Monday, May 08, 2006

An odor of speech

Sorting through various xeroxes--I meant to blog about this piece months ago--it sunk to the bottom of a pile of papers--partly because of chaotic paper-accumulating habits on my part and partly because although I love serious intellectual things I always want to keep Light Reading a bit lighter than it tends to get (fear of being pretentious?)--however I must pack this away in a box now, so here goes.

The essay is by Roland Barthes, it's called "Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers" & is well worth a look if you fall into one or more of those categories; originally published in Tel Quel in 1971, here given in Richard Howard's translation in The Rustle of Language. This, I think, is my favorite passage:

As soon as you have finished speaking, the vertigo of the image begins: you exalt or regret what you have said, the way you have said it, you imagine yourself (you consider yourself as an image); speech is subject to remanence, it smells.

Writing has no smell: produced (having accomplished its process of production), it falls, not like a collapsing souffle but like a meteorite disappearing; it will travel far from my body and yet it is not a detached, narcissistically retained fragment, like speech; its disappearance is not disappointing; it passes, it traverses--no more. The time of speech exceeds the act of speech (only a jurist could make us believe that words vanish, verba volant). Writing, though, has no past (if society compels you to administer what you have written, you can do so only in the greatest tedium, the tedium of a false past). This is why the discourse in which your writing is discussed has a much less striking effect than the discourse in which your speech is discussed (though the stake is higher): I can objectively account for the former, for "I" am no longer in it; the latter, however laudatory, I can only try to get rid of, for it intensifies the impasse of my image-repertoire.

(How does it happen, then, that this particular text preoccupies me, that once finished, corrected, released, it remains or recurs in a state of doubt--in a state of fear, as a matter of fact? Is it not
written, liberated by writing? Yet I see that I cannot improve it, I have arrived at just the form of what I wanted to say: it is no longer a question of style. Whereby I conclude that it is the text's very status which bothers me: what troubles me about it is precisely the fact that, dealing with speech, it cannot, in the writing itself, altogether liquidate speech. In order to write about speech, whatever the distances of writing, I am obliged to refer to illusions of experiences, memories, feelings occurring to me when I was speaking--occurring to me as a speaking subject; in such writing as that, there is still a referent, and it is what smells to my own nostrils.)

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