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Fonctions du Cliché : du Banal à la Violence

Claudine Raynaud
Peter Vernon

The Unmasking of Clichés: Photographs and Memory on Stage in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land

Alessandra Marzola

Texte intégral

1. Clichés, mythologies and photographs

1Looking up the definition of "cliché" in the Cambridge International Dictionary of English one comes across the following: "A form of expression that has been so often used that its original effectiveness has been lost." Like all dictionary items I suppose the definition itself is a cliché, for its irrefutable rhetoric inhibits any possibility of inquiring into its gaps of meaning. Who has lost the effectiveness of the words? What exactly, besides repetition, has produced the loss? When, how and under what circumstances has the loss come about? These anything but trivial questions are left unanswered, for the function of the dictionary is not to provide a critique of the lemmas, but to state their meaning. And, if you consider it, dictionary definitions, like sayings and aphorisms, are based on the trope of statement, "le constat", which, in Mythologies, Roland Barthes locates as one of the most recurrent rhetorical devices of bourgeois ideology (Barthes, 1957). It is not, then, to the dictionary that we should be turning for a critique of clichés, but rather to a text like Barthes's Mythologies, where the analysis of contemporary myths fills in those gaps in the dictionary definition and therefore can be just as fruitfully applied to clichés.

2Like myths, clichés belong to a second-order semiotic system where the first-order sign is changed into a signifier, which, rather than erasing sense and history, functions by deep-freezing them, placing them, so to say, in store. To put it very simply, clichés and myths are both framed in such a way as to make things look innocent and natural. As a consequence, and not surprisingly, they are both the most effective agents of the enomination of bourgeoisie, for they carry out to perfection the task of picturing an illusionary indifferentiation of social classes. In analyzing myths, Barthes provides a critical interpretation of the dictionary cliché on cliché. Far from being a fatalistic "natural" occurrence, a consequence of repetition, the loss of the original effectiveness of meaning is unmasked as a bourgeois cultural strategy designed to answer the need for enomination. What the dictionary defines as loss, is by Barthes denounced as theft for, like contemporary myths, clichés are always stolen language, history being stolen from the world of signs. Supported and, indeed, enforced by the media, clichés feed crowds of greedy consumers all quite happy just to keep afloat in the liquid flow of a depoliticized bourgeois ideology. In Barthes's view hardly anything can escape the relentless labour of mythologizing, which is like the constant predatory activity of a parasite working away from the inside. Plunging deep into the sea of his own ideology Barthes allows himself, the myth-analyzer, a fairly limited space, cynically, almost stoically, acknowledging the paradox of his own critical activity.

3Written in 1980, twenty-three years after Mythologies, Camera Lucida carries on with the same discourse in many ways, for, in spite of its entirely different subject-matter, its main concern is still the mythologizing activity of ideology, its neutralization of history and meaning as mediated, this time, by photographic reproduction. And precisely because of this relationship with Mythologies, Camera Lucida provides yet again deep insights into Barthes's critique of clichés. Barthes shows how photographs do with what has been photographed, the same thing as clichés do with language: they take hold of a string of signs, immobilizing them into a frame, naturalizing them. In a way, the ubiquitous presence of photographs, their serialization and absorption into a world of images parallels the ubiquity of clichés and myths: inside serialization, something again gets lost, or — to put it more precisely — is stolen. What gets lost is the paradox and the "madness" of reproduction, which refers to the fact that every photographic image bears irrefutable witness to a death, for it declares that the thing reproduced is no longer extant and at the same time it certifies that the thing has at one point been there. In Barthes' words:

the photo accomplishes the unheard-of-identification of reality (that-has-been) with truth (there-it-is): it becomes at once evidential and exclamative; it bears the effigy to that crazy point where affect... is a guarantee of being. It then approaches... madness. (Barthes, 1981 [1980], 113)

4It is up to the user, says Barthes, to restore the paradox of photographs, rather than let them go on floating in the liquid flow of ideological naturalization: "The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality" (119). As late as 1980 Barthes allows the user, that is himself and possibly us, far more space than he did in Mythologies.

5Rather than displaying critical tools, the heterodox rhetoric of Barthes s discourse provides a wealth of clues; Barthes's writing does not belong to a classified genre, but to a discourse practice which, precisely because it avoids the impasse of disciplinary jargons, challenges both myths and clichés while analyzing them at the same time.

6In a way, Barthes's writing calls for a new standard of cultural significance according to which the value of a semiotic text can nowadays be seen to depend on its relevance to the critique of myths and clichés rather than on aesthetic paradigms. It is, then, from this vantage point and starting from this premise that I want to use a semiotic frame to parallel Barthes's discourse with Harold Pinter's play No Man's Land (abbreviated below as NML), written in 1975, five years before Camera Lucida and eighteen years after Mythologies.

