Roland Barthes 1915-1980
(Full name Roland Gerard Barthes) French critic, theorist, essayist, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides criticism on Barthes's works from 1972 through 2001. See also Roland Barthes Criticism (Volume 24) and Roland Barthes Criticism (Volume 83).
Barthes is widely acknowledged as one of the most important figures of the French critical movement known as Structuralism. His works have been a major influence on the practice of literary and social criticism in Europe as well as in the Untied States and elsewhere. In his best known works he applied principles derived from semiology (the study of signs and how they produce meaning) as formulated by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, combined with elements of political activism adopted from the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, and aspects of Sigmund Freud's theory of psychoanalysis.
Barthes was born in Cherbourg, France, on November 12, 1915, to middle-class Protestant parents. His father was killed in a naval battle in World War I when Barthes was very young, and so he was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother. The family lived in Bayonne and then moved to Paris in 1924. In 1935 Barthes began his studies at the Sorbonne, concentrating on French, Latin, and Greek. A case of tuberculosis that Barthes suffered when he was nineteen left him ineligible to serve in World War II. He taught for a number of years in Bayonne, Paris, Biarritz, and Bucharest, Romania, but a relapse of his tuberculosis in 1941 confined him to a sanitarium for a good part of the next six years. Pronounced cured in 1947, Barthes began to publish the essays he had been writing and which would later be collected in his first book, Le degré zéro de l'écriture (1953; Writing Degree Zero). Between 1952 and 1959 Barthes taught at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, continuing to write and publishing his most famous book, Mythologies (Mythologies) in 1957. Barthes joined the faculty of the École Practique des Hautes Études, serving as its director from 1962 to 1977, when he was elected to the Chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France. His reputation as France's leading intellectual was confirmed by the subsequent publication of such works as Système de la mode (1967; The Fashion System), S/Z (1970; S/Z), Le plaisir du texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text), and Fragments d'un discours amoureux (1977; A Lover's Discourse). Barthes remained at the Collège de France until his death on March 25, 1980, from injuries sustained when he was hit by a van while crossing the street.
Barthes's ideas and his approach to writing evolved over the course of his career, and critics often discuss his works in terms of four stages in his critical thinking. In the first stage of his career, which includes such works as Writing Degree Zero, Michelet (1954; Michelet), and Mythologies, Barthes, influenced by the ideas of Sartre and Karl Marx, demonstrates a strong interest in issues of language, its relationship to historical and social context, and its relationship to power. In these works he developed his notion of écriture, the aspect of discourse in which the author's social and historical context imbues his or her writings with unintended meanings that are revealed in structural analysis. In Mythologies Barthes analyzed aspects of contemporary French culture—for example, advertising, travel guides, and professional wrestling—to explore ways in which they support a bourgeois worldview. The next phase of Barthes's career, which also marked the high point of Structuralism in France, is a rigorously theoretical one and includes his famous 1964 essay “Eléments de sémiologie” (published in English as Elements of Semiology). Encompassing the ideas of Saussure, Roman Jakobson, and other noted linguists, Barthes theorized about the role of language versus that of speech. To Barthes, language is based on an abstract set of rules and conventions regulating verbal and written communication, whereas speech refers to individual instances of how that language is used. The third phase of Barthes's career, influenced by French theorists Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva, marks a shift in his thinking from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism in the 1970s. In such works as S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes stresses the idea that literary texts contain multiple and shifting connotations, and are therefore open to a number of possible interpretations. He also distinguishes between “readerly” and “writerly” texts: the former refer to common areas of knowledge and accommodate traditional interpretation, while the latter are more open and invite the reader to fill in gaps and make intertextual connections in the process of reading. The final phase of Barthes's career, which includes his autobiography, Roland Barthes (1975; Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes), as well as A Lover's Discourse, Le chambre claire (1980; Camera Lucida), and Incidents (1987; Incidents), is a more personal one. In these works, Barthes writes about his diverse intellectual interests, from literature to travel, and photography, in a more meditative and introspective style. Having lived with his mother his whole life, Barthes describes his grief after her death in Camera Lucida. In his last writings he also openly reveals his homosexuality, including many details about his personal life in his journals and his essays.
