An A to Z of Theory | Barthes on Activism

In the sixth and final instalment of his series on the French thinker, political theorist Andrew Robinson explores, and critiques, Barthes' views on activism.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, October 28, 2011 12:40 - 0 Comments

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Barthes’s work on mythologies is more directly political than his work on texts. The latter is also, however, a contribution to critique of the dominant system. It speaks both to questions of how to free cultural phenomena from the culture industry, and to broader questions of re-use and reclamation in activism. It resonates with issues around the activist reclamation of urban spaces, disused buildings, guerrilla gardening and so on – actions which could be termed writerly readings of the urban text. Graffiti very literally turns a surface meant to be read into one to be written on.

Barthes’s view of the role of the critic is also relevant to activist subjectivities. According to Barthes, the position of the critic is a standpoint of exclusion. By seeing through myths, one cuts oneself off from all the myth-consumers. One sees through the false naturality of the dominant system, instead harmonising with underlying processes of becoming or with the active creation of the world.

If a dominant cultural system relies on taking certain things for granted, the refusal to do so places one outside the dominant cultural system, as a cultural outcast. This Barthesian view suggests that the ‘dropout’ or ‘activist ghetto’ nature of certain strands of activism is not necessarily a bad thing. In contrast to critics who remain within leftist versions of myth and the supposed folk-wisdom of the majority, a marginal person can escape from bourgeois ideology at least enough to see its existence.

Nevertheless, this position has its problems. Barthes portrays this as a rather sad position, since one can’t imagine or discover through mythology the concrete future world which might be built. Mythology (the study of myths) is a process of destruction which does not build. On one occasion, Barthes describes it as a ‘disease’ to be able to see how language works. It involves a painful loss of innocence which makes it difficult to recapture the joy of immediate experience. Everyday life becomes a bit like the experience of a theatre designer who can no longer watch a play without noticing how the sets, lighting and costumes are built. One might hope that the jouissance of writerly reading, and the immediacy of experiences of praxis, could compensate for this loss. Still, the loss of textual innocence is a heavy weight in a world where ideology is firmly in control and the opportunities for reclamation are pared-back.

The implications of constructivism for activism are strongest in relation to the critique of dominant fixities. Reactionaries still seek to defend a view of convention in which there should be a single meaning accepted by everyone. They seek to impose such a view through violence against cultural and subcultural difference. Someone who accepts a constructivist point of view usually (but not always) finds it easier to tolerate the fact that others dress, live and fuck differently.

It is straightforward to use Barthes in a critical way, in dealing for instance with the discourse of tabloid newspapers. The discourse of the mainstream remains strongly naturalising and unreflexive. A Barthesian critique can instantly show how unstable such perspectives are, and reveal them to be socially naive.

It is harder to unpack the implications of Barthesian critique for radicals. Should the performance of dissent through dress, for instance, be seen as a replacement of substantive resistance with social roles? Or should it be seen as a deeper, more reflexive break which performs resistance on the body?

We have already seen how myths are deployed in reactionary discourses: a young deviant or ‘suspected terrorist’ is taken to stand for social breakdown, stripped of context. But do activists and dissidents also use discursive short-cuts in conceptualising phenomena? Right-wing critics accuse left-wingers of the same kind of biases they are accused of – for instance, of assuming police are guilty without giving them a hearing or looking at the evidence. If we assume that a young deviant has unmet needs, or a ‘suspected terrorist’ is probably innocent, or that activists instead of police are telling the truth, are we also thinking in mythical ways?

I’m not sure that activist presuppositions operate mythically, for several reasons. Firstly, activists don’t seem to believe in eternal truths the way reactionaries do. Secondly, activist presuppositions are (in theory) open to being rebutted by counter-evidence. Thirdly, activist presuppositions are of a kind which open space for examining the specificity of the context. Assuming that deviance is a matter of unmet needs or social conflict, rather than individual evil, opens space to examine the causes and meanings of particular acts in their social context, rather than condemning them in advance.

It is true that activists take an instance (say, of police brutality) as demonstrative of something else (say, that the police as an institution is oppressive). I would argue, however, that this is rather different from myth.

