To read Barthes properly, one must be equipped with a pen and a piece of paper, a notebook, have them at hand, cite and dissect. There’s a reason for this besides the difficult theoretical terms and arguments in the text – that reason being that the texts tend to be disconnected in subtle ways, and one needs to have some record to chart the gaps. We know that his method of composition was to write on index cards and arrange them – which he did not only in his study of Michelet, but, according to his colleagues, also in his other work, throughout his life. Thus, Barthes’ text offer not the forward flow of a text that moves over a notebook, or over the loose pages of a typewriter, but instead in short bursts. Barthes once wrote an essay entitle Flaubert and the phrase. It seems natural to associate Flaubert with phrases, since he made so much of them. A similar essay could be written about Barthes and the paragraph.
The paragraph is eminently prosaic. Poetry – save for prose poems – does not settle into a paragraph. The poem must ultimately remain in touch with the vatic, the riddle, the omen – and the paragraph is antithetic to these presumptions and devices.
And yet – it isn’t precisely correct to speak of the product of these cards as paragraphs. Barthes entitle his perhaps most popular work Fragments of a lover’s discourse, and surely there is something to that ‘fragments’. The fragment is closer to the poetic line, it possesses a certain rawness that is groomed out of the properly constructed paragraph. The fragment extrudes its unity, which becomes the number that marks it from the outside – think of Wittgenstein – or the date, or some other indexical sign. It is as if here the paragraph is either too exhausted or too indignant to do its job – to pull itself together and express its topic organically. The topic thus becomes a sort of title or caption outside of it, names the fragment rather than being the interior connector that keeps it together.