Roland Barthes

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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].)

Claude Mauriac

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Although Le Degré zéro de l'écriture (Zero Degree of Writing) is presented by its author, Roland Barthes, as a working hypothesis, it has a dogmatic tone. (p. 185)

According to Roland Barthes, "writing is in no way a means of communication." As the opposite of spoken language, it is by nature a counter-communication. Its particular ambiguity is in that it is at the same time language and coercion. Since all paradoxes, however laden with truth they may be, are capable of being turned around, one could say just as correctly that it is speech that aims to remove adherence by intimidating means, and one attribute to writing the opposite character of a balanced, delicately shaded, essentially honest act. To the extent to which "it improperly combines the reality of acts to the ideality of ends" political writing is, however, by all evidence, coercive. Roland Barthes devotes a chapter to it which is all the more convincing in that his arguments appear to be political. Literary writing also fulfills the author's definition if we agree with him that since it is an instrument placed in the service of a class ideology it imposes its myths more than it proposes them. One can obviously play upon the word communication. But whether or not, in either case, it is a one-way transmission, changes nothing in the fundamental purpose of language, which is to make oneself understood. This elementary truth Roland Barthes knows as well as anyone else. He is right in not being satisfied with it, but wrong in forgetting it on the way. (pp. 186-87)

In place of a refusal to write, Roland Barthes sees no better solution than the zero degree of writing. Thanks to this blank writing, "the human problem is disclosed and delivered without bias, and the writer is always an honest man." (p. 191)

Roland Barthes...

(This entire section contains 612 words.)

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recognizes … Marcel Proust'slucidity in imparting information. But how many other authors whom we consider important chiefly because of the authenticity of their testimony, are downgraded by him! He dismisses the writing of a craftsman whose principal value stems from the labor that it has entailed. (pp. 192-93)

That Gide, Valéry, Montherlant, and Breton may prefer, to the liberation of language, the liberation of whatever within them aspires toward elucidation and can be expressed only through the medium of whatever style they deem best suited to their purposes, does not enter Roland Barthes' mind. This is too easy; its very simplicity eludes him. The new school of criticism only feels at home in subtlety. But there is no greater blindness than that of the overstimulated intelligence that wants to dig where there is no depth. One can say of these literary revolutionists that they are terrorized terrorists, talking out loud in their personal darkness, giving themselves airs of flippancy. In fact, lacking confidence, full of inferiority complexes, they try to eliminate values for which they no longer have any use, breaking the instruments which their predecessors employed so brilliantly and seeking a field where competition is no longer possible. The domain they have selected is criticism, even when they are themselves engaged in creative work. From zero degree of writing we have come to the freezing point of criticism: that which fixes a previously deformed reality and immobilizes it in its caricature. Or else it is the nth degree of this same criticism, where thought, heated to the maximum, burns whatever it touches and causes it to float off in smoke. (pp. 193-94)

Claude Mauriac, "Roland Barthes," in his The New Literature, translated by Samuel I. Stone (reprinted by permission of George Braziller, Inc., Publishers; copyright © 1958 by Editions Albin Michel), Braziller, 1959, pp. 185-94.

Raymond Picard

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When I first ran through [Roland Barthes'] commentaries on [Racine's] tragedies, published on the occasion of a new edition of Racine, I did not take them very seriously. Somewhat baffled, and more scandalized than amused, I supposed them to be a piece of hackwork in the performance of which the writer had diverted himself, with his usual talent, by entering the realm of the venturesome and the preposterous. But when in 1963 these studies were collected in a volume with other writings [On Racine (Sur Racine)] which threw light on them, and when in 1964 another volume offered further details of doctrine and method, I realized my error. Without any doubt this was a coherent undertaking the importance of which was not to be underestimated; the reception of it by a certain segment of the public made that perfectly clear. Indeed, it is one of the most significant examples in the last ten years of the effort, so praiseworthy in itself, to develop a new criticism…. (pp. 1-2)

Mr. Barthes' assertions most often belong to two registers. Some of them (to write somewhat after his own manner) are of a vaticinal order; having no explicatory value, generally not very clear and slightly unusual, these oracular revelations must be accepted such as they are by the faithful. Others, accompanied by reasons and examples, are subject to control; unfortunately, we discover that they rest on astonishingly weak foundations.

What adds to the uneasiness of the reader is the fact that these ruinous structures are situated in an ambiguous and contradictory universe. From the very first, indeed, the critic introduces his study by announcing that "its language is somewhat psychoanalytical," though, he adds immediately, "the treatment [of the subject] is hardly so at all."… Thus he deliberately severs this language from its meaning. And to use the language of a discipline without practicing that discipline is to reduce it to a collection of similes and metaphors. For this reason, and for several others, Mr. Barthes, condemned never to speak of things, is dedicated (it must already have become evident) to a kind of metaphorical criticism—with all the indistinctness that that admits of, the relation between the object and the metaphor which qualifies it being multiple and blurred. (p. 6)

[It is] hard to grasp the exact nature of sexuality in this indefinite kind of psychoanalysis. Obsessive, unbridled, cynical, it nevertheless interposes itself everywhere, and one must reread Racine in order to be persuaded that his characters are different, after all, from D. H. Lawrence's…. It is clear that in the violent drama of Racine, Mr. Barthes has decided to find unbridled sexuality. No one can stop him, nor could they if he wished to find the fundamental role of the Father in a comedy by Marivaux or a drama by Hugo.

For he is above all a man of system. What system, it is not always easy to see; and the uncertainty of his position with regard to psychoanalysis has just been noted. But, no matter. What fascinates him in a system is the spirit of system. "The Racinian Eros expresses itself only through a recital, a narrative. Imagination is always retrospective, and memory always has the distinctness of an image."… Always, only: the truths of which the critic makes himself the prophet are absolute, universal, definitive. One of the most annoying aspects of this book is the intellectual smugness of its author: he fearlessly decides, settles, affirms. Mystery itself has no mystery for him; he penetrates everything, explains everything, knows everything. The only thing that escapes him is nuance. And it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise, given the nature of his undertaking. For he is really concerned with "a kind of Racinian anthropology" which, taking up its station "in Racine's tragic world," describes that world's "population (which may be readily abstracted under the concept Homo racinianus)."… Everything is in this discreet parenthesis. Mr. Barthes gives himself over indeed to a job of abstraction. That is to say, in accordance with his needs (and with intellectual contortions which certainly do not give an impression of ease), he abstracts from the tragedies those elements which he thinks ought, when suitably adjusted, to enter into his prefabricated concept of Homo racinianus. For my part, I have never believed in the existence of such an animal—chimerical in every sense of the word. And the effort being examined here is certainly not one to make me change my mind. Each one of the elements composing this concept ought to be capable of application to all the tragedies; yet the sad truth is that none of the elements, at the outside, concerns more than two or three of them…. [The form Mr. Barthes'] thought habitually takes is that of aberrant extrapolation; one or two observations … are all that he asks as the basis of a generalization…. This method of thundering generalization is repeated too often with evidence that verges on caricature. (pp. 8-12)

One wonders if this critic does not rely upon some private inspiration, some criterion of truth unknown to the common run of mortals, in advancing, as he does in so intemperate a manner, such inaccurate, contestable, or preposterous ideas. Take Bajazet. The Seraglio is "a feminine or eunuchoid habitat."… Eunuchoid? Whatever has the form of an egg is ovoid. The deltoid has the form of a delta. (p. 14)

A eunuchoid habitat, a desexualized place, the asexuality of Achmet—the pathological character of such language has already struck its readers, and this problem cannot be ignored. The vocabulary of this book has been borrowed from biology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and so on, and it includes in addition a large number of neologisms made, not without a certain cleverness, in the image of those to be found in these various disciplines…. [The function of Mr. Barthes' jargon], artless perhaps but effective, is—as we have already seen a dozen times—to give "scientific" prestige to absurdities, to dress up commonplaces, to hide (rather unsuccessfully) the indecision of his thought. With its obscure terms, which remain undefined and are used—without warning—in different senses, with its elastic notions and its too fluid concepts, this jargon is nothing but the instrument of a "show-off" kind of criticism. (pp. 15-16)

[It] is not the obscurity of Mr. Barthes' jargon that I am finding fault with; with a little practice in philosophy and a smattering of Greek, one can manage to understand it. What is annoying for the reader is that his effort is poorly rewarded; the critic's language keeps posing little riddles to be answered by an error, an approximation, or a platitude…. His jargon is useless, and it is pretentious in promising a rigor that his thought belies. I am not troubled by philosophy, any more than by the techniques of research and exposition and the language they often involve. As I see it, philosophy is indistinguishable from thought itself, and anyone who thinks philosophizes, whether he is conscious of doing so or not. I am grateful to Mr. Barthes for trying to see problems in their broadest dimension. As for philosophy, unfortunately, he seems too often to forget its matter and to preserve nothing but its vocabulary and mechanics. It is the opposite that ought to be done.

Such a book is really shocking. For clearly we are not here faced with a mere matter of formal logic or a method of exposition; what is in question is reality itself. This work disregards the elementary rules of scientific, or quite simply of articulate, thought. On almost every page, in the frenzy of its headlong systemizing, the part is given for the whole, an instance or two for the universal, the hypothetical for the categorical; the law of contradiction is flouted; accident is taken for essence, chance for law. And all this confusion is couched in a kind of language the ostensible precision of which is a mirage. Such an excess of satisfied inconsistency, I must confess, "astonishes and dismays me." (pp. 17-18)

And yet it is surely in Mr. Barthes' critical theory—even if he does not always put it into practice—that we shall manage to find an explanation, if it exists, of the singular character of his examination of Racine. Indeed, as we saw at the beginning of the present study, he asserts that it is impossible to "tell the truth about Racine." "Racine lends himself to several languages: psychoanalytic, existential, tragic, psychological …; none is innocent."… Objectivity is inconceivable in criticism. That fact results from the peculiar function of literature, which is to institutionalize subjectivity (which I am rather inclined to admit). It follows from that, continues Mr. Barthes (but I cannot under any circumstances accept his conclusion), that "the critic must himself become paradoxical, must lay the fatal bet and talk about Racine in one way and not in another."… The only objectivity remaining to him is "to declare [his] system of reading," that is, to specify the type of subjectivity he has decided to adopt. To lay a fatal bet, to become paradoxical—it is clear that if such are Mr. Barthes' goals in his book, he has fully succeeded. But this dialectic of the subjectification of criticism has the character of sophistry about it…. It is not, in truth, among subjectivities, as Mr. Barthes suggests, that the critic must choose, but among different types of objectivity. If the laws of physics—as I understand the evolution of modern science—have become statistical laws, we should not be unhappy in the human sciences to formulate statistical laws of the same order…. The universal laws established by Mr. Barthes concerning Racine's universe apply on the average to two or three of the eleven tragedies. The laws of physics, in spite of their uncertainty, seem to be more consistent in their application. Mr. Barthes transposes the You cannot tell the truth about nature of contemporary thought into You cannot tell the truth about Racine, and from the Anything can happen of modern indeterminism he draws a sort of You can say anything. He is right in that it is impossible even to conceive of what the whole, absolute, definitive truth about Racine might be, but he is wrong in that you cannot say just anything. (pp. 19-20)

