Find Enlightenment

Barthes and Beauvoir on Stasis and History
by Bryan Register

Date: 1 Apr 97
Forum: University of Texas at Austin
Copyright: Bryan Register

Note: The author may or may not still agree with the views expressed in this paper.

One of the themes of the intellectual life of the twentieth century has been the breakthrough to history. Socialists and their intellectual descendants stress that the status quo is a static situation, while true history is dynamism and change. Roland Barthes, in Mythologies, discusses the stasis of this moment of capitalist history with a series of demythifying essays which show the hidden messages smuggled into almost all products of bourgeois society. Simone de Beauvoir describes in The Second Sex the stagnation in which most women are mired and have been since prehistory.

Let us look first at Barthes' discussion of toys in the modern world. "All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world..." (Barthes, 53) and likewise, they provide a microcosm of adult mythologies. "French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized..." (ibid) for the bourgeois world. "The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all..." (ibid) That is, by codifying the status quo for children who lack the critical faculty, the toys mold the children's minds into the status quo perspective. To make this fully clear, let us demythologize some examples. The game Monopoly encodes capitalist real estate dealings. The adult who does not question rent on land was once the child who could not question his $400 payment for a turn on Boardwalk. Likewise, the adult who believes that women are natural housekeepers could not, as a child, question the choice of toys by gender. Girls are given housekeeping toys. Further, toys which represent women are passively bourgeois. Barbie is blonde and rich, but has no job. There is a 'Malibu Barbie' whose lifestyle is paid for by no known benefactor, and there is a 'Wedding Barbie' who is entering matrimony, but there is no 'Congresswoman Barbie', 'Reverend Barbie', 'Marxist Revolutionary Barbie', or 'United Nations General Secretary Barbie'. Only recently has there been a 'Business Barbie', encoding the entrance of women into the bourgeois business world.

Now let us look at literary criticism. Barthes complains that a literary critic has adopted, as his perspective on criticism, the "idea... that criticism must be 'neither a parlour game, nor a municipal service' -- which means that it must be neither reactionary nor communist, neither gratuitous nor political." (Barthes, 81) Further, for the critic, "...culture will be opposed to ideologies ." (ibid) On surface, Barthes seems to be contradicting himself. The critic condemns two things, favoring neither one nor the other - but then he comes down in favor of one of two things which he has set in opposition, as though to suggest an either-or relationship. However, this is made clear when we see that the critic "...reckons all the methods with scales, one piles them up on each side as one thinks best, so as to appear oneself as an imponderable arbiter..." (ibid) 'The methods' are reaction and communism, gratuity and politics. The critic pretends to reject all ideology and replace it with 'culture' - an invisible ideology which is described with words with positive connotations: "adventure, passion, grandeur, virtue, honor " (ibid) That which is being rejected gets all the nasty-sounding words: "ideology, catechism, militant " (ibid) But this is a cover-up. What's being accepted is just another ideology - bourgeois ideology - but the critic is hiding this fact behind pretty language and the illusion of perfect objectivity.

With toys we can see what kind of messages are being encoded in our daily lives, and with neither-nor criticism we can see the dishonesty at work behind some almost explicit myths. Let us turn to the Great Family of Man for the lie behind all the other lies.

"Any classic humanism," says Barthes, "postulates that in scratching the history of men a little... one very quickly reaches the solid rock of a universal human nature." (Barthes, 101) The exhibition of photographs showing the constancy of human nature throughout the world "...aims to suppress the determining weight of History..." (ibid) The exhibition waxes sentimental about truisms: that people are born, work, and die. But "...what does the 'essence' of this process matter to us, compared to its modes which, as for them, are perfectly historical?" (Barthes, 102) What is left out of the exhibition is that, though everyone is born, some are born and have no control over their destinies; though everyone dies, some die in infancy from poverty and some die in old age after the most advanced medicine has been exceeded; though everyone works, the manner and perhaps the necessity of work is historically local to profit-based labor and hence to class society.

