Roland Barthes

The philosopher, semiotician, literary theorist—the writer—Roland Barthes died 35 years ago today.

Reading him (well, a good translation, usually by Annette Lavers or Richard Howard) as a teenager was one of my formative experiences; it was my first conscious experience of my brain expanding with the simple idea that everything is worth notice and consideration. Everything produced by a culture is a signifier of at least that culture itself. His most popular book, Mythologies, is about common aspects of civilization, the items and ideas that make up our modern mythology of ourselves: plastic, toys, striptease, cruises, soap and detergents. Other writers and cultural critics have followed Barthes; perhaps the fact that the job title “cultural critic” exists is attributable to Barthes’ work. Almost every television, music, and film reviewer owes Barthes a debt, but his studies went far deeper than the popular everyday items.
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An Attack of the Cleans

It is said that Albert Einstein once asked, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, what are we to think of an empty desk?” While not famous for his quips (although E=mc2 is the soul of wit in its brevity), Einstein’s joke came from his one man show, “The Theories of My Relatives.”

His mother was always complaining about his messy desktop and resented that opening the desk drawers was verbotten.

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The human mind is an organizer, the greatest one in existence, the one that all of our tools and machines are built for in an attempt to replicate its principles and imagined actions. Nature does not organize. Every organizing structure we come up with is an imposition on nature and is thus radically random: no method of organizing is more “correct” than any other.

Alphabetical order? Which alphabet? Which word should be used to alphabetize? “The?”

Chronological? Write your next book from the outside in.

Size? I partly organize my bookshelf by the size of books (see above), the heavier ones on the bottom or on the floor (thus, not even on the bookshelf) because the shelf needs reinforcing.

Or one could organize an argument by number of words used in each section, largest first. Juries would return verdicts of “confused.”

(My girlfriend’s cat has one organizing principle and the work of perfecting her world with it occupies much of her day, for many of her few waking hours: This thing on the space that I want to occupy until I move it off this space, when I will move somewhere else, must go. And she sweeps the offending pen or paper or book off the desk.)

The human mind finds and makes connections between things and ideas, or the representations of ideas: words, papers, books. In an ideal sense, all ideas are equal. The work of organizing, re-cluttering, and finding new connections is a creative act. Dear Albert Einstein’s mom: A cluttered work space is the same as an organized work space, it’s just that only one of them meets your random aesthetic standards of ideal desk appearance.

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I have lived with hyper-organized spaces that I created for myself: Books separated by subject and then alphabetized (left to right, by author last name) within those. Multiple titles by the same author arranged chronologically by publication date.

(A famous writer’s wife once tried to start a fight with me over how our bookstore organized its books: Alphabetically, but in two different ways, neither of which suited her particular preference for her husband’s name to be prominent everywhere at all times for reasons of income. The majority of the store was alphabetical by author within its various sections, but the privileged section of new hardcovers, nearest the door, well, the books on those shelves were alphabetical by title. Thus, his newest title was on a lower shelf because it did not begin with A, and his paperbacks, with his last name starting with S, were not always at eye height. After she and I stared at each other for a moment, the famous writer paid for his purchases and placed his arm around his wife’s shoulder and they started out the door. But at the door he turned, looked at me over his wife’s head and said, “You’ll have to excuse my wife. She’s rather eccentric.”)

Virtual file folders inside virtual file folders in my computer. A clean computer desktop, with just the “C:” icon and the trash bin and maybe the couple of virtual folders that contained whatever I was working on at that moment.

(I had an officemate who photographed his desktop and made that image his computer screen desktop image, so when you were talking with him at his desk you were looking at a real-life version of Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma” album cover. Desktop > desktop > desktop. He would regularly update the photo to reflect current changes on his 3D “real” desktop like the content of his IN/OUT box or his children’s school pictures.)


I haven’t listened to Ummagumma in quite a while.

In the past, I have organized my kitchen to discover how inefficient that could make me. I alphabetized the spices. I have arranged the clothes in my closet by color. My baseball card collections (many complete sets) were always divided into American and then National leagues, and then broken into teams, my favorites first, favorite players on each team towards the front.

Perhaps you have noticed that, in the past, I was kind of a rigid idiot.

Finally it occurred to me that the best, most efficient, kitchen organizing principle was “frequency of use near the areas of frequent use.” And that principle, which is a barely controlled entropy, is what guides most of my organization now.

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Roland Barthes: “My body is free of its (self image) only when it establishes its work space. This space is the same everywhere, patiently adapted to the pleasure of painting, writing, sorting.”

Where am I me? When am I me? When I am not engaged in the illusion of self that I studiously maintain; the image of myself that I carry around in my brain is not me, as it is a fiction. When I am not my image, I am myself. Often, I find myself in the field around me, the space that gives evidence that I occupy it, my work space. My desk. I am found in the outline of things that I use, the adumbration of my stuff: papers, books, pens, glasses. Words. Inside is a space perfectly fitted to me, or to my image of myself. And then, by thinking that thought, it is gone again.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 14 asks, “What’s messier right now—your bedroom or your computer’s desktop (or your favorite device’s home screen)? Tell us how and why it got to that state.”

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