Tag Archives: Roland Barthes

The Unsaid: The Flesh of Babel

The lecture was delivered as part of the panel “Babel-on: Cinema and the Poetics of Silence,” at the Midwest Modern Language Association Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on November 11, 2007.

Babel presents itself as a film about communication. This makes it something of a privileged film through which to evaluate the nature of filmic communication.

The Biblical parable of the tower of Babel proposes the confusion of tongues as punishment for the hubris of humans aspiring to godlike power. The people of Babel worked together in perfect communication until god struck down the tower they had built. The story is a castration story: the confusion of tongues follows from castration. Roland Barthes inverts this notion in The Pleasure of the Text when he observes that “The subject gains access to ecstasy by the cohabitation of languages working side by side: the text of pleasure is sanctioned Babel”(4).

What of the cinema of pleasure? Cinema functions as an analogue to Babel before the fall. It presents the unity of heterogeneous discourses – formal, indexical, cultural; an art of fact and fantasy; languages of sight and of sound; images of time and movement. Narrative cinema is thus a hybrid form.

The facts of cinema are first and foremost indexical. Cinema has the power to show what is – old films are often poignant in their ability to show what was – the living breathing past. But films are also fantasies. They can tell new kinds of stories or repeat stories made familiar by other means (novels or plays for example). Cinema is an art for actors, captured in images, clothed in sound.

It is a formal art but one that is always and inescapably grounded in particular cultural contexts. These contexts transcend the medium itself. They are ideological. The institutions of human life – family, religion, nation – remain constant across cultures, though their forms remain heterogeneous. Fathers and daughters can be found all around the world, for example, but the family structures that form and regulate this relationship change from culture to culture. Cinema may seem universal through its evocation of these institutions yet reveal itself as culture bound and unique through the particular facets of the institutions it describes. But how are these features of cinema – its formal, indexical and cultural levels – its universality and its uniqueness – related to one another? How do they interact with, support, or displace one another? As Baudrillard observed: “Languages are so beautiful – all of them without exception – only because they are incomparable, irreducible one to another.”[i] The incommensurability of languages prevents the reduction of the world – and of cinema – to an integral system of communication. What can Babel tell us about these aspects of cinematic language?

With stories set in Morocco, along the US-Mexico border, and in Japan, Babel obviously and ambitiously presents itself as an international film. Each story is set in a discrete and distinctly “international” locale: the Americas, Asia, and North Africa for the Middle East.

The Moroccan story is a story of ugly Americans, tourists in a foreign land. One might be tempted to compare it to a tale by Paul Bowles or Graham Greene, in whose works Americans suffer and die due to their naive encounters with the “foreign”. In this story however, the shooting is an accident and help ultimately does arrive. Medical help was never more than four hours away and the tiny village where the tourists stopped did in fact have a working phone. The friendly and helpful translator never left the Joneses who are not after all bad people.

The Japanese story is the story of an adolescent girl and her widowed father: it could be set in any major urban area anywhere in the world. Very little of the story is distinctly Japanese. One feels that the setting was chosen – as it was in Lost in Translation – as an Orientalist stand-in for “the most foreign” country, the most distant, the one presenting the most profound challenge to communication. As such one feels that the setting for this story bears the distinct stamp of the Western imagination, of the exotic trend within that imagination. It is not surprising that this exotic story is also the most erotic story of the ones presented here. (Another erotic moment in the film occurs when the young Moroccan girl strips for her adoptive brother. Here again the exoticism fuels the eroticism and here again the erotic object is an adolescent girl who does not seem to understand the social meaning or implications of her actions. We will come back to this point.)

As an international film, Babel might be compared to another international film that spoke directly to the problem of cinematic communication: Godard’s Contempt. In Contempt, Godard fashioned a cinematic object that brought together – in a film within the film, a backstage drama – a French screenwriter, a German filmmaker, and an American producer, working together on a film version of Homer’s Odyssey. Godard’s contempt was the contempt of the screenwriter’s wife for her husband; the contempt of the American money man for the screenwriter, his wife, and for the director; the contempt of the film industry for its sources, talents, realities, and potential. By realities I mean the indexical value of the film’s most potent element, its star, Brigit Bardot, whose flesh the producers (as well as the producer in the film) wanted to see. Godard famously showed his own contempt for the producers’ demands by filming Bardot lounging pointlessly in bed at the very beginning of the film. The images stand out from the rest of the film; they do not add to the narrative in any way. (But does Godard’s meta-comment on the exploitation of the female form avoid the problem it illustrates? Not really.)

