Barthes_The Eiffel Tower

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Barthes_The Eiffel Tower

Transcript of Barthes_The Eiffel Tower


    Barthes historically, these signifieds are always extremely vague, dubious andunmanageable.' We construct, we make every city a little in the image of the ship Argo,whose every piece was no longer the original piece but which still remained theship Argo, that is, a set of significations easily readable and recognizable. In thisattempt at a semantic approach to the cify we should try to understand the playof signs, to understand that any ciry is a structure, but that we must never tryand we must never want to fill in this structure.

    For the city is a poem, as has often been said and as Hugo said better thananyone else, but it is not a classical poem, a poem tidily centred on a subject. Itis a poem which unfolds the signifier and it is this unfolding that ultimately thesemiology of the ciry should try to grasp and make sing.

    NOTESLecture given on 15 May 1967, under the sponsorship ofthe lnstitut Frangais,the Institute ofthe History of Architecture at the University of Naples, published in Op. Cit., l0 (19671.Oecumeni: the word used by certain geographers to designate the inhabited world or aninhabited region. The Greek word means all the inhabited world.Cf. P. L6vique and P. Vidal-Naquet, Clistbime I'Athdnien, Paris: Macula, 1983.Cf. F. ChoaS L'Urbanisme: Utopie et Rialitds, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1955.


    Maupassant often lunched at the restaurant in the tower, though he didn't caremuch for the food: 'It's the only place in Paris', he used to say, 'where I don'thave tci see it.' And it's true that you must take endless precautions, in Paris,not to see the Eiffel Tower; whatever the season, through mist and cloud, onovercast days or in sunshine, in rain - wherever you are, whatever the land-scape of roofs, domes, or branches separating you from it, tbe Tower is there;incorporated into daily life until you can no longer grant it any specificattribute, determined merely to persist, like a rock or the river, it is as literal asa phenomenon of nature whose meaning can be questioned to infinity butwhose existence is incontestable. There is virtually no Parisian glance it fails totouch at some time of day; at the moment I begin writing these lines about it,the Tower is there, in front of me, framed by -y window; and at the verymoment the January night blurs it, apparently trying to make it invisible, todeny its presence, two little lights come on, winking gently as they revolve at itsvery tip: all this night, too, it will be there, connecting me above Paris to each ofmy friends that I know are seeing it: with it we all comprise a shifting figure ofwhich it is the steady centrer the Tower is friendly.

    The Tower is also present to the entire world. First of all as a universalsymbol of Paris, it is everyruhere on the globe where Paris is to be stated as animage; from the Midwest to Australia, there is no journey to France which isn'tmade, somehow, in the Tower's name, no schoolbook, poster, or film aboutFrance which fails to propose it as the major sign of a people and of a place: itbelongs to the universal language of travel. Further: beyond its strictly Parisianstatement, it touches the most general human image-repertoire: its simple,




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    ary shape confers upon it the vocation of an infinite cipher: in turn and Barthesing to the appeals of our imagination, the symbol of Paris, of moderniry

    communication, 'of science or of the nineteenth century rocketr stem'rick, phallus, lightning rod or insect, confronting the great itineraries of our

    dreams, it is the inevitable sign; just as there is no Parisian glance which is notto encounter it, there is no fantasy which fails, sooner or later, to

    its form and to be nourished by it; pick up a pencil and let your, in other words your thoughts, wander, and it is often the Tower which

    appear, reduced to that simple line whose sole mythic function is to join, aspoet says, base and su?nmit, or again, earth and heauen.

