A Variety of Utopian Forms
Barthes and Utopia: Space, Travel, Writing.
Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. xi + 287 pp. $78 cloth.
Diana Knights study of Barthes by way of
utopia sheds new light on the oeuvre of this important intellectual. In doing so,
Knight also helps us reconsider the lingering binary opposition of structuralism versus
post-structuralism as she carries out an insightful exploration of one writers
engagement with the theoretical and political qualities of the utopian impulse. While her
references demonstrate familiarity with major works in utopian studies, especially British
ones, she chooses to argue inductively from Barthess texts (tracing his explicit and
implicit claims) rather than from an historical or theoretical overview of utopia itself.
In this chronological reading of his work, she builds the claim that "utopia is an
overlooked but crucial dimension of Barthess writing," one that he consciously
and creatively developed throughout his intellectual and
As Knight puts it in her Introduction, utopia,
is a concept (part theoretical, part ethical)
that mediates the supposedly conflicting emphases of [his] various phases. From Marxism to
structuralism, from textuality and hedonism to his final preoccupation with love, pity,
and death, Barthes never stopped hypothesizing and fantasizing how things might be
otherwise otherwise, that is, than in his own alienated and class-torn society. (1-2)
Rejecting utopia as an escape from history
whilealmost obsessivelyclaiming it as that which radically supersedes the
shortcomings of the present, Barthes also resisted affiliation with models of
post-revolutionary futures even as he produced a variety of utopian forms that could
nevertheless express a not yet achieved potential. She explains that "thinking
otherwise," for Barthes, "conceptualizing differently, means operating on the
territory of the currently impossible," even to the extent of risking his own
alienation from the processes of radical political change (2). Knowing the arguments
against naming the substance of the revolution, yet realizing that its "daily
finality" had to be explored, he chose to work within the gap, the dangerous gap, of
naming or alluding yet not dictating or enforcing. For Barthes, utopia became "the
taboo of the revolution," and it was precisely the writer who was "responsible
for transgressing it" (quoted in Knight 3).
Barthes as writer, therefore, embraced the
vocation of transgressing both the dominated present and the liberated future, of speaking
the unspeakable, of risking the representation of that which could not, should not, be
uttered. He created ways, in many and unique forms, of exploring how it is that one makes
"the initial revolutionary choice," of "why one becomes a
revolutionary" (3). He followed this practice throughout his life, even near the end
(when he has been too readily seen by some to have abandoned political engagement) as he
stubbornly kept to the real work of mediating the literary and the political, insisting
that utopia was the "second term that allows the sign to function" (quoted in
Knight 1), to move elsewhere, beyond mythologies and orthodoxies.
As the degree-zero of his utopian project,
writing was Barthess primary avenue for bearing witness to alienation and for
expressing the dream of liberation. In the realm of language (but also and increasingly
with his own subjectivity) he dared to speak otherness, to pursue radical transformation.
In his view, literature was "driven by a forward movement relative to the rest of
society" and had "an ambiguous role: to express unease and social hardship as
long as they exist, but also to be utopian" (quoted in Knight 4n). As "an
increasingly self-conscious writer," Barthes regarded utopia as "simply the word
for a positive theoretical, social, and affective solution to the difficult
interrelationship of human beings, their desires, their needs, their language, and the
Knight begins with Barthess early Marxist
and structuralist period of critique and opposition, as found in Mythologies (1957)
and elsewhere. Here she foregrounds the emergence of his desire for a "realm beyond
meanings," beyond critique. In this structuralist moment, she notes that space became
one of the first categories tapped by Barthess utopian imagination. While in Mythologies
he negated and demystified alienated society, he also began to seek out certain spaces as
utopian alternatives. Thus Knight refers to Barthess utopian inflections of
aesthetic space in an early essay on classical Dutch painting and on the microcosmic space
of theater, and she details his work on the cosmogonies of Jules Verne as they generate
"fictional spatio-temporal universes" that can be understood as utopian forms
Knights second chapter on
"Structuralism: Utopian and Scientific" is especially of interest as she
implicitly challenges the reception of Barthes as one who was once a structuralist and
then not. As a political intellectual who chose "to live to the full the
contradictions" of his time (quoted in Knight 45), Barthes, she argues, never locked
himself in to a single position or stance. In this period of the hard-edged critiques of Mythologies,
he nevertheless sought to locate utopia within the very ideological world he challenged.