Every move one makes—and a fortiori every critical move—implies a philosophic decision, a decision all the more arbitrary in that it is often unclear; and Mr. Barthes has been able to make a penetrating analysis of the naive assumptions of a certain kind of biographical criticism. His remarks, however, must not be taken as a justification for doing nothing, or a permission to do just anything. Every concept presupposes a collection of perceptions, and every perception presupposes a concept; yet this ancient difficulty has never paralyzed thought. It is easy to demonstrate a priori our inability to accomplish such and such an intellectual operation—an operation, indeed, which we carry out constantly. It has been by putting aside these little games of the Sceptics that all progress of the human mind, especially in the sciences, has been made. In certain of its aspects, existentialist subjectivism does nothing but dig up this much-picked bone. Mr. Barthes, in his turn, persists in composing prolegomena to the impossibility of all criticism. There are better things he could be doing.

But that is not all. Not satisfied with clearing the ground so as to be able to give free rein to the spirits that move him, he demands that this arbitrary criticism be taken as categorical and absolute. Applying, I suppose, one of the doctrines of the philosophy of commitment, he notes that refusal to commit oneself, or even refusal to commit oneself wholly, is still a form—however wretched—of commitment, and he advocates a kind of criticism made up of passionate affirmations—a criticism which, as we have seen, he himself has widely practiced. (pp. 21-2)

Mr. Barthes' critical proceedings, then, reveal two attitudes which, though well known, used to seem incompatible—the impressionist attitude and the dogmatic attitude. Traditionally, impressionistic criticism found truth in the personal notations of an individual—an individual who offered himself, of course, as a model. On the other hand, dogmatic criticism proceeded in terms of objective, universal statements. Mr. Barthes has invented an ideological impressionism which is essentially dogmatic; he is the Pythoness philosophizing. His book, moreover, is not devoid of a certain poetic charm, provided it be taken for what it is, a dogmatic fantasy in a hundred and thirty pages, with theme and variations…. A large part of the fascination that I am told Mr. Barthes' book exercises on certain readers comes, I imagine, from [a] tone of definiteness, of assurance in his statements, of philosophic truth that attaches to the evidence, not indeed by the force of ideas but by a coloring of the words, a rhythm, a resonance. To watch this intellectual liturgy is to join the chapel of Profound Thought and of the Avant-Garde.

Mr. Barthes' attempt might normally have the effect of confirming in their least ambitious methods those who still adhere to the virtues of objectivity and coherence. Indeed, are they not within their right in asking themselves if it is not better to settle some small fact about Racine in a solid way than to erect a grandiose interpretation of the tragedies which collapses at the first serious examination of it? Is it not better to be satisfied with establishing texts—an essential and difficult task which in many cases remains to be done and to which Mr. Barthes, unless I err, does not even make any reference in his consideration of methodology? Surely these rigorous, if modest, tasks remain absolutely indispensable; but the bustle caused by Mr. Barthes and his friends ought also to be for everyone the occasion of a very serious examination of conscience and of a coherent effort to define the concept of explication in literary studies. Besides, those concerned have not waited for Mr. Barthes in order to begin. Biographical criticism, as he describes it, has been pretty well discredited for twenty or thirty years; source criticism has become more cautious and has lost its explicatory ambitions…. Mr. Barthes, although desirous of placing in opposition to the new criticism what he calls by a generic and contemptuous term university criticism, does not know about it, or in any case gives an incorrect interpretation of it. (pp. 23-5)

Mr. Barthes either is unaware of studies that come out of the universities or systematically misjudges them. He affects to believe that they are all inspired by an impoverished Lansonism, thus failing to appreciate Lanson as well as the extreme diversity of methods now being practiced in the universities. Against university criticism, a phantom he has raised in order that he may squelch it, he repeats his complaints as many as four times, in France and abroad, and then he reprints them in two works. In short, it is clear that he is practicing polemics…. I have spent long, often fruitless hours in studying this book. If I have done so, it is because it has seemed to me that the book is particularly dangerous. The obvious cleverness of its author, his intellectual imagination, his ideological prestidigitation, his dialectical tight-rope walking, his verbal illuminations—in a word, incontestable talent but talent gone astray—all this is not without glamor for certain types of readers: those who know only the two tragedies of Racine studied at school, and the performances of Meyer or Vilar; those who are not really interested in literature and acknowledge Racine only as a pretext for ideas; those who, justifiably tired of the commonplaces and platitudes of a certain kind of instruction at school, desire something new at any cost, etc. For readers who are better informed, the response to this book, as to other efforts of the French "new criticism," is ordinarily of two kinds. Some shrug their shoulders or raise their hands to heaven; others assume a cunning air and mutter, "Debatable but interesting." It has seemed to me a duty, however painful it may be to carry out, not to remain on so superficial a level. Besides, the study just examined only has the scope that Mr. Barthes, his friends—and their public—wish to give it. It concerns nothing, in fact, but Racine. They will have to decide to what extent Mr. Barthes' critical attitude and practice are implied in the work examined, and also to what extent intellectual solidarity, proclaimed in so complacent a fashion by the defenders of the French "new criticism," must play a part here. Do they feel committed to On Racine? One would be glad to know. (pp. 26-7)

Raymond Picard, in his New Criticism or New Fraud? translated by Frank Towne (copyright 1969 by the President and Regents of Washington State University; originally published as Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture, J. J. Pauvert, 1965), Washington State University Press, 1969, 47, p.

Frank Kermode

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[Barthes] has powerful opponents at home, but I doubt whether there will be much raising of voices here, and the reason is not simply that we are insular. Although Barthes is famous for recondite meditations on the sign-structures not only of literature but of what you never thought had sign-structures, like menus, fashions and furniture, so qualifying as an adventurous structuralist, he rarely refers to any language except French, or to any literature except French. Thus in Writing Degree Zero there is a far-reaching discussion of the French preterite, a tense that now belongs to a written, not a spoken language, and which is treated as 'the corner-stone of Narration', an expression of an order and a euphoria peculiar to the novel; it redeemed time, saved meaning out of an existential mess; but now that we see it for what it is, a comfortable lie, the whole face of fiction is changed. And so on. What does not seem to occur to him is that there are languages, such as English, in which there is no such problem with the preterite, yet these also are languages in which novels are written, and in which there is also, presumably, a 'problematics of the novel'….

[In Writing Degree Zero], among the methodological convolutions, the reader will occasionally come upon a completely familiar notion, for example, that there was, around 1850, a major split in the European mind (French, actually) and in European history. As a consequence of historical developments classical literature then ceased to be possible, and henceforth The Writer (Malarmé sits for his portrait) became 'the incarnation of a tragic awareness'. Writing, which had been a way of communicating thoughts and forms, now became 'a language having a body'—not a medium, but something that grew in concretion as bourgeois consciousness disintegrated. Now we approach the maximum alienation, and a literature totally silent, divorced from the society, existing in absence.

The notion of a literature so reduced to silence is already fashionable, and Barthes can only give us a new way of talking about it if we want to. He rarely says much, here, about individual books or authors, and seems to be a fluent meta-critic rather than a useful critic, though of course it must be hard for someone who thinks such communication impossible to mediate between a silent literature and any honest men there may be left to read it.

Frank Kermode, "In Parvo" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1967; reprinted by permission of Frank Kermode), in The Listener, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 2011, October 12, 1967, p. 474.∗

Laurent Lesage

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Histrionics and rhetoric give Barthes' essays a look of originality that they do not always possess. They capture attention by their emphatic style but often add little to what literary historians have already said in studies that maintain better balance and are more wary of specious generalizations. This is already evident in his first work, Le Degré Zéro de l'Ecriture, a dazzling piece of argumentation in which he attempts to isolate from language and style a distinct socio-historical aspect that he calls "writing." He pushes his investigation of language problems further in Mythologies and takes up the subject of social myths. In the introduction to Michelet par lui-même and in the essay on Racine, he tries his hand at literary "psychoanalysis." In his faults and virtues, Barthes typifies the French New Critic. He also offers a fine example of the techniques most in vogue as well as the prejudices and shibboleths that characterize the new school.

Whether his studies take the direction of sociology or psychoanalysis, they depart from the work itself, from the author's writing rather than from his life…. Style is always his point of reference, the subject of his research. As he declares in the introduction to Michelet par lui-même, his concern is not with history or biography but only with the work. What he aims to do is to discover in it those basic, recurring themes which may constitute a pattern of obsessions or preoccupations. Thus, in noting Michelet's allusions to qualities, conditions, phenomena, and the like, Barthes hopes to expose Michelet's literary psyche or, as Barthes himself expresses it, arrive at Michelet's basic "coherence." Likewise in his Racine, Barthes works exclusively with the texts, but here the results of his analysis have only the most indirect bearing on the personality of the author. Jung rather than Freud (or Marx) seems to guide him as he reduces Racine's theater to archetypal patterns and interprets their significance…. For Barthes, Racine's characters are not persons but figures acting out elemental myth material; the interest of his theater is not psychology but the representation of fundamental relationships and conflict between primitive forces.

Included in the volume on Racine is a sort of challenge to literary historians to renouce the linking of monographs on individual authors and calling the result literary history. What they might better do is investigate the sociology of literature at a given time. But Barthes admits that this sort of literary history would actually be no different from history itself. He nevertheless is dissatisfied with traditional scholarship, considering it superficial and trivial, ridiculous in its scientific pretensions and its fear of systems. He would prefer sociology and psychoanalysis. Barthes' own work, we should note, is, strictly speaking, neither one nor the other. He goes as rhetorician into whatever field he ventures. That is why he always compels our attention and why he often provokes our irritation.

