“The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus.29 They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel.” – Plutarch, the Life of Theseus
We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. – Otto Neurath
There’s a curious error in Barthes by Barthes – something that is like a parapraxis, a Freudian slip. Like the classic instance of the Freudian slip outlined in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, this one, too, has to do with a classical allusion.
It is contained in the entry entitled, The Argo.
“ A frequent image: that of the ship, the Argo (bright and white), which the Argonauts replaced piece by piece, little by little, so that in the end they had an entirely new vessel, without having to change either its name or its form.”
This image seems to be a conflation of two classical instances of the ship image in philosophy. One is the vessel of Theseus, which is first mentioned by Plutarch in the Life of Theseus. In the early modern period, Plutarch’s instance was taken up by Hobbes and Leibniz, each of who commented on the paradox of identity that the ship names. The second is Neurath’s ship. As Thomas Uebel has shown, Neurath often turned to the image of the rebuilt but continuous ship in his writing. He especially used the image against the Carnapian ideal of a meta-language – a dream language in which syntax and semanticity would merge, so that we would know from the very construction of a sentence whether it was true or not. This, Neurath thought, fundamentally misunderstands language. Hence, the image of a ship which is constantly being repaired from flotsam at sea by sailors who cannot simply go into port and take the ship apart from the bottom. In Hans Blumenberg’s exploration of ship metaphors in philosophy, he quotes an instance where Neurath claims that the imprecise clusters are “always somehow part of the ship.”
Out of these two separate images, Barthes chose to attach the perpetually reconstructed ship to the Argo, which carried Jason and his crew – the Argonauts – to Colchis. In constrast with Theseus’s ship, which – being on display – is, as it were, a museum piece, the Argo is an object of practical life. But there is another difference with Theseus’s ship, one that should block Barthes’ appropriation. As Apollonius of Rhodes put it in the Argonautica: ‘For a divine timber had been fixed in her: Athene had taken it from the oak of Dodona and fitted it in the center of the prow.”
The wood of Dodona had the power of human speech – a power that was given to the Argo. So, in fact, the Argo is the one instance of a ship in which there is something irreplaceable. Which goes against Barthes point: ‘This vessel, the Argo, is very useful. It furnishes us with the allegory of an eminently structural object, created not by genius, inspiration, determination, evolution, but by two modest acts (which cannot be grasped by the mystique of creation): substitution (one piece drives out the other, as in a paradigm) and nomination (the name is not at all tied to the stability of the pieces) by means of combining in the interior of the same name, nothing is left of the origin. The Argo is an object without any other cause than its name, without any other identity than its form.”
As in any parapraxis, we are given an utterance that is like a wound, allowing us, if we have the tools, to trace the trauma. The trauma here is seems to be in the form of a forgetting – forgetting the magical/religious instance. That forgetting marks the enlightenment heritage of structuralism – in fact, Barthes mistake might be taken as emblematic of the fact that structuralism was the purest outcome of the enlightenment, its endpoint. Structuralism assumes, finally, that the world is saturated with substitutes, is a system of substitutes – in a sense, the world is capitalism. And in this world, action at a distance, magic, origin, Athene are chased away by a universal forgetting . Under the guidance of the name – in the name of – the system of substitutions can act on its own, automatically, without a genius.
In Barthes telling, these two acts just happen to coincide in this one image. They are, however, historically bound together. In practical terms, the crew of the Argo is simply trying to survive and stay afloat, which is why all oak planks – whether from Dodona or from sea wrack – are replaceable. From the point of view of nomination, however, whether the Argo is registered as the Argo or not is of ultimate political importance. If the name doesn’t hold, then the Argo becomes a pirate ship, an illicit ship. And at this point the schema of substitutions feeds into a different destination for the ship.
The forgetting of the story of the Argo – the supervenience of two other stories of ships and identity – is all the more freighted as Barthes himself is in the midst of changing, as he wrote Barthes by Barthes, from the disenchanted mapper of myths to the softer and more vulnerable utopian of desire. He was, in a sense, letting one piece of Barthes drive out another. Right after presenting the image of the Argo, he personalizes it by contrasting his office in Paris with his office in the country, which, though differently located, is identical in function. He ends this passage by writing of the Argo as the ideal structural object, in which the “system prevails over particular beings.” But using an image which is structured to deny that the system prevails over Athena – using an image of the one boat that can talk – Barthes seems to be undermining his point – just as he is trying to shed his structuralist past.