Roland Barthes’s theorization of French cultural specificity, in a well-known but not particularly well-studied essay, “The Grain of the Voice,” offers a suggestive parallel to the performance of Spanish exceptionalism in Lorca’s “Juego y teoría del duende.” Barthes, too, develops an idiosyncratically “nationalist” poetics through the vehicle of a theory of the vocal performance of lyric poetry. His concept of the “grain,” like Lorca’s duende, is at once highly personal and seductively universalizable. Read together, these two essays suggest the possibility of a sophisticated theorization of poetic performance. The issues raised in Lorca’s duende lecture and in Barthes’s essay still remain outside of the institutional and disciplinary boundaries of theory, as delimited by the standard textbooks like The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory or Critical Theory Since 1965. Performance studies, needless to say, is a developing discipline in its own right, with its own set of concerns, but it has not tended to give much attention to the specificity of lyric poetry, or to the role of performance within the cluster of theoretical problems defined by the word poetics. By the same token, very few texts in the canon of literary theory address issues related to the vocal performance of lyric poetry: to find treatments of these issues, one must consult more specialized works, such as the articles collected in Charles Bernstein’s Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Jill Kuhnheim’s forthcoming study of cultural practices of poetry recitation in Latin America provides another fruitful avenue of approach, but performance, by and large, remains marginal within the academic study of poetry.
In Mythologies, Barthes devotes an article to denouncing a certain excess in performance, a kind of semiotic overdetermination. “Bourgeois Vocal Art” is singing in which a particular emphasis on certain phonemes strongarms the listener into a predictable response. In “The Grain of the Voice,” written in a different phase of his career, Barthes takes a somewhat different approach, one that is perhaps less resistant to the pleasures of semiotic excess. The French writer begins the essay by complaining about the tyranny of the adjective in music criticism: the dominance of this part of speech seems reductive to him, and he proposes the concept of the “grain” in order to enact a “displacement” of a certain standard rhetoric that attaches labels, formulaic predicate adjectives to music. From Julia Kristeva, he borrows a binary opposition—the geno-text vs. pheno-text—in order to contrast two two distinct approaches to the performance of vocal music. The pheno-song is identified with everything conventional:
The pheno-song [...] covers all the phenomena, all the features which belong to the language being sung, the rules of the genre, the coded form of the melisma, the composer's idiolect, the style of the interpretation: in short, everything in the performance that is in the service of communication, representation, expression, everything that is customary to talk about, which forms the tissue of cultural values.
The “geno-song,” in contrast, consists of
the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the space where significations germinate “from within language and its very materiality”; it forms a signifying play having nothing to do with communication, representation, (of feelings) expression.Barthes identifies the “geno-song,” more particularly, with the encounter between musical expression and phonology: “It is, in a very simple word that must be taken seriously, the diction of the language” (183; original emphasis).