Roland Barthes

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Paul de Man (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5575

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 breakfast in a French provincial hotel: they know they don't like it but aren't entirely certain whether, for lack of some ritualistic initiation, they are not perhaps missing out on a good thing. Others are willing to swallow French culture whole, from breakfast coffee to Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, but since intellectual fashions change faster than culinary tastes, they may find themselves wearing a beret and drinking Pernod when the French avant-garde has long since switched to cashmere sweaters and a diet of cold milk. The essays2 by Roland Barthes that have just become available in excellent English translations date from 1953 to 1963; Mythologies, which appears in a regrettably shortened version, goes back to 1957.3 I cannot help worrying about all the things that could go wrong in the reception of texts that now combine a nostalgic with a genuine but out-of-phase revolutionary quality. Perhaps the most useful function for an American-based view of Roland Barthes may be to try to anticipate unwarranted dismissal for the wrong reasons as well as excessive enthusiasm for parts of the work with which Barthes himself might no longer be so pleased. Writing Degree Zero, the first of Barthes's essays to be translated into English, appeared with an introduction by Susan Sontag that raises very high expectations which, at first sight, may not seem to be fulfilled by these two later volumes.4

For despite the considerable emphasis on structure, code, sign, text, reading, intratextual relationships, etc., and despite the proliferation of a technical vocabulary primarily derived from structural linguistics, the actual innovations introduced by Roland Barthes in the analytical study of literary texts are relatively slight. Even in his more technical works such as S/Z, the study of a story by Balzac,5 and the various articles on semiology and on narrative techniques published mostly in the review Communications,6 the contribution to practical criticism is not as extensive as the methodological apparatus would lead one to expect. The work of “pure” structuralists such as the linguist Greimas and his group or of some among Barthes's most prominent associates, such as Gérard Genette or Tzvetan Todorov, is more rigorous and more exhaustive than Barthes's—though it is only fair to point out its avowed indebtedness to him. Hence the risk of disappointment or overhasty dismissal.

Barthes is primarily...

(This entire section contains 5575 words.)

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a critic of literary ideology, and as such, his work is more essayistic and reflective than it is technical, perhaps most of all when the claim to methodological precision is most emphatically stated. The close integration of methodology with ideology is an attractive characteristic of European intellectual life ever since structuralism became a public issue in the sixties—and, for better or worse, French writers on literature are still much closer to being public figures, committed to articulate positions, than their American equivalents. Barthes played a very prominent part in the recent “Battles of the Books,” and his work bears the traces of his involvements. It has to be read and understood as an intellectual adventure rather than as the scientifically motivated development of a method. He is at least as interested in the reasons for advocating certain technical devices as in their actual application. Hence the polemical tone of many of the essays, the many interviews, pamphlets, position papers, etc. Barthes should be read within the context of the particular situation to which he reacts, which is that of the ideological tensions underlying the practice of literary criticism in France. This situation is idiosyncratically French and cannot be transposedtel quel to the American scene. It does not follow however that the story of Barthes's intellectual journey is without direct interest for American readers. American criticism is notoriously rich in technical instruments but frustrated in its attempts to relate particular findings to the larger historical, semantic, and epistemological issues that have made these findings possible. That such difficulties exist is by no means a sign of weakness; it only becomes one if the broader inferences of a method are misconstrued. Barthes's enterprise is of wide enough significance to have paradigmatic value for all students of literature willing to put the premises of their craft into question.

A somewhat euphoric, mildly manic tone runs through Barthes's writings, tempered by considerable irony and discretion, but unmistakably braced by the feeling of being on the threshold of major discoveries: “A new anthropology, with unsuspected watersheds of meaning is perhaps being born: the map of human praxis is being redrawn, and the form of this enormous modification (but not, of course, its content) cannot fail to remind us of the Renaissance.”7 This statement dates from 1966, but one still finds similar trumpet blasts, only slightly muted, in recent utterances. It is the tone of a man liberated from a constraining past, who has “the earth … all before (him)” and who looks about “with a heart / Joyous, not scared at its own liberty.”8 The exact nature of this liberation can best be stated in linguistic terms, in a formula partly borrowed from Barthes himself: it is the liberation of the signifier from the constraints of referential meaning.

In all the traditional polarities used throughout the ages to describe the inherent tension that shapes literary language—polarities such as content/form, logos (what is being said) and lexis (the way of saying it), meaning/sign, message/code, langue/parole, signifié/signifiant, voice/writing, etc.—the implicit valorization has always privileged the first term and considered the second as an auxiliary, an adjunct or supplement in the service of the other. Language itself, as the sign of a presumably nonlinguistic content or “reality,” is therefore devalorized as the vehicle or carrier of a meaning to which it refers and that lies outside it; in the polarity man/language, it seems commonsensical enough to privilege the first term over the second and to rate experience above utterance. Literature is said to “represent” or “express” or, at most, to transform an extralinguistic entity which it is the interpreter's task to reach as a specific unit of meaning. Whatever shadings are used in describing the relationship (and they are infinite), it remains best expressed by the metaphor of a dependence of language on something in the service of which it operates. Language acquires dignity only to the extent that it can be said to resemble or to partake of the entity to which it refers. The Copernican revolution heralded by Barthes consists not in simply turning this model around (and thus in claiming that, instead of being the slave of meaning, language would now become its master) but in asserting the relative autonomy of what the linguist Saussure called the signifier, that is, the objective properties of the sign independently of their semantic function as code, such as, for example, the redness of a traffic light considered as an optical, or the sound of a word considered as an acoustic, event. The possibility for the signifier to enter into systems of relationship with other signifiers despite the constraint of the underlying9 meaning proves that the relationship between sign and meaning is not simply one of dependence. It suggests that the metaphorical language of hierarchies and power structures fails to do justice to the delicate complexity of these relationships. The science that sets out to describe the functions and interrelations of signifiers (of which reference is one among others) is called semiology or semiotics, the study of signs independently of their meanings, in contrast to semantics, which operates on the level of meaning. Barthes is one of the leading representatives of this science, not so much as its initiator—he is the first to acknowledge his debt to Saussure, Jakobson, Hjelmslev, and others—but as one of its most effective advocates.

One may well wonder why ideas about language leading up to the science of semiology acquired such polemical vigor in the hands of Roland Barthes. They had been around for quite a while, not only in the field of linguistics, but in various philosophies of language and in the formalist schools of literary criticism that dominated the scene in many countries, with the notable exception of France. It is true that the French have a way of taking hold, often belatedly, of other people's ideas and suddenly rediscovering them with so much original energy that they are positively reborn; this happened, in recent years, with Hegel, Heidegger, Freud, and Marx, and it is about to happen with Nietzsche. In Barthes's case, however, there is more to it than mere Gallic energy. His deliberate excursion into the realm of ideology is typical of the development that made the catchall phrase structuralism part of intellectual popular culture. And of all his books, the early Mythologies is perhaps best suited to illustrate the process I am trying to describe.

Barthes is a born semiologist, endowed with an innate sense of the formal play of linguistic connotation, the kind of eye and mind that notices at once how an advertisement for a brand of spaghetti seduces the onlooker by combining, in the picture of the red tomatoes, the white spaghetti, and the green peppers, the three colors of the house of Savoia and of the national Italian flag, thus allowing the consumer to taste all that makes Italy Italian in one single bite of canned pasta.10 He has used this gifted eye to scrutinize not only literature, but social and cultural facts as well, treating them in the same manner as a formalistically oriented literary critic would treat a literary text. Mythologies, a book that remains remarkably fresh although the facts it evokes belong to the bygone era of pre-Gaullist France in the early fifties, undertakes precisely this kind of semiocritical sociology. Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno are among the undisputed masters of the genre, but I doubt that Barthes, although he was an early exponent of the work of Brecht in France, knew their work well at the time of writing the Mythologies. The common ancestry is nevertheless apparent from the reference, in the important concluding essay on history and myth, to Marx's German Ideology, the model text for all ideological demystifications.

Almost any of the Mythologies can be used to illustrate Barthes's main insight. Take, for instance, the opening essay on catch-as-catch-can wrestling as an example of the contrast between a referential, thematic reading and the free play of signifiers. The point is not that, in the world of catch as catch can, all the fights are rigged; this would not make the event less referential but merely displace the referent from the theme, “competition,” to that of “deceit.” What fascinates Barthes is that actors as well as spectators fully acquiesce to the deceit and that all pretense at open contest has been abandoned, thus voiding the event of all content and all meaning. There only remains a series of gestures that can be highly skillful at mimicking competition (the triumph of winning, the abjection of defeat, or the drama of reversal or peripeteia) but that only exist formally, independently of an outcome that is no longer part of the game. Catch is not a game but a simulacrum, a fiction: Barthes calls it a “myth.”

Myths of this kind abound in the fabric of any society. Their attraction is not due to their actual content but to the glitter of their surface, and this glitter, in turn, owes its brilliance to the gratuity, the lack of semantic responsibility, of the fictional sign. This play is far from innocent. It is in the nature of fictions to be more persuasive than facts and especially persuasive in seeming more real than nature itself. Their order, their symmetry is possible because they are accountable only to themselves, yet these are precisely the qualities wishfully associated with the world of nature and necessity. As a result, the most superfluous of gestures also become the hardest to do without. Their very artificiality endows them with a maximum of natural appeal. Fictions or myths are addictive because they substitute for natural needs by seeming to be more natural than the nature they displace. The particular shade of bad conscience associated with fiction stems from the complicity involved in the partial awareness of this ambivalence, coupled with an even stronger desire to avoid the revelation, public or private, of this knowledge. It follows that fictions are the most marketable commodity manufactured by man, an adman's dream of perfect coincidence between description and promotion. Disinterested in themselves, they are the defenseless prey of any interest that wishes to use them. When they are thus being enlisted in the service of collective patterns of interest, including interests of the highest moral or metaphysical order, fictions become ideologies. One can see why any ideology would always have a vested interest in theories of language advocating correspondence between sign and meaning, since they depend on the illusion of this correspondence for their effectiveness. On the other hand, theories of language that put into question the subservience, resemblance, or potential identity between sign and meaning are always subversive, even if they remain strictly confined to linguistic phenomena.

Barthes's Mythologies are fully aware of this; they bring the subversiveness into the open by exposing the structure of the social myths as well as their manipulation. The political implications are clearly visible as the Mythologies move from the relatively harmless mystifications of catch as catch can or the Tour de France to consumer goods such as the Citroën DS, steak pommes frites, or the singing style of the baritone Gérard Souzay, to reach finally the domain of the printed word and image as they appear in Paris-Match or in the movies. After having been the target of a heavy-handed and vicious attack by Raymond Picard, a Sorbonne professor of French literature whose main field of specialization is the life of Racine, Barthes wrote perhaps his best “mythology” in the first part of the counterattacking pamphlet entitled Critique et vérité (1966), in which the ideological infrastructure of the French academic literary establishment is revealed with masterful economy and without an ounce of personal spite.

The demystifying power of semiology is both a source of strength and a danger. It is impossible to be so consistently right at the expense of others without some danger to oneself. Barthes's social criticism and the means used in accomplishing its highly laudable aim engender their own mystification, this time at the level of method rather than of substance. The very power of the instrument creates an assurance that generates its own set of counterquestions. In this case, the questions have to do with the claim of having grounded the study of literature on foundations epistemologically strong enough to be called scientific. The heady tone alluded to earlier appears whenever this claim is being made. Putting it, in its turn, into question nowise means a desire to turn the clock back, a foolish wish at best, for there can be no return from the demystifying power of semiological analysis. No literary study can avoid going through a severe semiocritical process, and there is much to be said for going through these fires with as urbane, surefooted, and entertaining a guide as Roland Barthes. What happens on the far side of this crossing remains an open question. At stake here is the future of structuralism as an intellectual movement but also as a methodological blueprint for scientific research that, like Rousseau's state of nature, “no longer exists, has perhaps never existed and will probably never come into being”11 but which we nevertheless cannot do without.

As in Barthes's social myths, the referential, representational effectiveness of literary language is greater than in actual communication because, like his wrestlers, it is so utterly devoid of message. As we say of bombs that they overkill, we can say of literature that it overmeans. This referential suggestiveness, which accounts for the fact that one responds with much stronger emotion to a fictional narrative than to an actual event, is of course illusionary and something for which a science of literature (whether we call it stylistics or semiology) should account without being taken in by it. The classical way of dealing with the question is to bypass it, as when Roman Jakobson rightfully asserts that, in literature, language is autotelic, i.e., “focused on the message for its own sake,”12 rather than on its meaning. By getting rid of all the mess and muddle of signification, the formula opens up a heretofore undiscovered world of scientific discourse covering the entire field of literary syntax, grammar, phonology, prosody, and rhetoric. With the inevitable result, however, that the privileged adequation of sign and meaning that governs the world of literary fictions is taken as the ideal model toward which all semantic systems are assumed to tend. This model then begins to function as a regulatory norm by means of which all deviations and transformations of a given system are measured. Literature becomes, to borrow a phrase from the title of Barthes's first book, a degree zero of semantic aberration. We know that it owes this privileged position to the bracketing of its referential function, which is dismissed as contingency or ideology and not taken seriously as a semantic interference within the semiological structure.

The seduction of the literary model has undoubtedly worked on Barthes, as it is bound to work on all writers endowed with a high degree of literary sensitivity. Up through Mythologies, it takes at times a rather naive form, as when, in the concluding essay of that book, literature, in opposition to ideology, is held up as a “transformation of the sign into meaning: its ideal would be … to reach, not the meaning of words, but the meaning of things in themselves” (Mythologies, 241). In the manifesto Critique et vérité, in which the vocabulary is more transformational than structural, closer to Chomsky than to Jakobson, the position is more complex but not essentially different. It now takes the form of a three-pronged, hierarchized scheme of approach to literature, in which a distinction is made among literary science, literary criticism, and literary readings. The controlling authority of the first discipline, the only one to be free from the error of semantization and to lay claim to truth, is beyond question:

If one is willing to admit the textual nature of the literary work (and draw the proper conclusions from this knowledge), then a certain type of literary science becomes possible. … Its model will undoubtedly be linguistic. … The object of literary science will have for its aim not to explain why a certain meaning has to be accepted, not even why it has been accepted (this being the task of historians), but why it is acceptable not in terms of the philological rules of literary meaning but in terms of the linguistic rules of symbolic connotation.

(Critique et vérité, 57-58; de Man's translation)

By emphatically drawing attention to its own methodological apparatus, S/Z, Barthes's most systematic piece of literary analysis to date, allows itself to be taken as a first exemplary move in the elaboration of such a science. The impact of this example on literary studies deserves to be extensive and long lasting, although it will be resisted in many ways, including the most insidious way of all: the use of praise in order to protect oneself against the consequences of insight. It will not do, for example, to dismiss the methodological claims as a device used by a writer of more traditional literary virtues. We cannot reassure ourselves by stressing the elegance, the sensitivity, the strongly personal, even confessional, element that is part of Barthes's tone and that makes him one of the “best” writers at work today in any genre, in the most traditional sense of this qualitative epithet. Nor can we merely classify and dismiss him as one more example of a “modern” alienated consciousness. The theoretical challenge is genuine, all the more so since the particular quality of Barthes's writing is due to his desire to believe in its theoretical foundations and to repress doubts about their solidity.

The unresolved question remains whether the semantic, reference-oriented function of literature can be considered as contingent or whether it is a constitutive element of all literary language. The autotelic, self-referential aspect of literature stressed by Jakobson cannot seriously be contested; why then is it always and systematically overlooked, as if it were a threat that had to be repressed? The just-quoted passage from Critique et vérité laying down the directives for the literary science of the future is a good example: Barthes can be seen fluttering around the question like a moth around a live flame, fascinated but backing away in self-defense. All theoretical findings about literature confirm that it can never be reduced to a specific meaning or set of meanings, yet it is always reductively interpreted as if it were a statement or message. Barthes grants the existence of this pattern of error but denies that literary science has to account for it; this is said to be the task of historians, thus implying that the reasons for the recurrent aberration are not linguistic but ideological. The further implication is that the negative labor of ideological demystification will eventually be able to prevent the distortion that superimposes upon literature a positive, assertive meaning foreign to its actual possibilities. Barthes has never renounced this hope; in a recent interview, despite many nuances and reservations, he still speaks of “the ultimate transparency of social relationships”13 as the goal of the critical enterprise. Yet, in the meantime, his methodological postulates have begun to erode under the impact of the question which he hoped to delegate to other, more pragmatic disciplines.

That literature can be ideologically manipulated is obvious but does not suffice to prove that this distortion is not a particular aspect of a larger pattern of error. Sooner or later, any literary study must face the problem of the truth value of its own interpretations, no longer with the naive conviction of a priority of content over form, but as a consequence of the much more unsettling experience of being unable to cleanse its own discourse of abhorrently referential implications. The traditional concept of reading used by Barthes and based on the model of an encoding/decoding process is inoperative if the master code remains out of reach of the operator, who then becomes unable to understand his own discourse. A science unable to read itself can no longer be called a science. The possibility of a scientific semiology is challenged by a problem that can no longer be accounted for in purely semiological terms.

This challenge reached Barthes from the somewhat unexpected quarter of philosophy, a discipline that earlier structuralists had discarded in favor of the so-called sciences of man: psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. The dismissal proved to be premature, based as it was on an inadequate evaluation of the specifically philosophical ability to put the foundations of its own discipline into question in a self-destructive manner that no science could ever dare to emulate. The work of Michel Foucault and especially of Jacques Derrida (whose determining influence on literary theory is confirmed by the recently published book La Dissémination) treats the problem of linguistic delusion in a manner which semiological critics of Barthes's persuasion cannot afford to ignore.14

Barthes's intellectual integrity is apparent in his reaction to this philosophical challenge. For the time being, it has taken the form of a retreat from the methodological optimism that still inspired S/Z. More recent theoretical papers—though not more recent books such as L'Empire des signes, inspired by a trip to Japan, or Sade, Fourier, Loyola, in which the semiological euphoria is allowed to reign undisturbed—sketch out a much less ambitious program that sounds like a return to a pragmatic collecting of literary data. One of these papers, available in English translation and sharply aware of the inability of semiology to account for the stylistic tension between written and spoken language, invites us to embark on

the search for models or patterns: sentence structures, syntagmatic clichés, divisions and clausulae of sentences; and what would inspire such work is the conviction that style is essentially a citational process, a body of formulae, a memory (almost in the cybernetic sense of the word), a cultural and not an expressive inheritance. … These models are only the depositories of culture (even if they seem very old). They are repetitions, not essential elements; citations, not expressions; stereotypes, not archetypes.15

Traces of many readings, from Propp to Gilles Deleuze, are noticeable in these sentences, and American readers will rightly think of Northrop Frye's Anatomy as a related enterprise. But the attitude cannot represent a definitive position. The mind cannot remain at rest in a mere repertorization of its own recurrent aberrations; it is bound to systematize its own negative self-insights into categories that have at least the appearance of passion and difference.

There is every reason to suppose that Barthes's future work will participate in this development, as he participated decisively in the development that led up to it. The arde review Tel Quel, whose attitude toward orthodox structuralism has always been healthily uncomplacent, recently devoted an entire issue to Roland Barthes,16 thus creating, probably unintentionally, the impression that it was trying to make a monument out of a man who is about as monumental as a Cheshire cat. Whoever assumes this to be possible would seriously misjudge the resilience of one of the most agile minds in the field of literary and linguistic studies.

As far as American criticism is concerned, its reaction to Barthes is still unclear. The recent translations are a useful but still inadequate first step in introducing his work to English readers. The Critical Essays stem from the period that precedes the development of semiology—roughly 1963—and are mostly interesting in that they map out the domain of Barthes's discontent with the prevailing methods of literary criticism in France during the fifties and his delight at discovering the new perspectives opened by his readings in linguistics. They create the somewhat misleading impression that his main interests are confined to the theater of Brecht and to the novels of Robbe-Grillet, and they should certainly not be taken as a comprehensive sample of his accomplishments.17 There is more semiological finesse to be gathered from the Mythologies. How the availability of his more important theoretical writings (Critique et vérité,S/Z, various theoretical papers) might influence American criticism can begin to be inferred from the reaction of some specialists who are already familiar with this work. It is fair to assume that it will meet with considerable resistance. Even as informed a scholar as the American practitioner of stylistics, Seymour Chatman, who has done a great deal to bring continental and American literary theory closer together, takes Barthes to task for putting the referential function of literary language into question. In a recent essay entitled “On Defining Form,” he writes: “It is difficult to understand why one should deny that there are, ultimately, contents or signifiés referred to. … The content of a literary work is not the language but what the language stands for, its reference. … The language is a mediating form between the literary form (structure-texture) and the ultimate content.”18 The main point to be learned from Barthes is not that literature has no referential function but that no “ultimate” referent can ever be reached and that therefore the rationality of the critical metalanguage is constantly threatened and problematic. I have suggested that Barthes may have been all too hopeful in having believed, for a time, that the threat could be ignored or delegated to historians. The self-assurance he thus gained was productive and has a negative validity, as far as it goes; now that it seems to know its horizons, it remains a necessary part of any critical education. To return to an unproblematic notion of signification is to take a step backwards into a pseudoscience too remote from its object to be demystified by it. As long as the “libération du signifiant” is being resisted for the wrong reasons, the full impact of Barthes's work cannot become manifest.


  1. William Empson, “Assertions dans les mots,” Poétique 6 (1971): 239-70. It must be added, however, that the same review has also published very recent American work of younger authors, in some cases before they appeared in this country.

  2. Roland Barthes, Essais Critiques (Paris: Seuil, 1964), trans. Richard Howard as Critical Essays (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972).

  3. The book consists of a series of brief texts on miscellaneous topics. The texts are complete in themselves, but several have been left out, probably on the wrong assumption that their local setting would make them unintelligible for English readers. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Paris: Seuil, 1957), trans. Annette Lavers as Mythologies (New York: Hill & Wang, 1972). Further references appear in the text.

  4. Writing Degree Zero, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Hill & Wang, 1968).

  5. The enigmatic title S/Z is deliberately and playfully ambiguous. It takes off from an anomaly in Balzac's spelling of his hero's name: the sculptor Sarrasine, who falls in love with the castrato singer Zambinella and whose name would normally be spelled Sarrazine. Beyond this fact, the title has many allusive connotations. The most obvious points to the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, author of an influential article on the revelatory power of letter substitutions. The formulaic figure S/Z mimics the notation S/s, also used by Jacques Lacan to represent the relationship between signifier and signified (significant and signifié) in which the slash, /, can be read as the symbolic sign of the repression or castration represented as a thematic event in Balzac's fiction. S/Z (Paris: Seuil, 1970), trans. Richard Howard as S/Z (New York: Hill & Wang, 1974).

  6. Some of the essays first published in Communications have been reprinted in Roland Barthes, L'Aventure sémiologique (Paris: Seuil, 1985) and in English in Roland Barthes, The Semiotic Challenge, trans. Richard Howard, (New York: Hill & Wang, 1988).

  7. Roland Barthes, Critique et vérité (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 48. Further references appear in the text.

  8. See the opening of Wordsworth's Prelude: 1805, ed. E. de Selincourt, rev. Helen Darbishire (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), bk. 1, ll. 15-16.

  9. One could just as well say, with equal metaphorical authority, overstanding (or transcendental) as underlying.

  10. The example is taken from an article published in the journal Communications 8 (1964) and entitled “Rhétorique de l'image,” trans. Stephen Heath as “Rhetoric of the Image,” in Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977).

  11. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes, in Oeuvres complètes, ed. B. Gagnebin and M. Raymond (Paris: Gallimard, 1964), 123. De Man translates.

  12. Roman Jakobson, “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” in Selected Writings, ed. Stephen Rudy (The Hague: Mouton, 1981), 3:25.

  13. See Roland Barthes, “Réponses,” Tel Quel 47 (Autumn 1971), special issue on Roland Barthes, 107.

  14. Jacques Derrida, La Dissémination (Paris: Seuil, 1972). In English as Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

  15. Roland Barthes, “Style and Its Image,” in Seymour Chatman, ed., Literary Style: A Symposium (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 9-10.

  16. Tel Quel 47 (Autumn 1971).

  17. The important group of essays On Racine was published in English translation in 1964 but, possibly because of the specialized French subject matter, has not received the attention it deserves. The book raises the question of Barthes's complex relationship to psychoanalytical methods of interpretation, a topic perhaps best approached from the perspective of the later S/Z. See Roland Barthes, On Racine (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964).

  18. In New Literary History 2 (1971): 219-28.

This essay appears to date from 1972. It was commissioned by the New York Review of Books as a review of extant translations of Barthes's work into English but was never printed. Correspondence indicates that the editors found the essay too technical for a general readership. The essay differs from the previously published version appearing in Yale French Studies, 77 (1990). It is based on a typescript that came to light after the YFS publication and that incorporates de Man's revisions. The notes accompanying this essay are de Man's. The editors have supplied additional bibliographical information where necessary (i.e., to bring the apparatus into conformity with current practices or to provide missing references).


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1144

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Jane Gallop (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6873

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 gives us. The double meaning points to a difficulty in separating subject and object within the realm of textual pleasure. Barthes writes: “On the stage (in the scene) of the text … there is not a subject and an object. The text outdates grammatical attitudes” (29).

The Pleasure of the Text represented something like a break with Barthes's previous writings, inaugurating what would be the last phase of his work. Previously Barthes had been engaged in more or less scientific study of literature as well as leftist-leaning ideological analyses of culture. Whether engaged in disclosing the workings of ideology or trying to formulate a scientific theory of the text, Barthes had been above all a “serious” writer. And that seriousness devolved from his writing stance. Often ironic, highly logical and systematic, sometimes bitingly polemical, Barthes wrote with appropriate critical objectivity about whatever object he was studying.

The object of this book is pleasure, but a new object would not constitute an epistemological break in Barthes's oeuvre since throughout his career he had considered widely varying objects. What is new about this book is reflected in the duplicity of the title, in the fact that the object of this book (pleasure) is not simply an object. If in the realm of textual pleasure it is difficult to separate subject from object, that dilemma might render it impossible to write objectively on the subject.

Pleasure is not simply an object in the text but is something that happens to the reader. Whereas structure, for example, would pretend to be immanent in the text where it could be studied and verified once and for all for any possible reading (hence affording structuralism a scientific status), pleasure depends on the individual reading and is thus uncertain. “Everyone can testify,” Barthes writes, thus grounding his statement not in objective fact but in subjective experience, “that the pleasure of the text is not sure: nothing can say that this same text will please us a second time: it's a friable pleasure, crumbled by mood, habit, circumstance, it's a precarious pleasure” (83).

Pleasure is, we might say, a subjective effect. And certainly what is new in the book and will intensify in Barthes's later works is the explicit subjectivity of his writing position. Yet he would not call this stance subjectivity, since it is not based on a unified, enduring subject but is related to things like “mood, habit, circumstance,” not to whom the reader is in any substantial, essential way but to the specific historical conjunction of reader and text, to the circumstances of the scene (the “stage,” the performance) of reading.

Barthes's change of style has provoked passionate response, both negative and positive. The polarity of response could be represented by two recent books on Barthes, each by an author long familiar with and committed to his work. Their respective titles reflect the divergence in viewpoints on the break with structuralist science and embrace of pleasure. Annette Lavers calls her book Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After.2 Although a study of Barthes's work, it is also equally a book on structuralism, an introduction to structuralism. The last phase of his career, from The Pleasure of the Text to his death in 1980, is treated as mere aftermath, an epilogue to the story of structuralism. The book allots only one of its fifteen chapters to all four books of Barthes's last phase. That chapter, the last of the book, vigorously condemns Barthes for betraying his contestatory position as critical intellectual and taking on the bourgeois image of the writer. Lavers even attempts psychoanalytic explanations of Barthes's fall into weakness, his sacrifice of intellectual and political rigor for the sake of bourgeois acceptance. Steven Ungar, on the other hand, entitles his book Roland Barthes: The Professor of Desire,3 a title which makes it clear that for Ungar the essential Barthes is that of the post-structuralist phase when pleasure and desire became central to his theorizing. Ungar's book treats the entirety of Barthes's pre-structuralist and structuralist work in the first of its four sections, as a prehistory to the hero of the title, the professor of desire. For Ungar the 1973 book marks the moment Barthes came into his own and began doing something really radical, calling into question his own authority, the authority of objective scientific criticism.

It is noteworthy that both positions—the attack and the celebration—make explicit connections between Barthes's work and left-wing politics. Lavers: “Barthes takes refuge in passivity and the pleasures identified with the mother. But still, they are in his mind impossible to reconcile with socialism, and therefore guilty” (21). Guilty pleasure, guilty in relation to Barthes's “socialism.” Ungar: “Never a Marxist in an orthodox sense [Barthes's] sensitivity to the use and misuse of authority has often suggested a sympathy to left-wing politics” (xv-xvi).

Lavers considers it the responsibility of the intellectual to challenge the dominant ideology, that is, bourgeois values and myths. Ungar believes we should challenge the power and authority that is masked as scientific objectivity, which itself functions as a very powerful ideology. Both critics judge Barthes from what is in one way or another a leftist, contestatory point of view and come to opposite conclusions about The Pleasure of the Text. Certainly this is where the passion comes from.

Passion and politics; politics and pleasure; leftist standards; a book on pleasure. “An entire little mythology,” Barthes writes, “tends to make us think that pleasure is an idea of the right. The right, in one swoop, relegates to the left everything that is abstract, boring, political and keeps pleasure for itself. … And the left, out of moralism, suspects, disdains any ‘residue of hedonism’” (38). “An entire little mythology,” writes Barthes. Mythologies is the title of one of Barthes's first books, pre-structuralism, where he analyzed the workings of ideology in mass culture. That book was translated by Annette Lavers.4 The quotation above from The Pleasure of the Text is a rare use of the word “mythology” in this sense in the last phase of Barthes's work. We thus momentarily return to the language of cultural criticism in order to question the ideological segregation of politics and pleasure, which locates politics as a leftist value and pleasure on the right. At the same time this passage foretells the negative reaction to his own move toward pleasure, correctly imagining the left, morally outraged rejection of his hedonism, and presuming to analyze the ideological underpinnings of that rejection before it even occurs.

Christopher Norris, who in his review of The Pleasure of the Text decries Barthes's hedonism from an explicitly Marxist perspective, writes that “the sensitive place in Barthes's exposition is plainly the suasive piece about ‘right’ and ‘left’ conceptions of literature.”5 Norris feels that “the little mythology” is “plainly the sensitive place.” This is obviously the crux; the book clearly, certainly, self-evidently hinges on the question of left and right. By the expression “the sensitive place” Norris means the weak point, the vulnerable spot in the argument, but in the context of Barthes's theory of textual pleasure we could also hear “the sensitive place” as “the erogenous zone.” This is the point where the critic can get Barthes, but the attack takes on erotic connotations.

Connotations reinforced by Norris' overheated prose. Norris calls Barthes's last mythology a “suasive piece.” According to Barthes, “a word can be erotic … if it is unexpected, succulent in its novelty (in certain texts, words glitter, they are distractive, incongruous apparitions—it matters little that they are pedantic)” (Plaisir 68). For me, Norris' “suasive” is such a word, a word that sends me scurrying to the dictionary where I learn that “suasive” is the adjectival form of “suasion” which means persuasion and is “used chiefly in the phrase moral suasion.” In this “sensitive place” Barthes is using seductive rhetoric, working on the moral sense of his reader. In the “little mythology,” we remember, the moral sense is implicated in the left's suspicion of pleasure.

Plainly, “suasive” marks a “sensitive place” in Norris' exposition. Echoes of morality, seduction, and eros, here at the juncture of pleasure and politics, the passionately moral question of left or right. And in The Pleasure of the Text, “the sensitive place,” the place of passion where the text suddenly gives itself over to the reader's inquisitive touch, turns out to be, in keeping with Barthes's notion of the erotic as the unexpected, the sensitive place turns out to be not the explicitly sexual ideas and images but this discussion of the politics of pleasure.

The Pleasure of the Text does not seem to be a political text. In fact pleasure is there valued because it is beyond the conflictual positions of ideological struggle. Yet despite a certain impression of apolitical hedonism, politics and ideology are questions running throughout the book. If we try to read The Pleasure of the Text apolitically, banishing politics, embracing pleasure, then we have fallen into the reactionary side of the mythology. The right covers over political questions with aesthetic questions of pleasure; the left masks its pleasures with political positions. The book must be read, has been read, will be read within and against this “little mythology.” We must think politics and pleasure together. What are the politics of pleasure? What the pleasures of politics?

Barthes writes of a form of ecstasy (intensest, most disruptive mode of pleasure, which he calls jouissance), a form of ecstasy that “consists in depoliticizing what is apparently political, and in politicizing what apparently is not” (Plaisir 71). One of the disturbing but also pleasurable effects of this book may be this radical shuffling of the place of the political so that it is not where we expect it and only appears when unexpected. Yes, indeed, the book is a depoliticization—reactionary gesture, Lavers' complaint—; it flees serious ideological struggle and escapes to the self-indulgent realm of pleasure. But it seems also, at least in its effects, to make pleasure a serious political question (leftist gesture).

Immediately after the sentence “another ecstasy … consists in depoliticizing what is apparently political and in politicizing what apparently is not,” there is a dash like those marking another voice in dialogue, and we read, “But no, see here, one politicizes what ought to be and that's it.” Immediately after positing another, more pleasurable relation to politics, one that is outside “the little mythology,” another voice speaks, a critical, impatient voice from within the text that would call Barthes back into line, back to moral obligation. The word “ought” (“one politicizes what ought to be”) is in italics. This is the voice of the orthodox left for which there is a moral obligation to politicize everything. Any depoliticization shirks that responsibility. The voice could be Lavers', but it is coming from within Barthes's text. As Lavers says: “[Barthes's pleasures] are in his mind impossible to reconcile with socialism and therefore guilty” (212). The question of Barthes's complacency and cooptation by reactionary values is unavoidable, precisely because the book is literally in dialogue with that question.

Barthes's critics debate the politics of his hedonist gesture. So does his text. What is the politics of pleasure? That will be one of our questions here. A question I ask in the light of femininism.

Feminism has gone a long way to “politicize what apparently is not,” or perhaps I should say, “to politicize what ought to be.” “The personal is the political” is now an overly familiar feminist slogan. And we are indebted to feminism for the most cogent political analyses of sexuality, just as we must thank an early feminist literary critic, Kate Millett, for the phrase sexual politics. In Barthes's little book pleasure is always strongly tied to sexual pleasure. Is feminist sexual politics a politics of pleasure? Or does pleasure remain, for feminism, a suspicious depoliticization of the sexual?

Barthes and feminism, strange bedfellows? To my knowledge Barthes never discusses feminism, anywhere: The Pleasure of the Text never even mentions sexual difference, although both sexuality and difference are central themes. Lavers implies that feminists are, with good reason, hostile to Barthes, although her sentence about it is more than usually obscure, obscured, no doubt, by passion (208). Lavers cites Claudine Herrmann's book of feminist literary criticism, Les Voleuses de langue, as her example of the feminist critique of Barthes. Herrmann uses a passage from The Pleasure of the Text to show that for Barthes both bad writing and its reader are feminine, not of course explicitly but in the imagery. For Herrmann, Barthes is only one of an entire tradition of male writers who associate denigration and femininity.6

Even Ungar, Barthes's champion, can only say, “Barthes is certainly something less (or other) than a feminist” (90). Writing from a 1980s American progressive point of view, Ungar characterizes Barthes as “less than a feminist.” Not to be a feminist in this age is to be lacking, inadequate. But in parentheses he adds “or other,” hoping to free Barthes and himself from this moral responsibility, from an oppressive standard into some sort of alterity. The gesture is ironic since the history of phallocentric thought has considered woman “less than man,” inferior, castrated, and feminists have argued that we are not less but other.

For Ungar's Barthes the tables are turned, and if this inversion seems suspect or glib, it might also point to some common ground between Barthes's project and feminism. Both, we might say, attempt to rethink what is traditionally “less than” as “other.” Barthes writes: “The pleasure of the text is always possible as the exercise of a different physiology” (Plaisir 49). In that valorization of “a different physiology,” in the insistence on a positive reading of difference in the body, I hear something potentially friendly to feminism.

The politics of Barthes's book is a sexual politics as well as a politics of sexual difference, but sexual there refers not to the sexes but to eroticism, and sexual difference is individual difference, perversion, rather than the difference between the sexes. Textual pleasure and its wilder cousin textual ecstasy are presented not only as bodily and erotic but as specifically perverse. Perversion is here defined as “pleasure without function” (31), just as perverse sexuality, according to Barthes, “removes ecstasy (orgasm) from the finality of reproduction” (40). Pleasure is perverse when it is not subjugated to any function, like reproduction. Textual pleasure is not only perverse sexually (by not serving the reproduction of the species), but also without any higher function such as instruction, communication, or ideological stance. Or rather, I would say, it is not that the latter functions do not obtain, but that the pleasure of the text is not subordinate to them in any predictable way.

If the pleasure of literature is “an idea of the right,” sexual perversion is not. Thus by insistently sexualizing pleasure, Barthes breaks up the mythological solidarity of aesthetics and conservative values. By laying bare the perversion of aesthetic pleasure, he renders textual pleasure unacceptable to the right although it remains condemnable to the left as decadent “hedonism.”

What is the relation between sexualizing pleasure and politicizing pleasure? According to Barthes “there are few [writers] who fight against both ideological repression and libidinal repression” (58). The politicizers and the sexualizers are on the whole different. Yet, as I have suggested, feminism is at least nominally the place of sexual politics: explicitly sexual explicitly politics. Perversion, however, is a thorny problem for feminism.

If perversion is defined as the liberation of sexuality from reproductive ends, then many of the central issues of feminism would find common cause there. Abortion, contraception, lesbianism, clitoridectomy all involve questions of the right to non-reproductive sexual pleasure. Indeed the central gesture in modern feminist sexology, the displacement of the primary female sexual organ from vagina to clitoris, can be understood as a move from an organ of reproduction to an organ of pleasure which does not serve reproduction. This displacement might then itself be considered a perversion, in Barthes's sense of “removing orgasm from the finality of reproduction.”

Feminism has expressed continual solidarity with the gay liberation movement and thus defended this “perversion.” But it should be added, of course, that the usual feminist move is not to embrace perversion, as Barthes does, but rather to challenge the notion of homosexuality as perverse. If classically the clitoral woman, whether homo- or heterosexual, is considered perverted, the politics of feminism has been to challenge the classification and redefine the clitoris and lesbianism as normal.

Thus, in fact, feminism has not embraced perversion, but has defined it differently than Barthes does. And indeed, large sectors of the feminist movement stand in violent opposition to perversion which is understood to be male. The pervert—child molester, rapist, porno fan, fetishist, voyeur, exhibitionist, sadist, masochist, etc.—is seen as symptom of an aggressive, male sexuality that is inherently perverted and a primary enemy of feminism.

In its efforts to reclaim the clitoris and the lesbian from the realm of perversion, feminism has constituted a new standard for normal sexuality. The norm for feminist sexuality is an egalitarian relation of tenderness and caring where each partner is considered as a “whole person” rather than as an object of sexual fantasy. This norm clearly devolves from feminist critiques of patriarchal, phallocentric sexuality. Since relations between the sexes are, in a feminist analysis, considered the equivalent of relations between class-enemies, the egalitarian standard renders questionable whether any heterosexual relation (at least at this point in history) can be “normal.”

Normal feminist sexuality is thus lesbian. If this seems in some way absurd, since the vast majority of feminists are still practicing heterosexuals, let us remember that likewise according to Barthes's biologico-psychoanalytico-Catholic definition of normal sexuality as subordinate to reproduction, only a small portion of sexual activity could be considered normal. Whatever the standard, few people seem to be sexually normal. When thinking about the functioning of sexual norms, we should bear in mind that, especially in the realm of the sexual, a norm is not a mean but an ideal.

In an excellent article on pleasure, sexuality, and feminism, Cora Kaplan, a feminist literary critic, notes that since both radical and revolutionary feminism “have located the universal truth of gender oppression in a sadistic and insatiable male sexuality, which is empowered to humiliate and punish [, a]ny pleasure that accrues to women who take part in heterosexual acts is … necessarily tainted.” If male sexuality is sadistic, female heterosexual pleasure must necessarily be masochistic. Tainted pleasure, bad, sick, masochistic: perversion. Liberated from subjection to biologico-Christian standards, pleasure must now be politically correct. Kaplan continues: “at the extreme end of this position, women who ‘go with men’ are considered collaborators.”7

My point, let me be clear, is not to complain that lesbians oppress their heterosexual sisters. Lesbians are an oppressed minority group who do not have the power to enforce their own hierarchies even if they wished to. My point rather is that there is a standard of normal sexuality in feminist thought, of politically correct sexuality which functions as morality and condemns pleasure that is not subordinate to it. (Witness the scandal created within feminism by the “coming out” of lesbian sadomasochists.)

Heterosexual feminists may experience their sexuality as a disturbing contradiction to their political stance. Within feminism heterosexual desire has only been theorized negatively. For example, penetration enacts the subjugation of women by men. Women's attraction to men reinforces phallocentrism and women's sense of their own inferiority. In such models there is little place for pleasure, which then becomes perverse, rebellious, insubordinate to political reason. Lesbian pleasure, to be sure, has been celebrated in feminist writing: theoretical, fictional, poetic, but the pleasure celebrated is respectably subordinate to correct politics. Pleasure is put in its place, reinforcing sisterhood.

A few years ago, Elaine Marks, an important feminist critic and at that time director of the substantial Women's Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin, gave a talk in which she confessed that she loved to read Proust even though she did not know how Proust fit in with her position as a feminist. Marks is confessing a guilty pleasure, a pleasure insubordinate to feminism. What is the relation between Proust and feminism? Neither antagonism nor solidarity? Indifference? Barthes: “[Pleasure] is a drift, something … that cannot be taken care of by any collectivity. … Something neutral? It is evident that the pleasure of the text is scandalous: not because it is immoral, but because it is atopic” (39). “Atopic”: strange word, formed on the model of utopic. Barthes italicizes it as he does “neutral” before it. Neutral: neuter, neither one nor the other; atopic: not of a place, neither here nor there. Indifference? Or simply difference? Proust “is certainly something less (or other) than a feminist.” Proust and feminism, strange bedfellows? Perversion?

Proust has a special place in The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes writes: “I understand that Proust's work is, at least for me, the reference work … the mandala of the entire literary cosmogony … that does not at all mean that I am a Proust ‘specialist’: Proust, is what comes to me, it is not what I call; it is not an ‘authority’ (59). Barthes is not a Proust specialist; he is not supposed to write on Proust; he does not seek and research Proust; but Proust comes to him. Not an “authority,” like Freud or Nietzsche, Proust is something personal, individual, perverse, “at least for me, the reference work.” Proust accompanies Barthes, his companion in textual pleasure.