If we divide concepts into ‘higher’ (ethical and abstract), ‘middle’ (explanatory and systematic) and ‘lower’ (empirical and specific) instances, mythology is characterised by the absence of the middle level. Mythologies work by projecting ‘higher-order’ ethical views onto specific events, short-circuiting around the possibility of explanation.

In contrast, I think anti-system ideas are often working hypotheses built on implicit theories of how oppressive social systems work. The deployment of a ‘middle level’ allows working hypotheses to be formed (e.g. that police frequently lie), without these hypotheses taking the form of a myth. This leads, among other things, to a hermeneutics of suspicion. The way things seem on the surface is treated with suspicion because of some degree of awareness about how ideologies work.

Activism also displays the strategies Barthes proposes as ways of resisting myth. The denotative response is parallelled in the emphasis on practice and action. The response of inducing emotional effects is paralleled in carnivalesque currents of activism, and in subvertisements and culture jamming. The response of producing self-contained systems founded on a different language is parallelled in autonomous zones and intentional communities.

This said, there tends to be a lack of reflexivity in activist contexts. People often find it easier to deal with problems ‘outside’ those affecting their own practice. Activism is caught somewhere between the two worlds: often fully aware of the constructedness of dominant relations, there is also a visible reluctance to question and problematise the constructedness of subjectivities and relations among activists. Raising issues such as disavowed sexism among activists is still a difficult task.

In exploring this gap, it is worth looking at the social position of cultural studies. The detailed inventories of different myths and their resonances, which Barthes foresaw as the future development of his work, have on the whole never appeared. Barthes was, however, in many ways the founder of a tradition in social science and the humanities of critiquing socially-constructed meanings. This was to become, and remains, a major focus of cultural studies, sociology, discourse analysis and certain strands of critical theory in the arts.

In particular, it has been applied widely and effectively in relation to the reproduction of stereotypes, essentialisms and discursive subordination in fields such as race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, the social construction of deviance, psychological difference, the marginalisation of political radicalisms, and international issues such as Orientalism.

Some of Barthes’s claims are now so widespread that scholars in these fields would find it hard to see anything unusual in his observations. Yet this constructivist approach to meaning still runs against the social mainstream. Not only is it pitted against the powerful voices of the mainstream media, the political elite and the advertising industry, but it is also counterposed to ‘problem-solving theories’ in the social sciences.

These instrumentalist, functionalist, behaviourist and operationalist approaches, and many of their analytical and/or positivist allies, wish to keep in place the fundamental belief that the ‘false nature’ of capitalism is really, in some sense, natural or unquestionable.

Sometimes they deny the constructedness of social realities, exhibiting new versions of old myths (e.g. sociobiology, broken windows theory, and other ‘backlash’ accounts). Sometimes they simply frame the question out of their problems, setting out to solve what look like ‘realistic’ and ‘policy-relevant’ problems without reference to their ultimate ontological status.

Unfortunately, the knowledge now taken-for-granted in cultural studies and sociology is still a long way from reaching most people. The world is increasingly divided into a critically literate minority and a vast swathe of ‘muggles’ who continue to be unreflexive consumers of myths. To some degree, awareness of constructedness has filtered into activism from the 1960s onwards – particularly those forms of activism concerned with constructed oppressions such as race and gender.

This still leaves two major problems. Firstly, this absorption has often been incomplete. Activists often remain dangerously unreflexive about their own discourses and practices. Secondly, to the degree that activists are partly critically illiterate, the gap between activists and other social groups has widened. The difficulty of how to talk to myth-consumers without either playing to myths or denying their potential agency has not even begun to be addressed.

Meanwhile, the early appeal of constructivism to radicalism has been undermined by its recuperation in capitalism. If language determines how things are seen, the world can be changed by altering language. This is not exactly Barthes’s view, but is a common implication of constructivist critique. The recognition of social constructedness was an important line of resistance in the 60s/70s wave.