Barthes' reading of Racine is extremely stimulating, a tribute to the great dramatist's capacity for limitless interpretation. It is a tribute to the critic, as well, who, by close attention and reflection, can dramatically reinterpret an author enshrined. This does not mean that Barthes' "anthropology" of Racine invalidates other interpretations—even the most conventional—but it does add a dimension, which, although not entirely unperceived by others, had never been presented so completely or with such picturesque vehemence. (pp. 36-8)

["Qu'est-ce que la Critique?" begins with the theme of] "Les Deux Critiques," reiterating that university criticism, in spite of its professed objectivity, is indeed postulated upon an ideology as much as any of the types of interpretive criticism which it accuses of systematic parti-pris. Barthes believes there can be no criticism without an implicit ideology. But that does not have much importance in fact, since he considers that criticism, having language rather than the world as its object, is concerned with validities and not with verities. A piece of literature is valid if it constitutes a coherent system of signs. This the critic tests by trying to fit the language of his period (Existentialist, Marxist, Psychoanalytical) to the language of the author in question…. One may applaud the tolerant eclecticism that Barthes' position implies and reflect that indeed, if a piece of literature is to remain meaningful, it must always be capable of translation into contemporary language. This is what we have always meant by the "universality" of great art. One may reflect, nevertheless, that to equate language so exactly with a given ideology is not what we have had in mind and that a Marxist study of Racine or an Existentialist study of Pascal cannot remain on a plane of language but must always slip down to that of verities and the world. (pp. 43-4)

[The] place of Barthes among contemporary French critics becomes quite clear. Definitely aligned with the interpretive group, he has made his own particular business the analysis of literary language from the point of view of history and society. The distinctions of language, writing, and style, which laid the foundation of his work, still support his research, which tends now to broaden out from literature into semantics and structural linguistics. (pp. 44-5)

Laurent LeSage, "Roland Barthes," in his The French New Criticism: An Introduction and a Sampler (copyright © 1967 by The Pennsylvania State University), The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 1967, pp. 36-46.

Susan Sontag

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Writing Degree Zero probably isn't the easiest text with which to start an acquaintance with Barthes. The book is compact to the point of ellipsis, often arcane. It barely suggests the variety and intellectual mobility of Barthes' subsequent work…. Though explicitly theoretical in character, the argument here can't compare in rigor or completeness with Barthes' later development of some of these ideas in his "Eléments de Sémiologie."… Moreover, Writing Degree Zero gives virtually no indication of Barthes' sensitivity and imaginativeness in handling individual literary texts and in stating the unifying metaphors of a single author's body of work, skills he was to exercise in the short book on Michelet (1954) and in the influential studies of Brecht and Robbe-Grillet written in the mid 1950's. Lastly, the … text doesn't disclose the witty concreteness of Barthes' sensibility, his talent for sensuous phenomenological description, evidenced in the brilliant essay-epiphanies collected in 1957 under the title Mythologies. Thus, Writing Degree Zero is early Barthes, seminal but not representative. (pp. vii-viii)

Writing Degree Zero lends support to the already well-established cause of advanced literature, not with an argument over fundamentals of taste and purpose, but by an allusive refinement of that argument, oriented more to modernist literature's further prospects than to its celebrated past. But Writing Degree Zero is not only manifesto but polemic. With any difficult text, the reader, in order to understand what the philosopher or critic is arguing for, must grasp what or whom he is tacitly arguing against. Considered as a polemic, Barthes is challenging the most intelligent version of the theory of literature's obligation to be socially committed, that theory having always entailed some attack, overt or implicit, on the tradition of modernist literature.

Indeed, I think, one can name the specific adversary of Barthes' argument. Barthes' topic is the same as that posed by, and stated in the title of, Sartre's famous What is Literature?… It would seem that Barthes, though he never mentions Sartre's book, had it in mind when he wrote Writing Degree Zero, and that his argument constitutes an attempt at refuting Sartre's. Where What Is Literature? is prolix (but easily readable) and contains extended passages of powerful, concrete historical and psychological analysis of the writer's situation and of postwar society, Writing Degree Zero is terse and unconcrete (and rather difficult of access)—as if Barthes were depending on his reader's familiarity with the generous development of the terms of the debate provided by Sartre. (pp. x-xi)

[Writing Degree Zero] suggests a rather single-minded manifesto, advocating a stern retrenchment of literature into a desiccated, ascetic noncommunicativeness. This suggestion is likely to be reinforced for those readers aware that Barthes first became well known in France when he emerged as Robbe-Grillet's most eloquent spokesman—notably in three essays, "Le monde objet" (1953), "Littérature objective" (1954), and "Littérature littérale" (1955), all included in Essais Critiques [Critical Essays]—in which he championed the ingenious and strategic reduction of literary means (i.e. of style as Barthes here uses the word) achieved by Robbe-Grillet by de-anthropomorphizing, eliminating metaphor, etc. But it would be a mistake to read Writing Degree Zero merely or even mainly as a polemic preparing the way for the advent of the "solution" of Robbe-Grillet. Actually the notion of zero-degree, neutral, colorless writing—first discussed by Sartre, who called it l'écriture blanche, in his famous review of Camus' L'Etranger—enters Barthes' argument only briefly: in the introduction …, as the "last episode of a Passion of writing, which recounts stage by stage the disintegration of bourgeois consciousness," and again at the end … as one solution to the disintegration of literary language.

But this horizon of literature's final solution is only a boundary-concept, generated by this argument. It is the logical extension of the type of rhetoric Barthes uses. But it is the ground rules of that rhetoric which should be of much more interest and importance to the reader—and have been to Barthes himself, judging from the minor role that the notion of zero-degree writing has played in his subsequent literary studies. What is essential to Barthes' position is not its apocalyptic terminus, but the diagnosis of the over-all situation of literature he makes. Barthes views that peculiarly modern phenomenon of "the multiplication of modes of writing" as an inevitable development. As literature abolishes "more and more its condition as a bourgeois myth," écriture pushes aside language and style, absorbing "the whole identity of a literary work." Barthes affirms—and here his thinking strongly reflects the influence of Blanchot—the way literature verges on becoming a total experience, one which brooks no limits, and cannot be permanently stabilized or held in check by any particular strategy of writing, the adoption of zero-degree writing included. As modern literature is the history of alienated "writing" or personal utterance, literature aims inexorably at its own self-transcendence—at the abolition of literature. But Barthes' point would seem to be that no amount of moral exhortation or conceptual unraveling is going to alter drastically this tense, paradoxical state of affairs. "In spite of the efforts made in our time, it has proved impossible successfully to liquidate literature entirely."

This would seem to leave the heaviest burden on the critic, who mediates amid competing chaos—a task Barthes has heroically exemplified in his own ambitious body of work. Thus, in Writing Degree Zero, Barthes presupposes both the effort of writers like Valéry, Joyce, Stein, Beckett, and Burroughs to abolish literature and the effort of other writers to confine literature to ethical communication (the notion of "engaged" writing). It is in this agonized suspension between the contradictory goals entertained by literature, I should argue, that the discourse of the responsible critic situates itself—without yielding to an easy dismissal of either position.

Of course, these efforts to liquidate literature have left their trace, which explains the tone, both hectic and detached, with which Barthes approaches his topic. At times, one could describe Barthes' stance in this book as almost an anthropological one, to the extent that he implies that all thinking both about and within literature operates by means of myths. Thus he speaks of the novel as a "mythological object," and of the "rituals" of literature.

The other prominent gesture by which he distances himself from his volatile subject is through constant recourse to a historical perspective…. But while Barthes shares with Sartre a familiar terminology, adapted from the Hegelian metahistorical scheme of consciousness, Writing Degree Zero lacks the detailed, concrete feeling for historical process in evidence in Sartre's book…. The history Barthes continually invokes always wears a capital H. This is perhaps the most serious limit to the argument of Writing Degree Zero: that, while insisting on a historical perspective, Barthes employs such a generalized, thin notion of history. Barthes is not so much referring to a real state of affairs as he is using a metaphor, which allows him to describe literature as a process rather than as a static entity. The particular value of history as an organizing myth is that it provides Barthes with a decisive moment, up to which the situation he describes leads and from which it proceeds—a paradigmatic "fall" of literature, which took place around 1850 and is best incarnated in the consciousness of Flaubert. (pp. xvi-xix)

Barthes' vision of what thinking really is—an insatiable project, endlessly producing and consuming "systems," metaphor-haunted classifications of an ultimately opaque reality—receives only a very elementary exposure in Writing Degree Zero. In [this] book, he appears at least as much the uncritical accomplice of myths as he is their classifier. Deploying some familiar creative fictions of contemporary intellectual life, such as the Hegelian "history of consciousness," the existentialist "freedom," the Marxist "bourgeois society," etc., Barthes proposes one new myth—that of écriture—for the purpose of analyzing a myth, that of "literature." Of course, "myth" doesn't mean that a concept (or argument or narrative) is false. Myths are not descriptions but rather models for description (or thinking)—according to the formula of Lévi-Strauss logical techniques for resolving basic antinomies in thought and social existence. And the converse is also true: all explanatory models for fundamental states of affairs, whether sophisticated or primitive, are myths. From this structuralist point of view, one can't object to Writing Degree Zero simply because its leading concepts are intellectual myths or fictions. What matters is that Barthes' myths about literature are extremely talented, even masterful, and do satisfy the need for intellectual cohesion (comparable to the way myths in the more ordinary sense, according to Lévi-Strauss, produce social cohesion).

After all, it isn't Barthes who made "literature" into a myth. He found it in that condition, along with all the other arts in our time. Someday perhaps a demystification of the myth of "art" (as an absolute activity) will be possible and will take place, but it seems far from that moment now. At this stage, only new myths can subdue—even for the brief time to permit contemplation—the old myths which move convulsively about us. Measured on this scale of need, the myths about literature proposed in Writing Degree Zero seem to me sturdy, subtle, and highly serviceable. They acknowledge basic antinomies that even the most gifted minds addressing the same subject, such as Sartre, have glossed over. And to anyone seriously caught up in the lacerating dialectics imposed by the stand of advanced art and consciousness in our time, the myths/models deployed by Barthes can also be recommended for their healing, therapeutic value. (pp. xx-xxi)

Susan Sontag, "Preface" (reprinted by permission of Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Susan Sontag), in Writing Degree Zero by Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, Hill and Wang, 1968, pp. xii-xx.

