Roland Barthes, one of the twentieth-century's towering literary figures, is knocked down in a Paris street by a laundry van. It's February 1980 and he has just come from lunch with Francois Mitterrand, who is locked in a battle for the Presidency. Barthes dies soon afterwards. History tells us it was an accident. But what if it were an assassination? What if Barthes was carrying a document of unbelievable, global importance? That document was the key to the seventh function of language - an idea so powerful it gives whoever masters it the ability to convince anyone, in any situation, to do anything. Police Captain Jacques Bayard and his reluctant accomplice Simon Herzog set off on a global chase that takes them from the corridors of power and academia to backstreet saunas and midnight rendezvous. What they discover is a global conspiracy involving the President, murderous Bulgarians and a secret international debating society. In the world of intellectuals and politicians, everyone is a suspect. And who can you trust when the idea of truth itself is at stake?
It turns out, of course, that there's a highly-dangerous document that must be prevented from falling into the wrong hands. However, the one-page doomsday formula in this particular case is not the work of some crazed physicist or mathematician, but a secret annex to Roman Jakobson's six functions of language. President Giscard entrusts Commissaire Bayard and his postgrad sidekick Simon Herzog with the quest for the elusive 7th function through the mysterious thickets of French, Italian and American academia. But apart from the Bulgarians and Mitterand, all sorts of other people start getting involved (the Japanese, a mysterious secret society, the maffia, a prominent French-Bulgarian psychoanalyst, etc., etc.), and it all gets gloriously complicated, especially when all the main characters come together for the inevitable academic conference...
But then we start to see things in the novel that we can't resolve with recorded history. A fictional character from another writer's works presents a paper at the conference; a philosopher whose real-life counterpart still had another quarter-century to live is brutally murdered. Could it be that this is all just fiction, as both the narrator and Simon Herzog start to ask themselves? (Of course, we knew from the start that it is all just fiction, but to enter into the novel is to suspend that knowledge - or is it...?)
Although this is a lively, entertaining book with a lot of very funny digs at the absurdities of the French élite ca. 1980, it does steer pretty close to the margins of good taste at times. I have trouble seeing the Bologna station bombing and the personal tragedy of the Althussers as fit subjects for comedy, for instance. But I'm sure that Binet is introducing that kind of subject-matter advisedly, and using it as part of his plan to make us think about how fiction really operates. Would we have the same emotional reaction if Louis Althusser were some remote, historical figure in a novel set four or five centuries ago? Hmmm.
I couldn't help wondering how a novel like this gets on with the libel laws. Obviously no intelligent reader could seriously consider that the author intended the reader to think that the real Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian sleeper agent, that the real John Searle murdered the real Jacques Derrida, that the real Philippe Sollers is a pretentious imbecile, or that the real Michel Foucault took drugs and hung about in gay saunas (well, OK, probably no-one would quibble with that last one...). But I don't suppose a clever lawyer would have any trouble arguing that those associations were damaging. I wonder if they had to tone down the English translation?
The author took a big gamble with this book. I know that in France (next to Belgium) there is this kind of intellectuel scene bewildered with the perfect language. Or what it would supposedly be.
But outside of France, this will be a very, very far from home feeling for a lot of readers.
The story has some loose ends, who the hell are the Japanese guys in the story and who did send them? How come that the protagonist ends up in a revenge story?
Lost myself in this seventh function of language? Possible.
The basic premise surrounds the running down of the controversial French philosopher and semiologist, Roland Barthes, as he crossed a road in Paris in 1980. He subsequently died in hospital. The incident drew public and police attention because it occurred immediately after Barthes had left a restaurant in which he had been lunching with the underdog socialist Presidential candidate, Francois Mitterand. Binet uses the novel to explore the suggestion that Barthes had, in fact been murdered, or, indeed, assassinated. As a long-term, fully paid up conspiracy theorist, this might have been seen as absolutely up my street, and, having enjoyed ‘HhHH’, I was certainly looking forward to some salacious speculation.
Sadly I found the book very disappointing. The police Superintendent assigned to investigate the incident is a walking cliché, homophobic, reactionary and disdainful of academia (I am sure such police officers abound, or at least did in 1980), but displays those traits to an excessive degree. Similarly, the academics whom he approaches area all equally two dimensional: self-obsessed, bizarrely and self-consciously outré and deliberately unworldly. Once again, I am happy to believe that such people did, and continue to, exist, but the contrast was too clumsily constructed.
Binet’s plot is sound, and elements of the book are enjoyable, especially the interview with Michel Foucault in a Turkish bath, but the novel lacked sufficient cohesion or grounding in any hint of reality to give any lasting satisfaction. Very disappointing.
He takes as his point of departure the real-life death of the semiologist Roland Barthes, run down by a laundry truck in Paris in 1980. Just for the fun of it, Binet proposes that this was not an accident, but that Barthes was murdered for a powerful document describing a putative seventh function of language that gives its possessor the mysterious power "to convince anyone else to do anything at all in any situation." As a fictional Umberto Eco puts it: “Whoever had the knowledge and mastery of such a function would be virtually the master of the world. His power would be limitless.”
The renowned linguist, Roman Jakobson, actually did describe six functions of language, but the mysterious seventh is a fictional construct that Binet cleverly uses to drive his story. Understandably, just about everyone wants the seventh function. Both the French president, Giscard d’Estaing, and his political opponent, Francois Mitterrand, want it for the political power is can bestow, but a dizzying array of others, reminiscent of a Marx Brothers comedy, also seek possession of the function. These include Russian spies, Bulgarian assassins, Venetian gangsters, Japanese protectors and a North African gigolo. Throughout, Binet also manages to satirize most pompous Parisian intellectuals debating literary theory at the time.