Godard made a film which illustrated and exemplified contempt. As a tri-lingual work, the film would have to be subtitled – and hence betrayed through reductive translation – in each of its main markets. Godard wasn’t afraid to bite the hand that feeds. Contempt held direct communication in contempt but in that contempt created great cinematic communication.

Babel seems at first to explore similar terrain. Though the international locations challenge communication, communication ultimately occurs. Brad Pitt may effectively be lost in Morocco but he is accompanied by a friendly and helpful translator. The Mexican nanny speaks English and Spanish, as do her young charges, more or less. The nanny is denied speech not by a language barrier but by an institutional and cultural one: the border police. The Japanese girl does not experience the clash of cultures – though there certainly is a clash of cultures between the culture of the deaf and that of the hearing. Her communication problem is blandly literal: she simply cannot speak. Each of the stories is thus pregnant with potential alterity, but this alterity never overwhelms either the film or the characters. Communication does not break down, it is simply frustrated. The film does not break the mold, as Burroughs would say.

This is particularly clear in the film’s gender politics. In Babel, the gender roles fulfill distinctly Western stereotypes.

Though each of the three main stories is centered on a female character, each of these female characters is disrespected and degraded in some manner. Cate Blanchett – coded as a bad mother, who let her child die, and as a shrewish bad wife, who will not forgive her husband for faults that are in fact her own – is shot and effectively speechless throughout the film. The nanny – who left her real son to take care of someone else’s – is denied speech and determined to be a terrible nanny despite her vain best efforts. The Japanese girl is literally speechless and she spends the film baring her most intimate flesh to strangers in a fruitless attempt at communication. At the end, she stands naked in her fathers arms, an utterly abject figure, as the camera pulls back into the infinite distances of the urban milieu that has contributed to her destruction.

None of these women fulfill the function of a tragic heroine. Their characters undergo no tragic reversal of fate: they are never beloved of anyone, established as figures worthy of any respect. They do nothing that endures in any success. Rather they each represent distinct types of failure and abjection. They are the victims of a spectacle of degradation without being its sacrificial victims. To be sacrificial victims they must willfully bear the burden of their fate. But none of these women can even speak. Their lives are determined entirely by others. Cate Blanchett is shot by an unknown assailant and cared for by her husband and doctors. The nanny lives at the whim of her employer, her nephew (Bernal), and the border police. The Japanese girl follows social pressure to offer her body to any stranger who will have her.

The men in the film fair much better. Brad Pitt plays the hero – he took his wife on a trip in a loving attempt to save their marriage. When she is shot, he struggles valiantly – not vainly – to save her. Gael Garcia Bernal’s character neither fails nor succeeds. He plays the clown but he disappears before we can judge him. And he disappears in a moment of action rather than powerlessness. The Japanese father struggles to communicate with his daughter through the film. At the end, the viewer would like to believe they have reached some understanding, though the father did nothing to bring that understanding about. The viewer is nevertheless satisfied that the father has been part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Even the children in the nanny’s care fall into this pattern. When she must abandon them in the desert, the girl is sleeping – the suggestion is that she is too ill to move – and the young boy must take care of his sister.

These are simple gender stereotypes: the active males, the passive females.

Perhaps the largest oversight and misunderstanding about culture and about the nature, potential and limits of cinema, occurs when the Japanese girl goes dancing. She has had some alcohol and taken some drugs. She is in a euphoric daze. When she enters the dance club, the film is silent, showing us the world as she would experience it, as a world of pure darkness and light. The sound returns in fits and starts, carrying the viewer between the worlds of sight and sound, while she continues dancing. Thereafter the technique – which stands out as such, as a technical gimmick – never returns. The scene is striking in its falsehood.

The world of the hearing impaired is not a world entirely deprived of sensation as this technique would have us believe. Sounds penetrate the hearing impaired body as sensations. This would be most acutely true in a dance club, where the throbbing beat of the music almost literally beats the dancers across the floor. Such a sensation cannot be represented in cinema, it can only be replicated. The abstract and ideological nature of her disability – as the ultimate challenge to communication – in the filmmaker’s imagination stands revealed. The Japanese girl is not a body, she is an idea about communication.

