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Barthes Roland, Philosophy

How to Live Together – Roland Barthes / Christian Nyampeta

Christian Nyampeta



Hierarchy of the fi ve senses: not only is it different for animals and for man (dogs: smell → hearing → sight), it’s changed over the history of humankind. Febvre: 1  medieval man: the prevalence of hearing over sight; then, since the Renaissance, a reversal. A culture of sight: hearing is now of secondary importance. Perhaps it’s simply been repressed? → Space of Living-Together: active traces of hearing. Here, hearing is constitutive of something. Once again, we’re opening a dossier.


Animal territory: often marked out by smell. Human territory, its boundaries (a) can be defi ned by sight: everything the eye can see belongs to me 2  (there must be legends about this); (b) can be defi ned by touch: everything within touching range, everything within my gestural range, within an arm’s reach belongs to me: it’s the nest, the microterritory (cf. infra “Proxemics”). But also:

—  Territory: a polyphonic network of familiar sounds: the ones I’m able to identify and thereafter function as signs of my space.  —  Kafka and the apartment ( Diaries , p. 104): 3

I sit in my room in the very headquarters of the uproar of the entire apartment. I hear all the doors slam, because of their noise only the footsteps of those running between them are spared me, I hear even the slamming of the oven door in the kitchen. My father bursts through the doors of my room and passes through in his dragging dressing-gown, the ashes are scraped out of the stove in the next room, Valli asks, shouting into the indefi nite through the ante-room as though through a Paris street, whether Father’s hat has been brushed yet, a hushing that claims to be friendly to me raises the shout of an answering voice. The house door is unlatched and screeches as though from a catarrhal throat, then opens wider with the brief singing of a woman’s voice and closes with a dull manly jerk that sounds most inconsiderate. My father is gone, now begins the more delicate, more distracted, more hopeless noise led by the voices of the two canaries.

= A veritable sonorous, familial landscape: reassuring. Interesting, because the landscape is discontinuous, erratic and yet at the same time very coded—whence the force of the unfamiliar sound: an unexpected silence or unidentifi able noise that calls for an inner labor of interpretation. The difference between the apartment and the house in this respect. Apartment: a very limited, masterable range of sounds. House: heightened risk of there being an unfamiliar noise. House: fantastical object; a whole folklore of the fear produced by an unidentifi able noise. Apartment: safety, because you can be sure that the distant sound of a tap or the radiator behind the wall comes from a neighbor. House: integrates all noises. All its noises belong to me, concern me: I’m targeted by the unfamiliar noise.


Relations between hearing and sexuality; identifi ed and proposed by Freud: notably, the theory of the Primal Scene 4  (scene of hearing) and the case study that appears to contradict the theory of paranoia (the clicking of the camera and the clicking of the clitoris): 5

—  Within a community, a form of erotic hearing, listening in on the pleasure that calls out to me and from which I’m excluded. Hans Castorp overhearing his Russian neighbors making love in the room next door.  —  Then, the insuperable mechanics of covert listening: listening in, eavesdropping on someone else, on other people. In  Pot Luck,  the entire apartment building is a space of eavesdropping and espionage. The wall, that boundary line of respectability, a mask pulled over the eyes, can be penetrated by the ear. A good example: Mouret, the idle owner, eagerly listening in on his tenant, the priest. A sexual interest in the priest in the nineteenth century: Zola, Michelet, Goncourt (the Noah complex?): 6  “Henceforth he would have an occupation, an amusement which would relieve the monotony of his everyday life.”  —  Idyllic, utopian community: a space where there’s no repression, that is to say no listening, where there would be hearing but no listening. Absolutely transparent sonority = the very defi nition of music. With music, we’re not listening in on anything or anyone else—nor, in a sense, are we listening.

The   Magic     Mountain  ,  p. 40

The Conquest of Plassans , p. 18

Alternative to this lifting of repression: a space where all the noises are wholly coded: a monastery. The bell, at once the instrument of rules and the fullest expression of a noise without anxiety, without paranoia; whence its metonymy with the heavens.