Barthes "rather fear[s] that the final justification of all this Adamism is to give to the immobility of the world the alibi of a 'wisdom' and a 'lyricism' which only make the gestures of man look eternal the better to defuse them." (ibid, emphasis added) This summarizes the whole tactic of mythology. The better to defuse any discontent with the status quo, there is created the illusion of timelessness: if there has never been anything other than the current situation, and there will never be anything other than our current situation, calls for change seem ridiculously naïve. For instance, if there is a complaint about the high degree of infant mortality in a colonized territory, it can be replied that "Everybody dies, that's how it's always been - nothing to be done about it, so sorry." But the complaint was not that everybody died, it was that in one region, a great many people died in infancy. The fact to which the objection was raised was not a fact of nature, it was a purely historical fact: that in this region, colonized by this major power, in this stage of capitalism, children die in great numbers. The bourgeois myths obscure the historicity of the conditions which capitalism has brought about, making impossible the conception of an alternative or revolutionary situation.

Let us move on to Simone de Beauvoir's case for existentialist feminism. While for Barthes, bourgeois society yields a static view of the world by encoding history out of our consciousness with its mythologizing, Beauvoir argues that women have been placed - voluntarily - into a condition of stasis by men.

Beauvoir argues from the position of existentialist ethics that "There is no justification for present existence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future." (Beauvoir, xxxv) There are two states available to existent entities: immanence and transcendence. Transcendence is a state of self-overcoming, a pursuing of projects beyond the present achievements of the entity. This is the characteristic mode of being of life. Immanence is a state of stasis, stagnation; rock-like subsistence. "Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, there is a degradation of existence... This downfall represents a moral fault if the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spells frustration and oppression. In both cases it is an absolute evil." (ibid) And the situation of women has historically been that of immanence.

Consider woman in education. "Unknown to her are those fertile moments when study and diversion fuse, when the adventures of the mind assume living warmth." (Beauvoir, 700) Women are unserious about their studies; they "do not intend to continue their studies..." (Beauvoir, 699) For woman, the great goal in life is to become wife and mother. Education is nigh useless for this; men require it to make successes of themselves, but women have no need of making successes of themselves. One student complained of a certain book that "That book is too difficult; it is a book for men students!" Men students must handle such difficult tasks so that they can pursue a career and support a wife and children. Woman in education sees no need to extend herself and outreach her current capacities; she is immanent.

Then she marries. "...maintenance and progression are implied in any living activity, and for man marriage permits precisely a happy synthesis of the two." (Beauvoir, 430) The married man lives in the world of work and politics and society; he pursues productive and social projects; he transcends; but "At evening he restores his soul in the home, where his wife takes care of his furnishings and children and guards the things of the past that she keeps in store." (ibid) But for her, labor in marriage is housework. "Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. ...the years no longer rise up toward heaven, they lie spread out ahead, gray and identical." (Beauvoir, 451) This is a situation of immanence: "Any doctrine of transcendence and liberty subordinates the defeat of evil to progress toward the good. But woman is not called upon to build a better world: her domain is fixed and she has only to keep up the never-ending struggle against the evil principles that creep into it..." (Beauvoir, 452)

When the uneducated woman tormented by the soul-killing boredom of housework reaches the pinnacle of her success as a woman, it is through achieving the status of motherhood. This is when her frustrated condition of immanence becomes most disturbing. "When it is realized how difficult woman's present situation makes her full self-realization, how many desires, rebellious feelings, just claims she nurses in secret, one is frightened at the thought that defenseless infants are abandoned to her care." (Beauvoir, 513) The mother has been suppressed from every angle. She has been denied equity with men. She has been denied education, because, being a woman, she is held incapable of learning, and, being a future wife and mother, it is thought that she has no need of knowledge. She has been denied a career, because a career demands education and the time which she has been compelled to spend pursuing a husband. But political activity, education, and a productive career are the essential means of transcendence in the contemporary world; it is in these areas that the individual stretches himself and overcomes his current status.