Marks confesses that she loves reading Proust but does not know how to align this with her feminism. Barthes is writing what is in certain ways a manifesto for postmodernist texts—Sollers, Robbe-Grillet, Severo Sarduy—but Proust is what comes to him unsolicited. I confess that I love reading Barthes but do not know how to align this with my feminism, although that indeed is the project of this paper. When I assigned myself the title “Feminist Criticism and the Pleasure of the Text” my wish was to take this book which is a source of great pleasure to me and reduce the scandal of its atopicality by subordinating my pleasure to some feminist idea.

In the first phase of feminist criticism, literary critics schooled in the tradition of male authors turned on that male canon to show how the great authors were sexist pigs, that is to say that the images of women in literature by men were distorting stereotypes that contributed to women's oppression and our alienation from self. Male literature had given us inhuman binary roles: madonna vs. whore, child-woman vs. bitch. Like the analysis of heterosex, the analysis of male literature taught us to see subjugation and alienation in place of romance and beauty. Yet women readers had experienced pleasure in reading Rousseau or D. H. Lawrence, had enjoyed identifying with virgins and whores. The analysis showed us that our pleasure was “tainted.”

In a second phase, feminists turned to women writers—the few already in the canon, the rediscovery of lost women writers from the past, and contemporary literary progeny of the women's movement. Feminist criticism moved from negation to affirmation, and suddenly there was a place for joy. Legitimate textual pleasure. A feminist can enjoy her identification with the heroine of Kate Chopin's The Awakening or Virginia Woolf's Orlando. It is politically correct to find women's writing gratifying. Normal pleasure, pleasure properly subservient to political principle.

These two phases are obviously schematic and the neat bipolarities betray a sinister distortion. I should add, of course, that many feminist critics devote themselves to proving various male authors (from Shakespeare to Lacan) sympathetic proto- or crypto-feminists just as other feminist critics exert themselves in vehement critique of diverse women writers. The actuality and plurality of feminist criticism has a tapestried complexity that makes my tight binary scheme of attacking male pigs and celebrating female identity what Barthes might call a “little mythology.” Yet my point might be that “an entire little mythology” makes us think that feminists should critique and demystify male writing and find pleasure in female writing. Feminist ideology produces a morality that could condemn as deviant any pleasure that does not serve the enhancement of female identity.

Elaine Marks, whose credentials as a feminist are good and strong, avows that she loves Proust. To be sure, Proust is not one of the enemies of feminism: no Henry Miller or Norman Mailer, he. But neither is he one of its heroines. Indifferent, atopic, neutral. For Barthes, the wonderful thing about textual pleasure is that, in a world of raging ideologies, in the war of discourses, textual pleasure can be neutral. And Proust is Barthes's point of reference in the pleasure of the text.

One might remark that both Proust and Barthes were male homosexuals. And that male homosexuality may figure as the exemplary thorn in feminism's thorny relation to perversion. We must affirm the normality of homosexuality in order to celebrate lesbianism, yet male homosexuality is also highly phallocentric male sexuality and partakes of all the perversions of male heterosexuality: rape, pornography, child molesting, etc. In practice the allegiance between lesbians and gay males is always problematic. Male homosexuality can neither be condemned nor celebrated. In the highly polarized world of feminism, male homosexuality might be ne-uter, neither one nor the other.

But I am not prepared here to explain Proust and Barthes as male homosexual authors. For I do not know how to articulate the relation between their lived homosexuality and their writing. Not that it is irrelevant. Proust functions as a model for the late Barthes in that in Proust there is an unusually profound intrication of text and life. Homosexuality and biography are explicitly important questions in both Proust and (late) Barthes. But it is not clear to me what constitutes the homosexuality of their texts.

In contemplating a feminist reading of The Pleasure of the Text I felt discouraged by the lack of markers of sexual difference there, those markers that the feminist critic grabs onto in her intercourse with the text. Barthes never uses the words “masculine” or “feminine,” for example. Athough there is much talk of sexual activity, the object of erotic desire is sexually indifferent. When Barthes writes “the most erotic place on a body is it not there where clothing gapes?”, he lists as his examples of intermittence: “the skin that glistens between two pieces (pants and sweater), between two edges (the half-open shirt, the glove and the sleeve”) (19). The examples seem applicable to either sex; all items of clothing are unisex with the possible exception of the shirt. A faint hint of homosexual desire but set against a general impression of neutrality. Sexual indifference, neutrality in the war between the sexes.

I recently gave a seminar on The Pleasure of the Text, a “straight” seminar on the book, no attempt to do a feminist analysis. But I did mention that elsewhere I was trying to work out a feminist reading of the text. Two women spoke out in anticipation of what might be my feminist reading. One asked if I as a woman did not find this book offensive. I never found out what she meant, but I can only presume that “as a woman” she found the explicit perversion offensive, since in some analyses perversion is by definition intricated with male sexuality's assaults on women's civil rights. The other woman asked what I made of the word “neuter” in the text. I was surprised since I hadn't known Barthes used the word. I was reading the French text and they were reading the English translation. The word “neutre,” which I had always understood as “neutral,” has been translated as “neuter.”

The word “neutre” appears three times in this book. Each time I would translate it as “neutral” for it refers to pleasure's atopicality, its status outside the war of values. I am puzzled by the fact that the translator chose to use “neuter,” and at first dismiss it as carelessness. Yet in my frustration with the lack of sexual difference in Barthes's erotics, I find myself returning again and again to the word “neuter” as if it shed new light on Barthes's neutrality. On all three appearances of “neutre” in The Pleasure of the Text, the word is in italics, as if one should remark something about it, as if the meaning were somehow changed without becoming another word, as if the word had become foreign. Five of the six meanings given for “neutre” in the dictionary could be translated by the English word “neutral.” But the other meaning of the word, which is used in the field of linguistics, is “belonging to a grammatical category in which are grouped the nouns … that do not present the characteristics of masculine and feminine,” in other words, what we in English call neuter nouns. In French, of course, there are no neuter nouns; the neuter is there exotic, atopic perhaps. And it is noteworthy that neutre as neuter refers to linguistic gender, to sexual difference as it operates within language, within the text.

A few days after the seminar, I came across an example of Barthes using the word neutre in this linguistic meaning. In 1977, in his Inaugural Lesson at the College de France, Barthes stated: “I am forced always to choose between the masculine and the feminine, the neuter [le neutre] or the complex are forbidden me.” I found this sentence in an analysis by Danielle Schwartz of the relation between language and power in Barthes's thought.8 Schwartz notes that Barthes talks about language in terms of the dichotomy constraint/freedom. In this example, Barthes is constrained to choose either masculine or feminine; he is not free to choose the neuter (neither masculine nor feminine) or the complex (presumably some combination of the two).

Barthes is here talking about the linguistic notion of selection. According to Schwartz, “the notion of selection designates the work peculiar to the speaking subject consisting in choosing a signifier in an entire paradigmatic chain. This notion, which in Jakobson for example, is a scientific description, is here taken up and psychologized on the model of the alienating choice. The existential problematic of choice comes and grafts itself on the linguistic notion, thus giving the mechanisms of language a predestination that prepares his political version.” Barthes is, according to Schwartz, in the process of recasting the laws of language, and our place under those laws, as a political dilemma. And with the example of the obligation of feminine or masculine, the prohibition of the neuter, one can imagine that the politics of language could become and might already be a sexual politics, or rather truly a politics of gender, not as we have come to use the word “gender,” meaning biological sex, but in its dictionary meaning as sexual differentiation within language, textual sexuality.

Schwartz concludes her analysis of this sentence thus: “Implicitly in Barthes's text are manifested the regret and the wish for a counter-language, for an emancipation from constraints.” And part of Barthes's liberated language, linguistic utopia would be access to the neutre, sexual neutrality. Feminism too has decried our compulsory, either-or masculine or feminine, created words like chairperson, spokesperson. Feminism too has longed for a freedom to be neuter or complex. Yet beyond the masculine/feminine dichotomy is the realm of perversion. Homosexuals used to be called the third sex. This utopic italicized neutre may be a sensitive zone of Barthes's homotextuality. It certainly is part of a wish to escape the constraints of bipolar gender differentiation. And so perhaps he shares in feminism's liberatory project.

And yet I am suspicious of neutrality, suspicious of the wish to deny sexual difference. Women have historically been associated with sexual difference, have been sexually differentiated from the generic so-called mankind. The wish to escape sexual difference might be but another mode of denying women. I distrust male homosexuals because they choose men over women just as do our social and political institutions, but they too share in the struggle against bipolar gender constraints, against the compulsory choice of masculine or feminine.

Barthes edges toward an escape from that compulsory choice into something he calls neutre: neutral, neuter, sexually indifferent, outside the ideological war of the sexes. The neutre may be emancipatory but it is not free from eroticism. The neutre is reached through perversion and pleasure. Near the end of his book Barthes writes: “Pleasure is a neutre (the most perverse form of the demoniacal)” (102). The neutral here is far from innocent. Neuter sexuality, outside the dichotomy necessary for reproduction. Neuter, but not asexual, neither one sex nor the other, but not asexual.

Complex, perhaps. Near the beginning of the book Barthes imagines: “Fiction of an individual who would abolish in himself barriers, classes, exclusion … by simple riddance of that old spectre: logical contradiction. … Now this counter-hero exists: It's the text reader, in the moment when he takes his pleasure” (9-10). In textual pleasure one is rid of either-or, momentarily. Including, guiltily enough, feminine or masculine, and worse yet, feminist or sexist.

The pleasure of Proust. A guilty pleasure. On the question of feminism: neutre. The pleasure of Barthes, but what about feminism? What is Barthes's position on women? He never takes a position on women. (Out of homosexuality perhaps? Neutrality? Exclusion?) A possible exception: the word woman occurs once in The Pleasure of the Text.

In a section of the book called “War,” Barthes opposes pleasure to “the warrior value,” lauds pleasure's atopicality in ideological conflict. At the end of the section, however, he specifies that the text is not, nor does he want it to be, devoid of ideology. He writes that “Some people want a text (art, painting) without a shadow, cut off from ‘the dominant ideology’; but that is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text (see the myth of The Woman without a Shadow). The text needs its shadow: this shadow, it's a bit of ideology”(53). “The Woman without a Shadow” is a story by Hofmannsthal about a woman who could not bear children because she had no shadow. By speaking of a text without a shadow he is equating text and woman. Susan Gubar, well-known feminist critic, in fact cites this passage from Barthes as yet another example of the longstanding masculinist tradition of woman as text, as art object, rather than artist.9 Yes, but … that is not where I connect to this passage, which has, I believe, a certain homosexual specificity.

I am interested in the association between fertility and dominant ideology. Barthes specifies later that there is only dominant ideology, no such thing as dominated ideology, that ideology is the idea inasmuch as it dominates. Fecundity and ideology, both are shadows, outside the light of reason, the lightness of atopic pleasure. Normal sexuality for Barthes, as we have seen, is fertile, reproductive sexuality. That is also the dominant ideology of sex. Perversion is pleasure without reproduction, without ideology, without shadow. Yet in this passage he is instead asserting the necessity for a bit of reproduction. The totally perverse text is sterile. And at the moment he would affirm “a bit” of reproductive sexuality, he writes the word “Woman.”

The word is capitalized, refers to another text (“The Woman without a Shadow”) and not to some extratextual being. The woman he mentions is in fact nonreproductive, that is, perverse. Yet in order to propose a negative image of nonreproductive sexuality, an image of sterility rather than perversion, the woman appears, for the first and only time in the book. Perversion, pleasure, the neuter are positive images throughout: nonreproductive sexuality is glorified. But suddenly when Barthes needs to counter this by showing nonreproductive pleasure in a negative light, woman appears. As if nonreproductive sexuality were glorious for men (male homotextuality) but a sterile woman were still a shame, a failure, less than rather than other.

Is woman for Barthes intricated with dominant ideology, normal reproductive sexuality, all that he is writing and struggling against? Pleasure has traditionally been associated with woman, particularly in its erotic sense. In the male heterosexual tradition, subversive pleasure that lures one away from productive duty is female. Women have thus been suspicious of pleasure because it relegates us to the nonserious, nonproductive, non-warrior side of things. In a male homosexual tradition woman may be on the other side, allied with duty, productivity, and ideology. This tradition is hardly restricted to overt practicing homosexuals; it includes, for example, a long tradition in American literature, as recognized by Leslie Fielder and his wake. Certainly this role is equally constraining for women. And oddly enough it may rejoin a certain tendency in feminism which calls women to their ideological duty (political seriousness, warrior values, feminine identity) and away from any nonproductive pleasures.

So Barthes's pleasure book also has “a bit of woman” and that bit is certainly “a bit of dominant ideology,” the ideology that considers woman inadequate unless she is mother. Woman is overshadowed by the mother, femininity masked by maternity. Remains to be considered: Barthes and Proust, both had similar close relations to their mothers, late into their adult lives. Male homosexuality and the mother, strange bedfellows, yet to be retheorized, in the wake of feminism.

And what of pleasure, perversion, and the mother? Lavers, who is always on the lookout for Barthes's collaboration with the dominant ideology, writes: “Barthes takes refuge in … the pleasures identified with the mother. But still, they are in his mind impossible to reconcile with socialism, and therefore guilty” (212). Barthes's pleasures are identified with the mother. And these pleasures are guilty. Lavers suggests that in Barthes there is an identification between the mother and the bourgeoisie, whence Barthes issues. Guilty, forbidden pleasures of a return to the maternal bourgeoisie. Of course in Freud's Oedipal schema the pleasures of the mother are the archetypal guilty pleasures. And for Barthes, the writer is that kind of pervert: “The writer is someone who plays with the body of his mother” (60).

Guilty from the point of view of socialism, from the political point of view. The chapter called “Politics” in The Pleasure of the Text consists of one lone sentence: “The text is (should be) that impertinent person who shows her/his behind to Father Politics” (86). The sentence is wonderfully provocative, but for our purposes let us note the phrase “Father Politics,” capitalized and italicized. Politics is paternal, and so of course pleasure with the mother would be guilty in the eyes of politics, according to one's political (socialist) superego. “The pleasures identified with the mother are in his mind impossible to reconcile with socialism, and therefore guilty.”

Feminism shares with Barthes the goal of an impertinent stance toward the father and a reconciliation and valorization of the mother, and yet we should question that little mythology: paternal politics vs. maternal pleasure. Another pleasure: to politicize what apparently is not, to depoliticize what apparently is. Another pleasure: to politicize motherhood, to find pleasure in the father—but no, see here, we politicize what ought to be and that's all.


  1. Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1973). All translations mine; page numbers will be given in the text. The book has been translated by Richard Miller as The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975).

  2. Annette Lavers, Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).

  3. Steven Ungar, Roland Barthes: The Professor of Desire (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).

  4. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Paris: Seuil, 1957). Translated by Annette Lavers as Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972).

  5. Christopher Norris, “Les plaisirs des clercs: Barthes's Latest Writing,” British Journal of Aesthetics, 14 (1974) 253.

  6. Claudine Herrmann, Les Voleuses de langue (Paris: des femmes, 1976) 16-18.

  7. Cora Kaplan, “Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism” in Formations of Pleasure (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983) 29.

  8. Danielle Schwartz, “Barthes, le langage et le pouvoir,” La Nouvelle Critique, 106 (1977) 56.

  9. Susan Gubar, “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity” in Elizabeth Abel, ed., Writing and Sexual Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) 76.

Principal Works

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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

Image-Music-Text (essays) 1977

Leçon inaugurale faite le venredi 7 janvier 1977 [“Inaugural Lecture, Collège de France”] (lecture) 1977

Sollers écrivain [Writer Sollers] (criticism) 1979

Le chambre claire: Note sur la photographie [Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography] (nonfiction) 1980

A Barthes Reader (essays) 1981

Le grain de la voix: Entretiens 1962-1980 [The Grain of the Voice: Interviews, 1962-1980] (interviews) 1981

Obvie et l‘obtus [The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation] (essays) 1982

Le bruissement de la langue [The Rustle of Language] (nonfiction) 1984

L'aventure sémiologique [The Semiologic Adventure] (criticism) 1985

Incidents [Incidents] (criticism) 1987

Oeuvres complètes 3 vols. (criticism, essays, autobiography) 1993-95

*This work includes translations of essays from the 1957 edition of Mythologies that were omitted from the 1972 partial translation.

†This work includes a reprint of Le degré zéro de l'écriture along with eight essays written between 1961 and 1972.

‡The essays comprising this work were selected and translated by Stephen Heath.

Stamos Metzidakis (essay date October 1987)

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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 extensive treatment than we can give them in this essay, a more efficient way for us to proceed in dealing with them is to focus our attention on one figure who appears exemplary. Therefore, we shall limit our scope to the specific case of Roland Barthes, whose influence was greater, and more pervasive in the recent past than that of any other critic.

I would submit, though I am certainly not alone, that the single most important factor responsible for our terminological hesitation is the massive importation into literary studies of hermeneutic models from diverse areas of inquiry, areas like structural linguistics, psychoanalysis, and sociology. This appropriation by scholars of what one might call “foreign” models has given rise to a new field of intellectual investigation. Jonathan Culler, taking Richard Rorty's lead, has recently named this conceptual domain, “theory.”3 However, except for Culler's deceptively simple label, this new genre is, in fact, exceedingly difficult to characterize. Being neither literary theory per se, nor philosophy, nor even textual theory, “theory” would appear to be as hard to define as was that earlier catch-all term, “structuralism.” The latter, of course, has been used for years to denote many dissimilar interpretive stances which are considered untraditional, for one reason or another. (And no one in France during the heyday of structuralism was more untraditional, or more associated with the structuralist movement, than Roland Barthes.)

But, from the very start of his discussion of this new “genre,” Culler seems reluctant to define structuralism exactly. He insists instead that the time has come to stop distinguishing traditional scholars from their socalled structuralist counterparts, and to try to determine how structuralists differ from post-structuralists. He suggests that even though the earlier label has been applied with varying degrees of profit to thinkers who, in fact, do many different kinds of analysis, there seems to have emerged from within the “common” ranks of all these untraditional critics, two diametrically opposed types of readers. Culler emphasizes that the epistemological differences between these two readers are far more pertinent to modern scholars than any anachronistic debate over whether someone is a structuralist or not. Succinctly stated, the differences are that, “structuralists are convinced that systematic knowledge is possible; post-structuralists claim to know only the impossibility of this knowledge” (p. 22).

By examining the specific case of Roland Barthes' work, the present paper attempts to call into question the legitimacy of this distinction. My intention is not to deny the personal, ideological rifts which often occur between proponents of structuralism and those of post-structuralism. I should, however, like to suggest that classifications of certain individuals into one or the other camp may depend, in the final analysis, more on our own image of them, or on their own self-image, than on what they actually do. In this sense, my analysis should be seen as an attempt to rectify some recent taxinomic errors, and to recover a certain continuity in the fundamental procedures, and presuppositions of much modern thought.

In fairness to Professor Culler, it should be noted from the start that he, too, quickly rejects the dichotomy structuralist/post-structuralist in favor of the above distinction between readings and readers. The latter seems to him to be of much greater practical value to the modern theorist. Moreover, he is fully aware of how hard a task it is to classify Barthes, in particular. He admits that Barthes could be said to have belonged to both camps throughout his entire career (p. 30). Nevertheless, because post-structuralism has, for whatever historical and ideological reasons, become accepted as a major component of “theory,” it is essential for us to see how one of its most influential representatives4 actually undermines the very specificity of this conceptual domain. In the process, we will be forced to reconsider the common belief that certain structuralist tendencies have been transcended by great numbers of modern theorists.

Now, as if the problem of describing Barthes were not challenging enough a priori, it is merely exacerbated when one realizes how much he himself opposed the idea of qualifying people and things with labels. Since he always preferred “functions” to “meanings,” the thought of reifying his or anyone else's essence with a label was, doubtless, anathema to him. In this regard, we would do well to consider the following statement he made concerning the adjective, that part of speech whose very grammatical function it is to describe and affix essences: “a relationship which adjectivizes is on the side of the image (emphasis mine), on the side of domination, of death” (R.B. [Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes], p. 43).

Yet, if Barthes had been consistent in opposing any attribution of qualities to things or people (including himself) through use of images, then how does it happen, one must ask, that the term “image” itself recurs so frequently in his many texts? What is there about the concept and function image which merits such a harsh characterization by Barthes, and, at the same time, seems so irresistable and unavoidable to him? A close examination of his use of the term in several representative pieces from the phases mentioned above will provide a few answers to these questions. By means of this examination, I propose to show that Barthes never really changed his basic approach to the experience and interpretation of the world. Even though he thought differently about what he was doing, and about what he stood for at various points in his life, he never really altered his activity. An accurate image of Barthes should, therefore, include an extensive appraisal both of his image-repertory, and of the way he treats the concept/term “image” itself.

Writing Degree Zero (1953) is perhaps best known as Barthes's earliest attempt to define a rather complex notion of writing or écriture. This notion was to remain at the heart of much critical discussion in France, and elsewhere, throughout most of the 1950's and 60's. Among the numerous definitions of écriture advanced in the book, one of the first we find reads:

… writing is a hardened language which lives on itself and does not have the responsibility at all to entrust a mobile succession of approximations to its duration, but, on the contrary, to impose by the unity and shadow of its signs, the image (emphasis mine) of a speech constructed well before being invented.5

Even at this beginning stage of Barthes's theoretical and critical production, we see that he already depends on the word “image” to describe a concept which was inarticulated, and probably unrecognized, by critics before that time. In this first major work, “image” signifies a kind of reflection—as in a specular image—of what Barthes calls a “foreign circumstance” pre-dating any particular speech. This image or reflection constitutes the linguistic vehicle by which Barthes tries to express to his readers something abstract (écriture). He thereby tries to make more clear, more intelligible, what might have otherwise remained unspoken, hence, unknown. As he will say four years later in Mythologies:

Every object in the world can pass from a closed, silent existence to an oral state, open to appropriation by society, for there is no law, whether natural or not, which forbids talking about things.6

Thus, it is in this “talking about things” that we find Barthes utilizing the word “image” from the very start of his career. He utilizes the word in order to say that which is essentially unsayable. His reliance on it should be seen as an important prefiguration of his later inability to analyze other phenomena structurally, without recourse to analogous terms. What makes this instance of “image” important here is that it underscores Barthes's continual preoccupation as critic, theorist, and writer with the problem of how to render intelligible the specificity of writing, social myths, photographs, literary texts, pleasure, even himself. If the concept/term image reappears often in his writings, one must therefore suppose this to be the result of Barthes's fundamental incapacity to find a better vehicle with which to describe the various phenomena.

But, any explanation of writing, myths, and the like should be construed in Barthes's early work, at least, as meaning an explanation of their structures. To clarify what he meant by “structure,” let us look carefully at his 1963 essay entitled “The Structuralist Activity.”7 According to Barthes, structural man, or homo significans, aims at reconstructing an object under investigation, “in such a way as to manifest thereby the rules of functioning (the functions) of this object” (p. 214). The reconstructed object, in his view, takes precedence over, and even takes the place of, the object that was originally chosen for study. In this manner, the reconstruction, or better still, the “simulacrum,” or “imitation,” becomes the observer's real focus of attention. Structuralism in its most general sense can thus be defined as “an activity of imitation” (p. 215).

Now, as is pertinent for this discussion, Barthes points out that the word “image” should be linked to the Latin root imitari.8 Any act of imitation or repetition is consequently an instance of an image. Images repeat, imitate, re-present, or “resurrect” things which, by definition, they are not. In the process of imitation, the image comes to form the very “limit of meaning.” That is, meaning is contingent on the image itself. Meaning or, more precisely, the fabrication of meaning (signification) is the direct result of the repetitive process. It derives from the gap—Derrida would say the “difference”—between the object represented and its image. As Barthes says in the original preface to Mythologies: “I don't know whether, as the saying goes, “things which are repeated are pleasing,” but my belief is that they are significant.” (p. 12).

The act of imitation, or what was just called the “fabrication of meaning,” can be divided into two major operations or phases: dissection and articulation (“Activity,” p. 216). These operations are Barthes's versions of the now classic distinction drawn by Saussure between the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes of language. In the first phase, the observer cuts up into mobile fragments an object to be discussed, analyzed, or otherwise given to the “simulacrum-activity” (p. 215). Barthes emphasizes that the individual units in question are not anarchic, but are governed by a conceptual paradigm in which they reside. They are then placed, during the second phase or operation, into a new kind of association with each other. The rules governing this procedure are, of course, difficult to determine because, to quote once again from Barthes, “The syntax of the arts and of discourse is, as we know, extremely varied …” (p. 217). What counts, however, is that the rules or constraints chosen allow the new object, the simulacrum, the copy, the image, in a word, to remain stable and to function.

If, for instance, the essay “The World of Wrestling” in Mythologies succeeds in locating any “meaning” in wrestling, this is because the dissected parts of that societal ritual have been fitted back together on the basis of the formal rule or paradigm, Good vs. Evil. The rule permits the “functional” category of the phenomenon (i.e., the wrestling plus its “myth” or speech) to remain stable for the observer. Without such stability, it would simply not work, which is to say that it would have no “social usage” (Mythologies, p. 109). Neither would it function, nor literally signify anything to anyone.

Given this view of structuralist activity, we must now ask ourselves whether Barthes ever really gave it up. Since our interest here lies not in what he said or believed he was doing, but rather in how he was accomplishing “it,” the question of his desire to abandon a certain brand of structuralism is obviously irrelevant. As Jonathan Culler indicates elsewhere,9 Barthes was certainly aware of a change in structuralism that corresponded to his passage from “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” (1966) to S/Z (1970). This change consisted of a rejection of any transcendental narrative models à la Propp or Lévi-Strauss, and his subsequent postulation that every text institutes in some sense “its own model.”

But, insofar as Barthes retains this notion of model, one must still assume that its concomitant copy exists somewhere else in his work. The model/copy pairing, of course, reinvokes the entire problematic of repetition, imitation, and images already established in his “pure” structuralist phase. To be sure, Barthes seems intent on abolishing this problematic when he says at the start of S/Z that a choice has to be made with regard to texts. It is necessary either to force them

… to rejoin, inductively, the Copy from which we will then make them derive; or else to restore each text, not to its individuality, but to its function, making it cohere, even before we talk about it, by the infinite paradigm of difference …10

Yet, what all this imagery points to is that, for some reason—ideological pressure?—Barthes wanted to have his cake, and to eat it too. For let us not forget that to restore to a text its “function”, and to make it cohere, were among the basic tasks of the structuralist activity. Moreover, it is paradoxical to speak of a “paradigm of difference.” By definition repetitive, a linguistic paradigm accepts differences only insofar as it negates them, and puts into relief their common conceptual denominator.

One gets the impression, therefore, that Barthes tried very hard to assimilate a “post-structuralist” attitude11 against representation, even though he apparently could not rid his style of its constituent parts, model/copy. Clearly, this fact bothered him on some level. In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, for example, he asks his imaginary self (whose words are meant to be “those of a character in a novel,” let us remember):

Who is still a structuralist? Yet he is one in this, at least: a uniformly noisy place seems to him unstructured because in this place there is no freedom left to choose silence or speech … how on such a day can I give a meaning to my silence, since, in any case, I cannot speak?

(p. 117)

Eighteen years after Mythologies, this passage recalls the idea that one has to choose between two ways of dealing with the world: one either gives meaning to otherwise silent phenomena, i.e. fabricates images of them through imitation, representation, and the like; or else, one leaves them silent. I am, therefore, tempted here to ask Barthes an obvious counter-question to his initial inquiry, one that might read as follows: “Have you as yet become a post-structuralist?”

It is at this point necessary to admit that one thing does indeed change in Barthes' use of the term “image” in the later phase of his work. As suggested above, the change is in his attitude towards it. The longer he writes, the more he takes pleasure in the images he employs to render the world intelligible. Let us consider, for example, the opening line from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes: “To begin with, some images (emphasis mine): they are the author's treat to himself, for finishing his book.” Significantly, the pleasure which the image now procures for him is simultaneous to the uneasiness he felt in the knowledge we alluded to earlier: to wit, that the image was “on the side of death.”

From the late 1960's to the end of his career, however, Barthes began to insist that he no longer meant “representation” or “copy” when he spoke about an image. As he explains in one of his last books, “the image is that from which I am excluded.”12 Of course, we must not forget that within this context Barthes was attempting to voice the “untreatable” in the language as if it could be staged (mise en scène). His intention was not to explain a discourse, but to speak it, as it were. To say that this or any other discourse is excluded from any image is nevertheless tantamount to producing another image! In essence, Barthes presents the un-imaginable in what can be understood solely as an image. This is why he can not help but fail to escape performing an essentially structuralist activity. For even in the introduction to A Lover's Discourse, where he tells about the way the book is written, Barthes says that he intends to substitute for the description or analysis of this discourse, its simulation. With that, we are back to simulacrum activity.

I shall add a final note on one other important displacement (not rejection) that we can trace in the evolution of Barthes's conception and usage of the image. Because the main emphasis in his work gradually shifted from the text to the reader, as with the whole of literary theory and criticism, it was perhaps inevitable that the notion of his own image became the ultimate focus of his attention. After all, it was always Barthes who projected himself onto the earlier objects which he analyzed in a “truly” structuralist manner. He never once pretended to attribute anything other than his own meanings to the things he studied. To quote a last time from Mythologies: “Is there not a mythology of the mythologist?” (p. 12). As we are now in a position from which to answer this question affirmatively, let us conclude by saying the following. For the outside observer, there will always be an image of the image-producer. And this image, in its turn, is independent of the latter's self-image.13


  1. An earlier draft of this article was written for the Faculty Seminar on Roland Barthes that took place at Washington University, St. Louis during Spring 1984. It was also delivered as a lecture in a special session on the literary image held at the Modern Language Association Convention in Washington, D.C. on December 28, 1984.

  2. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 145. Further references to this work are noted in the text by the letters R.B. and the page number.

  3. On Deconstruction, Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 8. Further references to this work are included in the body of the text with page numbers.

  4. Since Barthes appears first in Josué Harari's important and influential collection of post-structuralist essays entitled Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), it is clear that he is considered to be a post-structuralist by certain people.

  5. Le degré zéro de l'écriture (Paris: Seuil, 1953), p. 19. All translations are mine.

  6. Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), p. 109. Further references noted in text.

  7. In his Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), p. 213-220. Hereafter cited as “Activity,” followed by page number in text.

  8. In his Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 32.

  9. See his Structuralist Poetics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 242.

  10. S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), p. 3.

  11. I adapt the idea of such an attitude from Harari's Textual Strategies at the beginning of which is reproduced Barthes's article “From Work to Text.” Harari underlines a crucial fact in relation to this structuralist/post-structuralist dichotomy:

    The denunciation of the concept of representation is necessarily based on the structuralist institution of the sign; it relies on structuralist premises in order, paradoxically, to show that structuralism has not fully pursued the implications of those premises. The post-structuralist attitude (emphasis mine) is therefore literally unthinkable without structuralism (p. 30).

  12. Fragments d'un discours amoureux (Paris: Seuil, 1977), p. 157. Translations are mine.

  13. The essential distinction I have tried to make here between critical attitudes and critical activities recalls a similar distinction made by Philip Lewis. In his article, “The Post-Structuralist Condition,” Lewis distinguishes post-structuralism from a so-called “post-structuralist condition.” See Diacritics, vol. 12 (1982), p. 2-24, esp. 22-23.

Diana Knight (essay date July 1988)

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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, seems here to be treated with suspicion. It is the aim of this paper to suggest nevertheless that Barthes will find, in overtly Utopian discourse, a solution to some persistent ethical and theoretical dilemmas.1

The earliest conception of a Utopia of language is quite simply Literature with a capital L. This idea is launched in the heavily existential closing paragraph of Writing Degree Zero:

literary writing carries at the same time the alienation of History and the dream of History; as a Necessity, it testifies to the division of languages which is inseparable from the division of classes, as Freedom, it is the consciousness of this division and the very effort which seeks to surmount it. Feeling permanently guilty about its own solitude, it is none the less an imagination eagerly desiring a felicity of words, it hastens towards a dreamed-of language whose freshness, by a kind of ideal anticipation, might portray the perfection of some new Adamic world where language would no longer be alienated. The proliferation of modes of writing (écritures) brings a new literature into being in so far as the latter invents its language only in order to be a project: Literature becomes the Utopia of language.

(1970: 93-4)

By the unaugural lecture Barthes's social vision has certainly changed. The transparency of social and linguistic relations no longer has anything to do with universality—indeed the latter has been gradually replaced by an affirmation of infinite, irreducible difference. However Barthes is still aligning the Utopian function of literature with the ‘forces of freedom’. These are located not in literature's content but again in its language, more precisely in ‘the labour of displacement’ that the writer brings to bear on language. This labour is equated with a salutory trickery: since language and speech equal power and aggression, and since there is no exit from language, the writer's solution is to use literature to cheat speech of its meanings.

Barthes's view of man as condemned to meaning depends upon his Saussurean view of language as a sign system which forces all would-be statements about the world to pass through the stage of mental representation, that is through the relay of the signified.2 It is at this stage that man gets caught up in the warring systems of meaning that Barthes sees as alienating social relations. As mythologist Barthes accepts the political necessity of engagement with this war of meanings, an engagement that takes the well-known form in his work of unmasking the historical interests that masquerade as natural states of affairs. But Barthes always yearned—and all of his writing testifies to this—for a Utopian realm beyond meaning, and Utopia is normally his word for this realm. The beyondness of the realm is crucial, for Barthes is careful to distinguish the projected après-sens from a regressive nostalgia for some pre-semiological Golden Age. To abolish or ignore meaning would be semiologically and politically naive—instead Barthes describes the desired outplaying of meaning in terms of its suspension and occasionally of its theft. Thus an essay on Robbe-Grillet toys with literature's potential for ‘unexpressing’ and ‘designifying’ the world that we discover already imbued with meaning, and his fascination with the uncertain irony of Flaubert's writing is fixed on its solution to his own uneasy relationship with the doxa—his concern with how to outplay the codes without proclaiming oneself exempt from stupidity. This is indeed a problem for Barthes, which he struggles to find a way through:

it is possible to enjoy the codes even while nostalgically imagining that someday they will be abolished: like an intermittent outsider, I can ‘enter-into’ or ‘step-out-of’ burdensome sociality, depending on my mood—of insertion or of distance. (1977a: 131) whence a double tactic: against Doxa, one must come out in favour of meaning, for meaning is the product of History, not of Nature; but against Science (paranoiac discourse), one must maintain the utopia of suppressed meaning.


The enthusiasm for Zen Buddhism that permeates Empire of Signs is totally comprehensible in the context of this search for an after or a beyond of meaning. Indeed the very rigours of the Zen training—the long meditations on absurd riddles and anecdotes to find a way beyond language and logic—testify to Barthes's conviction of the enormous difficulty of the task:

All of Zen, of which haiku is merely the literary branch, thus appears as a vast set of observances (une immense pratique) destined to halt language, to jam that kind of internal radiophony constantly sending in us, even in our sleep (perhaps this is the reason the apprentices are kept from falling asleep), to empty out, to stupefy, to dry up the soul's incoercible babble; and perhaps what Zen calls satori, which Westeners can translate only by certain vaguely Christian words (illumination, revelation, intuition), is no more than a panic suspension of language, the blank which erases in us the reign of the Codes, the breach of that internal recitation which constitutes our person; and if this state of a-language is a liberation, it is because, for the Buddhist experiment, the proliferation of secondary thoughts (the thought of thought), or what might be called the infinite supplement of supernumerary signifieds—a circle of which language itself is the depository and the model—appears as a jamming: it is on the contrary the abolition of secondary thought which breaks the vicious infinity of language.

(1982: 74-5)

Not only does Barthes find in Zen an ideal in keeping with his ethic of the sign, but he finds in haiku a literary solution which seems to surpass all others in his eyes, and versions of which he tries out himself, notably in the Japan book itself, in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (in the section of recollections (anamnèses), and in the Nouvel Observateur chronicles (chroniques) of 1978 and '79. The attraction of haiku, that Barthes chooses to restress in an interview on Empire of Signs, is that it achieves its exemption from meaning through a perfectly readerly discourse (whereas Western modern art tends to attempt this by making discourse incomprehensible). Haiku is celebrated for its lack of Western description and definition, for its delicate designation of objects and events without attribution of meaning, for its ability to outstrip connotation. But for Barthes, and for Western discourse in general, this remains at best a Utopian aspiration.

I find it particularly interesting that Barthes's vision of Japan as a semiological Utopia should be published in the same year as S/Z (thus turning 1970 into a landmark year in Barthes's career). If the appeal of Zen is its intuition of something beyond connotation, beyond the codes, and beyond what Barthes calls ‘the vicious infinity of language’, it might seem paradoxical that the contemporary S/Z should take up position within the codes, and more specifically within a deliberate multiplication of connotations. An important section of the essay ‘Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers’, published the following year in 1971, might serve as a comment on this parallel publication of two works almost complementary in their extreme difference from each other. Barthes starts from two sorts of typing error: one which produces a non-existent nonsense word, and one which produces an unintended but recognizable word which thereby creates strange reverberations in the sentence that contains it. From this he draws two types of criticism, and pauses to reflect on the different historical stake of each. In so doing he poses clearly the political problem of one sort of Utopia of language—can language really be liberated ahead of social relations, and, if so, what is at stake in jumping ahead of history in this way?

The first has in its favour the right of the signifier to spread out where it will (…) Why stop? Why refuse to push polysemy as far as asemy? In the name of what? Like any radical right, this one supposes a utopian vision of freedom: the law is lifted all at once, outside of any history, in defiance of any dialectic (hence the finally petit bourgeois aspect of this style of demand) (…) By liberating reading from all meaning, it is ultimately my reading that I impose, for in this moment of History the economy of the subject is not yet transformed and the refusal of meaning (of meanings) falls back into subjectivity.

(1983: 395)

Attempts to escape meaning through self-indulgent and limitless expansion of the signifiers are apparently thrown over in favour of what Barthes identifies as a historically more correct move, a move that is clearly that of S/Z:

Thus the second type of criticism, that which applies itself to the division of meanings and the ‘trickery’ of interpretation, appears (at least to me) more historically correct. In a society locked in the war of meanings and therefore under the compulsion of rules of communication which determine its effectiveness, the liquidation of the old criticism can only be carried forward in meaning (in the volume of meanings) and not outside it. In other words, it is necessary to practise a certain semantic enterism. Ideological criticism is today precisely condemned to operations of theft: the signified, exemption of which is the materialist task par excellence, is more easily lifted in the illusion of meaning than in its destruction.


What, then, are we to make of Barthes's parallel elaboration of the concept of Text, frequently presented as a full-blown Utopia, which in his own terms would appear to equal a petit-bourgeois stepping outside of history? (This being, of course, Engels's criticism of Utopian socialism.) Perhaps one might credit Barthes with having paid his historical dues, and done his bit for semantic enterism, with the surely unrepeatable feat of S/Z. Equally we might agree with Annette Lavers's suggestion that Barthes was simply exhausted by the responsibility of forms. More charitably, we might develop Barthes's own cautionary ‘at best’:

At best, one can simply say that this radical criticism, defined by a foreclosure of the signified (and not by its slide (sa fuite)), anticipates History, anticipates a new, unprecedented state in which the efflorescence of the signifier would not be at the cost of any idealist counterpart, of any closure of the person.


If language is the site of power and of warring meanings, any notion of language freed from connotation and metalanguage could be said to have a peaceable and political dimension from that point of view at least. Indeed once Barthes has defined Text as a social space the appropriateness of the Utopia metaphor becomes more apparent:

As for Text (le texte), it is bound to jouissance, that is to pleasure without separation. Pertaining to the signifier (ordre du signifiant), Text participates in its own way in a social utopia; before History (supposing the latter does not opt for barbarism), Text achieves, if not the transparence of social relations, that at least of language relations: Text is that space where no language has a hold over any other (…) that social space which leaves no language safe, outside, nor any subject of enunciation in position as judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder.

(1977b: 164)

Thus Barthes attempts to hold the reins of History and Utopia all in one hand, as he explains in a 1973 conference paper:

We have to commit ourselves, to participate in one of the individual languages into which our world and our history force us. And yet we can't give up the jouissance, no matter how utopian, of a displaced and de-alienated language. We must therefore grasp in the same hand the two reins of commitment and of jouissance, we must assume a plural philosophy of languages. Now this elsewhere that remains, I'd like to say inside, has a name: it's called Text (…) Writing is atopical (a-topique); relative to the war of languages, which it doesn't wipe out but which it displaces, it anticipates a particular state of the practice of reading and writing, where it's desire which circulates, and no longer domination.

(1986: 109-10)

If Text and écriture are therefore important parts of a politically grounded Utopia of language, it is the extension of these concepts beyond the written word to the writing and reading of reality that permits the development of more literal Utopias. For example the café is described in a 1975 interview as a ‘complex, stereophonic space’ (1981: 209-10), the site of a textual experience triggering off what Barthes calls the novelistic (le romanesque), while a fragment of the essay on Brillat-Savarin develops the notion of the dinner table as another complex space, one of overdetermined social pleasure, where convivial conversation combines with the anticipated pleasures of eating to introduce jouissance into the very act of communication (1984b: 303). The most developed mini-Utopia is Barthes's celebration of his own teaching seminar in the 1974 essay called, in French, ‘Au séminaire’ (both at the seminar and dedicated to the seminar). Here Barthes develops a parallel with Fourier's phalanstery, describing the intellectual and affective interchange of the seminar as the tracing of a text in its own right—‘the most precious of texts, that which does not pass through the written word’ (1986: 333).

The transition to something like a generically based Utopian writing happens in the book about Japan, from which point Barthes's relentless ethics of the sign is increasingly accompanied by an ethics of social, affective relations, by a heightened interest in the quality of everyday life, and by an escalating obsession with the possible mode of writing that he distinguishes from the novel by calling it the novelistic (roman/romanesque). All this can be read without difficulty in Empire of Signs itself, and is spelled out particularly clearly in a contemporary interview. Japan represents for Barthes a world that is both strictly semantic (nothing escapes signs) and yet strictly atheistic:

The ethical presence of feudalism maintains in this strictly technologized society—not really Americanized—a body of values, a life style (un art de vivre), which is probably rather fragile from an historical point of view, and which must also be linked with the fundamental absence of monotheism. A system which is almost totally immersed in the signifier works in conjunction with a perpetual withdrawal of the signified: this is what I tried to show at the essential level of everyday life (as much for food as for housing (l'habitat), for make-up and for the system of addresses (…) This book is something of an entry, not into the novel, but into the novelistic.

