The 7th Function of Language

The 7th Function of Language

Title: The 7th Function of Language

Author: Laurent Binet, Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Harvill Secker, 2017) 

Review by Aneesa Abbas Higgins 

A writer’s task is not to create, but to imitate, to weave together the threads of previously uttered fragments of language and produce a “tissue of citations”. When reading a book, you, the reader, are the creator of meaning. The author is dead. Or so the great French theorist Roland Barthes would have us believe. It was Barthes’s seminal essay, The Death of the Author, that did much to spark off the wave of enthusiasm for “la nouvelle critique”, otherwise known as “French theory”, a set of complex and often perplexing ideas generated by a group of Paris based philosophers and critics in the last decades of the twentieth century.

And it is the death of the author Roland Barthes in mysterious circumstances that is the starting point for Laurent Binet’s audacious second novel The 7th Function of Language, a rambunctious satirical romp through the arcane world of post-structuralist Paris in the early 1980s. In his first novel, HHhH, Binet took a real historical incident, researched it methodically, and wove a carefully structured and startlingly original meta-fictional tale around that event. In this new novel, there is indeed much truth, but, appropriately enough for our “post-truth” age, documented reality is challenged by an array of imagined scenarios, many of which could all too easily be true. Sam Taylor’s excellent translation successfully conveys the ironic conversational voice of the original with its occasional interventions from the author and pithy expositions of complex philosophical and linguistic theory juxtaposed with sometimes hilarious portraits of the characters.

The novel begins as Barthes, lost in thought after a pleasant lunch with François Mitterrand, the socialist candidate for the upcoming presidential elections, is run down by a laundry van and rushed to hospital, where he is soon surrounded by friends and colleagues, among them the writer Philippe Sollers with his wife, the feminist psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, and the philosopher Michel Foucault.

Hard-boiled detective Bayard is called to the scene, his brief, to track down a document stolen from Barthes at the time of the accident. Unable to make any sense of the statements given by Barthes’s colleagues, Bayard engages a young lecturer, Simon Herzog, to interpret their opaque pronouncements. When asked to explain what semiotics is actually about, Simon responds with a dazzling, Holmesian display of deductive reasoning, dumbfounding the detective with his use of semiotic analysis to reveal details of Bayard’s personal life.

Seventh function

Laurent Binet

Some will be dazzled by Binet’s undoubted brilliance

The action unfolds, the intrigue centring around the apocryphal document carried by Barthes and subsequently purloined, copied, destroyed and memorised on its journey across the world. The document is believed to contain the key to a seventh function of language, one which would complement the six functions defined by the linguist Roman Jakobson. For readers not familiar with linguistic theory, a concise explanation of the six functions of language is provided by our young sleuth Simon. We learn that a seventh function, hinted at in Jakobson’s essays, has been posited by American philosophers, a “performative function” in which saying is doing. A blueprint for such a function would confer almost magical powers, enabling an individual to persuade others to do just about anything, simply through the power of rhetoric.

Barthes dies and the plot thickens, taking our sleuths from the streets of Paris where we witness a car chase, a murder committed with poison delivered from a rolled-up umbrella, scenes of carnal indulgence in a Turkish bathhouse involving gigolos and leading academics, gatherings of a verbal jousting society where unsuccessful contestants are digitally amputated, to Bologna, where the avuncular sage Eco narrowly escapes being blown up in a terrorist attack, and to the campus of Cornell University for a conference on the “Linguistic Turn”, where a young student named Donna presides over a midnight bacchanal and the philosopher Derrida is killed by his rival Searle’s fearsome dogs. With the mystery of the seventh function still unsolved we head back to Paris and finally to Naples.

Mastery of semiotics

The plot leads us down many a blind alley with a host of cleverly placed hints and references to the theoretical systems that are at the heart of this novel. Binet clearly enjoys playing with ideas and gives an uninhibited display of his mastery of semiotics and critical theory. He also gives us a fantasy detective novel with intriguing alternative real-world scenarios. Tennis fans will appreciate the frequent allusions to the great tennis duels of the early 1980s, with the players themselves providing meat for semiotic analysis. And we are offered a Lendl victory over Borg at the French Open final in 1981, a detail whose veracity some may well need to google.

Binet has been astonishingly bold in lampooning respected luminaries such as Foucault, who emerges as a priapic, opinionated character, with a taste for youthful gigolos, always ready to hold forth with a lengthy peroration on just about any subject. Barthes is a mummy’s boy, bereft after the death of his mother, babbling about discourse, signifiers and lexis as he lies dying in his hospital bed. The aging Marxist philosopher Althusser strangles his wife (fact or fiction?), and Kristeva peevishly analyses her own phobia of milk skin. But it is undoubtedly Kristeva’s husband, Philippe Sollers who comes off worst. We are invited to imagine Sollers, with his “histrionic dandyism, his pathological boasting, his adolescent-pamphleteer style, his shock-the-bourgeosie habits”, seducing the young Kristeva newly arrived from Eastern Europe. Sollers is made to suffer for his loathsome posturing and finds himself deprived of more than just a finger after an impertinent and utterly incoherent attempt at challenging the Grand Protagoras of the verbal jousting society.

Outrageously clever

In keeping with Barthes and company’s theoretical positions, readers will construct the text for themselves and decide what to make of it. Some will be dazzled by Binet’s undoubted brilliance and mercurial wit, others, exasperated by the plethora of characters and impossible twists and turns of the plot. Some might feel that Eco’s best-selling novel, The Name of the Rose, offers a more compelling exposition of the ideas and applications of semiotics. Others might argue that David Lodge’s campus novels are more entertaining and much easier to follow. But if you are curious about French Theory, or have struggled to understand Derrida, you will surely find it hard to resist Binet’s outrageously clever spoof of the heady world of French critical theory. It’s hard not to laugh at the description of the bald, portly Foucault disporting himself in a Turkish bath or at the appearance of David Lodge’s creation, Morris Zapp, at an academic conference, giving a paper entitled “Fishing for supplement in an academic world”. And while the current US president’s rhetorical practices are not given a mention in the novel, there is an apposite allusion to Obama’s much-lauded oratorical skills. Confounding fact and fiction, I find myself wondering whether the eponymous seventh function might perhaps have landed in the campaign headquarters of Obama’s successor, and conferred an otherwise inexplicable power of persuasion on that erstwhile reality television star turned nocturnal tweeter.

Review by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

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