EXITS (1980)

Published as “Exits,” Impulse, 8:3 (Summer 1980), pp. 29-31. Republished in Struggles with the Image: Essays in Art Criticism, Toronto: YYZ Books, 1988.



“Everything follows from this principle: that the lover is not to be reduced to a simple symptomal subject, but rather that we hear in his voice what is ‘unreal,’ i.e., intractable. Whence the choice of a ‘dramatic’ method which renounces examples and rests on the single action of a primary language (no metalanguage). The description of the lover’s discourse has been replaced by its simulation, and to that discourse has been restored its fundamental person, the I, in order to stage an utterance, not an analysis. What is proposed, then, is a portrait—but not a psychological portrait; instead, a structural one which offers the reader a discursive site: the site of someone speaking within himself, amorously, confronting the other (the loved object), who does not speak.”

Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse

“Like a severed worm, she shook overtaken by breathing spasms. I bent over her and had to rip away the black velvet mask she was choking down and tearing with her teeth. The disorder of these movements had bared her up to her bush: her nudity now was an absence of sense, and at the same time the excess meaning of a death shroud. Madame Edwarda’s silence was strange and anxious: her suffering no longer communicable. I absorbed myself in this lack, in this night of the heart no less solitary, no less hostile than the empty sky. Her body flopping like a fish, the vile rage expressed by her wretched face, hardened the life in me, shattered it in disgust.”

Georges Bataille, Madame Edwarda

What passes between these two texts, yoked together in some perverse act? One, Barthes’ notice (“How this book is constructed”) to A Lover’s Discourse; the other, a translation from Bataille’s Madame Edwarda. One speaks “amorously,” the other violently; or, rather, Barthes speaks rhetorically of the amorous, while Bataille effects a violent speech.

To bring them into relay, to make one act through the other; to let one reading decompose the other.

Each is an interior speech, structured confronting an other who does not speak. The lover in Barthes, the narrator in Bataille, each may speak obsessively to himself, but the other (the lover; Madame Edwarda) does not reply. So it is with the text. It only “speaks” to me in my desire if it undoes me, decomposes me in my reading. I perform the text in my desire: the text makes me a dissolute reader.


Barthes’ writing is a disguised text. To the moral or radical reader (the indignant reader), it is merely indulgent, the decadence of bourgeois ideology, consumed with its own pleasure rather than committed to some cause. A flacid, not strident writing. A perversely self-styled anachronist (i.e., amateur), while fellow traveller of the avant-garde (the drifting rear guard of the avant-garde), Barthes concedes that “In fact, today, there is no language site outside bourgeois ideology; our language comes from it, returns to it, remains closed to it. The only possible rejoinder is neither confrontation nor destruction, but only theft: fragment the old text of culture, science, literature, and change its features according to formulae of disguise, as one disguises stolen goods.” Thus the lover who cannot be “reduced to a simple symptomal subject,” but can only be positioned in language, as an excess of language—as the intractable unreal.

A critical discourse is disguised; in other words: Barthes is tactful, he wears his learning lightly. Or, rather, his text is of another order, but not subservient; it “renounces examples and rests on the single action of a primary language (no metalanguage).” If it drifts from its object (as criticism it should be anchored) in its own affirmation, it becomes fiction. “Fiction would proceed from a new intellectual art... With intellectual things, we produce simultaneously theory, critical combat, and pleasure; we subject the object of knowledge and discussion—as in any art—no longer to an instance of truth, but to a consideration of effects.” What is found in the lover is offered to the writer. It is an “utterance, not an analysis,” an effective voice.

What a prodigious labour of language, or is it an infinite play? I can imagine Barthes, like an old mole hungering for meaning. But he is only cruising. What is meaning to him—in the “plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages” that constitute his texts? They cannot be overtaken by meaning—they shift, or drift, indifferently. There is a tactic of meaning, but it is continually displaced: “It is necessary to posit a paradigm in order to produce a meaning and then be able to divert it, to alter it.” But this doubling, drifting and fictional commentary always positions itself with regard to the other, in front of the other, like the lover confronting the loved one who does not speak. This is no opposition or identity which would produce a meaning. For Barthes, the body is a third term supplementing binary oppositions; it positions itself only to drift. In this discursive site of oscillation that is the neutral, Barthes slipped his body. He spoke to us amorously in the body of his writing. Of his fear, he was hesitant. Only fragments remain: “Bataille, after all, affects me little enough: what have I to do with laughter, devotion, poetry, violence? What have I to say about ‘the sacred,’ about ‘the impossible’? Yet no sooner do I make all this (alien) language coincide with that disturbance in myself that I call fear than Bataille conquers me all over again: then everything he inscribes describes me: it sticks.”


Why Bataille? What does he mean for me? What violence of opposition and mutual decomposition of art and self is marked here in my interest? Why do I seek this thrill, this loss, this spectacle of myself?

I present myself to a text (or a painting, a photograph, etc.) before it presents anything to me. I station myself in front of a text as a “body” of meaning, a unity of sense—a subject, in short. Yet, face to face, the text does not respond, answer my demands: I face an absence when I expected something—a subject, a meaning, a whole.

Facing this silence, as I face a fear, the language of my resistance hardens. Facing this lack of response, I am brought to speech. At any one moment, my language is marked by the difference in forces between the text and my speech. But the text acts upon me: I am bound by its limits. Resisting, I begin to register its restraints. It discharges its language through mine.

In the return of the text upon itself in my reading, a space is crossed. Worked upon by the text, this split between text and reader is re-created in my self, as a shudder, the self falling away from itself. (What is the self but a network of impulses, an incoherence of already-spoken languages that sometimes encode an impulse?) In this moment and movement of the split, language distends; my subject dissolves. Impulses and intermittent desires fluctuate in this gap in rhythmic pulsation. Inscribed by the intensity of the work, I am now a sign of it.

“Here then is an invitation to lose ourselves without forethought, without counterpart, without salvation. Is it sincere? ... for after all, M. Bataille writes, occupies a position at the Bibliotheque Nationale, reads, makes love, eats.”
Sartre, Situations I

Bataille brings me to his register of intensity in my reading, disturbing my approach to and control of the text, even disturbing me physically. He makes my critical abandon into a spectacle, an excess, and exceeding of the text: it goes beyond bounds, is undecorous, unseemly. His strategy deposes me of any use I had for his writing. I am both inside and outside it, an intensive flow out of control. Finally, in a decisive moment, I will this excessive force for myself, appropriate it. At that moment Bataille forces me beyond my fascination with his fetish text, to abandon and forget it in its symbolic convulsions.

He has communicated an effect. For Bataille, the nudity of Mme. Edwarda is an absence of sense; but for the man facing this lack, it still has the excessive meaning of death. He shall remain enthralled if he continues to face it. What Mme. Edwarda finally signals to the narrator is the effect of her abandon. He too hardens and shatters in an orgasm of disgust. Elsewhere in Bataille, urine and blood, vomit and sperm serve this same loss as the body is put into flow. Bataille leads us to a point where we remain in disgust, or exit laughing: shattered by laughter, dissolved into the indifferent impulses that return us to Barthes’ drift.

“M. Bataille professes to wish only to consider in the world that which is vilest, most discouraging, and most corrupted, and he invites man, so as to avoid making himself useful for anything specific, ‘to run absurdly with him—toward some haunted provincial house, more depraved, ranker than barber shops’.”
Andre Breton, Second Surrealist Manifesto