A Barthes Reader

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1967

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.

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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 regrettably was excluded from A Barthes Reader by its editor, Susan Sontag, is a brief, abstract, and frequently anthologized statement of what Structuralism is. It is neither a school nor a movement, Barthes says, but rather an activity: namely, man’s attempt at discovering how meaning is generated. Inspired by the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, the Structuralist dissects his object in order to identify those units which are capable of carrying meaning, after which he attempts to make manifest the rules by which these units function. This process entails the construction of a structure which is actually a simulacrum of the object which is being studied. The simulacrum thus constructed is not identical to the object itself, however, but shows how man has given meaning to that portion of his world which the object represents. In the final analysis, the object of Structuralist study thus becomes not the world as such but the processes by which man endows his world with meaning.

In his book Elements of Semiology, Barthes conducts a thorough theoretical investigation into the nature and possibilitites of a semiological science. The book demonstrates his dependence on Saussure for his basic model and conceptual vocabulary, but Barthes is original in his application of Saussure’s concepts to signifying systems other than language, such as food and dress. Literary semiology, however, is not specifically dealt with until the essay “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” which Barthes wrote as a preface to a special issue of the journal Communications in 1966 and the complete text of which has been included in A Barthes Reader. This essay has come to be regarded as one of the canonical texts of literary Structuralism.

The essay constitutes an indispensable contribution to literary Structuralism, as Barthes sketches a theory of narrative structure based on the linguistic model. The individual narrative can be treated as a large sentence, so that one may speak of narrative subjects and verbs. A central point of Barthes’s theory is the idea that a narrative may be described on several levels: that of the narrative functions, or pieces of narrative which exist as correlates to other pieces of narrative; that of the actants, or characters as described by what they do; and the level of narration itself. The reader or listener understands a story not only by following it sequentially, or from beginning to end, but also by moving back and forth between the various narrative levels as the story unfolds. The greater portion of the essay is devoted to a detailed analysis and classification of the elements which are at play on each of these narrative levels. Barthes maintains that each level stands in a hierarchical relationship to the next level, and that the various elements on one level carry meaning not only because of their relationship to other elements on the same level, but also because they are integrated into a superior level. The highest level, that of narration, receives its meaning from the world, those other sign systems whose elements are other substances, as, for example, historical facts. The level of narration consequently serves as a diaphragm which closes off the narration, thus giving it a certain amount of unity, at the same time as the narration is brought into contact with the world and its systems of production and consumption.

It would therefore be a mistake to think of Barthes as a Formalist who removes his object of study from the domain of history. It is the case, however, that structural analysis of literature has tended to focus on the text itself, thus bypassing both the problems which are associated with the figure of the author and other concerns which are exterior to the text. Barthes’s Structuralist phase came to an end in 1968, when he published another landmark essay entitled “La Mort de l’auteur” (“The Death of the Author”). Although Sontag did not include this pivotal essay in A Barthes Reader, she states in a prefatory note that she regrets the omission.

“The Death of the Author” marks Barthes’s transition into what could be called his post-Structuralist phase. Like his countryman Jacques Derrida, he argues for a definition of writing that detaches the text from the figure of the author, which traditionally has been regarded as the guarantor of the text’s meaning. Writing is, on the contrary, the destruction of every identifiable voice and every fixed point of origin, says Barthes; the text is orphaned in the sense that it is cut off from any fixed and generating consciousness. Rather than focusing attention on the author, Barthes prefers to locate the meaning of the text in the reader, who, however, is no more a fixed consciousness than the author. The real meaning of a text is to be found in its language, which is a textual field without beginning or end, and the reader is simply that function in the text which holds its various strands together. A text is nothing but the sum of a number of quotations from and relations to other texts. Barthes thus establishes the two cardinal post-Structuralist principles of textuality and intertextuality.

These two principles serve as a foundation for the final stage in Barthes’s thought, that of his erotics of literature. The central texts relative to this development are Le Plaisir de texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text, 1976), Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975; Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 1977), and Fragments d’un discours amoureux (1977; A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, 1979). First, Barthes reiterates the idea that the principle of intertextuality extends to the selves of authors, readers, and critics, the result being that the human cogito has to be regarded as a sum of relations, influences, and codes, much as a piece of literature is thus composed. In the guise of an autobiography, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes is an extended exercise in such a decomposition or deconstruction of the self. The highest form of interaction between mind and text, however, is found when the reader and the text interact in a manner which is similar to the sexual embrace of love, resulting in what Barthes designates with the French word jouissance. Literally translated as a full and satisfying pleasure, Barthes uses the word to reflect a literary experience which is analogous to the pleasure of an extended sexual climax. This is possible precisely because both mind and text are unbounded; in both, there is an absence of the final signified, which makes possible endless active interpretation. In a section of The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes terms the reader who is able to experience the text thus a hysteric, as opposed to obsessive, fetishistic, and paranoid readers, and A Lover’s Discourse is a successful attempt at creating a monument to “hysterical” discourse.

What above all characterizes Barthes’s work is his sense of intellectual adventure. Indeed, his latest work, cut off before fruition by his accidental death (he was struck by a van while crossing a street), gave evidence of yet another unpredictable metamorphosis—this time in the direction of mimesis, scorned by Structuralists and post-Structuralists alike. As a critic and a theorist, as a writer too protean to be comfortable with any theory, he created a legacy which undoubtedly will be a benefit to thoughtful people everywhere for generations to come. A Barthes Reader contains a representative selection from the texts which constitute that legacy.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 49

Commonweal. CIX, December 3, 1982, p. 666.

Library Journal. CVII, August, 1982, p. 1463.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 5, 1982, p. 3.

Nation. CCXXXV, November 20, 1982, p. 525.

The New Republic. CLXXXVII, october 11, 1982, p. 27.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 12, 1982, p. 1.

Newsweek. C, October 11, 1982, p. 106.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, June 11, 1982, p. 55.

Times Literary Supplement. December 10, 1982, p. 1372.

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