Monday, 2 June 2008

Roland Barthes and bad writing

This is a bit off-topic. I've just ordered my latest stack of books from Amazon, and in amongst some work-oriented reading I thought I would take a punt on Mythologies by Roland Barthes. I read a fairly incomprehensible intro to semiotics last year, and his name cropped up a bit, plus the idea of 'myths' seems close to the concept of narratives so I thought I'd probably quite like it.

And I do, sort of. The essay on wrestling is apparently pretty famous and I can see why. It does really nail what watching wrestling is all about (not suprisingly it's not about sport). I also enjoyed the piece about the Blue Blood Cruise, which reminded me of the time the royals did It's A Knockout. Here's an excerpt:

"[K]ings have a superhuman essence, and when they temporarily borrow certain forms of democratic life, it can only be through an incarnation which goes against nature, made possible through condescension alone. To flaunt the fact that kings are capable of prosaic actions is to recognize that this status is no more natural to them than angelism is to mere mortals, it is to acknowledge that the king is still king by divine right."

Spot on Ro-land.

Other bits of it are less convincing, and seem to be more about Barthes identifying his own message in an event/product/trend. Still, overall it seems like quite an interesting look at the messages within culture. And somehow I was reminded of this when I was reading Janet Daley's latest opinion piece in the Telegraph. It's this section that really stuck out:

The notion that Big Government (whether in the central or the local form) could solve all social problems, and through its interventions achieve absolute justice and harmony, is collapsing. And in its last moments, in its disbelief and agony at its own failure, it is lashing out in every direction: if the earlier measures haven't dealt with crime/public disorder/anti-social behaviour/under-performing hospitals/insufficient recycling, we must add yet more layers of official interference.

It's the second sentence that is the key one. The alarm bells always go off when I read someone trying to personify an idea. In more subtle versions of this people try and associate ideas with particular types of people. But the version above is great because it actually suggests that an idea itself can have some sort of physical manifestation - one that can feel 'disbelief' and 'agony' and is capable of 'lashing out'. No doubt lots of people will read the column without giving this a second thought, and may even perhaps imagine terrified, confused, theoreticians/bureaucrats to be the ones feeling the agony and doing the lashing out. But in the article itself it is clearly an idea doing this, something which is obviously impossible.

I'm never quite sure with examples like this which way the influence runs. Is the writer seeking to attach negative imagery to the idea deliberately? Or is their resistance to or dislike of the idea so great that they imagine it as a 'bad' person? Either way it is a poor way to write/think.


Nick Drew said...

tough to please ! can't be much run-of-the-mill journalism that would withstand that degree of textual scrutiny, Tom

one analysis would surely be that there's a careless discontinuity between the 1st and 2nd sentences, and that the subject of 'lashing out' etc is tacitly Big Govt, (which certainly can lash out - and be agony, as we encounter daily).

but if we take your reading of it, what would be wrong with a poetic usage such as an idea lashing out anyway ? ideas can seduce ...

Charlie Marks said...

As Bill Blum said, "what people want is not big or small government, but government *on their side*."

I like what Barthes says about wrestling...

Tom P said...

Hi Nick

Dunno what does it but I have a real problem with ideas being presented in personal terms.

It's more common for people to assert, and therefore attack, the motives of people behind a concept. Which again is a poor way to argue. But to given an idea a sort of personality and then attack that.... blurgh!

By the by, I'm was purely having a go at the style in the post, but I don't agree with the thrust of it anyway. I don't think most mainstream politicos believe, or have done for some time, that the state can do everything. Surely the balance has been tilting the other way for some time?

The more interesting/important discussion at the moment is surely about how markets work (or not)?

Nick Drew said...


so - not a big fan of Nietzsche, then, Tom ?!

Poetry can be a great way of communicating solid truths, y'know: have a read of this

don't think most mainstream politicos believe the state can do everything

I hope you're right, (though look at La Toynbee in today's Guardian for a prime bit of recidivism: she's not alone)

and yes, how markets work/not is indeed rather important, since (by default or otherwise) that's the jungle we must make our home

Tom P said...

I'm too much of an Orwell fan...! I like clear, straightforward writing.

Can't say I am much of a Polly Toynbee fan, though Did Things Get Better? was a useful (if boring) defence of Labour's record. Is there anyone writing from the Left that you rate?

Nick Drew said...

Larry Elliott is good

and I cannot but admire the intellectual honesty (and endearing bewilderment) of George Monbiot

Tom P said...

Interesting. I don't mind Larry Elliott's stuff in the Grauniad but I thought Fantasy Island was pretty poor.

Can't say there's many Righties I read regularly, except Danny Finkelstein and Irwin Stelzer (who wrote what I thought was a barking piece the other other day about why Labour is in trouble).

I generally find if you read what Simon Heffer writes and assume the opposite it's quite a good guide to the future. In recent history he's been very positive about UKIP, very negative about Cameron, and last summer warned the Tories not to underestimate Gordo. I see he's just had a pop at Obama, so a £10 on a black president seems like a good bet.