(1985: 83-4)

Empire of Signs is an appealing and happy Utopia, which builds in the passion for the concrete details of ‘otherness’ that Barthes finds in Stendhal's love of Italy, and which he describes as a sort of opposite of racism (1984b: 334). In that Barthes's representation of Japan achieves a complete reversal of all that chokes him in his own civilization (of the rhetorical modes and everyday myths so famously denounced in Mythologies), it belongs to one particular tradition of Utopian writing, and it might therefore be interesting to explore ways in which Barthes builds in the West as the indirect term of comparison. I am thinking in particular of his wonderful device for connecting the two worlds, the twin pictures of the newspaper item on Barthes himself in Japan and the photo of the Japanese actor—while Barthes is ‘nipponified’ by the poor print of the newspaper, the smooth actor takes on the qualities of a thoroughly Western film star. But this movement from one society to the other is in no way inscribed in a historical progression, and the opening sections of the text spell out clearly enough that it is only because Barthes is a temporary visitor and a non-speaker of Japanese that he is able to maintain his Utopian reading of Japan. Only this special status allows him to write as if in ignorance of the fact that the ordinary citizen of Tokyo will certainly be choking in his own struggles with work, smog and the Japanese doxa.Empire of Signs is a superb actualization of Barthes's personal semiological ethic, but it is one that certainly loses the properly political dimension of Utopia.3

To refind that dimension, which resurfaces so crucially in the essay on Fourier published in Sade, Fourier, Loyola the following year (but first written the same year), I want to turn back the clock and to look at the soul-searching ending to Barthes's 1957 essay ‘Myth Today’, the theoretical afterword to Mythologies. Barthes's backward look at his mythologies raises two important problems, and I should like to suggest that the Fourier essay seems to have found a solution to both of them. The first problem is that Utopia is simply an impossible luxury for the mythologist:

In a sense, the mythologist is excluded from this history in the name of which he professes to act (…) It is forbidden for him to imagine what the world will concretely be like, when the immediate object of his criticism has disappeared. Utopia is an impossible luxury for him: he greatly doubts that tomorrow's truths will be the exact reverse of today's lies. History never ensures the triumph pure and simple of something over its opposite: it unveils, while making itself, unimaginable solutions, unforseeable syntheses. The mythologist is not even in a Moses-like situation: he cannot see the Promised Land. For him, tomorrow's positivity is entirely hidden by today's negativity.

(1983: 147-8)

The second problem is that of the disturbance that ideological demystification introduces into Barthes's relationship with reality:

One last exclusion threatens the mythologist: he constantly runs the risk of causing the reality which he purports to protect, to disappear (…) There is as yet only one possible choice, and this choice can bear only on two equally extreme methods: either to posit a reality which is entirely permeable to history, and ideologize; or, conversely, to posit a reality which is ultimately impenetrable, irreducible, and, in this case, poetize. In a word, I do not yet see a synthesis between ideology and poetry (by poetry I understand, in a very general way, the search for the inalienable meaning of things).


The sense of a solution to both problems can be found in the 1975 Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, in the section headed ‘The purpose of Utopia’ (A quoi sert l'utopie). The first point made is that Utopia enables Barthes to find a way of speaking his world:

Confronting the present, my present, utopia is a second term that permits the sign to function: discourse about reality becomes possible, I emerge from the aphasia into which I am plunged by the panic of all that doesn't work within me, in this world which is mine.

(1977a: 76)

The second point reveals a crucial move from seeing Utopia as an impossible luxury to the realization that it is a taboo:

Revolutionary writings have always scantily and poorly represented the daily finality of the revolution, the way it suggests we shall live tomorrow, either because this representation risks sweetening or trivializing the present struggle, or because, more precisely, political theory aims only at setting up the real freedom of the human question, without prefiguring any of its answers. Hence utopia would be the taboo of the revolution, and the writer would be responsible for transgressing it; he alone could risk that representation; like a priest, he would assume the eschatological discourse; he would close the ethical circle, answering by a final vision of values to the initial revolutionary choice (the reason why one becomes a revolutionary).


Once Utopian discourse is conceived as a taboo (as a proscribed discourse), its transgression can be assumed by Barthes as a political virtue in its own right, and Barthes's bravest definition of Utopia in all of his work is perhaps the 1972: ‘Utopia is the state of a society where Marx would no longer criticize Fourier’ (1985: 171)—that is, where Utopia would no longer be a revolutionary taboo.

A short piece published in 1974 in Italian elaborates this appropriate response to Engels's famous critique of Utopian socialism (so dubbed in opposition to the scientific socialism of Marxism). It emphasizes that the importance of Utopian discourse lies not only in its determination to write future values, but equally in its will to project concrete representations of everyday life in the ideal society, in particular through its fantasmatic attention to tiny details:

Utopia is the sphere of desire unlike politics which is the sphere of need. Whence the paradoxical relations between these two discourses: they complement each other but never understand each other. Need disapproves of the irresponsibility and futility of desire: desire disapproves of need's censoring and of its reductive drive (…) Desire should be reinjected into Politics, which is to say that Utopias are not only justifiable, they are also necessary. It's not the outlines of a future society that we are afraid to draw. That society is already there, in politics itself; it's the details of this society, and it's from these that we deduce Utopia, that we deduce desire. For Utopia, and this is precisely its special feature, imagines times, places and customs in minutest detail; it's novelistic, it's none other than the political form of fantasy. Utopia is always ambivalent. It stresses relentlessly the wrongs of the present world, and, at the same time, with the same force, it invents pictures of happiness. It invents them in their special colours, with their own precision and variations, with their own absurdity; it possesses the rarest sort of courage, that of enjoyment, and this is the courage that two of our greatest Utopian thinkers, Sade and Fourier, have shared (…) Fourier's phalanstery and Sade's castle are literally impossible, but the detailed inflections of the Utopian system return to our world like lamps of desire, of possible exultation. If we could grasp them better, they would prevent politics from solidifying into a totalitarian, bureaucratic, moralizing system.

(1974: 259)

In the first of his Sade essays Barthes claims that both Sade and Fourier's Utopias are measurable less against theoretical statements than against the organization of everyday life: ‘for the mark of Utopia is the everyday; or even: everything everyday is utopian’ (1977c: 17). To understand this last comment it is helpful to look at the important distinction that Barthes draws (in a 1975 interview) between le politique and la politique (the political and politics) (1985: 218). The political, he claims, is a fundamental order of history, of thought, of all that is done and spoken. It's the very dimension of the real. Politics, on the other hand, is the moment of the political's conversion into an endlessly churned out discourse of repetition. His attachment to the political is profound, whereas he is simply irritated by the discourse of politics. It's not, he claims, a case of turning his back on politics, but of trying to find an acceptable way of assuming the discourse of the political.

I should like to suggest that Utopian discourse is precisely the appropriate way for Barthes of speaking this fundamental category of reality that he calls the political—that it avoids the political discourse that he finds oppressive even when it comes from the left, yet permits the unalienated complicity with reality which had seemed an impossibility for the lonely 1950s mythologist. Barthes's frequent references right through the 1970s to the category of the novelistic elaborate this more acceptable relation to reality, a relation that Barthes increasingly dares to assume:

The novelistic is a mode of discourse which isn't structured as a narrative; it's a mode of notation, of investment and of interest in daily life, in people, and in all that goes on in life.

(1985: 222)

In daily life, I feel a sort of curiosity about everything that I see and hear, an almost intellectual affectivity which belongs to the order of the novelistic. A hundred years ago, I would probably have walked through life with a realist novelist's notebook in my hand. But I can't see myself inventing a story with characters with proper names, I can't see myself writing a novel. My problem—a future problem since I should very much like to do something in that direction, will be to find a form that will separate the novelistic off from the novel, but that will assume the novelistic far more profoundly than I have done to date.

(1985: 203)

Does this not spell out that the novelistic, which apparently subsumes the political, is close indeed to Utopian discourse?4

If the genre of Utopian writing turns out to be Barthes's Utopian genre, then his dense and suggestive essay on Fourier is surely the master text for understanding this important aspect of Barthes's final period. If the major themes of Barthes's work (history, language, power, the body5), intersect in Utopia, all are visibly in play in the Fourier analysis. Let me list (in a feeble pastiche of Barthes's own occasional style), some of the features that Barthes prizes in Fourier. They are, at random: the subsuming of political science in the far more important science of Domestics, the supremacy of pleasure, the refusal of notions of normality, the respect for the irreducible difference of the 810 character types, the eccentric attention to sensual detail, the manic classifications and bizarre but logical combinations, the love of neologism, the uncertain status of the discourse, the dilatory style whereby Fourier keeps promising the really important exposition of his theory for later. If the whole detailed invention of a closed and regulated space recalls for Barthes the happy and even choosable life-style of the sanatorium, all of these features have evident reverberations in Barthes's own idiosyncratic values for living and perhaps more especially for writing.

Barthes's reading of Fourier through a newly invented binary system/systematics (système/systématique) is surely a comment on the desired relationship between system-building and system-writing in Barthes's own work, in particular the way he tries to account in retrospect for his high-structuralist era: Fourier's ‘system’ is described as that part of his ‘systematics’ which ‘plays with the system in an imaginary way’ (1977c: 110) (qui joue imaginairement au système), ‘imaginary’ presumably to be taken in the Lacanian sense. Thus Barthes introduces this particular section of his essay by aligning systematics and system with those distinctions already established in S/Z between novelistic and novel, essay and dissertation, production and product, structuration and structure. Barthes's crucial point is developed in some detail:

The system being a closed (or monosemic) one, it is always theological, dogmatic; it is nourished by illusions: an illusion of transparency (the language employed to express it is purportedly purely instrumental, it is not a writing) and an illusion of reality (the goal of the system is to be applied, i.e. that it leave the language in order to found a reality that is incorrectly defined as the exteriority of language); it is a strictly paranoid insanity whose path of transmission is insistence, repetition, catechism, orthodoxy. Fourier's work does not constitute a system; only when people tried to ‘realize’ this work (in phalansteries) did it become, retrospectively, a ‘system’ doomed to instant fiasco; system, in the terminology of Marx and Engels, is the ‘systematic form’, i.e. pure ideology, ideological reflection: systematics is the play of the system; it is language that is open, infinite, free from any referential illusion (pretension); its mode of appearance, its constituency, is not ‘development’ but pulverization, dissemination (the gold dust of the signifier); it is a discourse without ‘object’ (it only speaks of a thing obliquely, by approaching it indirectly: thus Civilization in Fourier) and without ‘subject’ (in writing, the author does not allow himself to be involved in the imaginary subject, for he performs his enunciatory role in such a manner that we cannot decide whether it is serious or parody). It is a vast madness which never shuts (ne ferme pas), but which permutates. (…)

(Fourier puts the system to flight—cuts it adrift—by two operations: first, by incessantly delaying the definitive exposé until later: the doctrine is simultaneously highhanded and dilatory; next, by inscribing the system in the systematics, as dubious parody, shadow, game (…))


System and systematics are picked up yet again in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes:

Is it not the characteristic of reality to be unmasterable? And is it not the characteristic of any system to master it? What then, confronting reality, can one do who rejects mastery? Get rid of the system as apparatus, accept systematics as writing (as Fourier did).

(1977a: 172)

What has happened to the language-reality split here? Not only is detail prized for its fantasmatic status (‘Perhaps the imagination of detail is what specifically defines Utopia (opposed to political science); this would be logical, since detail is fantasmatic and thereby achieves the very pleasure of Desire’ (1977c: 105)), but Barthes quite explicitly reconfronts his old problem of the relationship between ideological demystification and Utopia. His idea of the novelistic is glossed in relation to a newly invented category which he calls the ‘marvellous real’ (le merveilleux réel):

this [Fourier's] is no longer a denunciatory, reductive reading (limited to the moral falsehoods of the bourgeoisie), but an exalting, integrating, restorative reading, extended to the plethora of universal forms.

Is the ‘real’ the object of this second reading? We are accustomed to considering the ‘real’ and the residue as identical: the ‘unreal’, the fantasmatic, the ideological, the verbal, the proliferating, in short, the ‘marvellous’, may conceal from us the ‘real’, rational, infrastructural, schematic; from real to unreal there may be the (self-seeking) production of a screen of arabesques, whereas from unreal to real there may be critical reduction, an alethic, scientific movement, as though the real were at once more meagre and more essential than the superstructions (sur-structions) with which we have covered it. Obviously, Fourier is working on a conceptual material whose constitution denies this contrast and which is that of the marvellous real. This marvellous real is contrasted with the marvellous ideal of novels; it corresponds to what we might call, contrasting it directly with the novel, the novelistic. This marvellous real very precisely is the signifier, or if one prefers, ‘reality’, characterized, relative to the scientific real, by its fantasmatic train.


This novelistic perception of a ‘marvellous real’ recalls the deliberate confusion of a real and a fantasized Japan at the beginning of Empire of Signs. It is reminiscent, too, of Barthes's refusal to choose between the real and the fictional when he invokes his seminar as a Utopian space: ‘Is it a case of a real place or a fictional place? Neither one nor the other. An institution is handled in the utopian mood (est traitée sur le mode utopique): I trace a space and I call it: seminar’ (1984b: 369). The crux of Utopian discourse seems to lie in its modal (as much as its temporal) relationship with reality, situated somewhere between the subjunctive of uncertain status and the indicative of positive affirmation, a mode of perception that maintains reality as the ‘marvellous real’.

If Utopian discourse were simply the object of a critical commentary, then the Utopia of language (which abolishes metalanguage), would be largely undermined. To write Utopia oneself is the Utopian way to uphold it, hence, undoubtedly, Barthes's own experiments with the novelistic in his more obviously ‘creative’ writing of the 1970s.6 I want finally to recall that Utopia is even inscribed in his last work, Camera Lucida. One of the very few photographs that isn't of a person or group of people, an old house in Grenada, is given the splendidly Utopian caption: ‘That's where I should like to live …’ (C'est là que je voudrais vivre …)

An old house, a shadowy porch, tiles, a crumbling Arab decoration, a man sitting against the wall, a deserted street, a Mediterranean tree (Charles Clifford's Alhambra): this old photograph (1854) touches me: it is quite simply there that I should like to live … I want to live there, en finesse—and the tourist photograph never satisfies that esprit de finesse. For me, photographs of landscape (urban or country) must be habitable, not visitable. This longing to inhabit, if I observe it clearly in myself, is neither oneiric (I do not dream of some extravagant site) nor empirical (I do not intend to buy a house according to the views of a real-estate agency); it is fantasmatic, deriving from a sort of second sight which seems to bear me forward to a utopian time, or to carry me back to somewhere in myself: a double movement which Baudelaire celebrated in Invitation au voyage and La Vie antérieure. Looking at these landscapes of predilection, it is as if I were certain of having been there or of going there.

(1984a: 39-40)7

Barthes's final relationship to Utopia appears a total reversal of the position spelled out in Mythologies. Once the ‘impossible luxury’ has been understood as the ‘necessary luxury’, Barthes dares to reverse the normal test of the Utopian system—would one really want to live there?—and to follow Fourier in taking the ‘longing to inhabit’ as his starting point. The apocalyptic vision that the former mythologist was debarred from imagining turns out to be the simple enough desire that everyone should comfortably inhabit everyday reality, that everyone should be able to take their place in it with ease (which is why the power relations of the class war and of the systems-of-meaning war still matter so much). This seems to me in a way to be Barthes's ultimate Utopia, so that all his concern with language, and all his attempts to write values, might be seen retrospectively as tied up in that ideal.

This brief exploration of the ‘place’ of Utopia in Barthes's work needs, certainly, to be set in the context of the vast primary and secondary literature of and on Utopia. In particular, to relate Barthes to the more recent German marxist tradition (the theories of Utopia on which Fredric Jameson's marxist hermeneutic most obviously feeds), would surely throw up important connections—it would at least act as an antidote to the extremist ‘joys of the runaway signifier’ approach which has never seemed to me to fit the real(?) Roland Barthes. On the one hand I hope to have shown that Utopia is a central—and highly conscious—preoccupation in Barthes's writing, and that as such it is an interesting way of drawing together his personal obsessions and of steering an argument through them. On the other hand I want to suggest that a more general case could be made for his continued political importance as a Utopian thinker for our age, one for whom Utopia as gesture and Utopia as writing seem to have equal appeal.


  1. With minor amendments, this is the text of the paper read at the Warwick Barthes conference in 1985. Versions of it have also been read to the French Department research seminars of the Universities of Kent and Reading, and I should like to acknowledge many debts to the discussions that followed on all three occasions. I am currently developing my original argument into a book on Barthes as a Utopian writer. Lines of thought in the paper which now seem to me particularly problematic are picked up (very schematically) in the notes that follow.

  2. The points made in this paragraph are developed in a different context in a review article: ‘Roland Barthes: the corpus and the corps’, Poetics Today 5:4 (1984), 831-7.

  3. How Barthes's Utopian discourse relates to the discourse of Orientalism as analysed by Edward Said now seems to me a key question. Barthes's Utopias are often projected into the Orient: here Japan, but also China in a very important Utopian text unknown to me at the time I prepared this paper: ‘Alors, la Chine?’ (Well, how was China?), Le Monde, 24 mai 1974. The posthumous and very novelistic Incidents are set in Morocco, as is the autobiographical episode of eating rancid couscous from which Barthes draws his entire essay on Fourier. Does Barthes fall back, in Incidents and Empire of Signs, into the exoticism denounced in Mythologies, for example in his discussion of the film Lost Continent? Or is he, especially in the China essay, working along the lines actually indicated by Said himself: ‘Perhaps the most important task of all would be to undertake studies in contemporary alternatives to Orientalism, to ask how one can study other cultures and people from a libertarian, or a non-repressive and non-manipulative perspective. But then one would have to rethink the whole complex problem of knowledge and power …’ (Orientalism (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985 (1978)), p. 24.

  4. This whole area now seems to me to be riddled with problems. If we accept Barthes's idea that everything everyday is Utopian, what exactly is going on (from the political point of view) once the bourgeois life-style is effectively legitimized under the banner of ‘the political’? Does Barthes simply give up on his political bad conscience and capitulate to revelling in the everyday? Barthes himself would doubtless argue some political justification: ‘Pleasures, too, are finite in number, and if ever we achieve a de-alienated society, it will have to take up again, but in another place, in a spiral, certain fragments of bourgeois savoir-vivre’ (1985: 172-3); ‘he took no part in the values of the bourgeoisie, which could not outrage him, since he saw them only as scenes of language, something novelistic, what he took part in was the bourgeois art de vivre’ (1977a: 45). See too the whole section of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes on his dual attitude to money (45-6), which alludes to his earlier approval of the positive value placed by Fourier on a luxurious life-style and extravagant expenditure.

  5. The politics of sexuality is a central theme of Fourier's writing which is both very important to Barthes and yet totally ignored in this paper. Barthes finds in Morocco and Japan a ‘happy sexuality’ (sexualité heureuse) worthy of Harmony, but what exactly are the sexual politics of Utopia?

  6. But most explicitly, of course, in the 1969 text Incidents published only last year.

  7. The passage raises numerous problems, however. The presence of memory, albeit in the form here of a fantasized memory, reopens the question of the presemiological Golden Age which I dismissed too easily at the beginning of this paper. Should this sort of memory be related to the novelistic anamnèses of the autobiography? Where exactly does Barthes's escalating obsession with Proust fit in, which extends to childhood recollection? The generally Utopian article ‘La lumière du Sud-Ouest’ (the light of the South-West) picks up Proust through its reference to the ‘memory of the body’ (la mémoire du corps) to conclude that, when it comes down to it ‘childhood is the only Country’ (Au fonds, il n'est Pays que de l'enfance) (1987: 20). Fredric Jameson, in his commentary on Ernst Bloch in Marxism and Form (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1971), uses Bloch's Utopian The Principle of Hope to argue his own case for Proust as a Utopian writer. As Jameson also suggests there, death constitutes a major stumbling block for any future orientated Utopian thinker, and I am exploring ways of integrating the final melancholy, death-obsessed, womb-nostalgic Barthes into the framework of a still Utopian argument. ‘Barthes beyond the pleasure principle’ seems an appropriate way of posing the problem, and clearly a psychoanalytic reading could open up a new route into Barthes's Utopia.

References to Works by Barthes

Although translations from Le Grain de la voix and Le Bruissement de la langue are my own, I have given page references to the translations published since this paper was first written (The Grain of the Voice and The Rustle of Language). All other references are to published translations as listed; I have occasionally introduced slight modifications.

1970. Writing Degree Zero, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (London, Jonathan Cape (Paris, 1953)).

1974. Utopia Rivisitata, special number of Almanacco Bompiani (Milan).

1977a. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard (London, Macmillan (Paris, 1975)).

1977b. Image-Music-Text, essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath (London, Fontana Paperbacks).

1977c. Sade, Fourier, Loyola, translated by Richard Miller (London, Jonathan Cape (Paris, 1971)).

1982. Empire of Signs, translated by Richard Howard (New York, Hill and Wang (Geneva, 1970)).

1983. Barthes: Selected Writings, edited and with an introduction by Susan Sontag (London, Fontana Paperbacks).

1984a. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard (London, Fontana Paperbacks (Paris, 1980)).

1985. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, translated by Linda Coverdale (London, Jonathan Cape (Paris, 1981)).

1986. The Rustle of Language, translated by Richard Howard (Oxford, Basil Blackwell (Paris, 1984)).

1987. Incidents (Paris, Seuil).

Further Reading

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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 Century, no. 249 (1987): 19-36.

Disputes the image of Voltaire that Barthes presents in his criticism and argues that his primarily Marxist perspective may be to blame.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. Rosenberg, Barthes, Hassan. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988, 138 p.

In-depth analysis of Barthes's theoretical stance on language, writing, meaning, and their relationship to power in society and politics.

Leak, Andrew. Barthes: “Mythologies.” London: Grant & Cutler Ltd, 1994, 82 p.

Discussion of Barthes that stresses the construction of mythologies and meaning.

Lombardo, Patrizia. The Three Paradoxes of Roland Barthes. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989, 165 p.

Focuses on paradoxical ideas in Barthes's works and argues that it is a characteristic oscillation between modernism and reactionism.

Moriarty, Michael. “Myths.” In Roland Barthes, pp. 19-30. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press, 1991.

Examines Barthes's essays in Mythologies in terms of his theory that the messages of popular culture and advertising build up a political mythology that supports a bourgeois worldview.

Oboussier, Claire. “Barthes and Femininity: A Synaesthetic Writing.” Nottingham French Studies 33, no. 2 (fall 1994): 78-93.

Compares the writings of Barthes and French feminist writer Hélène Cixous, noting that both reach toward a kind of fragmented identity in their works.

Rylance, Rick. Roland Barthes. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994, 161 p.

Presents an overview of Barthes's theory and works, and also provides historical and cultural context for his career.

Shaw, Mary Lewis. “The Discourse of Fashion: Mallarmé, Barthes, and Literary Criticism.” Substance 21, no. 2 (68) (1992): 46-60.

Compares Barthes's Système de la Mode with Stéphane Mallarmé's Dernièrre Mode in terms of their treatment of women and their portrayal of the practice of criticism.

Shawcross, Nancy M. Roland Barthes on Photography: The Critical Tradition in Perspective. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997, 130 p.

Discusses Barthes's last work, Camera Lucida, noting that “through the perspective of Barthes's views on photography, the historical debate on the medium is refocused.”

Smyth, John Vignaux. “Roland Barthes.” In A Question of Eros: Irony in Sterne, Kierkegaard, and Barthes, pp. 263-302. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1986.

Explores the particular kind of irony practiced by Barthes, discussing it in relation to the irony used by Kierkegaard, and pointing out that Barthes increasingly emphasized the fictiveness of this works.

Sontag, Susan. “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes.” In Where the Stress Falls, pp. 63-88. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001.

Surveys Barthes's writings as a whole, praising the eloquence and depth of his style and noting a tendency to write in a progressively more personal manner.

Wiseman, Mary Bittner. The Ecstasies of Roland Barthes. London: Routledge, 1989, 204 p.

Group of essays that treat Barthes's ideas regarding literature, self-identity, and photography.

Additional coverage of Barthes's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100, 130; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 66; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 24, 83; European Writers, Vol. 13; Guide to French Literature, 1789 to the Present; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; and Twayne's World Authors.

Lawrence D. Kritzman (essay date 1988)

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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 “Figuration is the way in which the erotic body appears (to whatever degree and in whatever form that may be) in the profile of the text” (PT [The Pleasure of the Text], pp. 85-86).

The Barthesian subject “essays” the languages of culture (art, literature, music, photography, and food) and through that process searches for the laws of its own desire. The writer's critical discourse links the sensuous and the conceptual in a phenomenal relation that ultimately becomes a form of self-knowledge: “What is significance? It is meaning, insofar as it is sensually produced” (PT, p. 61). Subjectivity is indeed a rhetorical effect that is related to the body's gesture, a metaphoric bond between the graphic and the corporeal which transcribes figures of drive and defense in the spectacle of writing. The text takes the form of an erotic body with which the writing subject, who sees language and is sensitive to its figurative choreographics, has a relationship that reconciles semiotic analysis with the languages of love. Accordingly, writing rages against literal meaning and conveys, as he puts it, “pulsional incidents … language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony … the articulation of the body” (PT, p. 66). This linguistic enterprise occurs whenever the epistemological metaphors of cultural analysis inscribe the corporeal within the textual and thereby produce a scriptural practice that attests to the implicit sexuality of all language.2

For Barthes, the signifying process exemplifies the libidinal energy of phenomenal experience only by means of psychic tropes through which the aesthetic and the sexual coalesce to stage a critical act transforming the abstract into the sensually concrete. By ascribing value to theoretical fictions whose rhetoric constitutes allegories of sexuality, Barthes transforms analytical narrative into a reflection on desire (“a flush of pleasure” [RB [Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes], p. 103]) that is indeed accepted as an exemplary moral gesture. This critical writing not only functions as a wedge against science, but attests to the joy of a libidinally playful writer whose scriptural activity is charged with configurations of narcissism and is fashioned according to the exigencies of the Imaginary: “Nothing is more depressing than to imagine the Text as an intellectual object (for reflection, analysis, comparison, mirroring, etc.). The text is an object of pleasure” (SFL [Sade, Fourier Loyola], p. 7).

Barthes's sexualization of theory is essentially a discourse of unmitigated desire set forth in the absence of the father and realized as a struggle against the constraints of literal meaning.3 Even during his period of pseudo-scientific positivism of the 1960s, Barthes advanced the hypothesis that the birth of narrative is contemporaneous with the story of Oedipus. The loss of the Oedipal master narrative would be the end of storytelling and writing in the figurative sense. It would ostensibly signify the absence of the anxious desire for the disappearance of the father in all its multifarious manifestations: “Death of the Father would deprive literature of many of its pleasures. If there is no longer a Father, why tell stories? Doesn't every narrative lead back to Oedipus? Isn't storytelling always a way of searching for one's origin, speaking one's conflicts with the Law, entering into the dialectic of tenderness and hatred?” (PT, p. 47).4 The plot of the Oedipal myth overdetermines the production of a cultural discourse characterized as antimimetic, fictive, and driven by a free-flowing psychic energy that swerves away from the threat of castration. In order to transcribe these theoretical fictions, the idealized absence of closure that exists under Oedipus must be regarded as a theoretical given. The critical fictions put forth by Barthes should be seen as creating metaphoric artifacts for a desire that is incited by the real and whose ultimate goal is to return to a paradisiac pre-Oedipal state in an effort to undermine the Symbolic order of difference.

Throughout his critical writing, Barthes's erotic relationship with language is trapped within instinctual drives. The pleasure of reading is a deeply sensual practice that is marked by the diacritical distinction between pleasure and jouissance. As early as Writing Degree Zero (1953), Barthes characterizes the libidinal qualities of Flaubert's writing as containing a perlocutionary force which arouses an intense excitation enabling the reader to journey from linguistic reality to the realm of the senses: “A rhythm of the written word which creates a sort of incantation and which, quite unlike the rules of spoken eloquence, appeals to a sixth, purely literary, sense, the private property of producers and consumers of Literature” (WDZ [Writing Degree Zero], p. 65). If pleasure is conceived as an institutional norm that emanates from cultural competence and is “linked to the comfortable practice of reading,” then jouissance is that felicitous and unpredictable delight that violates the reader's horizon of expectations and transports him into an orgasmic state that “hysterically affirms the void of bliss” (PT, p. 22).

Barthes's erotics of reading attributes to the text the capacity to satisfy the dialogic need for a relationship in which the reader is already addressed by the text and is, in fact, an element of its interpretation. For Barthes, the text attends to the transitory needs of a plaintive and restless reader whose object of desire is indeed a new but different contact realized through an act of scriptural “cruising” in which the sentence is a kind of wink beckoning the reader. The text gives life to the reader's desire only through the effectiveness of its own rhetorical strategies of seduction: “To read is to make our body work … at the invitation of the text's signs, of all the languages which traverse it and form something like the shimmering depth of the sentence” (RL [The Rustle of Language], p. 31). Reading is therefore an activity which recognizes the text's call for recognition as well as its power to cathect with the reader: “The sensual is always readable: if you want to be read, write sensually” (SE [Sollers, écrivain], p. 67).

By placing particular emphasis on the way writing manipulates the reader, Barthes draws our attention to the text's struggle to keep desire alive—“the metonymic pleasure of all narration” (RL, p. 40)—as a strategy for slowing the irreversible movement toward closure. Desire indeed becomes the object of reading since it compels us to come to grips with the promises and annunciations that narratives put forth. The act of reading is an adventure in which the reader is both an amorous and mystical subject marked by a disengagement from the external world and a subsequent adherence to the exigencies of an image-repertory produced within the hermetic world of self-love.

In another sense, however, reading becomes an act of nurturance when the reader, overtaken by a narcissistic urge, retreats from reality. Here the book is taken as a love-object, a Gestalt with which the reader identifies. Like the relationship between the child and the maternal imago as originary identification, the reader locates the Imaginary in the pleasures of the text perceived as an image of bodily unity that consists in “nursing his dual relation with the book (i.e. with the Image), by shutting himself up alone with it, fastened to it, like the child fastened to the mother and the Lover pouring over the beloved's face” (RL, p. 39).5 This paradisiac coalescence of subject and image functions in a manner analogous to that of a mirror. Accordingly, it transmits the joy of a reading subject engaged in a fiction of corporeal integrity. But this dream of symbiotic bliss is also capable of yielding to a drama of separation through which the image of reading can conquer the reading subject and imbue him with the will to write. Thus, we are led to “desire the desire” the author had for the reader when he was writing. Reading therefore becomes the very catalyst of narrative production with the origin of the story located in the Other: “the (consumed) product is reversed into production, into promise, into desire for production, and the chain of desire begins to unroll, each reading being worth the writing it engenders to infinity” (RL, p. 41). Ultimately, writing becomes the trace of the act of reading inspired and produced as an effect of writing.

The visual arts afford Barthes the opportunity to study women as semiotic objects mediated by shaped or mastered languages. In a preface to a collection of drawings by the fashion designer Erté (Romain de Tirtoff), Barthes examines the female figure as a morphemic unit sketched out by the interplay between the graphic qualities of the letter and the sensuous contours of the body. In drawing upon the mythological stereotypes associated with the image of the woman in Western culture, Barthes characterizes Erté's conception of the female body as a fetishized textual object. Each letter of his alphabet represents a synecdoche of femininity inscribed within the silhouette of writing. Unlike the conventional concept of the fetish as a fragment severed from the whole body, it here takes on new meaning in the form of a cultural artifact submitted to the mortifying gesture of a totalized harmonious figuration. “Woman entirely socialized by her adornment, adornment stubbornly ‘corporeified’ by Woman's contour” (RF, p. 108).

The silhouette becomes a fetish for Barthes because the corporeal part object and vestimentary image merge as a composite whole that links the ornamental and the bodily in an erotic albeit paradoxically desexualized relationship. Upon closer inspection, it seems that Barthes's gaze is drawn to Erté's gynecography by the violence through which the female body is dismembered and subsequently integrated into a series of discrete units belonging to an alphabetic order mediated by a graphic materiality. “Nor is Erté's Woman a symbol, the renewed expression of a body whose forms would preserve the fantasmal impulses of its creator or its reader (as in the case with the Romantic Woman of painters and writers): she is merely a cipher, a sign referring to a conventional femininity (the stake of a social pact), because she is a pure object of communication, information, transition to the intelligible, and not the expression of the sensuous: these countless women are not portraits of an idea, fantasmal experiments, but instead the return of an identical morpheme …” (RF, p. 105). In a very real sense, Barthes sees Erté as fitting women into the coherent structure of an intelligible signifying system. At the same time, he discovers her derivative function within that system by submitting her body to the grammatical exigencies of a highly aestheticized language in which women are situated at the locus of graphic abstraction: “The signifying point of departure, in Erté, is not Woman (she becomes nothing, if not her own coiffure—she is the simple cipher of mythic femininity)—it is the Letter” (RF, p. 114). The semiotician therefore discovers in the female body a decorative relic, a verbal icon liberated from the occult forces of the erotic by linguistic functions that legitimize the obliteration of her libidinal power. The desexualization of the female body is more than a turning away from femininity; it represents a sterilized object of play whose true value emanates from the utopic space of a two-dimensional image.

What draws Barthes to the Physiologie du goût is undoubtedly the amorous relation which Brillat-Savarin maintained with a language that can literally be characterized as that of a gourmand. Gastronomist and semiotician alike desire words in their material presence and consequently establish a fetishistic relationship with language which represents the oral aspirations of the psychic body.6 “B. S. desires the word as he desires truffles, a tuna omelette, a fish stew; like any neologist, he has a fetishistic relation to the individual word, haloed by its very singularity” (RL, p. 259). Orality is evoked here because it enables Barthes to project via analogical metaphors the sexual onto the verbal. As a result, he transforms language into discrete physical objects capable of enacting libidinal functions; orality is but an exercise of language that actualizes the pleasures of the body: “we know how insistent modernity has become, revealing the sexuality concealed in the exercise of language: to speak under certain constraints or certain alibis … is an erotic act (the concept of orality) … B. S. here furnishes what his brother-in-law Fourier would have called a transition: that of taste, oral as language, libidinal as Eros” (RL, p. 259).

Barthes's discussion of Brillat-Savarin situates the erotic locus of both food and language in the same bodily organ, the tongue, without which there would be neither taste nor speech: “To eat, to speak, to sing (need we add, to kiss?) are operations which have the same site of the body for the origin” (RL, p. 258). The economy of desire adheres to the exigencies of a linguistic appetite which produces a delight which is diffuse and yet totally permeates the sensations of our internal body through the very movements of the tongue. Language is indeed an element of erotic nurturance, with food acting as the gustative metaphor of a narrative that develops in time. Somewhat in the manner of a narrative, or of a language temporalized, taste knows surprises and subtleties—these are the perfumes and fragrances, constituted in advance, so to speak, like memories: nothing would have kept Proust's madeleine from being analyzed by Brillat-Savarin (RL, p. 251). Like the field of discourse which is subject to the action of degrees, gustative sensations produce meaning subsequent to their first reception and ironically evoke the pleasures of reference just when they appear to trace their very absence. Here Barthes's analysis uncovers an erotics of the table, the voluptuous effects of cenesthesia which exemplifies an idealized desire that is destined to produce euphoria and yet remain incomplete. This unsatisfied wish perhaps accounts for the paradoxical nature of unelaborated desire. Like a dream, it is built on felicitous memories evoking an intense pleasure devoid of any real sensuality while remaining on the threshold of joyful expectations: “When I have an appetite for food, do I not imagine myself eating it? And, in this predictive imagination, is there not the entire memory of previous pleasures? I am the constituted subject of a scene to come, in which I am the only actor” (RL, p. 264).

If ideality is an issue in Barthes's critical fictions, his essays on romantic song—and on Schumann's Lieder, in particular—recall a world in which desire and its object were once continuous. In these texts, musicality becomes a mode of figurative language for a subject who seeks asylum in the narcissistic pleasure of internalized bliss. Emphasizing the delight of the original dyad, Barthes glorifies the desire to preserve the unravished purity of illusion whereby the subject is engaged in the undifferentiated unity of symbiotic dependency. To sing in the romantic voice is indeed an act that is self-consuming and capable of producing a mode of orgasmic pleasure which enables the ideal and the real to coalesce in the body of desire; romantic song is a performative act that assigns to the psychic body the function of mediator of dreams: “All romantic music, whether vocal or instrumental, utters the song of the natural body: it is a music which has a meaning only if I can always sing it, in myself, with my body … For to sing, in the romantic sense, is this: fantasmatically to enjoy my unified body” (RF, p. 288).

While the love song presupposes an imaginary interlocution, it indeed emanates from a loss that is the result of an absent other. The subject is forced to seek refuge in a musical form that is “continually taking refuge in the luminous shadow of the Mother” (RF, p. 298) and consequently disengages the self from the constraints of Oedipalization. The phantasmal rhythms of romantic song produce the illusion of a narcissistic fulfillment through an art that is appearance without reality: “Fantasieren: at once to imagine and to improvise: in short, to hallucinate, i.e., to produce the novelistic without constructing a novel” (RF, p. 291). In renouncing the semblance of referentiality, the love song fantasy engages the singer in a mode of figurative expression that marks a certain sensitivity to the institution of the novel.7 It also affirms that art can reshape matter through form, reality through the openness of music as a nostalgic quest that is “a pure wandering, a becoming without finality” (RF, p. 291). The singing subject dramatizes the relation with the Other inasmuch as it becomes the ostensible catalyst of his very own sense of loss: “I struggle with an image, which is both the image of the desired, lost other, and my own image, desiring and abandoned” (RF, p. 290).

What is remarkable about Barthes's essay on romantic song is its exemplary allegorization of a discourse of desire which refuses the demands of the symbolic order and opts instead for pre-Oedipal bliss. Barthes's encomium of the Lieder is catalyzed by the will to transcend the Oedipalized typology of the opera lyric and the need to (re)discover the dream of omnipotence in a romance of union represented as a conflict-free relation liberated from the laws of gender overdetermination: “In our Western society, through the four vocal registers of the opera, it is Oedipus who triumphs … It is precisely these four family voices which the romantic lied, in a sense, forgets: it does not take into account the sexual marks of the voice, for the same lied can be sung by a man or a woman, no vocal ‘family,’ nothing but a human subject,—unisexual, one might say, precisely insofar as it is amorous: for passion, romantic love—is no respecter of sexes or of social roles” (RF, p. 287).

The passionate romantic love that Barthes alludes to is one that has not encountered the trials and tribulations of difference. It reflects the desire for a primary relationship of narcissistic wholeness in which the other and the one are the same without attributes recognizable as either specifically masculine or feminine: “In short, the lied's interlocutor is the Double—my Double, which is Narcissus: a corrupt double, caught in the dreadful scene of the cracked mirror” (RF, p. 290). This narcissistic overestimation in the case of object-choice reveals not only a regression to the realm of the Imaginary, but also the apparent need to invent a world of neutral gender in which the body is, nevertheless, bound up with the rhythms of the semiotic. Perhaps the most revealing of Barthes's critical fictions is the notion of the text which is described as a fetishistic object of pleasure in which the “devirilized” son loses himself in the web of the maternal body.8 The writer-child engages in an erotic activity in which the joyful pleasure derived from playing with the mother's body is but a colonization and merging with that body. The distance between mother and son has been reduced to catastrophically narrow proportions whereby the latter is fatally drawn into the vertiginous path of Arachne's labyrinth.9 We are now emphasizing, in the tissue, the generative idea that the text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving lost in this tissue—this texture—the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web (PT, p. 64). For Barthes, then, the writing subject develops the ability to become that “beautiful land” through the loss of its opacity, symbolized by the mother's body, and thus merge with the vanished corpus of childhood bliss.

However, the body in question here represents not the mother's invention, but rather the child's drama of artistic creation. Barthes's text transcribes the mother as object of scriptural production and not as its dynamic subject: “The writer is someone who plays with the mother's body … in order to glorify it, to embellish it, or in order to dismember it, to take it to the limit of what can be known about the body” (PT, p. 37). In passing from passive to active persona, the Barthesian subject—in actualizing a Kleinian intertext—reappropriates the maternal body which was destroyed in fantasy.10 He actively remodels it through a creative act—“The hand intervenes … to gather and intertwine the inert threads” (S/Z, p. 166)—which is but a sublimated version of the urge for reparation. To be sure, the impulse to satisfy the mother is inextricably linked to the symbolic recreation of the maternal body by a male writer who paradoxically feminizes himself through the symbolic representation of the fetishistic female braid which the text emblematizes in its very materiality. Thus, in characterizing the maternal body as “what can be braided” (RF, p. 109), the Barthesian subject ascribes to the scriptural act the masturbatory pleasures associated with narcissistic drives. The writing of the text embodies the transgression of the forbidden satisfaction derived from the maternal. Yet it exercises an obsessional attraction for a self which paradoxically becomes a substitute object of nurturance that sustains the order of the Imaginary.

In order for the text to keep the fiction-making machine alive, its most fundamental law within Barthes's critical fantasy must be to render the satisfaction of desire incomplete. The fictional must outwit the death drive of the pleasure principle. The enactment of narrative produces a discourse of desire which represents temporality as the deferral of meaning. The writing of the text transforms a reflection on desire into a kind of resonance of language that erases the object of its articulation. Barthes's concept of the text openly thematizes the inability to repress castration and with it the refusal to incarnate the Law.

Accordingly, the braiding of the pubic hair, as it is evoked by the Barthesian subject, enacts the fable of his demands. It is a mere metaphor for the symbolic positioning of desire and the denial of castration. Like the child who arrives at the fetishistic solution as the only means to defeat the castration threat, the theorist opts for the cacophony of mutually interfering sign systems as a way to perpetuate the exigencies of desire: “We know the symbolism of the braid: Freud, considering the origin of weaving, saw it as the labor of a woman braiding her pubic hairs to form the absent penis. The text, in short, is a fetish; and to reduce it to the unity of meaning, by a deceptively univocal reading, is to cut the braid, to sketch the castrating gesture” (S/Z, p. 160). To cut the braid is thus tantamount to halting the drive and the kinetic energy that is the source motivating desire. The suspension of meaning activates the euphoria derived from an eroticized language which resists the quiescence of a castrative hermeneutics: “In him the desire for the word prevails, but this pleasure is partly constituted by a kind of doctrinal vibration” (RB, p. 74).

In effect, Barthes's notion of the text represents the desire to escape the fate of monumentalization and to transcend the limits of interpretation as well as the problems of classification. The notion of organic totality must be fractured in order to produce a feeling of ecstasy emanating from the site of a loss. A seam, a cut, or a discontinuity in the textual fabric stimulates the erotic energy of the reader whose affective sensibilities are attuned to the rhetoric of fragmentation. As Barthes claims, a naked body is infinitely less erotic than the spot where the garment gaps. The fragmented corpus which constitutes an ideal representational mode entices the reader and transports him into the realm of the senses: “When I try to produce this short writing, in fragments, I put myself in the situation of an author who will be cruised by the reader. It is the happiness of chance, but chance that is wished-for, quite thought-out; spied upon, in a way” (GV [The Grain of the Voice], p. 231). Barthes's corps morcelé enacts the fantasy of his own body in bits and pieces, a corporeal pose that implies a certain loss of self and seduces because of this very absence.