This is of course deeply ironic in her case. Her story is the story of communication reduced to its most schematic, abstract and yet most literal terms. In her character, desire for communication has become desire for sex. This is a socially constructed and imposed desire – we see her friends mock her for her adolescent virginity – but her story explores no alternative to it.

In a bar, she removes her panties and flashes a group of boys that she does not know. The display recalls Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, but here the boys laugh at her vagina dentata rather than desiring or fearing it. Her inability to communicate has taken the teeth out of her sexuality.

As in pornography, explicit sexuality is psychologically permissible only when it is utterly devoid of meaning, deprived of communication. In this case, the young girl’s inability to communicate is the abstraction that defines her character. Here the naked female body is not a body at all: it is a symbol of emotional nudity, of psychological bareness. In passing we might observe that these categories are distinctly Western. Does Japanese culture contain a repository of images and ideas about the relationship between nudity and intimate communication? I do not believe that it does.

Later, the girl strips herself completely before another total stranger, a police officer who is looking for her father. She lies to him about her mother’s death and he feels sorry for her. He is gentle and seems understanding: he does not have sex with her. The moment they share is tender but it is based on a falsehood she told in pursuit of his affection. Based on lies, this is not a moment of communication nor is it an evocation of alterity.

At end of the film, she again stands naked, now in her father’s arms on a balcony overlooking the city. Her nakedness is a symbol of her emotional vulnerability and of her openness to communication. The camera pulls away from the couple, rendering them, and her in particular, smaller, even more vulnerable. Viewing the couple through the lens of desire we see an incestuous couple. But this does not seem to be the filmmaker’s intent. The camera does not linger over her flesh. It takes it for granted. It has transformed her flesh into a symbol.

Yet her flesh nevertheless persists as flesh. This is the power of the index. And the filmmakers present her flesh as a fetish for our gaze. Are we here being permitted to gaze upon young female flesh without fear of social retribution, fear of castration? This is Babel after all. Again, I don’t think so, or at least I don’t want to think so. I would rather see her flesh as a symbol than cast a desiring gaze on an exotic adolescent.

In the end, I think we would like to believe that the girl will now be able to communicate with her father though we have no reason to hold this belief. Nothing encourages it other than the extent of her degradation, her bareness, and availability.

Godard’s use of the female body in Contempt was a betrayal of that body, but it was a betrayal effected ironically, critically, in an attempt to reveal the contempt of the film industry for the female body and as a means of revealing Godard’s own contempt for the film industry.

In Babel the body is again a female body and it is again the focus of filmic communication. But in Babel, the naked female body is not a body at all: it is a (Western) symbol of emotional nudity, of psychological bareness, of the absolute need for communication. Transformed into a symbol, denuded of its flesh, the body as index has been denied, the heterogeneity of the film mitigated. The bare flesh in short communicates as a symbol rather than as flesh and as such fails to communicate the heterogeneity of cinematic language. Babel ultimately isn’t cinematic.

[i] Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1996) pg. 90.

Roland Barthes’ Aesthetics of Everyday Life

A quote from Jessica Helfand, from her blog, Design Observer, February 2004.

“To me, the goal [of education] is to groom students whose comfort level with theory is such that they emerge from a degree-granting program able to articulate their own theories. Isn’t the point of a good education, [she asks] any good education — to ultimately think for oneself? In this view, it doesn’t really matter if the student reads Thorstein Veblen or Thornton Wilder. […] ‘Readings’ of such theorists as Roland Barthes […] Walter Benjamin […] Derrida and Debord […] are now so thoroughly picked-over that I suspect any substantive yield on new visual thinking is basically negligible. And for designers in general (and design students in particular) isn’t the goal, in the end, to actually say/do something that hasn’t been said/done before?”

Much can be said: the phrase “one’s own theory” indicates that Helfand hasn’t read Barthes very closely (in particular the “Death of the Author”). But there are other problems: Have educational institutions ever been devoted to the cultivation of originality?

