Barthes, Roland (Vol. 24)
Roland Barthes 1915–1980
French critic, essayist, and autobiographer.
Barthes is considered a leading writer of the French la nouvelle critique (new criticism) and one of the most important French critics since Jean-Paul Sartre. His studies in semiology and literary analysis ushered structuralism to the forefront of French intellectual thought in the 1960s. Barthes's most influential work is S/Z, a structuralist approach to Balzac's short story "Sarrasine." Through a line-by-line account of the story, Barthes identified five "codes" which he felt defined "Sarrasine."
Barthes's first collection of essays, Le degré zéro de l'écriture (Writing Degree Zero), is his seminal work. Here Barthes presented his concept of écriture, the idea that the text has a meaning independent of, and possibly different from, the author's intentions. Barthes felt that the reader, and especially the critic, should see a text as a series of symbols that combine to form the meaning of the literary work. It was also Barthes's contention that a completely objective style of writing (zero-degree writing) was the most desirable, and he cited Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet as examples.
Barthes's theories outraged many prominent French academics; the controversy reached its height upon the publication of Barthes's Sur Racine (On Racine) in 1963. Barthes's structuralist and psychoanalytic study of Racine's plays drew an angry response from Racine scholar Raymond Picard, who felt that Barthes's method was pseudoscientific, subjective, and almost totally unfounded. Barthes, in turn, wrote Critique et vérité (Criticism and Truth) as a rejoinder to Picard's views. In this work Barthes asserted that literary criticism should be the systematic structuralist study of language and style. This, along with a semiological approach to the study of cultural phenomena, characterized Barthes's later works.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100 [obituary].)
Although Le Degré zéro de l'écriture (Zero Degree of Writing) is presented by its author, Roland Barthes, as a working hypothesis, it has a dogmatic tone. (p. 185)
According to Roland Barthes, "writing is in no way a means of communication." As the opposite of spoken language, it is by nature a counter-communication. Its particular ambiguity is in that it is at the same time language and coercion. Since all paradoxes, however laden with truth they may be, are capable of being turned around, one could say just as correctly that it is speech that aims to remove adherence by intimidating means, and one attribute to writing the opposite character of a balanced, delicately shaded, essentially honest act. To the extent to which "it improperly combines the reality of acts to the ideality of ends" political writing is, however, by all evidence, coercive. Roland Barthes devotes a chapter to it which is all the more convincing in that his arguments appear to be political. Literary writing also fulfills the author's definition if we agree with him that since it is an instrument placed in the service of a class ideology it imposes its myths more than it proposes them. One can obviously play upon the word communication. But whether or not, in either case, it is a one-way transmission, changes nothing in the fundamental purpose of language, which is to make oneself understood. This elementary truth Roland Barthes knows...
(The entire section is 612 words.)
When I first ran through [Roland Barthes'] commentaries on [Racine's] tragedies, published on the occasion of a new edition of Racine, I did not take them very seriously. Somewhat baffled, and more scandalized than amused, I supposed them to be a piece of hackwork in the performance of which the writer had diverted himself, with his usual talent, by entering the realm of the venturesome and the preposterous. But when in 1963 these studies were collected in a volume with other writings [On Racine (Sur Racine)] which threw light on them, and when in 1964 another volume offered further details of doctrine and method, I realized my error. Without any doubt this was a coherent undertaking the importance of which was not to be underestimated; the reception of it by a certain segment of the public made that perfectly clear. Indeed, it is one of the most significant examples in the last ten years of the effort, so praiseworthy in itself, to develop a new criticism…. (pp. 1-2)
Mr. Barthes' assertions most often belong to two registers. Some of them (to write somewhat after his own manner) are of a vaticinal order; having no explicatory value, generally not very clear and slightly unusual, these oracular revelations must be accepted such as they are by the faithful. Others, accompanied by reasons and examples, are subject to control; unfortunately, we discover that they rest on astonishingly weak foundations.
(The entire section is 2830 words.)
[Barthes] has powerful opponents at home, but I doubt whether there will be much raising of voices here, and the reason is not simply that we are insular. Although Barthes is famous for recondite meditations on the sign-structures not only of literature but of what you never thought had sign-structures, like menus, fashions and furniture, so qualifying as an adventurous structuralist, he rarely refers to any language except French, or to any literature except French. Thus in Writing Degree Zero there is a far-reaching discussion of the French preterite, a tense that now belongs to a written, not a spoken language, and which is treated as 'the corner-stone of Narration', an expression of an order and a euphoria peculiar to the novel; it redeemed time, saved meaning out of an existential mess; but now that we see it for what it is, a comfortable lie, the whole face of fiction is changed. And so on. What does not seem to occur to him is that there are languages, such as English, in which there is no such problem with the preterite, yet these also are languages in which novels are written, and in which there is also, presumably, a 'problematics of the novel'….