However, capitalism has also realised that the same arguments can be used on its own side. If language determines reality, why not will ourselves to be successful by thinking through different words? Why, then, sympathise with the poor, who are victims of nothing else except their own linguistic habits? By this sidestep, the frame of capitalism is locked back into place. And by extension, reflexivity does not seem as critical as it should. Capitalism is certainly more reflexive today than it once was, but there are clear limits to its reflexivity. People can reinvent themselves, but only within the neoliberal frame.

“Graffiti very literally turns a surface meant to be read into one to be written on.”

On another matter, Barthes exaggerates in denying that authors can express something personal through text. Writers use literature, for example, to convey aspects of experience which are suppressed in dominant narratives. However, what they express is arguably a subject-position, a particular stylistic location within speech-genres, rather than something radically interior.

Authors often manifest unusual subject-positions which produce unusual effects. One could here discuss ‘minor literatures’ by marginal figures, issues around ‘border thinking’ or ‘ecriture feminine’. It is true that all these authors are practising a craft of constructing narratives out of signs, and this craft mediates their expressiveness. But it is also true that they use this craft in ways which carry particular differences, even challenging dominant codings. If some authors are expressing unusual subject-positions, their particular narratives will often seem unusual or unique.

Another criticism of Barthes is that he exaggerates the extent to which actors are necessarily aware of meanings. It may not always be the case that acts are semiotically significant for the actor. Their meaning for the actor is often imposed from outside, as Barthes’s essay on Dominici shows. In this case, we are dealing with a problem of acts which mean one thing for the actor being taken to mean something else by the observer. This happens because of cultural differences. The same signs mean different things in different cultures or subcultures.

Crucially, an act or characteristic which is not chosen for semiotic reasons may be wrongly perceived as a semiotic act by others. For instance, a person who is deaf might be wrongly perceived as rude because they don’t respond to a greeting, or a child might be perceived as testing boundaries when they’re actually expressing needs.

For an author like Franz Kafka, the experience of one’s actions or appearance being deemed socially meaningful is experienced as a kind of existential violence. The signifiers are not motivated, because the gap between the form of life they are motivated by and the form they are applied to is too great. This experience of being subjected to an alien regime of signification is definitive of what is now termed ‘kafkaesque’.

In such contexts, it’s dangerous to assume that what people are ‘really’ doing is what they are seen to be doing, or that all action is consciously or unconsciously meaningful.

Structuralism is thus limited when compared to authors such as Guattari and Bakhtin, who recognise an intersection between language-use and inner expressiveness. The structure of language is often a constraint which needs to be renegotiated to understand others.

Barthes’s sometimes pessimistic tone is partly a result of the systems-based nature of his thought. Structuralist theories of language can create a sense of closure. The semiotic system, and dependence on it, seems inescapable. Or, if escapable, the effect would be that nothing means anything any more.

A certain openness is admitted once it is recognised that a user can play with signs, reconstructing their meanings. However, it may be necessary to go further, and recognise types of flows and connections which are not reducible to signs.

Structuralists are right that the effects of linguistic structures are important, especially in understanding naturalisation and conformity. But they are prone to make the power of language too great and inescapable, and its burden too heavy. They deny the existence of extra-linguistic forces which seek to express themselves, however imperfectly, through language. As a result, they make linguistic subordination impossible to escape.

Barthes’s work has a strong feeling of wanting either to escape or to neutralise the linguistic system. At different stages, Barthes sees denotation, signs without references, pure images, and sensory experiences as ways to escape.

I would suggest a rather different response. The possibility of escaping linguistic domination lies in a type of language-use which is both reflexive, recognising the contingency of signs, and expressive, channelling extra-semiotic forces. Language has a range of functions and uses, of which those recognised by structuralism are only some.

In particular, it can be used to connect, as well as to represent. Indigenous knowledges often involve other ways of using language in which situatedness is recognised and language is constantly related to other kinds of flows. Zerzan goes as far as to argue that some cultures do not have representational language in the modern sense. One can theorise the immediacy of the bond as a rediscovery of forms of connection which escape language.

For previous entries in the series, visit the In Theory page.

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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