A Buddy-Detective Romp through Semiology: The Seventh Function of Language

Michael Mulvey

St. Thomas University (Miami)

 

The funniest thing about The Seventh Function of Language is that neither an individual nor an estate has sued Laurent Binet, the author, for defamation. Indeed, one might consider the novel a literary exercise in long-form libel were it not for the genuine reverence Binet shows to semiotic ideas. Binet’s satirical detective tale, skillfully translated from the French by Sam Taylor, implicates beloved intellectuals and venerated politicians—living and deceased—in murderous conspiracies, a shadowy secret society, and sexual exploits. Michel Foucault fellated in a sauna. Bernard Henri-Lévy being fondled by Jacques Lacan’s mistress’ foot under Julia Kristeva’s dinner table. Judith Butler in a threesome with Hélène Cixous. This hilarious buddy-cop novel starts with the death of an author: the semiologist and literary critic Roland Barthes. On 25 February 1980, a laundry van hit Barthes as he crossed the rue des écoles on his way home from the Collège de France. Some weeks later, Barthes died from his injuries. Like many a novel, The Seventh Function of Language is inspired by a fait divers. Barthes started his famous essay on the fait divers with the following: “Voici un assassinat: s’il est politique, c’est une information, s’il ne l’est pas, c’est un fait divers.” [1] The semiologist argued that the fait divers occupied a spot between fiction and reality that emphasized its opacity to the reader. Binet dives into the mystery of Barthes’s accident and later death by imagining it was a plot to assassinate him. Someone murdered Barthes and the motivation was potentially political. The day of the accident, Barthes had really lunched with the socialist candidate for president François Mitterrand. The socialists, the KGB, the Bulgarian secret service, and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic want a document Barthes had in his possession during that lunch. Binet imagines it was a Bulgarian assassin, a hired hitman, who struck Barthes with a van to procure that very document which proposed a seventh secret function of language, one beyond the six functions outlined by the Russian Linguist Roman Jakobson. [2] Many will lose their lives, digits, and, in Philippe Sollers’s case, testes, seeking the seventh function of language, which allows the user to have magical powers of persuasion over listeners: a spell. As Umberto Eco explains to the novel’s protagonists, the English philosopher J.L. Austin theorized a “seventh function” called the “magic” function. Eco reveals that the seventh function “enables someone, in a much more extensive fashion, to convince anyone else to do anything at all in any situation.” [3] Whoever had mastery of the function would become master of the world. Possession of the seventh function therefore had implications for more than just the coming French national election. Binet’s goal is not to criticize intellectuals or ridicule academic disciplines. Binet is, if anything, channeling Barthes’s Mythologies (1957) as he plays with intellectual legends. [4] The novel may mock theorists, but it also takes their ideas deadly serious. Language is power. The Seventh Function of Language shows how discourses can be manipulated and the ability to manipulate them has political implications. Eco makes an important cameo in the novel and The Seventh Function of Language owes much to Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983). [5] Eco’s best-seller followed a monk and his assistant as they attempt to solve a series of murders inside a monastery in fourteenth-century Italy. Eco fused the detective novel with scholarly erudition. After Barthes’s accident, police intelligence superintendent Jacques Bayard, a figure reminiscent of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, is assigned the duty of finding Barthes’s assassins and the missing document by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Lost in the airy world of intellectuals, Bayard drafts a young lecturer and semiotician named Simon Herzog into his service. The two travel from Paris to Italy and the United States in a bewildering tour through the “linguistic turn” of the 1980s. Eco and Binet are both fans of Sherlock Holmes and his deductive methodology; indeed, The Seventh Function of Language’s protagonist’s first initials (SH) are an obvious reference to Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective. Bayard and Herzog are opposites, like Holmes and Watson, who gradually attract. Bayard is the conservative who calls a pipe a pipe. Herzog interrogates the pipe’s constructed meaning. By the conclusion, the duo makes a charming team with each acquiring skills from the other.

The novel’s plot is somewhat ridiculous and works best in the first part set in Paris. The buddy-detective story becomes far more farcical as the team travels to Bologna, Ithaca, and Venice. By far, one of the finest moments in the novel comes when Barthes’s lover Hamed dies and whispers a last word to our detectives: “Echo.” The two will later ask Tzvetan Todorov about “Echo” and Todorov replies: “Umberto. How is he?” [6] Todorov had first enlightened Bayard about another clue: “Does the name Sophia mean anything to you?” Todorov immediately replies, “Well, yes, it’s the city where I was born.” The quest had also led them to Bulgarian-born feminist theorist Julia Kristeva and her novelist husband Philippe Sollers, who were seeking the document for their own ends.