[In Writing Degree Zero], among the methodological convolutions, the reader will occasionally come upon a completely familiar notion, for example, that there was, around 1850, a major split in the European mind (French, actually) and in European history....
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Histrionics and rhetoric give Barthes' essays a look of originality that they do not always possess. They capture attention by their emphatic style but often add little to what literary historians have already said in studies that maintain better balance and are more wary of specious generalizations. This is already evident in his first work, Le Degré Zéro de l'Ecriture, a dazzling piece of argumentation in which he attempts to isolate from language and style a distinct socio-historical aspect that he calls "writing." He pushes his investigation of language problems further in Mythologies and takes up the subject of social myths. In the introduction to Michelet par lui-même and in the essay on Racine, he tries his hand at literary "psychoanalysis." In his faults and virtues, Barthes typifies the French New Critic. He also offers a fine example of the techniques most in vogue as well as the prejudices and shibboleths that characterize the new school.
Whether his studies take the direction of sociology or psychoanalysis, they depart from the work itself, from the author's writing rather than from his life…. Style is always his point of reference, the subject of his research. As he declares in the introduction to Michelet par lui-même, his concern is not with history or biography but only with the work. What he aims to do is to discover in it those basic, recurring themes which may constitute a pattern of...
(The entire section is 890 words.)
Writing Degree Zero probably isn't the easiest text with which to start an acquaintance with Barthes. The book is compact to the point of ellipsis, often arcane. It barely suggests the variety and intellectual mobility of Barthes' subsequent work…. Though explicitly theoretical in character, the argument here can't compare in rigor or completeness with Barthes' later development of some of these ideas in his "Eléments de Sémiologie."… Moreover, Writing Degree Zero gives virtually no indication of Barthes' sensitivity and imaginativeness in handling individual literary texts and in stating the unifying metaphors of a single author's body of work, skills he was to exercise in the short book on Michelet (1954) and in the influential studies of Brecht and Robbe-Grillet written in the mid 1950's. Lastly, the … text doesn't disclose the witty concreteness of Barthes' sensibility, his talent for sensuous phenomenological description, evidenced in the brilliant essay-epiphanies collected in 1957 under the title Mythologies. Thus, Writing Degree Zero is early Barthes, seminal but not representative. (pp. vii-viii)
Writing Degree Zero lends support to the already well-established cause of advanced literature, not with an argument over fundamentals of taste and purpose, but by an allusive refinement of that argument, oriented more to modernist literature's further prospects than to its celebrated past....
(The entire section is 1631 words.)
"It will afford profit and pleasure to that numerous class of persons who have no instinctive enjoyment of literature," writes a British reviewer of the French text of S/Z. Instinctive enjoyment of literature! Surely all of Roland Barthes's ten books exist to unmask such an expression, to expose such a myth. It is precisely our "instinctive enjoyment" which is acculturated, determined, in bondage. Only when we know—and it is a knowledge gained by taking pains, by renouncing what Freud calls instinctual gratification—what we are doing when we read, are we free to enjoy what we read. As long as our enjoyment is—or is said to be—instinctive it is not enjoyment, it is terrorism. For literature is like love in La Rochefoucauld: no one would ever have experienced it if he had not first read about it in books. We require an education in literature as in the sentiments in order to discover that what we assumed—with the complicity of our teachers—was nature is in fact culture, that what was given is no more than a way of taking. And we must learn, when we take, the cost of our participation, or else we shall pay much more. We shall pay our capacity to read at all.
Barthes calls his study an essay, and in it a consideration of more than just the tale by Balzac is desirable if we hope to discern what it is that is being tried here. For the work on the text by Balzac, the dissection—into 561 numbered fragments,...
(The entire section is 1080 words.)
A decade ago, Susan Sontag suggested that rather than an esthetics we need an erotics of art. Roland Barthes has gone some way toward providing this in a slim volume called "The Pleasure of the Text" ["Le plaisir du texte"], a liberated and self-indulgent meditation on the solitary vice of reading. Here, and in the book that immediately preceded it, "S/Z," Barthes demonstrates a renewed suppleness that takes him beyond the limitations of much recent French work of a "structuralist" persuasion, including his own.
