Monday, 27 February 2012
Roland Barthes on Nowhere
As soon as you reach the main section of Roland Barthes’s autobiographical text Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, you read this: ‘Dans ce qu’il écrit, il y a deux textes. Le texte I est réactif, mû par des indignations, des peurs, des ripostes intérieures, de petites paranoïas, des défenses, des scènes. Le texte II est actif, mû par le plaisir’ (p.49).
I’ve always felt that this would be an excellent framework for approaching News from Nowhere. ‘Texte I’ would be the London material: Guest’s awakening in 22nd-century Hammersmith, his tour across the city with Dick, his session with old Hammond. All this is ‘réactif’ in relation to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, moved by indignation at the American’s centralised, high-tech vision of socialism and by ‘peur’ that Bellamy’s new Boston might become widely accepted as what late nineteenth-century socialism was aiming at.
‘Texte II’ is then the Ellen material – or what I would prefer to call, in a more aptly Barthesian phrase, the Ellen-effect - as Guest heads up the river Thames. Now Morris’s text is ‘actif’, no longer dependent (by contestation) on Bellamy, ‘mû par le plaisir’ not only of the upper river and its flora and fauna, but of Ellen as a new kind of utopian, perhaps even as a new principle of utopian narrativity itself.
There is a good deal of thinking about utopia in the copious oeuvre of Roland Barthes, and it’s surely time someone tried a sustained encounter between his work and Morris’s utopia. I offer it as a hypothesis, for example, borrowing the terms of Barthes’s narratological masterwork S/Z, that Morris’s London is ‘lisible’, but that Ellen is ‘scriptible’.