What is the root of woman's state of immanence? "The female is the victim of the species." (Beauvoir, 20) Women are subject to severe sexual-hormonal cycles, they are passive in sexuality, their pregnancy is long and difficult, childbirth is painful and dangerous, nursing is an exhausting task, and the many-year task of child-rearing falls primarily on her. Men have the physical strength and lack of hindrances which make possible their dominance and their transcendence. But for the species to continue, some individuals must perform the labor of maintenance; as above, "...maintenance and progression are implied in any living activity...." (Beauvoir, 430)

What is to be done? Barthes seeks to pull society from its bourgeois-induced stasis, while Beauvoir seeks to help women enter the dynamic world of transcendence.

For Barthes, the answer is revolution. "There is... one language which is not mythical, it is the language of man as a producer: wherever man speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image... myth is impossible." (Barthes, 146) If, in speaking on matters of productivity - which is always a dynamic extension into the future - one always speaks honestly and never in mythologies, then only explicitly political speech (speech which is productive in the arena of society) can be both about social issues and also fully honest and never mythological. "...there is at least one type of speech which is the opposite of myth: that which remains political." (Barthes, 145) There is myth on the political left - in socialism - only when the left gives up revolution (for one reason or other) and tries to cover itself; to "...distort itself into 'Nature'." (Barthes, 147) Revolution, however, can never be mythological. "Revolution is defined as a cathartic act meant to reveal the political load of the world: it makes the world; and its language, all of it, is fully absorbed in this making." (Barthes, 146) There is no way for a revolution to characterize itself as permanent or part of nature; revolution is necessarily historical.

Further, the political left is incapable of generating much stasis-pretending myth. "To start with, the objects it takes hold of are rare - only a few political notions... Everyday life is inaccessible to it: in a bourgeois society, there are no 'Left-wing' myths concerning marriage, cooking, the home, the theatre, the law, morality, etc." (Barthes, 147) When the left uses myth, it uses it as an occasional inessential convenience; it uses it rarely and only on a few central political issues. And when it does use it, it has reverted from revolution (for one reason or another) and pursued a different tactic. Only revolution, then, can truly break society and its speech from the stasis and stagnation of bourgeois myths.

For Beauvoir, two key steps must be taken for women to break out of their immanence. They must be recognized by men as equals, and they must stop yielding to the ease and bad faith of immanence. "The quarrel will go on as long as men and women fail to recognize each others as peers; that is to say, as long as femininity is perpetuated as such." (Beauvoir, 719)

Man resists this. "...oppression is to be explained by the tendency of the existent to flee from himself by means of identification with the other, whom he oppresses to that end.... The husband wants to find himself in his wife." (ibid) Man seeks identity in woman, but for a woman to have an identity herself would threaten her capacity to be identified with by him. For him to remain a Self, she must remain the Other.

Woman resists it. Woman " taught idleness by being amused all day long and never being led to study, or shown its [study's] usefulness... without ever being impressed with the necessity of taking charge of her own existence." (Beauvoir, 721) The first moment of immanence comes in childhood, when the girl is trained to not think, study, work, or be independent. She is trained, instead, in catching a man to do all of this for her. She is incapable of learning, it is said, but this myth was generated to explain women's incompetence, itself a result of this childhood training. And so, in adulthood comes the second moment of immanence: "...she readily lets herself come to count on the protection, love, assistance, and self-realization of others..." (ibid) Man creates a situation such that woman must be immanent, and then uses this situation to prove woman's natural immanence. Woman, being immanent, is then incapable of breaking through to transcendence, and should she try, she will be years behind man in her endeavors, constantly tempted by the easier life of her immanent sisters.

The answer, then, is for women to refuse to be made immanent and for men to stop pretending that she is so by nature. Women's immanence is an historical fact: "...the devaluation of femininity has been a necessary step... but it might have led to a collaboration between the two sexes..." (Beauvoir, 719) But "Between two adversaries confronting each other in pure liberty, an agreement could be easily reached..." (ibid)

Transcendence is a matter of choice and free will as much as it is a matter of historical conditioning. To end the oppression of women (which is so damaging to men as well) men must end the conditioning of women in their 'natural' immanence, but women must exercise their will and choose, to the best of their currently conditioned ability, to transcend their stagnant situation and pursue projects in the world, to be educated and productive, to be for Selves rather than permanently for Others.

Find Enlightenment at