His structuralism was less a rigid "scientific" practice and more of a method in
which he indulged ... scientificity" (quoted in Knight 51), relishing its
methodological, synchronic motors for the sake of pressing, diachronically, into history
and struggle. In ways that anticipate, and influence, Fredric Jamesons recent
arguments for the use-value of totality and his earlier work on cognitive mapping, Barthes
argues for the worth of modeling, not to construct or dictate but to explain how the
social works to make it "intelligible" in order to critique and transcend
it. Even in its scientific and negative operations, this "urban semiology" is a
utopian act that allows the world to be read, to be known, as a "concrete
abstraction" that can inform political and critical practice. Knights analysis
of Barthess "Eiffel Tower" essay demonstrates his method of conjoining
critique and pleasure, as he dwells on the physical delight of the Towers panoramic
view which also enables a demystifying overview of Paris, in a manner that is more
generous, more happy, more liberating, than the repressions of a panopticon.
Moving beyond the early years (which she reads as
a move not involving a "break" with structuralism as much as a shift in approach
and sensibility), Knight turns to Barthess work on Fourier, perhaps his most direct
encounter with utopian intertextuality. She argues that Barthess "modes of
analysis" resonate with Fouriers, even as both differ from the orthodoxies of
"Fouriers followers." Her key insight is that "the real
content of Barthess work is neither a mythology nor an occasionally precious
style ... [but] rather like Fouriers a project of taking apart and
reinventing the real world" (68). She cites Barthess observation that Fourier
sought to decipher the world and then to remake it, to offer a new fantastic system that
contributes to the project (in which for both men sexuality is privileged) of liberating
the social by way of liberating language. Thus, Fourier offers a "marvelous real ...
That subsumes a fantasmatic perception of material reality" (83), not opposing
materiality but opening it to an ambivalence, an ambiguity, that facilitates the
inter-connections of desire and need.
During this discussion, Knight reaches the moment
of 1968 and Barthess reaction against what he saw as the narrow self-righteousness
of the students. In her reading of "Utopia Today" (1974), she traces
Barthess understanding of the "paradoxical relations between politics and
utopia, and of the familiar failure of each to understand the other" (86). For
Barthes sees utopia as a "political form of fantasy" (quoted in Knight 87) that
is best grasped within the dimensions of the everyday: not offered in theoretical
proclamations but rather in the "detailed inflections of the Utopian system"
expressed by the writer. With such detail, politics can be prevented or forestalled
"from solidifying into a totalitarian, bureaucratic, moralizing system" (quoted
in Knight 87). After 68, unlike those who reacted against it, Barthes moved
inimitably beyond what that moment politically represented.
Knight follows this post-68 period in
several chapters that consider Barthess exploration of space, sexuality, and utopia
in the context of his travels to Morocco, Turkey, Japan, and China. Detailing her complex
treatment goes beyond the limits of this review, but suffice it to say that Knight refuses
a static, negative view of Barthes as simply a reformed poststructuralist, a sexual
traveler who in bad faith falls into the trap of Orientalism. Instead, she offers a
nuanced reading of Barthess life and work in the 1970s that braids together his
sexual experiences and his travels with his continuing and radical sense of the
"political." This discussion comes to its sharpest point in "Turkey and
China: But Where is the Orient?": Knight discusses the distinction made
by Barthes, in light of 68, between the "political" (the "fundamental
order of history, of thought, of all that is done and spoken ... the real") and the
"repetitive, fixed discourse" of "politics" (167).
In the early to mid-1970s, then, Barthes
concerned himself with what he termed the "novelistic," as a literary strategy
for "inscribing the everyday reality" of the political. Not the novel per se,
the novelistic is "a system which is almost totally immersed in the signifier,"
which resists the limits of the signified (quoted in Knight 168). Given the date of
Barthess claims for this formal/political strategy, its resonance with the critical
utopian texts of the same period is evident. Although his move is more adventurous and
less inscribed by generic convention, his insights and sensibilities have much in common
with the self-reflexive literary utopias of the period no doubt more with the work of
Russ and Delany than with that of Le Guin or Piercy. The novelistic shapes Barthess
most generically utopian text, The Empire of Signs (1970), wherein his fantastic
Japan is the other space, alternative to the alienation of present society. And yet the
novelistic, with its powerful force of indirectness, also includes those other forms and
practices that Barthes explores, uses, enjoys, in the 1970s. Here, his interest in haiku
(157), in the "negative hallucination" associated with the Chinese attitude of fadeur
(188), his formal interest and bodily pleasure in sexual "incidents" and
"tricks" (214), his fascination with personal ads (215), and later in the 1970s
his experiments with diary entries (245) coalesce in a set of formal practices that allow
him to embrace the "neutral" as a way to oppose and transcend social reality.
