Sometimes change can make a change. Anyway, so, for a change, I’ll address a novel written by Laurent Binet. I happened to read his novel titled ‘La septième fonction du langage’. My copy is the Finnish translation by Lotta Toivanen, titled ‘Kuka murhasi Roland Barthesin?’ (Who murdered Roland Barthes?). The English translation, also published in 2017, is loyal to the original title, ‘The Seventh Function of Language’. Anyway, I probably would have chosen to read the novel in English, but it was given to me as a gift and it happened to the Finnish translation. I believe the Finnish translation had just come out and, well, as evident from this blog, I’m quite fond of post-structuralism. It made sense to get me this.
The titles listed above should be telling of the content. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but at least you’ve been warned. Anyway, the Finnish translation is probably less of a spoiler, so I’ll work with that. The premise for the novel is that Roland Barthes is hit by a van and later on he dies from the injuries sustained in the collision. That actually happened, so it works as a sort of a starting point from where things evolve with a creative license. You could say that things start to go off the rails from that point onward. So, how to describe it, well, it’s fiction, but Binet weaves in all kinds of events that actually took place. I won’t go through them. You can find them in various interviews if you are interested, but you’ll have to track them down yourself.
Anyway, I read too little literature, so I pushed myself to this. As already pointed out, I’m familiar with the people included in the novel as characters, so I was intrigued to read, to find out how Binet portrays them. For me, the portrayals of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze were the highlights. Others, including Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser, were also interesting, but, well, I’m not familiar enough with their work, let alone their personal lives to get as much out of the portrayals as I did with Foucault and Deleuze. Now, you could say that this just reveals me as some Foucault and Deleuze (+Guattari) fanboy, choosing to read a work of fiction based on that, but I’d say it’s actually quite the opposite. I think it’s healthy to have a certain distance to people in this regard, having a go at them. While I think Binet is favorable in his portrayals of the two, in particular, he does make fun of them. His style is, I would say, somewhat unorthodox and the way his portrayals amused me is rather subtle. There’s this connection between knowing just enough of the background of the people portrayed and the way he portrays them. So, for example, I was highly amused by how in the novel a number of characters, including Foucault and Deleuze, are wherever they are, at home, with the TV on and react to what’s on. It’s not what they say, as such, but rather their … postures indicated in [square brackets]. I can’t remember the last time I had this grin in reaction to people [rolling eyes]. With the portrayal of Foucault, I could not help but to think of, among others, the Chomsky debate, how when he isn’t speaking he grins, moves about in the chair, nearly squirming, and then when he does, he has these gestures and this certain punctuated rhythm to it all. There is this, I guess, impatience to it, disagreeing in silence [roll eyes], the whole posture, and then this loud confidence when speaking. With Deleuze, it’s not as physical, probably because he isn’t this tall, confident character, but rather the guy who is too busy all the time, reading something, writing something, creating concepts, not at all into talking or debating. The only thing I can think of is the snicker mixed coughing, amusement that is evident, going to extent that it makes him cough, which sort of works, considering all the smoking involved. There’s also the bafflement of other characters when they talk with Deleuze, the kind of confusion you encounter when you read his works and have little prior exposure to his work. Binet also uses his parlance all the sudden without prior explanation or segue, so it’s interesting to notice that it’s Deleuze talking or someone in that mode. There’s a sex scene in the novel, which is hilarious if you get it that it’s in Deleuzo-Guattarian vocabulary, I think nodding towards the first volume of ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’, ‘L’anti-Œdipe’ or ‘Anti-Oedipus’. It’s even better if you not only detect it, but also understand it.
You might think that Binet is just having a laugh at the expense of various thinkers, turning them into comic characters, but I disagree. I think you are taking yourself too seriously if you get offended by the depictions in the novel. For example, as much as I appreciate Foucault’s work and I can enjoy a few laughs at his expense. I might be wrong, but something tells me that he would have enjoyed the portrayal, the irony of being depicted as a raging homosexual, a flamboyant gay; being fellated, stroking the hair of his fellator, while lecturing the protagonists about the emergence of homosexuality as an identity, a matter of biopower, rather than as something that people do. Unrelated to the novel, but as also clearly pointed out in it, this is actually something that I find a bit paradoxical, or ironic, in general, using Foucault’s work to support sexual identities, including but not limited to a homosexual identity, when sexuality is itself non-essential to him, a product, a discourse, as he (106) explains in the first volume of ‘The History of Sexuality’:
“Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.”
Foucault (106-107) goes on to explain how this was deployed, or rather superimposed on a pre-existing system of marriage, the point being that marriage is based on a licit/illicit binary, whereas sexuality is more of a nuanced extension, one that seeks to exploit the body for that added efficiency, a matter of control. Now, this doesn’t mean that Foucault didn’t engage in what is understood as homosexuality, but that’s exactly the point and I think Binet summarizes this aptly in that passage. Simply put, it’s not fruitful to resist an identity by introducing more identities, a label with more labels, a split with more splits. Instead, one should work in reverse. Deleuze also speaks of this, and Binet does depict this, albeit not specifically in reference to homosexuality. In the novel Binet (English translation, 54) summarizes this as an amused Deleuze stating that:
“One always claims to be what one cannot be or what one was once and never will never be again[.]”
If you’ve read Deleuze (+Guattari), you know exactly what this is all about and Binet (+translator Sam Taylor) does a good job depicting this. The same passage in the novel goes into a bit more detail on this and it will baffle you if you aren’t familiar with Deleuze. I’ve explained it in my previous essays, but for him it’s not about being, but becoming. Claiming to be is just pretension, being just pretending, as Binet puts it. So when in the novel a character asks Deleuze if he thinks people are all the same, amused Deleuze answers in agreement, only to point out that it holds, sort of. But back to Foucault in the novel, there’s also the amusing segment where he is depicted as wearing a black kimono, lecturing two younger men in their underwear about the seemingly obscure topic of elephant sexuality, as understood in the 17th century and before it. I mean Foucault actually must have read ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ by Francis de Sales, as referred to in the novel, considering that he makes use of it in his preface to ‘Anti-Oedipus’ by Deleuze and Guattari. The passage in ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ actually fits Foucault’s project, so it’s not that obscure. Anyway, how can I not like Binet’s depiction of Foucault in the novel? How is it offensive? In any case, I think you can be serious and hilarious at the same time, in the same package. I don’t see a contradiction. As a side note, you can also be an unlikable character with all kinds of character flaws, but your work might be gold. I don’t see how that’s a detriment to the work or thought though.
In summary, I think Binet’s novel is well worth reading. It hits home if you are familiar with the people depicted in the book and don’t take life too seriously. I’m sure I missed some of the humor, not being familiar with certain people depicted in the novel, but I don’t mind. In the end I felt the story, the plot went on a bit too long, but that’s perhaps because I got into the book for other reasons, for the characterizations of various real life people. Once those people weren’t in the spotlight, my interest wasn’t peaking, but I think that’s on me rather than the writer. That said, I’m not knocking the story. It’s a fun romp.
- Binet, L. ( 2017). Kuka murhasi Roland Barhesin? (L. Toivanen, Trans.). Helsinki, Finland: Gummerus.
- Binet, L. ( 2017). The Seventh Function of Language (S. Taylor, Trans.). New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari (1972). Capitalisme et schizophrénie: L’anti-Œdipe. Paris, France: Les Éditions de Minuit.
- Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ( 1977). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (R. Hurley, M. Seem and H. R. Lane, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Foucault, M. ( 1978). The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
- de Sales, F. ([1609/1619] 2009). Introduction to the Devout Life (A. Ross, Ed., Trans.). Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.