Problems aside, the quotation illustrates a common, persistent and unfortunate approach to Barthes. He is labeled a “theorist”, implicitly rejecting theory as antithetical to pragmatic action; he is linked with writers whose work shares little in terms of orientation or content with his own; and he is rejected outright, a priori, as “picked over”. Helfand finds him useless for “yield on new visual thinking”. Is this an accurate, fair or useful assessment?

While Roland Barthes did write about visual culture, he certainly did not write for the specialized purpose of generating new visual thinking. Helfand is faulting apples for not being oranges.

Barthes wrote cultural criticism informed by the then emerging field of semiology. And his corpus evolved. He is quite specific in his observation that Mythologies, for example, was superceded by his later approach to cultural artifacts.


All this in mind, what should we do with Mythologies on its 50th anniversary? How should we read Roland Barthes? Who should read him?

I read Roland Barthes because he is helpful to me in a way that he can, I think, be helpful to all of us – designers and design writers, cultural critics, creators, and indeed everyone interested in living his or her life most fully. Barthes can help us develop an aesthetics of everyday life and this is particularly necessary right now.


An important shift occurred in the culture of capitalism over the last decade and a half or so; a shift from the hegemony of objects to the hegemony of brands. In our time, the most successful multi-national corporations are less concerned with manufacturing products than they are with manufacturing brands. We might call this the ephemeralization of capitalism. Baudrillard calls it the perfect crime.

A brand is the “core idea” of a corporation. It is not the ideology of a corporation (corporations generally share the same capitalist ideology). Rather, and as Roland Barthes might observe, a brand is the myth of a corporation.

In No Logo, Naomi Klein observed that companies now see themselves as “meaning brokers” rather than product producers (21). Building a brand means tending a meaning, a core idea, rather than tending a thing, a product. This is not to say that products have disappeared from our stores, only that products are less important in and of themselves than they were once perceived to be. Products today are carriers of brands. And as such they take their place alongside corporate messaging as it occurs in advertisements, on websites, in press releases and public statements of all kinds. The products or objects weigh no more or less heavily than these other bearers of corporate communication.

Thus we can observe a general decline in quality among mass produced objects of all kinds – quantity, in short, changes quality – alongside a concurrent turn toward unique or designer products. Capitalist production thrives on similarity, mass production, replication; while consumer culture thrives on the sense of a singular experience – even when that singular experience occurs en masse. Consumers are moved to purchase specific things. And in certain cases, consumers want products that bear the trace of a human maker; less a craftsman these days than a designer. As corporations cease to be manufacturers, they cease to be interested in their manufactured goods; yet consumers are drawn to objects that reveal their derivation, that bear their history on their surface as a quality, as complexity.

Paradox, in short, abounds. No matter how divorced corporations become from physical objects – from commodities and manufacturing facilities – they remain inexorably tied to them. Brands must be carried by products of some kind: and advertisements too are objects; even websites are things. The sensual, the physical, simply will not disappear. Things may lack the dense complexity that they once possessed but they will not go away. And of course design itself is another device for the marketers. Design manufactures complexity, creates density, intensity.

The conflict here is one between the abstract, ideal or mythic sphere, and the aesthetic. Corporations strive to enter the eternal and inevitable realm of myth, yet they remain tied to the contingent realm of the senses, the realm governed by aesthetics. Roland Barthes can help us understand and negotiate both sides of this equation, though I will focus on the aesthetic side.


Aesthetics has become a bad word in the academy today, and a misunderstood one. The word conjures aestheticism, the movement of art for art’s sake; and not just art, of life for art’s sake. Aesthetics also recalls an outmoded approach to art objects: a formalism that separates art objects from history, society, ideology, and psychology: a method that critics spent most of the twentieth century trying to reject.

Those critics were trying to reject the aesthetic nature – the formal, material, and sensual nature of art objects. And indeed formal analysis has all but disappeared in contemporary writing about aesthetic objects. It is completely absent from publications on graphic design. More forcefully stated, the objects themselves have disappeared from many contemporary approaches to culture.

This is unfortunate. Aesthetics is the science that tells us how things have meaning or value for us. The term derives from Greek words meaning both sense and sensation. An aesthetics of everyday life offers us a interested thick description of all the things and activities of our world; an epistemophilia broad enough to embrace all things; an evaluation of existence.