This formal strategy enables him to occupy a space that refuses the fixations of the
present and the reductions of opposition politics. In this post-68 position, Barthes
does not opt out or give in to the status quo; rather, he opposes alienation by way of
something other than, more than, recognizable politics. Thus, he comes to prefer the
binary of "imperialism/something else" to that of
"imperialism/socialism" (171), and he frequently names the space of this
otherness in terms of non-Western locales: Japan, Morocco, Turkey, China. Indeed, the
"transitional status of residence" in such places (rather than tourism or
citizenship) provides a self-conscious, open attitude for what is in effect a utopian
In her discussion of "So How Was
China," the essay Barthes wrote after his trip with the Tel Quel group in 1974,
Knight brings into focus this political and aesthetic position. She demonstrates
Barthess preference for the neutral as the most ethically positive category: neither
reactionary or militant, it is located in everyday subjectivity where it negotiates lived
experiences of need and desire. In this essay, Barthes does not denounce revolutionary
politics, but "looks for utopia under its repetitive and clichéd rhetoric"
(187). Against the politically-correct "utopia" of his Maoist colleagues, he
posits a more elusive and radical utopia rooted in the absence or refusal of repression.
This is the constellation of categories and
activities that shape Barthess final years as he gives literary and bodily form to
the indirect, to the avenue of "gentle drift" (192). In her closing chapters,
Knight moves into these years with a focus on Barthess self-aware sexuality in
experience and in writing, his relationship with his mother, and then through her death to
the years just before his own. This is the period of the Pleasure of the Text
(1973), the time when he lays claim to jouissance and text as opposed to the
limitations of the literary work (oeuvre), a formal move that Knight connects to
Barthess essay on the Japanese game of Pachinko, with its structured and pleasurable
non-meanings. Knight again reminds us that for Barthes, "in order for pleasure,
sexual or otherwise, to become a utopian jouissance ... [it] must first pass
through language," but through language freed from social alienation and, she
asserts, it is "because this has not happened that Text remains a utopia" (108).
In the final chapter, "Maternal Space," Knight discusses Camera Lucida
(1980) and its notion of the punctum, yet another instance of the indirect, the
novelistic. She weaves her tale of Barthess despair over his mothers death,
his sexual encounters, and his use of the literary diary into an argument for the lasting
centrality of the utopian in his own body and in his writing.
Central for Barthes, therefore, is an
understanding of utopia as the "writers permanent commitment to writing the
world," an act that includes the qualities of "conceptualization, understanding,
complicity, and projection" (271). This "recreation of the world as a meaningful
whole" is to be achieved by indirectness, "the basic strategy of the utopian
writer" whose detours "via hypothetical utopias" transgress and transcend
the world. Powerfully at the end of his life, it is "the writerly homosexual spaces
that characterize [his work and restore] him to what he loves be it reality or the
mother through the indirect circuits of other quests and other loves" (274).
Diana Knights book is a clear and useful
close analysis of the themes and variations of utopia in Barthes. It is well worth
reading, for she offers a refreshing (another Barthean word) reconsideration of his life
and work, enlisting the utopian impulse and utopian discourse to take us beyond received
assessments of Barthes himself as well as beyond the polarized traps of the theoretically
A Kinbotean Experience
Wells, H.G. The First Men in the Moon: A Critical Text of the 1901 London First
Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. Ed. Leon Stover.
The Annotated H.G. Wells #6. McFarland (800-253-2187), 1998. xii + 239 pp. $49.50 cloth.
Wells, H.G. The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance: A Critical Text of the 1897 New
York First Edition, with an Introduction and Appendices. Ed. Leon
Stover. The Annotated H.G. Wells #3. McFarland (800-253-2187), 1998. xii + 321 pp. $55
The two books under review come from a six-volume
edition of Wellss first six scientific romances. Stovers The Time Machine
(1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) appeared in 1996 and were reviewed in
this journal.1 Apparently The War of the Worlds (1898) and When the
Sleeper Wakes (1899) are forthcoming as volumes 4 and 5. The new volumes continue to
advertise themselves as "Critical Texts." In both cases Stover has selected one
of the early publications that he considers closest to Wellss intention, but like
the volumes reviewed earlier their main aim is less to argue for a definitive text than to
promote insistent and eccentric interpretations of these novels.2 The scholarly
and intellectual methods that characterize the earlier volumes persist in these, stated
often word-for-word. I will not spend time repeating Mullens and Hughes
analyses of the deceptiveness of Stovers details but will content myself with simply
examining the broad issues raised by Stovers thesis and his way of reading.