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes sets forth an unquestionably idealistic view of sexuality that attempts to transcend the psychic mythology of the binary prison through a process of self-negation: “He dreams of a world which would be exempt from meaning” (RB, p. 87). The concept of the neuter becomes a scriptural metaphor in the quest to transcend the integrity of meaning in language and the threat of reification due to taxonomies. Barthes therefore problematizes the possibility of essentialized gender identities and suggests that the very idea of a “happy sexuality” can only become possible when sexual difference is disavowed. In essence, Barthes seemingly refuses those identities of man and woman as fictions of oppression imposing closure. Within this context, sexuality is characterized as more than merely the biological. In fact, it is portrayed as a textual phenomenon that is plural and disengaged from the contingencies of a priori roles: “Nevertheless, once the alternative is rejected (once the paradigm is blurred) utopia begins: meaning and sex become the object of free play, at the heart of which the (polysemic) forms and the (sensual) practices, liberated from the binary prison, will achieve a state of infinite expansion. Thus may be formed a Gongorian text and a happy sexuality” (RB, p. 133).

To be sure, the utopia of sexuality evokes a pleasure that refuses to name itself and is situated at the locus of its root-meaning, no-place. The free-play in question here is integral to the quest for an amorphous sexuality: it suggests that it can only have felicitous consequences through an excess of meaning. By equating utopia with the neuter, Barthes opts for a higher form of sexuality reaching beyond social constructions in the name of the transgressive imperatives of desire: “The neuter … is a purely qualitative, structural notion; it is what confuses meaning, the norm normality. To enjoy the neuter is perforce to be disgusted by the average” (SFL, p. 109).

In a sense, then, the coupling of the erotic and the semiotic in the figure of the neuter produces a radical signifying practice that challenges both closure in gender (i.e., the institution of heterosexuality) and in language. To go beyond the constraints of normality is in fact an attempt to reject the fictional signs of plenitude associated with the quantitative equilibrium of the so-called mythological mean. The abnormal therefore becomes the signifier of the neuter with pleasure defining itself as a form of perversity: “Pleasure is a neuter (the most perverse form of the demoniac” (PT, p. 65). Perversion becomes an issue because it generates a blissful surplus of meaning, a libidinal flow which frees sexuality from a totalizing homogeneity and allows it to transgress the obstacles of social censure through the active quest for the neuter: “The pleasure potential of a perversion (in that case, that of the two H.'s: homosexuality and hashish) is always underestimated. Law, Science, the Doxa refuse to understand that perversion, quite simply, makes happy or to be more specific, it produces a more … and in this more is where we find the difference …” (RB, pp. 63-64).

But this idealized sexuality that Barthes puts forth is suspended somewhere between the satiety of pleasure and its ostensible absence. In a 1979 preface to Renaud Camus's novel Tricks, Barthes portrays a utopian erotic rapport as a fiction in which no one player would have a position of dominance over the other. It is, like the imaginary contract of prostitution, an encounter which takes place only once and engages its players in a drama which passes without regret. A trick is indeed more than simply an act of cruising, but it is often infinitely much less than love. It is a metaphor of clandestine adventures that potentially engage the amorous subject in a theatrical event in which the ludic strategies of the players reduce libidinal intensity into surfaces and sexuality into a form of haiku that permits asceticism and hedonism to coalesce.

In its very essence, then, a trick is a pseudo-affective mode. It induces a tropistic interaction through a seductive choreographics that absorbs the self into the facticity of illusion. The trick thus enables the passage from the sexual to the discursive and thereby becomes a metaphor of mystical experience: “The Trick … abandons pornography (before having really approached it) and joins the novel … the trick … is a virtual love, deliberately stopped short on each side, by contract a submission to the cultural code which identifies cruising with Don Juanism” (RL, pp. 293-294). The dramaturgy of the desiring subject transmits an intensity that is kept in check. Barthes is ostensibly drawn to Camus's narrative by its ability to represent homosexual encounters without ever directly speaking about them. The narrative allows him to reflect the essence of the neuter, which is unquestionably an entity without essence beyond the plenitude of being.

It is, however, in A Lover's Discourse that Barthes conceptualizes the discourse of love as separate from sexuality, therefore problematizing the issue of gender once again. Out of the lover's discourse emerges a persona who is described as being sexually indifferent and inscribed in a constellation of figures that simulate the amorous subject as a feminized being, one who is gender-marked and experiences a devastating sense of passivity as the object of desire. Difference is in fact not determined by sexual identity but rather by the shifting loci of object relations that define a redistribution of power: “Every lover who falls in love at first sight has something of a Sabine Woman (or of some other celebrated victim of ravishment) … the lover—the one who has been ravished—is always feminized” (LD [A Lover's Discourse], pp. 188-189).

Femininity undoubtedly leaves itself open to libidinal colonization; the function of this feminized subject is to be possessed through a form of domination. The production of a lover's discourse depends to an unsuspected degree on the binding of the energy of an amorous subject trapped within the entropy of a male-centered cultural division of gender roles. But if Barthes enables the masculine to become feminine, it is in order to explore and put into question the association of sexual inversion with feminization; gender identity is conditioned by the language of love, which transforms the amorous subject into a transvestite of sorts whose subversion is realized by the enunciative reversibility of masculine and feminine: “Any man who utters the other's absence something feminine is declared: this man who waits and who suffers from his waiting is miraculously feminized. A man is not feminized because he is inverted, but because he is in love” (LD, p. 14).

Falling in love makes the male figure genuinely a man-woman and inscribes him in the phallocentric plot of female subjection: “It is their situation in the relation of force that orchestrates some characters as virile and others as feminine, without concern for their biological sex” (OR [On Racine], p. 13). In distancing himself from the anatomy of the gender-marked body, Barthes sets it free in order to reify the myth of the eternal feminine, which takes the masculine as its point of origin. Ironically, the subject in quest of the neuter finds himself imprisoned within the parameters of the binary law: “I must always choose between masculine and feminine, for the neuter and the dual are forbidden me” (“Inaugural Lecture,” p. 460).

Barthes evokes the passivity of the lover only in order to prioritize the primal relationship between the subject and the imaginary (m)other who engenders the birth of desire. In the lover's discourse, the maternal imago not only becomes the center of the subject's identity, but it remains an internalized principle of sensuality and corporeal experience whose absence constitutes a symbolic castration—“seeing oneself abandoned by the mother” (LD, p. 48)—that is indeed the very symptom of this tragically terminal disease. The absent mother therefore symbolizes a lost harmony and emblematizes the pain of separation associated with all love relationships. In a sense, the desired return for the maternal figure offers the amorous subject renewed hope for symbiotic bliss while at the same time serving to imprison him in the femininity within himself: “What I expect of the promised presence is an unheard of totality of pleasures, a banquet I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions” (LD, p. 119).

Barthes thus stages the lover's discourse as a catastrophic theatrical event characterized by the nostalgia for a lost maternal plenitude manifested as the projection of nothingness. The feeling of abandonment evokes a subject divided between the potential loss of what can never be recovered and the memory of what can never be forgotten: “The lover who doesn't forget sometimes dies of excess, exhaustion, and tension of memory … as a child, I didn't forget: interminable days, abandoned days when the Mother was working far away I would go, evenings, to wait for her at the U bis bus stop, the Sèvres-Babylone buses would pass one after the other, she wasn't in any of them” (LD, pp. 14-15). Like the abandoned child, the lover finds himself in a state of solitude, the consequences of which reveal the inability to complete separation because of a past that cannot be extricated from the present: “I invoke the other's protection, the other's return: let the other appear, take me away, like the mother who comes looking for her child” (LD, p. 17). Desire, then, takes the form of a demand addressed to the (m)other who in essence becomes a personification of that very need. Barthes's vocatives are choreographed as a series of fantasies of persecution by a maternal agent of evil who replaces the identical agent of good. The mother is split into contrasting opposites with the menacing object being nothing more than the result of the excessive idealization of the perfect object: “The fade-out of the loved object is the terrifying return of the Wicked Mother, the inexplicable retreat of love, the well-known abandonment of which the Mystics complain … I am not destroyed, but dropped here, a reject” (LD, p. 113).

But if the bad mother is characterized as one who withdraws her love, the good son refuses to abandon his mother. From the perspective of the amorous subject springs forth the impulse to sustain nurturance and the need to reenact the infant's original pleasures. Quoting the Tao Te Ching, the lover evokes the singularity of his quest to cathect onto the figure of the mother: “I alone am different from other men, / For I seek to suckle at my mother's breast” (LD, p. 213). Nurturance is consecrated as an activity by virtue of the Kleinian definition of culture as an effort to repair the damaged world of the Imaginary through the symbolic rediscovery of the mother's body.11 And it is through the correlation between writing and femininity that the amorous subject is able to compensate for this loss. The scriptural act constitutes itself as a gynotextual activity that elaborates the fiction of absence at the level of the logos and thereby provides the amorous subject with a locus for the projection of the missing object; the wounds of love can be transcended by a discursive performance that bears the marks of the female voice: “Historically, the discourse of absence is carried on by the Woman … it is women who give shape to absence, elaborates its fiction, for she has time to do so she weaves and sings … the Spinning Songs express both mobility … and absence” (LD, pp. 13-14).

At the core of the discourse of desire is the rhetoric of the detail. This phenomenon is inextricably linked to the loss of the mother; it functions as a synecdoche that transcends what Barthes terms, in the context of photography, the realm of the studium or a culturally coded discourse. Barthes delineates the notion of the punctum in Camera Lucida as the aspect of the photograph that designates what punctures the studium and figuratively injures the spectator, even though he can't articulate precisely why: “A Latin word exists [punctum] to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument” (CL [Camera Lucida], p. 26). In essence, the punctum is that subliminal detail, that “partial object” (CL, p. 43), which touches the viewer and unchains a desire reaching a level of orgasmic pleasure and produces a readerly response “at once brief and active” (CL, p. 51). This piercing detail, described as both certain and unlocatable, is a vestigial trace of something that is secretly familiar but has undergone repression and exerted a symbolic exercise of force on the desiring subject: “What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance” (CL, p. 51). Thus, the power of the detail catalyzes a pathetic struggle to keep memories alive and forestall the death of desire: “Perhaps the imagination of detail is what specifically defines Utopia. … Detail is fantasmatic and thereby achieves the very pleasure of Desire” (SFL, p. 105). In effect, the punctum is a tactic of delay that sustains the jubilant reading of a photographic image which surprises by the force of its very presence. “The punctum, then, is a kind of subtle beyond, as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see … always the Photography astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and receives itself inexhaustibly” (CL, pp. 59, 82).

The rhetoric of the detail reaches its most poignant level in Barthes's ruminations on images of the mother in which the son in mourning fetishizes the photographic detail as mediator of desire for the mother and in an effort to master the trauma of her loss. Under the guise of a quest for the essence of photography, the analysis of the image in Camera Lucida reveals not only the absent referent common to all photos, but, in addition, the ontological anxiety derived from the Barthesian subject's nostalgia for what has been. “According to these photographs, sometimes I recognized a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognized her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being and that therefore I missed her altogether. It was not she, and yet it was no one else” (CL, pp. 65-66).

Yet this equivocal remembrance enables Barthes to repress even momentarily the pain of separation and to compensate for the loss of a psychic illusion of unity; its stake is undoubtedly in the quest to reconstitute the lost maternal corpus from lacunary fragments and the agony and the ecstasy of that pursuit: “Straining toward the essence of her identity [that of the mother], I was struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false” (CL, p. 66). Barthes's affective investment reveals itself through the hypertrophy of single details that, at best, painfully approximate the image of the maternal body. “The almost: love's dreadful regime, but also the dream's disappointing status …” (CL, p. 66). They function as a symptom of the need to keep desire alive and resurrect a simulacrum of the absent other through a metonymic process which intermittently allows the part to exceed the whole: “I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think” (CL, p. 21). The photo thus becomes an allegorical image in which temporality is paradoxically represented as both a triumph and a defeat; it makes a place for a body which, although “hers,” had no meaning before this possibility of re-membering.

Fetishism is indeed an issue in Camera Lucida because Barthes is caught in an imaginary relationship which nurtures an amorous preference for the mother. This relationship is predicated on the denegation of the maternal phallus which serves as a means to avert the threat of his own castration and thereby remain in an imaginary state of sexual indifference that maintains the Other as the Same.12 “When I confronted the Winter Garden Photography I gave myself up to the Image …” (CL, p. 75).13 Thus, for Barthes the fetishistic attraction to the photographic detail becomes “a model for repudiating reality).”14 Accordingly, the maternal image carries within it a monument to repression, a spectrum that enables the orphaned spectator to avert the total renunciation of the object of narcissistic desire: “This word [spectre] retains, through its roots, a relation to ‘spectacle’ and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead” (CL, p. 9). In this context, Barthes's writing puts forth the desire to preserve the unravished purity of illusion in which the filial subject opts for symbiotic dependency with a singular maternal figure.

After his mother's death, the amorous son, while pondering over a photo of her as a child in the Winter Garden scene, uncovers a utopia, the “brighter shadow” (CL, p. 116), where wishes are fulfilled.15 The photo becomes an object of intense affective investment that symbolically consecrates the union of mother and son as the only Nature acceptable to the amorous subject. Yet the moment Barthes sees his mother in the photo he not only attempts to ward off the death he sees inscribed in her girlish picture, but he intercalates it with the story of his own life and the mortality that it implies. The future is imagined from the anticipatory standpoint of its having already occurred and from the consciousness of impending death; unable to think the absence of thought, the Barthesian subject conceives of its mortality through the death and separation from the (m)other. “Once she was dead I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the progress of the superior Life Force (the race, the species). … From now on I could no more than await my total, undialectical death” (CL, p. 72). As the absence of the mother served as a template for uninterrupted desire in A Lover's Discourse, so the death of the mother evoked by the punctum of the Winter Garden photography functions as an uncanny harbinger of the death of desire. “For what I have lost is not a Figure (the Mother), but a being and not a being but a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable. I could live without the Mother (as we all do, sooner or later) but what life remained would be absolutely and entirely unqualifiable (without quality)” (CL, p. 75).


  1. I quote from the following texts: Writing Degree Zero (WDZ), trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970); On Racine (OR), trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); Sade, Fourier Loyola (SFL), trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976); S/Z (S/Z), trans. R. Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976); The Pleasure of the Text (PT), trans. R. Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975); Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (RB), trans. R. Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977); A Lover's Discourse (LD), trans. R. Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives” (“SAR”), in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977); “Inaugural Lecture at the Collège de France” (L), in Susan Sontag, ed., A Barthes Reader (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982); Sollers écrivain (SE) (Paris: Seuil, 1979); Camera Lucida, trans. R. Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981); The Grain of the Voice (GV), trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985); The Responsibility of Forms (RF), trans. R. Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985); The Rustle of Language (RL), trans. R. Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986).

  2. In “Roland Barthes, sémioclaste?” (L'Arc 56 [1974], 17-24), Françoise Gaillard describes an “eroticism of intelligibility.” Upon completion of my essay, I learned that Naomi Schor also discusses the notion of Barthes's “eroticization of aesthetics” in her Reading in Detail (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 96.

  3. For a more complete analysis of Barthes's anti-Oedipal discourse, see my “Barthesian Freeplay,” Yale French Studies 66 (1984), 189-210.

  4. The study of narrative from a post-Lacanian Oedipal perspective has been undertaken in Robert Con Davis, ed., The Fictional Father: Lacanian Readings of the Text (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), and Juliet Flower MacCannell, “Oedipus Wrecks,” MLN 98 (1983), 910-940.

  5. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966), p. 115.

  6. “[Barthes] uses Nietzsche's methods—the genealogy and the gay science—to overcome the death drive encountered in his fetishism, thus transforming a perversion into a technique of critical production” (Gregory L. Ulmer, “Fetishism in Barthes's Nietzschean Phase,” Papers on Language and Literature 14 [1978], 334-355).

  7. “Car s'il est chez lui [Barthes] une continuité, c'est bien celle d'une intelligence du romanesque si aiquë, si séduisante qu'elle ne cesse d'éclipser l'‘utopie’ plus secrète d'un autre rêve d'écriture qui, depuis les années d'apprentissage, habite les pages écrites comme le songe d'un songe” (Philippe Roger, Roland Barthes, roman [Paris: Grasset, 1986], p. 31).

  8. See Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether, eds., The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985). Domna Stanton, in “The Mater of the Text: Barthesian Displacement and Its Limits,” L'Esprit Créateur 25 (1985), coins the expression “divirilized son.”

  9. “The discourse of the male weavers rhetorically stages ‘woman’ without in any way addressing women” (Nancy K. Miller, “Arachnologies: The Woman, the Text, the Critic,” in N. K. Miller, ed., The Poetics of Gender [New York: Columbia University Press, 1986], p. 271).

  10. See Melanie Klein, “The Importance of Symbol-Formation in the Development of the Ego,” and “Infantile Anxiety-Situations Reflected in a Work of Art and in the Creative Impulse,” in Love, Guilt, and Reparation and Other Works, vol. 1 of R. E. Money-Kyrle, ed., The Writings of Melanie Klein (London: Hogarth Press, 1975).

  11. Klein, “Symbol-Formation,” pp. 220, 232.

  12. The fetishistic solution is the means to confront and defeat the castration threat. According to Jean Baudrillard, fetishism incorporates the notions of construction, artifice, fabrication, and imitation by signs (“Fétichisme et idéologie: La réduction sémiologique,” Nouvelle Revue Psychanalytique 2 [1970], 213-226).

  13. Barthes writes that the Imaginary may be found “through the Mother, present next to the Mirror” (RB, p. 153).

  14. Octave Mannoni writes in Clefs pour l'imaginaire (Paris: Seuil, 1969) that the fetish becomes the first model of all repudiations of reality.

  15. “L'impossible par chance parfois devient possible: comme utopie. C'est bien ce qu'il disait avant sa mort, mais pour lui, de la Photographie du Jardin d'Hiver. Au-delà des analogies ‘elle accomplissait pour moi, utopiquement, la science impossible de l'être unique.’ Il le disait uniquement, tourné vers sa mère et non vers la Mère, mais la singularité poignante ne contredit pas la généralité, elle ne lui interdit pas de valoir comme la loi, elle la flèche seulement, et la signe”; Jacques Derrida, “Les morts de Roland Barthes,” Poétique 47 (1981), 277. According to Julia Kristeva, “la sélection de Mère [in Barthes] … résume tout, début et fin condensés” (“La voix de Barthes,” Communications 36 [1982], 148-149).

Armine Kotin Mortimer (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13518

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, but little else; many have made up their own Barthes … In English, and to the average reader, Barthes's prose seems “anything but communicative, and often flatly impenetrable” (Stephen Koch, “Melancholy King of the Cats,” 35). None of this is justified. Little does the reader of English realize how much has been lost or distorted in translation, and how many passages have been made incomprehensible. Many of the criticisms of the book stem from these blunders in the translation—contradictions, nonsense, “flattenings,” omissions, and misunderstanding. The Pleasure of the Text is dense and enigmatic, to be sure, but if the prose is “impenetrable” it is largely because of its intertextuality. Barthes's French is lucid. It is not quirky, whimsical, and frivolous—unless these words be redefined; it does not prance from topic to topic as heedlessly as people widely believe. Close reading of this prose yields a cogent text whose very logic it was the purpose of the pleasure of the text to hide. The reader's pleasure lies in sorting out that logic, as the voyeur of the writer's pleasure (see “Commentaire”).

I grant that this view of the “later Barthes” may not be universal. Logic, cogency, lucidity, distilled essence, condensed discourse—these are not terms one finds often in the critical language on Barthes after his most baldly structuralist phase. Yet I maintain that these descriptions are not in conflict with the revolution that The Pleasure of the Text brought about, and this is a premise of what follows. Some have taken the striking evolutions and revolutions of his writing as grounds for reading Barthes against himself. It has been far too easy to treat Barthes's unique discourse—his play with language, his apparent mobility, his idiosyncratic style, especially his self-exposure—as a lack of seriousness. Even dedicated Barthesians, especially in English-speaking countries, do not realize how much his writing has concentrated his thought, and they too misquote. The Pleasure of the Text is exemplary of that condensation, at a crucial moment in Barthes's evolution; it is the central, seminal, radical, single most important work, for it inaugurates the ultimate Roland Barthes, the one that people write about and argue about.

I write this book because there is pleasure in understanding Barthes, and I would like to convey that pleasure. My Commentary on each chapter, never exhaustive, is intended to bring to light the intimate thread of its logic. Here I make suggestions, not definitive statements; if my readings do not go far enough for some, let me nevertheless ask all readers to listen to what I am hearing. While it is perfectly possible to “make up one's own Barthes,” as I claim people have done, and remain, paradoxically, in Barthes, the quality of the personal understanding we may have—must have—can only improve with a better reading of the text itself. That principle has never been lost, whatever the critical fashion. A major goal of this book is to define and demonstrate just what a better reading might be—for this text and for any text.

The Intertexts which I propose for each section are a way of opening up the reading. The Pleasure of the Text is about intertextuality, as well as an illustration of it: pleasure is intertextuality, the presence of other texts in the text. The Pleasure of the Text explains what goes on in the reader of literature: it is a theory of reading, a theory of the reading subject, and a theory of writing. It both theorizes the reader's relation to the text and exemplifies it; Barthes demonstrates his reading pleasure in the very practice of writing about it. We can “apply” it to the reading of concrete texts, and plumb its theoretical formulations about the classical or modern text. And we should not fail to use this theory of writing, reading, and intertextuality to understand Barthes's other books. I invite you to reread The Pleasure of the Text with new eyes.

The procedures of this book are thus double: to analyze or explicate The Pleasure of the Text chapter by chapter, suggesting as necessary corrections to Richard Miller's translation, and to discover and uncover its intertextuality, for all readers. Discovering that intertextuality, and using the light it reflects on the text, I want to propose a version of the text that is as lucid as the original is in the profundity of its thought.

But that is not my sole purpose. This book contains information pertinent to all Barthes, especially the Barthes of the later years. The major change in Barthes's thinking occurred with The Pleasure of the Text—beginning perhaps just before, with Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971), but finding its most intense voice in The Pleasure of the Text. All of the later books, including the much-cited Roland Barthes,A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, and Camera Lucida, have deep roots in The Pleasure of the Text. The entire concept of text must be referred to The Pleasure of the Text—but few have done so, since many have failed to read the book closely. It is here that Barthes molds in pleasure his position with respect to modern writers and other artists. The critique of ideology and the critique of the critique of ideology mark here a major change from the early Barthes and explain the turn to the deeply personal A Lover's Discourse: Fragments and Camera Lucida. The insistent psychoanalytic influence at this stage explains the later texts, just as the Nietzschean philosophy, important for “our time” in 1973 and for Barthes till his death, is still important for our reading of Barthes now, and for the critical climate of deconstruction. Barthes would eliminate the full subject by proposing a new linguistics inspired by his reading of Nietzsche, and a new concept of text as productivity instead of product or production. The theory of The Pleasure of the Text also illuminates the previous books, especially S/Z, which it outdoes and undoes.

The Pleasure of the Text is central partly because it is not tied to a specific situation or place—to a topic, as Empire of Signs and Camera Lucida are; it remains atopical. Nor is it consigned to a topical text or practice, as The Fashion System,S/Z, and Sade, Fourier, Loyola are; to a being, as Roland Barthes is; to an emotion and a language, as A Lover's Discourse: Fragments is. All these other texts had an “origin,” avowed but then obscured: The Fashion System was the product of a research grant in sociology; S/Z and A Lover's Discourse: Fragments grew from seminars; Empire of Signs came from a trip to Japan; even the uniquely innovative Roland Barthes began as the next volume in the well-known and widely read “Par lui-même” series offered by Barthes's publisher, the Éditions du Seuil, although it was provocatively innovative to take the series title literally; and the intensely personal Camera Lucida is anchored in the artistic practice mentioned in its subtitle, Reflections on Photography. The great majority of the essays were written on commission, often as prefaces. But The Pleasure of the Text came from Barthes's body.

In a little-known, one-page “Supplément” to The Pleasure of the Text, written later the same year and described as the first written prolongation of the text, Barthes reprises certain terms from the book, and in a section titled “Productivité” affirms its central position:

Once the book has appeared, the best comments by readers (none, by definition, is negligible, because they assure the proliferation of the text) are those that go looking, in the reactive text (like good researching thinkers), for the clandestine points of productivity. The finished book (this only means: published) fatally includes the outline of an infinite work. In a book, there are programmatic knots, referring to a work to be done. Such are no doubt, in The Pleasure of the Text: Celebration as augmentation (apropos of Severo Sarduy), the differential rhythms of reading, the drift, the exchange, Fiction, the Sentence, the new language (the one that spoke for me in a Tangier bar), the next-to-the-last language.

From the center that I see in The Pleasure of the Text, commentary and intertextuality radiate to all the corners of Roland Barthes.



Le signifié poétique renvoie à des signifiés discursifs autres, de sorte que dans l'énoncé poétique plusieurs autres discours sont lisibles. Il se crée, ainsi, autour du signifié poétique, un espace textuel multiple dont les éléments sont susceptibles d'être appliqués dans le texte poétique concret. Nous appellerons cet espace intertextuel. Pris dans l'intertextualité, l'énoncé poétique est un sous-ensemble d'un ensemble plus grand qui est l'espace des textes appliqués dans notre ensemble.

[The poetic signified refers to other discursive signifieds, so that in the poetic utterance several other discourses are readable. Thus is created, around the poetic signified, a multiple textual space the elements of which are capable of being applied in the concrete poetic text. We will call this space intertextual. Fixed in intertextuality, the poetic utterance is a subset of a larger set which is the space of the texts applied in our set.]

—Julia Kristeva, Semeiotiké 255

C'est toute la culture, l'ensemble infini des lectures, des conversations … bref l'inter-texte, qui fait pression sur un travail et frappe à la porte pour y entrer.

[It is the whole of culture, the infinite assemblage of readings, of conversations … in short the intertext, that puts pressure on a work and knocks at the door to get in.]

—Roland Barthes, “Réponses” 97-98

It would be anti-Barthesian to describe The Pleasure of the Text as erudite, but the fact is that it refers to a truly staggering number of other texts. Some are tagged, with a name or quotation marks; others simply are not: Barthes quotes without attribution. “I did not ‘list my sources,’” Barthes said about S/Z; “if I neglected to mention my creditors … it's to emphasize that in my eyes it's the entire text, through and through, which is citatory” (GV 78). The Pleasure of the Text is also citatory through and through—and many of the “creditors” are unmentioned. Every sentence or phrase in quotation marks is a citation; many unmarked phrases are also. There is a kind of casual assumption of “that intertextual space formed by the texts that surround and accompany me, proceed me, follow me, communicate with me. You know the ones I mean, I needn't name them, it would just be the same names of the familiar group” (GV 129).

This practice of Barthes's has led into error. Vincent Leitch, who wrote the following sentence, should be biting his tongue: “In a section of The Pleasure of the Text entitled ‘Subject,’ Barthes, who rarely quotes anyone in this text, cites Nietzsche” (Deconstructive Criticism, 112; my emphasis). Finding this sentence in Leitch's fine book after I had discovered the extent of Barthes's intertextuality, and the size of his Nietzschean debt in particular, I frankly enjoyed a good laugh. Yet I suspect Leitch expresses the opinion of many readers of The Pleasure of the Text.

But intertextuality is not just a matter of quotation, with or without attribution—far from it. Barthes had much to say about it. First of all it is a way to pluralize, diffuse, disseminate, and finally explode meaning. It is opposed to context: “in general, the context forces us to choose one of the two meanings and to forget the other” (RB [Roland Barthes] 72). The action of the intertext “serves to combat the law of context” (RB 172), which reduces signifiance to communication: “to ‘take context into account’ (in philology, in criticism, in linguistics) is always a positive move, reductive, legal, aligned with the evidences of rationalism: context is in sum an asymbolic object …” (“Réponses” 101), whereas the intertext is the text in that it traverses and is traversed. Always traversed by other texts, always traversing other texts, the text is necessarily caught up in a system of intertextuality, full of intertexts and itself the intertext of other texts.

“Hence the ideal would be,” Barthes writes, “neither a text of vanity, nor a text of lucidity, but a text with uncertain quotation marks, with floating parentheses (never to close the parenthesis is very specifically: to drift). This also depends on the reader, who produces the spacing of the readings” (RB 106). The Pleasure of the Text would have been a text of vanity if Barthes had quoted entirely without quotation marks—in fact a kind of plagiarism (a value aligned with jouissance and hysteria); it would have been a text of lucidity if he had rigorously held to an ethic of quotation, conscientiously marking what came to him from elsewhere; instead, it drifts among uncertain quotation marks in the intertextual space. The spacing we produce, by “looking up” when something in the text solicits our attention to another voice, another writing, also opens the text to new and ever deepening layers of parentheses. Barthes has a utopian and materialist vision of language, as he writes in RB 161, “that of infinitely spread-out languages, of parentheses never to be closed: a utopian vision in that it supposes a mobile, plural reader, who nimbly inserts and removes the quotation marks: who begins to write with me.” I can attest just how nimble one needs to be in inserting and removing quotation marks in The Pleasure of the Text. I was often surprised to find intertexts where none were apparent. Such a mobile and plural reader is utopian indeed: there are only degrees of mobility and plurality in our individual and respective cultures, and there are most certainly intertexts I have not found.

Intertextuality is the intrusion of another voice, the projection of the reader into the space of the writing, and the projection of the writing into the space of the reading. It is resemblance and difference; it is reminiscence; it is hallucination. It is the very production of the text, as Riffaterre has shown. It is the ways of reading a text through other texts, be they later: Barthes reads Stendhal and Flaubert through Proust; Proust is a way of reading any text (F58/E36); such readings leap across time. Intertextuality is the phenomenon that lets the reader receive the texts in the text, a process that a pleasure of recognition accompanies, thus doubling the pleasure of the text. The subject of such a reading is split, but its two parts are not opposed; they are “both/and”—simultaneously this text and that other text. And intertextuality is also the opening of the text to its future productivity, through its “programmatic knots,” as Barthes wrote in his “Supplément,” a truly infinite prospect.

Reading intertextually, one can argue, is actually the only way to read. If, as has been claimed, a poem is always made of other poems, if the “average reader” or the “superreader” or any other reader, for that matter, necessarily reads with a certain culture, then intertextuality is the omnipresent, predominant mechanism of reading itself; it is, as Laurent Jenny wrote, “the very condition of literary readability. Outside of intertextuality, the literary work would very simply be imperceptible, just like the word or speech of an unknown language” (“La stratégie de la forme,” 257). For what happens when we read? We organize and absorb something that just comes to us, if only because of our reminiscences—our “circular reminiscences” as Barthes wrote in “Inter-texte.” And we do this even if we do not put it down in writing, as I have done. In terms of the broad currents of literary analysis, one may say that both the insistence on the text itself, characteristic of American New Criticism in which I like so many others was trained, and the rigorous description of the formal features of a text solidly established since structuralism may now yield to a pervasive intertextuality, the recognition of the codes outside the text itself of which it is made.

But though intertextuality threatens to become this universal, the phenomenon is nevertheless peculiar to Barthes; there is a Barthes-specific intertextuality. As a writer he wrote intertextually, and that calls for an intertextual reading, just as for instance the imitation practiced by French Renaissance poets may call for a reading of their Latin, Greek, and Italian models. But do not misunderstand: the doctrine of imitation implies one kind of intertextual reading; Barthes's intertextual code was quite different. He did not give the reader his intertexts, nor did he address a demand; instead, he made a site for rapture in the reader, a site to be filled: he “cruised” the reader. Thus solicited, I have supplied those intertexts I can identify in order to read The Pleasure of the Text with the “library” Barthes wrote it with. As for the intertexts I missed, it is because of my own reading pleasure, which took the form of a particular kind of tmesis (see “Bords,” F20-22/E10-11): there are passages I skipped, books I skipped, because they did not make me think I might get from them the pleasure of “circular reminiscence” that I sought.

But intertexts are not sources. When Barthes was reproached for his recourse to references to the domain of “Knowledge,” Frédéric Berthet undertook to exonerate him in these terms: “that no quotation is sure, that any recourse (to an author, to a canton of Knowledge) has its burden of uncontrollability, that the supports the written needs are only temporary annexations, and what counts is the trace, the approach to the threshold … that each Knowledge has foreclosed, for its part, for the sole purpose of being able to constitute itself” (Prétexte 357-58). Intertextuality is also uncontrollable knowledge, temporary annexations and traces on the path to the text.

Thus one does not expect Barthes to be “accurate.” “I cite the Others,” he writes, “even as I distort them; I shift the meaning of words” (RL [The Rustle of Language] 357). Only a work has sources and influences; finding them is to satisfy the myth of filiation. Every text has intertextuality; it is itself the “entre-texte” of another text; “the quotations a text is made of are anonymous, irrecoverable, and yet already read: they are quotations without quotation marks” (“From Work to Text,” RL 60). The intertexts are not sources because Barthes does what he wants with them, making them enter his text, passing them through his own turnstile, perhaps ignoring certain meanings of a term. His hostility to “influences” would nevertheless admit of the kind of activity I have done to find these intertexts, of which I will say only this: knowing the text, letting it resonate, making shrewd guesses, reading a sizable library, enjoying it. Far from reducing the text's meaning to a set of established knowledge, “the restoration of the intertext paradoxically abolishes inheritance” (RL 61).

In the preface to Sade, Fourier, Loyola, Barthes wrote: “The only possible rejoinder [to ideology] is neither confrontation nor destruction, but only theft: fragment the old text of culture, science, literature, and [disseminate] its features according to formulae of disguise, as one disguises stolen goods” (SFL [Sade, Fourier, Loyola] 10). I like this quotation because it insists on robbery: that is what Barthes does with his intertexts. As texts enter Barthes's text, they become part of it, no longer outside it as mere sources. And that is the pleasure of the text—the other texts become an inseparable part of his body. If I read The Pleasure of the Text, I read his body as the body from which radiate all the other bodies encountered here, and I read with mine (using mine); that is my pleasure of the text. I am the voyeur (not the confidant, who is persuaded by the skillful appeal to sources as proofs, as buttresses for an argument); I am clandestinely watching Roland Barthes's pleasure and taking pleasure in it. To the institutional reader, only this pleasure is available. If I were to drift, if I were a hysterical reader, I would commit suicide as a writer. “What relation can there be between the pleasure of the text and the institutions of the text? Very slight. … By its very principles, [the theory of the text] can produce only theoreticians or practitioners (scriptors), not specialists (critics, researchers, professors, students)” (“Science,” F95-96/E60, in my own translation). Nor do I wish to scuttle myself, like the artist in a vain attempt to escape recuperation (“Récupération,” F86/E54).

In short, identifying Barthes's intertexts is not a way of limiting, closing off, or pinning down his meanings; it is not to establish filiations; on the contrary, it is the very activity he seeks in his reader—“to write with me”—and his choice to write with “uncertain quotation marks” is the ideal way to produce this kind of reading in us. Reading intertextually is what Barthes wanted. (Kristeva regretted that the term intertextuality had often been [mis]understood in the banal sense of “source criticism” and proposed in 1974 the term transposition in its stead [Revolution in Poetic Language, 59-60], but it is the former term that has survived.) The intertextual reading produces a more plural text. A text always inevitably refers to something else; the more it refers to, the more it is plural; we bring these other texts to the text; and this is what Barthes means by writing with him: we are collaborators in the text. This is our pleasure of the text: both the feeling of pleasure and our version of his book. Barthes was not necessarily listening to the intertexts I have seen, but I heard them, because he “cruised” me as a space for his rapture. Nor am I foreclosing other people's Barthes; but I hope to make my case strongly enough to bring other readers along with me—and let other ideas of Barthes stand or fall on their own. Not only do we always read intertextually, but we necessarily read our own book. And we have never finished identifying intertexts. Each goes on. Finally, the text transmigrates into the reader and becomes part of her; intertextually it writes part of her.

Certain intertexts insist. The writings of Nietzsche are the most important, the Nietzsche who dared to “dis-course from brilliance to brilliance, from abyss to abyss” (GV 72) that French culture has lacked; who formulated the “indifference to science” that has become very important to Barthes (GV 111); who gave to nihilism a definition that The Pleasure of the Text rests on; whose subject is fictive; who is cited most in The Pleasure of the Text—and the most often occulted. Quotations without quotation marks are not the only traces of this rejection of acknowledgment or attribution; there are references that are completely unmarked, as if Nietzsche were a textual space in which The Pleasure of the Text functions. What comes to Barthes from reading Nietzsche is this: “A kind of music, a pensive sonority, a more or less dense play of anagrams. (I had my head full of Nietzsche, whom I had just been reading; but what I wanted, what I was trying to collect, was a song of sentence-ideas: the influence was purely prosodic)” (RB 107). But the pleasure of the text never excuses, never explains itself.

Stylistic tics come from Nietzsche: the sentence lacking a main verb, the sentence beginning with an infinitive, the noun lacking an article: “Fiction of an individual (a kind of M. Teste in reverse) who would abolish within himself …” (F9/E3, “Babel,” in my translation), a paragraph opener very like one in the French translation of The Will to Power. A pensive sonority, indeed, but an influence that is more than purely prosodic. When Barthes “copies” Nietzsche's “la méfiance à l'égard de” (found in both La volonté de puissance and Le voyageur et son ombre, which is drawn from Human, All Too Human), his distrust of the stereotype (F69/E43) thus suggests its profoundly Nietzschean origin.

Since Nietzsche writes in fragments and aphorisms, it is also easy to read him in fragments—to extract the pungent phrase, the epigrammatic formula, the striking, lapidary reconstruction or reversal of a conventional idea; it is easy to fall victim to this kind of “citatory” reading, the fragmentary writing inviting a fragmentary reading.

But The Pleasure of the Text is Nietzschean not only in its fragmentation and refusal of science. The new reading The Pleasure of the Text performs is not unlike the reevaluation of all values Nietzsche calls for; the word “value” in Barthes must always be tested against the Nietzschean use. The concept of nausea in the face of solidified metaphors, fixed values, stereotypes, etc., is taken up by Barthes (F69-70/E42-43, in the section called “Moderne”). The affirmation of the body as the sole guide (“Essential: to start from the body and employ it as a guide” [WP [The Will to Power] 532]) pervades every section of The Pleasure of the Text. The recognition that language is rhetoric, that truth is rhetoric, and thus solidified (consistant in Barthes's French) is a theme profoundly ingrained in both writers.

Barthes also believes that “nihilism is the only possible philosophy for our current situation” (GV 155), the new nihilism that is a void, an emptying out (GV 87), in short a deconstruction, just as the subject is deconstructed. The example of Japan teaches the collapse and decentering of signifieds, “the feeling of participating (of wanting to participate) in a period of history Nietzsche calls ‘nihilism’” (GV 133). Nihilism is a semioclasm (GV 86). Many of Nietzsche's formulations on the art of the moderns, in The Will to Power, in the section “The Will to Power as Art,” especially fragments 824, 837, and 838, stand behind the sections on the avantgarde and recuperation and stereotype and repetition in The Pleasure of the Text—see F65-67/E40-41, “Moderne”; F86-87/E54-55, “Récupération”; F40/E23-24, “Échange.”

Moreover, Roland Barthes is a latter-day Dionysian, one appropriate for our age, as Nietzsche's claimed to be for his and the Greeks' Dionysus for theirs. I believe there is a parallel between the Apollonian-Dionysian relation and the pleasure-rapture pair, in spite of the probability that there is no perfect correlation between rapture (which is how I translate jouissance) and the Dionysian (see nevertheless BT [The Birth of Tragedy] 7, p. 59: “the rapture of the Dionysian state”), nor between pleasure and the Apollonian: not unlike the Apollonian-Dionysian relation, the pleasure-rapture relation is uncertain (see F10/E4 in “Babel” and F33-36/E19-21 in “Dire”). Where pleasure and rapture are most clearly opposed, however, as on F25-26/E14, F36-37/E21-22, and F82-83/E51-52, Barthes's formulations sound very much like echoes of the first seven sections of The Birth of Tragedy. This is a direction that readers can pursue.

In the section called “Phases” in RB 145, a concise tabular listing of his major works and their intertexts, Barthes places Nietzsche next to The Pleasure of the Text and Roland Barthes. Few have paid much attention to it. Perhaps they have simply looked away, the way the pleasure of the text does according to the opening “Affirmation,” but in doing so they were willy-nilly Nietzschean, for that phrase, “I shall look away, that will henceforth be my sole negation,” is from The Gay Science, and it continues: “some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

Psychoanalysis is a major temptation for Barthes. It is simply a language Barthes speaks and writes. “My recourse to psychoanalytic language, as to all other idiolects, is ludic in nature, citatory. … One never owns a language. A language can only be borrowed, it ‘passes around,’ like an illness or currency” (GV 78). As a language, psychoanalysis is particularly appropriate for intertextuality, which can be described as the unconscious presence of other texts. The text as unconscious speaks of what we do not know of, and therein lies the rapture of the text. There is a psychoanalytic foundation for many of the paradoxical formulations, especially those about rapture, in The Pleasure of the Text, although this borrowed language is much less of an innovation than the borrowings from Nietzsche—in France, in 1973.

But it is of course a particular psychoanalytic discourse, the one dominated by Lacan's rereading of Freud (emphatically unlike the American psychoanalytic tradition that gives the ego a primary effectiveness). Especially frequent are references to split subject, perversion (of which fetishism is the favored example), the opposition of desire to demand, fading, fault, empty forms such as mana and the dummy in bridge, foreclosure and the economy of disavowal, the absent phallus, the imaginary, transgression and interdiction, the Oedipus complex, etc. This language is coherent; all these terms imply each other. The unconscious is an order founded principally on jouissance, according to the psychoanalyst Serge Leclaire (Psychanalyser, 126-27); rapture annuls, instigates the transgression (155). Many of the most difficult passages are difficult because they refer to this psychology.

And when Barthes resolutely requires his reader to think of himself as neurotic, as long as he is a reader (see F12-13/E5-6), he is placing the entire book in a psychoanalytical perspective: the typology of reading pleasures “could only be psychoanalytical, involving the relation of the reading neurosis to the hallucinated form of the text” (F99/E63, in my translation). In short, the Freudian and Lacanian intertexts supply a lexicon of concepts, which place the pleasure of the text in the light of the subject's place (which is a non-place). The terminology of the unconscious works well when applied to the reading process.

The intertext of ideological criticism is less new, in 1973, but no less compelling. It is a sort of old familiar discourse, a way of seeing, the resilient trace of the place Barthes has situated himself since the first—since Writing Degree Zero. (The Sartrian quality of the early Barthes leaves fleeting shadows on The Pleasure of the Text, even if sometimes in a negative form: “that the die is not cast, that there is a game” [F11/E4, in my translation].) The Barthes of Mythologies, collected in 1957, is still alive here, deconstructing bourgeois ideologies and the imaginaries of ideology, wherever he finds them. Language has become a stereotype, used by everybody, including the masses (that is the meaning of “mass culture,” opposed to “culture of the masses” [F63/E38], which would be the culture proper to the masses), but this stereotype has been imposed by the ideology that dominates: petit bourgeois ideology. In the face of Barthes's reiterated refusal of a science of interpretation, the Althusserian model alone might have some validity: “the only acceptable scientific model is that of Marxist science as delineated by Althusser's studies of Marx; the ‘epistemological break’ he sets forth apropos of Marx shows us the science of today, and disengages science from ideology” (GV 131-32).

