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How to live together

Excerpt from a new book based on Roland Barthes: Living together all the time can become claustrophobic. But we can live side by side. 


This essay is an abridged version of the chapter Marginalités / Marginaliteter in Knut Stene-Johansen, Christian Refsum and Johan Henrik Schimanski (eds.): To live together. Roland Barthes, the individual and the community, Spartacus Publishers, 2016.

In his lectures at the Collège de France 1976 – 77, Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) studied the withdrawal from society to find out how to live together. The method was deliberately anachronistic: The hermits and the monk system in the early Christian era were linked to the outside world of modern novel literature by Defoes Robinson Crusoe to Thomas Manns Trollfjellet via 30 selected concepts. marginality was one of them.

At this time, Barthes considered the literature to be marginalized. Antoine Compagnon points to a culturally conservative tendency of the late Barthes: It is no longer the avant-garde that represents the marginal, but people who understand themselves by virtue of the past.

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-10-31-36A lot has changed since the 70s, including sentimentality towards the outcasts. The kingdom of hippie-motivated alternative models such as Socrates, Jesus, Buddha and Steppe Wolf has abdicated. The criminals, the madmen and the eccentric artists are no longer cultivated in the same way. The marginalized had sympathy because they were part of the counterculture, alas. Barthes tried to rid himself of this 68 ideology at the end of his life.

The 68s dressed up as Chinese, Indian gurus, Indians and Eskimos in sympathy with the Third World, and as workers in solidarity with the proletariat. The liberation theater is no longer a utopia: it is all about giving all the power to the imagination. But the power of marginalization lives at its best.

The liberation show was transformed into identity politics after postmodernism broke through in the 80's, after Barthes' death. The minorities got their visiting time: the marginalized began to dominate. It was a shame to be a white man from the western world. And heterosexual orientering was suspected of being "heteronormative".

Minorities got definition power. Thus arose a struggle for victim status: By making yourself small you can become big; by appearing as a victim, you become a hero. The happy diversity of the 70's was transformed into a repressive minority theater. The marginalized had gained power. They no longer fought against capitalism, but for more female directors.

Of course, marginalization – like everything else – can be mythologized. Back to Adam and Eve: Is not the Fall the first real disregard, the paradigm of all later marginalization? Brutally, the first humans were driven out of paradise, so that all the descendants are on the outside, irrevocably marginalized until doomsday, when humans get a second chance. Or take the birth of the individual human being: Brutally we are thrown into the world, the umbilical cord is cut and we are all alone in the universe, marginalized from the mother's body. No wonder Otto Rank talked about the birth trauma.

The outsider describes a kind of pathology, but still seems appealing. Why? Because everyone today feels marginalized: we are not seen, we are not heard, no one cares about us. Being a part of society consists of feeling like an isolated subject, like an outsider.

To remedy this, we can appear in public with depression, premature ejaculation or a problematic relationship with our celebrity mother. When privacy is sacrificed on the altar of tabloid newspapers, the suffering is transformed into ever-increasing circulation figures.

Colin Wilson's classic The Outsider (1956) claimed that the outsider originated in the Romantic period. The marginalized cultivated loneliness and nature. Then came the anxiety and desperation. Wilson referred to a range of recent literature by Dostoevsky basement Man, Herman Hesse steppe wolf to the existentialist outsiders like the stranger to Camus and the protagonist in nausea by Sartre. The Outsider became one of the 50's bestsellers.

The happy diversity of the 70's was transformed into a repressive minority theater. The marginalized had gained power.

In step with art marginalization has all been marginalized. But at the same time: We are also integrated, socialized, manipulated, trained and fall well into place in the fold. We are the world's most well-adjusted outsiders. Marginalization is normal, it is important to understand our distinctive form of "integration" in Norwegian society. The community is falling apart, it is no longer typically Norwegian to be good, but to grind your own cake. Social democracy was eaten up by its own success. Goodbye solidarity!

Part of this story is the emergence of the word "identity politics". In the 1980s, the term was rare, while its use declined in the 90s. The marginalization not only led to more people feeling like outsiders, but also to an explosion in the number of identity political groupings. And everyone is fighting for their bit of attention.