Taken together, "The Pleasure of the Text," and "S/Z" force us to notice how much of the most interesting thought today is being carried forward in what we used to call "literary criticism," and how important Barthes's own contribution to redefinition of the field has been….
"The Pleasure of the Text" is consciously an assertive book, Nietzschean in its manner, aiming at effect rather than persuasion. It is seductive and liberating, but also a bit overripe, in its discursive value somewhat limited. In "S/Z," on the other hand, we find the hedonist locked in a close and exacting dialectic with the ascetic, and the result is Barthes's best, most enlivening book to date, a work both of systematic analytical rigor and of consciously sensuous pleasure, which claims our attention as a rarely penetrating reflection on how and why we read. Barthes takes a tale by Balzac, "Sarrasine," divides it up into 561 "lexias"...
(The entire section is 1155 words.)
"S/Z" is a nearly unreadable book about reading, a two-hundred-page crawl through a thirty-page story by Balzac…. The reader emerges, as from that machine of Kafka's which engraved commandments upon the transgressor's skin, lexically enriched but lacerated; I have no recollection of any other book ostensibly in the English language which gave me such pains to peruse. Barthes says elsewhere, of good prose, that "it grates, it cuts," and his own is notably abrasive, his vocabulary a gnashing, flashing compound of Greek [and terms lifted from modern linguistics and common words] … recoined with a specific and not easily grasped meaning. His style is dense, terse, nervous, parenthetical, sometimes arch, and faintly insolent. He seems often to be recapitulating something we should have read elsewhere but haven't. He appropriates to the language of literary criticism a certain pseudo-mathematical sharpness. His method, in "S/Z," of moving by crabbed jerks through an after all rather melodramatic and romantic tale produced in this reviewer sensations of forestallment and obstruction so oppressive that relief manifested itself in the chronic form of an irresistible doze and, once, of an absolving dyspepsia.
Such a confession of readerly discomfort is appropriate here, for Barthes insists, in these two books, on the supremacy of "readerly" (lisible) over "writerly" (scriptible) literature…. The interaction between the never...
(The entire section is 1040 words.)
In Barthes's view, we are perpetually caught up, at every moment of our experience, by a mesh of words that prevents us from seeing what is really happening…. [We] perpetually see life in terms of the books we have read, and have quite lost the ability to see physical objects as they actually are. In so far as it ties us down to a predigested version of the way somebody else first saw the world and expressed it for us, this habit prevents us from realising our full potential as free human beings. It is consequently—though here I am extrapolating from Barthes's work, not referring to any formal statement which he has made—the task of the person who writes either about literature or about language to make people conscious of the distortions created by the way verbal communication works. The missionary role thus entrusted to the linguist or literary critic constitutes the most important conclusion which Barthes has drawn from Saussure's insistence on the arbitrary nature of signs, and provides both the central theme linking the whole of his work together and his most significant contribution to the intellectual life of the mid to late twentieth-century. (pp. 136-37)
Barthes is more a philosopher of language than a literary critic, and there is therefore some justification for his work being so difficult to understand. I would nevertheless maintain that to see him as a man determined to free people from preconceived ideas by pointing...
(The entire section is 2264 words.)
Roland A. Champagne
Literary theory has not yet found its place in literary history. Many Anglo-Americans are skeptical about its place in literary transactions because literary theory sometimes places actual readers and spectators of literary events in the background. The solution may not lie in integrating literary theory into literary history…. [The] writings of Roland Barthes encourage the beginnings of … a case for theory which encompasses both literary and historical texts. Barthes especially encourages exploration into a theory of reading with its own historicity with his writings on history and within the historical moment of reading. His kind of theory is one which engages readers and spectators of the reading transactions by identifying theory as a reflective and reflexive activity which generates self-awareness in those participating in the reading activity in order to know more about the nature of readers and reading and to change these into more creative persons and endeavors. Barthes had proposed that Orpheus become "the eponymous hero" for such a literary theory of reading because it was Orpheus who looked back upon Eurydice and destroyed his beloved in much the same manner that theoreticians of reading look back upon their reading to destroy the mechanical gaze.
Re-reading can learn much by imitating the Orphic look which destroys the object of its love. By examining the effects of such visions, we can begin to understand how and what...
(The entire section is 1581 words.)