2. Reproductions and memory on Pinter's stage: the functions of the cliché

I have [Pinter has said] mixed feelings about words.... Moving about them, sorting them out, watching them appear on the page, from this I derive a considerable pleasure. But at the same time I have another strong feeling about words which amounts to nothing less than nausea. Such a weight of words confronts us, day in day out, words spoken... words written by me and others, the bulk of it a dead, stale terminology, ideas endlessly repeated and permutated, become platudinous, trite, meaningless. Given this nausea, it is very easy to be overcome by it and step back into paralysis. But if it is possible to confront this nausea, to follow it to its hilt and move through it, then it is possible to say that something has occurred, that something has even been achieved. (Pinter, 1962)

7Like Barthes's texts, Harold Pinter's play not only confronts the playwright's nausea for language, but it also moves through it, following it, indeed, "to its hilt". It follows that Pinter's discourse on the powerlessness of clichés, viewed as stale instruments of reproduction, offers a stage version of Barthes's sceptical rhetoric converting his denunciation into a powerful theatrical issue.

8Language games, Pinter's widely acknowledged technique, take here the shape of a memory game played out by Hirst, a presumably wealthy intellectual, and by Spooner, who intrudes upon his well-defended privacy. Taking advantage of his protean ability with language, Spooner enmeshes Hirst into a challenging and demanding conversational exchange which, insofar as it presupposes a shared past, purports to construct innumerable ready-made memories. And yet, since throughout the whole play it is always absolutely clear that none of these memories are "authentic", nothing is based on actual experience, — experience being, as Spooner says, "a paltry thing" (NML, 20) — their fictitious nature stands out awkwardly, clamouring for attention. However, in order to be effective, Spooner's strategy would need to be shared with Hirst, in other words it needs to become significant at the level of communication, and this does not happen. For, instead of fitting into Spooner's linguistic frame and reinforcing it, Hirst's words keep exposing its untenability. And yet, far from being an alternative, cliché-free language, Hirst's response is a powerless spent butt-end, which, by stalling Spooner's cues, merely reduces them to silence. Rather than actively rejected, Spooner's challenge is dropped out of impotence. And whenever Spooner frantically grasps at a faint clue in Hirst's speech, in order to make a fresh start in the conversation and head towards the picture of a shared past, Hirst reacts by declaring his complete lack of resources. There is no past, no image, no more words available for building the images up.

9Gripping the cocktail cabinet, which stands out, according to Pinter's directions, as the central feature of the room, Hirst cannot help witnessing the emptiness of the stage which mirrors the unchangeable, everlasting void of his memory: "No man's land... does not move... or change... or grow old... remains... forever... icy... silent" (NML, 34).

10Hirst's cue hovers throughout the play, dooming the stage to paralysis and transforming it into an immobile photographic reproduction exhibited in its paradoxical coexistence of past and present, of life and death. Photographs are, indeed, one of the central icons of the play: although never actually shown, a photograph album is at various stages mentioned, and almost called upon by Hirst to provide the only possible evidence for Hirst's true past as opposed to the fantasmagoría of clichés displayed by Spooner:

My true friends look out at me from my album. I had my world. I have it. Don't think now that it's gone I'll choose to sneer at it, to cast doubt on it, to wonder if it properly existed. No. We are talking of my youth, which can never leave me. No. It existed. It was solid, the people in it were solid, while... transformed by light, while being sensitive... to all the changing light. (NML, 45)

11The connection with Barthes's Camera Lucida is striking, so much so in fact that Pinter's words almost repeat Barthes's. For in the play the photograph album works as the iconic equivalent of Pinter's and Hirst's language of memory, pointing, like Barthes in Camera Lucida, to the paradox of reproduction, to what Barthes has called the noeme:

The name of Photography's noeme will therefore be: Thathas-been, or again: the Intractable... what I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject {operator or spectator)·, it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it is absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred. (86-87)

12Rather than restore the original effectiveness of what has been lost in reproduction, Hirst's language, Pinter's theatre and Barthes's paradoxical photos reinstate the irretrievable loss of that effectiveness, therefore celebrating absence and lack. In Barthes's words again: "the effect is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed" (82).

13Photos are restored to madness in the same way as worn-out, pre-empted words — clichés — are restored to fragmentation and to the failure of signification. Hirst's communication with Spooner, the indifferent dispenser of innumerable clichés, is therefore doomed to fail and the game of memory does not work for either. First of all, in Act I, it is Hirst who fails to pick up the thread of Spooner's discourse, and then, in Act II, it is Spooner who fails to fit into Hirst's strategy, willingly displayed as a parallel attempt at playing the game of memory. Hirst launches, in fact, into the construction of his own phantasy of a shared past, but it is a story which, by focussing on its unalterability, stubbornly resists being manipulated by Spooner so that, in the end, Hirst disdainfully rejects the role that Spooner has decided to play in his script, together with the vulgarity of his cues, and disavows the identity that Spooner has been claiming, pointing to the gap between his reproduction and Spooner's:

