Hunt the slipper

An edited version of an essay by Roland Barthes about languages at war, first published in the TLS of October 8, 1971.
It is wrong to say that there is a bourgeois culture, because the whole of our culture is bourgeois (and to say that our culture is bourgeois is a truism, tediously reiterated in all our universities). To say that culture stands in contrast to nature is doubtful because we do not really know where the limits of the two lie. Where is nature in Man? In order to call himself Man, Man needs a language, which is culture itself. In his biological make-up perhaps? But today in the living organism we find the same structures as in the speaking subject: life itself is constructed like a language. In short, everything is culture, from clothing to books, from food to pictures: and culture is everywhere, from one end of the social scale to the other. This culture is, certainly, a highly paradoxical object without contours, without any term of opposition, without remainder.
We might perhaps even add without a history, or at least without any break, subject to untiring repetition. On to the television screen comes an American spy serial; there is a cocktail party on a yacht and the various partners indulge in a sort of modern marivaudage (flirtations, ambiguous remarks, the interplay of self-interest). But this has been seen or said already, not only in thousands of popular novels and films, but also in older works belonging to what might have passed for a different culture. In Balzac, for example, it is as if the Princesse de Cadignan had simply moved house and left the Faubourg Saint-Germain for the yacht of a Greek shipowner. Thus culture is not only that which comes back, it is also—and above all—that which remains where it is, like an imperishable corpse; it is a weird toy that History never breaks.
It is a unique object because there is nothing to oppose to it, an everlasting object because it never breaks, in short a peaceable object inside which everyone can gather without apparent conflict. So where is the work that culture does on itself, where are its contradictions, where is its misfortune?
In order to answer this, we must in spite of the epistemological paradox of the object, hazard a definition—of the vaguest kind, naturally: culture is (what is known in magnetics as) a stray field. And of what? Of languages.
In our culture, in the cultural peace, the Pax culturalis, to which we are subject, there is a bellum inexpiabile between languages. Our languages are mutually exclusive. In a society divided (by social class, money, educational background), language itself divides. What proportion of language do I, an intellectual, share with the salesman from the Nouvelles Galeries? Both of us being Frenchmen, the language of communication, no doubt. But this is only a tiny part of the whole: we can exchange information or truisms, but what about the rest, the great volume, the whole play of language?
Since there is no subject outside language, since language is what constitutes the subject through and through, this separation of lang­uages is permanent bereavement. And this bereavement does not only occur when we leave our own “milieu” (where everyone talks the same language), it is not only the physical contact with others, the product of other milieux and other professions, which divides us, it is the very “culture” itself which, in a good democracy, we are supposed to have in common. The divide between cultural lang­uages reaches its height at the very moment when, as the result of apparently technological determinants, culture seems to be becoming one (an illusion reproduced rather stupidly in the phrase “mass culture”).
Simply spend an evening by your television set (to restrict ourselves to the commonest form of culture). There, in spite of the producers’ attempts to homogenize everything, you will receive several different languages. It is impossible that all of them should answer not only to your desires (I use this word in its strong sense), but even to your intellectual faculty. There is always in culture one part of the language which the Other (me, that is) does not understand; my neighbour is bored by this Brahms concerto, while I find that variety turn vulgar and the serialized love story imbecilic.
Boredom, vulgarity and stupidity are different names for the secession of languages. The result is that this secession not only separates one man from another but also each man, each individual is divided within himself. Within me, every day, several independent languages accumulate, without communicating with each other; I am fragmented, riven, dispersed (which might, as it happens, pass for the definition of the word “madness”). And even were I to succeed in speaking the same language all day long, how many different languages am I not obliged to receive: those of my colleagues, the postman, my students, the sports commentator on the radio, the classical author whom I read in the evening.
