Pleasure for Whom? On Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text

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As in much of Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text presents us with an odd collection of fragments that, by the sheer chaos of its articulation, fail to push forward a straightforward thesis about what exactly he takes to be the delights of the text.

But for all the elliptical arguments he employs what is clear is Barthes’ rehashing of good old formalism: “what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again.”

From there it is not so hard to fall into the usual reactionary blather against progressive content in favor of classless form. The author is himself “deprived of fixed meaning” and confined to a realm beyond the petty concerns of historical, material realities.

But unlike the old school formalists Barthes clothes himself in a sophisticated stance that makes him seem more radical than the radicals: “The social struggle cannot be reduced to the struggle between two rival ideologies: it is the subversion of all ideology which is in question.”

Barthes has gone above the class struggle of the bourgeois and the proletariat with his interest purely dedicated to the pleasures of art, of form, of language.

Can that be a class eroticism? What class? The bourgeoisie? The bourgeoisie has no relish for language, which it no longer regards even as a luxury, an element of the art of living (death of “great” literature), but merely as an instrument of decor (phraseology).

But for whom is this pleasure? Barthes defines this as shaped by the contours of “the time and place of reading: house, countryside, near mealtime, the lamp.”

He locates “the interstice of bliss” in the “volume of the languages, in the uttering, not in the sequence of utterances.” He instructs us “not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover.”

What emerges regardless of Barthes disclaimers is still bound to a particular class. For whom is this pleasure? Surely not the toiling masses of workers and peasants who are generally too busy making a living to care about Barthes’ “textual eroticism.”

To partake in Barthes’ pleasure of the text is, in his own words, “to be aristocratic readers.” It is a pleasure fit only for aristocrats. It is the bastion of the leisured class.

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