‘…how difficult it is to talk about what one [regrets]’: Barthes, Botching and Backward Listening

The script of my 1998 presentation

In 1998, as an international PhD student, I enrolled in a Queer Theory class taught by Wayne Koestenbaum at the CUNY Graduate Center. At the time, I was making the for me difficult decision to abandon the Victorian subject of my Master’s thesis (Thomas Carlyle as a translator of Goethe) and embark instead on something almost entirely different (‘almost’ because this subject, too, involved translative acts): a study of radio plays prior to the invention of the “TV Dinner.”

That study eventually, belatedly, turned into a largely unread book. I just never managed to make a career out of my love for the subject of radio, and, being unable to communicate my love, and to get some love in return, came to feel disheartened about loving the wrong thing or loving wrongly or being wrong about loving it — getting it all wrong by not making the right kind of botch of it that can translate into an academically viable “Queer Art of Failure.”

“[O]nce again I realize how difficult it is to talk about what one loves,” Barthes write in “The Romantic Song.” “What is there to say about what one loves except: I love it, and to keep on saying it?” Academically, is it any easier to talk about what one dreads, what one is anxious or frustrated about? This is something I aim to explore in a paper I termed “The Gothic of Audition: Audionarratology, Transdisciplinarity and Old-Time Radio Listening as Self-Othering.” It is meant, in part, to announce two academic essays of mine on the subject of radio, which are being published in 2021.

Preparing for my talk, I was reminded of my former self giving a seminar presentation as part of that “Queer Theory” class at CUNY. Back then, I was testing the treacherous territory of listening (more treacherous now that I suffer from hearing loss and tinnitus) by reading Barthes writing about it and the inability of getting it right. Here is that presentation.

“When ‘it goes without saying’: Barthes as Lecturer and Lover”

Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act,” Barthes, stiffening once again into a lecturer’s posture, begins “Listening,” the first of seven discrete essays forced into the thematic stays of “Music’s Body.”  I, not all ears, resist “Listening” since it speaks without heeding me, since it fortifies the very boundaries between speaker (lecturer) and listener (reader) it dismisses as “the old modes of listening: those of the believer, the disciple, and the patient.”

While concluding that “freedom of listening is as necessary as freedom of speech,” that “a free listening is essentially a listening which circulates, which permutates, which disaggregates, by its mobility, the fixed network of the roles of speech,” Barthes is not quite willing here to mingle his voice in the “interplay of desire” in which my “listening speaks” of us.  For as soon as I — hoping to find, beyond pose and podium, beyond the reverberations of “power and desire” immured and perpetuated by Barthes’s argument, another more congenial (or conjugal) voice whispering itself into my presence, wishing itself to be engendered in my mouth — begin listening instead “for the alien,” the “irregular noise which will disturb . . . the security of the house” (to me, the Barthesian aula), for “the secret” the “speaking subject does not say,” I find my responses anticipated, circumscribed, and myself well-nigh divested of all ludic impulses.  It shuts me up so, Barthes’s “little theater.”  

As listener, as speaking listener, Barthes claims the artistic freedom of which I found myself bereft.  In “Musica Practica,” for example, he declares that “to read this Beethoven is to perform, to operate his music, to lure it (as it lends itself) into an unknown praxis.”  Our wanderings, reader, are Barthes’s truly unknown praxis; and at times it seems that he must account for us in theory to keep alive the echo of his voice, an echo even my receptive mouth cannot swallow.  And while “Listening” is finally unveiled as a “collaboration” (between two Rolands, Barthes and Havas), it is a connubial effort, a lovemaking from which I as listener appear to have been excluded.  There are other moments, however — the ones that I am loving.

How glorious are those moments (quite generously bestowed) when Barthes steps from the dais into our everyday, when his voice fumbles, his vocables falter, when he shares with us that language, “when it must interpret music,” manages but “badly, very badly, it seems,” as he laments in “The Grain of the Voice”; when the controlled prose of the lecturer deliquesces in the passionate effusions of a lover, as it does in “The Romantic Song,” “Loving Schumann,” and “Rasch.”  It is here that Barthes sings “à tue-tête,” “to kill everything bad.”

In “The Romantic Song,” Barthes claims the Lieder of Schubert and Schumann — “unisexual,” “amorous,” beyond the traditional family of voices (the voices of family?) — for those who, like the Lied itself, are no “respecters of sexes or of social roles,” are “marginal without being eccentric,” and celebrates instead the “song of the natural body,” the “music which has meaning only if I can always sing it, in myself, with my body” and “for myself.”  

The reverberations here have moved inward, from the austere, public auditorium to the tremulous, private body, and I–humming Schubert’s “Nacht und Träume” or Schumann’s Dichterliebe–can follow Barthes in this trans-social state of “solitary intimacy,” listening only to the “amorous and imprisoned soul that speaks to itself” (“Loving Schumann”).

Are we lovers then, Barthes and I? Has our duel over territory turned into a duet honoring a third? Is Barthes’s lectura transformed into our lectus? Not quite; rather, Barthes and I, solitary, are rubbing our skins loving.  “Intimacy,” as Barthes suggests, “is always a little egoistic”: “the Schumannian pianist—c’est moi”/The Schubertian Sänger—das bin ich!” To dance about Schumann, must we, the men (and women) of “Lettres Dansantes” erect a theater to position our listeners? To sing of Schubert, need we construct a theoretical apparatus to secure a space for the speaker?

Few essays illustrate more vividly than “The Grain of the Voice” the Barthesian doubling of lecturer and lover.  It is a queer essay that struggles with theory, that desires to evaluate song “outside of the law” of both culture and anti-culture, by “develop[ing] beyond the subject all the value which is hidden behind ‘I like’ or ‘I don’t like.’” There is no accounting for loving — and any theory, for the “grain” or against it, is such an accounting (I love it because . . . ).  It is precisely when the lecturer realizes that his “difficulty [writing about the Lied ] is all the greater in that today the romantic song is no longer the object of any great argument,” that the lover can emerge, bewegtaufgeregtinnig, to say, fantasierend: “I love it, and to keep on saying it.”

“Music, like signifying, derives from no metalanguage” but “from a lover’s discourse,” Barthes offers in “Music, Voice, Language.”  Finding the lover’s voice in Barthes’s lectures is a listening hallucinated: Now I too “believe I am really hearing what I would like to hear as a promise of pleasure.”

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