Roland Barthes 1915–1980
French critic, essayist, and autobiographer.
Barthes is considered a leading writer of the French la nouvelle critique (new criticism) and one of the most important French critics since Jean-Paul Sartre. His studies in semiology and literary analysis ushered structuralism to the forefront of French intellectual thought in the 1960s. Barthes's most influential work is S/Z, a structuralist approach to Balzac's short story "Sarrasine." Through a line-by-line account of the story, Barthes identified five "codes" which he felt defined "Sarrasine."
Barthes's first collection of essays, Le degré zéro de l'écriture (Writing Degree Zero), is his seminal work. Here Barthes presented his concept of écriture, the idea that the text has a meaning independent of, and possibly different from, the author's intentions. Barthes felt that the reader, and especially the critic, should see a text as a series of symbols that combine to form the meaning of the literary work. It was also Barthes's contention that a completely objective style of writing (zero-degree writing) was the most desirable, and he cited Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet as examples.
Barthes's theories outraged many prominent French academics; the controversy reached its height upon the publication of Barthes's Sur Racine (On Racine) in 1963. Barthes's structuralist and psychoanalytic study of Racine's plays drew an angry response from Racine scholar Raymond Picard, who felt that Barthes's method was pseudoscientific, subjective, and almost totally unfounded. Barthes, in turn, wrote Critique et vérité (Criticism and Truth) as a rejoinder to Picard's views. In this work Barthes asserted that literary criticism should be the systematic structuralist study of language and style. This, along with a semiological approach to the study of cultural phenomena, characterized Barthes's later works.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100 [obituary].)