Writing Technologies

Declaration of Ink Dependence

Neil Badmington

It would seem that Barthes also had an almost obsessive relation to writing about writing instruments and the material act of inscription. Earlier in 1973, for instance, he produced a text entitled ‘Variations sur l’écriture’, in which he approached the familiar term ‘écriture’ in a manner that differed from his usual ‘metaphorical sense’. 4

‘Today’, he announced in the opening paragraph, ‘it is to the manual sense of the word that I would like to come, it is “scription” (the muscular act of writing, of tracing letters) that interests me’, 5 and the text went on to discuss, among other things, the difference that a change in colour of ink might make to the meaning of words, the speed of cursive handwriting, and how every wall calls to be written upon with graffiti.

‘Variations sur l’écriture’ was not published during its author’s lifetime, but it made a brief, ghostly appearance in La Préparation du roman when, following a mnemonic that read ‘Mon texte sur l’écriture’, Barthes spoke of the relationship between a writer’s style, obsessive choice of materials, and the way in which he or she physically put pen to paper. Proust, he recalled, wrote ‘at a gallop’, and ‘all of his work depended upon this muscular ability [facilité]’. 6 Other writers, however, proceeded slowly and needed constantly to lift their pens from the page. ‘In a general way’, Barthes concluded, ‘one could risk defining the work as a kinetic relationship between head and hand’. 7

One final piece of ‘inkriminating’ evidence. (My ‘inkventory’ is not, I should stress, ‘all-inklusive’.) Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes reveals that the same writing instruments were kept in the two identical workspaces – one in the city, one in the country – in which the author wrote, and the book elsewhere includes ‘all kinds of writing pens’ in a list of passions. 8 The text even manages to return to a form of ink that had left a smudge upon Mythologies almost twenty years earlier: ‘I am writing this day after day’, notes Barthes, ‘it takes, it sets: the cuttlefish produces its ink’. 9

I have written at length in another context about the significance of the many ‘ink blots’ that are spilled across the work of Roland Barthes. 10 I will not, therefore, reopen that particular ink quest in detail here, but I do want briefly to address why such apparent trivialities matter. Immediately after telling Jean-Louis de Rambures that discussing writing habits is usually seen as ‘futile’, Barthes makes a comment that explicitly links the topic in question to the work that he had begun in Mythologies:

When a great many people agree that a problem is insignificant, that usually means it is not. Insignificance is the true locus of significance. This should never be forgotten. That is why it seems so important to me to ask a writer about his writing habits, putting things on the most material level, I would even say the most minimal level possible. This is an anti-mythological action: it contributes to the overturning of that old myth which continues to present language as the instrument of thought, inwardness, passion, or whatever, and consequently presents writing as a simple instrumental practice.11

 | Next page  

4. Roland Barthes, 'Variations sur l'écriture', in Oeuvres Complètes: Tome IV: 1972-1976, ed. by Eric Marty, new ed. (Paris: Seuil, 2002), p. 267. All translations from this text are my own.

5. Barthes, 'Variations sur l'écriture', p. 267.

6. Roland Barthes, La Préparation du roman I et II: Notes de cours et de séminaires au Collège de France 1978-1979 et 1979-80, ed. by Nathalie Léger (Paris: Seuil/IMEC, 2003), p. 338. My translation.

7. Barthes, La Préparation du roman I et II, p.339.

8. Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. by Richard Howard (London: Papermac, 1995), p. 46, p. 116. In the meticulous duplication of his workspace, Roland Barthes reproduced a habit of Proust's. For details of the latter, see André Maurois, The Quest for Proust, trans. by Gerard Hopkins (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p. 131.

9. Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, p. 162. For the earlier reference to the cuttlefish and its protective cloud, see Roland Barthes, Mythologies, ed. and trans. by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993), p. 155.

10.Neil Badmington, 'The "Inkredible" Roland Barthes', Paragraph, forthcoming 2008.

11.Barthes, 'An Almost Obsessive Relation', p. 177.