‘The accident is never an accident'

Laurent Binet, trans. Sam Taylor, The 7th Function of Language

Harvill Secker, 400pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781910701584

reviewed by Marc Farrant

Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language has all the hallmarks of a romp. It features murder, international intrigue, factional strife, exploding train stations, not to mention a compelling historical conceit. The year is 1980, French philosopher Roland Barthes is strolling through Paris after a luncheon with the French presidential candidate Francois Mitterand when he is mowed down in the Rue des Ecoles by a laundry van. An accident? Is it possible that sheer chance would bring to an end the most celebrated literary critic and theorist of his generation; the man whose observations, set down in the 1957 Mythologies, pierced the bourgeois doxa of the nascent Fifth republic? Was the father of semiotics – the science of the study of the world as a system of signs – unable, at this critical juncture, to distinguish the sign for the event it signified and thereupon fatally hesitate?

‘Life is not a novel,’ Binet’s narrator warns us, as if to remind us not to hold on too tightly to our sense of disbelief. This will be required because what follows – a fast-paced structuralist whodunit featuring police detective, Bayard, and his recalcitrant academic side-kick Simon, the ‘Decoder of Vincennes’, whom Bayard enlists as an assistant – bears only a fleeting resemblance to historical reality. Whereas Binet’s much-lauded debut novel HHhH (2010), about the assassination of the notorious Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, flaunted the text’s historical premise as a means to pose problems of representational and narrative ethics, The 7th Function is more than a little happy to play fast and loose (it is almost certainly not the case, for instance, that Philippe Sollers was publicly castrated in Venice). Rather than address the textuality of history, then, Binet’s second novel concerns the historicity, or faux-historicity, of textuality. This faux-history concerns, of course, the title: what exactly is the seventh function of language? And why was Barthes murdered for it?

As Bayard and Simon (who teaches a semiology course on James Bond) race across first Paris and then the world, from university campuses to gay saunas, in hot pursuit of the purloined document that was stolen from Barthes, we slowly learn what is at stake, and why someone would kill for it. The seventh function of language (following Roman Jacobson’s six functions: the referential, emotive, conative, phatic, metalinguistic and poetic) is a performative or ‘magic’ function that enables its user to persuade anybody of anything. (There is a neat segue at the end to the political consequences of such a function, although the novel might be better read now in the context of contemporary French politics, Charlie Hebdo, Le Pen and Macron, not to mention Trump and Brexit, rather than in reference to the ‘black guy from Hawaii’.)

The skeptical Bayard, who rails against the ‘Fucking intellectuals’ with whom he has to ‘battle [. . .] for taxpayer’s funds’), struggles to get to grips with a readymade cast of characters that Binet brilliantly vivifies in a piercing satire of the High Theory intelligentsia. Binet’s roster of loquacious talking heads includes such luminaries as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Louis Althusser, Umberto Eco, Jacques Derrida (who makes a later appearance), Bernhard Henri-Lévy (BHL), Julia Kristeva and Phillipe Sollers, amongst others. Sollers is at the sharp end – cough cough – of the denouement, and has publicly targeted Binet with much opprobrium for the less than sympathetic portrait (to put it mildly). The novel also quotes extensively from the works of the theorists and philosophers themselves (as well as contemporaneous news reports). This reaches a comic zenith in the rhizomatic sex scene in Bologna. ‘Let’s construct an assemblage,’ Simon whispers to Bianca, an Italian grad student and extreme leftist:

Bianca slides up and down Simon, faster and faster and harder, until they reach the point of impact, when the two desiring machines collide in an atomic explosion and become, finally, that body without organs: “For desiring machines are the fundamental category of the economy of desire; they produce a body without organs all by themselves and make no distinction between agents and their own parts. . .”

Binet’s modus operandi is not so much to depict the truth, however (always a problem when living persons are involved), but rather, following Barthes, the mythologies that have accrued over the years (there is also a Citroen DS on almost every page – the iconic automobile Barthes used on the cover of Mythologies – although the characters, we are made sure to know, never spot them). Not surprisingly, then, BHL is the target of much ridicule, his famous unbuttoned white shirt featuring throughout.

Binet distills the myths down to disturbingly refined bot-like caricatures. Foucault, for instance, is wont at every juncture to sound extremely Foucauldian. When he encounters Bayard in the sauna, he remarks: ‘A functionary of the powers that be showing off his repressive muscles in the service of biopower? What could be more normal?’ This is apotheosised in an early dinner party scene at the Sollers/Kristeva residence:

The evening draws to a close. Lacan’s mistress will go home with BHL. The Bulgarian linguist will accompany the Canadian feminist. The Chinese woman will go back alone to her delegation. Sollers will fall asleep and dream about the orgy that didn’t happen. Out of nowhere, Lacan makes this observation, in a tone of infinite weariness: “It’s curious how a woman, when she ceases being a woman, can crush the man she has under her thumb . . . Yes, crush him. For his own good, of course.” There is embarrassed silence among the other guests. Sollers declares: “The king is he who wears on his sleeve the most vivid experience of castration.”

There is also much playful flaunting of the reality effect (effet de réel), as Barthes called it. This is achieved principally through metalepsis, as in the earlier HHhH. Authorial interventions, in this instance, further help to create an ironic distance between the reader and the prolix cast of embittered intellectuals: ‘Maybe you’ll be surprised by the presence of BHL but, even back then, he is always where the action is’; Or, ‘Hard to imagine what Julia Kristeva is thinking in 1980.’