I’ll justify my use of this word in a moment.  It’s possible for individual subjects (any one of us) to have fantasies of Living-Together. We set about elaborating a fantasmatic form of Living-Together, selecting our would-be companions from our network of acquaintances. Now, what’s interesting about that fantasmatic elaboration is not who we choose, but who we exclude: the criteria for exclusion don’t necessarily overlap with the imperatives of affect. The criteria are often subtle, and merit study.  In many communities: this paradox (the object of this fi gure): what’s excluded is included, but retains its status as excluded. It’s the contradictory status of the pariah: rejected and integrated, integrated as a reject. 7  Perhaps there’s no such thing as a community without an integrated reject. Take the world of today: very different types of societies, but probably not one without its integrated reject. All societies jealously guard their rejects, prevent them from leaving. So what would be needed as part of a globalized sociology is a theory of the incorporated reject, of the retained reject (simply: the different forms of hypocrisy, of ideological justifi cation with regard to the pariah, who no longer tends to be recognized as such).  From our corpus: “The Nun who Feigned Madness”:  [Women’s monastery, p. 96]:  In this monastery there was another maiden who feigned madness and demon-possession. The others felt such contempt for her that they never ate with her, which pleased her entirely. Taking herself to the kitchen she used to perform every menial service and she was, as the saying goes, “the sponge of the kitchen” ,  putting these words of Scripture into practice : If any man among you may seem wise in this world, let him become a fool that he may be wise. 8

The   Lausiac History , p. 96

Cf. Tao, Grenier, 125: “ Even if wise, pretend to be mad (persist in living as a recluse), that’s the essential truth.”

[That sponge] 9   wore a rag round her head — all the others had their hair closely cropped and wore cowls. In this way she used to serve. Not one of the four hundred ever saw her eating all the years of her life. She never sat down at table or partook of a particle of bread, but she wiped up with a sponge the crumbs from the tables and was satisfi ed with scouring pots. She was never angry at anyone, nor did she grumble or talk, either too little or too much, although she was maltreated, insulted, cursed and loathed.

Then there’s the evangelical reversal: an angel appears to Saint Piteroum, and tells him that there is someone more pious than himself. Piteroum goes to the convent (p. 97).

[Upon his arrival at the convent]:  he insisted upon seeing all of them. She did not appear. Finally he said to them:  “ Bring them all to me, for she is missing. ”  They told him:  “ We have one inside the kitchen who is touched ” —that is what they call the affl icted ones. He told them:  “ Bring her to me. Let me see her. ”  They went to call her; but she did not answer, either because she knew of the incident or because it was revealed to her. They seized her forcibly and told her:  “ The holy Piteroum wishes to see you ” —for he was renowned. When she came he saw the rag on her head and, falling down at her feet, he said:  “ Bless me! ”  In a similar manner she too fell down at his feet and said:  “ Bless me, lord. ”  All the women were amazed at this and said:  “ Father, take no insults. She is touched. ”  Piteroum then addressed all the women:  “ You are the ones who are touched! This woman is your spiritual mother ” —so they called them spiritually— “ to both you and me and I pray that I may be deemed as worthy as she on the Day of Judgment. ”

Hearing this, they fell at his feet, confessing various things— one how she had poured the leavings of her plate over her; another had beaten her with her fi sts; another had blistered her nose. So they confessed various and sundry outrages. After praying for them, he left. And after a few days she was unable to bear the praise and honor of the sisters, and all their apologizing was so burdensome to her that she left the monastery. Where she went and where she disappeared to, and how she died, nobody knows . 10

We’re reminded of Greimas’s actantial model. 11  Subject → Object + Sender / Receiver + Opposer / Helper. The model is too rational, too replete and harmonious: what’s missing is the Reject-Actant, the Sponge. Depending on the role played by the Reject-Actant, it might even be possible to imagine — merely as a working hypothesis — a typology of narratives and communities, of fi ctional communities:

  1. Community where the actant is present: integrated reject ( The Lausiac History ).  The Lord of the Flies:  one of the kids in the gang is assigned the role of sponge: Piggy.  Pot Luck : Adèle, the serving girl; bourgeois apartment building: circles of social standing. The masters’ social standing (and that of the different fl oors of the building) is mirrored by analogy in that of the servants (cf. “Servants”). The lowest-ranking family (on the top fl oor), the Pichons: no maid. The poorest family used to be the Josserands (the mother who’s desperately trying to marry her daughters): they have a serving girl, Adèle. Zola sees it all very clearly: Adèle is the sponge, not only the masters’ sponge, but also that of the servants, who dispose of their own communal space, the kitchen courtyard, where she’s routinely mocked and abused. Doubly a sponge: her solitude as the absolute pariah is illustrated by the horrifi c childbirth scene. Adèle secretly gives birth alone in her tiny attic room, with no one to help or to look out for her; the infant is thrown in the rubbish, and life goes on as normal. Pariah = a blank (cf. The madwoman’s departure, her fainting fi t in the  Lausiac History ).  2. Narratives where there’s no Reject-Actant: (1)  Robinson Crusoe : space (a) of shared solitude (with Friday), (b) of a group of slaves (a different problem = more straightforwardly economic: slaves ≠ pariahs. (2)  The Magic Mountain : no rejects. In a sense, this is bizarre, a “failing” of the narrative: but, on a human level, it’s actually an idyllic narrative. Its “darkness” comes from death, not from affects. The reject = death. In its account of the community: a very civilized, humane narrative.  3. A wholly paradoxical structure: when the Reject-Actant gets confused with the Subject-Actant; when the two actants get mixed up within the same agent. The Sponge is the Subject of the narrative: the confi ned woman of Poitiers as “actor.” In terms of her novelistic attributes, on the authority of the descriptions: she’s the absolute reject (the waste-bin-grotto, fi lth, excrement, rodents); yet at the same time it’s Mélanie who’s the enigma-Subject of the narrative. (A paradoxical Subject, because there’s no Object, no quest: it’s society, the police that turn it into a narrative).

All of these can be linked: either to a theory of the Scapegoat (cf. René Girard,  Violence and the Sacred ) or to the theory of the sorcerer as per Lévi-Strauss ( Introduction to Structural Anthropology ). A community fi xates on someone or something as the source of all its ills (a target for its grievances) and it’s this that then enables it to exorcise it, to get rid of it. I integrate the anomic by coding its position as anomic. I allow it back in, but in a position where it poses no threat = if they’re shrewd enough, it’s what authorities do to marginalities. They set up reservations (like for Indians). They turn intellectuals, for example, into a distinctive, recognized caste. 12  For, to bring things to a close, the fi nal twist in the handling of the reject problem involves glorifying, honoring, consecrating the reject. It’s what the monastery would like to do. So, if he or she refl ects for a moment, all the reject need do is go further away: which is precisely what our “Sponge” does.


Why does  Robinson Crusoe,  a novel about solitude, fi gure in our corpus? Because Living-Together, especially idiorrhythmic LivingTogether, must incorporate the values of Living-Alone as its paradigmatic opposite. Now, reading  Robinson Crusoe , and making an attempt to analyze my reading pleasure, I note — for me personally, at any rate — the following:  In my reading, I (presumably) do the opposite to what so-called normal readers do, and contravene the author’s intention. With the exception of the episode with Friday, which involves the intrusion of an affect, all the other events impinging on Robinson Crusoe’s solitary existence on the island (to do with the savages, cannibals) interfere with my pleasure as a reader, I fi nd them irritating.  A  charm—the powerful charm of the book—is broken. Its charm is precisely that of a day-to-day existence with no events. I fi nd I’m no longer able to fantasize about the way Robinson Crusoe organizes his life, his domestic set-up, the hut, the vines, the bucolic. The event turns me into a different kind of subject. I become a subject of suspense, of the murder of the Father—I’m no longer a subject of the nest, of the Mother: the event as Father (Oedipus and the protocol of the event; all events are Oedipal). 13  The charm of  Robinson Crusoe (# p. 226) = the non-event.  To fantasize Living-Together as an everyday reality: to refuse, repel, violently reject the event. The event is the enemy of LivingTogether: (a) Pachomius’s prescriptions: no news is to be admitted into the community; (b) within a small community, the ambivalence of subjects who “take the initiative” (a character type that, in my view, the various branches of psychology have not yet fully recognized). The initiative, the invention of what’s more or less unexpected has to be a communal affair: a welcome distraction + the danger of introducing something new into the affective network, generating what’s most harmful to Living-Together: the repercussion. → Durable-interminable systems: ones with no “initiatives.” That of the Confi ned Woman, for example, can be defi ned—necessarily and adequately—as a total absence of events over a twenty-fi ve year period. The sanatorium in  The Magic Mountain  only consolidates its status as a community once it ceases to respond to outside events (the last pages).  The “suspension of events, of initiatives”: a fairly apt defi nition of Tao; relates to the principle of Taoism:  Wou-wei , non-action:

