How do you enter the conversation among generations of Continental philosophers? Learn the lingo — and bring a bodyguard.
In The Seventh Function of Language, Laurent Binet depicts the big names in 1980s literary theory — Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Bernard-Henri Lévy — as hedonistic, ego-driven monsters who would not hesitate to kill or maim to demonstrate their intellectual superiority.
Binet’s novel weaponizes literary theory, a central conceit that brings to mind the Monty Python skit “The funniest joke in the world.”
A battle of wits brings two literary theories into opposition: On offense, there’s rhetoric; Roman Jakobson’s functions of language have the power to turn an ordinary speaker into a rhetorician with hypnotic abilities. On defense, we have semiotics, the study of signs and signifiers.
Binet’s protagonist, Simon Herzog — a semiotician and, like the author, a Parisian professor — explains the interaction: “With semiology, you decode your opponent’s rhetoric, you grasp his things, and you rub his nose in it.”
Early in the novel, Binet reveals his own alignment with Team Semiology:
“It’s no accident that Umberto Eco, the wise man of Bologna, one of the last great semiologists, referred to often to the key, decisive inventions in the history of humanity: the wheel, the spoon, the book . . . perfect tools, he said, unimprovable in their effectiveness. And indeed, everything suggests that in reality semiology is one of the most important inventions in the history of humanity, and one of the most powerful tools ever forged by man. But as with fire or the atom, people don’t know what the point of it is to begin with, or how to use it.”
Binet’s narrator extols the virtues of semiology, his protagonist is a semiotician, and the only way to stop the powerful from controlling the world with manipulative rhetoric is — you guessed it — semiology.
The action starts in 1980. Famed semiotician Roland Barthes has been hit and killed by a laundry van (a true story, reimagined here) — but was it an accident? In the search for a motive, regular-guy detective Jacques Bayard visits a university in the throes of popular adoration for the gnomic Foucault. Bayard’s commonsense, pragmatic reaction: “No one comes here to learn how to do a job.”
Unable to hack through the jargon, Bayard enlists Herzog to help him understand all this academic nonsense. Herzog’s practice of semiotics resembles detective work, conveying the ability to look at someone and decode their secrets. Herzog demonstrates his skill upon meeting Bayard: “Your shoes are badly scuffed, and you came here in a car, which signifies that you are not deskbound — you are out and about in your job.” Semiotics turns you into Sherlock Holmes.
Rhetoric, on the other hand, turns you into an unstoppable debater, and it is here that the plot is more ridiculous than nefarious. Herzog lectures to his students using the example of James Bond movies, and it is ultimately 007 that provides the template for the novel. The MacGuffin is the literary theory equivalent of a mind-control beam from outer space, and the final boss battle takes place inside a volcano.
The characters don’t act like people, and Binet seems to take delight in this. In one scene, Bayard and Herzog find Umberto Eco in a bar lecturing to his students. Bayard goes outside. Eco soon follows, and witnesses Bayard sticking a spoon in the eye socket of a potential informant. The nonplussed Eco, instead of showing repulsion for this violent act, launches into a convenient exposition about the Athenian roots of a secret society called the Logos Club, a debate-team version of Fight Club. And then all the drunk students from the bar join Inspector Spoonman for the evening’s exciting adventures. Nobody parties like a cop who learned interrogation tactics in Algeria.
As in Binet’s earlier HHhH, the disembodied authorial voice draws attention to the writing process. When Herzog visits a café, the author gives the Gallic shrug when establishing scene: “I would situate the café on Rue de la Montagne-Saite-Geneviève, but again, you can put him wherever you like, it doesn’t really matter.” Or: “I’ll spare you the now obligatory copy-and-paste of the Wikipedia page: the private mansion designed by such-and-such Italian architect for such-and-such Breton bishop, and so on.”