The two detectives eventually discover the Logos Club, an ancient secret society that engages in high stakes dialectical debates. These debates, which Binet describes for pages at a time, entail philosophy and the art of rhetoric. Each debate places the power of language front and center in a gladiatorial contest. Two contestants argue a topic before judges: the loser has a finger-tip chopped with a hatchet or worse.

The fictional Eco sends the detectives in search of the American philosopher John Searle. The detectives take a Concorde flight to New York on a mission begrudgingly paid for by the French government. Our investigators then travel by bus to Ithaca and Cornell University. In Ithaca, the luminaries of French critical theory have gathered for a conference entitled “Shift into Overdrive in the Linguistic Turn,” Binet’s witty invention. The Cornell adventure could be subtitled “fear and loathing in Ithaca” with its sex, drugs, plotting, and betrayals. The Ithaca segment makes The Seventh Function of Language a perfect classroom complement to François Cusset’s French theory : Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux Etats-Unis (2003 French, 2008 English). [7] Cusset’s investigation of “French Theory” in the United States asked how it was that in the 1980s American academics embraced Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and others, as foundations for their analyses and politics, when those same theorists were becoming outdated in France. Cusset followed the American mutations of “French Theory” into something unrecognizable in France. Binet captures a similar shift as his characters move from the salons of Paris to an Ivy League campus. Jonathan Culler has organized a conference at Cornell to discuss the Linguistic Turn. Present are the major theorists of the day: Michel Foucault, Félix Guattari (Deleuze couldn’t make it), Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva with Philippe Sollers in tow, and Paul de Man on one side and John Searle, Noam Chomsky, and Camille Paglia on the other. We catch a glimpse of Bernard-Henri Lévy and Gayatri Spivak. Overheard student comments add to the amusement. Amidst all this, the desperate hunt for the missing copy of the seventh function continues unabated.

Figure 1 Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault with their cats

Derrida’s heroic death, twenty-five years prior to his factual passing, and the appearance of a famous fictional character give the tone of this baroque episode. One of the conference presenters is Morris Zapp, an English literature professor from David Lodge’s academic satire Changing Places (1975). [8] Zapp provides the detectives with simultaneous translation of academic jargon and argues that critical error emerges from the naïve confusion of reality with literature. Herzog, in the meantime, becomes increasingly worried that he might be a character inside a novel subject to the whims of its author. Lodge and Binet share a respect for theory and an impulse to satirize the pretensions of well known academics and writers with debauched private lives. Binet takes the real academic quarrel between Searle and Derrida from the 1970s to a fictional violent conclusion. At the conference, fictional Derrida has no problem mocking Searle. Meanwhile, Searle is desperate to obtain the seventh function. Ultimately, Searle’s quest leads to Derrida being mauled to death. Searle comes to as sorry an end as he explores one of Ithaca’s spectacular gorges from a height. The trip to Ithaca also affects detective Bayard. We first meet him as a homophobe, but, after Ithaca, we find him increasingly partaking in new sexual acts and expanding his critical vocabulary.

The Seventh Function of Language is Binet’s second historical novel. In 2010, Binet’s HHhH received critical acclaim and won the prix Goncourt du premier roman. [9] HHhH is an acronym for “Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” HHhH shares with The Seventh Function of Language a plot driven by an assassination. The first novel follows the Czechoslovak resistance who assassinated the Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich, an unfunny character if ever there was one, in 1942. HHhH dramatically narrates the murderous atrocities of the “Butcher of Prague” and the plans of the brave Czechoslovak freedom-fighters with repeated authorial reflections on the inner thoughts of his historical characters. The authorial interruptions, however, never overshadow masterful storytelling and attention to historical details. As Liana Vardi noted in her Fiction and Film for French Historians review, HHhH forces the reader to reflect on how contemporary authors approach and reconstruct past events. [10] Binet thus composed a historical fiction with a persistent, almost obsessive, attention to factual details. The author refused to abandon his sense of duty not to misinform his readers. In contrast, The Seventh Function of Language had me googling to verify minor details more than I would wish to disclose to my readers.

HHhH received widespread praise from politicians including Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Hollande. [11] The Paris Match journalist Valérie Trierweiler recommended that Hollande extend Binet unrestricted access to his presidential campaign. Binet would see firsthand, as Hollande told him, that in politics “nothing happens as expected.” Binet’s nonfiction Rien ne se passe comme prévu (2012) recounts humorous episodes and awkward moments, but reveals little new about Hollande. [12] Before joining the Hollande campaign, Binet had supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon (in the end Binet voted for Hollande). The Seventh Function of Language addresses serious questions raised by these two prior works: the limits of historical fiction, the power of language, the politics of leftist resistance, and the ability of fiction to reveal something about historical reality. Unlike HHhH, Binet freed himself from the constraints of historical accuracy in The Seventh Function of Language. He kills and maims characters indiscriminately, but also includes real bloodshed, such as Louis Althusser’s strangulation of his spouse Hélène Rytman, and the tragic 1980 bombing of Bologna Central Station.

