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Chapter Eight - ‘Opacity’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 June 2023

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Summary

In the final two chapters of this book, we turn our attention to what might be called a ‘Politics of self’. The self becomes a key site of dialectical interplay between the apersonal and what Barthes calls the ‘for-me’ of Nietzscheanism. The apersonal is not, however, to be taken as a complete erasure of the subject (Lordon 2013). Rather than ‘dropping the subject’ (Goh 2015, 1–23), Barthes proceeds to radically relativize its position, using various strategies of decentring, re-ordering and exempting, in particular in the notion of the Neutral. This search for a non-determinism of self, a suspension of stereotypes of the person's image, is naturally dependent on the rising fame in the final decade of his life:

Do laudatory adjectives appease me at least? How does the Neutral man behave when faced with ‘compliments’? The compliment pleases, it doesn't appease, it doesn't bring rest […] in the received compliment, there is for sure a moment of narcissistic tingle; but (quickly) past this first instant, the compliment, without wounding (let's not exaggerate!), makes one uneasy: the compliment puts me in apposition to something, it adds the worst complement to me: an image (compliment = complement). For there is no peace in images. (Barthes 2005, 56–57)

Furthermore, as we saw with the ‘double grasp’ in Michelet's writing of history and then its development in the writing on Japan into the ‘no wish-to-grasp (aucun vouloir-saisir)’, saisir, a synonym in French for both ‘understand’ and ‘record’, is slowly but surely decon-structed: it is the search for ‘peace’, away from the ‘images’ that the Other and society in general attach to the self, that leads Barthes to opacity.

No Wish to ‘Understand’ nor ‘Grasp’

‘Transparence needs to be combatted everywhere.’

(Glissant 1981, 356)

‘“Understanding”, isn't it a modern virus?’

(Barthes 2007a, 119)

Reminiscing, towards the end of his life, about his friendship with Barthes, the Moroccan sociologist Abdelkébir Khatibi (1997, 25) describes an intriguing, regular exchange: ‘Barthes would say to me privately, in response to a reproach frequently made to him: “When someone tells me to be clear, what they really mean is be like me”’. Revealing not so much a tetchy theorist of semiotics as an astute commentator on interpersonal relations, the retort from Barthes summarizes two decades of critical — and often complex — research on language.

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Chapter
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Roland Barthes Writing the Political
History, Dialectics, Self
, pp. 169 - 194
Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2022

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