The Invisible Man is for Stover a rhapsody
of the superman-terrorist, superior to the fools and scoundrels around him, a precursor of
the new age. Stover repeatedly asserts that the model for Griffin is Sergei Nechaev, the
psychopathic Russian revolutionary who organized a single cell and managed to convince his
few fellows that they were part of a vast network of cells. Dostoyevsky depicted him as
Stavrogin in The Devils (1872). I cannot tell where Stover gets his version of
Nechaev, but he finds him a thrilling model of single-minded self-sacrifice and ascetic
devotion to the cause, and he declares in many notes that Griffin is himself just such a
dedicated revolutionary. Yet one looks in vain for even a single piece of evidence that
will substantiate the connection between Nechaev and Griffin: nothing in the novel
suggests that Griffin serves any cause other than his own ambition. The self-sacrificing
social heroics are all Stovers invention. The quality Griffin clearly does share
with Nechaev, of which Stover also seems to approve, is an arrogant contempt for ordinary
For Stover the purpose of scholarship seems to be
to make a case that the text will not support. Despite all the evidence of Wellss
affection for ordinary men, the Bert Smallways of the world, Stover forces Wellss
comic depiction of Iping, the town in which Griffin takes refuge, into a savage allegory
of common humanitys debasement. A Unitarian whose tooth is chipped in a scuffle with
Griffin signifies the failure of religion. As Griffin tries to escape from Iping the novel
describes "some picturesque strangers of both sexes putting up a cocoanut shy,"
but according to Stover this is not an innocent carnival game but a "cockshy,"
"a place for the merry-making sport of casting sticks and stones at live cocks until
they are pelted to death" (n.71). Such cruel "traditionalism" signifies all
that Wells supposedly finds wrong with Iping. This ingenious argument makes no sense: if
the point is to reveal the primitive cruelty of Iping, why should the narrator himself
engage in the euphemism of the "cocoanut shy"? Later, after the mayhem of
Griffins escape when the street is "littered with cocoanuts," Stover still
insists (on no evidence whatsoever) that this is "a locution for the dead birds
killed at the cockshy." Then, in blatant self-contradiction, he proceeds to treat the
coconuts as literal and to find in them a secret image of the invisible man (n.136).
Stover seems able to read only in terms of heroes
(Griffin) and villains. Doctor Kemp, since he betrays our hero, must be a contemptible
scientist who is unable to appreciate the marvel before him, and Stover labors to find a
dark suggestion in Kemps every act. That Kemp "does not live by practice"
leads Stover to attack him as a "coupon-clipper," "one who uses his wealth
to pursue hobby-horsical science" (n.171). That Kemp hopes his work will earn him the
F.R.S. proves him to be after "mere prestige" and "empty of any real
contribution to Natural Knowledge" (n.152). Though Wells does not mention the award
again, Stover attacks Kemp for his F.R.S. ambitions repeatedly (in notes 166 and 171), and
he even returns to the charge in First Men in the Moon, finding in Cavors
indifference to honors an opportunity to take Kemp, who is not even in the novel, to task
as "knavish for his insincere desire to win the prestige of F.R.S. membership"
(n.36). Griffins ambition, on the other hand, though it is made explicit and even
sinister in the text itself ("I told no living soul, because I meant to flash my work
upon the world with crushing effect, to become famous at a blow" ) passes
entirely unremarked. When Kemp orders his servants "to confine themselves to the
basement and ground-floor," Stover finds him un-Wellsian. Wells, Stover reminds us in
a long note, wanted "the hired help living in the upper rooms" (n.173). But
Stover has missed the casual description of the servants, just five lines before they are
sent below, "descending sleepily." That is, they live above, just as Wells would
want. By sending the servants below, Kemp is simply keeping them out of Griffins
Saint-Simon is the overwhelming presence behind
Stovers First Men In the Moon, as he is in Stovers version of The
Time Machine. Having Saint-Simon on the brain, Stover finds him exemplified in every
organization, from Bedford and Cavors tiny household project with its three workmen,
to the gigantic lunar formicary. In defending Cavor against unnamed "humanist
critics" who supposedly would make him out to be a "mad scientist," Stover
makes him a champion of "the cold, inhuman reason of the moon" (262), which he
says "is cognate with the cruel rationality the makers of the modern
state find necessary to impose in advancing the managerial revolution," the
Saint-Simonian ideal which is supposedly Wellss own ideal in the novel (n.237). As
happens continually, Stovers obsessive thesis has led him to find meanings for lines
entirely out of context. The phrase about "cold, inhuman reason" is
Bedfords (whom one would expect Stover to distrust), not Wellss or even
Cavors, and it speaks not of managerial ethics but of the tactics by which the
Selenites will protect themselves.