The Seventh Function of Language does not elicit a thigh-slapping rib-cracking Rabelaisian laughter, but engages in hyperbolic representations of history and the nature of identity. The novel thus shares some common features with classic French comedies. Like these works, The Seventh Function of Language is a franchouillard text full of optimism, mischievous characters, lighthearted treatment of important figures, physical comedy, and risqué sexual humor. The novel reminds readers that they are part of a cultural community (together we “get” the jokes) while enabling a temporary escape from it.

The only weakness of The Seventh Function of Language is that it becomes all a bit too much. The screwball side becomes overpowering as famed intellectuals pile on top of famed intellectuals. Crimes becomes secondary to debates, outrageous behavior, and name-dropping. Binet’s novel feels by moments repetitious and its message redundant. Such subversive fiction communicates something historians already know: historical memory is a process of narrative creation. The dangerous line between “real” history and “fake” history becomes razor thin from Binet’s perspective.

Binet’s satirical intellectual portraits cannot conceal his nostalgia for the 1980s and deep affection for its French theorists. He assumes that Barthes, Foucault, Kristeva, and Derrida are already myths. Yet Binet’s objective is not to reveal stereotypical French intellectuals as frauds through his hyperbolic representations. Binet sees how they mutate in academic and pop culture, but he is not duped. Instead, The Seventh Function of Language argues against the myth established by Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke of French intellectuals lost in theoretical abstractions without practical applications. Binet tells readers that semiological analysis matters and has practical application. As Barthes noted, media, in all its forms, transmits and reinforces political messages that cultivate false consciousness. Barthes’s villain remains the same for Binet: a bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie that refuses to play by the rules and places profit before people. Herzog’s Professor Moriarty is a paunchy, corrupt, social-climbing, silver-tongued Neapolitan politician with whom he duels at the Venice Logos Club. The Neapolitan exacts unwarranted revenge on Herzog for defeating him on the subject of “Classico e Barocco.” Herzog and the Neapolitan have one final grapple before the latter takes a painful final plunge. But it is poor Philippe Sollers who comes out the worst as he challenges the Great Protagoras (Logos’s leader, Umberto Eco) with a speech based on Derridean word analogies and makes a total fool of himself. Literary analysis is defeated by the forces of rhetoric.

This novel will provide pleasure to anyone who has ever read French theory. The context of the Cold War, Reagan, Thatcher, Brezhnev, Giscard, Mitterrand, left-wing Italian extremism, and French Theory seems so far away now. Binet brings it to life with a wealth of details, including period music or lobsters being walked as pets in Parisian streets. Historians may identify inaccuracies that may or may not be intentional. Binet’s mistakes may mean something in themselves. In the 1974 presidential debate, Mitterrand performed poorly against Giscard. In 1981, Mitterrand debated well and won the election. Did Mitterrand discover the seventh function of language to improve his rhetoric? Mitterrand’s rhetoric did not create real socialism. To that extent, this novel culminates in a turning point that never turned. As you turn the pages of this novel you may well find yourselves wondering if Binet stole the seventh function of language.

Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language, trans. Sam Taylor. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017.

NOTES

  1. Roland Barthes, “Structure du fait divers,” Essais critiques (Paris: Seuil, 1964), 188–197.
  2. Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Thomas Sebeok, ed., Style in Language (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1960), 350-377.
  3. Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language, trans. Sam Taylor (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017), 187.
  4. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Paris: Seuil, 1957).
  5. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983).
  6. Binet, The Seventh Function of Language, 129.
  7. François Cusset, French theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux Etats-Unis (Paris: Découverte, 2003); François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
  8. David Lodge, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975).
  9. Laurent Binet, HHhH, trans. Sam Taylor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).
  10. Liana Vardi, “Truth or fiction and why it matters: A look at Ivan Jablonka, Emmanuel Carrère, and Laurent Binet,” Fiction and Film for French Historians: A Cultural Bulletin, July 2017.
  11. Jérôme Dupuis, “Un Laurent Binet normal pour décrire François Hollande,” L’Express, 23 August 2012.
  12. Laurent Binet, Rien ne se passe comme prévu (Paris: Grasset, 2013).
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