Barthes's works of the late 1950s and 1960s were frequently criticized by academics and critics for being, in their view, pseudoscientific and laden with jargon. Barthes and his supporters defended themselves on the grounds that their brand of criticism, unlike that practiced at French universities, was more attuned to ideological, social, historical, and psychological nuances. Outside of France, notably in the United States, Barthes's theories were accorded great acclaim and did much to establish Structuralism and Post-Structuralism as respected schools of criticism. As his later works increasingly focused on the pleasurable and the personal, Barthes was attacked by some critics for having abandoned his earlier Marxist and Structuralist principles. Since his death, there have been many reevaluations of his works, as well as scholarship about aspects of his work that were not much explored before 1980. Italo Calvino and Susan Sontag, among many others, have written eulogies for Barthes, praising his unique talent as both an original theorist and a brilliant interpreter of other people's theories. Critics Jane Gallop, Lawrence D. Kritzman, and Dennis Porter have written about the influence of psychological theory on Barthes's writings, with Gallop concentrating on their connection to feminist theory; Kritzman examining the connection between language and power in Barthes's thought; and Porter discussing the psychological ramifications of Barthes's travel writing. Barthes's style has also received new attention, with, for example, John Vignaux Smyth discussing Barthes's handling of irony and his growing tendency to treat his own works as fictional in his late writings. Finally, critics have shown particular interest in Barthes's autobiographical writings, with his biographer, Louis-Jean Calvet, reexamining the twists and turns of Barthes's reputation after his death, and such critics as Ross Chambers and Pierre Saint-Amand exploring the influence of Barthes's homosexuality on his life and works.
Le degré zéro de l'écriture [Writing Degree Zero] (criticism) 1953
Michelet [Michelet] (criticism) 1954
Mythologies [Mythologies] (criticism) 1957
Sur Racine [On Racine] (criticism) 1963
“Eléments de sémiologie” [Elements of Semiology] (essay) 1964
Essais critiques [Critical Essays] (essays) 1964
La Tour Eiffel [*The Eiffel Tower, and Other Mythologies] [with André Martin] (essays) 1964
Critique et vérité [Criticism and Truth] (criticism) 1966
Système de la mode [The Fashion System] (criticism) 1967
L'empire de signes [Empire of Signs] (criticism) 1970
S/Z [S/Z] (criticism) 1970
Sade, Fourier, Loyola [Sade, Fourier, Loyola] (criticism) 1971
†Le degré zéro de l'écriture, suivi de: Nouveaux essais critiques [New Critical Essays] (essays) 1972
Le plaisir du texte [The Pleasure of the Text] (nonfiction) 1973
Roland Barthes [Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes] (autobiography) 1975
Fragments d'un discours amoureux [A Lover's Discourse: Fragments] (nonfiction) 1977...
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SOURCE: de Man, Paul. “Roland Barthes and the Limits of Structuralism.” In Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism: The Gauss Seminar and Other Papers, edited by E. S. Burt, Kevin Newmark, and Andrzej Warminski, pp. 164-77. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, written in 1972, de Man discusses Barthes's ideas in Mythologies and several other works and notes that Barthes's theory of the impossibility of ultimate signification also calls into question the logic of any type of literary criticism.]
Despite the refinements of modern means of international communication, the relationship between Anglo-American and continental—especially French—literary criticism remains a star-crossed story, plagued by a variety of time lags and cultural gaps. The French have only just gotten around to translating an essay by Empson,1 and by the time American works of literary theory or literary criticism appear in Paris, they often have lost much of their youthful freshness. There is more good will and more curiosity in the other direction, yet here too a mixture of misguided enthusiasm and misplaced suspicion blurs the issues. Even some of the most enlightened among English and American critics keep considering their French counterparts with the same suspicion with which English-speaking tourists might approach the café au lait they are served for...