The psychoanalytic and the Nietzschean discourses are more vital and fresher in comparison, but the critique of ideology is nevertheless a persistent theme. Sollers, in “R. B.,” has aptly described Barthes's Marxism: “It is also to R. B. that we owe, without being able to say that he has ever been a ‘Marxist,’ an offensivity that is the very spirit (if not the killing letter) of Marxism” (22). Perhaps there is a certain impatience with Marxism because it seeks truths, and because there is also a political stereotype that is hard to swallow (see “Moderne,” F70-71/E43-44). Worse, ideological analyses forget the rapture repressed by the political stereotype; they limit themselves to the analysis of the signified (“Mandarinat,” F64/E39). Barthes would rather affirm the eruption of rapture even in a dull political text, as in Hugo's reading of political tracts by Darmès (F103/E65). The Left's moralistic misconstrual of pleasure as a residue of hedonism, a simple element, is no better nor worse than the Right's misconceptions, although different (F38-39/E22-23). Though the Althusserian critique of the ideological subject stands behind some of the criticism here, Barthes finally prefers the Brechtian Marxism, the only one that recognizes, indeed gives considerable importance to, pleasure. The pithy section headed “Politique” is epigrammatically conclusive: “The text is (ought to be) that impertinent person who shows his backside to Father Politics” (F84/E53, in my translation).

Barthes's immediate surrounding, in 1970 to 1973, enters into his text. “What Paris was doing” shows up in the form of Sollers, Kristeva, Sarduy (who was in Paris), and Bataille, as well as Deleuze and Derrida. Sollers, the only modern writer on whom Barthes has published a book, was a close friend. Barthes shares with the Sollers-Tel Quel texts the concepts of rupture, contestation of ideology, Marxism, Maoism, and the 1968-style break with institutions, systems, and structures, especially or most visibly in language. With Tel Quel too Barthes holds that anything can be or have text; then the analysis of the written can be applied to the non-written, and vice versa. In fact, écriture or writing, like text, migrates off the page into the world. Same principles, same practices, different results.

Kristeva is a highly respected voice in The Pleasure of the Text, although she is more visible in Barthes's essay “The Theory of the Text.” In “L'étrangère,” written for the publication of Semeiotiké. Recherches pour une sémanalyse in 1969, Barthes writes: “Julia Kristeva changes the place of things: she always destroys the last prejudice, the one you thought you could be reassured by, could take pride in; what she displaces is the already-said, the déjà-dit, i.e. the instance of the signified, i.e. stupidity; what she subverts is authority—the authority of monologic science, of filiation” (RL 168). To Kristeva Barthes owes the word signifiance and its relation to jouissance, the concepts of genotext and phenotext, the formulation of the split subject in signifying practice, the historical subject, and the notion that the completed utterance is ideological and that the play of signifiers keeps ideology from creeping in.

Georges Bataille provided loss, expenditure, fear, display, Nietzschean laughter, examples of impossible texts and erotic texts, the third term, heterology, and several models of paradox, including boredom. Barthes “speaks Bataille” fluently.

Linguistics is a reference to which he looks for illustrations, especially Benveniste, Hjelmslev, Saussure, and Chomsky. Like the Nietzschean, the Freudian and Lacanian, and the Marxian, the linguistic is appropriated and made new: “You use a pseudo-linguistics, a metaphorical linguistics: not that grammatical concepts seek out images in order to express themselves, but just the contrary, because these concepts come to constitute allegories, a second language, whose abstraction is diverted to fictive ends” (RB 124). But The Pleasure of the Text stands in a somewhat uneasy relation to the linguistics typified by Benveniste's work, in that this is a linguistics of structures, closed forms, “magic monads” or instrumental writing, and because the written sentence runs the risk of being ideological. Hence the rather tangential assumption of linguistics here, and the appreciation of the “wonderful” Jesuit van Ginneken and his slightly crazy theory of “lactic phonemes” (F12/E5).

Finally, the Christian Mystics, Zen Buddhism, logothetes (Fourier, Sade), classical novels (by Flaubert, Proust, Zola, Balzac, Tolstoy, etc.), modern novels (by Sollers, Sarduy), and avant-garde art are frequent insertion points.

The traditional antecedent of intertextuality is influence, the modern evolution of which has taken the remarkable form Harold Bloom gave it in The Anxiety of Influence. This theory stands in a curious relation to Barthes's: it is hauntingly similar, and yet radically opposed. The Pleasure of the Text is an anxiety of influence in reverse.

There are superficial similarities. Like Barthes's book, Bloom's has no notes; it is intensely personal; it was published the same year; it is both a theory of intertextuality and an example of it. But in The Pleasure of the Text it is not an anxiety but a pleasure to be “influenced”; not a tension but a détente; not a melancholy but a delight; not a loss but a gain; not a destruction but an appropriation of property. All readers in Barthes are strong. In Bloom, everything in the book is “a unified meditation on the melancholy of the creative mind's desperate insistence upon priority” (13); in Barthes, everything is a fragmented meditation on the delight of the creative mind's joyful refusal of priority. For Bloom, poetic influence is “a destruction of desire” (38); for Barthes, it is an augmentation of desire. Bloom writes: “The anxiety of influence is an anxiety in expectation of being flooded. … Yet … every good reader properly desires to drown, but if the poet drowns, he will become only a reader” (57). Barthes could never have agreed with Bloom's tone, had he known this sentence: the reader is as creative and strong as the poet; it is in drowning—that is, in desiring and losing oneself in the other text—that the reader becomes a writer, which is the best form of reading. When Bloom writes that the history of fruitful poetic influence is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism, and that poetic influence always proceeds by a misreading, a creative correction, a misinterpretation (30), this is both like and different from The Pleasure of the Text. One necessarily reads distortingly, or misreads perversely, but such revision is not self-saving, it is not an anxiety, not a creative correction. There is pleasure for Barthes in writing intertextually; there is pleasure for his readers in reading intertextually. Anxiety has no part in any of this. Here then is a direction to pursue, toward a view of The Pleasure of the Text in a larger context.

The Pleasure of the Text is the juncture linking Lacan to Sollers, Freud to Kristeva, Nietzsche to Proust, Flaubert to Chomsky, Mallarmé to Nietzsche, and so on to near infinity. It is the space for their encounter together, and their encounter with scores of others. The pleasure of the text is the happy union of all these voices, a happy Babel (F10/E4), a logosphere full of reverie, joining peoples in solidarity rather than in a war of idioms (F47/E28). Barthes is the utopian or atopic space because that space is nowhere in Nietzsche or Lacan or Proust, but in their drifting intertextuality in Barthes.

A virulent, venomous critic of Barthes has chosen to describe this state of affairs, without recognizing it as intertextuality, in violent terms of insult. The concreteness of his metaphors would nevertheless have pleased Barthes. I quote the original and supply my own translation (which fails to match the punch of the French genius for insult): “Il a fait ainsi de son esprit un véritable capharnaüm, une sorte de souk, de marché aux puces, de bazar rempli de balivernes, un bric-à-brac où l'on trouve toutes les âneries à la mode, une espèce de foire à la brocante de la faribole snobinarde. Pour employer un mot qu'il affectionne, l'esprit de Roland Barthes ‘fonctionne’ comme une espèce de tamis, ou plutôt de filtre: il retient toutes les sottises qui sont dans l'air.” Translation: “Thus he has made of his mind a veritable warehouse, a sort of souk, a flea market, a bazaar filled with balmy ideas, a second-hand store where one can find all the fashionable inanities, a sort of garage sale of hoity-toity ineptitudes. To use a word he likes to use, Roland Barthes's mind ‘functions’ like a kind of sifter, or rather a filter: it retains all the silly notions that are in the air” (René Pommier, Roland Barthes Ras le Bol! 27-28). With “intransigent rationalism,” Pommier decreed the foreclosure of the text and pleasure. The only way to turn this to pleasure is to read the terms intended as insult as terms of tribute.

In this astronomical logosphere, the intertexts are the stars. Barthes starred Balzac's story Sarrasine in his lexematic reading in S/Z, by splitting it into small segments, by distributing its language among five codes, and by inserting stars in his own text before each readout of the codes (S/Z is marked by very noticeable stars). He called his rewriting of Sarrasine “le texte étoilé.” But “étoilé” also means disseminated in the firmament, exploded into fragments that may be the trace of an illusory and in any case always past whole—like the universe. The starry fragments in The Pleasure of the Text are the visible trace of an invisible and unattainable totality, which we can only postulate and which we would at no cost hope to reconstitute. The Pleasure of the Text explodes not only because it is fragmentary, not only because it asserts discontinuity at the price of order and structure, not only because it undermines every dialectic and every opinion, but also because of its intertextuality. Into the black hole of its ninety-nine large-print, spaced-out, short-sized pages in French, Le plaisir du texte crowded many times its own volume of intertexts. It is our pleasure as its readers to recognize in its dense weave the threads of these other texts, to unravel them and follow them outward in whatever direction they may lead.

The reader of the intertexts will see that most of them also go outward to ever-widening spirals of meaning, with no end in sight. Follow those threads, and they become more and more complex, interwoven: this is the very practice of signifiance, the shimmering of circulating signifiers. The intertexts listed here are only directions to start with, not end points. To identify intertexts is not to “finish” the unfinished book Barthes gave us, as one would finish a piece of unfinished furniture. The intertexts do not signal the origin and end of Barthes's thought in The Pleasure of the Text: they stand with that thought. “No final point to the text, no last word,” wrote Barthes in his “Supplément”; the supplement is possible at any point, something new can always grow in the interstices of the text's tissue.

And yet, references to other writers, once they are identified and borne in mind, make Barthes's book more serious. For instance, the second state of the materialist subject (F97/E61), the nearly incomprehensible “zero and its effacement,” is a direct quotation from a book by Serge Leclaire, the paradoxical result of a lengthy elaboration; it is not a flight of fancy or a provocation, it is not some purposefully ambiguous concoction invented by Barthes. (Such criticism is often addressed to Barthes, especially from The Pleasure of the Text onwards; it is time to lay it to rest.) Barthes's brief and unmarked quotation opens his text to receive all of this intertext.

Indeed, when we listen to its intertexts, The Pleasure of the Text is a different book. It is richer and more coherent; it is less arbitrary than it seems, less capricious, less superficial, less loosely hedonistic, and yes, more theoretical (always bearing in mind that theoretical means reflexive: “But of course ‘theoretical’ doesn't mean ‘abstract’; from my point of view, it means reflexive, i.e., turning back on itself: a discourse that looks back on itself is thereby a theoretical discourse” [GV 144]). It is reflexive in that the sections look back not only on themselves—and I show connections between them—but also on their intertexts. Its intertextuality understood, and the real paradoxes and originalities of the text all the more apparent, The Pleasure of the Text commands respect. It is not to be greeted with a sardonic smile, at best agreeing to indulge Barthes his little stylistic fantasies, his hedonistic exposé, his autoerotic raptures, as many reviews of the 1975 translation did. The Pleasure of the Text advances showing its mask, a mask that is all the more enticing when we know it is a mask. There is, after all, no treatise on the pleasure of the text, no treatise on writing except writing itself (F14/E6).

Had Barthes lived to let the tissues grow, to ponder the programmatic knots, would he not have been much attracted by the current concept of hypertext? A kind of hyperspace travel among the ever more distant stars, tracing an unexpectedly direct route where none existed before, leaping huge distances with no expense of time, connecting the disconnected and disconnecting the connected, hypertextuality is the most recent avatar of intertextuality. If we were to write The Pleasure of the Text as hypertextually as possible, the treatise would be a completely new form of writing; its medium would be magnetic, its optics phosphorescent and ephemeral, its eye a mouse; reading it would be much closer to writing it, as the hand moves the mouse across the text to open the route to the next hypertext; there would be no last page, all pages leading to other pages; there would be no need for transitions, for order, structure, form—or they would be hidden; there would be no author. We would be in intertextual rapture—in jouissance.



Every translation is already an interpretation; it is therefore the translator's duty to interpret as much as possible in the vein of the original. Richard Miller's choice to translate jouissance as “bliss” was his most glaring failure; it is unfortunate that Anglophone readers continue to use the term.

The connotations of “rapture” are much closer to jouissance than are those of “bliss.” A look at the Indo-European root as listed in the American Heritage Dictionary is encouraging: rep- is the root of more than a dozen words (some archaic) whose meanings nicely fit with jouissance. Rap (archaic) is to enchant or seize with rapture; rapt means transported with strong, noble emotion, etc., and comes from Latin raptus ‘seized’; rape puts culture into pieces; rapacious includes a greedy possessiveness; ravenous comes from a verb meaning to seize prey, plunder; ravish used to mean to enrapture, as well as to seize by force and carry away; surreptitious nicely conveys clandestinity, one of the more surprising extensions of jouissance; ravage is to destroy; ravishment is entrancement, rapture; rapid well describes the eruption of jouissance in a text; archaic rapine is the forcible seizure of another's property. All these senses inhere in jouissance, as we shall see.

This appeal to etymology is of course Barthesian: “in etymology it is not the truth or the origin of the word which pleases him but rather the effect of overdetermination which it authorizes: the word is seen as a palimpsest: it then seems to me that I have ideas on the level of language” (RB 85). “Rapture” is overdetermined as much as jouissance, as long as we are authorized to see it on the level of language, which means retaining the various connotations within its broad range.

Jouissance is not just a French word with several overlapping, contradictory, and ambiguous meanings. In Le plaisir du texte it is a concept susceptible to diverse translation not only into other languages or langues (such as English) but also into other langages (such as music, literatures, criticism, psychoanalysis). Its correct translation in the latter sense depends entirely on its translation in the former sense, for those to whom Barthes's text is not accessible in French.

In the dictionary, jouissance is a polyvalent word with proper meanings in more than one domain. To be sure, it refers to the extreme of sexual pleasure, orgasm. But this does not exclude the word from polite conversation, where it can also simply mean a pleasure or pleasures that one might enjoy alone or share with others (which are also réjouissances). As the substantive form of the verb jouir, jouissance also has a legal meaning, somewhat like the English enjoyment as in “the enjoyment of one's rights and property.” In fact, jouir de followed by a noun means to enjoy in both that legal sense and in the common sense. Jouir, intransitive, means to experience orgasm. I might add that le plaisir, even though Barthes can oppose it to la jouissance, also euphemistically connoted sexual enjoyment, especially in classical literature, and that one can find such a reserve in Barthes's classical writing.

Although jouissance does not strike a particular tone as the English words “orgasm” or “coming” would, the noun and the verb can include that tone, and Barthes's other uses are never divorced from the sexual meaning. Jouissance is a sign that is more than a lexeme or a vocable: it is index, icon, connotation, and paradigm. From its lexematic core radiate other lexemes—such as rupture, cleavage, excess, loss, fault, orgasm, perversion, modernity, boredom, fear, swooning, euphoria, void, hysteria, signifiance. Some of these extensions of the word occur in the writings of other theoreticians, notably Kristeva, Bataille, and Lacan; others acquire their peculiar status only in Barthes's text.

This polyvalence makes the translator's task especially treacherous.

Besides the “simple” meanings of jouissance—pleasure, enjoyment, delight, and sexual pleasure—various contexts (a risk of limiting meaning) suggest different associations in The Pleasure of the Text. Rapture is linked with fault, cut, deflation, fading, interstice (F15/E7 and F23/E13)—in short, rupture. With Sarduy's Cobra (F17/E8), the excess of language is added to ruptures; when the text reaches the edge of verbal pleasure, to go beyond it is to be enraptured, that is, silent, unable to verbalize such excess; its excess is its will to rapture (F25/E13). The text of rapture imposes a profound wound on language itself, rather than on the content or the reading: perhaps a kind of rape (F22/E12). It causes a loss: the historical, cultural, psychological subject is rapt, raped, destroyed (F25-26/E14). Jouissance is also asocial, neutral (F28/E16, F63/E39); it is the intractable (F33/E19) that entrances and ties the reader to the world. It is a fainting, a disappearance (F33/E19); a jolt, a tremor (F34/E19) opposed to euphoria; it is a scandal, a limp, the trace of a cut, of an affirmation, not of a flowering (F35/E20). It is outside critical pleasure and can only be reached by another text of rapture, seizing the reader outside himself, and affirming its emptiness (F37-38/E22). It can even include boredom (F43/E25-26), or loss of heroism and value (F50/E30), or “chasteness,” against the common view (F43/E25). It approaches the gratuitousness of death (F58/E35). It is the radical, revolutionary signifiance that remains a utopia (F63/E38-39). It is clandestinity (F63/E39), the surreptitious underside of the text, it explodes (F64/E39). It is the absolute new that invalidates conscience (F65/E40), the new word, the untenable discourse (F69-70/E43), the exception to the rule (F67/E41). It is the loss of the signified (F67/E41); it is the inscription, the syncope that bursts out or explodes (F68/E42), that stops up (F70/E43-44). It fragments names into pieces (F72/E44-45). It is close to fear (F77-78/E48-49), an unwritable fear that splits the subject. It is the extreme of perversion (F83/E52). It is premature, carried off all at once, in the first glance (F84/E53). It is a break, a subjective loss, clandestine place, atopia (F93/E59), it is uncultural (F99/E62), it is the hysterical reading that throws itself across the text (F100/E63). It is the rasping voice (F105/E67). With so many contexts, the meaning is exploded, not limited.

Translators of Lacan and Kristeva have retained the French word. Richard Howard, in translating Roland Barthes, used a variety of words—pleasure, enjoyment, delight, and bliss. But there is no doubt that bliss is a bad translation. Marital bliss? Heavenly bliss? Spiritual bliss? All are wrong, very wrong. Katherine Mansfield's wonderful short story “Bliss” approximates some of the qualities of jouissance to the extent that it depicts a happiness that cannot be pinned down or taken up by stereotyped discourse: it is unsayable, interdicted (see F36/E21, with its references to Lacan and Leclaire):

What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss—absolute bliss!—as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe? …

Oh, is there no way you can express it without being “drunk and disorderly”? How idiotic civilization is!

(A Pocket Book of Short Stories, 78)

But even this enigmatic bliss, expressive of desire, lacks the polyvalence of Barthes's jouissance—and it is too expressive of desire.

The American Heritage Dictionary specifies that bliss is usually thought of as a tranquil state. It is a blessed peace, a calm, a celestial felicity. Nothing could be further removed from Barthes's ideas of jouissance. Furthermore, “bliss” lacks the morphological polyvalence of jouissance that allows thinking of it actively: la jouissance du texte is an active, excessive taking of extreme enjoyment from the text, in addition to the feeling of rapture that the text proposes to the reader. On the condition that we remember the rapt in rapture, and test “the rapture of the text” against the “rape” of the text, rapture comes closest to jouissance in all its depth and volume.

I reject ecstasy, a word that exists in French and that lacks the requisite materialist connotations of possession or enjoyment, while it also leans toward a spiritual and hence idealist one; orgasm, too narrow, too univocal; enjoyment, too mild, too euphemistic, too cultural; delight, better, but also too cultural; and joy, too celestial, too expressive, and insufficiently opposable to pleasure.

To read The Pleasure of the Text—or any later Barthes—in English, keep in mind all the meanings of jouissance and rep-, whenever you encounter “bliss.”

There are, besides jouissance, many other polyvalent words that any translation should struggle to emulate. […] Moreover, Barthes's vocabulary, less idiosyncratic than many have thought, appropriates technical terms from his intertexts, many of which have been translated into English only recently. Some of these have gone unrecognized in the 1975 translation. Such terms should be understood, and hence translated, in the context of their intertexts.

Langue and langage pose a serious problem: both mean language, for us, but with nuances that we cannot express. Any national language is a langue; but langue is also tongue, both metaphorically and literally. And at least since Saussure langue is widely held to indicate language seen as a structure of relations. Langage on the other hand may refer to specific types of discourse (e.g., the language of love) or the manner of speech of an individual or a group (the language of philosophers); but at the same time, it is just language in its ordinary sense, the faculty and practice of language. The reader of English will have to understand from the context.

Valeur means value, and it has Saussurean and Nietzschean valences throughout The Pleasure of the Text, but it also can mean valor. “Value” should trigger an evocation of “valor” in the reader's mind; the evaluation of words has a heroic, muscular, phallic dimension that rapture, drift, signifiance, atopia would counter.

The distinction between dire and parler as substantive infinitives tends to disappear among various English words such as speech, idiom, or jargon.

I have mentioned these words largely because they “flatten out” in translation, and flattening is thoroughly opposed to the ethic of The Pleasure of the Text (see F27-28/E15, in “Communauté”).

Good readers of The Pleasure of the Text read it like a literary text, subjecting it to close analysis; it behooves us to start with an accurate text. One such reader writes that “Barthes uses throughout The Pleasure of the Text the language of film, talking as he does of ‘cuts’ and ‘dissolves’” (Mary Bittner Wiseman, “Texts of Pleasure, Texts of Bliss,” 57). But “dissolve” is Miller's translation of “fading,” which has a Lacanian meaning, not a cinematic one (see F15/E7 and intertext # 21). What then becomes of such an affirmation? Certain words form obstacles; but everything is significant, including ambiguities.



Profound explanations. Whoever has given, of a passage from an author, an explanation that is more profound than the conception of it was has not explained his author, he has obscured him.

The worst readers are those who proceed like plundering soldiers: they pick up a few things they can use, soil and confuse the rest, and blaspheme the whole.


I am not sure Barthes would subscribe to this nasty aphorism from Mixed Opinions and Maxims. He has suggested our reading may be fragmentary. There is much to plunder in The Pleasure of the Text, and it is probable that every reader habitually picks up a few things that can be used, just by being a reader. No need to soil the rest and blaspheme the whole. Feel free to plunder my text as well.

As for “profound explanations,” quite candidly, I think we can fall into error as soon as we yield to the desire to interpret this text. Not because there is a “right” reading that we might miss, of course, but because an interpretation limits and closes. […]

Those who are familiar with The Pleasure of the Text know that the sections, separated by little mounds of stars, bear titles. But these names are removed from the text and displaced to the end (in French) or the beginning (in English), unlike the later Roland Barthes. Furthermore, it often seems that the titles do not “entitle” the sections. Yet reading with the intertexts, and carefully, you will see that each section is in fact a meditation on the topic. Within sections, there are secondary subdivisions that are significant; they are marked by breaks in the page. Some of these are in several paragraphs. Barthes uses different strategies to organize such units. Some give an example, followed by a “lesson,” or vice versa; some have a theme, a development, a coda; some propose a thesis, antithesis, and the elusive third term (not a synthesis, but the return of the spiral at the next level, the third hand in the game of hands upon hands, the displacement onto another signifier). Some quote, agree or disagree, assume or reject, and reform the quotation. Some are simple exposition.

Thus the typography is “phonological” and not phonetic. Yet the book is a fragmented body—le corps morcelé—and this leads to the temptation to put the body together again, in a different organization. Should one yield to this temptation? If one did, it would be to practice the third reading Barthes wrote about in “On Reading” (RL 40-41): the reading that gives the desire to write, to write what the writer has already written. In any case, we do this mentally, in recalling a previously read passage. This is the reader's organization.

The origin of fragmentary writing is Sade's text, Barthes claims. For Sade, Fourier, Loyola, preparing “Sade II” after “Sade I,” Barthes reread his notes: “And so, with ‘Sade II,’ what is interesting is the decision to write a fragmented Sade, a decision related to the Sadean text itself. I'm very interested in these chopped-up repetitions” (GV 168). Yet if the practice of fragmentary writing began here, in 1971, it had long since been in Barthes's mind in theory. In the December 1963 introduction to Critical Essays, Barthes had listed the fragment among the techniques literature can employ to keep the nameable at a distance, to make the text “unexpress the expressible.” The fragment allows one to restrain meaning the better to let it explode in different directions (CE [Critical Essays] xvii-xviii). The fragments are not the opposite of totality (connected to totalitarianism for Barthes), but of la nappe—the continuous, smooth texture or tissue (Prétexte 220). Writing about Sollers's novel H the same year as The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes justified the fragments of his essay thus: “They alone, it can be hoped, will prevent the production in the commentary of this ‘fantasma of unity’ that H precisely sets out to dissolve. The recourse to fragments (remember that they are always there to avoid an unwanted consistency) dispenses me from having a thesis to put forward on Sollers's work, a reference to prepare” (“Over Your Shoulder,” WS [Writer Sollers] 84-85). Precisely that is the reason Barthes has recourse to fragments in The Pleasure of the Text. It is a resistance to the ideological.

There are other reasons. “Liking to find, to write beginnings, he tends to multiply this pleasure: that is why he writes fragments: so many fragments, so many beginnings, so many pleasures (but he doesn't like the ends: the risk of the rhetorical closure is too great: the fear of not being able to resist the last word)” (RB 94). The short thought does not mark a lack of things to say, or an insufficiency of saying, but a “déjà-trop-écrit,” an “already-too-much-written,” that Barthes would avoid, according to Frédéric Berthet (Prétexte 353). The choice to “write fragmentary” is like the choice to write intertextual, for the intertextual always occurs in disseminative fragments.

Barthes says, about the fragments in Roland Barthes: “but the important thing is that these little networks not be connected, that they not slide into a single enormous network which would be the structure of the book, its meaning. It is in order to halt, to deflect, to divide this descent of discourse towards a destiny of the subject, that at certain moments the alphabet calls you to order (to disorder) and says: Cut! Resume the story in another way (but also, sometimes, for the same reason, you must break up the alphabet)” (RB 148). Many items are out of alphabetical order in Roland Barthes; in The Pleasure of the Text, only one break in the order occurs: “Commentaire” is in the wrong place, after “Corps”: is it significant? Barthes's claim that “the alphabetical order erases everything, banishes every origin” (RB 148) at least guides us to the ideal he holds—if we are not always convinced. Yet the fact is that in spite of my intimate knowledge of the text, I sometimes cannot remember where a certain passage was, so the fragmentation may well be working the way Barthes wanted it to. Perhaps what happens really is a “circular reminiscence” (F59/E36, my translation), and we cannot put the fragmented body together again after all.

The fragmentary presentation of the book and the occultation of its learning do make a serious apprehension of the text problematic. This is a perversion in Barthes, a purposeful perversity, since it increases rapture—for him, and potentially for us to the extent that we throw ourselves across his text, that we enter into the bottomless, truthless comedy of language (F100/E63), and speak in it and not about it (F37/E22), to the extent that we plagiarize it. Things that seem arbitrary, confused, contradictory, paradoxical are so because of this fragmentation, this mask, this submersion (or speleological loss, F22/E12) of so much material (which is how Barthes achieves the paradox he repeatedly aims for). In one of the last things he wrote he confessed his long-standing discomfort with a split between expressive and critical language, and in the latter between the various discourses of sociology, semiology, and psychoanalysis. His discomfort bears witness to the only sure thing: “a desperate resistance to any reductive system. For each time, having resorted to any such language to whatever degree, each time I felt it hardening [consister] and thereby tending to reduction and reprimand, I would gently leave it and seek elsewhere: I began to speak differently” (CL [Camera Lucida] 8). To hear the different speaking, to dwell on the fragmenting, to see the mask, to unsubmerge Barthes is a pleasure.

Thus fragmentation opposes ideology. Ideology is a stumbling block to pleasure, and pleasure is the reflection that can combat ideology. It is by brandishing the word pleasure, in a theory of the text, that we can resist ideology: pleasure fragments ideology. The Pleasure of the Text tells us both what is wrong with ideology and what will take its place, once we have fought its adhesiveness and its solidification. Just as in “Nomination” the text fragments ideology into practices, not named, so the pleasure of the text fragments the text into segments arranged alphabetically. The way Barthes takes his pleasures in his intertexts is not necessarily by rewriting their central or characteristic themes or topics, as one might in a scholarly reference or citation. He reads and writes the way a fly flies in a room: he touches on what gives him pleasure, on what has become a part of his body. There is an enduring image of Barthes writing a fragment on a fiche—a piece of paper one-fourth the size of his ordinary writing paper—and putting it into his breast pocket. (He always worked that way; already at the sanatorium, before writing his first book, he had put Michelet on fiches.) From fiche to fétiche there is only one syllable's distance: the fragmentary fiches close to his body are the fetish that guard against ideology.

I have said that The Pleasure of the Text is a theory of reading, which is the same as a theory of writing (there is no theory of the reading pleasures, other than writing itself). This assimilation assumes that the reader creates the text, the text is in the reader. As Barthes said in his 1975 essay “On Reading,” the ultimate form of reading pleasure is wanting to write (RL 40-41): quite simply, The Pleasure of the Text should inspire you to write.

Writing is the chief focus of all Barthes's activity since Writing Degree Zero, but the écriture of that 1953 book is closer to the later écrivance. As Barthes explains in “Réponses” 103, écriture is “an enunciation (and not an utterance) through which the subject plays his division by dispersing himself, by throwing himself aslant [en écharpe] onto the stage of the blank page: a notion that owes little, henceforth, to the former ‘style,’ but a lot, as you know, to the double lighting of materialism (through the idea of productivity) and psychoanalysis (through the idea of the divided subject).” The accent is on the productivity of the act of writing, not on the product or writing as an existing utterance, and the reader is as much a split subject as the writer. But if you produce écrivance, the kind of quasi-scientific writing opposed to écriture, “you'll remain outside reading. You will not be part of an activity which displaces the reading subject through contact with the text, and so you will not displace the writing subject: you will be condemned to consider the subject who wrote the text under study as an author in the traditional sense of the word, a subjectivity which expressed itself in a work. The only remedy against this would be to rewrite the work” (GV 165).

Writing is not language in the ordinary sense: it is not there to communicate something else, to convey a message, to carry a second or secondary meaning, or to represent something. It is of the order of saying “almost something” (Prétexte 22), in which “almost” indicates an intensity. Writing does not reveal the secret, for instance, or hide the secret; it destroys the category opposing hidden and not hidden. So there is no similarity of “writing” to “analysis.” “In writing, what is too present in speech (in a hysterical fashion) and too absent from transcription (in a castratory fashion), namely the body, returns, but along a path which is indirect, measured, musical, and, in a word, right, returning through pleasure, and not through the Imaginary (the image)” (GV 7). Barthes never said it in so many words, but it is what is poetic (“indirect, measured, musical”) about writing (though not necessarily poetry itself) that writes the body.

Barthes said more than once that he wrote “by subtraction” (F65/E40), and that the corrections he made while typing up his first drafts were “always made in the direction of ellipsis or elimination” (GV 325). The Pleasure of the Text has definitely passed through a process of subtraction; repression, suppression, or forgetting sometimes mark the insertion point of an intertext (see intertext # 186 with its reference to Ruysbroeck). Writing by subtraction augments pleasure, combats ideology, increases fragmentation, perhaps marks an evolution. Writing by subtraction is writing with the body; the two fingers that type up the second draft (see GV 179) lazily follow their own ideas—the body's idea is to shorten, whatever the original idea: “The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas—for my body does not have the same ideas as I” (F30/E17).

The subject of such a writing is thus a “living contradiction,” always split, asocial, lost, perverse, neurotic, fictive, hallucinating, imaginary—but materialist. As a poststructuralist contribution to the critique of the subject, The Pleasure of the Text borrows both the traditional modern routes—Freud, Nietzsche, Marx—and contemporary ones—Sollers, Sarduy, Bataille, Lacan, Kristeva, contemporary art. It critiques the full subject of structural linguistics, the definitions of the subject as the subject of the enunciation (it is impossible to say the rapture of the text). Thus one can read it as a contribution to a theory of the subject.

But mostly I read Barthes's book as an elaborate illustration of intertextuality in theory and in practice. It is not only the section titled “Inter-texte” that proposes a theory of intertextuality; one critic has mistakenly claimed that with the closing lines of that section Barthes rendered the concept inoperative, subverting any further research in the direction of dissemination (Hans-George Ruprecht, “Intertextualité,” 16). Quite the opposite happens: intertextuality is theorized and illustrated on every page; the book proposes, willy-nilly, various models to imitate. All of The Pleasure of the Text is about intertextuality: the pleasure of receiving other texts in the text, a process every reader continues by reading.

What is perhaps the least consequential reading is the one that sees The Pleasure of the Text as a textbook on the erotics of reading, as a theory of erotics. Barthes's innovation is too easily mistaken for a carte blanche to interpret texts in terms of the erotics they may represent. This is fine, but facile; perhaps we should traverse it, as Barthes says of the monument of psychoanalysis (F92/E58). We need to know what we mean when we speak of an erotics of reading, which is hardly obvious. If it were to remain tied to its metaphoric vehicle, as a theory it would not take us far—just as the pleasure of sex dies quickly, so would the pleasure of the text, and there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. If the erotics of reading means reading with the body, then what we should recognize is the presence of our own bodies as we read, and that means our intertextual reading.

The Pleasure of the Text is a pivotal point in Barthes's writing; everything that follows it can be read as stemming from it. It is present in all the Barthes that follows, as he predicted: “I will perhaps work out this slim volume all my life, supplementing it from the inside” (“Supplément”).

I see The Pleasure of the Text as the theoretical (reflexive) formulation of a reading practice that Barthes “found” in writing the essays that became Sade, Fourier, Loyola. It is the theory after the fact, with the accent displaced from the “message” to the reading process. Indeed, the first version of the pleasure/rapture terminology is in the preface to this 1971 book. This practice of reading in the body, this fragmented, voluptuous writing, this celebration of pleasure make Sade, Fourier, Loyola a key book, perhaps the single most important moment, in the pleasure of the text (which is hardly an ironic expression, as one reviewer thinks; Sade, Fourier, Loyola proves it is not, if so far The Pleasure of the Text has failed to).

In its view of the literary text, The Pleasure of the Text grows from and goes beyond S/Z (1970); it carries the classical/modern opposition farther—or rather, deeper, to its roots—and begins to uproot it, leaving only a trace of what would have been a different book, a “lit crit” book. The Pleasure of the Text is perhaps Barthes's simultaneous farewell and homage to his pleasure in reading classical novels; it is his recognition that the future of that pleasure is in the hands of the avant-garde, for which he recognizes pleasure in the form of rapture, as it has percolated into literary criticism from psychoanalysis. Thus the 1973 book improves on the concept of the plural text by virtually overthrowing it, in asserting that signifiance is a shimmering of signifiers (signifiance is heading toward the ultimate development in Barthes: le bruissement, or rustle of language—see “The Rustle of Language,” RL 76-79). It nearly ignores the concept of code, already very ambiguous in S/Z, and refers to it only to oppose it (violence is coded, F30/E15) or to make exceptions (Sade invents his very own code). With The Pleasure of the Text Barthes is finally free of structuralist reflexes; classification is not sure; dichotomies such as readable/writable falter and evaporate.

Like S/Z,Empire of Signs (1970) turned away from monocentrism, from signs with full meaning. In Japan, the center is empty; the signifier proliferates, the signified is a void; the signs, never “naturalized,” made stereotypical, as The Pleasure of the Text will say, circulate freely, happily (see GV 99, 158). The empire of signs is a place of pleasure; pleasure circulates freely also in the pages of the book, in the empire of Barthes's signs, written and photographic, putting into practice the theory formulated later.

To the extent that eroticism is linked to love, and that people have come to think of The Pleasure of the Text as an erotics of reading (my own view is that this is the least enduring description of the book), one might expect A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (1977) to complement by its illustrations what is theoretical in The Pleasure of the Text. For me, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments is the attempt to become a hysterical reader of the texts in the life of love (see “Sujet,” F100/E63), and the attempt is doomed. Perhaps that is because it is a book of desire, not pleasure (see F92/E58).

The book that stands the closest to The Pleasure of the Text is clearly Roland Barthes. This 1975 book sheds so much light that it is required reading. The important essays to read with The Pleasure of the Text are “From Work to Text” (1971), “The Theory of the Text” (1973), “The Division of Languages” (1973), “The Death of the Author” (1968), “The Reality Effect” (1968), “On Reading” (1975), “Digressions” (1971), and the essays on Proust, Flaubert, Stendhal, Réquichot, Cy Twombly, Bataille, and Sollers.

This is Barthes's most personal book, because he wrote it for his own pleasure rather than on commission. It is personal also in its “moves,” its strategies. I am thinking especially of the “ramener-à-soi”—the “bringing-back-to-oneself”—that the ingenious creators of Le Roland-Barthes sans peine (Roland Barthes without Toil) made into one of the cornerstones of their wicked parody of Barthes's writing (and of the Assimil method of language learning). Michel-Antoine Burnier and Patrick Rambaud astutely notice the place in the post-Pleasure-of-the-Text Barthes occupied by the personal experience: experience as a guide to the pleasure of reading, “life” becoming the intelligence with which he reads. Here is a perfect example: in Italy, Barthes sees a train posted Milan-Lecce and daydreams that he travels on it at night to wake up in the “sunny Italy” that the name Lecce evokes in him (it is a city he does not know). From this daydream, in “life,” Barthes comes to understand Stendhal's drive toward “la belle Italie.” This is how the text of Stendhal is read by the body. The barriers between text and life fell with The Pleasure of the Text, and they remained down. His corporeal reading of Stendhal comes from the first page of “One Always Fails in Speaking of What One Loves” (RL 296-305), a thought-provoking title made all the more thought-provoking when one considers that chance made this essay the last Barthes wrote: the first page had been retyped, the second was found in his typewriter on February 25, 1980.



Ich liebe dich, du sanftestes Gesetz.


And why law? The Pleasure of the Text was not a law, even the gentlest one, for Roland Barthes, but a theory (a reflection) and a practice. Yet for the next reader, the pleasure of the text can be gentle and lovable—let The Pleasure of the Text be the gentlest law for you. We would read Barthes differently than we have, if we were attentive to such a law. It was such an attention that governed my delight in finding Barthes's intertexts here, further opening the horizon, expanding the law, making it both more gentle and more lovable. This the law should be for my reader too.

If the love of the gentlest law has stayed in my mind, it is because of Paul de Man, who read Rilke's poem during a lecture on December 9, 1971. This listening, this hearing, gave me an ineffable, indefinable pleasure. To this date I don't know why—perhaps a grain of his voice, for the pleasure remains with his speaking, and not in the now published text on Rilke. The seeds of a pleasurable relation to the text were planted there for me, strong and sturdy enough to subtend and support my entire reading activity since. For as I read intertextually, my pleasure increases, and it seems to me that this is the ultimate value against which there is no argument.


The following abbreviations of the most frequently cited texts are used in the introduction and the intertexts:

Barthes: (All publications by Hill and Wang except where noted.)

ALDFA Lover's Discourse: Fragments. Tr. Richard Howard. 1978.

CECritical Essays. Tr. Howard. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1972.

CLCamera Lucida. Reflections on Photography. Tr. Howard. 1981.

ESEmpire of Signs. Tr. Howard. 1982.

GVThe Grain of the Voice. Tr. Linda Coverdale. 1985.

IMTImage, Music, Text. Tr. Stephen Heath. 1977.

IncidentsIncidents Paris: Seuil, 1987.

MYMythologies. Tr. Annette Lavers. 1972.

NCENew Critical Essays. Tr. Howard. 1980.

PrétextePrétexte: Roland Barthes. Paris: UGE, 1978.

PTThe Pleasure of the Text. Tr. Richard Miller. 1975.

RBRoland Barthes. Tr. Howard. 1977.

“Réponses” “Réponses.” Tel Quel 47 (Autumn 1971): 89-107.

RFThe Responsibility of Forms. Tr. Howard. 1985.

RLThe Rustle of Language. Tr. Howard. 1986.

SFLSade, Fourier, Loyola. Tr. Miller. 1976.

“Supplément” “Supplément.” Art Press 4 (May-June 1973): 9.

S/ZS/Z. Tr. Miller. 1974.

WDZWriting Degree Zero. Tr. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. 1968.

WSWriter Sollers. Tr. Philip Thody. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1987.


SEThe Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth, 1953-1973.


ECÉcrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966.

ECSelEcrits, A Selection. Tr. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.

Nietzsche: (Numbers refer to sections except where marked “p.”.)

BGEBeyond Good and Evil. Tr. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1966.

BTThe Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. Tr. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967.

CWThe Case of Wagner, in above.

DThe Dawn of Day. Tr. J. M. Kennedy. In The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Ed. Oscar Levy. Vol. 9. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964.

GMThe Genealogy of Morals; Ecce Homo. Tr. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1969.

EHEcce Homo, in above.

GSThe Gay Science. Tr. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974.

TITwilight of the Idols. In The Portable Nietzsche. Tr. Kaufmann. New York: Viking, 1968.

“Truth and Lie” “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense.” In The Portable Nietzsche.

WorksThe Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Ed. Oscar Levy. New York: Russell and Russell, 1964. Vol. 2: Early Greek Philosophy.

WPThe Will to Power. Tr. Kaufmann and Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1968.

ZThus Spoke Zarathustra. In The Portable Nietzsche.

Louis-Jean Calvet (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5115

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. His reluctance to let these different networks overlap could be seen as a hangover from the days when homosexuality was a social taboo and was forced underground. However, perhaps this does not explain his behaviour fully, and Philippe Sollers may be right in interpreting the way he organized his life as an ‘aesthetic gesture’. For his part, Olivier Burgelin believes that it stemmed from ‘a desire not to impose people on one another’.

In addition, his kindness, his capacity for listening, and listening with such attentiveness, made everyone he talked to feel extraordinary and special. Obviously this was the case with his students, most of whom must have felt at one time or another that they were his intellectual heir, the person who would carry on his work. Barthes protected himself, withdrew sometimes, but being afraid of loneliness or boredom the protection he sought was in a complex and contradictory network of affective relations. A network of friends, lovers, contacts, of preferences which were quite temporary or perhaps wholly provisional, but which were experienced by those involved—or perhaps imagined by them—as being absolute and definitive.


Posthumous works are also part of the ‘after death’ and they were numerous. Between 1981 and 1987, no fewer than five books were published by Seuil under the name of Roland Barthes. The first of them, published in 1981, was Le Grain de la voix (The Grain of the Voice), which consisted of a collection of thirty-eight interviews which he had given to various newspapers and magazines from 1962 to 1980. An unsigned introductory note, which was in fact written by François Wahl, stressed that this volume brought together ‘most of the interviews given in French by Roland Barthes’, and it went on:

The best possible preface would have been a description by Roland Barthes himself of what an interview is. We will never have such a description now, but we do have a few pages where Roland Barthes analyses, with admirable clarity, the passage of the spoken word to the word transcribed: we thought it fitting to begin with these pages, where the style of writing interlaces with the grain of the voice.1

These few pages, which were written in 1974 as the preface to a series of dialogues published by Grenoble University Press, are an incisive reflection on the process of transcription, on the transference of the spoken word into writing:

We talk, a tape recording is made, diligent secretaries listen to our words to refine, transcribe and punctuate them, producing a first draft that we can tidy up afresh, before it goes on to publication, the book, eternity. Haven't we just gone through the ‘toilette of the dead’? We have embalmed our speech like a mummy, to preserve it forever. Because we really must last a bit longer than our voices.2

Barthes asks himself what is lost and what is gained in this process. What is lost is ‘an innocence’, the material presence of two bodies facing one another, what linguists call the phatic function of language: the tags, the ‘isn't that so?’ or the ‘you see’ which are a kind of appeal to the other person, which punctuate a communication and ensure it gets across. What is gained is the more logical organization of the discourse, which occurs when, for example, the ‘but's’ and the ‘so's’ are replaced by ‘although’ and ‘therefore’, with the written preference for subordination. A more ordered, hierarchical structure is imposed on the ideas. Thus, when spoken language is transformed into written language, the body gives way to the mind.

