At the time of his death in early 1980, Roland Barthes was undoubtedly the best-known French intellectual of his day and perhaps even the most highly regarded critic and theorist working within the confines of Western literary culture. A prolific writer whose favored form was the essay, Barthes differed from almost all of his predecessors as well as from most of his contemporaries in that he did not so much explore the writings of others as the processes of reading and writing themselves. Both his formulation of new principles for the reading of literature and his rejection of older notions of literary understanding are articulated in a manner which unites the best in critical and creative writing, the result being that the reader finds his mind enlivened at the same time as many of his, perhaps cherished, ideas are challenged.
Barthes did not attempt to build a theoretical system or to formulate principles which can be codified into a rigid approach to literature. Each of his successive texts can be regarded as a departure from the previous one rather than as an attempt at refining and consolidating previously advanced arguments. His work is not, however, lacking in internal consistency; it is possible to point to the presence of considerable unity while recognizing that fundamental differences exist, for example, between the earlier “Structuralist” and the later “post-Structuralist” stages of his literary production.
Barthes’s intellectual development was late by modern standards. Born in 1915, he became ill with tuberculosis in 1934 and lived in sanatoriums several times during the next thirteen years. Profoundly influenced by Sartrean existentialism, he abhorred the essentialism of bourgeois culture. In his first book, the polemical Le degré zéro de l’écriture (1953; Writing Degree Zero, 1972) he consequently attacked established academic literary criticism, which he regarded as ahistorical and psychologically naïve, the work of scholars who were unwilling to acknowledge that their writings were founded on a certain ideology and who refused to accept the possibility that a text might have more than one correct meaning. Barthes rejected the established normative criticism, showing an interest not so much in the significance of individual works as in the process of signification itself.
Barthes’s concern with the signifying process led him to perform a series of detailed analyses of various “languages,” such as those of magazine illustrations, advertisements, newspaper articles, and films. The results of his studies are detailed in Mythologies (1957; English trans., 1972), where Barthes explains his conception of a structure of double-functioning in sign systems; one signification has the ability to generate a second one. Barthes treats myth, which in this context should not be confused with the kind of stories that are studied by anthropologists and folklorists, as a second-order signifying system where a linguistic or other cultural sign functions as a signifier to which a second signified attaches itself, thus producing the mythic sign. Barthes distrusts myth, for unlike the system of language, the system of myth does not generate its own meaning. History supplies the meaning which is embedded in myth, but—because the signifier in the mythical system is also a signified in a first-order signifying system and thus carries a certain meaning of its own in that capacity—the consumer of myth, while sensing this first-order meaning, will be inclined not to notice that the meaning of the myth (the second-order meaning) is dependent on somebody’s intention. The message of the myth will therefore be taken as natural and true rather than as culturally determined. As most of the myths Barthes was dealing with were created by and served the interests of the bourgeoisie, Mythologies can be viewed as representing a further development of the antibourgeois stance manifested in Writing Degree Zero.
Barthes’s reputation grew steadily during the 1960’s, when he came to be regarded as one of the foremost members of the French structuralist movement. It is important to note, however, that he was never exclusively a structuralist; his intellectual interests were too broad to permit him to affiliate himself with one particular school. It is nevertheless appropriate to speak of a Structuralist phase in his work. The most important texts from this period are two essays and a book, “L’activité structuraliste” (“The Structuralist Activity”), Éléments de semiologie (1964; Elements of Semiology, 1967), and “L’Introduction à l’analyse structurale des récits” (“Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.”)
“The Structuralist Activity,” which...
(The entire section is 1967 words.)