September 23, 2010

Barthes on Einstein

Few subjects escape the cultural analysis of Roland Barthes in his seminal collection Mythologies, published in 1957, and Einstein is no exception. His essay "The Brain of Einstein" asserts that the publicly revered scientist's "brain is a mythical object," and that "Mythologically, Einstein is matter," a fabulously loaded double-entendre. (Mythologically, is Einstein energy, too (divided by the speed of light, of course)?)

Barthes goes on, with no little touch of sarcasm: "Through the mythology of Einstein, the world blissfully regained the image of knowledge reduced to a formula," and no fewer than six times, uses the word 'magic' when referring to the myth of Einstein and his search for a unifying theory, concluding that "In this way [having not discovered the unifying theory] Einstein fulfills all the conditions of myth, which could not care less about contradictions so long as it establishes a euphoric security: at once magician and machine, eternal researcher and unfulfilled discoverer, unleashing the best and the worst, brain and conscience, Einstein embodies the most contradictory dreams, and mythically reconciles the infinite power of man over nature with the 'fatality' of the sacrosanct, which man cannot yet do without." (If only Wilczek's theory that matter is light had been available to Barthes, his essay may have expounded enthusiastically on this metaphor in regards to the " 'fatality' of the sacrosanct", no?)

Barthes' selection of Einstein's brain as a subject of myth is interesting, particularly in light of contemporary theories like the Holographic Principle, etc., which carry connotations far beyond what our conceptual aptitudes can handle (for the most part). Even the complex theoretical mathematics behind a hypothesis like string theory is nothing more than a signifier of the meaning of life, or at least of the origin of it. The Higgs boson, for example, carries enormous mythological heft, especially in the media's sensational treatment of its pursuit, something I'm sure bugs physicists; I've read in many places that the colloquial term "The God Particle" is reviled by scientists the world over.

Barthes also, interestingly, makes reference to Einstein, while still alive, having his brainwaves measured by electrodes while thinking about relativity. ("For that matter, what does 'to think of' mean, exactly?") If the mystery of consciousness resolves itself to be a form of matter, is Barthes here making the most prescient pun in the history of literature? I'm kidding, but it is interesting to attempt to apply Barthes' myth structure to this kind of wildly transcendent concept, and to wonder how he would have interpreted particle physics via the structuralist system.

As an aside, The New Yorker recently published a series of diary entries Barthes wrote during the weeks after his mother's death, lending a touching humanism to his critical oeuvre.

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