Wednesday, June 8, 2011

1986 was not the year I discovered Roland Barthes. That had been at least a year earlier, and (allowing for the tricks of memory) possibly two. I’d come to Barthes in the pages of the British music and style press. There was a brief period in the 1980s – anybody now in their forties who was paying attention will treasure or regret the phase – when the New Musical ExpressThe Face and Blitz were filled with references, gauchely but passionately deployed, to modish French critics and philosophers whose works, at least in that milieu, had not yet acquired the academic label of Theory. In fact, there appeared to be a seamless continuum between the smart journalistic references from the 1970s – Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and the jittery eloquence then possessed by Clive James – and the new (though they were not really new) continental thinkers: Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard.

But it was not so much the thought that seduced me, or the profusion of new names (Artaud, Lévi-Strauss, Kristeva), as Barthes’s style, which seemed to reside mainly in his punctuation. Barthes, I’d later learn, has been well served by his English translators (notably, the poet Richard Howard), and they have tended to retain the hedging of parentheses, the sidelong views calmly opened and closed by em-dashes, the colons like stiles that invite one to clamber on over the thought, sometimes two or three in the same sentence. Rapt in this style, I was still not sure I knew what he was doing: I know now that I really didn’t know: but I had found (as Barthes liked to put it) my critic, my thinker, my writer.

Ruins of the 20th Century

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