The following year, 1982, a new collection of essays appeared under the rather bizarre title of L'Obvie et l'obtus3 subtitled Essais critiques III.4 It contained twenty-three texts, prefaces and articles, on the subjects of the theatre, painting and music. Again, it was prefaced by an introductory note by François Wahl outlining how at the end of his life Barthes had wanted to publish a new series of ‘critical essays’. On the back panel of the cover there was a blurb signed ‘R.B.’, comprising twenty-two lines of quotes explaining the meaning of the book's title. On closer examination it turns out to be a surprising montage extracted from the third essay in the collection, ‘The third sense: research notes on several Eisenstein stills’, which has been edited and presented in this strange fashion. To let the reader judge, here is the blurb:

I believe I can distinguish ❙ three levels of sense. An informational level, ❙ this level is that of communication. ❙ A symbolic level ❙ and this second level, in its totality, is that of signification. Is this all? ❙ No, I read, I receive ❙ a third meaning, erratic, yet evident and persistent, I do not know what its signified is, at least I cannot give it a name, ❙ this third level ❙ is that of signifying [signifiance]. ❙ The symbolic meaning ❙ compels my recognition by a double determination: it is intentional (it is what the author has meant) and it is selected from a kind of general, common lexicon of symbols: it is a meaning ❙ which moves ahead of me ❙ I propose to call this complete sign the obvious meaning. ❙ As for the other, the third meaning, the one which appears ‘in excess’, as a supplement my intellection cannot quite absorb, a meaning both persistent and fugitive, apparent and evasive, I propose calling this the obtuse meaning.5

The vertical lines added here mark the cuts which are nowhere mentioned on the cover of the book, the first line marks a cut of three words, the second a cut of twenty-six words, the third a cut of thirty-three words, and the fourth a cut of fourteen lines. This process of cutting adds up to a total of seventy lines: the mind boggles! Particularly since this is a mutilated version—in which the use of the scissors is not indicated in any way, either by brackets or ellipses—of the text where Barthes explains the two terms which go to make up the title of the book, ‘the obvious’ and ‘the obtuse’. For obvious: ‘Obvius means moving ahead which is just the case with this meaning, which seeks me out’ and for obtuse: ‘This word comes readily to my mind, and miraculously, on exploring its etymology, I find it already yields a theory of the supplementary meaning; obtusus means blunted, rounded.6

Two years later the same thing occurred in Le Bruissement de la langue (The Rustle of Language), which is subtitled Essais critiques IV. It consists of a collection of forty-six texts, all of which again are prefaces or articles. Plus, by way of a blurb, there is the same kind of mutilated extract. In quotation marks and signed ‘R.B.’, ninety-two lines of an original Barthes text have been condensed into twenty-seven lines, that is, three pages have been turned into a half-page extract!7

The same thing occurred yet again in L'Aventure sémiologique (The Semiotic Challenge), which was published in 1985. Collected together in this volume were fifteen previously published texts, most of them available in the form of reviews, and some of which had already been republished several times (for instance, ‘Elements of semiology’, ‘Introduction to the structural analysis of narrative’, etc.). Again, included on the back panel of the cover was a chopped-up extract from one of Barthes's texts—although this time three out of the five cuts had been indicated by ellipses.

Of course, Barthes's heirs or executors have every right to do if not absolutely everything, then at least a great deal with his writings. And of course it makes good commercial sense to republish previously published texts, add a couple of unpublished ones, give the whole thing an attractive title, and thereby produce a ‘new’ book. But perhaps it is worth asking whether the publication of Incidents in 1987 was not overstepping the mark. This slim volume, in total 116 pages of large type, brought together four texts: ‘La lumière du Sud-Ouest’ (‘The light of the south-west’), published in L'Humanité on 10 September 1977; ‘Incidents’, a series of notes Barthes had made while he was in Morocco in 1968-9; ‘Au Palais ce soir’ (‘At the Palace tonight’), published in Vogue Homme in May 1978; and finally ‘Soirées de Paris’ (‘Parisian evenings’), a diary Barthes had kept between 24 August and 17 September 1979. Thus two out of the four texts had already been published elsewhere. In his ‘Editor's note’, François Wahl wrote that it was only right to publish Incidents because ‘the text was ready for the printer and because Barthes was considering publishing it in Tel Quel.’ As for ‘Soirées de Paris’, he said that ‘the manuscript is titled, the pages are numbered and, as the reader will see, it contains several corrections in the margin which make it quite clear that it was intended for publication—one day.’8 Then he added the following:

Is it right to pretend that we do not know what in fact we know only too well—the total lack of generosity, in all senses, with which the doubts Barthes occasionally expresses in these pages about modern forms of writing or his despair over desire will be received? R.B. was not someone who would have shrunk from making a statement if he thought it justified.9

Rather than speculating about a possible lack of generosity on the part of the readers, it might be worth asking whether Barthes would really have wanted these pages to be published. In 1979, he had published an extract from this ‘diary’ in Tel Quel, the first part of which had been written in Urt between 13 July and 13 August 1977, and the second part in Paris on 25 April. He had also added a ‘deliberation’ on whether or not one should keep a diary. But even though this was published after his mother's death, it still made no allusion to his homosexuality. It is principally because of the explicit references to homosexuality it contains, and not because of his comments on modern writers—echoes of which were already present in Roland Barthes—that the publication of Incidents might be considered to represent the breaking of a tacit agreement. Hasn't Roland Barthes been rather too heavily made-up in this ‘toilette of the dead’ than he would have wished?

Additionally, and in contrast, François Wahl had explicitly declared his intention not to let even the smallest unpublished text by Barthes be published without his say-so. The same applied to any republished texts. It will be recalled that Barthes had agreed to let Jean-Loup Rivière put together a collection of his writings on the theatre and publish them together with his own preface. As Barthes was putting the final touches to Camera Lucida, Rivière was also finishing the editing of the collection and his own preface. He then submitted the whole thing to Barthes. Naturally, the text, which to this day remains unpublished, highlighted the fact that during the period when Barthes had become its chronicler, the theatre had been a site of struggle. But it also raised the question of why he had stopped writing for the theatre and asked how can one simply give up what has once been a real passion, how can one leave the theatre?

Today Rivière explains that ‘this gesture of his both disturbs and intrigues me. In Roland Barthes, he writes: “At the crossroads of the entire oeuvre, perhaps the Theatre.” So why did he abandon it?’ And Rivière suggested in his preface that perhaps this paradoxical shift from passionate engagement to disappointment was in part connected with the rise to power of De Gaulle: ‘In May 1958, there was a brutal change from a system in which the head of state represented France to a system in which he incarnated it. Barthes published an article on Ubu Roi and gradually withdrew.’ The seventy articles which he selected for the book spanned a seven-year period from 1953 to 1960 and were mostly taken from Théâtre populaire. Since they were all written in the 1950s, Barthes felt somewhat embarrassed by their dated style on rereading them, especially since he was about to publish a new book which bore hardly any resemblance to any of his previous texts. He explained to Rivière that they must make a few cuts, leave out a few articles, perhaps add a couple of new ones, but that at present he had no time to write them. Besides, he probably did not want the two books to come out at the same time, and Camera Lucida naturally took precedence. So together he and Rivière agreed to postpone the publication of ‘Writings on the theatre’ until later. But then Barthes died.

A few months later Rivière, who had signed a contract for the book with Seuil, sent his manuscript to François Wahl. Wahl opposed its publication strongly, just as he had opposed the publication of any of Barthes's letters, especially his voluminous correspondence with Robert David and Philippe Rebeyrol. His argument for not publishing the ‘Writings on the theatre’ was, of course, that Barthes had not wanted the project to go any further. In fact, all Barthes had wanted to do was take a look at the articles Rivière had selected and make a final choice on what was to be included later, after the publication of Camera Lucida. So the manuscript was dropped. As for Barthes's letters, Wahl's arguments against their publication were different: Barthes had not approved of biography, so he could not under any circumstances give his blessing to a project which came close to biography. In both cases, Wahl's clampdown, his determination to stand in the way of any publication which he would not have final control over, meant he was in a key position of power. It was a position some people thought he had usurped: Romaric Sulger-Büel says he behaved as if were the executor of Barthes's will, which he was not. The novelist Max Genève, who had run up against similar problems while making a series of radio programmes on the author of Mythologies for France-Culture, wrote to Wahl: ‘Stop thinking you're Barthes.’

Jean-Loup Rivière, unable to publish the book he had been commissioned to produce, found his own oblique and poetic way of paying homage to Barthes. Several years before, Barthes had got him taken on at the Beaubourg centre as leader of a research group on the image. In particular, the group had come up with the idea of an exhibition on cartography, which was put on in the main gallery of the Pompidou Centre in 1980 under the title ‘Maps and figures of the earth’. A huge catalogue was published to accompany the exhibition a few months after Barthes's death. Inside, on the first page, there is a reproduction of an ordnance survey map and superimposed on to this sober background is a text by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Few people can have realized that the map showed the Urt region and that on the right bank of the Adour river, opposite the village and slightly downstream, was an area marked ‘The Barthes’.


Along with these posthumous publications (and withholdings), Barthes was also about to embark on a new career which he could hardly have imagined for himself—as a fictional character. Philippe Sollers was the first to ‘open fire’ in 1983 with the publication of his novel Women, in which Barthes appears in the final stages of his life as a character called Werth, along with Lacan and Althusser. In the same year Renaud Camus published Roman Roi, in which Barthes had a somewhat minor role playing a librarian in Romania. Of greater interest is Norbert Bensaïd's Le Regard des statues, which was published eight years after Barthes's death. Michel Laporte, an academic, writer and intellectual guru is run over by a car. A crowd gathers round his hospital bed, mostly women (his lovers) and disciples. Then there is Antoine, the young man who ran him over, who comes to visit him regularly, worries about him and eventually develops a bizarre relationship with him. ‘Did Laporte cause the accident, consciously or not?’ he wonders. ‘Is he possessed by an obscure death-wish?’ worries a psychoanalyst friend. Whatever the case, Laporte's condition does not improve and he eventually dies, not from the effects of the accident but from a heart-attack.

There are obvious parallels here between the Laporte character and Barthes. There is the accident, of course, but there is also the fact that both are famous intellectuals, that both have suffered from tuberculosis, and finally that both have complicated love lives (except that Barthes is homosexual and Laporte heterosexual). In addition, like Barthes, Laporte seems not to want to get better and he has just recently been bereaved, although in his case it is his former mistress, Anna, who has died, and not his mother. Moreover, both have just finished a book: Barthes's Camera Lucida came out a few days before his accident, Laporte is correcting the proofs for his book in hospital. In short, everything leads one to the conclusion that the novel is a roman à clef.

However, according to Norbert Bensaïd, this is not the case. He claims never to have known Barthes, or only to have met him briefly a couple of times: ‘My book has nothing, or very little to do with Barthes. There's the accident of course, but that's a common news item. No, what I was interested in was the Antoine character, and the idea of guilt. I found it astonishing to think that one could be guilty of causing the death of someone else without it really being your fault. Guilt without having done anything wrong.’ He adds that none of the characters are disguised portraits of real people. Even if Laporte is a combination of Althusser, Sartre and Barthes (he has the former's physical appearance, Sartre's political activism and Barthes's death): ‘all the other characters are completely fictional.’ However, it still seems likely that it was this little supplementary mythology—one too many—putting a violent full stop to Barthes's deliberations (to write or not to write a novel) which led to his being transformed without wishing it into a fictional character.

Then in 1980, Julia Kristeva published Les Samouraïs, which comes with the disclaimer ‘novel’ on its front cover. Faced with such a title, it becomes difficult to avoid comparisons with De Beauvoir's The Mandarins, which deals with similar themes. Kristeva's novel, like Sollers's Women, is obviously partly autobiographical. She narrates her arrival in France, her Paris, which is inhabited by a good number of famous intellectuals including Lacan, Sartre, Goldmann and Roland Barthes (or Armand Bréhal as he is called in the book). The novel contains many of the same anecdotes which appear in the present biography (which it should be pointed out come from different if convergent sources). Among these are Barthes's behaviour during the events of May '68, Sollers's invention of the title for S/Z, the trip to China and his accident and death. Evidently Kristeva has invented very little and her ‘novel’ is really an autobiography. Nevertheless, the fact remains that for reasons of her own, she felt the need to add a fictional flavour to this chronicle of her adjustment to life in France and, once again, Bréhal/Barthes became a character in a novel.

To this list of Philippe Sollers, Renaud Camus, Norbert Bensaïd and Julia Kristeva can be added another name, Philippe Roger, whose book on Barthes, although not a novel, was entitled Roland Barthes, roman (‘Roland Barthes, a novel’). Few theorists have so haunted the pages of works of fiction—or works which claim to be fiction—after their deaths. So much so that one is bound to ask just what will Barthes have left behind? Is his legacy limited to these allusive apparitions in the pages of a few dubious scenarios?


The ‘after death’ is also the time for assessments. This is not the time or place to attempt to evaluate Barthes's theoretical legacy. It is too soon to assess his influence on contemporary research and, in any case, this would require a different genre, a different kind of book. Nevertheless, I shall attempt to outline briefly what could be termed ‘the Barthes system’, the system he has bequeathed not just to a handful of theorists, but to thousands of ordinary readers. How did this man whose life, friendships, travels, feelings, work and publications have been chronicled in this biography function intellectually? It could be said, perhaps rather provocatively, that his main talents and innovations fall within the field of literature, and that his principal contribution was to bring literature into the human sciences. Let us be frank about this: from Writing Degree Zero to Camera Lucida, Barthes contributed a great deal to semiology, textual analysis and, more indirectly, his work also has repercussions on linguistics or sociology. But his principal contribution was not a systematic theory but a certain way of looking at things, an intuitive approach.

It was this approach which taught thousands of readers to regard the scraps and ephemera of social life (news items, photos, posters, daily customs) as signs: in other words, he made his readers aware of the question of meaning. Some of the detail of his interpretations in Mythologies can be challenged or relativized, as has been seen, but this does not affect the import of his work, the fact that his interpretations of the Dominici affair, literary criticism, colonial discourse, the poster for Panzani pasta, the Tour de France, wrestling and the Abbé Pierre have changed the way thousands of people look at things. He showed his readers what a society could reveal about itself through the signs it produced. It would be wrong to think that Barthes introduced semiological theories to a wider public, even if some passages in his texts give this impression. In fact he did much more: he helped to create a semantic reflex by showing us that we live in a world charged with meaning. According to Olivier Burgelin, ‘he was a mystic’:

Not an ascetic of course, but a sensual mystic, who practised a cult of sensuality. He was a mystic because the whole of his work was an exploration of the same vital question, and his whole life, which was continually being taken back to the drawing board, was engaged in this exploration. The question he explored was that of meaning, of language, of literature.

To this Violette Morin adds: ‘He was like a Beethoven symphony, with a powerful central theme and lots of tiny variations and desires to write all kinds of things. So he would veer off in this or that direction, but he always returned in the end to the same theme’.

This is the real lesson Barthes taught us: we live in a world teeming with signs. Veiled by their signifiers, by writing, by the false obviousness of the ‘natural’, by pseudo ‘common sense’, clothing or theatre, we had almost no idea how to decode these signs. We did not know how the town plan, the discourse of literary criticism, the meal of steak and chips or the treatment of a news item could conceal a social meaning. It was Barthes who made us aware of their existence.

If he was able to achieve this, it was mainly through his style, his writing. At a time when linguistics (centred around Chomsky and his generative grammar) was elaborating increasingly sophisticated models and when linguistic texts were becoming increasingly unreadable, Barthes mastered these theories and made them both readable and crystal clear. Even today, if one wants to introduce students to the concepts of connotation and denotation, one recommends Barthes, not Hjelmslev. But he also used these theories to develop his own line of thought and to support his own intuitions. For there are two ways for the researcher to proceed. The first is through slow and rigorous elaboration of a line of thought, which at times involves a certain amount of drudgery. The other way is by means of lightning flashes of intuition. In the former case, what is discovered is the end result of a methodological process and its proof is already present in this methodology. In the second case, a posteriori methodological justifications are needed. Barthes's great talent was to absorb contemporary theories and use them to shore up his own intuitions.

There are numerous examples of this way of working in his texts. In Writing Degree Zero there are his discreet allusions to Marx and Sartre, in Mythologies the way he used concepts taken from Saussure and Hjelmslev to write his theoretical postscript. Then there is his use of Brecht, not just in his articles on the theatre but also in A Lover's Discourse, and the adaption of phonology to serve his own ends in The Fashion System. Finaly, there are his borrowings from Lacan, Bakhtin and also the young authors who gathered around him and were busy constructing what has been labelled, rather meaninglessly, modernity. Barthes was continually subjugating other people's theories to his own moods, his own instincts. In order to carry out this theoretical re-routing, to concoct his own brew from all the diverse ingredients he collected, he needed more than talent: he needed to have his own way of looking at the world, his own voice and style. If Barthes is not a theorist, then neither is he simply an essay writer who used other people's theories.

Of the two important French intellectuals who died in 1980, Sartre is of course the theorist and Barthes the writer. However, somewhat paradoxically, their impact on society is the reverse: the theorist will be remembered for his actions and the writer for his interpretation of the world. Jean-Paul Sartre was a witness, someone who would always sign a petition, hand out a pamphlet, stand on the street and sell a banned newspaper or take over as its editor, and go to court to defend the causes he believed in. For thousands of people, both prior to and after 1968, these are the traces he has left behind, and this activism is at least as important as his theoretical texts, which are difficult to read and even controversial. Barthes, on the other hand, who never went on demonstrations, never handed out pamphlets, never, in short, became ‘militant’ for a cause, will be remembered by the same generation for his texts, for the way he deconstructed the signs our society generates. Because he taught us how to decode these signs.

As these lines are being written, the societies of Eastern Europe are being shaken by momentous changes. It is pointless trying to imagine the content of what these two thinkers, Sartre and Barthes, might have had to say about such events, but it may be possible to sketch the form their thoughts might have taken.

Sartre would most probably have attempted to theorize this object lesson of a system collapsing like a house of cards. For his part, Barthes would probably have analysed the different discourses on these events, the way they were being discussed. He would have given us his interpretation of the ambiguous reactions to German reunification in Western Europe, and in the case of Romania and Poland he would have pointed out what, in the euphoria of the process of democratization, no one wanted to acknowledge. He would probably have proffered readings of topics such as the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and the reemergence of nationalism which, although opposed to the commonsense view of events, would nevertheless not be misreadings. This kind of intervention, characteristic both of the Barthesian universe and of his readers' expectations, meant that he fulfilled a vital critical function in a world which has become so full of signs that it sometimes appears devoid of sense. No one today has replaced Barthes in this role as reader and interpreter of social life. As Olivier Burgelin says:

His death left a void totally out of proportion to anything I could have imagined. An original voice had fallen silent, a voice which had more to say than any other I have ever heard. The world seemed to have become a definitively duller place. We would never again hear Barthes's opinion on any topic.

It is a silence which leaves us in the grip of mere noises themselves.


  1. The Grain of the Voice (1982; transl. by L. Coverdale, London, 1985), p. 3.

  2. Ibid., p. 5.

  3. Literally, ‘The obvious and the obtuse’, but translated as The Responsibility of Forms (1982). (TN)

  4. Called Critical Essays III because after Essais critiques of 1964 Barthes published a second set of essays, ‘Nouveaux essais critiques’, in 1972 (New Critical Essays, 1980), included in the Seuil edition of Writing Degree Zero.

  5. The blurb does not appear on the translation, The Responsibility of Forms. (TN)

  6. L'Obvie et l'obtus, p. 45. The twenty-two lines which comprise the blurb are in fact a condensation of three pages of text, pp. 42-5 (pp. 41-4 in The Responsibility of Forms).

  7. Taken from pp. 94-6 of Le Bruissement de la langue (Paris, 1984).

  8. Incidents (Paris, 1987), pp. 8-9.

  9. Ibid., p. 10.

Translator's note (TN): All translations are mine if no English edition is cited. Fuller details of the books and articles by Barthes referred to in the text can be found in the bibliography.

Dennis Porter (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7686

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 joyous affirmation of the freeplay of the world without truth and without origin, offered to an active interpretation—would be the other side. This affirmation determines then the non-center as otherwise than a loss of the center.1

Some fifteen years after Lévi-Strauss, in a France that had finally, if painfully, brought to an end its long colonial adventure, Roland Barthes, on the other hand, pursued the logic of Derrida's argument in his own foray into travel writing. The Empire of Signs of 1970 was Barthes's attempt to go beyond essentialism in the European relation to otherness through a practice of “writing” that was intransitive.2 Although he emerged from the same Parisian intellectual matrix as Lévi-Strauss—one that included prominently the discourses of Marxism, existentialism, structuralism, and psychoanalysis—Barthes's career in theory led him to a kind of poststructuralist beyond of theory. In later works such as Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and Fragments of a Lover's Discourse, he developed a practice of writing that broke decisively with the tradition of realism, scientific representation, or the high theoretic model building that still characterizes Tristes Tropiques, in spite of its gestures toward modernism. As a result, Barthes's account of his visit to Japan turns out to be one of the most radically different travel books ever written, one that was not designed to please the area specialists. The man who first came to public attention as the analyst of the myths of modern French life could hardly be expected to respect convention in a genre that, like Lévi-Strauss before him, he recognized as more ideologically saturated than almost any other form of verbal representation outside propaganda proper.

In this respect, Barthes clearly shared the peculiar nausea associated with the vast majority of works in the field. And in the case of French writing on Japan, it involved a whole colonial literature going back beyond that late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century period in which such figures as Pierre Loti (The Last Days of Peking, Madame Chrysanthemum) and Pierre Claudel (The Black Bird in the Rising Sun) figured so prominently. The nausea tended to be aroused by multiple signs of a generalized cultural smugness in relation to the foreign, of partiality for the stereotype and the ready-made formula, and of the self-confident assumption of an identity that enables one to speak the truth of the Other. In run-of-the-mill travel writing of the kind Lévi-Strauss had in mind, one encounters a more or less turgid ethnocentric discourse triumphant. But Barthes was able to overcome the latter's attack of bad conscience chiefly on two grounds. On the one hand, travel was practiced by Barthes as another mode of displacement that allowed him to explore the nature of his own desire by means of a detour through otherness; the aim was the kind of shock (secousse) to the preconstituted self he elsewhere associated with jouissance. On the other hand, travel writing also became an opportunity to reconceptualize and problematize the question of representation itself.

As a result, his Japanese travel book has a salutary subtlety and abrasiveness that is in its own way antihegemonic, even though it makes no overt reference to the political or socioeconomic scene. Its strength is, in part, that through its example and the questions it raises, it challenges the journalistic reports, diplomatic memoirs, and monographs by area-studies experts that are the main current forms through which our Western knowledge of Japan is mediated and that recirculate the Orientalist discourse which Edward Said has denounced. It challenges such works to acknowledge their own status as texts, their being as writing, especially where they claim to speak with the impersonal authority of a human science: “what is fundamentally unacceptable from my point of view is scientism; that is to say, a scientific discourse that thinks of itself as science and censures the need to think of itself as discourse.”3

Such a formula may serve to remind us that Barthes's travel book appeared right at the beginning of the 1970s at a time when (in the arde of literary theorists at least) literature of a certain kind was taken to be the model of antidiscursivity among discourses. In this respect, Terry Eagleton's acerbic comment on Yale deconstructionism applies, in part, to its influential French precursor: “literature becomes the truth, essence or self-consciousness of all other discourses precisely because unlike them, it knows that it does not know what it is talking about.”4 The difference is that Barthes, unlike most deconstructionists, celebrates the emancipatory play of a written word that has bracketed its referent.

Therefore, not only does The Empire of Signs consciously avoid the kind of sense-making that is characteristic of traditional forms of travel writing, it also seeks to put into question two millennia of Western verbal representation that took for granted the metaphysical presuppositions of the mimetic tradition, including particularly the relationship between world and language. In a context where there is typically an indecent rush to assign meaning to the manifold phenomena of alien cultures, Barthes's deliberate suspension of meaning production attempts to distance the reader both from a presumed reality and from the medium of representation itself. And he finds in Japanese culture a wonderfully complicit ally. Japan furnishes for Barthes a model that justifies his own antirepresentational aesthetic, an aesthetic summed up from the late 1960s on in the concepts of écriture and of textuality.

Japan also enables him to indulge in the impossible dream of a linguistic revolution against his language that, after Jacques Lacan, he characterizes as paternal. The goal is to immerse oneself in untried linguistic possibilities “to the point where the whole Occident within us is shaken to its foundations and the rights of paternal language wobble, the language of our fathers, the language that makes us in our turn, fathers and owners of a culture that history transforms into ‘nature’” (Empire, p. 11). Like so many other male travelers before him, Barthes exploits the opportunity afforded by a foreign journey to play the interventionist intellectual in the sexual-political debate in his homeland. He, too, has no intention of taking up a prescribed paternal function on his return.

The result of such attitudes is in any case a perversely antihermeneutical reading of a country in which a whole culture is construed as a text in the strong sense and attention is deliberately arrested at the surface, at the level where signs are produced and circulate in their seductive materiality. Japan is plural and beyond interpretation. The clear corollary of such an attitude is that the traveler himself becomes a reader who has learned to read from such poststructuralist works as Barthes's own Pleasure of the Text.5 Japan provides the occasion for the discovery of the comparable pleasure of a new, delicately hedonistic art of travel and travel writing. Thus, the narrator here makes no secret of the relationship between travel and desire. In his Asian text Barthes openly pursues pleasure on the two registers of plaisir and jouissance described in his theoretic book on the subject.

The title of Roland Barthes's book on Japan may be The Empire of Signs. Yet, unlike all those empires with which we are familiar, the one he has in mind is paradoxically an empire without emperor or site of power, centerless. Barthes's Empire of Signs is an empire of empty signs, not fullness but difference, not Baudelairean correspondances but signs without secret equivalences, the dream world not of a nineteenth-century symbolist but of an early-1970s poststructuralist.6 The Japan he produces corresponds to what he described elsewhere as his own particular “ethic of the sign and of meaning”; that is to say, an “ethic of the empty sign.”

It is, in other words, a privileged space in which signifiers are exchanged in the virtual absence of signifieds—especially the final transcendental signified, which founds all meaning and arrests semiosis; the transcendental signified that monotheistic religions call God: “Japan offers the example of a civilization in which the articulation of signs is extremely refined and highly developed, in which nothing is left over as non-sign; but this semantic level which is characterized by extraordinary finesse in the treatment of the signifier does not mean anything, in a way does not say anything. It does not refer to any signified, certainly not to any final signified. It therefore expresses, in my view, the utopia of a world that is strictly semantic and strictly atheist” (“Sur S/Z,” p. 82). In “Japan,” his “Japan,” Barthes finds already in place the practice of his poststructuralist theory, a culture that functions as a writing.

From the start, Barthes makes clear that he rejects the Western representational aesthetic which opposed an Occidental knowing subject to an Oriental object of knowledge. His Japan will be no more than a fantasmatic construct, therefore, notes inspired by a system of signs that enables one Western observer, at least, to distance himself provisionally from his own culture: “The Orient and the Occident are not to be taken for ‘realities,’ then, that one would attempt to approach and to oppose historically, philosophically, culturally, and politically. I do not look lovingly toward an Oriental essence; the Orient is a matter of indifference to me; it simply furnishes me with a stock of features whose combination or invented play allow me to try out the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one that is wholly remote from our own” (Empire, p. 7).

In effect, it is precisely the suspicion of the dogmatic claims empowered by an aesthetics of representation that led Barthes to write a travel book unlike any other. His work will not take up the task of assigning meanings but will instead be consciously experimental, play with a utopian potential—“try out the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system.” If he can be said to have discovered a form of utopia on his extra-European journey, therefore, it is very different from the kind sought out by political pilgrims. Barthes's book is, in its way, symptomatic of his generation's break with engagement. In his ironic and fragmentary self-portrait of 1975, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, he notes about himself in the third person, “because of a perverse disposition to see forms, languages, and repetitions, he gradually became a political misfit.”7

The attitude of openness is apparent in the first place at the level of composition. The Empire of Signs is not organized as a narrative, although it is not entirely “plotless” in spite of itself. In that polarity between mimesis and diegesis, it is much closer to the latter, since the narrator foregrounds his sentient, searching presence in all its encounters. But it a presence that is often curiously depersonalized, written in as an intermittent register of sensations felt and thoughts provoked.

Empire of Signs does not, unlike traditional travel books, tell the story of a journey whose identifiable narrator emerges on his return home as the hero or antihero of a difficult journey. No “I” sets forth, arrives and, in a series of episodes, encounters Japan in its landscapes, cities, architecture, monuments, and people. There is no chronology and no itinerary, no dates and relatively few place names. Nor are there those scenes, characters, or dialogues that travel writing in modern times adapted from the realist tradition in fiction. The narrator eschews the production of a traveling personality who is enriched by his experiences so as to offer at the end the sum of a completed journey and a self chastened or renewed.

Like his subsequent works, Barthes's Empire of Signs admits a plurality of entries. It can be opened at any section and read without difficulty or loss because, after a few pages of opening remarks, there is no development, middle, or end. It is a text traversed by other texts, claiming to be without origin or closure, acknowledging its openness. No effort is made to offer a synoptic totalizing view of the country, Japan. We learn almost nothing about the Japanese economy, its political and social life, or its geography and history. At the most, Barthes does uncover a certain systematicity in the codes of Japanese social behavior, and a sympathy is guage and the excitement that induces, not just in the sphere of Japanese words he can neither read nor understand, but in all the signifying practices of the culture.

How this operates in practice may be seen in the three short sections devoted characteristically to Japanese cuisine and to eating. The sections are entitled “Water and Flake,” “Chopsticks,” and “Food Decentered.” Barthes's writing here cannot help but remind us that one of the most celebrated pieces of Mythologies was entitled “Steak and French Fries.” For Barthes, the extraordinary thing about Japanese meals is that the various logics of Western cuisine and Western eating practices are subverted. Our culturally consecrated oppositions between the raw and the cooked, (pace Lévi-Strauss), between preparation and consumption, between kitchen and dining room, for example, are deconstructed in Japan.

Thus, in Barthes's reading, a Japanese meal is not placed before a diner like a series of paintings to be contemplated with all their elements already in place, according to a compositional scheme that imposes a logico-temporal order which, like the order of classic narrative, is destroyed in the course of its consumption. In a Japanese restaurant, a tray arrives covered with its many delicate dishes and its condiments, and although it has the appearance of a painting, it is nevertheless destined to be unmade and remade a great many times before the meal is over. It is less something stable and finished to be observed and consumed than an activity to be engaged in or a game to be played. The original tray with its variety of precious dishes is thus not so much a painting as a palette. The diner is free to engage in the eating art, to swoop and choose with his chopsticks according to the shifting whims of his palate. No protocol obliges him to consume the dishes in a fixed order or to respect any given compositional rules. Like a postmodernist text, a Japanese meal is characterized by its multiplicity of potential entrances. One does not have to begin at a beginning imposed by a cook/author and consume what is in front of one passively, in the sequential order of classic Western narrative; one is, in one's own right, a producer, painter, cook, and player of the eating game.

Rightly or wrongly, what characterizes Japanese food for Barthes is finally, like everything else he encounters in Japan—see “Town Center, Empty Center”—its decenteredness, as the section entitled “Decentered Food” makes clear. Unlike the red wine or the steak of France, in his reading Japanese food bears within it no precious substance; it contains in its hidden depths no equivalent to that essential Frenchness which Barthes discovered in certain traditional foods of his homeland: “Entirely visual … the food thus indicates that it is not deep; the comestible substance is without a precious heart, without buried power, without a vital secret; no Japanese dish is provided with a center (an alimentary center that is implied with us by the rite which consists in giving order to a meal, in surrounding a dish or covering it with a sauce). Everything is the ornament of another ornament; first of all because on the table, on the tray, the food is never anything more than a collection of fragments among which none is privileged by an order of ingestion” (Empire, pp. 32-33). What one recognizes here—“ornament of another ornament”—is the logic of supplementarity that was so important in Derrida's early thought.

The poststructuralist theme of decenteredness appears at its most provocative from the point of view of Western consciousness in the final section, entitled “The Cabinet of Signs.” In evoking his experience of the Japanese delineation of space, Barthes once again describes that perilous euphoria which we now call jouissance and which he associates with the sudden loss of selfhood, of cultural identity and an ideologically fixed positionality. Traveling about the country, he is invariably struck by the paradox that one encounters a combination of discontinuity and openness in the landscape. There are no barriers—but, at the same time, none of those distant horizons, so dear to the romantics and to our continuing romantic taste in landscapes, that flatter pride in our own constituted subjecthood: “no desire to swell my lungs, to stick out my chest in order to assert my ego or to turn myself into the receptive center of infinity; obliged to recognize the evidence of empty limit, I become limitless with no sense of grandeur, without metaphysical reference” (Empire, p. 144). In such passages one sees the kind of “adventure” Barthes sought out in his travels. In effect, he records here the experience of living, momentarily at least, that beyond of metaphysics which we can only speculate about in the West.

Further, what is true of Japanese space on the level of its landscapes is equally true for Barthes in the configurations and disposition of its cities and of the domestic sphere. At the heart of Tokyo where one would expect to find an imperial palace or the monumental architecture of power for which, in the West, Rome provides the model, Barthes finds instead the emptiness of a park. In the Japanese house and its concept of furniture, he discovers a flexibility and a deconstructibility that is antithetical to all mystifications of the human subject. There is none of that complicity between property and the affirmation of selfhood which characterizes arrangements in Western houses: “in the [Shikidai] corridor, as in the ideal Japanese house, without furniture (or with very little furniture), there is no place that designates the least proprietorship, neither seat nor bed nor table where the body can transform itself into the subject (or master) of a space; a center is denied (a burning frustration for Western man, who is everywhere provided with his armchair, his bed, the proprietor of a domestic place)” (Empire, p. 146).

The disruptive force of Barthes's work for a Western reader is obvious in such passages. It is a force that draws its energy, on the one hand, from the poststructuralist critique of a Western rationality and a Western common sense that is egocentric in a Cartesian sense, a pursuit of knowledge founded on self-presence and personhood. On the other hand, it is a force that proceeds from a restless critical intelligence that was peculiarly Barthes's own in its hostility to received ideas and its sensuous openness to the play of the new. It is, for example, characteristic that in a discussion of the Japanese practice of bowing, unlike almost all other Western observers, he discovers not the submissiveness to authority of an unregenerate hierarchical society, but the cultural formalism of a nation of semioticians that recognizes in that act nothing more than a form of writing in which bodies take on the graphic function—“Form is empty.”

The significance of the Japanese codification of gestures in this instance is that it provides Barthes with the opening to reevaluate our Western politics of politeness. And what he finds in that politics is a suspicion of all learned codes that is based, once again, on a metaphysics of the self or a “mythology of the ‘person’”. It is our habit, in the United States even more than in France, to assume that a social “exterior” overlays a natural “interior,” and it is this inner, authentic self which in the popular imagination simply betrays its true nature whenever it conforms to the codes learned by the factitious outer self.

The capacity for the critical reading of social myth and of the process of “naturalization” that produces it, already apparent in Mythologies, allows Barthes to raise the possibility that bowing in Japan is far from having the meaning we usually attribute to it: “it is not the sign of an observed, condescending, and precautionary communication between two autarchies, two personal empires (each of which reigns over its ego, over the small realm of which it has the key); it is only the indication of a network of forms in which nothing is arrested, tied, deep. Who is saluting whom?” (Empire, p. 88). That question justifies for Barthes the whole practice of bowing; it enables him to realize that what is involved is not sense but “graphism.” It is a gesture from which “every signified is inconceivably absent.”


Barthes's travel book is, then, continuous with almost all his writings after the period of programmatic structuralism. In its way, it is an “essay,” in the sense that Barthes gave to that word: “I can accept the word if it has the kind of meaning of a phrase such as ‘trying on’ (faire l'essai) a language relative to an object, a text; one tries on a language as one tries on an article of clothing; the closer it fits, that is, the further it goes, the happier one is” (“Sur S/Z,” p. 77). The Empire of Signs is an “essay” in this sense. It is experimental, fragmentary, willfully open-ended, playful. However, it takes as its object not a “text,” but a culture or cultural text. As a result, its relationship to Japanese culture is not that of a subject of knowledge to its object, but that of experimental openness and pleasurable anticipation. The question it embodies is not, then, What can I know about Japan? Rather, it is, What does Japan enable me to discover by distancing me from myself and from my culture? It offers its reader not science but a highly self-conscious verbal art, not knowledge but the play of intelligence associated with the poetic function of language; it offers also that peculiarly poststructuralist pleasure of demonstrating, with panache and all manner of verbal sleights of hand, how unfounded are truth claims that are congealed in discourse.

The eroticism that is associated with travel writing from the beginning becomes verbal in the play of the language that Barthes tries on for his Japanese journey, but not exclusively verbal. As noted in a passage quoted above, travel for Barthes connoted “adventure,” as it has for so many travelers—“adventure,” moreover, in the libidinal rather than the heroic sense. It is not that Barthes narrates episodes which evoke his sexual encounters; he, in fact, repudiates the kind of “dirty plunge” that Flaubert, for example, engaged in during his time or, in a different way, Piero Paolo Pasolini did during ours.8 Barthes's taste goes to a more generalized sensuous encounter with a foreign world that solicits him in the piquant diversity of its signs. As he acknowledged in the Lévy interview quoted above, he pursued in travel, “the sensation of plunging into a simple and opaque world (for the tourist everything is simple). Not a dirty plunge but the voluptuous immersion in a language, for example, whose sounds I don't understand. It is amazingly relaxing not to understand a language. It eliminates all vulgarity, all stupidity, all aggression” (“Intellectuals,” p. 249).

The distinction made here goes a long way toward characterizing the refined hedonism of the mature Barthes's sensibility. It is similar to the distinction made in Camera Lucida between “heavy desire, that of pornography” and “light or good desire, that of eroticism.”9 In any case, one recognizes in such passages the discourse, not of the voyageur maudit, but of the aesthete.

Such a suspension of meaning also implies the suspension of sexual meaning. Japan affords Barthes the pretext for interrogating once again fixed gender identities and for engaging verbally in fantasies of decentered, nonphallic sexuality. The whole section entitled “Chopsticks,” is an example of the kind of witty, allusive poetic writing that is, in fact, the raison d'être of The Empire of Signs. There is no more readily available exoticism than the exoticism of foreign food. Food is something we can see, smell, taste and, in our mouth at least, touch. Food is a more or less piquant form of foreign substance that we openly admit into our own body, normally with the expectation of a new pleasure.10 Consequently, that classic question of the male traveler—What are the women like?—is, if anything, less common than What is the food like? Eating in a foreign land is an “adventure” in the mouth that, under certain conditions, may stir memories of our remotest psychic past.

In the section on chopsticks, however, Barthes is not concerned with the art of cooking but with the relationship to food implied by the instruments of eating. The narrator here plays knowingly with a series of erotic associations that attach themselves to the use of chopsticks in opposition to Occidental knives and forks. The purpose of the former is claimed to be multiple. They are used to point to the food, to pinch it delicately, to divide it and to transport it to the mouth; but in all these activities they avoid the brutal, predatory crudeness of the knife and fork we have designed for ingestion. They are celebrated instead as a quasi-magical instrument that transforms solid food into a rare form of nourishment: “because of the chopstick, food is no longer a prey to which one does violence … but a substance harmoniously transferred; it transforms the previously divided matter into a food for birds and the rice into a stream of milk” (Empire, pp. 27-28).11

The fantasm embodied in such a carefully wrought and knowingly precious passage is, of course, that of nonphallic sexuality—there is no display of power, no aggression, no penetration. It suggests rather the image of a maternal solicitude that is always sufficient and tenderly equal to each fresh demand. Chopsticks reawaken in Barthes the pleasures of orality and of the mother's body from which we are separated at the moment of our weaning and our entry into paternal language or the symbolic order: “the chopstick … introduces into the practice of eating not an order but fantasy and a sensation of laziness” (Empire, p. 25). A fantasy, one might add, of dyadic plenitude and a breast that is always there.12

The effect of such and similar passages is to transform our Western discursive understanding of Japan by associating it with a certain idea of maternity. Japan in The Empire of Signs is as effectively maternalized by Roland Barthes as was Rome by Stendhal in Promenades dans Rome.

Erotic satisfaction of a different but equally nonphallic order is also suggested in the section that evokes the Japanese version of the slot machine, “Pachinko.” Whereas the Western slot machines embody “a symbolism of penetration,” because one is invited to possess “at one stroke” the pinup whose body is illuminated on the machine, the Japanese game offers no sex, as Barthes disingenuously puts it, before he goes on to evoke the kind of reward that the Japanese player may expect from his electronic play: “It is easy to understand, then, the importance of a game that to the constrictions of capitalist wealth and the constipated parsimony of salaries opposes this voluptuous rout of silver balls which suddenly fills the player's hand” (Empire, p. 42). The jubilant anality of the surge of pleasure involved here hardly needs highlighting.

For the most part, the multiple pleasures with which Japanese culture is invested have for Barthes a less startling, more diffused quality of a kind that is evident, for example, in his evocation of packages. He finds, for example, in Japan a peculiar “sensuality of the package” that is also unknown in the West. On many occasions there is a reversal of our unquestioned hierarchical opposition which assumes the priority of the contained over the container, of message over its envelope: “One might say that it is the box that is the object of the gift and not what is inside it.”

All the art, in short, is in the wrapping, and for the recipient of the gift all the pleasure is there, too—between the wrapping and the unwrapping of what has been so exquisitely put together. One recognizes here the celebrated Barthean theme of the pleasure of the text transported from the literary sphere to the practical arts of everyday life, from the play of verbal signifiers to that of the futile signifiers of colored paper and cardboard. In both cases, the reader/player enjoys the excess engendered when the signified is banished: “from one wrapping to the next the signified flees, and when one finally finds it (there is always a little something in the package), it seems insignificant, derisory, vile. Pleasure, which belongs to the realm of the signifier, has already been taken; the package is not empty but emptied” (Empire, pp. 60-61). It is impossible not to read the metaphor of phallic sexuality and the structure of striptease into Barthes's negative language here. The reward for the recipient of a Japanese package, as for the reader of a postmodernist text, on the other hand, is not in the final act of possession, the revelation of its hermeneutical secret, but in the more or less elaborate detours that take you toward it.