It is an illusion for linguists to think that the language we speak and the language we hear are equal, as if they were the same language. Here we should go back to the basic distinction, suggested by Roman Jakobson, between active grammar and passive grammar; the first is monotonic, the second heteroclite, and this is true for the language of culture. In a divided society, even if he manages to unify his own language, each man has to struggle against the fragmentation of what he hears. Under cover of this total culture offered by our institutions, there is imposed on him, day by day, a schizophrenic division of the subject. In a way, culture is the pathological field par excellence, in which is inscribed the alienation of contem­porary man (which is a good term, being both social and mental).
It would seem, then, that what each social class is seeking is not to possess culture (whether to preserve or obtain it), because culture is there: it is everywhere and everybody’s. They are seeking the unity of languages, the coincidence of the spoken and the heard. So how today, in our Western society, divided in its languages and united in its culture, do the social classes, those classes which Marxism and sociology have taught us to recognize, view the language of the Other? What is the interlocutory scheme (a very disappointing one, alas) in which, historically, they are trapped?
In principle, the whole of culture is in the possession of the bourgeoisie, but for a long time past (and I speak for France) the bourgeoisie has not had its own cultural voice. Since when? Since her intellectuals and writers let go of it. In our country the Dreyfus Affair seems to have been the shock which established this detachment: it was, moreover, the moment when the word “intellectual” appeared. The intellectual is the clerk who tries to break with the untroubled conscience of his class, if not of origin (the problem remains the same even if a particular writer has emerged from the working class), then at least of consumers.
Here, today, nothing is invented. The bourgeois (land-owner, employer, executive, senior civil servant) no longer has access to the language of intellectual, literary or artistic research, because this language calls him in question. He resigns in favour of mass culture; his children no longer read Proust or listen to Chopin but, at a pinch, Boris Vian and pop music. Yet the intellectual who threatens him is not triumphant for all that. He may try and pose as the representative, as the advocate of the proletariat, as an oblate of the socialist cause; but his critique of bourgeois culture can but borrow the old language of the bourgeoisie, handed down to him by his teachers at university. The idea of contestation itself becomes a bourgeois idea. The intellectual writer’s audience may have shifted (though it is certainly not the proletariat which reads him), but not language. Granted, the intelligentsia may invent new languages, but these languages remain enclosed; social converse is not affected.
The proletariat (the producers) has no culture of its own. In the so-called developed countries, its language is that of the lower middle-class, because this is the language offered to it by the mass media (national press, radio, television); mass culture is lower-middle-class. Of the three typical classes it is, today, this intermediary one—this being perhaps the century of its historical promotion—which is trying the hardest to work out an original culture, one which would be its culture. No one can deny that important work is being done at the level of so-called mass culture (that is, lower-middle-class culture), and for this reason it would be ridiculous to stand aloof from it. But along what paths? By the already well-known paths of bourgeois culture. Lower- middle-class culture is made and implants itself by taking and degrading the models (patterns) of bourgeois language (its narratives, its types of argument, its psychological values).
The idea of degradation may seem a moral one, the product of a bourgeois lamenting the excellence of the culture that has gone. But, on the contrary, I am giving it an objective, structural content; there is degradation because there is no invention, the models are repeated where they stand, they are homogenized by the fact that lower-middle-class culture (which is censored by the state) excludes even the challenge which the bourgeois is able to make to bourgeois culture. It is immobility and the subjection to stereotypes (the conversion of messages into stereotypes) which defines degradation. One might say that in lower-middle- class culture, bourgeois culture returns to the historical stage, but as a farce (the image of course is Marx’s).
The cultural war thus seems to be governed by a game of Hunt the Slipper. The different languages are kept well apart, like the players in the game, sitting next to each other; but what is passed round or escapes is still the same slipper, that is the same culture. Such is the double alienation of our society; a tragic immobility of culture and a dramatic division between languages. Can we put our trust in socialism to undo this contradiction, so as to fluidify and pluralize our culture and put an end to the war of meanings and the exclusion of languages? We must, for what other hope is there?