The comic aspect of Bedford seems beyond
Stovers reach. It is not enough for Bedford to be a scoundrel and unreliable, he
must be proven wrong at every single turn. If the science of the novel is wrong (I
dont think it is in the way Stover asserts, but the point is not worth pursuing
here), it is so because Bedford is covering up. Bedford certainly has his flaws, but
Stover with some glee keeps battering him and claims that Wells, too, hates him
passionately: "a petty grubber who just happened to strike it rich" (n.157);
"The author relentlessly has Bedford bury his nose into his own hateful petty
bourgeois mentality ... [and] would love to wipe out the Bedfords of the world"
(n.159); "A more dishonest person is hard to find in British fiction" (n.177).
Stover seems to have forgotten that the Time Traveler is described as a con man of sorts,
or that Wells shows considerable affection for Caffrey in Love and Mr. Lewisham
(1900) or George Ponderevos uncle in Tono-Bungay (1908).
Stover has a wide-ranging, if
selective, knowledge of Wells, which allows him to achieve some curious insights
among the cranky, strange, and misguided interpretations. He has tracked down
references; he has annotated the geography; he has explained words and ideas.
But the enterprise is all so smothered in the accumulation of an obsessive
agenda that even the documentation becomes suspect. In Stover’s intellectual
universe, you can always substitute other Wells for the text
at hand: thus on numerous occasions the reading of First Men in the Moon is
defended by turning to The Shape of Things to Come (1933), published thirty-two
years later; the Grand Lunar and John Cabal are interchangeable. Wells in this reading
shows no signs of evolution or change. Like a jackdaw, Stover has collected a small set of
treasured one-liners from Wells and from other figures (especially Saint-Simon, Lenin, and
Stalin), and he brings them out, stripped of context, to assert his very doubtful
"truth." Even the footnotes, which one might hope would finally give some
thickness to the Saint-Simonian idea, fail to enlighten but simply refer us back to other
works by Stover himself. To read Wells in these editions is to be trapped in a tightly
twisted hermeneutic spiral. It is a Kinbotean experience.
Finally, Stover, somewhat like Michael Coren,3
has in his obsession turned a writer of imaginative openness and invention into his
single-minded, demonic antithesis. Strangely, Stover boosts Wells as an important
innovator and novelist in order to attack him for the "statist" politics he
claims to lie at the heart of "Wellsism."4 "The great political
issue of the twentieth century has been whether the state is to serve man (the open
society) or man the state (the closed society), and Wells cast his lot with the
latter" (First Men in the Moon, "Editors Introduction," 29).
Such terms are inadequate to the issues these novels explore. Wells had a sense of
complexity and irony that Stover seems unable to grasp. When Cavor says that "In the
moon every citizen knows his place" (238), he is admiring a neatness that surely also
appeals to Wells in some way, but Stovers annotation is not interested in shadings.
It fairly crows: "In this one brief sentence of eight words, Cavor sums up the new
ethic of the managerial revolution, with its redefinition of citizen as states
man" (n.209). But were he to read Cavors next sentence he would suspect that
this simple slogan, though it has complex implications, could not possibly represent
Wellss position: "He [i.e., the citizen] is born to that place, and the
elaborate discipline of training and education and surgery he undergoes fits him at last
so completely to it that he has neither ideas nor organs for any purpose beyond it."
This is the parody of education that Wells attacks throughout his life, from The
Wonderful Visit (1895) on. Wellss work is filled with examples of sometimes
comic but always heroic men and women who break from such social discipline: Kipps, Mr.
Polly, Ann Veronica, to name just a few. H.G. himself is the greatest example of the
fallacy of such a scheme: where would Wells be if he had accepted the "place" to
which he had been born?
1. See R.D. Mullen, "Scholarship and the
Riddle of the Sphinx: The Stover Edition of The Time Machine." SFS 23:3
(Nov. 1996): 363-70, and David Y. Hughes, "The Doctor Vivisected: Stovers
Moreau." SFS 24:1 (March 1997): 109-118.
2. The sign of how irrelevant the textual issues
are is that in The First Men in the Moon, Stover is able to make the acrobatic
argument that the Grand Lunars term "red dawn" is a crucial key to
interpreting the novel (n. 81) even though it does not appear in the edition Stover has
chosen as "closest to the authors intention" (see n. 233).
3. See his The Invisible Man: The Life and
Liberties of H.G. Wells (New York: Atheneum, 1993).
4. Stover continues to imply that Wells himself
promoted "Wellsism," but as R.D. Mullens analysis of Stovers edition
of The Time Machine clearly showed, this is entirely Stovers own
construction: the term hardly appears in Wells, and never as a party label.
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