Such an evaluation should be as valuable to designers, and their bosses, as it is to consumers. Design and consumption are two sides of a coin. (Art making, the creation of representations of life, aspires ironically enough to a condition beyond both commerce and everyday life.) My proposal is neither that “everyone is a designer” nor that the “consumer is the creator”. Designers and consumers meet in a marketplace that is itself a contentious decentered community.

The notion of an aesthetics of everyday life has several histories. Michel Foucault’s late search for the use of pleasure and the care of the self; his description of the hermeneutics and technologies of the self. Henri Lefebvre’s Marxist sociology of the everyday, the last bastion of individual freedom: a social sphere that shrank faster than he could describe it. The Situationist’s abortive revolution in everyday life; their research into new behaviors, objects and urbanisms.

As often as similar notions have been proposed, they have gone nowhere. Indeed, the last 150 years have seen critics and creators of all kinds return again and again to the objects around which everyday life circulates only to propose, like de Certeau, a new description of those objects or of our relationship to them. The point, however, is not simply to describe our relationship to objects, but to change it.

Discourses proliferated around objects during the modern era: Husserl’s phenomenology; the Objectivist school of modern American poetry; the Marxist denunciation of the commodity form as spectral; the field of cybernetics.

Much if not in fact most modern art and literature can be read as an engagement with the problem of the object in industrial culture: the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, Suprematism, Der Stijl, the Bauhaus, Duchamp’s readymades, Surrealist found objects, Neo-dada, pop art, minimalism. What an anxiety fraught relationship. What a contentious 150 years.

Against this background of more or less continuous disturbance in our relationship with objects, certain moments stand out as moments of intensification, of deepening anxiety; moments when consumerism reached new heights: the late nineteenth century, the 1910s, and of course the 1950s. This last being the decade of modernization par excellance, the decade of modern objects, the decade of a convulsive shift in everyday life, particularly in France. Kristin Ross makes this point marvelously in her book Fast Cars, Clean Bodies.

Roland Barthes wrote his “mythologies” between 1953 and 1959 for a reason. These were years of rapid modernization. The ground was shifting beneath his feet and all around him, a new culture was lurching toward its Jerusalem: one of automobiles, durable electronics and appliances, washing machines and refrigerators; one of television and magazines illustrated with photographs in color.


Of course Barthes was not alone in his turn toward what we now call popular culture. Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall were doing something similar in England; as was Reyner Banham, from a completely different, celebratory perspective.

Barthes, Williams, and Hall, each in their way, gave form to a new phase of oppositional culture, a new kind of ideological criticism in the Marxist vein. Unopposed to popular culture they were opposed to its administrators. But this was an ambivalent opposition to some extent, at least in Barthes’ case. His Mythologies were often as creative, as nuanced in language and imagination, as they were critical. Criticism isn’t supposed to be fun.

In fact these writings waged war on several fronts. Intended to foster critical consciousness, to debunk the myths of ideological thinking, they also extended the territory of culture itself to include popular or low culture. And they can be read, like the writings of a latter day Balzac, as a description, occasionally even a loving description of that culture.

And here we are now, fifty years further down the road. A Popular Culture Association now holds annual meetings and publishes an academic journal, devoted to popular rather than high culture. It is an academic discourse as rigid and exclusive, as isolated as any other, simply inverted. This is of course sad and ironic for many reasons.

Already in 1965 – forty two years ago – in her essay, “One Culture and the New Sensibility”, Susan Sontag rejected the distinction between high and low culture as “shallow”. For Sontag, there was only one culture and it was culture. For Sontag, the assault on the citadel of culture – Barthes’ assault, Banham’s assault – had been completed: the new sensibility of the 1960s – the 1960s ! – would be pluralistic – high, low, scientific, and aesthetic – and keyed to a new understanding of pleasure, or it would not be (Against Interpretation, pgs. 297 and 302). Her writings, like Barthes’, have been intellectual bestsellers: Was she wrong? Or, if not, how did the Popular Culture Association miss her message?

Barthes of course never really intended to extend the definition of culture. For him, high or low, culture was culture and it remained culture. He was interested in extending the field of semiology into a means for the ideological analysis of both linguistic and non-linguistic sign systems.