This complements a metafictional framework that is centered around Simon. Increasingly concerned that he might be a character in a novel, Simon’s sense of unreality mingles with the free indirect discourse of the narrative voice: ‘When it comes down to it, Simon wonders, what is the fundamental difference between himself and Little Red Riding Hood or Sherlock Holmes?’ A little later, in the ‘Ithaca’ chapter (the setting is a conference at Cornell entitled ‘Shift Into Overdrive in the Linguistic Turn’, and organised by Jonathan Culler), we are told: ‘In the course of a few months he has lived through more extraordinary events than he expected to witness in his entire lifetime . . . Simon knows how to spot the novelistic when he sees it. He thinks again about Umberto Eco’s supernumeraries [fictional characters who ‘add to the people in the real world’]. He takes a drag on the joint.’

Simon’s metafictional solipsism also conjures two very novelistic intertextual figures, Flaubert and Cervantes. In the office of the incumbent – although soon to be ousted – French President, Giscard, Simon is challenged to decode a box. He successfully answers: ‘Your legion of Honour medals, I assume?’ (This is a nod to Homais, the doctor in Madame Bovary.) In the fourth chapter, set in Venice, a re-enactment of the Naval battle of Lepanto is taking place. That is, the re-enactment is taking place both in Venice and in the narration, where we discover that mid-shipman Miguel de Cervantes lost an arm. Umberto Eco is of little reassurance to Simon, whose mental state is becoming increasingly fraught, laconically offering only: ‘There are some who went off in search of unicorns, but found only rhinoceroses.’

The troping of the critic or reader as detective is also neatly staged throughout, although The 7th Function is a far cry from Nabokov’s vertiginous academic murder meta-mystery in Pale Fire. Derrida’s speech at the conference at Cornell, which masterfully recreates the debate between Derrida and Searle and Derrida’s critique of the implicit presupposition of intentionality in the latter’s theory of speech acts, closes with the wonderful peroration: ‘The accident is never an accident.’ Elsewhere Simon is wary about succumbing to the ‘unhealthy structuralist-paranoiac reflex to search for recurrent motifs.’ There is much fun behind the staging of the debate (which was published in Limited Inc in 1988), especially in re-creating Searle as a thuggish demagogue who physically accosts Paul de Man at one point shouting: ‘Take your Derrida boys and piss off.’

Bayard (whose name might be a sly reference to the suave French critic Pierre Bayard, author of the classic theory-meets-detective-fiction study Who Killed Roger Ackroyd: The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery) and Simon’s investigation eventually leads them to a clandestine debating society, the Logos Club: ‘Come and hear the clamour of words, admire the interlacing of verbs and adverbs, taste the venomous circumlocutions of the duellers of discourses! [. . .] Glory to the logos, my friends! Love live dialectics! Let the party begin! May the verb be with you!’ The club has a strict hierarchy: speakers, rhetoricians, orators, dialecticians, the peripateticians, the tribunes, and ‘at the very top’ the sophists and the Great Protagoras. The novel’s closing sections involves Simon – who has risen the ranks in preparation – gaining access to an exclusive gathering so as to discover who, from our illustrious cast, was embroiled in the plot to kill Barthes and steal the function.

Joan Hawkins, in her afterword to Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, offers a definition of ‘Theoretical Fictions’ as ‘the kind of books in which theory becomes an intrinsic part of the plot.’ This is clarified by the recognition that ‘Kraus tends to perform theory’ rather than use it as a mere adornment. Nicholas Dames’ contentious N+1 article, ‘Theory Generation’, makes a similar move by opposing form and content in his discussion of the theory novel. Recent theoretical fictions (his examples include Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Sam Lipsyte, and younger writers, such as Teju Cole and Ben Lerner), in his view, proffer a ‘strangely conservative and undialectical postmodern utopia’ in which the theoretical revolution in our knowledge of signifying practices is domesticated in the linear and individualist constraints of the novel. Formally innovative fiction, pioneered by the practitioners of the nouveau roman, has given way to a gimmicky and ironic mode; theory as sedative or coping strategy, rather than a tool of critique or embodiment of the possibility of building a better world. So where does Binet’s own theory fiction fit in this picture?

Some critics have sensed a failure of nerve, a failure to carry through from the theoretical premise of the work to the theoretical promise; a failure to investigate, through the murder of the man who wrote about the death of the author, the death of theory today in contemporary humanities education. Instead, The 7th Function of Language is testament to a diffusion of the white heat of theoretical energies that once promised to shatter the epistemological and ontological thresholds of our understanding. It would make sense, in the end, that the pretensions of theory can be mocked only in accordance with a refusal to endorse or enact them.

However, this would be an unfair assessment of a novel that is engaging, entertaining, and genuinely nuanced. Binet’s novel revels equally in both the rhetoric and pretensions of high theory and in bursting and deflating them. The novel is also a paean to an age where the intellectual ruled (at least in France and on American university campuses). This age, which is lightly mocked and satirised, is evoked from an ironic but loving aloofness. Binet’s somewhat clunky metafictional framework is not a hindrance but part of the comic process that inspires an ironical distance that bears one of theory’s most important lessons: that one should not get too dogmatic about critiquing dogma.

Binet’s The 7th Function of Language testifies to an enduring legacy in the contemporary novel. In this light, the novel itself has become a home for theory. Whereas Deleuze, Derrida and company looked to literature to provide a revolutionary platform or paradigmatic exemplarity, contemporary literature looks to theory to ground its own pretensions: artistic, ethical, and political. What, after all, could be a more fun way of learning or re-learning the distinction between the illocutionary and the perlocutionary than by reading of a fictionalised Judith Butler, in a ménage à trois with Hélène Cixous, fucking a French police officer up the arse with a strap-on screaming: ‘I am a man and I fuck you! Now you feel my performative, don’t you?’