In a stroke of genius, Binet turns this outlandish plot into a detective story. This is particularly appropriate since semiologists and detectives both deal with signs to understand reality. The former see them as metaphors while the latter seek “just the facts” as Joe Friday was want to say. Binet highlights this dichotomy by introducing a hard-nosed detective protagonist, Jacques Bayard, who has a healthy disrespect for all the “filthy little lefties” who he is forced to confront in his investigation. He readily realizes "that he understands nothing, or not much, about all this rubbish," and recruits a sidekick (every good fictional detective has one), Simon Herzog. Simon is a semiologist in-the-making, who has a talent for reading obscure signs much like Sherlock Holmes. The pair roams the globe from Paris to Cornell, Venice and Bologna, searching for clues as to the whereabouts of the missing seventh function. In their travels they unearth a secret international debating society called the Logos Club whose losers suffer more than just embarrassment.
Clearly, Binet derived much pleasure in writing this story, especially as a way to poke fun at the vanities and rivalries that are prevalent in most academic circles. However, one senses that he may be trying a bit too hard to cover way too much ground, thus creating what frequently comes across as a hot mess. For the reader not well versed in either modern French politics or the Parisian intellectual scene if the ‘80s, reading this novel can be a slog, but Binet’s conversational tone and humor provide many enjoyable reading moments.
All in all, this is a delightfully self-aware intellectual romp disguised as a thriller.
This is a League of Extraordinary Gentleman for the French Theory set. Each page tumbles with allusions and citations, a whodunit which explores the esoteric and the political. I was smitten from the opening page and matters progressed from there. Despite some meta crabwalking I was fervently on-board, routinely laughing and marveling, enjoying the goat rodeo of the mind, my own achy wanderlust being stimulated, perhaps not enough to tack Writing and Difference but certainly ready to watch a Cixous lecture on YouTube while I fathom the subterranean and the elliptical . So much of the so called French Theory's appeal was a sexy subversion, a resistance almost militant to the prevailing structures which oppressed and demanded conformity. There's a taste of insurrection in the air. Allah knows that 1980 saw Reagan and Thatcher grab the reins and somehow this was a response to the hegemony.
Or maybe it wasn't.
I've always respected Barthes but the affinity stopped there. Derrida and Eco reiqn in my theory-verse and Foucault (along with Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou) constitutes a necessary antagonism. All three feature here and pleasantly for me, Deleuze watches futbol on TV. Others don't fare so well: Bernard-Levy, Sollers and Kristeva.
The novel has the heft and feel of an Eco novel, one which smirks at its own pretensions. Perhaps Borges did this better in The Aleph?
I doubt “fanciful” adequately describes Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, although it has its fanciful features. Imagine a Paris police procedural involving international skullduggery, secret debates featuring more erudition than a graduate seminar in philosophy, crimes that cross international borders, including murder and dismemberment … all in a long chase to find a document (or maybe two) about the seventh function of language.
In case you’re wondering, Twentieth Century British philosopher John L. Austin posited six functions of language as speech acts, and his work was seconded and expanded by the renowned John R. Searle of the University of California. One key takeaway is that Austin described the functions, but did not include any instructions on how to wield language’s power. Here are the six:
The referential function - providing information about something.
Emotive or expressive function - information about the sender and her attitude toward the message.
Conative function - directed toward the receiver.
Phatic function (regarded as the most amusing) - talk for the sake of talk, where the message is not the point.
Metalinguistics function - concerned that the sender and receiver understand each other.
Poetic function - aesthetic in nature: the sound of the words - rhyme, alliteration, assonance, repetition, rhythm of the message.
This entire novel focuses on the purported seventh function of language, and why governments would engage in trickery and murder to possess and understand it. François Mitterrand uses it to defeat Giscard in a debate ahead of the French election in 1981. Jacques Derrida doubts its existence, or at least its performative power, and attacks it and its devotées, arguing that so much human communication is simply rote repetition, a parroting of outside influences. (I for one believe people intend to communicate with one another across a whole series of levels, depending on the urgency or the strength of the intention. This often includes attempting to influence their actions. These communications involve a subtle understanding between interlocutors, and sometimes the interests or desires of the two diverge, leading to conflict. The performative function - where language either performs an act itself, or attempts to induce another’s actions - exists in the statements and may or may not succeed.)
The novel at any rate follows thinkers who are famous in today’s philosophical circles: Derrida, Michel Foucault, Philippe Sollers, Umberto Eco, Julia Kristeva, who all have an interest in either finding or suppressing the seventh function. They speak endlessly (and depending on your familiarity or interest, do it fairly entertainingly), they chase across Europe and the United States, and much of what is said has topical importance in today’s thought. I don’t profess to have caught all the references and implications, but I caught enough to follow at a distance from which my cultural knowledge kept everything a little indistinct.
Binet has written a novel that deals with the refined points of current linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. He takes up the question of the performative function of language - the seventh function in this framework - and by making a somewhat comic romp out of it, very faintly takes the side that the function does not exist as Austin and Searle posit it.
I’m not sure I would recommend this book to readers who are not versed in today’s cutting edge philosophies. The author makes current historical characters the actors in his farce/thriller, and the level of discourse is the highest you will see in current fiction. But if you don’t know why Derrida and Searle are having a dispute, or why in this story Roland Barthes was attacked, robbed, and murdered, this book won’t make much sense, or hold your interest. The author manages to point out along the way that language has real power in today’s world. It’s a power wielded by the wealthy to keep minorities and the poorer classes in “their place.” It’s not the only power wielded to that end, but it is the most important.