You are clearly a lout. The Charles Wetherby I knew was a gentleman. I see a figure reduced. I am sorry for you. Where is the moral ardour that sustained you once? Gone down the hatch. (NML, 78)

14Significantly, right at this point the photo album is called up again almost as if Hirst needed just this referent in order to counter Spooner's cybernetic memory. Hirst's memorable speech on his photographs deserves a lengthy quote, for, by highlighting simultaneously the ghostlike fabric of the reproduction and the ghosts' desperate need to be "tendered", it masterfully dramatizes Barthes's Camera Lucida:

I might even show you my photograph album. You might even see a face in it which might remind you of your own, of what you once were. You might see faces of others, in shadow, or cheeks of others, turning, or jaws, or backs of necks, or eyes, dark under hats, which might remind you of others, whom once you knew, whom you thought long dead, but from whom you will still receive a sidelong glance, you can face the good ghost. Allow the love of the good ghost. They possess all that emotion... trapped. Bow to it. It will assuredly never release them, but who knows... what relief... it may give to them... who knows how they may quicken... in their chains, in their glass jars. You think it cruel... to quicken them, when they are fixed, imprisoned? No. Deeply, deeply, they wish to respond to your touch, to your look, and when you smile, their joy... is unbounded. And so I say to you, tender the dead, as you would yourself be tendered, now, in what you would describe as your life. (NML, 79)

15As in Barthes, what is called up is a different gaze, a perspective which demands that the audience give up an easy appeasement of empathy with living characters in order to gain a much more disquietening one with the paradox of ostensibly reproduced, ghost-like characters imprisoned in the glass jar of the stage. What is called for, I believe, is precisely the pity Barthes refers to when describing his experience of the photographs that move him:

In each of them, inescapably, I passed beyond the unreality of the thing reproduced, I entered crazily into the spectacle, into the image, taking into my arms what is dead, what is going to die, as Nietzsche did when, as Podach tells us, on January 3, 1889, he threw himself in tears on the neck of a beaten horse: gone mad for Pity's sake. (116-117)

16Set against Spooner's clichés of memory, Hirst's photos claim the well-defined priority of their madness over the banality, vulgarity and violence of words of sanity, and they also claim a crucial active role for the audience. These claims turn out, eventually, to have a well-defined ideological bearing. For at the end Spooner advertises his talent for clichés, his utter malleability and complacency in order to get a job as Hirst's secretary, and in order to promote, from that position, Hirst's literary career, possibly by organizing poetry readings. In Spooner's computerized database the good ghosts would be carefully labelled, and all the clichés of fake memories suitably itemized. It then becomes apparent to what extent Pinter associates Spooner's resourceful clichés of his multifaceted past, with consumerism and with the commodification of culture and art promoted by technology and by the media. While offering to put names to the pictures in Hirst's album, while displaying the wide range of his mixed skills, as a recommendation for the post he is asking for, Spooner challenges the frosty paralysis of the stage, suggesting No Man's Land should be converted into a consumer environment, maybe, into "the upstairs room of a particular public house" (ΝML, 90), where Hirst would be reading his poetry to an audience "brimming over with potential for the greatest possible enthusiasm" (NML, 90). And yet, this frantic promotion of consumerism dies away in silence and, as the dialogue stultifies, leads into a dead end: the formulaic structure of the cliché which stands out as a string of unchangeable signifiers dooming the stage to a final state of paralysis. A consumeristic ideology is replaced by a shocking hallucination in the last scene which takes an irretrievable, photographic-like hold on its characters, Spooner included, transforming them into good ghosts.

17Pinter and Barthes share a discourse practice whose target is not so much to devalue clichés, as to unmask any innocence they may lay claim to. The fact that a British playwright and possibily the most influential French literary critic of the last decades, have been dealing with the issue of technological reproduction and of the serialized language of clichés, facing them, albeit unknowingly, in similar terms, bears witness to the powerful impact of such issues on ideology and the contemporary imagination. If, as Althusser has pointed out, "ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (Althusser, 1971, 162), clichés can indeed be conceived as the substance of our ideology, the stuff our dreams, as well as our language, are made of.

18The point then, is not to try to get rid of our cliché-soaked language, or to break away from it — which would be, by definition, unfeasible — but rather just to look at it from a distance, a distance which is no longer necessarily granted by literature, or even by the text itself: a distance which rather depends on the way of looking at all textuality, of searching for the ways in which signs are made to signify commodifiable, transparent, seductive innocence.



Althusser, Louis, 1971. Lenin and Philosophy. Trans. B. Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Barthes, Roland, 1957. Mythologies. Paris: Seuil [1972. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. London: Cape.].

Barthes, Roland, 1980. La Chambre claire. Paris: Seuil [1981. Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.].

Pinter, Harold. "Speech to the Seventh National Student Drama in Bristol." Sunday Times, London, 4th March 1962.

—, 1975. No Man's Land. London: Methuen.


University of Bergamo

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1997

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