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Performance Degree Zero: Roland Barthes and the Theatre by Timothy Scheie (review)

From: SubStance
Volume 43, Number 2, 2014 (Issue 134)
pp. 207-211 | 10.1353/sub.2014.0019

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Timothy Scheie’s book on the importance of the theatre in Roland Barthes’ oeuvre begins with what Scheie poses as an enigma: Barthes wrote frequently of the theatre at the beginning of his career and then ceased to do so, without comment, after 1960. Scheie argues that Barthes’ abandonment of the theatre reveals something important about the development of his thoughts and even about his life. Scheie also considers Barthes’ early theatrical criticism and later use of theatrical metaphors to be an under-considered aspect of the critic’s work. Performance Degree Zero is an ambitious work not so much because of what it argues, but because of its attempt to trace the theatre’s presence (or absence) during Barthes’ entire career as a writer, from roughly 1947 to 1980, through close readings of sections of most of his major works. The book also reviews the history of theatrical criticism in a more general way during a similar time period. Unfortunately, these goals are somewhat at odds with each other; Scheie’s subject is perhaps too narrow to merit a book-length study, while the amount of Barthes’ criticism and theatrical history he attempts to analyze is too broad. As a result, the book is uneven; Scheie makes some very cogent observations about the presence of the human body both in Barthes’ criticism and in performance theory, but he makes the same points over and over again in each of the four chapters as he progresses through Barthes’ work in an occasionally confusing, chronologically oriented reading.

Scheie breaks Barthes’ career down into several distinct periods around which he organizes the four chapters of the book: Barthes’ early career in the 1950s as a journalist and critic who frequently reviewed theatrical performances; his articulation of structuralism and emergence as an important and famous theorist in the 1960s; and his post-structuralist writings of the 1970s, during which time Barthes turned to more personal subjects and less academic forms of writing. Scheie shows an impressive familiarity with the majority of Barthes’ work, as well as with much of the criticism surrounding it. Even if his overview of the development of Barthes’ thought has been largely accomplished by other writers (cf. works by Louis-Jean Calvet, Jonathan Culler, and D. A. Miller, for example), Scheie forefronts notions of presence and performance that previously have been explored mostly in articles about specific texts. His efforts to proceed biographically, thematically, and chronologically result in a frustrating amount of repetition, however, both within and between chapters. It is possible that Scheie is paying homage to Barthes’ style, which is reminiscent of the iterative, cyclical aspects of Vico’s Spiral, a figure Barthes himself used to describe his writing (cf. Le Grain de la voix, 282, for example). Dispersed references to the same aspects of the same texts and even the occasional reuse of quotes give Scheie’s book both a repetitious yet fragmented feel that does not successfully imitate similar qualities in Barthes’ writing. This problem extends to Scheie’s syntax and diction, as well: he uses Descartes’s motto, “larvatus prodeo” and the Latinism “hic and nunc” so many times that the concepts cloy and lose their meaning. Scheie’s writing also contains many laudatory adjectives that make his reading of Barthes seem at times more like a hagiography than criticism.

The start of the book is a succinct introduction to performance theory that focuses on the idea of presence. Scheie traces the implications of the performing body, which, in its variability and imperfection, can be considered at odds with the idealized mimesis of theatre. Paraphrasing Derrida’s reading of Artaud, Scheie notes that in the twentieth century, “Presence is decried as the mechanism by which an oppressive epistemology of the subject becomes naturalized and perpetuates its authority as the arbiter of identity” (7). In theatrical performance, the body brings the real into mimetic representation, thereby overwhelming the interpretation with all the culture and history of the living subject. Scheie locates this phenomenon at the center of an ongoing debate about the nature of theatricality by asking “if it is the performing body that falls short of the theoretical ideal, or it is the ideal...

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