    :- This pure - virtually empty - sign - is ineluctible, because it means euery-*ting. ln order to negate the Eiffel Tower (though the temptation to do so isi.are, for this symbol offends nothing in us), you must, like Maupassant' get up-n it and, so to speak, identify yourself with it. Like man himself, who is themly on. not to know his own glance, the Tower is the only blind point of thefual optical system of which it is the centre and Paris the circumference. But inthis movement which seems to limit it, the Tower acquires a new power: an-object when we look at it, it becomes a lookout in its turn when we visit it, and-ow constitutes as an object, simultaneously extended and collected beneath it,i$at Paris which just now was looking at it. The Tower is an obiect which sees,* glance which is seen; it is a complete verb, both active and passive, in whichiao function, no uoice (as we say in grammar, with a piquant ambiguity) is'defective. This dialectic is not in the least banal, it makes the Tower a singularmonument; for the world ordinarily produces either purely functional organ-,isms (camera or eye) intended to see things but which then afford nothing to=sight, what sees being mythically linked to what remains hidden (this is the:+leme of the voyeur), or else spectacles which themselves are blind and are left=in the pure passiviry of the visible. The Tower (and this is one of its mythic=powers) transgresses this separation, this habitual divorce of seeing and being'.seen, it achieves a sovereign circulation between the two functions; it is acomplete object which has, if one may say so, both sexes of sight. This radiantposition in the order of perception gives it a prodigious propensity to meaning:

    e Tower attracts meaning the way a lightning rod attracts thunderbolts; for:all lovers of signification, it plays a glamorous part, that of a pure signifier, i.e.of a form in which men unceasingly put meaning (which they extract at will,from their knowledge, their dreams, their history), without this meaning'thereby ever being finite and fixed: who can say what the Tower will be for=humanify tomorrow? But there can be no doubt it will always be something,:and something of humaniry itself. Glance, obiect, symbol, such is the infinitecircuit of functions which permits it always to be something other and some-thing much more than the Eiffel Tower.

    In order to satisfy this great oneiric function, which makes it into a kind oftotal monument, the Tower must escape reason. The first condition of thisvictorious flight is that the Tower be an utterly useless monument. The Tower'sinutility has always been obscurely felt to be a scandal, i.e. a truth, one that isprecious and inadmissible. Even before it was built, it was blamed for beinguseless, which, it was believed at the time, was sufficent to condemn it; it wasnot in the spirit of a period commonly dedicated to rationality and to thecmpiricism of great bourgeois enterprises to endure the notion of a useless


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    Barthes object (unless it was declaratively an obiet d'art, which was also unthinkable inrelation to the Tower); hence Gustave Eiffel, in his own defence of his project inreply to the Artists' Petition, scrupulously lists all the future uses of the Tower:they are all, as we might expect of an engineer, scientific uses: aerodynamicmeasurements, studies of the resistance of substances, physiology of the climber,radio-electric research, problems of telecommunication, meteorological obser-vations, etc. These uses are doubtless incontestable, but they seem quite ridicu-lous alongside the overwhelming myth of the Tower, of the human meaningwhich it has assumed throughout the world. This is because here the utilitarianexcuses, however ennobled they may be by the myth of Science, are nothing incomparison to the great imaginary function which enables men to be strictlyhuman. Yet, as always, the gratuitous meaning of the work is never avoweddirectly: it is rationalized under the rubric of use: Eiffel saw his Tower in the formof a serious object, rational, useful; men return it to him in the form of a greatbaroque dream which quite naturally touches on the borders of the irrational.

    This double movement is a profound one: architecture is always dream andfunction, expression of a utopia and instrument of a convenience. Even beforethe Towert birth, the nineteenth century (especially in America and in England)had often dreamed of structures whose height would be astonishing, for thecentury was given to technological feats, and the conquest of the sky once againpreyed upon humanity. In 1881, shortly before the Tower, a French architecthad elaborated the project of a sun tower; now this proiect, quite mad techno-logicallS since it relied on masonry and not on steel, also put itself under thewarrant of a thoroughly empirical utility; on the one hand, a bonfire placed ontop of the structure was to illuminate the darkness of every nook and cranny inParis by a system of mirrors (a system that was undoubtedly a complex one!),and on the other, the last storey of this sun tower (about 1,000 feet, like theEiffel Tower) was to be reserved for a kind of sunroom, in which invalids wouldbenefit from an air'as pure as in the mountains'. And yet, here as in the case ofthe Tower, the naive utilitarianism of the enterprise is not separate from theoneiric, infinitely powerful function which, actually, inspires its creation: usenever does anything but shelter meaning. Hence we might speak, among men,of a true Babel complex: Babel was supposed to serue to communicate withGod, and yet Babel is a dream which touches muc