Richard Howard

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"It will afford profit and pleasure to that numerous class of persons who have no instinctive enjoyment of literature," writes a British reviewer of the French text of S/Z. Instinctive enjoyment of literature! Surely all of Roland Barthes's ten books exist to unmask such an expression, to expose such a myth. It is precisely our "instinctive enjoyment" which is acculturated, determined, in bondage. Only when we know—and it is a knowledge gained by taking pains, by renouncing what Freud calls instinctual gratification—what we are doing when we read, are we free to enjoy what we read. As long as our enjoyment is—or is said to be—instinctive it is not enjoyment, it is terrorism. For literature is like love in La Rochefoucauld: no one would ever have experienced it if he had not first read about it in books. We require an education in literature as in the sentiments in order to discover that what we assumed—with the complicity of our teachers—was nature is in fact culture, that what was given is no more than a way of taking. And we must learn, when we take, the cost of our participation, or else we shall pay much more. We shall pay our capacity to read at all.

Barthes calls his study an essay, and in it a consideration of more than just the tale by Balzac is desirable if we hope to discern what it is that is being tried here. For the work on the text by Balzac, the dissection—into 561 numbered fragments, or lexias, varying in length from one word to several lines—of Sarrasine, is not performed for the sake of identifying the five notorious codes (hermeneutic, semantic, proairetic, cultural, and symbolic), or even for the sake of discriminating the classical text (with its parsimonious plurality of interpretation and its closure of significance) from the modern text which has no such restrictions, no such closure (for the final closure of the modern text is suspension). Rather, the work so joyously performed here is undertaken for the sake of the 93 divagations (I use Mallarmé's term advisedly, for it is with Mallarmé, Barthes has said, that our "modernity" begins) identified by Roman numerals and printed in large type, amounting in each case to a page or two. These divagations, taken together, as they interrupt and are generated by the lexias of the analyzed text, constitute the most sustained yet pulverized meditation on reading I know in all of Western critical literature. They afford—though Barthes can afford them only because of the scrupulous density of his attention, his presence of mind where one is used to little more than pasturage—a convinced, euphoric, even a militant critique of what it is we do when we read. (pp. ix-x)

"What do you read now?" the hungry interviewer asked the famous writer, a woman of commercial success in the theater whose autobiography has defined a character of considerable literary sophistication. And the famous writer answered:

I don't read novels any more, I'm sorry to say. A writer should read novels. When I do, I go back to the ones I've read before. Dickens. Balzac … I find now when I go to get a book off the shelf, I pick something I've read before, as if I didn't dare try anything new.

Aside from the underlining fact that it is a writer speaking, this is a familiar experience, this preference for what Barthes calls the readerly over what he calls the writerly…. It is a familiar experience because only what is authentically writerly can become readerly. If we were to set out to write a readerly text, we should be no more than hacks in bad faith; yet, as readers, how hard it is to face the open text, the plurality of signification, the suspension of meaning. It explains that hesitation at the bookshelf, the hand falling on the Balzac story, the known quantity. Known … How often we need to be assured of what we know in the old ways of knowing—how seldom we can afford to venture beyond the pale into that chromatic fantasy where, as Rilke said (in 1908!), "begins the revision of categories, where something past comes again, as though out of the future; something formerly accomplished as something to be completed." (A perfect description, by the way, of the book in hand.) Why we read in this repressed and repressive way; what it is, in the very nature of reading, which fences us in, which closes us off, it is Barthes's genius to explore, not merely to deplore. His researches into the structure of narrative have granted him a conviction (or a reprieve), a conviction that all telling modifies what is being told, so that what the linguists call the message is a parameter of its performance. Indeed, his conviction of reading is that what is told is always the telling. And this he does not arraign, he celebrates.

So exact are Barthes's divagations, so exacting are their discoveries about the nature of reading, that we may now and again be dismayed—if we are in the main readers of the readerly—by the terms he has come to (he usually assumes Greek has a word for it) in which they must be rendered. For Barthes's text is writerly—at least his divagations are. This criticism is literature. It makes upon us strenuous demands, exactions. And because of them, precisely, we too are released, reprieved; we are free to read both the readerly (and can we ever again read Balzac in all innocence? can we ever want to?) and the writerly, en connaissance de cause, knowing the reason why. Essentially an erotic meditation, then, because it concerns what is inexpressible (which is the essence of eros), Barthes's essay is the most useful, the most intimate, and the most suggestive book I have ever read about why I have ever read a book. It is, by the way, useful, intimate, and suggestive about Balzac's tale Sarrasine, which the reader of the readerly will find reassembled at the end of this writerly book, en appendice, as the French say. (pp. x-xii)

Richard Howard, "A Note on 'S/Z'," in S/Z by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Miller (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; translation © 1974 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; originally published as S/Z, Editions du Seuil, 1970), Hill and Wang, 1974, pp. ix-xii.

Peter Brooks

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A decade ago, Susan Sontag suggested that rather than an esthetics we need an erotics of art. Roland Barthes has gone some way toward providing this in a slim volume called "The Pleasure of the Text" ["Le plaisir du texte"], a liberated and self-indulgent meditation on the solitary vice of reading. Here, and in the book that immediately preceded it, "S/Z," Barthes demonstrates a renewed suppleness that takes him beyond the limitations of much recent French work of a "structuralist" persuasion, including his own.

Taken together, "The Pleasure of the Text," and "S/Z" force us to notice how much of the most interesting thought today is being carried forward in what we used to call "literary criticism," and how important Barthes's own contribution to redefinition of the field has been….

"The Pleasure of the Text" is consciously an assertive book, Nietzschean in its manner, aiming at effect rather than persuasion. It is seductive and liberating, but also a bit overripe, in its discursive value somewhat limited. In "S/Z," on the other hand, we find the hedonist locked in a close and exacting dialectic with the ascetic, and the result is Barthes's best, most enlivening book to date, a work both of systematic analytical rigor and of consciously sensuous pleasure, which claims our attention as a rarely penetrating reflection on how and why we read. Barthes takes a tale by Balzac, "Sarrasine," divides it up into 561 "lexias" or short consecutive units of reading, then traces through each unit, minutely, locally, the interweaving of the five "codes" or "voices" that constitute the text's system of meaning. Then, in the interstices of this painstaking analysis, he unfolds 93 excurses …, episodes of interpretation and theory concerning the emergent patterns of sense, and the process of sense-making. On the one hand, then, discipline, rigor, dissection; on the other, imaginative play and speculative flight: the Thanatos and Eros of criticism in illuminating contest. This gives a book that advances decisively beyond the rather inert mechanism of most structural analysis of narrative, toward a description of the force-field of meaning and the polyphonal richness of reading.

In this book his concerns have converged on the central and difficult problem that more and more appears basic to any critical discourse: the theory of reading. What in fact goes on in the encounter of a reader, himself already a structure of cultural codes and conventions, with the structures and coded messages of the text?

If there have been all along in Barthes two warring selves, the theoretical ascetic (represented by the systematic semiological studies) and the hedonist, indulging himself with reading, it's clear that the hedonist wins hands down in "The Pleasure of the Text." Here, what interests him in the meeting of reader and text is specifically the "dialectics of desire" by which animation of the text depends on the reader's desire, and this on the text's solicitation of the reader. Writing is the amorous science of language ("its Kama Sutra") and reading resembles the floating attention of psychoanalysis, lying in wait for the signs of arousal in and from the text. From pleasure, these can in the most radical instances become orgasmic "bliss": the moments in which the text is most subversive, playful, generative of new possibilities, least wedded to ideology or representative function. Barthes values those texts and textual moments that most appear scandalous, when the reader can accede to the pure play of language in different points in the narrative, and for understanding their role as armature of the story. This code works in close conjunction with the "hermeneutic," which involves the questions or enigmas posed by the story—their suspension, delay, unveiling, resolution. Together, the application of these two codes leads beyond a static conception of form to a dynamic conception of the force of the text as read—and as desiring to be read. The other three codes are perhaps more ordinary pieces of the critical workshop; what's valuable is the way Barthes has grafted them to the structural logic of the narrative, to suggest for instance the place of "character" within the "economy" of textual connotations.

One may resist the claim that the codes cover the field of meaning. But on the whole they do work. They promote an acute and playful reading of "Sarrasine" and, more important, they provoke in the reader a disquieting awareness of the act he is engaged in and the desire that moves him. He finds himself playing with the codes, playing against them sometimes, playing from them. The codes induce a search not for structure, but for structuring: not for final organization of the work but for the fullest productivity of its different registers. Barthes finds an analogy in the musical score: the codes, through the successive "measures" (the lexias), produce meaning in different ranges of the textual instrument, sustain melodies and harmonies, create tonal patterns and cadenzas. Where the practice of literary criticism is concerned, this suggests that Barthes has found a way to answer the call (of Northrop Frye, among others) for a general structure that would permit different critical languages (thematic, rhetorical, psychoanalytic, etc.) to complement one another, in a radical pluralism.

"The plural" of the text is indeed Barthes's insistent subject in both of these books. The plural means not simply "ambiguity" or multiple meanings, but the impossibility of hierarchizing the different voices of the text, the need to submit to their interdependence and simultaneity. Reading should never become the search for some ultimate signified, but rather a joyous and animating multiplication of the signifiers, of words and symbols themselves. For Barthes, there is a distinction to be made between the "parsimonious plural" of a "classic" text (such as Balzac's) and the total plural of such as the "new novelists." The distinction is surely overdrawn—and to most readers the controlled plural of something like "Sarrasine" will be richer than the exercises of such Barthesian admirations of Philippe Sollers. Barthes's insistence upon the overwhelming value of the latest Parisian experimental writing is an annoying provincialism that sometimes leads him into a perverse blindness to the continuities of the literary problems and ambitions that most interest him….

We can be irritated by some of Barthes's assertiveness, his lack of balance as a critic, while recognizing that at his best he provokes with a rare pertinence—as in [the] description (from "The Pleasure of the Text") of the "circular memory" that makes any textual fragment remind us of others, of the web of the written…. The claim made here for the omnipresence of textuality, and hence for the importance of deciphering all the codes of the world, both in suspicion and with pleasure, may appear extravagant, yet also true. The concern with sign-systems is finally a concern with deciphering our culture and ourselves.

Peter Brooks, "An Erotics of Art," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 14, 1975, p. 38.

