I regard tonight’s piece as what one might call ‘a lucky break’ – a little jeu de mot which perhaps I might be allowed in the light of what “our” world is becoming. That’s to say, a post that isn’t about Ukraine, Putin, Biden, viruses, graphene or other unspeakable inventions like Jacinda Ardern; but which on the other hand – to use the Americanese – was a stroke of luck.
I was searching for quotes about ‘history’s reality’, when up popped the Roland Barthes quote displayed above…and my increasingly open prison of a mind went back to three years spent at Liverpool University – a trio of attacks on my blissful ignorance doomed to temporary failure. To be honest, at times it felt more like various attempts to escape imprisonment in the cardinal 1960s sin-bin of virginity. As the author Frederic Raphael wrote in his seminal novel Glittering Prizes, Cambridge University was ‘not so much the city of dreaming spires as perspiring dreams’.
Roland Barthes didn’t live long enough to become an icon of French philosophy (he was knocked down and killed by a laundry delivery van in 1980) but for me in 1968 – the year of chucking cobbles at flics – Barthes was very much alive, and bloody important to me. His importance lay in his relative obscurity: for the difference between being just another tedious student drivelling on about Tariq Ali or Dany Cohn-Bendit (and somebody sexually interesting) was the ability to look dreamily into a vague middle distance and hold forth on the contrarian reaction of the Rolandian view to the existential world of Jean Paul Sartre.
Trust me, in that gentler age, in academia this was knicker-dropper stuff.
“History is a pure intellectual discourse,” Barthes observed…adding innocently, “and the photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony”. I had already discovered the truism, “History is written by the victors” – but here was somebody apparently saying technology would overcome the spin version of history with proof….assuming you could lay your hands on an original negative of people waving on Mayday in Moscow before the air-brushers doctored reality.
I liked that: it was part of an era – the amazing confidence of baby boomers that science would end all falsehood, and deliver Absolute Truth. It was a naive view (ongoing bullets had already been flying back towards the book depository in Dallas courtesy of the FBI) but I went along with it.
DNA arrived over time to prove everything from alleged fatherhood to the identity of Jack the Ripper (it was the Jewish butcher wot dun it). It showed that Hitler spawned a son in France while on leave in 1916, and it blew a hole in the Anastasia myth after Prince Philip gave a DNA sample that branded – correctly – Anna Anderson a fraud.
But then digital arrived…and blew every form of “reality” sky-high. We entered the age of virtual reality in which virtual actually meant – not something half-baked – but ‘indistinguishable from the real thing’.
“The camera doesn’t lie” is no longer true….for there are no negatives in a digital world. It is, I think, a stone-cold sobering thought that probably the most dastardly ability to mislead has been created by post-production digital effects in media created by a Silicon Valley once presented to the World as to the solution to all our problems. In fact (I shrink from writing ‘In Truth’) all the Zuckerbergs have done is create new dilemmas – the solutions to which do not interest their Godless minds at all.
Sadly, the contemporary human psyche is untrained in the sort of caveat emptor required when viewing footage that could be history – but equally, could be ideological rearrangement.
The camera today – the “image” if you will – has become just one more device of distortion. But Roland Barthes, I’m sure, would’ve taken this on board and displayed it as the Emperor without clothes. Barthes’s critique of Sartre is best seen in his book Writing Degree Zero (1953), in which he argued that most writers only reflect contemporary fashion.
He regarded contrarian writing – the critique of style conventions – as the only truly original act. In this sense, he was very close to Oscar Wilde – whose view was that “A true artist pays no attention at all to the views of the public”.
Our current epoch is making history in both senses of the verb – trying to manipulate it with falsehood while unconsciously becoming part of it. There’s nothing I’d like better than to reduce it to an easily skimmed over footnote, but that’s not possible. All the same, it doesn’t stop me from occasionally bathing in a spa of pleasure in which Roland Barthes and George Carlin are swapping jokes about all things pretentious.
Because there are no ersatz giant news-heroes to be virtuously converted into historical dwarves in this post, I can confidently predict that it will attract little in the way of viral attention. But then, you have me confused with someone who GAF.
I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I was fulfilled by writing it.
John Ward is a fully-fledged French resident – a status that gives him no rights whatsoever beyond having poison forcibly injected into his veins. He is regarded by some as “high-brow” – an accusation he deplores on the grounds of refusing to accept that legislators might in any way represent a norm. He was educated from 1953 to 1969 by a system which placed originality far above conformity, and is thus today decried as a conspiracy theorist.