—  Lao-Tzu (p. 127): “Act without action; do without doing; taste without tasting; view the big, the small, the many, the few with the same eye; set the same store by reproaches as by thanks;  that is the way of the Wise Man. ” (for our purposes, let’s not say the Saint, or the Wise Man, the words have too many connotations—let’s simply say the Tao subject.)  —  W ou-wei  involves much more than the rejection of the event. It’s a method that entails a whole way of living. It’s not just a matter of avoiding the event, but of not inviting it: “do nothing evil, for fear of being punished; do nothing good, for fear, having acquired a good reputation, of being charged with timeconsuming and dangerous functions.” (p. 108). Abstain from exercising authority, from fulfi lling a role. If you have no choice, treat both the “good” and the “bad” as you would children (kindness, not charity, “transcendent” goodness.) (p. 110) Don’t judge, speak little, cease to acknowledge logical and moral oppositions, and all distinctions generally speaking (p. 111). Whence the two key images of  Wou-wei,  the Mirror: “The <Tao subject> uses his mind as a mirror: he does not respond to things, nor does he anticipate them; he refl ects them without retaining them . . .” etc. (p. 112)—and still Water, calm Water. Let’s note, even if it’s not directly related to our topic:

  1. Wou-wei  has some perfectly scandalous political effects. For  us, it’s in the political realm that  Wou-wei  seems wholly  inconceivable: our entire civilization is in the Will-to-Act; but that’s a different dossier to be opened (Grenier,  L’Esprit du Tao ).

Jean Grenier,  L’Esprit du Tao  (Flammarion, 1973), p. 108  sq .

  1. The Wou-wei , particularly with its infl ections of quietism and negative mysticism, seems to have some affi nity with the Christian monastic ideal. But a hair separates them, and that hair is not nothing: God, Revelation, the Bible (likewise for Muslims). Similarly for Zen Buddhism: the Zen subject, whatever form his  Wou-wei  takes, is absent from the world, he considers the world to be nothing, he’s elsewhere, even if that elsewhere is nothing. The Tao subject is always present. Proof = anecdotes, parables, examples: sharp sense of humour, keen sense of “life,” of “reality.” Yes, he thinks that the world is an illusion, but one with the sharply defi ned contours of a vision: I’ll say that [the Taoist sage] accepts the Imaginary, he doesn’t divert it toward schism.


Ceylon Monastery: courtyards and gardens: trees, lawns, fl owering shrubs, like a private garden. And Mélanie, who’d spent twenty-fi ve years living among rodents, in fi lth and in darkness, no doubt willingly and gratuitously (no religious gain), once she’s taken to hospital: asks for fl owers, adores them.   Accordingly, I’d like to propose a “dossier on fl owers” that, to my knowledge, no one has ever opened. Flowers (in gardens, on tables) go without saying. Now, it’s when something “goes without saying” that it needs to be looked at closely—and it then emerges that what “goes without saying” is in fact comprised of a number of unanswered questions. Those questions would be the following: Why fl owers? Put simply: some lines of inquiry the dossier could pursue:

  1. Flowers: associated with the myth of Paradise. Xenophon: gardens = paradises. Hoi paradeisoi , 14  avestic (Iranian):  pairidaeza : the King of Persia’s vast oriental gardens. In all likelihood, representation of a climatic optimum: “paradise”; its origins in hot countries = the opposite of too hot. Garden = a luxury that’s anti-nature, privilege of the Lord: top-end product and pleasure.  2. Flowers as an offering to the gods: especially in Buddhism. On the way to the temple, the layman stops to buy fl owers. The fl owerseller presents them on a little tray that the layman will return on his way out. Inside the temple, he offers them to Buddha, arranging them on a table, the table of offerings: the fl owers are always cut at the sepal (≠ bouquet; stems = unaesthetic). Note: thematically, the

Bareau, p. 11

The Confi ned Woman of   Poitiers , p. 147

Bareau, p. 11

exact opposite of the carnal offering: blood, fat, victim. Religion with no victim; so not strictly [speaking] a religion: a ritual that originates elsewhere, but where? Indeed, ancient religions, Judaism, and even Christianity: offering the fl esh incarnate (“This is my blood, this is my body . . .” etc.). A question that’s been quite extensively studied by anthropology. But fl owers? Probably the essence of luxury, of the supplement: what exceeds or falls short of being a useful fruit. Can only be understood within an economy of luxury, albeit a modest one: 15  in country churches, the meager (and unaesthetic) bouquets that get set down at the feet of plaster Sulpician virgins ≠ ostentatious bouquets in bourgeois churches.  3. Flowers, arrangements of   fl owers: as an object incorporated into symbolic practices. Relates to a classic paradigm: scarcity / profusion: (a) the profuse, abundant, overfl owing bouquet; the spray: Expense, Celebration, Potlatch, Mme Verdurin’s bouquets at the Raspelière or Odette Swann’s; 16  (b) the small, elliptical bouquet: a whole mythology; the child’s gift (theme of wildfl owers), the tiny bouquet of violets (symbolic gesture + coding of the violet: humility, discretion) and above all the Zen bouquet:  ikebana , 17  scarcity animated by a complex symbolic system (in Japan: you can take classes in  ikebana ). Bouquet (from  bosquet ): 18  etymologically, suggests the composite and the few (cf. a wine’s  bouquet ). Actually, two contradictory themes of essence: an essence represented by plenitude, the infi nite, the inexhaustible ≠ an essence represented by the scarce, the insubstantial, the reduced (Valéry: the essential thinness of things). 19   4. Finally: fl owers = colors. Now, color = would be of the order of a drive. The fl ower would be the culturally coded offering or fi guration of a drive: the drive as delicate (fragile, perishable).

There are many other ways in which the dossier could be expanded, notably around: the  aesthetic  (paintings of fl owers); the metonymic  (fl owers, metonymy of the seasons); the  hermeneutic ( the language of fl owers); the  sociological  (How are fl owers used today, in our society? It’s a whole industry). But it’s likely that the fl ower’s meaning springs from: the fact of it being of no use (≠ fruit), scarce (climate-dependent), of color (to do with the drives).  To bring this dossier to a close, I’ll provide two anecdotes; what you make of them will depend on what sort of person you are: 20

  1. Marcel Liebman: Leninism under Lenin : “In the memoirs on Lenin that Valentinov, one of Lenin’s fi rst companions in combat though he would not be for long—left us, it is related that one day a question of doctrine was debated among the entourage of the future founder of the Soviet regime: Could a professional revolutionary legitimately like fl owers? One of Lenin’s comrades, animated by a zeal that even his leader judged excessive, claimed it was forbidden: you start by liking fl owers and before you know it you are seized by the desire to live like a landowner lazily stretched out in a hammock who reads French novels and is waited on by obsequious valets in the midst of his magnifi cent garden.” 21   2. At the time of his  Compositions in the Square  (# 1924), Mondrian was still drawing fl owers, solely as a means to make ends meet. Consequently, in that period (that of full-blown “abstraction”) Mondrian would still paint the odd fl ower, which he had no trouble selling to his friends in Holland. Whence Brassai’s comment as he left Mondrian’s studio: “There’s a man who paints fl owers to live. And why does he want to live? So he can paint straight lines.”