John Updike

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"S/Z" is a nearly unreadable book about reading, a two-hundred-page crawl through a thirty-page story by Balzac…. The reader emerges, as from that machine of Kafka's which engraved commandments upon the transgressor's skin, lexically enriched but lacerated; I have no recollection of any other book ostensibly in the English language which gave me such pains to peruse. Barthes says elsewhere, of good prose, that "it grates, it cuts," and his own is notably abrasive, his vocabulary a gnashing, flashing compound of Greek [and terms lifted from modern linguistics and common words] … recoined with a specific and not easily grasped meaning. His style is dense, terse, nervous, parenthetical, sometimes arch, and faintly insolent. He seems often to be recapitulating something we should have read elsewhere but haven't. He appropriates to the language of literary criticism a certain pseudo-mathematical sharpness. His method, in "S/Z," of moving by crabbed jerks through an after all rather melodramatic and romantic tale produced in this reviewer sensations of forestallment and obstruction so oppressive that relief manifested itself in the chronic form of an irresistible doze and, once, of an absolving dyspepsia.

Such a confession of readerly discomfort is appropriate here, for Barthes insists, in these two books, on the supremacy of "readerly" (lisible) over "writerly" (scriptible) literature…. The interaction between the never ideal reader and the infinitely various text is more concretely, and playfully, elaborated in "The Pleasure of the Text."… Traditional explicative criticism assumes a text from which all blemishes of inattention or miscomprehension have been removed by close study; pure text is left. Barthes, contrariwise, rejoices in the irregularities of the reading process…. Amusingly but not frivolously, he personifies the text; it seduces, yearns. (pp. 189-90)

Where other critics probe for the symbolical or ideological secrets of a work, Barthes, as businesslike as an editor, demonstrates an intimate concern with the verbal manipulation of suspense and such workaday details as the fiction's chronology…. Barthes's critical approach seems specifically manly—insisting on readerly activity rather than passivity and ever reminding itself (in this Barthes remains, as he began, a Marxist critic) that reading is a transaction, an economic exchange. (p. 191)

[Barthes] asserts, "Replete Literature, readerly literature, can no longer be written." Why not? Why must there be a nouveau roman, and nouveaux critiques? This question, the end product of Barthes's ingenious critical discourse upon Balzac's narrative discourse, is raised in "S/Z" but not answered. Replete Literature, which ends, in his view, with Flaubert, is "mortally stalked by the army of stereotypes it contains." Why a crisis irreversibly arose at a specific time in history is sketched by Barthes in his first book, "Writing Degree Zero" (1953). Classical writing began in France with the ascendency of bourgeois ideals over the doctrines of the ancien régime in the middle of the seventeenth century and survived the apparent disruptions of Romanticism and the Revolution…. By the eighteen-fifties, however, according to Barthes, the rise in Europe of modern industrial capitalism had created another social class—the proletariat. The bourgeois writer, until then "sole judge of other people's woes and without anyone else to gaze on him," thenceforth is "torn between his social condition and his intellectual vocation" and "falls a prey to ambiguity, since his consciousness no longer accounts for the whole of his condition." Now, in "Mythologies" (1957; reprinted in 1970), Barthes is hard pressed to explain why, at this late date, bourgeois myths, odious and stale as they are, seem to be the only ones around; myths of the left, he admits, are "poverty-stricken," "barren," "meagre," "clumsy"—the Stalin myth, for instance. As a critic dissecting from the standpoint of the left the "well-fed, sleek, expansive, garrulous" myths of the bourgeois right, he detects in his role an emptiness, a mere destructiveness…. The same intelligence that permits Barthes to see through—as a psychologist sees through neuroses, an anthropologist through taboos—the bourgeois myths or codes, whether in the advertisements of Elle or in the sentences of Balzac, exposes to his vision the mysterious negativity, the terrible thinness, of the revolutionary alternative. (pp. 191-92)

["The Pleasure of the Text"] affords slight, as well as brief, pleasure. Paragraphs … are arranged in alphabetical order of topic (Affirmation, Babel, Babil, Bords, Brio, Clivage, etc.)—a tour de force that does not absolutely undermine but does not much encourage, either, any sense of developing flow or over-all theme. Barthes's subtlety seems to please itself in a vacuum; there are not enough concrete instances of textual pleasure. When one is cited, it is often an author's lapse, a "gap."… One cannot help but feel that the authors … whimsically cherished are being condescended to and impudently pillaged. Barthes licenses himself, and us, to roam among the classics as an atheist roams in nature, free to be amused where he will, without any thought of a Creator's intention.

But this last sentence, of course, holds a number of deliberately offended presumptions—"great books are a serious business," "a work of art has a single intention," etc. Barthes's scattered, playful aperçus in search of "pleasure" are, like the rigorous analysis of "S/Z," a way of combatting the "deceptively univocal reading" that castrates, "The Pleasure of the Text" is a little flirt of a text, but she ends splayed by a hearty assault of sexual imagery from Barthes …, who defines his critical lust as the wish to admit "the anonymous body of the actor into my ear." Such is his bliss; such is the strenuous relationship he proposes between the literate and literature. Strenuous, but scarcely admitting of qualitative distinctions. The muzzle that his own prose presses at our ear smiles a little curiously, even smirks, like the author's photograph on the back of these two jackets. Barthes compels our respect more by what he demands than by what he delivers; his criticism lacks only the quality of inspiring trust. It is never relaxed. He teaches us to see multiple layers of reader-writer interaction hovering above every page; above his own pages there is, faint but obscuring, a frosted layer of irony that blurs opus and commentary into a single plane. (pp. 193-94)

John Updike, "Roland Barthes," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LI, No. 40, November 24, 1975, pp. 189-94.

Philip Thody

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In Barthes's view, we are perpetually caught up, at every moment of our experience, by a mesh of words that prevents us from seeing what is really happening…. [We] perpetually see life in terms of the books we have read, and have quite lost the ability to see physical objects as they actually are. In so far as it ties us down to a predigested version of the way somebody else first saw the world and expressed it for us, this habit prevents us from realising our full potential as free human beings. It is consequently—though here I am extrapolating from Barthes's work, not referring to any formal statement which he has made—the task of the person who writes either about literature or about language to make people conscious of the distortions created by the way verbal communication works. The missionary role thus entrusted to the linguist or literary critic constitutes the most important conclusion which Barthes has drawn from Saussure's insistence on the arbitrary nature of signs, and provides both the central theme linking the whole of his work together and his most significant contribution to the intellectual life of the mid to late twentieth-century. (pp. 136-37)

Barthes is more a philosopher of language than a literary critic, and there is therefore some justification for his work being so difficult to understand. I would nevertheless maintain that to see him as a man determined to free people from preconceived ideas by pointing carefully at the individual strands in the mesh of language holding them captive is to look at his work from the most fruitful point of view. He described himself, in Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes [Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes], as a man who sees language, and each one of his books can be read as an attempt to make people conscious of how completely the way we express ourselves conditions our vision of the world. Le degré zéro de l'écriture denounces the illusion that any form of literary language can be natural, and warns against the trap of assuming that because an account of experience is immediately comprehensible, it is therefore innocent of pre-conceived ideas. Mythologies is shot through with an insistence on the need to avoid 'la naturalité du signe' by constantly emphasising the artificial nature of all communication systems, while Système de la Mode is dominated by the realisation that we can be honest with our fellow human beings and ourselves only by seeing the clothes we wear as consciously expressing the deliberate choice which we make of how we would like other people to see us. Sade, Fourier, Loyola carries Barthes's position in Le degré zéro, Mythologies and S/Z to its logical conclusion by recognising that the role of language is to enable the writer to create his own autonomous world, while Le Plaisir du Texte uses the neologism signifiance to embody the notion that it is only when we have freed ourselves of the illusion that words reflect reality—or even, perhaps, that there is a reality to be reflected—that we shall begin to see language as creating our awareness of meaning by the physical impact which it makes upon our senses. (pp. 138-39)

Barthes does, of course, make a genuinely original contribution to literary discourse by the implications which he sees in the fact that there is no necessary connection between the word 'rose' and the flower it signifies. His ambition to 'battre en brèche la naturalité du signe' ['attack and destroy the idea that signs are natural'] is both laudable and intelligible, and his application of it to the novel is a valuable step in clear thinking about how language functions in a literary context. Frederic Raphael expressed the same notion from the other side when he said that he realised, as a working novelist, that what you say cannot finally be distinguished from the way you say it, and his remark underlines how foolish it would be to think, for example, that Pickwick or Emma Bovary would not change as characters if their adventures were described in different language. (p. 142)

It is nevertheless more difficult, both on logical and on empirical grounds, to follow Barthes in the next step which he takes in applying the idea of the arbitrary nature of signs to literature. For while there is no difficulty in using it to reinforce one's rejection of the naïve notion that Madame Bovary is a good novel because it tells the literal truth about a particular person, it is quite another thing to argue, as Barthes does in S/Z, that there is never any 'content' whatsoever in works of art. Flaubert may not be the master of representational art that some of his theories suggest and that many of his nineteenth-century admirers considered him to be…. But to deny the interest and validity of all attempts at representational art, as Barthes does when he writes that realism 'consists not of copying reality but of copying a painted copy of reality', is to throw out the baby of Flaubert's complex literary achievement with the bathwater of late nineteenth-century theories about the inevitability of realism. (p. 143)

It is one of the more embarrassing peculiarities of Barthes's work that he should inspire … laboured restatements of the obvious, and it is partly for this reason that the refusal to call him a critic is not always entirely a compliment. For it is surely—to invoke a central Doxa [Barthes's term for bourgeoise thinking] of English literary thinking—an openness to as many different kinds of literary experience as possible that characterises the good literary critic and is essential to the great one. One might, of course, explain this aspect of his work by biographical considerations. Barthes constantly evokes, in the remarks which he makes about contemporary French society and the intellectual atmosphere in which he is obliged to live, the vision of a vast conspiracy aimed at perpetuating a whole series of oppressive myths against which he is fighting. The French bourgeoisie, if one is to believe in what he says about it, still uses language to perpetuate its domination over other classes, still maintains a strict hierarchy of linguistic usage to match the social hierarchy which it imposes upon other people, severely censures both the frivolous use of language and any cult of physical pleasure, is intensely suspicious of any intellectual activity … and refuses to entertain the possibility that the link between the thing said and the word which says it is anything but wholly natural. It is perhaps this feeling which he has of being persecuted that explains why Barthes should himself adopt so intolerant a stance as a means of defending himself against his attackers, and there is again, for the English reader, a curious biographical similarity to F. R. Leavis. Yet while both men have the same sense of being cold-shouldered by the academic establishment of their day, there is much less justification for Barthes to see himself as a martyr in the cause of intellectual progress. He has not done all that badly and has in fact, as John Weightman predicted, ended up as a member of the Collège de France—'than which there is no higher consecration here below'. The intolerant strain that is often apparent in Barthes's attitude towards literature cannot therefore be explained away as a justified riposte to genuine oppression, and is, to the conservative foreign observer, a serious flaw in his work. This is even more the case when it is accompanied by the second reason for which one would hesitate to flatter Barthes by calling him a critic: an apparent inability to distinguish between the prescriptive and the descriptive use of language.

