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Bryan Counter reviews Understanding Barthes, Understanding Modernism

Understanding Barthes, Understanding Modernism. Ed. Jeffrey R. Di Leo and Zahi Zalloua. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. 304 pp.

Review by Bryan Counter

16 March 2023

This volume in the Understanding Philosophy, Understanding Modernism series collects 25 essays considering Roland Barthes’s relevance today. Popularly, Barthes may be best known for his essay “The Death of the Author,” widely taught and often misunderstood as a simplistic gesture of erasure. But the depth of his thought has yet to be fully reckoned with. The editors, in their introduction to this collection, suggest that “the enduring quality of his work is in large part due to his outsider role relative to the academy for most of his career. . . . Understanding modernism through the work of Barthes is a journey through the incredibly wide range of twentieth-century thought that he engaged, developed, and inspired” (p. 4). The essays collected here deal with some familiar aspects of Barthes’s writing career, including his work on myths, cinema, photography, and the French classics. Other contributions deal with his engagement with Marcel Proust, a comparative reading placing him alongside Jacques Derrida, and an examination of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man in conjunction with the 1976–1977 lecture course, Comment vivre ensemble (published in Kate Briggs’s English translation as How to Live Together [2012]).

Readers may wonder at the logic of pairing Barthes with modernism, since he tended to focus on classical and realist literature. However, Barthes’s thought, especially near the end of his life, was haunted by Proust, a writer who cannot unproblematically be named a modernist, and who furthermore troubled the very notion of modernism. As Thomas Baldwin writes in his contribution to this volume, “Proust’s treatment of objects . . . makes Barthes’s classical/modern distinction a bit problematic” (p. 78). Barthes’s thinking about literature, in fact, is marked by an emphasis on modes of reading over periodization, meaning that considering him alongside modernism makes sense insofar as modernism continues to be an object of critical investigation.

The chapters of this book vary in length, style, and focus. They range from Andy Stafford’s novel exploration of opacity in the work of Barthes and Édouard Glissant, wherein “common to both Glissant and Barthes is a positive approach to auto-ethnography”; to Jean-Michel Rabaté’s discussion of the importance of photography in Barthes’s turn to phenomenology: “Barthes ended his trajectory with a phenomenology of the poignantly emotive ‘punctum’ contained in some photos not as a recantation of his first theorizing, but an awareness that ideology critique had had its day, had become boring and predictable”; to Dudley Andrew’s more genealogical and direct assessment of the parallel developments of Barthes’s and André Bazin’s concepts of écriture, which he argues is common to “cinema and prose fiction . . . as writers and filmmakers were moving back and forth between these forms to bring contemporary reality to urgent expression” (pp. 197, 25, 112). This variety leads the book to feel at times like the proceedings of a conference on Barthes. Yet it should be applauded for presenting a highly specialized and thoroughly creative take on Barthes’s thought and influence.

Coeditor Zahi Zalloua’s contribution deserves special mention. It might be considered the centerpiece of this collection both for his treatment of Barthes’s thought and for a reading of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie (1957) that is worthy of Barthes himself. Framed as a comparison between object-oriented ontology (OOO) and what is termed Barthes’s chosisme, Zalloua writes that “Barthes’s chosisme . . . differs from OOO’s to the extent that his chosisme does not so much get rid of the subject in favor of a flat ontology (the anti- or posthumanism of OOO) as foreground both the autonomy of the object and its entanglement with desire” (p. 151). Recalling the introduction’s tentative association of Barthes with philosophy, Zalloua writes: “Literature holds some promise in countering philosophy’s narcissistic ways” (p. 153). This line is delivered, as it were, through the lens of OOO, but the essay goes on to show how literature (and Barthes’s reading of it) responds to philosophy and urges it to think beyond its systematic limits. Zalloua ends by suggesting that “a Barthesian rejoinder [to OOO] would insist that without readerly desires, with the pure withdrawnness of objects, no actual reading would ever be possible” (p. 167). This essay provides convincing evidence for Barthes’s continuing critical importance today.

A final glossary section provides clear overviews of Barthes’s key terms and ideas spanning his entire writing career. This will be helpful for new and seasoned readers alike, as it offers not only definitions of each term, but histories of the development of each term over time. As rich and varied as it is, Understanding Barthes, Understanding Modernism will likely be of interest for more advanced scholars of Roland Barthes. It is a call for us to read more broadly and more deeply both within Barthes’s oeuvre and within modernism more generally.