With this reflexive, self-aware trickery, Binet combines an intentionally clumsy imitation of a Ludlum-style genre thriller with a depiction of semiology in action:
As they cross Place Saint-Sulpice, the two men pass a blue Fuego and Bayard says, with the air of an expert: “That’s the new Renault. It’s only just gone on sale.” Simon Herzog thinks automatically that the workers who built this car wouldn’t be able to afford it even if ten of them got together. And, lost in his Marxist thoughts, doesn’t pay attention to the two Japanese men inside the car.
Bayard sees a status symbol; Herzog unpacks the capitalist exploitation of labor. Neither notices that they are being followed.
The literati are figures of ridicule, as in a Tom Wolfe satire. In salacious detail, we see the smug Foucault being fellated in a bathhouse. We see the self-important BHL pushing his way into the room whenever he appears. We see the enraged Althusser strangling his wife. (As in other instances, Binet ascribes fictional motives to actual events, but it was unsettling for Althusser’s violence to be explained away as a plot point, simplifying the horrible reality of an unknowable act.)
With these depictions, Binet punctures the hero worship of superstar intellectuals, leaving only rhetoric and semiotics, the "useful" bits of theory, intact. This is a tacit concession to the Bayards of the world that, yes, much of theory is useless rambling, but here, if nowhere else, are gems of enormous value. With rhetoric, you can engage in one-to-one combat with an opponent; with semiotics, you can extract hidden meaning from otherwise unnoticeable signs — and act on it.
In debate, it’s not just winning that’s important, but winning in front of a crowd, and the bigger the crowd, the more power you can amass — especially in a democratic republic. Binet’s narrator explains how Tzvetan Todorov, whom Bayard meets during the investigation, makes the connection between rhetoric and democracy:
“ . . . [Todorov] believes that rhetoric can truly blossom only in a democracy, because it requires a venue for debate that, by definition, neither a monarchy nor a dictatorship can offer. As proof, he cites the fact that in imperial Rome, and later, in feudal Europe, the science of discourse abandoned its objective of persuasion, focusing not on the receiver’s interpretation but on the spoken word itself. Speeches were no longer expected to be effective, simply beautiful.”
If there’s no attempt to persuade, that’s not rhetoric. And if we’ve lost rhetoric, we’ve lost the republic. And without semiotics, in Binet’s telling, democracies lay defenseless against the violence of unchecked rhetoric having compulsory power.
Binet depicts politics as the largest theater of battle for a rhetorical war — a war fought using new tools based on the most useful theories. It’s an arms race for transformative technologies of discourse. Powerful right-wing figures attempt to suppress these technologies; meanwhile, left-wing fixers devise tactics for the selling of the president in smoke-filled rooms. Mais bien sûr, times have changed since the 1980s — you can’t smoke inside anymore.
Behind the parody of literary personalities, The Seventh Function of Language holds in esteem only those theoretical concepts with profitable applications. If you can’t monetize theory, if you can’t catch a killer with theory, if you can’t win a debate with theory, if you can’t control the masses with theory, what’s the point?
The answer is that literary theory has the power to change your perspective. You may struggle to comprehend theory. You may lament the haphazard way in which it’s taught. On reflection, following intense study, you may reject postmodern literary theory in its entirety. Even so, the process of learning theory helps us to question our most basic assumptions about how we interact with the world.
In pondering the possibility of our survival as a species, more important than “How can I use language to assert power over others?” is the question of “How should we relate to one another?” — and this question is answered not by rhetoric or semiotics, but by feminist theory, postcolonial studies, queer theory, ecocriticism, and (my own specialty) animal narratology.
Percival Everett, in a recent interview in The Paris Review, gave his take on literary theory and philosophy: “It’s fun. It should be fun,” he said. “The whole thing about literary theory, Barthes and Derrida, is when American and British academics get ahold of it, they’re so damn earnest. They stop having fun with it and actually think they’re going to uncover some truth”
Fun and truth — can’t we have both? In theory, yes.