Thursday, February 12, 2009

Barthes, Benjamin: Minor/Major?

My colleague Mark Greif, one of the editors of n + 1, has a brilliant and incisive article on Susan Sontag in the current London Review of Books, which--a rare phenomenon for work on a figure who usually evokes such polarized reactions--treats Sontag judiciously and thoughtfully values her strengths and weaknesses. One point of interest is Greif's assertion that Sontag seldom wrote on major thinkers; I take, and accept, his general drift, but wonder if Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, on whom Sontag wrote extensively and indeed were, in the middle-to-late portion of her career, virtually adopted by her as her signature thinkers, are exceptions. Admittedly, neither are systematic; but both in terms of their influence and the breadth of their work--which in each case ranges across fields, disciplines, national literatures, proprietary discourses, might be said to make an exception in their case. Also, I am interested--in the wake of my recently completed book on theory--on Barthes and Benjamin as figures of the middle ground, people who do not usually or typically evoke the fiery reactions that Derrida and Foucault often inspire. Does their lack of system, their epistemic modesty, their aphoristic, staccato mien, make them more beloved? Do they seem more literary, less philosophical? Would the people who find Derrida and Foucault so indigestible have felt the same about Kant and Schiller in their own, as-yet-undomesticated day?

4 comments:

Juan E De Castro said...

Despite not having read Mark Greif's essay, I would argue that Lukacs and Sartre (on whom Sontag writes in Against Interpretation) as major enough.

Phil said...

I think part of the explanation might be that people find Marxism and Structuralism both challenging and comprehensible. Kind of like gateway drugs for poststructuralism/postmodernism/deconstructionism/whatever you want to call it. I think "Mythologies" in particular is a great introduction to critical theory: it demonstrates the process of textual analysis and interrogation via an examination of the mundane without being tremendously intellectually dense. It may be apostasy, but "Mythologies" always sort of reminded me of Chuck Klosterman, who I can't stand but who nonetheless does a similar sort of thing and who is tremendously popular because of it. They keep his books in the "Cultural Studies" department at the Barnes and Noble, right next to Adorno et. al. Perfect for people who are baffled by Derrida but still intelligent enough to want to look for a deeper meaning in "The Sims."

Unknown said...

Ha! gateway drugs is a nice line...Barnes and Noble's classification of theory is a whole different kettle of fish, but an intriguing one...I think you are absolutely right to say they have a popular constituency..and the Barthes/Klosterman parallel absolutely captures what Barthes meant on the French scene in the late 1950s...

Unknown said...

Sartre beyond a doubt, and, yes Lukács still matters to enough people in enough ways, I would say him too...of course if you include filmmakers the list expands all the more....