The traditional roles based on class, status and position have disappeared in favor of identities. Nancy Fraser and others have criticized identity politics for playing on the system's premises.

We no longer cry over the outcast. Jerzy Kosinski wrote the novel The Painted Bird about the little boy who was abandoned during the war and had to fend for himself. The painted bird was a black bird that was painted red. It was chopped to death by its fellow species. Anti-psychiatrist Thomas Szasz used the painted bird as an example of stigma in the classic The Manufacture of Madness (1970)

Every single day the individual controls who she is and who she is not. A little check in the mirror: What does my eye see, a little pimple on the chin! It must be squeezed out, eradicated or at least marginalized. Hundreds of taste judgments, small priorities and individual actions define every single day what is me and what is not. I could not imagine wearing something like that – look at it, you guys! Huh-huh-huh. Likes and dislikes, thumbs up or down. The sorting of who we are and are not keeps the I-identity up. Without marginalization, no self-esteem. Something must always be marginalized.

But not necessarily some. Individual taste is enough to drop people you do not like from the circle of acquaintances. The question is how the taste has greater or lesser social consequences – and how it becomes fascist.

It is no longer typically Norwegian to be good, but to grind your own cake. Social democracy was eaten up by its own success.

The taste is always different between good and bad. The treatment of those you do not like determines whether the taste is liberal or fascist. The taste is collective and class-specific, Pierre Bourdieu emphasized. An absolutely individual taste is in an ideological fiction, but the taste does not have to be completely independent.

Negative taste experiences can develop into fascism. This is how distaste quickly creates scapegoats, depending on how much one needs a negative definition of oneself to maintain one's self-image.

We never fully understand the motives for our own taste, but still have to try to argue for it. When the taste becomes unreflected, everything is left to unfounded reactions that are ultimately controlled by the unconscious. Common distaste marginalizes those you do not like.

The taste is not in itself fascist, as little as the language. (Here Barthes exaggerated considerably.) But the less formed or reflected the taste, the more fascistoid it can become. If the institution of criticism shrinks, the exercise of taste becomes more brutal. When we argue for a taste experience we can ultimately not justify conceptually, we maintain liberal democracy. Unjustified kneeling of one's own taste, on the other hand, nurtures the tyrant in us.

All politics is at a certain level dependent on taste and pleasure. But the much-discussed "aestheticization of politics" turns argumentation into style.

The economics of marginalization is as difficult to calculate as the future oil price. Deleuze and Guattari (who influenced Barthes) made a major point in the early 1970s about how the Christian hermits moved out into the desert and spent years in an extremely marginalized position. There they gathered their paranoid energy, recharged their batteries to be able to move back and take over. Marginalization became dominance. The oppressed can return and take revenge – as Freud repressed. The weak can become the strong. Powerlessness nurtures wet dreams of an imaginary ruler role.

The founder of positivist criminology, Cesare Lombroso, in the latter half of the 19th century equated the mad, the genius and the criminal. They were all degenerate, just in a slightly different way. To be brilliant in one area, other areas had to be marginalized. This logic governs the so-called scholars, which has absolute memory and can store entire libraries in memory, but in other areas are like young children and can not take care of themselves. In the same way, man had to sacrifice muscle to get more brain. Darwinists still use this explanatory model. In evolutionism, marginalization is a principle of evolution.

The deconstruction was not concerned with the central, but focused on the peripheral. Only in the marginal could one find the decisive. But the periphery is not always the key. Or that the marginal turns out to be the tuen that overturns the big load.

There is talk of "Parallel societies". Michel Foucault's whole idea that the price of civilization is that someone is expelled presupposes that every society needs its negative "other" (the perverse, the mad, the criminal et cetera) to create and maintain itself. When we cast our own demons on others, it presupposes a hidden identification between the oppressor and the oppressed. But if you live side by side without talking to each other, then you do not need to call this marginalization. The fact that people who like jazz do not associate with fans of rock does not necessarily mean that the groups marginalize each other (through actions such as "Jazz is cowardly" and the like).

If we do not live together, we can live next to each other. To a certain extent. "Parallel society" is not just negative. Living together all the time becomes claustrophobic.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)

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