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SOURCE: Gallop, Jane. “Feminist Criticism and The Pleasure of the Text.” In Critical Essays on Roland Barthes, edited by Diana Knight, pp. 188-201. New York: G. K. Hall, 2000
[In the following essay, first published in 1986, Gallop explores Barthes's ideas in The Pleasure of the Text as they relate to feminism, focusing on his association of pleasure with woman and leftist politics.]
In 1973 Roland Barthes, the foremost practitioner of structuralist literary criticism, published a book entitled The Pleasure of the Text.1 It is an attempt to elaborate a theory of the text based on the notion of pleasure rather than, say, structure or cognition or ideology. According to Barthes, pleasure has been radically excluded from criticism, from scientific, serious studies or theories of the text, his own work included, presumably.
The title of the book—The Pleasure of the Text—has in fact a subtly double meaning. Grammatically “of the text” (du texte, in French) is both objective and subjective genitive, whence the duplicity of meaning: the text is both object and subject of pleasure. The title means both the text's pleasure (the pleasure that is in the text) and our pleasure (the pleasure the text affords). The distinction is subtle because it is difficult to imagine how we might separate the pleasure that is in the text from that which the text...
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SOURCE: Metzidakis, Stamos. “Barthes's Image.”1Neophilologus 71, no. 4 (October 1987): 489-95.
[In the following essay, Metzidakis traces a change in Barthes's use of the term “image” in his writings, asserting that it corresponds to a change of attitude in his critical thinking.]
Roland Barthes did more to change the way literature is read and taught than perhaps any other French critic of the last thirty years. Having begun his career with the simple desire to write, he passed through successive phases of aesthetic and intellectual evolution during which he was—to borrow his terms—a social mythologist, semiologist, textual critic, and finally, moralist.2 Barthes has thus come to be regarded by many as something of a protean figure of modern critical thought. However, the images we have of him are so elusive that, often, we know neither what to call him, nor what to call the activities he performed at various moments of his life.
A similar problem of classification arises when we turn our attention to several other contemporary critics, and critical approaches to literature. What, for example, should we call a Michel Foucault, or a Jacques Derrida (to cite but two of the more problematic cases)? Are they philosophers or historians, archaeologists or social scientists, structuralists or post-structuralists? Since each of these questions deserves a more...
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SOURCE: Knight, Diana. “Roland Barthes in Harmony: The Writing of Utopia.” Paragraph 11, no. 2 (July 1988): 127-42.
[In the following essay, Knight discusses Barthes's notion of Utopia as presented in several of his works, stressing that it “is a central—and highly conscious—preoccupation” for him.]
Civilization/Harmony: thus did Charles Fourier, archetypal Utopian socialist, polarize wretched contemporary society and unutterably blissful new world. The binary works well for Barthes's part-political, part-ethical, part-aesthetic analyses of his own society and culture; indeed I wish to explore Utopia as the meeting point of his lifelong concern with the problems of history, language, literature, criticism and power. Apart from such obviously relevant texts as his essay on Fourier and Empire of Signs, a surprising proportion of Barthes's writings make their points through a vocabulary of Utopia as both adjective and proper noun. The scope of Barthes's preoccupation with Utopia is indicated in his 1977 inaugural lecture: ‘Utopia, of course, does not save us from power. The Utopia of language is recuperated as the language of Utopia—a genre like the rest’ (1983: 467). On the one hand Barthes refers positively to a ‘Utopia of language’ which embraces an ideal conception of literature and writing. On the other ‘the language of Utopia’, Utopia as a recuperable genre,...
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SOURCE: Kritzman, Lawrence D. “The Discourse of Desire and the Question of Gender.” In Signs in Culture: Roland Barthes Today, edited by Steven Ungar and Betty McGraw, pp. 99-118. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, first published in 1988, Kritzman examines the relationship between language and desire in Barthes's theory, and traces an evolution in his thinking about the subject, culminating in Camera Lucida.]
In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
—Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (1964)
In what he writes, each protects his own sexuality.