What eating practices, Pachinko players, the art of packaging, and so many other features of Japanese life do for Barthes is precisely to stimulate the play of his fantasy. They open up new possibilities, new vistas to be explored in his (and therefore our) intellectual and aesthetic, as well erotic, life. Moreover, in Barthes's case, they take him increasingly in the direction of trying out the new and/or repressed pleasures of the ungendered body, of the before and after of gender differentiation. They take him, that is, toward polymorphous sexuality and infinitely protracted play, toward the uncharted and finally unchartable territory that, after Lacan, he gestured toward in enlarging the associations of that already untranslatable French word, jouissance.

It is finally the genre of the haiku that summarizes Barthes's whole experience of Japan. It is a literary genre that is alien to those of us who are familiar only with Western literature. In Barthes's view, it offers the paradox of a text that is perfectly readable yet resistant to the imposition of meaning; it is intelligible but meaning-less. In spite of its apparent simplicity, it suspends the effort of sense making and cuts off the kind of commentary that is an ingrained expectation of our literary life; the work of reading haiku is “to suspend language, not to provoke it.” Barthes, in fact, refers to haiku as the literary branch of Zen, one of whose fundamental practices is “to stop language” (Empire, p. 97).

If he finds haiku so exciting, that is because it suggests the kind of liberation associated in Zen thought with the state of “a-linguisticality.” Thus, the shortness of the haiku is not a mere matter of form—“the haiku is not a rich thought reduced to a short form, but a short event that suddenly finds its proper form” (Empire, p. 98)—but one of “rightness,” of adequation between signifier and signified, and not of an exact representation of reality as in Western “description.” Haiku is articulated on “a metaphysics without subject and without God” (Empire, p. 101); it has the character of an event or of an adventure in language. Furthermore, each individual haiku opens out onto the virtually infinite and collective corpus of other haikus, without origin or end in an unstoppable series of referrals—a case of universal semiosis that recalls nothing so much as a dictionary: “Thus, the haiku reminds us of what has never happened to us; in it we recognize a repetition without a source, an event without a cause, a memory without a person, a word without moorings” (Empire, p. 104).

In sum, the haiku for Barthes is emblematic of a nonrepresentational, nondidactic, nonnarrative art that manages to embody what he admires most in Japanese culture. It provides in the textual sphere proper an example of the aesthetic of the fragmentary and the discontinuous that, in Japan at least, is combined with an unequaled sureness of touch and of refinement in sign production. A haiku recognizes its own writerly status and, in the instantaneousness of its appearance acts out its own eventful and incomplete character.

Given all this, it is not surprising if one recognizes in haiku a model of the textual art that Barthes sought to practice at book length in The Empire of Signs itself, namely, “vision without commentary.” Like haiku, Barthes's travel book may be partly defined in negatives; it seeks not to teach, nor to express, nor even to describe or entertain in the way of a traditional travel book. It seeks instead to be writing on a writing, a work of brilliant formal evanescence that opens onto nothing beyond itself. To the extent that it foregrounds the emotive and poetic functions of language to the detriment of the referential, it is also empty of content of a conventional kind. That is why those critics who claim that Barthes misunderstood various aspects of Japanese culture and society are misguided. The book does not claim to be about a country on the map, but a possible country—what, after Italo Calvino, might be called an “invisible country.”

The challenge of Barthes's “Japan” is precisely that it mocks the truth claims of Western philosophy, social science, and literature. The Empire of Signs evokes the brilliant surface of Japanese culture in order to reflect back, for a Western reader, all the myths of interiority and expressivity and referentiality, of nature and depth and spontaneity, of body and soul, of the self and imaginary plenitude, of property and identity that were indeed so conducive to nausea in a poststructuralist of Barthes's generation and sensibility.

What Barthes's book tries to write is the way in which Japanese culture, like Bunraku theater, is endlessly and consciously antinaturalist, coded, citational. By means of a detour through otherness, he seeks to distance himself and his reader, for the time of a reading at least, not only from the attitudes and values of his own culture, but also from the literary genre by means of which it had traditionally represented otherness to itself: namely, travel writing. Barthes's position is resolutely antihermeneutical. There will be no understanding through the overcoming of distance—although there is a great deal of praise—no production of the truth of the Other, just the perception of a nonfixable difference. Barthes's short sections, in their more or less random order, offer neither depth nor totality, but the more or less disconnected and more or less systematic play of cultural parts that tells us more about ourselves than about the Japanese. It is in all of these senses that The Empire of Signs marks an end of travel literature as we have known it in the West. Under the circumstances, it is disturbing, if inevitable, to record that Barthes's example is one that has gone largely unfollowed. It does not share haiku's power to stop language.


Yet, should we so be disturbed after all? Why is it so important to pay attention to a work that in spite of its obvious enthusiasm treats Japan with casual irresponsibility, that simply seems to use it, in fact, for its own aesthetic-hedonistic purposes? In short, can a work that practices a form of dehistoricization even more radical than that of the New Criticism be thought of as a work of general ethical or social significance, let alone as a political intervention? In implying that Japanese culture acknowledges no source and no center, no archōe and no telos, Barthes is affirming that the writing of history or of social analysis as we know it is merely another mode of mythic production. Poststructuralism can have no truck with history, if history means the perception of order in time, the mapping of change, of beginnings, developments, continuities, endings, phases and periods, the narration of revolution and reaction, conflict and cooperation between identifiable entities or human groups, cause and effect.

The question is at bottom one that has been frequently raised in connection with the relationship between poststructuralist thought and politics, especially in the light of the broadly leftist and even Maoist positions adopted by the majority of Parisian intellectuals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the case of The Empire of Signs, the question might be interpreted as taking a more specific form: Can there be a politics in the absence of a history? It is a question to which Barthes's book can hardly be said to offer a satisfactory answer. It does do something else, however, something that has its own importance.

Because it consciously takes responsibility for its own language, it is above all an extensive reflection on representational discourses and, by implication, on the writing of history, geography, and ethnography as travel writing. And since these various disciplines are themselves intimately bound up with the exercise of power in ways that both Foucault and Said, among others, have shown, The Empire of Signs constitutes in its own way a meditation on power and on the activity of representation that articulates and reproduces it. One remembers that what Barthes called “literature” in his inaugural lesson at the Collège de France is a site of “powerlessness.” It is the place where knowledge is uncoupled from power precisely because no truth claims are made.

It is in this connection that Barthes returns so often and in a variety of contexts to the question of decenteredness. The different manifestations of such a condition in Barthes's Japan serve by contrast to remind us of that ruse of power which in Western ideology posits a center that stands outside semiosis and fixes the system. So it is with our religions, our empires, and our families as it is with our towns. The center is always the site of truth: “in conformity with the very movement of Western metaphysics, for which a center is always the place of truth, the center of our towns is full” (Empire, p. 43). It is to the center that we look for spirituality (churches), power (offices), money (banks), commerce (the big stores), and our intellectual life (the various sites of verbal exchange). In Barthes's reading, centeredness is the myth that sustains all our myths of identity and continuity, of self and other, as well as our various discourses of power.

In the briefest of essays, published in book form in 1975 and entitled Whither China?13 Barthes did follow up on the example of The Empire of Signs and raise once again the question of travel writing and its problematic discursive practices. Are there, he asked, any limits to what one can and cannot say? And he did so at a time when it was still common among French intellectuals to make their political pilgrimage to China in order to celebrate Mao's model of revolution—Julia Kristeva's On Chinese Women is a typical example of the style of engagement of the time. Writing about himself in the third person in a work that came out in the same year as Whither China? Barthes makes clear the kind of postpolitical politics he had come to embrace: “His place (his milieu) is language: that is where he accepts or rejects, that is where his body can or cannot. To sacrifice his life-as-language to political discourse? He is quite willing to be a political subject, but not a political speaker” (Barthes, p. 53).

Barthes's eight pages on China, therefore, are in their way a brief, anti-Kristevan manifesto in which he declines to respond to the question posed in his title, since such questions are, in effect, a symptom of the problem. He even, in effect, declined André Gide's role in Back from the USSR, for Gide undertook the task of representing the dystopian features of a Soviet society that so many of his friends and colleagues had praised.

Since then, of course, contemporary Western travelers have once again been swarming over the immense body of China in search of answers to the many and various question that our Western knowledge industry generates. Thus, unlike Kristeva, for example, Barthes returned from China not with lessons for the West, but with “nothing,” not full but “empty.” Proclaiming once again “the end of hermeneutics,” he proposed instead what in his last paragraph he calls “a negative hallucination.”

The meaning of the phrase is made apparent earlier, when in a speculative vein Barthes refers to the “desire” of a human subject for a non-existent grammatical mood that neither affirms nor negates, neither doubts nor questions, but simply “suspends enunciation without for that matter eliminating it” (Whither, p. 13). The apparently paradoxical goal sought is a form of commentary on otherness whose tone is “No comment.” In practice, this leads him to make a series of affirmations—China is said to be “without flavor (fadeur),” “colorless,” “flat,” “calm”—that, in their guarded neutrality, sound like negations.

Barthes does acknowledge in the Lévy interview that China, for some unexplained reason, failed to captivate him in the way that Japan did—“I found no opportunities for erotic, sensual, or sentimental investment there” (“Intellectuals”, p. 250). In the context of the China essay proper, however, the apparently negative attributes to which he refers have a certain celebratory force, since they point for Barthes to a cultural way of being that blurs constituted differences, including sexual ones. China, in another way than Japan, suggested to him the nonphallic, diffused sexuality of motherhood itself, a sense of peace and of strength that overwhelms fixed meanings. Thus, the brief Chinese travel sketch as a whole can be seen as an attempt to substitute an antidogmatic and apolitical “hallucination” for its more familiar opposite, a neither/nor for the either/or of various hegemonic discourses in place.

Given the massive misrepresentations of foreign places and peoples to which we are still subjected—what Barthes might have called with characteristic irony “positive hallucinations”—it is difficult to deny that there is a need, not so much for silence as for a writerly ethics of “No comment.” Thus, in its way, The Empire of Signs itself is Barthes's contribution to the endeavor to go beyond Orientalism. Moreover, in my reading it also implies, like Tristes Tropiques, that we would all be better off, if the great majority of the world's travel books had never been written at all.


  1. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, eds. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), p. 264.

  2. L'Empire des signes (Geneva: Skira and Paris: Flammarion, 1970).

  3. “Sur S/Z et l'Empire des signes,” in Le Grain de la voix (Paris: Le Seuil, 1981), p. 80.

  4. The Function of Criticism: From the Spectator to Poststructuralism (London: Verso Editions and NLB, 1984), p. 104.

  5. Trans. Richard Miller (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975).

  6. In an astute review of Barthes's book, Hide Ishiguro comments: “The country depicted, with the recognizable images and several interesting truths, is a fantasy world, just like the one in The Mikado which the Japanese would not think of as being Japan” (Times Literary Supplement, 12 August, 1983). It is, however, a point that Barthes himself had already made.

  7. Trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977), p. 170.

  8. In the account of a journey he took to India in 1961, Pasolini projects in his narrator the persona of the flâneur who explores the nocturnal streets of India's swarming cities. The scent of his title is largely that of putrefaction and feces, that odor of death associated with the romantic agony. See The Scent of India (London: Olive Press, 1984). Barthes, in fact, comes closest to what he seems to mean by “the dirty plunge” not abroad, but when he turns himself into a kind of nocturnal tourist at home, in his accounts of cruising the bars and streets of Paris in the posthumously published “Soirées de Paris,” in Incidents (Paris: Le Seuil, 1987).

  9. Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981), p. 93.

  10. Abdelkebir Khatibi comments: “Every foreign dish that defies our customs liberates our body from its earliest habits. It expatriates it to the sphere of the unknown. That is why I enjoy the foreigner, male and female.” Figures de l'étranger dans la littérature française (Paris: Denoël, 1987), pp. 78-79.

  11. The English word “chopstick” attaches the implement to a wholly different semantic field from the French word “baguette.” Because the latter is the word for both a conductor's baton and a magician's wand, it suggests the play of a sensibility entirely absent from the aggressively workaday resonances of “chopstick.”

  12. Barthes notes in the Lévy interview that food was significant for him in three different ways, the first of which has to do with “the prestige or taste of the maternal model, one's mother's food as she prepares it and conceives it; that's the food that I like.” “Intellectuals,” p. 250.

  13. (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1975).

Ross Chambers (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8693

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 in the South, in 1968 and 1969,” and “Soirées de Paris,” a series of diarylike accounts of his evenings' insignificant doings that Barthes kept between 24 August and 19 September 1979, just after writing a critical study of the “journal intime” as a genre for Tel Quel and not long before his untimely death. Because these last mentioned texts, especially the latter of the two, are open about the author's homosexuality, it was felt in some quarters that one of the more reticent of France's gay male intellectuals had been “outed,” and in a manner thought (not without homophobia) to demean the great man's memory. I'm interested, though, in the nonnarrative or antinarrative formal qualities of the two texts, as examples of loiterature in its “cruising” mode (chapter 3); and I want more particularly to look at what they tell us about the kind of intellectual I call “critical”—the intellectual who doesn't fit easily into either of the Gramscian categories of the “organic” or the “traditional”—when that intellectual, whose position is normally unaligned, is “on vacation” or “taking time out,” and isn't, ideologically speaking, on guard. More specifically still, I'll ask what these two mildly scandalous texts, written ten years apart and relating to rather different life experiences, have in common. What differences connect them? What incidences—interactions, intersections, intrications, mutual interruptions—join them?

In the heyday of the British Empire, Posh (standing for Port Out Starboard Home) was a notation used by shipping clerks to indicate the most prestigious passengers on the ships that plied the thin red line passing through Suez. Without too much artifice, the acronym might be taken as a way of articulating the intrication of at home and out there, the permeability of contexts, that defines the various economies—commercial, cultural, and in this case sexual—of the colonial enterprise, an intrication that has, if anything, intensified in the so-called postcolonial era. In that sense, we're all posh; and in choosing to look critically at the forgetfulness of the at home/out there intrication that relates Barthes's two texts (one supposedly Parisian, the other patently Moroccan), I'm not attempting, therefore, to make one of modern culture's poshest (most prestigious) intellectuals into some kind of scapegoat. I'm looking for a way to describe the texts, and to read their sadly missed author, as paradigmatic, in the sense of typical as well as listlike. It's not because they're exceptional but because they're ordinary2 that these texts—themselves unsystematic explorations of the everyday (the familiar everyday of Paris and the everyday of the Oriental other)—seem interesting and indeed have a certain poignant quality. Not the trivial Barthes, whose bodily desires some would have liked to hush up, nor yet Barthes the cultural icon, but the ordinary Barthes—“R. B.”—is the fellow I want to spend some time with here; and that is because he permits us to grasp something of how the construction of the everyday relates to contextual closure.

The main genres of gay male narrative tend to be autobiographical, but their thematics is no less characteristically one of encounter. For obvious reasons, gay subjectivity can scarcely regard itself as autonomous or fail to take account of itself as a relational phenomenon, traversed by the complex dynamics of alterity. The coming out story (say Paul Monette's Becoming a Man or J. R. Ackerley's My Father and Myself3) has affinities with the Bildungsroman, while the Aids story, which follows a declining curve uncannily symmetrical to the coming out story's mounting curve (as the poignancy of Eric Michael's punning title, Unbecoming, underlines), responds to homophobic mythification of the disease with an equally metaphoric counter-myth: not Aids but a homophobic society is the killer.4

The cruising story, though (John Rechy's Numbers or Renaud Camus's Tricks can serve as examples5), tends not to have a narrative “curve” at all, and closure is as irrelevant to it as it is defining in both the coming out story and the Aids story. The structure here (if “structure” is the word) is episodic, repetitive (but in a Kierkegaardian sense, in which repetition implies difference) and, in a word, digressive—the “incident” is its narrative material. The goal (encapsulated in the famous seventies T-shirt slogan: “So many men, so little time”) isn't the narrative or argumentative one of comprehension but the encyclopedic one of comprehensiveness, not synthesis but seriality, and the dynamic is therefore that of the etcetera principle. The outcome is a text structured like a list, an enumeration, an inventory or a catalog, a “telling” in the etymological sense of counting out, and corresponding more to a purely descriptive practice of notation than to an art of composition.

This open-endedness of the cruising narrative, of which both Soirées de Paris and Incidents are paradigmatic examples, has everything to do, I believe, with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the social relations (the circumstances of encounter) in which the gay male cruiser is involved. These social relations aren't governed by the clearly legislated, if practically unnegotiable, double bind of the closet, although their semisurreptitiousness gives them a closety feel. They're not subject either to the overt hostility in response to which Aids narratives are so angry a genre, although the “adventurous” side of cruising, the slight sense of danger it can generate, accords with the knowledge that gay-affirming behavior (the constitution of a community of desire, for example) is inevitably pursued in a social context that can prove lethal to it. Cruising activates the range of phenomena that arise from the fraught relation—not fully separable yet anxiously autonomous—that links male homosociality and male homosexuality.

It is, in short, a subcultural (or “private”) phenomenon inhabiting—or, as Michel de Certeau might say, poaching on—a “public” space, that of the subculture's Other. Thus, the desiring community the cruiser “counts out,” encounter by encounter, is potentially limitless, by virtue of the continuum linking gay and straight, the homosexual and the homosocial. But by the same token, the gay cruiser's identity is ambiguous in that it coexists with any number of “straight” identities—respectable middle-class man, college kid or whatever—under cover of which the cruiser's presence on the streets is legitimated. It follows that to believe in a gay male community uniquely constituted by a commonality of desire or in an identity purely defined by erotic object-choice takes quite a bit of forgetting. Yet it's just such forgetting that constitutes the community of desire the cruiser is exploring, and it's as a subject to such forgetting that the figure of the cruiser interests me, therefore, in this essay. For there's something single-minded about sexual cruising, a single-mindedness that's reminiscent of the figure of the collector (think, say, of Balzac's Pons). And this same single-mindedness shows up, albeit in displaced fashion, in Barthes (whose sexual hunting is euphemized in Incidents as touristic curiosity and pursued in Soirées de Paris with a kind of defeated diffidence). It shows up as thematic redundancy, a form of insistence that's very unusual in the digressive art of loiterature, which is more apt to change the subject than to harp on one string. But the cruiser, in Soirées, becomes an obsessive collector of examples of the commoditization of relations, and in Incidents, of what Barthes elsewhere calls the “romanesque.” And it's the forgetting implied by these two forms of single-mindedness that I want to try to identify in what follows.

Not surprisingly, cruising is fast becoming a metaphor for gay research, which picks about in straight culture, in its own single-minded (and so forgetful) way, for often equivocal evidence of gayness, extending the limits of the gay community by collecting the apparently limitless number of “encounters” and trouvailles that seem to qualify. Neil Bartlett (chapter 3) figures his activity as a kind of folk historian of the gay male community in London as a matter of cruising the archives. In Bringing Out Roland Barthes, D. A. Miller likens his critical work to a kind of cruising of the Barthes text in search of “moments” (or incidents?), “responses to a handful of names, phrases, images, themes” that lead the critic to intuit a “gay writing position” that can be thought to inform the whole.6 The cruising researcher's haul is predictably incomplete and often a bit dubious, and the writing in turn—an “album,” says Miller, a bulletin board or scrapbook in Bartlett's metaphor—takes on the episodic, fragmented, and digressive quality of cruising narratives themselves, condemned to the incidental but celebratory of the incomplete, as the etcetera principle mandates. Like Bartlett's or Miller's, my own writing is bound, in turn, to be discontinuous and episodic—all stops and starts—and (in its own way) simultaneously rambling and single-minded or forgetful. In short, cruisy.

But I'm not so interested in detecting intimations of gayness, which in fact neither text makes any bones about (their closety character comes from the curious circumstance that each was prepared for the printer but never published in Barthes's lifetime). My antenna is tuned rather to try to pick up something else, of which gay male theory and historical research have been, I think symptomatically, relatively oblivious, namely the incidences that might connect the emergence in the West over the last century or so of a gay male sexual identity with the historical apogee of colonial empires, like the British and the French, that conceived of themselves as modern. I mean by this that, as opposed to the straightforward and unembarrassed exploitation of subject peoples characteristic of earlier empires, the modern empires imagined themselves to be at the service of colonized countries and populations, whose historical development they were furthering. That this doctrine was ideological mumbo jumbo covering invasion and despoliation is one thing; but that it was widely believed is another, as is the fact that “good relations” and “friendship” between metropolitan powers and former colonies—in the guise of commonwealths and associations and privileged trading partnerships—remain today, after the collapse of historical colonialism, as the alibi of our own postcolonial world.

Is the marginalized male homosexual subject at home particularly apt—as Alan Hollinghurst suggests in his novel The Swimming-Pool Library—to put himself at the service of colonial power abroad?7 Is there a relation between this desire to be of service (to the colonial other? or to the colonial power?) and the ideology of service that legitimated the whole colonial enterprise (the white man's burden and the rest of it)? What of the element of racism so often manifest in gay male desire (I mean the pertinence of race in so many gay male desiring relations)? Does it derive from some sort of (perhaps mutual) identification between gay white men and subaltern colonial subjects? Rather than approaching such delicate topics, as Hollinghurst's fiction does, through the personage of the gay male colonial administrator (subject to the “service” ethic), I want to look at the at home/abroad intrication in the phenomenon of gay male sexual tourism, which has the merit of focusing attention on the indubitably exploitative character of (post)colonial relations, disguised as they may be as commercial—or even purely friendly-“human” exchanges. For a Wilde or a Gide, in flight from persecution or repression at home, “French” North Africa provided a refuge so relatively comfortable that they may well not have reflected—as the R. B. of Incidents much later seems not to have done—on the degree to which their comfort was that of the colonial master. And in contemporary Thailand—a country that, ironically, maintained a certain political independence during the colonial period “proper”—the economic power of the West has made it impossible now to eliminate a flourishing sex industry fueled by male tourists, gay and straight (who are drawn by the cruel fallacy that the younger the prostitute the less likely he or she is to be infected with the HIV virus).

Cruising is relevant in connection with sexual tourism as a colonial and postcolonial phenomenon because, as I've mentioned, the gay man who cruises, like the sexual tourist, is never a uniquely sexual subject but must acknowledge the possibility of being anamnestically interpellated in other identities as well—as a man, a consumer, a teenager, a businessman, an intellectual, a Westerner. … How, I want to ask, does Barthes, as a (forgetful) gay male cruiser at home and sexual tourist abroad, deal with the problematics of his “other” identity as a colonizing/postcolonial subject, a problematics that becomes inescapable to the extent that he scarcely bothers to disguise his (never explicitly commented on) sexual preference for “boys” of Maghrebi origin? What incidences link the commoditized erotic relations that are so prominent in the cruisy Parisian text with the striking deemphasis of commoditization in the touristic Moroccan text? Does commoditization, in other words, function as a displaced figure for the incidence of colonialism in sexual relations? And, if the stress on commoditization in Soirées de Paris functions as a sign of the sexual cruiser's forgetting of his (nevertheless readable) colonial identity, does the corresponding de-emphasis of commoditization in Incidents indicate (given the functional equivalence of items that can displace one another) another way of forgetting “coloniality,” one that corresponds structurally to the sexual tourist's desire to naturalize his relation to the (commoditized, colonized) cultural other? Finally, does such a desire for natural(ized) relations on the part of the colonialist/tourist subject tell us something about Orientalism itself, as the deluded belief in an “authenticity” of the other but also as a belief in a possible authenticity of contact with the other within the nevertheless commoditized context of colonialism? These are the hypotheses that underlie the comments that follow.8

Intellectuals, one might say, are people who are still at work even when, by conventional measures, they're not working. If that's so, there are many more intellectuals than the class is normally held to contain; but also the figure of the “intellectual at leisure” (as Barthes noticed in Mythologies) is a sensitive and perhaps crucial one.9 Can the offduty intellectual be permitted a degree of relaxation, or should he or she instead (being never more intellectual than when not working) be held to the highest standards of intellectuality? In the nineteenth century the figure of the flâneur, as a forerunner of the contemporary category of the unaligned or “critical” intellectual (chapter 8), already raised this question of intellectual informality, suggesting that loiterly intellectuality has advantages over disciplined forms of knowledge in its greater openness to otherness and its preference for comprehensiveness over system (or comprehension). But the flâneur was a marginal social figure whose critique of closed context was nourished by the peripheral situation of loiterly subjectivity (chapter 3).

Barthes, though—with his series of books in digressive relation to one another and the general “drift” of his career from Marxist-oriented analyst of power to unaligned professor of desire10—can stand, given the high cultural and academic status he achieved, for a twentieth-century phenomenon: that of the officialization, and the institutionalization, of the critical intellectual. He thus permits us to ask what happens when a man whose work is that of a critical intellectual (modeled on the leisurely practices of flânerie) takes time out and in so doing rediscovers flânerie itself (as in Soirées) or goes on vacation and becomes (as in Incidents) a sexual tourist. What happens when the circumstances are ripe for an ordinary man to emerge, not in the figure of the intellectual as man of leisure, but in that of the critical intellectual at leisure? I'll argue that it's the apparent neutrality of the critical intellectual, as neither traditional nor organic, that's questioned by the case of Barthes, in his off-duty mode as the author of Incidents and Soirées de Paris. And I'll suggest that the melancholia that surfaces in this Barthes, especially in Soirées de Paris, is a sign of his forgetfulness, as an ordinary fellow, of the critical intellectual's function, which is to remember other contexts and to be conscious of contextual alterity: to recall, for example, that “at home” is linked to “out there” and “out there” to “at home.”

But in the first instance, what happens in Soirées de Paris is that the intellectual at leisure turns his critical powers and the flâneur practice of “notation” onto the very cultural sphere in which, as a working intellectual, he also evolves, a sphere figured by the urban environment of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which is represented as a place where commoditized values are the norm, so that sexual hustlers and young intellectuals on the up-and-up form a single, only partly differentiated, population. What happens in Incidents, though, is that the practice of notation is devoted to recording instances of the “romanesque,” that is (I quote the editor's comment, 8) to “a putting into writing of encounters—incidents—that might have been woven into a romance (novel), were it not that all and any narrative weaving … has been omitted”—in other words, novelistic subject matter without the novel, or pure “tellability” without its attendant narrative. In particular, the editor is at pains to point out, the “romanesque” has nothing to do with “Morocco, its people, culture or social problems,” which are excluded, I take it, along with narrative (and argumentative) elaboration. The romanesque, in other words, is a case of pure intellectual unalignment, although it requires an emphatic denegation to make it so.

D. A. Miller seems to go along in general terms with this theory of the romanesque as pure tellability divorced from narrative. He oddly omits “Incidents” from his commentary, but interestingly reads the romanesque as a site of emergence in Barthes's writing of the gayness that has no place in the narratives of heterosexual culture (43-51). The problem, though (aside from the assumption that gayness is independent of heterosexual “narratives”), is a double one. First, whatever the emergences it may favor, a story that goes untold can't for that reason be regarded as inoperative: rather it becomes significant by virtue of its having been omitted, and as an object of forgetting. Second, the narrative most obviously excluded from Incidents isn't so much that of heterosexuality in general as it is that of colonialism in particular. There's an omission of the colonial story in Incidents that has the same structure of denial, in short, as the editor's overemphatic claim that Morocco and its history (“This is a misunderstanding that must be immediately set aside”) are irrelevant to the romanesque.

If it's necessary, as Miller thinks, to forget heterosexual narratives for gayness to emerge, the gay male sexual tourist, as a cruiser, is also the subject of another, perhaps related, forgetting, which is that of the colonial context of his episodic investigations. That forgetting is also a condition, or part of the condition, of the emergence of his gayness. But there's a name, of course, for European descriptive practices that take “the East” as their object while forgetting their embeddedness in the history of colonialism. That name is Orientalism—and in (mis)naming his “incidentalist” practice of the romanesque as an art of haiku it's almost as if Barthes had forewarned us to expect it to be, like his naming of it, an Orientalist practice. Orientalism, then, in Incidents, can be seen as a condition of emergence of the text's gayness. As for Soirées de Paris, without going so far as to claim it as an Orientalist text, I do want to propose that the link between its stress on commoditization in the Parisian context and the Orientalist cultivation of the romanesque in Incidents lies, again, in the incidences of colonialist power in gay desire, coloniality being repressed, along with commoditization in “Incidents,” but by means of a displacement that substitutes the commoditized for the colonial in Soirées. It's as a subject of the double forgetting of the colonial, which seems to function as a condition of the emergence of gayness in each text, that I see R. B., the ordinary fellow, showing up in the critical intellectual Roland Barthes, in conformity with Michel de Certeau's description of the way the higher flights of knowledge find themselves humiliatingly interrupted by the banality of their everyday involvement in the ordinary histories and mechanisms of power (8).

Let's say, then, that there's a colonialist illusion (or alibi) and a postcolonial illusion (or alibi). The colonialist illusion naturalizes the commoditized relations that colonialism puts in place; in this, I'll argue, it's like the illusion sought by every tourist, including the sexual tourist, and “Incidents” is in this sense the text of colonialist illusion. The postcolonial illusion, though, naturalizes colonial power itself, and in this respect it's like the illusion of the (homo)sexual cruiser who forgets the identities that make him, say, white, middle class, and wealthy, and is thus able to relate on “equal” terms with, say, working-class or racially “other” men, or street kids and hustlers. As in Soirées de Paris, it's only the community of desire that seems relevant. In this latter case, furthermore, it's not inconvenient, to either the cruiser or the postcolonial subject, to acknowledge the commoditization of relations—which thus becomes available as a substitute for the repressed consciousness of coloniality—whereas it's precisely these commoditized relations that must be played down in the colonial situation “proper,” so that, like tourists, colonizing subjects can believe themselves to be linked in some more “natural” or “human” (unmediated) way to the colonized people with whom they have dealings. Soirées de Paris, as a postcolonial text, thus foregrounds the commoditized relations that Incidents is led to de-emphasize, but in each case with a comparable result: the denegation of coloniality at the level of intersubjective relations, a crucial forgetting.

In Soirées (to look first at the chronologically later text), there are a number of tapeurs (people who want something out of you) and other nuisances. Barthes unfailingly treats them with long-suffering tolerance—except on one occasion, when he permits himself the luxury of rudeness. He has been talking a bit wearily with Jean G. about this young man's run-of-the-mill novel (“neither the text nor the boy pushes my buttons”), but now suddenly, when they're interrupted by a “Moroccan ex-hustler” with a hard-luck story and a request for a loan, Barthes reacts (“his rudeness gives me the energy to refuse”) with unexpected intensity: “I refuse … ; he makes an angry gesture and knocks over chairs in his abrupt departure” (65). What should we make of this sudden flurry of violence? Why does a “Moroccan ex-hustler” provoke such a response? Barthes appears to have the (racist) habit of referring to all culturally Islamic Maghrebis as “Arabes” (66-67); but he also seems regularly to specify Moroccans within that group, as though they held a particular interest for him, a fact that recalls the Moroccan setting of Incidents. Moreover, Barthes mentions having known this particular Moroccan ten years before (i.e., in the period of Incidents).

While recalling the Morocco of Incidents, this fellow—a former hustler who is now a tapeur—encapsulates also the main characteristic of the male population of Soirées, which is that there's no clear distinction between “densely packed hustlers” on the street (55) and, say, the importunate Argentinian on the terrace of the Flore (54) or the young men (Eric, Jean, Olivier) to whom Barthes may dedicate an essay or in whose first novel he takes a benevolent interest. The interest all these men show in him is self-interested, and R. B.'s own erotic interest in most of them (the Argentinian is an exception) is itself a commoditized one (indeed, in the case of the hustlers, at least, it seems to be the commoditization of relations that he finds erotic). There are, in short, only different ways to faire du gringue, of being on the make. The rush of psychic energy provoked by the Moroccan recognized from the past has to do, then, with something unwelcome about his integration into the present Parisian scene, as if this were a betrayal of something remembered from another time and place and as if it were important for Barthes to maintain a separation between the “at home” scene of Saint-Germain and the “out there” of his Moroccan excursions of ten years earlier. The ex-hustler whom R. B. so energetically rejects stands, in other words, partly as evidence of an occluded link between the Moroccan text and the Parisian one and of an incidence of the former in the latter and partly also as an emblem of the repressed colonial subtext underlying the cruisy erotics of the commoditized Parisian scene.

For although R. B. is usually unspecific about the “racial” characteristics of the “boys” he notices (and Eric, Jean, Olivier, etc., are clearly European), the one moment when he comments: “a very handsome white hustler stops me” (72, my emphasis), taken together with the references to “Arabes” (66-67) and the habit of specifying “Moroccan” identity on occasion, adds up to an acknowledgment of the sociological fact that a preponderance of the street boys in Saint-Germain are immigrants or the children of immigrants from the Maghreb, and of the psychological reality that it's to these that R. B. is predominantly drawn. Although the world of Saint-Germain is presented to us as generally cruisy and more specifically a commoditized world of universal hustling (both sexual and intellectual), it turns out, on closer reading, to be also a colonialist world—one in which the fact of colonialism (the historical reason why there are so many Maghrebis in Saint-Germain) is so taken for granted by the narrative subject that its omnipresence can be deduced only from scattered clues.

This (the repression of colonialism itself) is what I call the postcolonial illusion. So it's faintly ironic that the middle-aged R. B. among the young so often seems to strike dated Gidean poses, stubbornly reading his Monde (“very difficult to read one's paper in peace,” 66) or “a little of Pascal's Pensées” (61) while the terrace jumps all around him, or going home to read Chateaubriand in bed (“I go back with relief to the Mémoires d'outre-tombe, the real book,” 55) as Gide read Bossuet in the Congo jungle. R. B.'s postcolonial Africa, in short, is the rue de Rennes with its “densité des gigolos,” or the rue Saint-André-des-Arts where one night the natives seemed restless, “there were so many young people out it was actually hostile” (70). It's as if the initially blotted out colonial context returns, in transformed guise, in the person of all these “jeunes.” And the need to repress it becomes so intense that it finally leads R. B. into forms of insensitivity considerably more egregious than Gide's (who, as an earlier Barthes noticed, blithely obliged his poor bearers to struggle daily with heavy packing cases containing bound volumes of Shakespeare and Goethe). “I do not like,” he writes like a true curmudgeon of a heavy-handed documentary on the problems of youth, “that very contemporary sort of message in which you have to sympathize with down-and-outers (limited horizon of the young, etc.)” (72).

Such irritation with the young, I'm arguing, indicates that the occluded horizons may be those of the writer, and that they include a wider range of “paumés” (down-and-outers) than he thinks: in particular, the context that is blocked out is in large measure colonial. (Not coincidentally, straight after the reference to the handsome white boy on this same page, two “Laotian creatures” (72) are mentioned—Barthes is attracted to one of them.) But the alibi for this is of course that R. B. has woes of his own to concentrate on. The genre of his writing isn't travel writing (like Gide's Voyage au Congo) or even the memoir (like Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'outre-tombe): it's the “journal intime,” and accordingly it focuses on its narrator's own depressed mood, “exhausted and enervated” (61), “in despair too at not feeling at home [anywhere]; without real refuge” (60), unable to work in the afternoon (59, 63) but going out only to face a wasted evening, a “vaine soirée.” D. A. Miller is perceptive in saying that the death of “his” mother has made “the” mother (writing, for instance) unavailable to him; but R. B.'s sense of being at a loose end, of existing desultorily and randomly, has to do also with what he calls his hesitation with respect to “the management of desire” (69). With hustlers he's forever paying in advance and not being surprised when they fail to show (59) or making a “vague rendez-vous” that neither will keep. His more intellectual young friends he “convinces” to leave town—and then feels abandoned (“and yet that is what I would like, anxious to clear my life of all these messes,” 62). A whole afternoon goes by in fruitless cruising: “first of all at the Bain V, nothing … it occurred to me to go looking for a hustler in Montmartre, which is perhaps why, in bad faith, I found nothing. … At La Nuit, absolutely nothing. … I hang around the house … leave the house again and go see the new porn film at Le Dragon: as always … dreadful” (66-68). And the upshot of this dreary day is as follows: “I dare not cruise my neighbor. … Downstairs into the black room; I always regret this sordid episode afterward, each time suffering the ordeal of my abandonment” (68).

This vocabulary of ordeal and the euphemistic “descente à la chambre noire” show us that R. B.'s solitude in the crowded orgy room is paradigmatic of the Soirées as a whole, which are tinged with the experience of the infernal (Barthes is thinking of Dante) because the middle-aged narrative subject (he's thinking of Proust) is caught in the mechanism whereby to desire is to become undesirable, so that in the end it's easier—less painful—to disengage from a connection than to undergo the hurt of rejection. Thus with Olivier: “I sent him away, saying I had work to do, knowing it was over, and that more than Olivier was over: the love of one boy” (73). And it's in this self-inflicted délaissement that he thinks of Chateaubriand, the true model of melancholy (le vrai livre), but adding quickly the self-denigrating rider so typical of the loiterly tradition: “But suppose the Moderns were wrong? What if they had no talent?” (55).

There's a homology, then, I'm proposing, between this depressive self-enclosure among the young and the foreclusion of the colonial from the Parisian everyday. But if this self-pitying, self-enclosed personage is “R. B.,” it's not just because Barthes is playing ordinary man to Chateaubriand's “Enchanteur” in a manner characteristic of loiterly writing. Rather it's because, in so doing, he's yielding to the banality of allowing personal misery to displace the consciousness one might expect of a critical intellectual and committing the everyday lapse of failing to see that the commoditized intersubjective relations that make the management of Desire so painful for him are part and parcel of relations of global power that makes things painful for those he calls “paumés.” Forgetfulness that there's “a context” (that is, an unrecognized “other” context) is the most ordinary lapse of all—but it's just such a decontextualization, in turn, that makes things seem pointless. For the genre of these “vaines soirées,” finally, isn't only the diary or “journal intime” (with its focus on the individual subject). They're also, as foreshadowed in the dinner table conversation of the first evening (53), a series of “histoires plates,” or stories that fall flat—the point of which quite obviously lies in their absolute pointlessness. But pointlessness arises precisely when a story is divorced from the context that holds the key to its significance. The “histoire plate” lacks narrative energy (the romanesque: the element of tellability) just as its listless narrator lacks psychic energy. But it does so, indeed, because of this self-involvement on the narrator's part, and as a function of the “limited horizon” that prevents this forgetful, cruisy subject from grasping the missing dimension of his experience.

To restore this missing point(edness) ought to mean restoring the repressed element, then: the missing context of the colonial. And indeed, what Incidents suggests when read in relation to Soirées is precisely that for R. B. the possibility of (an illusion of) reciprocated desire and of an erotics of (apparent) simplicity, naturalness, and directness, in which “the management of Desire” would become innocent and easy because removed from the complexities of commoditization, is bound up with a restoration of the romanesque. That is, it's dependent on restoring a form of tellability that's lacking in the “histoires plates” of the Parisian “vaines soirées” but is generated away from the familiar and dreary everyday of home, as a function of the touristic gaze on the everyday of the (colonial) other. But here too there will be foreclosure, for although the romanesque is restored in this colonial text, it's restored as pure punctum, as a point(edness) without a story that actually repeats the forgetfulness of the “histoire plate” as a genre, a story that's pointless because of its repressed context. So the missing point, it seems, can only be restored at the price of forgetting the story in which it's embedded. Which can only mean that the “point” missing from one narrative (the “histoire plate”) is the same as the “story” that's suppressed in the other (productive of the romanesque), its name being, in each case, colonialism.

What's called the context of a given story is always another story. Thus it is that colonialism, as the context that's missing from the aimless stories of Soirées de Paris, is also the colonialism as (hi)story that's missing from Incidents, whose pure tellability, as a collection of points without a story, is as inane as the collection of stories without point that constitute Barthes's “vaines soirées.” It's the same omission, in other words, that makes home so dreary and abroad so piquant, so exotic.

The tourist's dilemma derives from being sold access to another culture that's (presented as) desirable only to the extent that it's authentic and natural, that is, directly accessible. If one is to be content with packaged “Englishness,” say, there's absolutely no need to go to England (as Des Esseintes in Huysmans's À Rebours demonstrated): one can stay home and read the brochures. The reason tourists actually travel to other countries can only be that they have a desire—contradicted, of course, by the touristic circumstances—for unmediated contact, a noncommoditized experience of the other. Thus, their main business seems often to be to forget their status as tourists: they avoid “touristy” places and things, they love carnivals (Munich, New Orleans, Rio, Sydney), when it's easier for tourists to “mingle” because the locals are themselves behaving like tourists; they put their faith in “seeing” the sights, mistaking vision for a direct, unmediated mode of contact; and, finally, they seek sex with the natives, confident that it provides “natural” access to the other in her or his “naked” reality. …

However, it's the very desire for authenticity that marks the tourist as a tourist, since such authenticity is not a concern of anyone else: locals (who may be intent on turning a buck or having a good time) are the last people to ask, or to care, whether what they're doing is genuine or not. And the same desire for authenticity is what links tourism, as the denegation of commoditization, to Orientalism and related isms, in which denial of the alienated relation of colonizer to colonized and the affirmation of the possibility of unmediated and authentic knowledge of the other depend on forgetting the status of the colonizing subject (who becomes “simply,” say, a sexual subject). “Incidents,” as an album of touristy verbal snapshots divorced from any narrativization that might situate them in a history of global power, and as a series of brief objectivized perceptions whose subject is only rarely represented, falls squarely into this pattern of denegation and forgetting that makes touristic and colonial “self”-forgetting homologous practices.

When the observer does come into focus in “Incidents,” it's in the role of off-duty intellectual, reading Lacan a little self-consciously in the Moroccan South (39) or, a bit more frequently, functioning as a linguist who notes features of the French spoken by carpet salesmen and street boys and on one occasion achieves a kind of community-in-philology with a group of kids through a common interest in the fact that, in French, “the genitalia form a paradigm of occlusive consonants: cul/con/queue” (57). Mainly, though, the apparent neutrality of the observer is produced by a kind of absence of the writing subject from the scene that's being described, so that the focus of interest falls on the population that is the object of his observation. This population, in turn, falls into three main groups: European hippies (portrayed satirically, 16, 18, 34), colons and pieds noirs (observed unsympathetically, 24, 26, 31, 32), and finally Muslims (usually drawn sympathetically if amusedly and—haiku oblige—in somewhat aestheticized fashion). But whereas the coolness of the portrayal of the Europeans signals that the observing subject is functioning here as a critical intellectual, aligned neither with the dominant colonial class nor with the Islamic other (and practicing with respect to each a kind of policy of critical neutrality), the fact that his description of Islamic culture lapses so often into a kind of Orientalist shorthand—a naturalized language of the authentic—nevertheless shows us that, within the carefully critical Roland Barthes, there resides a less self-conscious, more banal, touristic and colonialist R. B.