Thus he frequently presents, as statements about writers or about literature in general, ideas which are fascinating when read as suggestions as to how a new type of literature might develop or as descriptions of certain books which exemplify this development, but which are patently absurd when read in the highly general form that he gives them. For example, he writes in the essay Ecrivains et Ecrivants,… that since 'écrire est un verbe intransitif' ['writing is an intransitive verb'], 'la littérature est toujours irréaliste' ['literature is always unrealistic'], and there is obviously a way in which this statement is a valuable antidote to the naïve concept of realism which presents books as photocopies of reality. Even if it were possible for a writer to be a camera, the angle from which he took his shots would still mean that he was composing a picture rather than reproducing the world absolutely as it is. But since there is no indication that Barthes is writing metaphorically rather than literally, the other implications of his statement are decidedly odd. The 'toujours' can only mean that Thomas Hardy tells us nothing about rural England before the impact of the industrial revolution, that Jane Austen's novels have no interest as a portrait of the English gentry at the time of the Napoleonic wars, or that the characters in War and Peace bear no resemblance to early nineteenth-century Russian aristocrats. (pp. 145-46)

[In] so far as Barthes's own ambition in the rest of his work can so often be seen as that of trying to 'purify the dialect of the tribe' by inviting his readers to become aware of the prison in which certain forms of language have enclosed them, it might … be a rather Barthesian exercise to see how his views on literature do appear when expressed in a language different from his own. On the other hand, however, since it implies both that language is a tool for expressing ideas and that ideas remain basically the same whatever the language chosen to express them may be, such an exercise could be seen as a complete denial of everything Barthes stands for: One of the clearest statements of his position in this respect is in a reply which he made in March 1957 to a survey organised by the literary newspaper Arts on the question of why Joseph Conrad had chosen to write in English rather than in Polish. It was not, said Barthes, because English was a better medium than Polish for writing about the sea. Indeed, the very act of asking such a question showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of language. This is not an 'instrument that one chooses as one might choose a weapon in an armoury or a monkey wrench from a tool kit'. Language, and particularly the language used by an imaginative writer, is 'a structure and a mode of awareness' ['une structure et une conscience']. The decision to write in one language rather than another cannot be separated from the choice which one has made of one's whole identity as a person, and from one's fundamental attitude towards experience. When Conrad decided to write in English rather than in Polish, he was acting in accordance with a deeper, existential preference which he had already expressed for what Barthes calls la britannité over what one would, in a comparable neologism, have to call la polonnité. It follows from this that any attempt to 'say what Barthes really means in your own words' is by very definition a betrayal of his whole philosophy of language. It is, to revert to the story about the churchgoing Scottish housewife and her heathen if inquisitive husband, the equivalent of trying to talk about St. Paul while eschewing all use of terms such as 'God', 'grace', 'sin', 'salvation' or 'spirit'. The temptation nevertheless exists, and Barthes's own francité is too intriguing a challenge to the intellectual imperialism of English empiricism to be seriously resisted…. [Barthes] is still sufficiently interesting as what he himself would call an écrivant—someone who does use language instrumentally—for the way he thinks to be discussed in isolation from the way he writes. Although he may be most successful when writing as an écrivain, giving full rein to his zest for language by evoking rather than communicating the world view of the designer Erté or the pleasures of the table enumerated in Brillat-Savarin, he cannot prevent his basic attitude from being sufficiently coherent to be meaningfully discussed with reference to another cultural tradition.

Indeed, the very way in which he chooses to write is a means of ensuring that this will happen. Like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva or Jacques Lacan, he deliberately adopts a style of writing which is not immediately comprehensible, and does so precisely in order to make his reader think things out for himself. This is not merely a condescendingly charitable explanation of his often very opaque prose. Instant accessibility is, in his view, a dangerous trick, and Stephen Heath quotes a very characteristic passage from the 1973 text Aujourd'hui, Michelet to illustrate this idea. The concept of clarity [clarté], writes Barthes, can exist only within 'a classical conception of the sign, with the signifiant on one side, and the référent on the other, the first in the service of the second'. The whole of Barthes's career so far has been devoted to overthrowing this idea and replacing it with a vision of language in which man, recognising that he lives, moves and has his being in and through words, can at last begin to enjoy the experience for its own sake. (pp. 148-49)

Philip Thody, in his Roland Barthes: A Conservative Estimate (© Philip Thody 1977; reprinted by permission of Humanities Press Inc., Atlantic Highlands, N.J. 07716), Humanities Press, 1977, 180 p.

Roland A. Champagne

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Literary theory has not yet found its place in literary history. Many Anglo-Americans are skeptical about its place in literary transactions because literary theory sometimes places actual readers and spectators of literary events in the background. The solution may not lie in integrating literary theory into literary history…. [The] writings of Roland Barthes encourage the beginnings of … a case for theory which encompasses both literary and historical texts. Barthes especially encourages exploration into a theory of reading with its own historicity with his writings on history and within the historical moment of reading. His kind of theory is one which engages readers and spectators of the reading transactions by identifying theory as a reflective and reflexive activity which generates self-awareness in those participating in the reading activity in order to know more about the nature of readers and reading and to change these into more creative persons and endeavors. Barthes had proposed that Orpheus become "the eponymous hero" for such a literary theory of reading because it was Orpheus who looked back upon Eurydice and destroyed his beloved in much the same manner that theoreticians of reading look back upon their reading to destroy the mechanical gaze.

Re-reading can learn much by imitating the Orphic look which destroys the object of its love. By examining the effects of such visions, we can begin to understand how and what kind of transformations occur in this activity we call reading. The obvious creativity of the readings by Roland Barthes reminds us that our own daily readings are likewise creative transformations which must be further understood. A theory of reading may give us the opportunity to explore that understanding. Some feel that they are merely mesmerized by the haunting beauty of those readings signed by "RB" so that: "The RB precludes your idea from being developed." However, the myth of Orpheus returns as a model to dare us to re-examine the object of love and to destroy that mesmerizing presence in favor of developing and transforming the ideas inspired by reading RB. (pp. 229-30)

Barthes' differentiation between "simple readability" and "complex readability" marks the distinction between "classical texts" and "modern texts." On the one hand, "simple readability" characterizes "classical texts" because their meaning is bound up in an ideology that allows the reader to follow their meanderings in "a stringent irreversibility" from text to reader. On the other hand, "complex readability" is entailed by a "modern text" because the passage from text to reader is complicated by many types of reflexive and reflective activities. The reader of a "modern text" is distracted from the text by inspirations, reflections, and other digressions of one part of the text. Returning to the text, the reader is struck by the fragmented interruptions necessitated by such a text. And perhaps the "modern text" is becoming more and more prevalent as various types of distractions often interrupt readings of even the simplest, apparently "classical" texts. A reading, such as Barthes' own S/Z with its fragments describing the significance of the parts of the story Sarrasine, becomes a model for the modern reader who is becoming more and more displaced from developed dissertations that point to the unity and cohesion of certain texts. Barthes himself believes that the very distractions that take the reader away from the attention to a text become salient features of a "theory of reading" which is to be descriptive and reflexive of the activity of reading.

Reading then does not simply follow a text. The text becomes the point of departure for digressions elsewhere. If a reading attempts to describe a given text, something different than the text is produced…. Hence, reading operates somewhere between the reader and the text as an activity and creativity whose historicity cannot be understood on the same planes as those of reader and text. (p. 231)

Barthes would have literary history understand the reader in proportion to the text. Establishing the literary history of reading thus becomes a study of proportions between the text and its readers. Such proportions must be established to determine the perspectives and stances of readers prior to their reading certain texts. The purpose of such proportions is to enter the reading activity into the literary transaction…. Barthes has been insisting on his own physical presence before a text in order to understand more about his role in the activity of reading. The reader can thus begin to appreciate the proportional importance of the written words to the historical moment of the reading…. Reading and creating history are … intertwined in the same physical impulses because reading is going to a text created at a different historical moment and resurrected by the reader's activity. This initial act of resurrecting and encountering bodies is then followed by the impulsive act of physical judgment by which the reader draws a proportion between the text as a living body of words and the reader as a living body. That proportion is what Barthes has called "structure."

Literary "structure" exists as a bond between text and reader. It is more than the formalist operations happening within the boundaries of the written words. It enables the reader to participate in the act of reading and to destroy, as Orpheus did destroy Eurydice, that entity called a text. In its place, the reader projects the structure of the reading as a viable entity accounting for his or her own input into literary transactions. Such a projection according to Barthes, entails two operations: (1) to find mobile fragments which interest the reader's "physical judgment" by virtue of that "vegetative or existential impulse" previously isolated and (2) to organize these fragments into paradigms by laws of association. Barthes would call these paradigms "codes" because he understands the paradigms to operate as self-sustaining systems of communication identified by the reader. They are impulsively identified because the pursuit of pleasure is the goal of reading. Whether one reads for information, truth, relaxation, or enjoyment, Barthes tells us that pleasure is produced when one of those designs is realized. For him, there appears to be two distinct types of reading-pleasure. On the one hand, a classical text—such as those of Balzac, Chateaubriand, or La Bruyère—produces a mild form of exhilaration which he calls plaisir or joy. Such a classical text can be simply read. Its structure can be projected according to the parameters of certain ideologies. For example, Balzac's Sarrasine can be structured according to the codes of realism and romanticism. On the other hand, there are modern texts which produce an ecstatic form of pleasure which is called jouissance or a possessive enjoyment. These modern texts are usually avant-garde writings which for Barthes are steeped in the past of a given culture and thereby give a sense of historical continuity and prolonged enjoyment to the reader. Robbe-Grillet and Philippe Sollers have provided such texts for Barthes who has given extended structures to their texts as testimonies to his "possessive enjoyment" (jouissance). Such "modern texts" may not inspire "possessive enjoyment" in all readers. However, because of the formal experiments in "modern texts," an extended period of reading pleasure is required in order to appreciate the "structures" of those texts.

