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  • Listening to Barthes with Millet:A Loving Overture
  • Armine Kotin Mortimer

"Comment donc la langue s'en tire-t-elle, lorsqu'elle doit interpréter la musique?
Hélas, semble-t-il, fort mal."

Roland Barthes, "Le Grain de la voix"

In the brilliant opening page of the essay "Écoute," Roland Barthes identifies three types of listening as a progression from an animalistic alertness to a deciphering of codes to a listening of listening. The first type extends to all hearing creatures: "Selon la première écoute, l'être vivant tend son audition (l'exercice de sa faculté physiologique d'entendre) vers des indices […]. Cette première écoute est, si l'on peut dire, une alerte."1 Barthes's experience of this first type of listening is both animal-like and indicative of his exceptional sensitivity to languages: "Un soir, à moitié endormi sur une banquette de bar, j'essayais par jeu de dénombrer tous les langages qui entraient dans mon écoute: musiques, conversations, bruits de chaises, de verres, toute une stéréophonie dont une place de Tanger (décrite par Severo Sarduy) est le lieu exemplaire" (Le Plaisir du texte, 2:1519). Intuition and experience, combined with passages like this one, tell me that Barthes was a person for whom the background music one hears in stores, in lobbies, while holding on the telephone, and so on—the kind of music commonly called elevator music, in spite of the fact that it is heard least often in elevators—was never out of his hearing, and that his ears tuned in such music whether he liked it or not.

The second type of listening, limited to humans, occurs as a common practice among many groups of people in their professional engagement with an object of study: readers of literature, historians, music students, psycho-analysts, archeologists, anthropologists, physicians, and so on. "La seconde est un déchiffrement; ce qu'on essaye de capter par l'oreille, ce sont des signes; ici, sans doute, l'homme commence: j'écoute comme je lis, c'est-à-dire selon certains codes" ("Écoute," 3:727). Almost any field of endeavor leads one to seek the meaning embedded in conventional signs pertaining to the field's object. Listening in this second sense enables one to find meaning intentionally or unintentionally encrypted in the signs.

A decrypter of codes is the most popular image of Barthes among those who know him superficially and especially among those who have taken [End Page 5] pleasure in mocking, parodying or denigrating his thought. The 1966 quarrel prompted by Sur Racine (1963) can be said to turn on a fundamental disagreement about this very type of listening: how far can one go in identifying and deciphering codes? One of the salvos in the battle against literary analysis as decoding was entitled, virulently, Assez décodé! (1978). Its author, René Pommier, would later publish Roland Barthes ras le bol (1987), in which the idea of having gone over the top is expressed in the most vigorous language (to put it politely). But the view of Barthes as decoder is not limited to the anti-Barthesians. For many who are themselves decrypters of Barthes, especially of the books most studied in English, namely S/Z, Roland Barthes, and Camera Lucida, Barthes is primarily a person who works with codes. This Barthes is valuable for having offered useful analytic codes and a method for codifying the uncodified, thus making the object easier to apprehend. It is no surprise, then, that such second-type listeners have also been inclined to codify Barthes as they read and write about his works.

Barthes's "third listening" is an intersubjective mode in which the listener is listened to:

Enfin, la troisième écoute, dont l'approche est toute moderne (ce qui ne veut pas dire qu'elle supplante les deux autres), ne vise pas—ou n'attend pas—des signes déterminés, classés: non pas ce qui est dit ou émis, mais qui parle, qui émet: elle est censée se développer dans un espace intersubjectif, où "j'écoute" veut dire aussi "écoute-moi"; ce dont elle s'empare pour le transformer et le relancer...