—Barthes, Roland Barthes (1975)
Barthes's rhetoric of sexuality transcribes the text as a body imbued with libidinal energy and capable of generating fantasies through a figurative language that articulates theoretical fictions. As it delineates these critical texts, writing aspires to the status of matter. What Barthes terms the “grain of the voice”—the “materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue” (RF [The Responsibility of Forms], p. 270)—comes to signify how the body speaks in writing through verbal choreographics which involve positions of passion, its drives, controls, and rhythms.1...
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SOURCE: Mortimer, Armine Kotin. Introduction to The Gentlest Law: Roland Barthes's “The Pleasure of the Text,” pp. 1-40. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
[In the following essay, Mortimer examines various influences on Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text and provides detailed explanations of key terms and concepts to aid in a correct understanding of the text.]
“Roland Barthes has just published The Pleasure of the Text, incontestably one of the great books of the decade.” So wrote Les Nouvelles littéraires in January 1975 (GV [The Grain of the Voice] 198), and it was not an exaggeration. Well beyond the end of that decade, the book remains one of the great critical texts of a sensational author, a creator of discourses who is cited in an amazing variety of contexts. And there is no apprehending Barthes without understanding this minute but challenging and enigmatic text. Yet people have not fathomed its intricately woven and highly condensed discourse, nor pondered the distilled essence of its thought. Barthes is habitually misapprehended. As Peter Brooks has written, “Barthes remains the object of considerable resistance, even of hostility” (“Reinventing Reading,” 46).
Readers of the book in English have often simply failed to comprehend it; some have called it whimsical or flirtatious, fanciful or eccentric; most have grasped its erotics,...
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SOURCE: Calvet, Louis-Jean. “The ‘After-Death.’” In Roland Barthes: A Biography, translated by Sarah Wykes, pp. 256-67. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in French in 1990, Calvet examines works by Barthes published after his death and summarizes his intellectual and activist legacy.]
After his death, there were dozens of people who claimed that they had been Barthes's best friend, the person who was closest and dearest to him. Dozens of people sent letters of condolence to Michel Salzedo. The fact that there were so many is proof of the pretension of these self-proclaimed friends, some of whom had probably been in the ‘pains-in-the-neck’ category. It is also symptomatic of Barthes's lifestyle, his ability to compartmentalize his life and of his preference for seeing people on a one-to-one basis, which meant that all his friends were under the impression that their relationship with him was unique. He felt different with everyone he saw on a regular basis, and he wanted to give his all to each and every one of them. Because he believed in the virtues of dialogue, he cultivated numerous quite separate friendships. On top of this, the different areas of his life hardly ever overlapped. He carefully divided up his groups of friends according to the categories they fell into, be it professional, literary, homosexual, old friends, etc....
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SOURCE: Porter, Dennis. “Writing the Orient: Barthes.” In Haunted Journeys: Desire and Transgression in European Travel Writing, pp. 287-304. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Porter analyzes Barthes's The Empire of Signs, suggesting that in writing the book Barthes consciously tried to go beyond “Orientalism” as a travel writer, and that Japan appealed to him as a “place where knowledge is uncoupled from power.”]
The first part of Claude Lévi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques proclaims “The End of Travel.” Yet, in spite of its author's opinions on the subject, it does not announce the end of travel writing. Though not without some discomfort, Lévi-Strauss himself goes on to tell the story of his travels around the world in a work that, like Bougainville's voyage, provoked its own supplement by a contemporary critical philosopher in the person of Jacques Derrida. The burden of the latter's critique is that Lévi-Strauss, by failing to posit a structure without “a transcendental signified” or a globe without a center, did not practice systematically his own structuralist theory: “As a turning toward the presence, lost or impossible, of the absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediateness is thus the sad, negative, nostalgic, guilty Rousseauist face of the thinking of freeplay of which the Nietzschean affirmation—the...
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SOURCE: Chambers, Ross. “Pointless Stories, Storyless Points.” In Loiterature, pp. 250-69. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1994, Chambers comments on Barthes's treatment of his homosexuality in Incidents and Soirées de Paris in the context of postcolonialism and historical consciousness.]