Let’s call “idyllic” any space of human relations defi ned by an absence of confl ict. (Note: idyllic, in the modern sense—“How idyllic!”—is recent.  Littré : a short lyrical poem on a rural theme).  Idyll is not exactly the description of a utopia. Fourier’s utopia doesn’t eliminate confl icts, it acknowledges them (therein lies its great originality): it stages confl icts, and as a result succeeds in neutralizing them. “Idyllic,” in contrast, as its etymology suggests, refers to a literary representation (or fantasmatization) of its relational space.  Example of an idyllic network (an idyllic Living-Together): the fi ve colonists from  The Mysterious Island : Cyrus Smith, the scholar, the engineer, the chief + Harbert, the very young man, the very gifted pupil + Gideon Spilett, the reporter + Pencroff, the sailor, the laborer + Nab, negro and cook. Note: it’s a social microcosm. Upper classes: the scientist, the reporter, the pupil = the “managers” + a proletarian + a sub-proletarian, almost a slave, an animal even (the affectivity of a dog).  Here’s how the relations between the fi ve characters who live together are described:

  1. A. Bois

Bois, p. 19

Attachment     → 1. Cyrus ←→  Harbert   ←→  Keenly felt, respectful friendship

P encroff ←→ Nab   Very fond of each other, speak to one another familiarly

  1. Nab ←→ Cyrus Devotion

Pencroff sees Cyrus + Harbert but isn’t jealous.

  1. Spilett: the reporter, the intellectual: not one affective marker.


  1. Reciprocity only exists within the same class. So: affective equilibrium: differentiation of feeling (attachment / respectful friendship) → complementary nuances. Between social classes, no reciprocity, and no contamination (Pencroff sees, but isn’t jealous). 2. In reality, feelings are structured by social divisions. Cf. Eighteenth-century theater, from Marivaux to Beaumarchais:  pathos  of the masters ≠  pathos  of the valets; but precisely as a result of (what sets everything off): disturbance, interferences, contamination, genetic recombinations. Order is only (artifi cially) reestablished when those acting on feeling return to or are made to return to their social rank. The (literary) idyll = the form that erases social or parasocial reality, on the one hand, by leaving it in place, not subverting it, allowing it the differences between its homogeneities and, on the other, by scotomizing the abrasion, the friction, the chafi ng between those distinct homogeneities = the world, the creation of Noah’s Ark. Man and animal are kept apart, but they get along.  3. Lastly, note the atopical position of the intellectual. He’s neither a manager nor a laborer, he’s assigned no responsibility in terms of tasks, roles: he therefore has no affective existence.

How to Live Together is a key introduction to Barthes’s pedagogical methods and critical worldview. In this work, Barthes focuses on the concept of “idiorrhythmy,” a productive form of living together in which one recognizes and respects the individual rhythms of the other. He explores this phenomenon through five texts that represent different living spaces and their associated ways of life: Émile Zola’s Pot-Bouille, set in a Parisian apartment building; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which takes place in a sanatorium; André Gide’s La Séquestrée de Poitiers, based on the true story of a woman confined to her bedroom; Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, about a castaway on a remote island; and Pallidius’s Lausiac History, detailing the ascetic lives of the desert fathers.

Droits d’auteur : © All Rights Reserved


Christian Nyampeta’s work develops an artistic and theoretical enquiry into contemporary African philosophy and the ascetic practices of the late antiquities. Through staging workshops and programmes of art and design, Nyampeta’s work creates spaces, times, fictions, models, dialogues, translations and commentaries, concerned with the idea of communality and its discontents. Nyampeta convenes the Nyanza Working Group of Another Roadmap Africa Cluster. He runs Radius, an online and occasionally inhabitable radio station, and he is a research student at the Visual Cultures Department at Goldsmiths, University of London.





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