Barthes's Orientalist predecessors—Chateaubriand (again), Nerval, Gautier, or Flaubert—all had stories to tell, and, often enough, stories of sexual initiation: Loti is their natural successor, and the Gide of The Immoralist, inventing the coming out genre in a context of Orientalist travel, provides the link with R. B. as a gay male sexual tourist. But these stories (Nerval being a partial exception) are rarely the colonialist story, and it's through his own suppression of this story, replaced by eroticized “haikus,” that Barthes continues this tradition, while suppressing narrative altogether, in the storyless “points”—the punctum without the plot—that constitute for him the romanesque. Oddly enough (since the concept of the punctum arose in connection with photography11), Barthes's “haikus” reproduce the scènes et types postcard genre of the colonial era12 whenever they focus on an anonymous Moroccan: thus we get “a young Moor,” “a young Black,” “my shoeshine boy,” “and old peasant in a brown djellaba,” “four men from the country,” various students and so forth. Stereotypically, Oriental brutality (21, 23, 37-38) and inefficiency (43) are noted alongside pied noir insensitivity and bêtise; practices of Ramadan are noted, but for their incoherence (29) and picturesqueness (29-30). Mainly, though, what we're given is a collection of Orientalist genre scenes, whose unspoken point is that this is typical of the other's everyday, something one wouldn't see “at home”:

The child I find in the corridor was sleeping in an old cardboard box, his head sticking out as though cut off.


Sitting on the balcony, they wait for the tiny red lamp to be lit on the tip of the minaret, marking the end of the fast.


Medina: at six in the evening, in the street studded with peddlers, one sad fellow offers a single chopping board on the edge of the sidewalk.


M., sick, huddled in a corner on a mat, concealed his bare, burning feet under his brown djellaba.


Two naked boys have slowly crossed the wadi, their clothes in bundles on their heads.


The supposed romanesque, here, is a version of the picturesque, then, and a product of the tourist's desire for instant (immediate) authenticity; like the man with the single chopping board, these little pictures propose one endless item, the “eternal” Orient, chopped up into a series of telling details.

Concomitantly with this fantasy of immediate access to the life of the other, R. B. seems as happy in his sexuality here as he is miserable in “Soirées de Paris.” The excruciatingly alienated negotiations of Parisian Desire have become idyllic encounters, candid and engaging, rather touching and even natural: “Visit from an unknown boy, sent by his friend! ‘What do you want? Why are you here?’—‘It's nature!’ (Another boy, on another occasion: ‘It's love!’)” (23). I'm not suggesting, of course, that R. B. doesn't know that these kids are hustling in their fashion: what makes them attractive to him is the blandness of their denial of commoditization, a denial that makes it feasible for him to deny it in turn. “C'est la nature!” “C'est la tendresse!”—whether he believes them or not—are the words he wants to hear, words that by Orientalist definition, since they're quoted here as instances of the Moroccan romanesque, he couldn't expect to hear in Paris. By the same token, the (one-way) gift economy that governs sexual relations between the Parisian visitor and the Moroccan kids functions as a (barely credible) denial of the commodity economy that makes Desire such a hellish torment. Mustafa keeps the sandals he was asked to hold (24); Farid, having warned R. B. against beggars, proceeds to beg a pack of cigarettes and then five thousand francs (22-23). One imagines the outburst such mendacity might provoke in Paris (deadbeats are arrogant in our day and age; 72); here, it's as engaging as the gesture of the child who brings R. B. a bouquet as thanks for having typed his name (40). Indeed, it signifies that, even in their impudence, all these Moroccans are engagingly transparent, readable, and childlike. The Orientalist illusion of innocence is complete.

So when R. B. is tapé in Morocco, it doesn't have the same meaning as on the terrace of the Dome. All the panhandling that goes on can be treated—naturalized and indeed sentimentalized—as evidence of the other's desire for the European subject, and so of the reciprocity of desire that was so absent in Paris. Even the most banally commercial approach can be (mis)taken, thanks to the polysemy of the verb taper itself, which means “to put the bite on, to fuck,” for a sexual invitation, as in the case of the carpet seller whose approximate French is the occasion for some erotic titillation, thinly disguised as linguistic analysis: “A demonstration of phonological pertinence: a young man in the bazaar (with an appealing glance: tu/ti (non pertinent) veux tapis/taper (pertinent)?” (Want a/wanna carpet/fuck?; 19). Barthes the intellectual is very visibly inhabited here by a touristic and colonialist R. B. anxious to misread blatantly commoditized relations as a natural expression of desire. But in this respect the two most typical boys in the text are the half-French Gérard (38), so anxious to offer his Oriental charms (for only in Islam does it count as a “final, irresistible, argument” that he is “uncut”), and young Mustapha, described with breathtaking candeur (or colonial self-deceit?) as “un être blanc de toute hostilité” (devoid of all hostility, the choice of the word blanc [white] being startlingly overdetermined; 32). If Europe's Orientalist dream is of a colonized other offering itself willingly, openly, and above all spontaneously (naturally) to be fucked (or, in Barthes's more euphemistic vocabulary, niqué or tapé), in a desiring relation assumed to be unmarked by asymmetries of wealth and power, then that's the dream we find personified in R. B. as a sexual tourist in Morocco, transforming the other's everyday into a magically idyllic site where something freely given (called the romanesque) becomes available, something on which the painful narratives of history have no bearing.

But it was, of course, Roland Barthes himself, in Mythologies, who taught us, long before he was to write either “Incidents” or “Soirées de Paris,” that the denial of history is the beginning of ideology and the myths of ideology serve only the distribution of power that's in place. That there's an R. B. forgetful of Barthes's lesson doesn't mean, though, that critical intellectuals are any more hypocritical or lacking in self-knowledge than other mortals. What it does mean is that spottiness comes naturally to them (as we saw in chapter 7), and that therefore vigilance has to be their stock-in-trade; moreover, such vigilance never needs to be exercised more carefully than when they are on vacation or taking time off. For, as I've said, being at leisure for them is indistinguishable from being at work.

The theoretical upshot of the preceding comments might be an understanding of the everyday, not as something that is “just there” but as the ideological product of decontextualization, in the sense of a failure to recognize that there is a context other than the “present” context. Such decontextualization splits the everyday into two apparently opposed versions: the familiar everyday (Barthes's Saint-Germain), figured in Soirées de Paris as a pointless story or “histoire plate,” and the other's everyday (Barthes's Morocco) that furnishes in Incidents a storyless point(edness), as a site of the exotic. If the everyday is that which we decontextualize by dehistoricizing it, then to restore the missing, or forgotten, “other” context is, in each case, to reinsert what's seen as purely local (or present) into a global (or historical) framework—in the present case, the framework of (post)colonialism—and this recontextualization gives point to the pointlessness of the familiar while it simultaneously furnishes the (hi)story missing from the decontextualized poignancies of the Barthesian romanesque, the Orientalist, the exotic. And, furthermore, if identity (that of gay man, for instance) is the product of forgetting (the forgetting of other possible identities), this forgetting can be connected, in turn, to the decontextualization that produces the everyday. One's everyday, in other words, is selected by the identity (or the set of identities) one assumes, in both senses of the word (“accedes to” and “takes for granted”), and such identities are the product of a limitation that excludes our potential to be other. Barthesian melancholy might be described as an effect of such foreclosure.

To approach the same issue from another angle, one might also say that in the everyday, whether familiar or exotic—and concomitantly in the construction of identity—a certain connectedness is lost; and, as the case of R. B. demonstrates, this connectedness can be that of the subject and the object when either one of these comes to embody an “other” context, such as the (post)colonial context, that gets ideologically forgotten. Thus we've seen that, in the case of the exotic, it's the object that becomes disconnected and is emphasized, therefore, over the (touristic, colonialist) subject, whose presence on the scene is “omitted” (and with it the question of how this European subject came to be the witness of the other's Moroccan everyday). Correlatively, in the familiar world of Soirées de Paris, it's the (commoditized, colonial) object that becomes an amorphous, poorly differentiated mass of “tapeurs” and “jeunes,” lacking in relief (the romanesque) because nothing and no one stands out, while the narrative focus falls heavily on the subject and his subjective problems. The concluding sentence, in which Barthes observes morosely that “the love of one boy” is henceforth over for him, captures perfectly this interdependence of an object become anonymous and a subject consumed with self-pity. It follows from this analysis that the restoration of context, the opening of the present and the local onto otherness, at the same time that it links in a historical and global framework the domains of the everyday that are illusorily perceived as distinct (on the one hand Paris, on the other Morocco), also reconnects the subject (say, R. B.) and the object (say, the “boys” of Paris and Morocco), establishing the “how come” of their being brought together in one place and demonstrating that the one can't rightly be thought to the exclusion of the other. Not only are we all “posh,” as I said at the outset, but we're also, in the same sense, all “paumés” as well, since “at home” and “out there” are inextricably linked.

Where Baudelaire (chapter 8) had to learn with difficulty to acknowledge his affinity, as a loiterly intellectual, with the marginalized figures of the nineteenth-century street (the “paumés” of his era), the most obvious sign of Barthes's forgetfulness of the lessons of loiterliness, in Incidents and Soirées de Paris, is his anxiety to distinguish himself from the losers, deadbeats, and down-and-outers (whether these be the hustlers and tapeurs of Saint-Germain, or the cute kids of Morocco) who populate his now (post)colonial world. “L'arrogance du paumé,” he writes in curmudgeonly mode, “voilà l'époque,” (deadbeats are arrogant in this day and age). But it is precisely the arrogance he attributes to them that signals something about our own day and age: that it is no longer easy to forget other contexts and that the history that brings together a “posh” if melancholy intellectual and the “paumés” of a Parisian quartier de nuit will return and insist—even, and perhaps especially, when it is ignored.


  1. Roland Barthes, Incidents, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) (Incidents [Paris: Seuil, 1987]). I silently modify Richard Howard's translation on occasion. On the outcry over Incidents see Svetlana Boym, “The Obscenity of Theory: Roland Barthes's ‘Soirées de Paris,’ and Walter Benjamin's ‘Moscow Diary,’” Yale Journal of Criticism, 4, 2 (1991). On “Incidents” and its place in Barthes's personal and intellectual evolution, see Lawrence R. Schehr, “Roland Barthes' Semierotics,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée, March-June 1994, 65-79.

  2. On the ubiquity of the banal, especially in intellectual discourse, see Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, esp. 8 [22-23].

  3. Paul Monette, Becoming a Man (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992); Ackerley, My Father and Myself; and see chapter 6.

  4. Eric Michaels, Unbecoming (Sydney: EMPress, 1990); see also, for example, Hervé Guibert, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life (New York: Serpent's Tail, 1994) (A l'ami qui ne m'a pas sauvé la vie [Paris: Gailimard, 1990]), and David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives (New York: Vintage, 1991).

  5. John Rechy, Numbers (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1976); Renaud Camus, Tricks (New York: Serpent's Tail, 1996) (Tricks [Paris: Mazarine, 1979]).

  6. D. A. Miller, Bringing Out Roland Barthes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 7.

  7. Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming-Pool Library (New York: Vintage, 1989).

  8. These reflections arise in part from Jonathan Dollimore's point, in Sexual Dissidence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), that “over and again in the culture of homosexuality differences of race and class are intensely cathected” and the “crossing” of gayness with race and class has “a complex, difficult history, from which we can learn” (250). This chapter was written before the appearance of Christopher Lane's The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and the Paradox of Homosexual Desire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), which examines the “crossings” of masculinity, homosexual desire, and empire in British colonialist and imperialist writing.

  9. See “The Writer on Holiday,” Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Noonday, 1991), 29-31. (“L'Écrivain en vacances,” Mythologies [Paris: Seuil, 1957], 30-33).

  10. I borrow the phrase from Steven Ungar's title, Roland Barthes: The Professor of Desire (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).

  11. See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981). (La Chambre claire [Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1980]).

  12. See Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). (Le Harem colonial [Genève: Slatkine, 1981]).

John Taylor (essay date 6 October 1995)

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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, Barthes was an essayist par excellence—ingenious, pugnacious, persuasive, selectively erudite, sometimes capricious, even occasionally (in his abuse of italics) pedantic. His readership varied widely. In a given month (September 1967, for instance), this versatile stylist (who never chose his topics, always writing about whatever was requested of him) could whip off an article on Coco Chanel for Marie Claire, another on historiographical discourse for Information sur les sciences sociales and a third on science and literature for the TLS.

If there is indeed a certain “slipperiness” to Barthes's multi-faceted writings, then these Oeuvres complètes (a final volume is forth-coming) obviously help us to grasp more firmly the broad undercurrents of his production. Beginning with the critic's first articles, published during the Second World War in Existences, a quarterly brought out by students at the Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet sanatorium (at which Barthes was long treated for tuberculosis), the editor Eric Marty has cast his net as widely as possible, adding to the well-known books presumably all of the inédits, the long-forgotten articles, the scattered prefaces, the texts written for art catalogues, the essays originally published in foreign languages (and printed here in their original French versions), as well as—most helpfully—the dozens of interviews that Barthes gave to popular magazines, daily newspapers, literary reviews and academic journals. Included is, for instance, Barthes's encyclopaedic “Aide-mémoire” on ancient rhetoric, a transcription of a seminar that he had given in 1964-5. Even the brief summaries of the other courses that he taught at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes during the 1960s and 70s provide some historical and biographical interest: the lists of his students' papers—Gérard Genette on Proust, Alain Finkielkraut on the structure of the autobiographical tale, Julia Kristeva on Bakhtin, André Glucksmann on Plato's rhetoric—show that the critic's influence came not only from his writings but also from his teaching and many friendships. Barthes's loyalty to his friends and extreme devotion to his mother (with whom he lived until her death in 1977) appropriately form one of the main themes of Louis-Jean Calvet's well-researched (if sometimes repetitious) biography, now available in English. (The French original was reviewed in the TLS on June 14, 1991.)

Some of the little-known texts in the Oeuvres complètes, moreover, provide insights into the “mutation” of Barthes's thinking over the years, a term he prefers to “evolution” in his most far-reaching interview (with Stephen Heath, originally published in Signs of the Times, 1971). In a 1944 reminiscence of a trip to Greece six years previously, for example, Barthes notes that “l'art de raser avec douceur est naturel au moindre garçon. qui le fait mieux qu'à Paris; il use des [Illegible Text] multiples, douteuses, mais passées avec tant de légèreté que ce magicien crasseux endort les craintes et les répulsions”. Here already is the sensitive sociologist of petit-bourgeois lifestyle (many French manifestations of which he will later analyse in the pioneering collection of essays, Mythologies, 1957), as well as the discreetly sensual autobiographer who perhaps also concealed, especially towards the end of his life, an aspiring novelist. As to this latter enigma, Marty promises revelations in the third volume, and Calvet, turning to the mystery surrounding Barthes's death (attributed to complications resulting from his being hit by a truck while he was crossing the rue des Ecoles in Paris), intelligently applies medical expertise (concerning the ability of disease-damaged lungs to recover from serious shock) to the widespread rumour that the critic, believing after his accident that he would never write his so-called “real novel”, relinquished his will to live and “let himself die”.

Besides Barthes's depression after his mother's death (“what life remained”, he soon commented, “would be … unqualifiable, without quality”) and his cryptic allusions to his desire to write a literary work, several other “biographemes” evoked by Calvet are touching and telling: his love for Schumann's piano music, his “doodling”, his cigars, his overeating, his frequent “boredom”, the fragile yet firm “grain” of his voice. Calvet also approaches, with sensitivity, the importance of homosexuality to Barthes's life and work. For all his bath-house-cruising, Barthes never publicly proclaimed his sexual persuasion.

Readers approaching Barthes today through his fascinating book on Japan, L'Empire des signes (1970), or through the scintillating mini-essays of Le Plaisir du texte (1973), may be surprised by the younger essayist's little-questioned Marxism and his polemical desire to take on “l'ennemi capital (la Norme bourgeoise)”, as he puts it in Mythologies. Calvet, who evokes the family's persistent money problems during Barthes's youth, brings much pertinent information to bear on this initial philosophical position. In many writings from the 1950s and notably in Le Degré zéro de l'écriture (1953), Barthes reiterates the notion that the ideology of the bourgeoisie had produced a single form of writing, and adds that writers began suffering from a “conscience malheureuse” and thus from a “problématique du langage” or a “solitude du langage” only around 1850, this date corresponding to the upheaval of European demography, the birth of modern capitalism, the fracturing of French society into three opposed classes (after the events of 1848) and to the definitive destruction of liberal illusions. The names of Marx and Mallarmé are attached to this “epistemological cut”, and the critic, even after his “semiological turn” in the 1970s, will never fully abandon the linear view of French literary history implied by this postulate or the need to make sweeping historical generalizations that flatten out all the individual disparities. Barthes can make the astonishing declaration in Le Degré zéro de l'écriture, for example, that there is only a “slight difference” between the writing styles of Fénelon (1651-1715) and Mérimée (1803-70) - the latter's mature style having presumably been formed before the “cut”. He can also, in a 1954 review praising Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cayrol and Jean Duvignaud, underscore the novelty of these contemporaries and implicitly establish a second epistemological cut by maintaining that Albert Camus and André Breton describe a landscape in the same manner as Chateaubriand or Lamartine. How can any reader sensitive to stylistic effects, and to the emotions and philosophical viewpoints conveyed by style, agree?

Turning to poetry, Barthes continues his polemical rewriting of the textbooks by remarking that in classical poetry “une pensée toute formée accouche d'une parole qui l'exprime, la ‘traduit’”, and by adding that in modern poetry “la grammaire est dépourvue de sa finalité, elle devient prosodie, elle n'est plus qu'une inflexion qui dure pour présenter le Mot”. The first part of this formula apparently does not encompass Renaissance poets such as Ronsard, du Bellay and the other members of the Pléiade, who, in their hesitation between Latin and French, suffered from a “problématique du langage” not without analogies to the dilemma facing the contemporary writer, forced to choose between the distinct grammars and vocabularies of the high literary and the colloquial forms of his native tongue. Yet, even in the apparently less stylistically turbulent seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, did “completely formed thoughts” really enjoy such effortless translation into written words? Could this process of thinking-then-writing really have been so straightforward for Racine, with his obsessively purified vocabulary, or for Rousseau, whose eccentric autobiographical dialogues, Rousseau, Juge de Jean-Jacques (1772-6), illustrate the tortured relationship that can prevail between mental images and their ultimate written translations? Similarly, Barthes's second observation excludes whole chapters of important twentieth-century French verse, not to mention prose poetry, a much practised genre. Is not one salient quality of some modern French poetry, in fact, an extremely conscious use of the logical relationships implied by grammar? How can one even conceive of the work of, say, André du Bouchet (whose poetry, although unmentioned by Barthes, seems closest to fitting his definition), without taking into consideration the rigour of his syntax?

In these early writings especially, it is this stubborn insistence on defining literary history as a succession of epistemological revolutions that irritates as much as it challenges. Barthes's provocativeness (and occasional dogmatism, particularly in regard to Brecht: “Extasions-nous un peu moins sur Eschyle ou Shakespeare, et occupons-nous davantage de Brecht”) incites the quibble, even the quarrel. Raymond Picard, a Sorbonne professor, notoriously attacked Barthes's Sur Racine (1963) in a diatribe entitled Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture (1965), and it is impressive to read, in Critique et vérité (1966), how firmly Barthes could defend himself, even over fine points of philology, such as in his malicious contrast of the historical and symbolic senses of the verb respirer.

The point, none the less, remains that Barthes's generalizing propensities are alluringly vulnerable to empirical attacks. Except for Brecht, he shows no interest in foreign literature and knows no modern languages well besides his mother tongue. His analysis of the problem of writing contemporary novels in the simple past tense therefore cannot apply—although this is not made entirely clear—to English and other languages in which the simple past tense is used in everyday speech. Calvet notes that the famous prune-eyeball analogy, as applied to Arcimboldo's painting “Autumn”, works in French but not in Italian, a disturbing restriction since the artist was, after all, Italian. More troublesome (and autobiographically revealing) than these oversights, however, is Barthes's analysis of the “death of the author”. In an essay devoted to this subject in 1968, he sarcastically specifies that an author is supposed to “nourish” his book and to entertain the same “rapport d'antériorité” as a father with his child. On the contrary, opines the critic, “le scripteur moderne naît en même temps que son texte”. Two years later, after agreeing to answer questions about his own background in a filmed interview, Barthes significantly cautions that implicit quotation marks will have to be put around his “naively referential utterances”. Slyly he adds: “Toute biographie est un roman qui n'ose pas dire son nom.” Yet by the end of the 1970s, Barthes retreats from this extreme position and composes that stunning mise-en-fiches of himself, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975). In many such cases, the chronological ordering of the Oeuvres complètes helps us to measure the extent to which his writings are characterized by aggressively advanced contentions followed, a decade later, by mitigating nuances. Hence, in 1968, Barthes explains how the discovery of Saussure's structuralism has distanced him from his earlier, Marxist-oriented view of history. At the same time, he can describe the over-arching unity of his work as “une entreprise générale et systématique, polyvalente, multidimensionnelle, de fissuration du symbolique occidental et de son discours”.

Although Barthes once ironically pointed out that literary history is what is taught, he exhibited remarkably little curiosity about exploring the margins of the official French literary canon. A handful of authors—Flaubert, Proust, Balzac, Michelet—are cited repeatedly, and he knows their work inside out. As the years go by, only a few other maîtres à penser—Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Mallarmé - are added to the list. Julia Kristeva also becomes a forcible influence in the early 1970s, and Calvet recounts how Barthes, who had been her teacher, read from a carefully prepared text at her PhD viva in 1973; he praised her work but, contrary to tradition, did not ask her any questions. It is to his credit that he frequently, almost over-modestly, admitted his intellectual debts, notably to his contemporary “formulateurs”: Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Derrida. Barthes's reading in contemporary literature was nevertheless arrestingly narrow, a disconcerting fact when one grasps how influential his preferences (and his many corresponding silences) have been on foreign critics and professors of French literature. Even when dealing with the nouveau roman, he rarely ventured beyond Robbe-Grillet and the somewhat forgotten Cayrol (to whom he devoted fundamental essays that deserve rereading). Fascinated by the role of objects in novel-writing, as well as in post-war consumer society, Barthes took an enthusiastic, at times militant part in the discussion about the nouveau roman, examining (notably in his Essais critiques, 1964) Robbe-Grillet's reduction of things to mere “résistance[s] optique[s]” and his suppression of “tout engagement humoral vis-à-vis de l'objet”. Later, faithful to his linear conception of literary history and to the “make-it-new” aesthetics of the moderns, he will claim that Tel Quel had “gone beyond” the nouveau roman. He moreover contributed greatly to the amalgam according to which theoretical writings belong to the same category as literary works, as he stated in 1970, comparing Kristeva's Sèméiotikè to novels by Robbe-Grillet.

“On est essayiste parce qu'on est cérébral”, Barthes admitted in a 1962 interview, and he also candidly avowed, in 1972, that his relationship to contemporary texts was ambiguous: “un attachement critique passionné, mais ce n'est pas toujours un rapport de plaisir”. The vast majority of his criticism was ironically (when one considers his reputation, in some circles, as the pre-eminent guide to contemporary French literature) devoted to pre-twentieth-century authors. The “pensivity” of the classical text, as he puts it in S/Z (1970), his meticulous phrase-by-phrase deconstruction of Balzac's story “Sarrazine”, actually engaged him more intimately and lastingly than did any of the formalistic experiments of his contemporaries. What, in S/Z, is his exact emotion when he suggests that readers “qui aiment les belles histoires” can turn to the entire story, reprinted at the end of the book? As Calvet shows graphically, the critic left even his most fervent admirers with a poignant sense of his inner turmoil. For all his engagement with formalism, Barthes's life-work no less expresses a complex personality, and this is why his writings will long fascinate, disturb and provoke meditation on their many insights.

Pierre Saint-Amand (essay date fall 2001)

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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. Indeed, Barthes dreams of laziness. For him it constitutes resistance to the regimes that subjugate the body and coerce the individual, that normalize the subject through his participation in productive life, through his accommodation of the world of necessity. It is no accident that, in Barthes's thoughts of laziness, school is the embodiment par excellence of compulsion, the very structure of constraint, the site of repression. In the course of an interview with Le Monde, he offers the following commandment, at once provocation and philosophical invitation: “Dare to be lazy.”2 Barthes confides that he harbors a radical laziness, a “glorious” form of “doing nothing.”3 His resistance is in fact more a reflex of procrastination, of diversion: it consists of constantly deferring, of putting off until tomorrow what is to be done. How are we to understand this shirking of submission to duty? Barthes's form of procrastination closely resembles the sense attributed to the notion by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who suggests that procrastination arises out of an active attitude, an attempt to impose one's own control over life's string of events by disrupting their programmed sequence. As Bauman writes, procrastination makes possible the “delay of gratification” that characterizes modern existence.4 Barthes himself might say “delay of jouissance.” Procrastination is an intervention in time as con-sequence. Laziness, by contrast, interrupts time, breaking it into a series of “diversions,” moments of diversification. Time is rendered heterogeneous, unforeseeable. What Barthes succeeds in doing is to subject work to a dialectic. He ushers it into a mode of living that constantly bends it, “deports” it. The compulsion to work is worked over by an art of living, a search for freedom.

In Barthes, the imaginary of laziness is also an imaginary of the writer. He alludes to Flaubert's fiddling about, as well as to Rousseau who, in a transgression late in life, took up needle-point. And of course, this imaginary is even more suggestive of Proust, whose laziness, Barthes writes, is the very condition of involuntary memory. Laziness allows “the rising to the surface of memories and sensations” in “free-flowing remembrance.”5 Or rather, the state of laziness is one of the subject's disintegration through memory, of progressive liquefaction. The lazy subject willingly cuts himself off from will; he is indisposed.6 In fact, this is a process of regaining the work that is not being accomplished. Here success is measured through its opposite: the work of art that is never finished. We know that for Barthes, the work is fundamentally uncompleted, yet to come: it returns forever to writing, which never comes to an end.

Barthes develops a metaphysics of laziness that entails another experience of subjectivity. There is no investment in laziness, except that of a body seeking gratuitous, disinterested, minimal activity, detached from commercial production. The subject, delivered from constraining activity, is even liberated from the structure of the ego. Barthes says that he is “decentered,” “almost dispossessed of his consistency as a subject.”7 This perspective even leads to a sort of Taoist stance: the lazy individual who rejects will, who refuses acts of decision, is essentially aiming at annihilation. Laziness inserts the subject within the framework of the neutral (a key notion in Barthes), in the utopia of suspension and irresponsibility.8 The experience of laziness implies a rejection of what Barthes associates with solidity (for Barthes, of course, the stereotype is by definition the crystallization of the solid).9 Rest, by contrast, liquefies the subject, renders him fluid. The lazy retreat produces a generalized state of floating in the individual:

Around six in the evening, I doze on my bed. The window is wide open, the grey day has lifted now. I experience a certain floating euphoria; everything is liquid, aerated, potable (I drink in the air, the moment, the garden) … it seems to me that I'm quite close to the state Zen calls sabi; or again (since I'm also reading Blanchot) to the “fluid heaviness” he speaks of apropos of Proust.10

But most salient of all is the way Barthes eroticizes laziness. He assimilates it to “cruising,” to the ambling of desire, the futile pursuit of what he calls “incidents.”11 In Roland Barthes, the author describes this passion for diversion and distraction. Along with Fourier, he calls it “La Papillonne”:

Crazy, the power of distraction a man has who is bored, intimidated, or embarrassed by his work: working in the country (at what? at rereading myself, alas!), here is the list of distractions I incur every five minutes: spray a mosquito, cut my nails, eat a plum, take a piss, check the faucet to see if the water is still muddy … go to the drugstore, walk down to the garden to see how many nectarines have ripened on the tree, look at my radio-program listings, rig up a stand to hold my papers, etc.: I am cruising.12

Barthes's Soirées de Paris, his posthumously published journal, charts a map of this lazy perambulation, the rambling path of desire taken by a subject who flits about. Idleness appears as a state of desire in which the subject is made available.13 These are incidents without any event: they are as if suspended, or in any case destined to lead nowhere. The entire journal is encapsulated in a single vignette at the beginning of the text: “At the Flore where I read Le Monde (no news) …”14 Barthes is loitering. The Soirées are a succession of wasted time. The theater of the world is constantly emptying itself before the bewildered stroller. He is constantly describing his listlessness: pointless meetings set up aimlessly with gigolos, a parade of mannequins at loose ends for the writer's eyes only, burdensome meetings with friends or intellectuals, ill-timed encounters, hopeless cruising in the sauna and the dark room of a porn cinema. He longs to avoid these encounters, to purge himself of “all these disappointing cocks.” (The phrase Barthes chooses, “toutes ces queues de ratage,” is suggestively ambiguous, as queue can signify the sexual organ as well as the concatenation of annoyances.15 The Soirées evoke a whole ambiguous, off-color world of wee hours. All these micro-narratives of futility end in the solitary, celibate bed of repose, the exhausted narrator's final relief. Then he can collapse into his nightly routine, or curl up with his true pleasure: the reading of Chateaubriand.

What the Soirées de Paris construct is a non-space. They sketch the extra-territoriality in which the narrator exhibits his melancholy. Feeling nowhere at home, he has “no real refuge.”16 He seeks the desultory “emptiness” of the evening, when he is compelled to repeat, as he says, “the sense of abandonment.”17 Overcome with ennui, the ambler of the Soirées surrounds himself with faces that mirror his own state. In contrast to Baudelaire's experience of flânerie, as presented in Walter Benjamin's analysis, the throng encountered in Barthes's Soirées contributes to the narrator's vacancy. It forms a hostile “density,” to use the term Barthes associates with the population of hustlers.18 The little world that evolves in the Soirées is squalid. The scenes in cafés, restaurants, or streets form a spectacle where there is nothing to see. Here there is nothing heroic about the flâneur: Barthes is a dreadfully solitary wanderer, sucked in by a desperate nomadism.

The Soirées end with an episode that sums up the entire text and absorbs its affective tonality, a wrenching episode of abandonment and rejection. The framing of this episode is itself the narrator's siesta, a moment when activity stops—the body's attempt at numbness. Forbidding himself to go to Olivier G., yet drawn by the prospect of amorous repose, Barthes suspends his desire and pleads work obligations to send his young guest away. Here, doing nothing with the other, in the paradoxical intensity of desire, is the resigned gesture of the lazy lover. He abandons himself vis-à-vis the desired person, in a sort of being-there which signifies the immobilization of any effort of will:

I asked him to come and sit beside me on the bed during my nap; he came willingly enough, sat on the edge of the bed, looked at an art book; his body was very far away—if I stretched out an arm toward him, he didn't move, uncommunicative: no obliging-ness; moreover he soon went into the other room. A sort of despair came over me, I felt like crying. How clearly I saw that I would have to give up boys, because none of them felt any desire for me … that I have a melancholy life, that, finally, I'm bored to death by it, and that I must divest my life of this interest, or this hope.19

Laziness returns the subject to his childhood, and to the body from before work, before writing. It is for these reasons that laziness is always nostalgic. The body of laziness, in Barthes, is essentially the body of the countryside, of his childhood in Bayonne. And Bayonne, the sensual land of childhood, is all memory, “the memory of lost time.”20 Barthes describes it in Incidents when he speaks of the Sud-Ouest. The Sud-Ouest, weighed down by the wind from Spain, is the place that offers Barthes the experience of annihilation par excellence, the poetry of laziness. It places the subject in a state of dispossession: “Sitting on the garden bench and squinting so as to obliterate all perspective, the way children do, I see a daisy in the flowerbed, flattened against the meadow on the other side of the road.”21 Barthes thus describes his favorite walk through the country of his childhood: a slow path sloping towards languor and remembrance, a patient excursion of memory (the French word for lazinesss, paresse, comes from pigritia in Latin, and Barthes tells us that we notice in it piger, which means “slow”22):

But my favorite road, which I often indulge myself by taking, is the one that follows the right bank of the Adour; this is an old towpath, passing many farms and fine houses … this is a real route, not just a functional means of communication but a sort of complex experience in which occur simultaneously a continuous spectacle … and the memory of an ancestral practice, that of walking, of the slow and rhythmic penetration of the landscape, which then assumes different proportions …23

This intense immobilization of time is different from the commercial, artificial immobilization sought by the tourist, reproduced on postcards. Here to experience a place means to “come and stay, so that you can savor the variegation of sites, seasons, weather, and light.”24 It is in the same sense, that of slowly savoring, that we must read the description of the Bayonne streetcar in Roland Barthes, where the recollection of the panorama, the landscape taken in, is pure pleasure: “There used to be a white streetcar that ran between Bayonne and Biarritz; in the summer, an open car was attached to it: the caboose. Everyone wanted to ride in that car: through a rather empty countryside, one enjoyed the view, the movement, the fresh air, all at the same time.”25

Laziness is this slow path traced effortlessly back towards childhood, towards the subject's first body, towards a pleasure before words. It leads to the original ecstasy of “unproductive life,” a state belonging to the imaginary, preceding the ineffable “fissure” in the subject.26


If laziness corresponds to a form of desire, an ambling pursuit of the object, to the lover it can represent a point of extinction, of glorious abandon, of actively letting go. Barthes describes a certain metaphysical state of inactivity which decenters the subject. The amorous state that corresponds to this figure makes a calculated appearance at the end of A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, where Barthes describes that moment when the subject decides to let go of the object and accept dispossession, when he seeks to escape the grip of the phantom of the other. He calls this “decision” of the lover the “non-will-to-possess” (N.W.P.).27 This decision imbues the subject with an exalted floating sensation, a suspended annihilation: “I fling myself on my bed, I mull over the situation, and I decide: from now on, I will not make any attempt to possess the other.”28 As Barthes asserts elsewhere, laziness is a moment of deliverance for the lover, a suspension of passionate tension, the creation of “a little corner of sloth.29 Barthes has chosen the non-will-to-possess as the last “figure” of the Lover's Discourse: it is a release from the imaginary torment consisting of the tumult of doing, the hysteria of action. After the fatigue of desire, past the panting after the other, the subject chooses repose: the N.W.P. is the lover's peace. Of course these figures, these “scenes” of the lover are conceived as a “sport,” a considerable active “expenditure.” Barthes even says that the figure is “the lover at work.”30 The N.W.P. can thus appear as the ultimate figure (in fact the anti-figure) which allows egress from the book …

In the N.W.P. we find the same clouded intermingling that is omni-present in Barthes's erotics of active and passive, possessor and possessed. But more precisely, his thoughts take an explicitly Zen turn here:

For the notion of N.W.P. to be able to break with the system of the Image-repertoire, I must manage (by the determination of what obscure exhaustion?) to let myself drop somewhere outside of language, into the inert, and in a sense, quite simply, to sit down (“As I sit calmly, without doing anything, spring comes and the grass grows of its own accord”). And again the Orient: not to try to possess the non-will-to-possess; to let come (from the other) what comes, to let pass (from the other) what goes; to possess nothing, to repel nothing: to receive, not to keep, to produce without appropriating, etc. Or again: “The perfect Tao offers no difficulty, except that it avoids choosing.”31

The lover's non-will-to-possess is an annihilation disguised as freedom, a silence that produces an utterance, truly a floating retention, a suspension, a paradoxical holding back of the subject, a retreat (in the tactical sense as well). Barthes quotes Rilke: “Weil ich niemals dich anhielt, halt ich dich fest” (“Because I never possessed you, I hold you fast”).32 The non-will-to-possess thus enters into the Barthesian reign of delicacy.

Likewise, all of Barthes's writing tends towards an abandonment of work, an exit from the world of labor, towards freedom: for Barthes, this form of solemn dispossession of writing is at the heart of literature. He finds, again, in Proust, an image of this magnificent process of suspended relaxation, in “the Japanese paper flowers, tightly folded, that blossom and develop in water. That would be idleness: a moment of writing, a moment of the work.”33 This end of laborious work is always the beginning of the literary work, when writing finally becomes the sole object of desire. When Barthes dreams of the book to come—the future novel, Vita Nova, that he envisions after his many writings, at the threshold of death with its inexorable finality—what he envisions is none other than the end of labor in its Sisyphean aspect of repetition: “And then a time also comes (the same time) when what you have done, worked, written, appears doomed to repetition: What! Until my death, to be writing articles, giving courses, lectures …”34

A day will come, however, that will remove the writer from what he calls “this gradual silting up of work,” the entombment of all acts of writing, and that will set him down before a more liberating form of time.35 Here, in The Rustle of Language—a text in which he once again considers Proust—Barthes describes this “new life,” this future of the work, the afterlife of writing. One of the missions of this Vita Nova is a new practice of writing, a new art of doing, a practice that is detached from the object: “The world no longer comes to me as an object, but as a writing.”36 “Idleness” was one of the final sections projected in the posthumous pages of Vita Nova. The philosophical farniente he spoke of earlier belongs here. The obverse of this idleness is fundamentally “the ungrateful world of causes and allegiances.”37 Barthes refers to a text by Heidegger:

The unnoticeable law of the earth preserves the earth in the sufficiency of the emerging and perishing of all things in the allotted sphere of the possible which everything follows, and yet nothing knows. The birch tree never oversteps its possibility. The colony of bees dwells in its possibility. It is first the will which arranges itself everywhere in technology that devours the earth in the exhaustion and consumption and change of what is artificial. Technology drives the earth beyond the developed sphere of its possibility into such things which are no longer a possibility and are thus the impossible.38

“This,” Barthes writes,”is a good description of the battle between Writing (Will, great exertions, wear and tear, variations, caprices, artifices: in short, the Impossible) and Idleness (Nature, development—‘sensitivity’—within the Circle of the Possible).”39

The Vita Nova opens the way to the vita otiosa. It was to be the experience of the novel as romanesque, as the notation of life. Throughout his writing, Barthes sought this rare retreat. His otium is not like its classical forerunner, in which time was lost in contemplation; Barthes's version does not demand such an investment, such discipline, such intellectual effort. It is rather the sovereign time of affect, like a utopia of the word: literature. But idleness is also essentially the work of non-production. The work of idleness is haunted by the impossible. Of course Barthes's Vita Nova was not to come to fruition: it was to remain a plan, a dream, fragments, the sketch of a liberated writing, an adventure of jouissance.


  1. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 58. Barthes writes of “deporting the object.”

  2. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), 338-345.

  3. Ibid., 339.

  4. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), 157.

  5. The Grain, 343.

  6. See Roland Barthes, 122.

  7. The Grain, 342.

  8. See Roland Barthes,Les corps qui passent—Passing bodies,” 141.

  9. See Roland Barthes, 58: “in Greek, stereos means solid.”

  10. Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 365. The original reads: Vers six heures du soir, je m'endors à moitié sur mon lit. La fenêtre est grande ouverte sur la fin plus claire d'une journée grise. J'éprouve alors une euphorie de flottement; tout est liquide, aéré, buvable (je bois l'air, le temps, le jardin) … il me semble que c'est assez proche de l'état que le Zen appelle sabi; ou encore (puisque je lis aussi Blanchot) de la “fluide lourdeur” dont il parle à propos de Proust. (Le Bruissement de la langue [Paris: Seuil, 1984], 406.)

  11. The Grain, 344.

  12. Roland Barthes, 71-72. The original reads: C'est fou, le pouvoir de diversion d'un homme que son travail ennuie, intimide ou embarrasse: travaillant à la campagne (à quoi? à me relire, hélas!), voici la liste des diversions que je suscite toutes les cinq minutes: vaporiser une mouche, me couper les ongles, manger une prune, aller pisser, vérifier si l'eau du robinet est toujours boueuse … aller chez le pharmacien, descendre au jardin voir combien de brugnons ont mûri sur l'arbre, regarder le journal de radio, bricoler un dispositif pour tenir mes paperolles, etc.: je drague (Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, [Paris: Seuil, 1975], 76).

  13. In The Rustle of Language, Roland Barthes writes that the experience of film induces a suspended state: “vacancy, want of occupation, lethargy” (345). This idleness places the body in an exceptional situation of freedom.

  14. Roland Barthes, Incidents, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 51.

  15. Roland Barthes, Incidents (Paris: Seuil, 1987), 94.

  16. Incidents, 60.

  17. Ibid., 163, 68.

  18. Ibid, 55.

  19. Ibid, 73. The original reads: Je lui ai demandé de venir à côté de moi sur le lit pendant ma sieste; il est venu très gentiment, s'est assis sur le bord, a lu un livre d'images; son corps était très loin, si j'étendais le bras vers lui, il ne bougeait pas, renfermé: aucune complaisance; il est d'ailleurs vite parti dans l'autre pièce. Une sorte de désespoir m'a pris, j'avais envie de pleurer. Je voyais dans l'évidence qu'il me fallait renoncer aux garçons, parce qu'il n'y avait pas de désir d'eux à moi …, que j'ai une vie triste, que, finalement, je m'ennuie, et qu'il me faut sortir cet intérêt, ou cet espoir, de ma vie (115-16).

  20. Incidents, 7.

  21. Ibid., 3.

  22. Le Grain de la voix, 314.

  23. Incidents, 6. The original reads: la route que je préfère et dont je me donne souvent le plaisir, c'est celle qui suit la rive droite de l'Adour; c'est un ancien chemin de halage, jalonné de fermes et de belles maisons. […] c'est encore une vraie route, non une voie fonctionnelle de communication, mais quelque chose comme une expérience complexe, où prennent place en même temps un spectacle continu … et le souvenir d'une pratique ancestrale, celle de la marche, de la pénétration lente et comme rythmée du paysage, qui prend dès lors d'autres proportions … (17).

  24. Incidents, 6.

  25. Roland Barthes, 49-50. The orginal reads: “Autrefois un tramway blanc faisait le service de Bayonne à Biarritz; l'été, on y attelait un wagon tout ouvert, sans coupé: la baladeuse. Grande joie, tout le monde voulait y monter: le long d'un paysage peu chargé, on jouissait à la fois du panorama, du mouvement, de l'air” (Roland Barthes, 54).

  26. Roland Barthes, 3.

  27. Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), 232.

  28. A Lover's Discourse, 232.

  29. Ibid., 64.

  30. Ibid., 4.

  31. Ibid., 233-234. The original reads: Pour que la pensée du N.V.S. puisse rompre avec le système de l'Imaginaire, il faut que je parvienne (par la détermination de quelle fatigue obscure?) à me laisser tomber quelque part hors du langage, dans l'inerte, et, d'une certaine manière, tout simplement: m'asseoir (“Assis paisiblement sans rien faire, le printemps vient et l'herbe croît d'elle-même”). [This is the same poem that Barthes quotes elsewhere as the poetic definition of laziness: the allegory of desubjectification—see The Grain of the Voice, 341.] Et de nouveau l'Orient: ne pas vouloir saisir le non-vouloir-saisir, ne repousser rien: recevoir, ne pas conserver, produire sans s'approprier, etc. Ou encore: “Le Tao parfait n'offre pas de difficulté, sauf qu'il évite de choisir” (Fragments d'un discours amoureux [Paris: Seuil, 1977], 277).

  32. A Lover's Discourse, 233.

  33. The Grain, 343.

  34. The Rustle of Language, 285.

  35. Ibid., 285.

  36. Ibid., 289.

  37. Ibid., 299.

  38. Martin Heidegger, “Overcoming Metaphysics,” The End of Philosophy, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

  39. Roland Barthes, Vita Nova in Œuvres complètes, ed. Éric Marty, 3 vols. (Paris: Seuil, 1993-1995), III.1307.


Barthes, Roland (Vol. 24)