The notion of a "reading structure" also leads us to an awareness of reading as a type of creativity. Literary history has previously favored the reading experience as an investigative tool for seeking truth and establishing the origins of the text in the messages of the writer and in the conventions of the writer's historical moment. Gustave Lanson perpetuated such a view of reading with a claim for literary history as a science of the literary fact. In contradistinction, Barthes has made a claim for the "science of literature" whereby "… the rules of reading are not rules of the literal text, but those of the allusive text." As a result, reading utilizes the faculty of the imagination to explore the plural possibilities of such an "allusive text." Readings by RB often represent exceptional resourcefulness in discovering codes to which a text alludes and which his readings develop. The Barthes reading of Sade (Sade Fourier Loyola) refers to the place of the reader's imagination and interruptions within the text itself…. Despite the interruptions of forgetting or "jumping over" the developments of a text, the reader can still remain consistent with the text by developing structures to which the text alludes.

Such a task reveals the creativity of reading as translation. By correlating the text to the reader's sense of meaning, reading projects the text into another dimension of time—that of the future. Literary history can be augmented to account for the future moment of the reader's creativity as part of the literary transaction … Barthes himself admitted that the ties of all … temporal moments must be explored because "everything is related: the least of literary problems, even if it is anecdotal, can be resolved in the mental context of an epoch which is not our own. History is also necessary for Barthes and for the types of reading he has fostered. But his expanded view of a three-dimensional history will allow us to explore the creativity of reading and perhaps even to establish a science of that creativity. The recent developments of semiology, structural linguistics, and Lacanian psychoanalysis are bringing us to the brink of such a science. (pp. 232-35)

Roland A. Champagne, "Between Orpheus and Eurydice: Roland Barthes and the Historicity of Reading," in Clio (© 1979 by Robert H. Canary and Henry Kozicki), Vol. 8, No. 2, Winter, 1979, pp. 229-38.

John Sturrock

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Roland Barthes is an incomparable enlivener of the literary mind. He is as adventurous in the formulation of new principles for the understanding of literature as he is provocative in dispatching the old ones. To read him is to be led to think more intelligently and enjoyably about what literature is; about both the practice of writing and its function. He has renewed literary criticism in France, which is now a far more varied and practical discipline than it was, and is helping to renew it outside France as the translations of his work spread.

Barthes has not done this by constructing some definite theoretical position of his own vis-à-vis literature and then sticking to it stubbornly over the years. Quite the reverse; he is famous for his mobility, for the way in which he is constantly transcending old positions, and often in unexpected directions. Each new book that he publishes is very obviously a departure, not a consolidation of his earlier arguments. There is a consistency in Barthes, as I shall hope to bring out, but it is easy to lose sight of it when there is also so much attractive novelty. Barthes is determined to keep his mind moving, and not to allow his miscellaneous insights and projects for the interpretation of literary texts to harden conveniently into a doctrine. (p. 52)

[The] unusual preference for the plural and centrifugal, as against the singular and coherent, has come to mark Barthes's published work more and more strongly. It is not a fashionable belief—though more fashionable in these generally materialist times than it used to be—nor an altogether persuasive one; since whoever holds it as adamantly as Barthes does risks achieving definition by others as the champion of indefinacy. It is a belief intended by Barthes to contradict what he takes to be more orthodox beliefs in the matter of identity: a paradox, in the old sense of that word, meaning an opinion which runs counter to the accepted wisdom of the age. But paradox has always been Barthes's stock-in-trade. He has seen his vocation, from the outset of his life as a writer, as being antithetical: his arch enemy is the doxa, the prevailing view of things, which very often prevails to the extent that people are unaware it is only one of several possible alternative views. Barthes may not be able to destroy the doxa but he can lessen its authority by localizing it, by subjugating it to a paradox of his own. So given to paradox is he, indeed, that he is even capable of rounding on his own earlier opinions and denying them.

Barthes is only fully to be appreciated, then, as someone who set out to disrupt as profoundly as he could the orthodox views of literature he found in France when he was a young man. (p. 54)

Barthes's own first published book or essay, Writing Degree Zero (1953), was written in order to show what a modern, marxisant history of French literature might be like. It is an interesting book but hardly a successful one, partly because it is far too short to do the job Barthes was asking of it. It traces, summarily, the emergence and eventual break-up of an 'écriture bourgeoise', which is the description Barthes gives of what others would have called French Classicism. (p. 55)

As polemic Writing Degree Zero is an invigorating book and it at once gave Barthes, for all the Sartrean echoes to be heard in it, a distinctive place on the literary left. But it is not always an easy book to understand and some of the crucial concepts which Barthes introduces remain shadowy. This is the case with the term écriture, which does not, at this stage, mean at all what it has come to mean in Barthes's mature writings. In Writing Degree Zero he appears to use it where other writers would have used the term style; certainly he fails to establish what, apart from his own literary intuition, the criteria might be for distinguishing one écriture from another, and whether it is legitimate to group all French writers between the years 1650 and 1850 so neatly together as practitioners of the écriture bourgeoise. (p. 56)

Michelet par lui-même (1954) [is] an anthology of the writings of that remarkable, highly Romantic nineteenth-century historian, together with Barthes's idiosyncratic and ambitious commentary on them. Barthes opens with the warning that 'In this little book the reader will not find either a history of Michelet's ideas, or a history of his life, still less an explanation of one by the other.' This seemingly definitive isolation of the text from its author yet goes, in Barthes, with the conviction that a psychoanalytical interpretation of literature is extremely fruitful. But his Michelet shows how it is possible to psychoanalyse a text—uncover, that is, its obsessions, its most potent and persistent sexual imagery, its evasions, and so forth—without at the same time believing that you have psychoanalysed its author. Barthes respects the extreme ambiguity of the relationship between an author and what he writes. (p. 57)

In an essay of 1960 called 'Écrivains et écrivants' (reprinted in Critical Essays), Barthes made a dramatic qualitative distinction between two sorts of writer. The first, and lesser, sort is the écrivant, for whom language is the means to some extra-linguistic end. He is a transitive writer in that he has a direct object. He intends that whatever he writes should carry one meaning only, the meaning he himself wants to transmit to his readers. The écrivain is a nobler, more auspicious figure by far, 'priestly' where the écrivant is merely 'clerical', to use one of Barthes's own antitheses (and this resurrection of the old notion of the writer as someone akin to a priest is an indication of Barthes's own underlying romanticism). The écrivain writes intransitively in so far as he devotes his attention to the means—which is language—instead of the end, or the meaning. He is preoccupied by words not by the world…. (p. 65)

It is the écrivain who is of interest because he is, in Barthes's prophetic scheme, the writer of the future. The literary world may hardly be ready for him yet, even in avant-garde Paris, but his time will come—or so at least Barthes seems to promise. He is not, as one might at first think, a throwback to Romanticism and to that happily dilapidated critical edifice, the Ivory Tower. The écrivain is withdrawn but he is no dreamer; rather, he is a toiling language-worker whose isolation lasts only for as long as he is actually writing and who, far from washing his hands of the world, is its conscience, since his duty is to sound out his native language to the full.

The écrivain does not work from meanings, as the écrivant does, he works towards them. As Barthes likes to put it, meaning is 'postponed'. It is there, as it should be, when eventually we come to read what he has written: 'the écrivain conceives literature as an end, the world returns it to him as a means'. The world is ourselves and we read literature instrumentally, as if it were the work of an écrivant. We assume the process of signification has travelled from signified to signifier: the writer knew what he wanted to say, then he decided how exactly he should say it. We are upset if we are asked to believe the opposite, that an author had first decided how to say and only then discovered what 'it' was; this reversal of our habits seems degrading to the whole notion of authorship. But Barthes could claim that his version of how signification works is frequently true to the facts. It has the enormous merit of not positing, as the alternative version does, immaterial signifies which somehow exist in the writer's mind even before signifiers are found for them. (pp. 66-7)

Just as the intentions and activity of écrivain and écrivant are at variance, so are the goods they produce. The écrivain produces a Text, the écrivant only a Work. As before, it is the Text which matters, and as before the Text is still a hypothesis, a possibility for the future and at the same time a standard against which to measure the Works of the past and present. The Text is a sort of verbal carnival, in which language is manifestly out on parole from its humdrum daily tasks. The writer's language-work results in a linguistic spectacle, and the reader is required to enjoy that spectacle for its own sake rather than to look through language to the world. A Text comes, in fact, from consorting with the signifiers and letting the signifieds take care of themselves; it is the poetry of prose. (p. 69)

The Lover's Discourse [Fragments d'un discours amoureux] is a melancholy book to read because the state of being in love is presented by Barthes as a very painful one; but against the pain must be set the lover's perverse pleasure at finding himself trapped in a perfectly intractable situation. The very form that Barthes has given the book conspires against any idea of there being some teleological force at work that might be the light at the end of the lover's tunnel. The arrangement of its contents—of what Barthes calls the 'figures' of the lover's discourse—is alphabetical; which is the most impersonal arrangement of all. What Barthes has carefully avoided is any suggestion of a narrative element to the book, of an histoire d'amour; the form of the Discourse is as it is so as to 'discourage the temptation of meaning [sens]'.

And as with the love affair, so with the Text. Neither leads anywhere, both are charged uninterruptedly with an intense meaning. The lover finds himself, in another emphatic phrase from the Lover's Discourse, 'in the brazier of meaning', because of his compulsive need to interpret the ambiguous signs of the Loved One's behaviour. The lover is thus also a reader. But he is a reader of a particular kind, the kind that a Text, composed by a true écrivain, deserves. What he is attempting to do is to understand that Text from within, to re-produce it for himself. He is far too emotional, as someone in love, passively to settle for it as a mere representation of the Loved One.

