Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Pleasure of the Text - Video Essay

The purpose of this video essay is to apply Roland Barthes theory of text of pleasure and text of bliss to the realm of visual and performative arts.   A question I pose is what emotional effects do these sounds and images produce for the viewer?  And do they reflect the textual effects Barthes describes in The Pleasure of the Text?

The first part of the video examines Barthes distinguishing between the text of pleasure and the text of bliss (which is also referred to as the readerly and writerly text). Barthes argues that the text of pleasure is a closed text because it situates the reader in a comfortable and pleasurable position.   For example, a majority of Hollywood films would fall under the text of pleasure, because they aim to situate the viewer as if they are right in the middle of the action without drawing attention to the production of the image unfolding on screen.

The text of bliss disrupts one’s readership—revealing gaps, ruptures and disturbances within the text.  Barthes postulates that the text of bliss is jouissance (pure enjoyment) because it breaks down the unity of the signifying chain.   Another way to put it is that the text of bliss attempts to go beyond meaning.  As Barthes notes, “it unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language” (14).  The text of bliss finds itself in close association with the surrealism and avant-garde art. 

The last part of the video explores Barthes’ final concept in The Pleasure of Text, which he describes as the “grain the voice.” Barthes states that the “grain of the voice, which is an erotic mixture of timbre and language, can therefore also be, along with diction, the substance of art of guiding one's body…. [T]he language aligned with the flesh [is] a text where we can hear the grain of the throat” (66). For Barthes, the grain of the voice is not the language that speaks the body, but the body that speaks the language.

I found the grain of the voice concept breaking away from the binaries of the text of pleasure and text of bliss.  The grain of the voice demonstrates how text of pleasure can register moments of abstraction or bliss or even transcendence.  I believe the last clip on Ian Curtis from the post-punk new wave group Joy Division performing “Transmission” exemplifies how his passionate singing captures the grain of the voice—how Curtis’ body language attempts to go beyond meaning within the realm of pop culture.


  1. Wow. Great job, Tom. This is really interesting, fascinating, and fun to watch. Well done!

  2. Tom: I like the academic nature of this piece: using the video essay to feel the hard ideas of theory. Its repetition with variance is a strong strategy, as is its flow/cut/flow pattern. I do wonder though whether you might need to come up with one more level of meaning production? You choose to show examples of Barthes' ideas as if they are self-explanatory, letting them do the talking. But I think your voice would add a critical layer, in that bliss, pleasure, and even grain are certainly in the eye or ear of the beholder and not universal concepts. I appreciate that you took on a complex project!

  3. Tom: The textual markers you’ve used to demarcate sections of the video are working really well –– producing a sense of a certain organized volition within the piece, while braiding in a strain of ‘narration’ but not narration per se. Your use of the word ‘consuming’ juxtaposed with the counterpoints of ‘pleasure’ and ‘bliss’ are confusing. I think you don’t intend to say that the ‘bliss’ is consumed, but rather ‘produced’ because of the discomfort, because of the ‘grain of the voice.’

    Your subtle use of Sinatra singing “My Way” juxtaposed with the clip of the dialogue from “A Woman Under the Influence” both function as further evidence (and accusation) of a kind of De Rigueur...Mortis in texts of pure ‘pleasure,’ texts that are passively ‘consumed’ i.e. dished out by the dominant culture, with no intention of providing tangible nutrition.

    The idea that “cinema substitutes for our gaze, a world more in harmony with our desires, and that “contempt is a story of that world” from “Le mepris” by Godard is a nice transition to the Lacan and Deren sections. The Lacan snippets are working well as a counterpoint to the visuals from Deren’s Meshes of Afternoon, leading the viewer without actually showing the way. The sense is rather that of becoming lost or disoriented, causing the viewer to work harder to locate, or construct, meaning and/or sense, even if it is merely a sense of some sort of ‘internal logic’ that can’t be articulated, but rather ‘told at a slant’ which brings to mind the ‘show, don’t tell’ axiom.

    I think your concluding clips of oy Division, performing Transmission are perfect, especially after I just looking up the lyrics. So what you are presenting is the notion that the ‘grain of the voice’ functions to produce an experience that gets under the skin; a kind of visceral verisimilitude. So this piece also fits in with Barthes additional tandem terms ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ in Camera Lucida –– well done.

  4. Errata: I think your concluding clips of Joy Division, performing Transmission are perfect, especially after looking up the lyrics. So what you are presenting is the notion that the ‘grain of the voice’ functions to produce an experience that gets under the skin; a kind of visceral verisimilitude, for each 'viewer/reader/listener' So this piece also fits in with Barthes additional tandem terms ‘studium’ (pleasure/readerly - consumer) and ‘punctum’ (bliss/writerly - producer) in Camera Lucida –– well done.

  5. Thank you for the comments. I found that it was difficult to get out of the binary position due to the nature of video editing and the juxtaposition of images. I think this is where writing becomes an easier tool as way to escape the universal position of the text of pleasure and bliss, which I wanted to express through the Joy Division clip. I would probably need to add some text before the clip itself, explaining my position about the grain of the voice.

    I agree about the wording of "consuming the text of bliss." Going with Lacan, bliss or jouissance falls within the Real - the non-symbolic thing that disrupts. In some sense, bliss is resisting easy consumption. Thank you for pointing that out.

    I highly recommend seeing the entire Joy Division clip - it is amazing to watch Ian Curtis.

  6. Tom - good job on your video essay. I liked the multi-mix of theory, jazz, rock, flesh, language, discomfort, pleasure and bliss to make your point. In The Path to Bliss, the Dalai Lama wrote "the opponent force powerful enough to eliminae the delusions should be a wisdom which combines calm abiding and special insight. "Calm abiding" notwithstanding, visual text might be one of those wisdoms - a teaching and feeling tool.