Pleasure, of a sort

OildaleBreckenridge Mountain views

Reflecting on the two photographs I chose from the cloud of images I took when I visited Bakersfield in 2008, my first return after a decade or so, I suppose the only criteria was that both pictures please me. It is tricky to speak of images as “texts” (I do not wish to offer a “reading” of either picture) and yet it is pleasing to locate the studium and punctum, a la Barthes.

On the left, the studium dominates— when I think of the California I knew it is punctuated with parking lots (in this case a Dairy Queen) and palm trees. These are the “facts” which I never really tired of studying, a perverse sort of pleasure in their constancy. On the right, it is the painted cattle guard as a sort of border between the valley and the mountains, what pricks me (punctum) is not an emotional connection with a pretty sunset, but rather an intellectual pleasure in the knowledge (only found outside the frame on a map) that this is a more than symbolic boundary1 between the open ranges of mountains and my fenced valley home suggestive of its properties. In both cases, reducing the images to symbolic content leaves a taste— a remainder from the division— of a place I once called home. The pleasure “for me” is complex and as Barthes suggests “neither subjective nor existential”:

If I agree to judge a text according to pleasure, I cannot go on to say: this one is good, that bad. No awards, no “critique,” for this always implies a tactical aim, a social usage, and frequently an extenuating image-reservoir. I cannot apportion, imagine that the text is perfectible, ready to enter a play of normative predicates: it is too much of this, not enough of that; the text (the same is true of the singing voice) can wring from me only this judgment, in no way adjectival: that’s it! And further still: that’s it for me! This “for me” is neither subjective nor existential, but Nietzschean (“. . . basically, it is always the same question: What is it for me? . . .”).

Roland Barthes, Pleasure of the Text (13)

When I read this passage a couple of days ago I puzzled over his usage of “Nietzschean.” It took quite some effort to track down the passage he quotes assuming everyone knows. Asserting that the”what is it for me?” question— in matters of pleasure— is not subjective seems to contradict the definition of subjective. After all isn’t all pleasure contingent on the existence of the self? It’s easy to accept that pleasure can’t be existential (because pleasure cannot exist outside the self). The implication that pleasure can be tactical or strategic (or have any sort of pragmatic dimension) is rightfully discarded, enhancing the connection with aesthetic pleasure. But why isn’t pleasure subjective? Perhaps only because of his disclaimer: pleasure in this Barthesian sense has no use and therefore is not a matter of personal benefit/perspective. So the pressure is all the stronger on the for me: to what end, if not a personal utility?

The answer, near as I can tell, is in the passage in Will to Power he quotes so ambiguously and imprecisely:

The answer to the question, “What is that?” is a process of fixing a meaning from a different standpoint. The “essence” the “essential factor,” is something which is only seen as a whole in perspective, and which presupposes a basis which is multifarious. Fundamentally, the question is “What is this for me?” (for us, for everything that lives, etc. etc.)

A thing would be defined when all creatures had asked and answered this question, “What is that? concerning it. Supposing that one single creature, with its own relationship and stand in regard to all things were lacking, that thing would remain undefined.

In short: the essence of a thing is really only an opinion concerning that “thing.” Or, better still; “it is worth” is actually what is meant by “it is” or “that is.”

One may not ask: “Who interprets then? for the act of interpreting itself, as a form of the Will to Power, manifests itself (not as “Being” but as a process, as Becoming) as a passion.

Will to Power

I am certainly not an expert on Nietzsche, and I have many quarrels with most of his interpreters, but it seems to me that most of this is fairly easy to grasp— up to a point. To say that something “is” always entails an opinion and a corresponding value judgment. But the conclusion alludes to (this is a fragmentary and incomplete text) a sort of metaphysical (at least it seems to me) resolution of the problem of missing universal things: universal will. Described here as a passion, it seems to me that what Barthes is summoning in his “Nietzschean sense” is a sort of will to pleasure that exists beyond the existential and the subjective.

Thus, Barthes’ parenthetical benefits from the more emphatic/complete substitution from Nietzsche’s notes

. . . that’s it! And further still: that’s it for me! This “for me” is neither subjective nor existential, but Nietzschean [Fundamentally, the question is “What is this for me?” (for us, for everything that lives, etc. etc.)]

So the aesthetic impulse (pleasure) in this case a universalizing one, a conjecture that the pleasure might be something more than personal/subjective feeling. I like this idea a lot; the possibility that taste, in some way, might transcend its social/communicative utility. But this is a big leap. The commentators I have read on Barthes’ text emphasize the pleasures of text as a way of escaping the subject position, the possibility of liberation— but no one I have read seems to notice that this path leads through universals.

Universals just aren’t Barthesian. The dissonance jars me; I don’t have that much problem with universal claims, as long as they are identified as such. This way of circumventing universals is sly: his claim is for universal processes rather than universal values. Nonetheless, following Nietzsche’s suggested substitution of “it is worth” for “it is,” there is no escape from value judgments and pragmatic utilities. Barthes core claims are at odds with each other.

Who interprets? I think we are doomed to ask that question. 

1Although the lines are an illusory barrier, they are nonetheless a physical presence in the world and not merely a symbol.