In regard to non-linguistic systems, as he says in Elements of Semiology, “There exists a general category of language/ speech which embraces all the systems of signs; since there are no better ones, we shall keep the terms language and speech, even when they are applied to communications whose substance is not verbal.” (25) The fashion system, the food system; Baudrillard’s system of objects. A small corner of this initiative has recently been isolated from the whole and re-branded under the faddish name visual rhetoric. The rhetoricians, like the pop culturalists, would benefit from a return to sources, a reading of Roland Barthes.

“Semiology,” for Barthes, “is a science of forms… It may well be that on the plane of ‘life’, there is but a totality where structures and forms cannot be separated. But science has no use for the ineffable: it must speak about ‘life’ if it wants to transform it.” In the same passage, he goes on to say that “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot brings one back to it.” (Mythologies 111-112)

Barthes’ semiology is distinct from others in its love of the signifier, its love of forms, the things of the world. Barthes’ tremendous originality was to take semiology out of the archive and into the street; to turn away, if only for a little while, from the culture of representation, from art and literature, toward the realm of everyday life. Formalism foundered in the archive but found itself in the street; at least for Barthes, for a little while.

I am tempted to suggest that Barthes was interested in what I call culture beyond representation. I’ll suggest this only as a spur to further thought, a reminder of the work that remains to be done. For the era of representation is indeed over. We have entered a new age of icons, a space of sensual signs; a non-place of constant and energetic referral; where social space including actual spaces, from cityscapes, shopping malls, and highways to the internet, functions as a network for the expenditure of energy; mixing memory and desire in the production of intensity, pleasure, jouissance. If Roland Barthes was the Moses of this promised land, Jessica Helfand and her ilk have already become its Pharisees.


My proposal: Read Barthes’ Pleasure of the Text, substituting the word object for the word text throughout. Then fold that reading back into Mythologies.

Imagine an aesthetic (if the word has not become too depreciated) based entirely (completely, radically, in every sense of the word) on the pleasure of the consumer, whoever he may be, to whatever class, whatever group he may belong, without respect to cultures or languages: the consequences would be huge, perhaps even harrowing (Brecht has sketched such an aesthetic of pleasure; of all his proposals, this is the one most frequently forgotten). (Pleasure of the Text 59)

Pleasure for Barthes takes two forms: the pleasure of cultural systems and the pleasure of what Bataille would call transgression, the disruption of that culture. The pleasure of transgression provokes what Barthes calls jouissance, which is often translated as “bliss” though ecstasy is more accurate.

The pleasure of culture is the pleasure of situating objects and experiences, everything really, within a system of understanding, a discursive order, which is to say within culture. Objects many be multivalent, saturated with culture; they may participate in several discourses at once, be polysemic. Cultural pleasures too may be ideological pleasures. But this is not the moment to repeat a critique of that kind of pleasure.

Ecstatic pleasure for Barthes disrupts stable systems of discourse; it tears objects from the fabric of the world, elevating them through the power of fascination, obsession, fetishism.

In the case of cultural pleasures, we are talking about the pleasures of communication, which is always to imply those of community, and beyond that of utility or functionality. Objects which announce and fulfill a function, communicate a message to a community of interpreters.

In the case of jouissance we are talking about singular pleasures. Those in which an object becomes dislodged from its functional milieu, shorn of its communicative value, isolated through a singular act of perception.

Both kinds of pleasure can of course be latent in the same object; though some objects may be constructed in such a way as to tend to provoke one or the other type of appreciation.

This framework of interpretation is at once absent from design discourse and crucial to it. The discourses of design are dominated by the utilitarian ideologies of functionality and communicative clarity. Ironically, they know nothing of the pleasure of their objects.

Barthes describes pleasure most succinctly in the preface to Sade/ Fourier/ Loyola. Let’s substitute the words designer, object, and design for the words author, text, and writing.

Nothing is more depressing than to imagine the object as an intellectual object (for reflection, analysis, comparison, mirroring, etc.). The object is an object of pleasure. The bliss [or ecstasy] of the object is often only stylistic: … expressive felicities… At times the pleasure of the object is achieved more deeply…: whenever the object transmigrates into our life, whenever another design (the Other’s design) succeeds in designing fragments of our own daily lives, in short, whenever a co-existence occurs. The index of the pleasure of the object, then, is when we are able to live with the designer. (See Roland Barthes, Sade/ Fourier/ Loyola 7-9)

For Barthes, living with an object of design is not a question of representation. “It is a matter of bringing into our daily life the fragments of the unintelligible that emanate from a object we admire (admire precisely because it hangs together well)… Our daily life then becomes a theater whose scenery is our own social habitat…”

Barthes had proclaimed the death of the author only a few years previously, but here he clarifies his meaning.

