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Centre for Modern European Literature and Culture

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Lectures and seminars 2013-14

Below is a list of Centre for Modern European Literature events for the 2013-14 academic year.

Lecture series: ‘What’s So Great About Roland Barthes?’

Convened by Thomas Baldwin, Katja Haustein, and Lucy O’Meara

More than thirty years after his death, the work of Roland Barthes (1915–1980) continues to circulate in the creative economy and in the cultural imagination. Novelists, poets, literary critics, translators, philosophers, photographers and artists are still talking about Barthes. The great power of Barthes’s thought and writing resides, perhaps, in their radical plurality: throughout his career he wrote on a wide range of subjects, from the Tour de France to the death of the author, from Marx to Lao Tzu, from pasta to Proust, from semiology to prayer, and in a variety of different textual forms. Yet beneath his frequent variations we find enduring goals: Barthes consistently advocates the necessity of ideology critique; the refusal of generalization; attention to individual critical response. Barthes’s works were keystones in the development of structuralist and post-structuralist thought. His late work constitutes a probing and often moving exploration of everyday life, in its affective, social, practical and creative aspects. In which ways is Barthes still relevant to cultural and literary theory? What is the theoretical and creative significance of his work? How can the formal innovation of his work inspire critics and writers? As they explore these and other questions, the contributors to this series will show how Barthes’s work informs their practice, their criticism or their thought, and how we can think with Barthes today.For further information on the series, please contact the convenors.

Thursday 10 October 2013: Prof. Marielle Macé (CNRS–EHESS, Paris), ‘Barthes, rythmicité du vivre’ / ‘Barthes and the Rhythmicity of Living’.

Dans l’un de ses derniers cours, Barthes médite sur le régime de vie qui constituerait pour lui un horizon désirable; et c’est dans la notion de rythme, que Benveniste avait reconceptualisé peu de temps auparavant, qu’il trouve les moyens de sa réflexion. Vivre ensemble, pour Barthes, c’était accorder indéfiniment des rythmes: non pas se régler unanimement sur un même tempo, mais faire converger régulièrement des allures qui demeurent différentes. Plusieurs philosophes, sociologues ou ethnologues ont eux aussi visé autour des mêmes années cet horizon d’une anthropologie du rythme; je chercherai à construire un dialogue entre ces pensées qui se sont pourtant mutuellement ignorées. Mais aussi à montrer que la littérature (et je regarde Barthes comme un gardien de la littérature) a en propre la charge de cette compréhension rythmique du vivre.

In one of his final lectures, Barthes reflects on various practices of living, and on which of these practices he would find most desirable. He decides to work with the idea of rhythm, which the linguistic theorist Emile Benveniste had recently reconceptualized. For Barthes, ‘living together’ means synchronizing different rhythms with one another: not all having to live at the same tempo, but rather, bringing about a convergence between different temporal rhythms. At around the same time – the late 1970s – many philosophers, sociologists and ethnologists were also working on this idea of an ‘anthropology of rhythm’. I will seek to establish a dialogue between these thinkers, who remained mutually unaware of one another’s ideas. I think of Barthes as a guardian of literature, and so I will also demonstrate how literature is of pre-eminent importance in understanding this ‘rhythmicity of living’.

Thursday 7 November 2013: Dr Andy Stafford (University of Leeds), ‘Classé, surclasser, déclassé; or: What So Grates about Roland Barthes’.

In the impressive (but possibly now out-of-date) Oxford Companion to French Literature, edited by Peter France in 1995, if we look at the various writers, we find that each and every one has a fixed and recognizable literary identity (Camus – novelist, playwright, essayist; Sartre – best known as a philosopher, but also a novelist, dramatist, critic, moralist, etc.). If we look up ‘Barthes’, Peter France’s own entry starts: ‘a writer who evades classification’. Indeed, two authoritative bibliographical sources – Gilles Philippe’s ‘mots clés’ in his Bibliographie Barthes (1996) and Neil Badmington’s four-volume critical anthology (2010) – contain no reference to Barthesian ideas of classer/classement/déclassé. Not only does this omission obliquely justify Peter France’s bold suggestion, but it also allows us to make a singular reading of singularity in Barthes’s work. This paper concentrates on the notion of exception, of the scandalously unclassifiable, and asks the following question: how does Barthesian thought move from classification to declassification, from social-class determinism to the ‘intellectuel déclassé’?

Thursday 14 November 2013: Dr Michael Minden (University of Cambridge), ‘The Fate of Experience: Modernism’s Struggle for the Soul’ [out-of-series lecture]

The context of this paper is an enquiry into the kind of value it is possible to attach to ‘personal experience’ today. After generalizing a little, it focuses on two outstanding twentieth-century literary works for which the question of the meaning of personal experience is the central concern as well as the main aesthetic challenge. The aesthetically brilliant strategies of Rilke in Malte (1910) and Bachmann in Malina (1971), it is argued, form part of a last-ditch struggle in European high culture to protect the category of ‘experience’, the ghost of the soul,  from disappearing into the circulation of information. The point of taking two texts from such different moments, one by a man and one by a woman, is that it represents my attempt to isolate salient similarities and differences between versions of a certain spiritual-secular aesthetic while defending the material from undue co-optation by the strong and sometimes coercive contexts driving the literary humanities today, such as historical contextualization, memory, and gender.

Thursday 5 December 2013: Prof Patrick ffrench (King’s College London), ‘”…because it belongs to the voice to die”: The Acousmatic Voice in Proust and Barthes’.

