 

9. Philipe Roger, "Barthes with Marx," in Writing the Image after Roland Barthes, ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 174-86. 

10. Barthes, Writing Degree Zero (1953), trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill & Wang, 1968), 10-11. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text. 

11. Barthes, "Pouvoirs de la tragédie antique" (1953), Œuvres complètes I, 219. 

12. Barthes, Mythologies (1957), trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Noonday, 1972), 18. 

13. Ibid., 24-25. 

14. Barthes, "Folies-Bergère" (1953), Œuvres complètes I, 197. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text. This essay was not included in the mythologies collected for publication. 

15. Barthes, "Pouvoirs de la tragédie antique," 217. 

16. Ibid., 382. 

17. See, for example, Writing Degree Zero, 40. 

18. Barthes, "La Tragédienne sans public" (1954), Œuvres complètes I, 411. 

19. Ibid., 412. 

20. Barthes would later have harsh words for Casarès's performance (and Jean Vilar's direction) in Phèdre at the T.N.P. Casarès infused the role and Racine's stylized alexandrines, which he saw as profoundly alienating in the Brechtian sense of the word, with a psychology and naturalness that transformed the tragedy into a moralizing realist drama about that most bourgeois of topics, adultery. See On Racine, chapter 2. 

21. See notes 8 and 9 above. 

22. Barthes, "Baudelaire's Theatre," Critical Essays (1964), trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 26. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text. 

23. Ungar, 76. 

24. Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 60. 

25. Barthes, "Mother Courage Blind" (1955), Critical Essays, 35-36. 

26. For a more complete discussion of Barthes's conjugation of Brecht and Saussure, see Ellis Shookman, "Barthes's Semiological Myth of Brecht's Epic Theater," Monatshefte 81.4 (1989): 459-75. 

27. Barthes, "The Diseases of Costume," in Critical Essays (1964), trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 41. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text. 

28. One could imagine this "tearing" as a distant forerunner of the punctum, or "point," he would theorize twenty-five years later in Camera Lucida

29. The "epithelium" is "a membranous cellular tissue that covers a free surface or lines a tube or cavity of an animal body and serves especially to enclose and protect the other parts of the body" Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: G&C Merriam Company, 1980), 382. 

30. Barthes enumerates the failures of French and Belgian productions to "translate" or even to understand Brecht's dramaturgy. The individual director or performer, however, is not to blame; it is the entire institutuion of theatre in France that is at fault. See Barthes, "Brecht Traduit" (1957), Œuvres complètes I, 730-34. 

31. Stafford remarks his "rather indolent drama critic's cynicism" (44). 

32. "Histoire et sociologie du vêtement" (1957), Œuvres complètes I, 741-52. 

33. Barthes, "Préface à Brecht, «Mère Courage et ses enfants»" (1960), Œuvres complètes I, 889-905. 

34. Ibid., 893-94. 

35. "Literature and Signification" (1963), Critical Essays, 263. 

36. Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983). 

37. A few years earlier in Elements of Semiology, Barthes reversed Saussure's contention that linguistics is a sub-field of semiology: "Linguistics is not a part of the general science of signs, even a privileged part, it is semiology which is a part of linguistics." Elements of Semiology (1964), trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill & Wang), 11. 

38. Barthes, "Témoignage sur le théâtre," Œuvres complètes I, 834. 

39. Knight, 4. 

40. Barthes, "Lettre à Jean Ristat" (1972), Œuvres complètes II, 1417. 

41. Jacques Derrida, "The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation," trans. Alan Bass, in Mimesis, Masochism, and Mime: the Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought, ed. Timothy Murray (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 57-58. 

42. Barthes, "Lettre à Jean Ristat" (1972), 1417. 

43. Barthes, The Empire of Signs (1970), trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982), 59. Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text. 

44. Barthes maintains that even the marionette in the Western tradition does not escape such fetishization, for the strings leading to a hidden manipulator attest to a motivating subject, a god-like figure, operating and animating (bestowing a soul upon) the puppet from a transcendent position: "as a doll, reminiscence of the bit of rag, of the genital bandage, it is indeed the phallic 'little thing' ('das Kleine') fallen from the body to become fetish." Barthes, The Empire of Signs, 59. 

45. Barthes, S/Z (1970), trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974), 60. Note again how Barthes distances himself from an Artaudian notion. 

46. Ibid., 4. 

47. Barthes, Sade Fourier Loyola (1971), trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), 148. 

48. For the circumstances surrounding this still unpublished volume, see Calvet, 261. 

49. Barthes, "Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein," in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday Press, 1977), 76-77. 

50. Ibid., 77. 

51. Barthes, Sade Fourier Loyola, 128. 

52. Here I am bracketing off Incidents, his most "out" work, which was published posthumously. It is not entirely clear if Barthes intended to publish all the passages in this book. See Calvet, 260. 

53. Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 53. 

54. Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (1973), trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill & Wang, 1975), 53.


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