“The pleasure of the object also includes the amicable return of the designer. Of course the designer who returns is not the one identified by our institutions…; he is not even the biographical hero. The designer who leaves his object and comes into our life has no unity; he is a mere plural of ‘charms’, the site of a few tenuous details, yet the source of vivid novelistic glimmerings, a discontinuous chant of amiabilities, in which we nevertheless read death more certainly than in the epic of fate; he is not a (civil, moral) person, he is a body.”

The “novelistic glimmerings” Barthes mentions in the most difficult portion of this passage are “biographemes”: traces of a subjectivity that cannot be reduced to a singular subject. These traces include stylistic markers as well as everything else that might signal the presence of a designer’s guiding hand in the creation of an object.

Design discourse in our time urgently needs concepts such as these. The design fields are fields in which authorship is difficult to determine: designers work at the behest of clients, whose ideas they serve; and, within their firms, designers follow the dictates of creative directors and art directors, or are themselves creative directors or art directors.

For twenty years now, design journalist Rick Poynor has attempted to promulgate an interpretation of design as Art based on an outmoded model of Fine Art, a model in which the designer is viewed as a creator in the Romantic vein. Like Helfand, Poynor should read some Roland Barthes.

To return to our discussion: the pleasures of the object are manifold: they are cultural and anti-cultural, social and individual, communicative and beyond comprehension. Barthes describes the pleasures of the Eiffel Tower – to take only this one example from his work – as “polyphonic.”(The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 17) The Tower, he says, “attracts meaning”, but remains “ineluctable, because it means everything”; it is an “infinite cipher.” (The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 4-5) But it is not only a sign, it is an object of interaction, indeed a field of multiple engagements, of many uses. The bliss of the Tower is the “bliss [or ecstasy] of sensation.” (The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies 11) “What is significance? It is meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced?” (Pleasure of the Text 61)

The object effects the uneasy commingling of abstract and sensual value; of sense and sensation. Some objects do this more so than others do. Yet the theory of pleasure does not propose an hierarchy of objects based on the pleasures they afford: more is not always better. The task set before the designer is to determine the degree of pleasure an object might most appropriately offer.

Barthes discusses the pleasure and personality of the object is his myth on toys. “Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature. Many are now molded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.”( Mythologies 53-55.)

Wooden toys on the other hand are more directly natural and therefore maintain a child’s contact with trees, tables, and the floor. Most importantly, wooden toys change with time, they “live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand. […] Henceforth, toys are chemical in substance and colour; their very material introduces one to a coenasethesis of use, not pleasure.”

This reading of toys clarifies Barthes’ suggestion that “our daily life [will become] a theater whose scenery is our own social habitat.” Enjoying an object, indulging ourselves in its pleasures, is a means of enfolding or entangling ourselves in the life of our objects and of enfolding our objects in our own life. The fold or tangle here is a theater, a circuit for the exchange, referral and deferral of energies.

Our search for the pleasure of objects is not intended to create a new law for the creation of objects – a modernist dictate as to how and why objects must be created or used. Rather, it intends to return us to the enjoyment of objects – to their idiosyncrasies, their manifold densities, intensities, and destinies – and thereby to encourage our aesthetic enjoyment of everyday life. (57)

In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes asks: “What relation can there be between the pleasure of the [object] and [its institutions]?” And answers: “Very slight. The theory of the [object] postulates [ecstasy], but it has little institutional future: what it establishes, its precise accomplishment, its assumption, is a practice … not a science, a method, a research, a pedagogy; on these very principles, this theory can produce only theoreticians or practitioners, not specialists.” (60-1)

Specialists – Jessica Helfand, Rick Poynor, the Popular Culture Association, Visual Rhetoriticians et alia – will always miss the pleasure of objects and misunderstand Roland Barthes. Luckily, they’ve left the fun for the rest of us.