While the visual field is privileged in structuralist and post-structuralist writing as the domain of illusion, lure and capture, the vocal field has not received such concerted attention. Althusser’s notion of interpellation, however, centres on a scenario in which a voice addresses the subject from an unknown origin. Film theorist Michel Chion introduces the concept of the acousmatic to account for such a phenomenon in cinema. The disjunction between voice and body at the heart of the acousmatic is not, however, an exceptional situation restricted to the horror genre or provoked by technology; it is a fundamental fact of the relation of the body to language. In the work of Proust and Barthes, and Proust as commented by Barthes, this is love’s tragedy. The fading of the voice of the loved one reveals the intimate connection of love and death. In their voice the loved one is always already dead, and this is what characterizes the power of the voice. This paper will explore the conditions and implications of the acousmatic voice through a focus on the episode of the grandmother’s telephone call in A la recherche du temps perdu and Barthes’s commentary on it in Fragments d’un discours amoureux, before turning to Lacan via a further focus on the Montjouvain episode in Proust’s novel.

Thursday 30 January 2014: Kate Briggs, ‘”Research, not a lecture”: On Teaching with Roland Barthes’.

In this talk I will reflect on Barthes’s concept and practice of research as it emerges in his lectures and seminars at the Collège de France. Barthes offers a compelling demonstration of what it might be to change ‘the rhetorical conditions of the intellectual’; I will discuss some of the ways in which that sense of possibility has impacted on my own approach to writing, teaching and doing research. In particular, I will describe two projects directly informed by Barthes’s late work: a publication titled Exercise in Pathetic Criticism (Information as Material, 2011) and a recent novel-writing experiment with Fine Art students at Paris College of Art.

Thursday 27 February 2014: Dr Neil Badmington (Cardiff University), ‘Bored with Barthes’.

As a child, I was bored often and greatly. This evidently began very early, it has continued my whole life, in gusts (increasingly rare, it is true, thanks to work and to friends), and it has always been obvious […] Might boredom therefore be my hysteria?‘ These lines appear near the beginning of Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975) – a book that hints elsewhere that its creation was beset by boredom. With a particular emphasis upon the posthumous Carnets du voyage en Chine (2009), this talk addresses the place of ennui in the work of Roland Barthes – a place more substantial than the index to the Oeuvres complètes implies – and notes that scholarly studies of boredom have tended to overlook Barthes’s observations on the subject. If Roland Barthes is, as Steven Ungar proposed many years ago, a ‘professor of desire’, I argue here that he is also a professor of boredom.

Monday 17 March 2014: Professor Daniel Brewer (Leverhulme Visiting Professor, University of Minnesota), ‘The French Enlightenment Today?’.

Be it as historical period, as philosophical and intellectual movement or as social and political event, the Enlightenment has been seen to signal the beginnings of modernity, as a past moment that at once betokens the present.  The Enlightenment is thus a moment that in some sense is also our own. But what do these moments share, past and present, how are they joined, and what future do they make thinkable?  This paper traces the haunting afterlife of the Enlightenment, a legacy that perhaps can no longer be recounted in the heroic, emancipatory mode. The techtonics of contemporary disciplinary shifts regarding the Enlightenment suggest a way to engage in a critical reassessment of the French Enlightenment today.

Daniel Brewer is Professor of French Studies at the University of Minnesota. His research is in the area of eighteenth-century French literature and culture, and their connections to contemporary critical theory. He has published on such topics as theories of knowledge and the critique of institutions, visual representation and art criticism, the project of Enlightenment, literary history and social formation, and the figure of the intellectual. His first book, The Discourse of Enlightenment, focused on Diderot and his art of philosophizing. His most recent book, The Enlightenment Past: Reconstructing Eighteenth-Century French Thought, traces the cultural history of the Enlightenment from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. He is co-editor of L’Esprit Créateur and has co-edited volumes on the Encyclopédie, on French wars, and the Cambridge Companion to the French Enlightenment. He is currently working on a book on temporality and the eighteenth century.

Thursday 20 March 2014: Professor Claude Coste (University of Grenoble 3-Stendhal), ‘”I have always wanted to remonstrate with my moods”: Subjectivity in Barthes’s Thought’.

In this paper, I will reflect on the place of subjectivity in intellectual life. This is what fascinates me in Barthes: the ways in which life nourishes the work. This does not mean searching for biographical clues in the work, but rather exploring how thought is nourished by lived experience, whilst at the same time transcending it.

Thursday 27 March 2014: Prof. Diana Knight (University of Nottingham), ‘Barthes’s Posthumous New Life’.

This paper will explore Barthes’s ‘Vita nova’: both the posthumously published set of eight enigmatic plans to which Barthes himself gave that title and, via Chateaubriand and especially Pascal, the whole constellation of very late texts – ‘“Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure…”’, ‘Deliberation’, Paris EveningsMourning DiaryCamera LucidaThe Preparation of the Novel – that forms their context. At the centre of my reflection will be the status of the conversion narrative that underpins Barthes’s obsession with the notion of a ‘new life’, both as personal and literary mutation in the face of old age and death, and as artificial rhetorical structure.

Postgraduate Research Seminar Series 2014

This series is designed to highlight the work of our doctoral students.

Thursday 20 February 2014: Luke Moffat (Philosophy), ‘On Poetry as the Highest Art: Kantian Aesthetics and the Jouissance of Sublimity’

Thursday 6 March 2014: Stefanie Hundehege (German), ‘”Ich glaubte an Hitler”? (Baldur von Schirach) – New Perspectives on National Socialist Ideology and Pseudo-Religious Manipulation’

 Thursday 15 May 2014: Thirthankar Chakraborty (Comparative Literature), ‘Samuel Beckett’s Posthumous Kith: Contextualizing Beckett in World Literature’

Thursday 29 May 2014: Anne Grydehoej (French), ‘The polar polaire and Manufactured Exoticism’