Roland Barthes is an incomparable enlivener of the literary mind. He is as adventurous in the formulation of new principles for the understanding of literature as he is provocative in dispatching the old ones. To read him is to be led to think more intelligently and enjoyably about what literature is; about both the practice of writing and its function. He has renewed literary criticism in France, which is now a far more varied and practical discipline than it was, and is helping to renew it outside France as the translations of his work spread.
Barthes has not done this by constructing some definite theoretical position of his own vis-à-vis literature and then sticking to it stubbornly over the years. Quite the reverse; he is famous for his mobility, for the way in which he is constantly transcending old positions, and often in unexpected directions. Each new book that he publishes is very obviously a departure, not a consolidation of his earlier arguments. There is a consistency in Barthes, as I shall hope to bring out, but it is easy to lose sight of it when there is also so much attractive novelty. Barthes is determined to keep his mind moving, and not to allow his miscellaneous insights and projects for the interpretation of literary texts to harden conveniently into a doctrine. (p. 52)
[The] unusual preference for the plural and centrifugal, as against the singular and coherent, has come to mark...
(The entire section is 3620 words.)
Two writers, Nietzsche and Gide, both of whom played a decisive role in Barthes's intellectual formation, once compared their mode of thinking as analogous to a 'dance'. The analogy could be aptly applied to Barthes's own work, not in the sense of a carefully choreographed execution, but rather as an experimental performance, forever changing positions, ceaselessly self-revising, above all always on the move….
[In] the simplest terms, what was Barthes—a literary critic, a cultural historian, an anthropologist of the modern world, a structuralist, a semiologist? What was his most important book—the structural study of French fashion (Système de la mode, 1967), the semiological travelogue on Japan (L'Empire des signes, 1970), the studies of Racine and Balzac (Sur Racine, 1963, S/Z, 1970), the 'anti-autobiography' (Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, 1975), the study of the rhetoric of Love (Fragments d'un discours amoureux, 1977)? It is not just a question of the formidable range and catholicity of his interests but, more deeply, a question of intellectual strategy. Peculiarly resistant to our institutional orderings of the universe of knowledge, Barthes's work is, self-proclaimedly, without a centre….
[The] difficulty of 'placing' Barthes derives directly from the fact that he consciously organised his whole career around making a virtue, and an...
(The entire section is 1303 words.)
To say [Barthes] is one of the new French "structuralists" is no help: it is only misleading. What is "structuralism" any-way? We shall later see whether such a "school of philosophy" exists at all. Meanwhile, Barthes can be localized as a French critic and indeed as one of the most articulate and important literary critics writing today in any language, although Writing Degree Zero might not be enough, by itself, to convince anyone of the fact.
This is an extremely condensed little book, thick with esoteric language, highly charged with intuitions which may or may not be profound. You need some time to decide whether or not this is really a brilliant book or just another bag of critical tricks.
Barthes is at odds with Sartre on the question of littérature engagée. In other words he does not think the writer has a duty to arouse in the reader a revolutionary consciousness of some sort, though he does seem to think that "writing" is a subversive activity. On the other hand, he carries out an exemplary campaign of criticism against all forms of writing with a message, and particularly of writing with a political message. To be more precise, he separates the writing from the message and dissects the very mode of revolutionary writing (whether of the French or of the Marxist revolutions). He is, however, very much in favor of Brecht precisely as writer. And his model of "writing degree zero" is...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)
If a consistent theory of criticism emerges in [the] discontinuity of perspectives offered by Barthes … throughout his career, it very probably depends on what might be coined a zero-degree hermeneutics comparable to the concept of zero-degree style which he originally proposed almost three decades ago. As he advocates for literary form, his critical theory seems to be suspended in interspace between the methodologies which dominate it, but without really bringing these into harmony with each other. The critical act verges on each of them, but short of fusion and in a pattern of temptation and quick abandonment which actually seems to have accelerated throughout his career. In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, for example, he described his rejection of orthodox belief ("doxa") as a mode of "cruising," and in his last book, Camera Lucida, published in 1980, he finally turned to photography for a vision of permanence which eluded his literary methodology. In The Pleasures of the Text Barthes missed the opportunity to arrive at an affective synthesis based on the fundamental and almost self-evident premise that both the bliss and pleasure of literary experience (which he tried to distinguish from each other) are comparable to physical gratification as conscious byproducts of tension reduction—or, in a more global sense, of anxiety reduction as mediated by literary form. If Barthes had tried to explore this connection, he could well...
(The entire section is 3813 words.)