Conversely, a book is conceivable: which would report a thousand “incidents” but would refuse ever to draw a line of meaning from them; it would be, quite specifically, a book of haikus.
—Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
Rosencrantz: Incidents! All we get is incidents! Dear God, is it too much to expect a little sustained action?
—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
When Barthes's Incidents was published posthumously, there was a mild outcry in the world of the Paris literati.1 There are two relatively unremarkable texts in this volume (“La lumière du sud-ouest” and “Au Palace ce soir …”); the scandal bore on two others, “Incidents,” described by the editor in a cautious preliminary note as “a notation, a collection of things seen and heard in Morocco, essentially in Tangiers and Rabat, and then...
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SOURCE: Taylor, John.“The Art of Shaving Gently.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4827 (6 October 1995): 10-11.
[In the following essay, Taylor presents an overview of Barthes's works, concluding that they remain fascinating objects of study because they reveal his inner turmoil as well as his complex critical thinking.]
Of all the French structuralists and poststructuralists from the 1950s to the present day, Roland Barthes (1915-80) surely remains the most difficult to pin down. He devoted himself to an extraordinary—his critics claim “dilettantish”—variety of subjects, from professional wrestling to semiological theory, from fashion design to photography, from Japan to Michelet, from the Eiffel Tower to the Tour de France, from Racine to Brecht. In addition, his critical methodologies evolved remarkably during the thirty-eight years of his career, taking on an increasing degree of spontaneity, subjectivity and fragmentation; for a given topic, terms would be boldly coined from Latin or Greek roots, then abandoned; enigmatic self-allusions and metaphors would crop up in analyses of sociological signifiers or in dissections of nineteenth-century literature; some of his last opinions even seemed to take issue with the aesthetics of the nouveau roman and Tel Quel, the two literary groups which he had vigorously championed and to whose renown he had greatly contributed. In brief,...
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SOURCE: Saint-Amand, Pierre. “Barthes's Laziness.” Yale Journal of Criticism 14, no. 2 (fall 2001): 519-26.
[In the following essay, Saint-Amand discusses the concept of laziness as it applies to Barthes and several of his writings, noting that for Barthes it remained a form of desire that never became a reality.]
In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Barthes confesses his passion for dialectic, for binary play: in Barthes's view, this demon of contradiction is the beginning of meaning, of writing as “deporting.”1 In the constellation of dialectical terms that cut across his work, I would like to explore the opposition between work and leisure, which fuels Barthes's discourse and his imaginary. The junction of leisure and work undergoes an interesting development about which I would like to make some observations. This opposition is also at the heart of a “technique of the self” (in the Foucauldian sense), of an emancipation of the Barthesian body. Laziness is one of those neglected modes of existence that Barthes seeks to plumb. He paints it as a contradictory dimension of life, a paradoxical encounter with time.
It might be said that work is Barthes's hysteria. He evinces an unhealthy obsession with activity (compulsion, obligation, work agenda). But in his autobiographical works, he constantly envisions his deliverance from these various constraints....
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Brown, Andrew. Roland Barthes: The Figures of Writing. Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon Press, 1992, 303 p.
Discusses the structure of Barthes's discourse, treating him as both a writer and a theorist.
Calvino, Italo. “In Memory of Roland Barthes.” In The Uses of Literature, translated by Patrick Creagh, pp. 300-06. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
Eulogizes Barthes on the occasion of his recent death, suggesting that his legacy is a scientific critical approach that emphasizes the uniqueness of every object studied.
Goldberg, Jonathan. “On the One Hand. …” In The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice, edited by John Bender and David E. Wellbery, pp. 77-99. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Explores Barthes's tendency toward logocentrism—assigning a supremacy to writing—that “betrays his bourgeois individualism.”
Gratton, Johnnie. Expressivism: The Vicissitudes of a Theory in the Writing of Proust and Barthes. University of Oxford: European Humanities Research Center, 2000, 150 p.
Discusses Barthes's variable concern for and disregard of expressivism in various stages of his work.
Henry, Patrick. “Contre Barthes.” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth...
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