Roland Barthes 1915-1980
(Full name Roland Gerard Barthes) French critic, theorist, essayist, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides criticism on Barthes's works from 1972 through 2001. See also Roland Barthes Criticism (Volume 24) and Roland Barthes Criticism (Volume 83).
Barthes is widely acknowledged as one of the most important figures of the French critical movement known as Structuralism. His works have been a major influence on the practice of literary and social criticism in Europe as well as in the Untied States and elsewhere. In his best known works he applied principles derived from semiology (the study of signs and how they produce meaning) as formulated by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, combined with elements of political activism adopted from the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, and aspects of Sigmund Freud's theory of psychoanalysis.
Barthes was born in Cherbourg, France, on November 12, 1915, to middle-class Protestant parents. His father was killed in a naval battle in World War I when Barthes was very young, and so he was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother. The family lived in Bayonne and then moved to Paris in 1924. In 1935 Barthes began his studies at the Sorbonne, concentrating on French, Latin, and Greek. A case of tuberculosis that Barthes suffered when he was nineteen left him ineligible to serve in World War II. He taught for a number of years in Bayonne, Paris, Biarritz, and Bucharest, Romania, but a relapse of his tuberculosis in 1941 confined him to a sanitarium for a good part of the next six years. Pronounced cured in 1947, Barthes began to publish the essays he had been writing and which would later be collected in his first book, Le degré zéro de l'écriture (1953; Writing Degree Zero). Between 1952 and 1959 Barthes taught at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, continuing to write and publishing his most famous book, Mythologies (Mythologies) in 1957. Barthes joined the faculty of the École Practique des Hautes Études, serving as its director from 1962 to 1977, when he was elected to the Chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France. His reputation as France's leading intellectual was confirmed by the subsequent publication of such works as Système de la mode (1967; The Fashion System), S/Z (1970; S/Z), Le plaisir du texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text), and Fragments d'un discours amoureux (1977; A Lover's Discourse). Barthes remained at the Collège de France until his death on March 25, 1980, from injuries sustained when he was hit by a van while crossing the street.
Barthes's ideas and his approach to writing evolved over the course of his career, and critics often discuss his works in terms of four stages in his critical thinking. In the first stage of his career, which includes such works as Writing Degree Zero, Michelet (1954; Michelet), and Mythologies, Barthes, influenced by the ideas of Sartre and Karl Marx, demonstrates a strong interest in issues of language, its relationship to historical and social context, and its relationship to power. In these works he developed his notion of écriture, the aspect of discourse in which the author's social and historical context imbues his or her writings with unintended meanings that are revealed in structural analysis. In Mythologies Barthes analyzed aspects of contemporary French culture—for example, advertising, travel guides, and professional wrestling—to explore ways in which they support a bourgeois worldview. The next phase of Barthes's career, which also marked the high point of Structuralism in France, is a rigorously theoretical one and includes his famous 1964 essay “Eléments de sémiologie” (published in English as Elements of Semiology). Encompassing the ideas of Saussure, Roman Jakobson, and other noted linguists, Barthes theorized about the role of language versus that of speech. To Barthes, language is based on an abstract set of rules and conventions regulating verbal and written communication, whereas speech refers to individual instances of how that language is used. The third phase of Barthes's career, influenced by French theorists Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva, marks a shift in his thinking from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism in the 1970s. In such works as S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes stresses the idea that literary texts contain multiple and shifting connotations, and are therefore open to a number of possible interpretations. He also distinguishes between “readerly” and “writerly” texts: the former refer to common areas of knowledge and accommodate traditional interpretation, while the latter are more open and invite the reader to fill in gaps and make intertextual connections in the process of reading. The final phase of Barthes's career, which includes his autobiography, Roland Barthes (1975; Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes), as well as A Lover's Discourse, Le chambre claire (1980; Camera Lucida), and Incidents (1987; Incidents), is a more personal one. In these works, Barthes writes about his diverse intellectual interests, from literature to travel, and photography, in a more meditative and introspective style. Having lived with his mother his whole life, Barthes describes his grief after her death in Camera Lucida. In his last writings he also openly reveals his homosexuality, including many details about his personal life in his journals and his essays.
Barthes's works of the late 1950s and 1960s were frequently criticized by academics and critics for being, in their view, pseudoscientific and laden with jargon. Barthes and his supporters defended themselves on the grounds that their brand of criticism, unlike that practiced at French universities, was more attuned to ideological, social, historical, and psychological nuances. Outside of France, notably in the United States, Barthes's theories were accorded great acclaim and did much to establish Structuralism and Post-Structuralism as respected schools of criticism. As his later works increasingly focused on the pleasurable and the personal, Barthes was attacked by some critics for having abandoned his earlier Marxist and Structuralist principles. Since his death, there have been many reevaluations of his works, as well as scholarship about aspects of his work that were not much explored before 1980. Italo Calvino and Susan Sontag, among many others, have written eulogies for Barthes, praising his unique talent as both an original theorist and a brilliant interpreter of other people's theories. Critics Jane Gallop, Lawrence D. Kritzman, and Dennis Porter have written about the influence of psychological theory on Barthes's writings, with Gallop concentrating on their connection to feminist theory; Kritzman examining the connection between language and power in Barthes's thought; and Porter discussing the psychological ramifications of Barthes's travel writing. Barthes's style has also received new attention, with, for example, John Vignaux Smyth discussing Barthes's handling of irony and his growing tendency to treat his own works as fictional in his late writings. Finally, critics have shown particular interest in Barthes's autobiographical writings, with his biographer, Louis-Jean Calvet, reexamining the twists and turns of Barthes's reputation after his death, and such critics as Ross Chambers and Pierre Saint-Amand exploring the influence of Barthes's homosexuality on his life and works.