The Text which the Loved One weaves counts, unless I am mistaken (Barthes himself makes no such connection), as a scriptible one, the scriptible being a Text so written as to make of its readers producers instead of consumers. They are scriptible, or 'writable', because the reader as it were re-writes them as he reads, having been induced to mimic in his own mind the process by which the Text came to be written in the first place. Texts are scriptible by definition; Works on the other hand, and that means all the literature we have experience of, are lisible, or 'readable'. We do not rewrite those, we simply read them; and read them moreover from start to finish, since Works are teleological, they move towards an appointed end. We proceed horizontally through a Work, but vertically, if that is possible, through a Text—the ultimate in Texts, I fancy, would be a single, infinitely meaningful word, which we could use as the dispensable cue for our own language-work. (pp. 70-1)

Barthes is a disappointing prophet, but he is prophetic only when he is especially anxious to undermine certain ideological principles, and to show that all principles are transient. His future—where the écrivains work at language and eventually inspire jouissance with their scriptible Texts—is comprehensible only as a stick with which he means to beat the present. And what Barthes appears to find most noxious in that present is its persistent belief in the integrity both of persons and of literary works. (Integrity here is to be taken in a philosophical sense: to mean one-ness.) Works and authors are commonly understood to be entities or wholes; as critical categories they imply essentialism. Barthes began, as we have seen, as an enemy of essentialism and he has remained one; and in his later writings his arguments against it have become both subtler and more complete. (pp. 72-3)

Barthes's own words in S/Z outnumber Balzac's by a good six or seven to one. This degree of unbalance, between text and commentary, is common in the study of poetry, exceedingly rare in the study of prose, for the reason not only that poetry is considered to be a more condensed use of language than prose, but also that, since it is not usually discursive, poetry can be chopped up ready for examination with less detriment to its continuity. As we know, the will to disintegration is unsleeping in Barthes, and his first act with Sarrasine is to divide it up into 561 lexies, or 'units of reading'. (p. 73)

But this ruthless dissolution of the text is only a start; the categories which Barthes introduces in order to conduct his analysis of it are even more destructive of its supposed unity. These are the five codes, which have become one of his most admired innovations. Each has a different responsibility: the Hermeneutic and Actional codes regulate the sequences of events in the story, the first being concerned with the narrative 'enigmas' which the story poses and eventually solves, the second quite straightforwardly with the successive stages into which a distinct action is divided; the Semic and Symbolic codes Barthes uses to catalogue the meanings of characters, situations, and events in the story, the Symbolic code being reserved for the various oppositions on which the narrative structure is founded; and the Referential code, finally, is held to codify all the many references which the story makes to a reality outside the text.

This last code is a controversial one because it is in a text's references to an extra-textual or historical reality that the practice of Realism is held mainly to lie. Barthes introduces the Referential code, provocatively, last of all, and asks it to take care of Sarrasine's numerous references to morality, psychology, history, and art. These references one might think were Balzac's own: those points in his story where he introduced his own thoughts and preferences and embedded his fiction solidly in the reality of his time. But not so, according to Barthes, who delights in proving how the arch-realist refers constantly not directly to life but to the commonplaces of the age, to the doxa. The 'real' turns out to be the 'already written'; any originality that might have been claimed for Balzac vanishes before the authority of the code. Balzac is not inventing, he is quoting; he is even accused at one point of 'spewing out stereotypes', a crime which Barthes could never forgive. More damagingly, he points out also how the verbal descriptions of people and places which are so supremely Realist and characteristically Balzacian, themselves originate in the techniques not of writing but of painting…. (p. 74)

The major injustice of which Barthes is guilty in S/Z is the glibness with which he invokes the accepted wisdom of Balzac's own time whenever the Referential code comes into play. Admittedly, Balzac is not famous for his moral or psychological acumen, but that does not mean that he had no insights of his own at all into contemporary human behaviour in France. In point of fact Barthes is referring Balzac's various judgements in Sarrasine to a corpus of 'stereotypes' which does not exist. Barthes cannot know, because no one can know, exactly where Balzac is referring to current notions of human psychology, let us say, and where he is hoping to amend those notions in order to bring them closer into line with what he believed to be the facts. When Balzac talks of 'the kind of frenzy which only disturbs us at that age when desire has something terrible and infernal about it', Barthes allots this dismissively to 'the psychology of age' as if it were unthinkable that it might be the fruit of observation or experience. Under his dispensation it is hard to see how the common stock of knowledge or belief could ever be modified.

Sarrasine is very much a Work and not a Text: it is lisible, not scriptible. Nevertheless, in S/Z Barthes manages to flood it with meanings. It has what he calls 'a limited plurality'. It is not, by the time he has finished analysing it, and distributing its different elements among his five codes, at all the unity that it was. Its continuity has been broken by the division into lexies: or rather its discontinuity has been exposed, since the continuity of a text is a deception. To undeceive us in this respect has been a most important part of Barthes's programme, because the continuum belongs in nature not in art. (pp. 75-6)

[Just] as the narrative of Sarrasine is irremediably broken up, so too is its author. The great aim of S/Z is to 'de-originate' the text, to demonstrate in what way it is a weaving together of many voices rather than the utterance of just one—that of Balzac. All texts, even those as thoroughly lisible as Sarrasine, give voice to a chorus (and the more cacophonous that chorus proves to be the better we should like it, if we are faithful Barthesians). S/Z bears out quite dazzlingly the structuralist premise that 'the rule is openly substituted for subjectivity, and technique for expression'…. There is no question of Balzac being thought of as 'expressing himself' in Sarrasine because that would be Idealism, which believes that the writer has a self independent of and preexisting what he writes and that he sets out to represent his self in language. That Barthes does not allow. For him a writer's 'self' is a convention of the text of which he is the author, a 'creature of paper' or else an 'effect of language'…. (p. 76)

The writer is thus no more than the grammatical subject, real or implied, of a piece of writing: the explicit or implicit 'I'. He is not a substantive presence to be located, as in the past, 'behind' the text. He has undergone a dissolution because he is to be found everywhere in what he writes. In a text 'the subject comes undone, as if a spider were to dissolve itself into its web'…. The writer therefore dwells in his text as a form; materially speaking, he is a personal pronoun. Much of his reality has had to be sacrificed because language is an objective, collective system which we can only use, never expropriate. The real 'I' is thus debarred from ever putting in an appearance…. When he turns to writing about himself, as in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Barthes lives strictly up to his own rules and appears there in the third person, either as 'he' or as 'RB'. In the subsequent Lover's Discourse, on the other hand, which is not offered as an autobiographical work although there are self-evidently autobiographical moments in it, he chooses to write in the first person throughout. But this first person is that representative first person which philosophers like to use when they pause to instantiate some abstract argument ('I am sitting in my study. I see a chair. What is actually involved in my seeing a chair?'; and so forth). This is an impersonal, structural 'I', an empty form with which we can each identify. (pp. 76-7)

[There] is much of the outsider in Barthes, of the person who willingly alienates himself from the culture in which he lives the better to explain and at the same time to judge it. He has once or twice posed in his time as a 'scientist', bringing what are uncommonly sharp powers of analysis to bear on processes of signification but without revealing any moral or political attitude towards them. These have been the only dull or unsatisfactory moments of his literary career (I am thinking above all of the technical sections of Système de la mode (1967), Barthes's long semiotic study of fashion writing). Barthes is not a scientist but a moralist—anyone who has read A Lover's Discourse must recognize that.

I do not mean by that that he wants to impose a particular form of morality on other people, because nothing could be further from the truth: he is the patentee after all of a conception of writing which sees it ideally as an activity beyond Good and Evil. He is a moralist in the sense that moral passions and distinctions excite him, and he would like, as the French moralists of the seventeenth century did, to try and plot them on paper. His writings are diverse but underlying them is a philosophical consistency. Barthes is both a materialist in philosophy and an avowed hedonist, judging intellectual experiences, like experience in general, by the gratification they provide.

One of the lessons he has taught is that we have scant right to call our language our own, because it is a system to which we must surrender much of our individuality whenever we enter it. Whoever speaks or writes is, in his description, no more than 'the great empty envelope' around the words. Barthes, the author, may be only the name on an envelope, but no one in recent years has put the French language to richer, more original, or more intelligent use. (pp. 78-9)

John Sturrock, "Roland Barthes," in Structrualism and Since: From Lévi-Strauss to Derrida, edited by John Sturrock (© Oxford University Press 1979; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979, pp. 52-80.

Christopher Prendergast

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Two writers, Nietzsche and Gide, both of whom played a decisive role in Barthes's intellectual formation, once compared their mode of thinking as analogous to a 'dance'. The analogy could be aptly applied to Barthes's own work, not in the sense of a carefully choreographed execution, but rather as an experimental performance, forever changing positions, ceaselessly self-revising, above all always on the move….

[In] the simplest terms, what was Barthes—a literary critic, a cultural historian, an anthropologist of the modern world, a structuralist, a semiologist? What was his most important book—the structural study of French fashion (Système de la mode, 1967), the semiological travelogue on Japan (L'Empire des signes, 1970), the studies of Racine and Balzac (Sur Racine, 1963, S/Z, 1970), the 'anti-autobiography' (Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, 1975), the study of the rhetoric of Love (Fragments d'un discours amoureux, 1977)? It is not just a question of the formidable range and catholicity of his interests but, more deeply, a question of intellectual strategy. Peculiarly resistant to our institutional orderings of the universe of knowledge, Barthes's work is, self-proclaimedly, without a centre….

[The] difficulty of 'placing' Barthes derives directly from the fact that he consciously organised his whole career around making a virtue, and an inspiration, of the figure of displacement. As in Gide, fixity and positionality are in Barthes associated with the claustration of the spirit. In more political vein (arising from his encounters with the work of Marx, Sartre and Brecht), they produce that ideological monster, the Doxa (the established Wisdom) whose oppressive weight locks us into the given order of things as if it were the natural order of things.

What Barthes leaves us, therefore, is not so much a body of doctrine or a contribution to a discipline, as a general way of looking at the world in which the equivocal and the self-displacing are indispensable ingredients of its integrity. Within that way of looking there is, however, a pretty steady gaze. It is focussed primarily on the rhetoric of social life; in more formal terms, on the sign (as an extension of the Saussurian project of semiology as the 'science of signs') or rather on sign-ification, in the literal sense of the ways we make meaning and meaning makes us, constructs us as 'subjects' and our relations with others. The gaze is predominantly critical, the attitude of the 'mythologist' as defined in Mythologies (1957), whose decoding of the messages in the artefacts and practices of the contemporary world is also an activity of unmasking and demystification. (p. 627)

The main argument of Le Degré zéro de l'écriture (1953) springs from the concept of 'écriture' as the area in which the writer, through his relation to the signifying conventions of his medium, takes up a position vis-à-vis the standardised ways of seeing of his society. S/Z is not just a scrupulously detailed analysis of a short text by Balzac; it is also a general reflection on the order of mimesis as controlled by, and passively repeating, the socially negotiated (or imposed) 'knowledge' through which the given order of reality fashions itself in the image of Reality tout court.

But against this relation of pure repetition, there is also literature's other side—the source of its exemplary value for Barthes—as a force which outplays and undoes established orders of representation. It is that force which breaks through fixed systems of meaning into a domain where meanings are both endlessly problematical and endlessly possible, a pluralistic, multidimensional, heterogeneous space in which the reader can make, unmake and remake the text in a variety of systematic ways. One of Barthes's major contributions lies in his insistence on the reader's share in the process of constructing the 'reality' of the text. In this endeavour he was not alone, but it is arguable that he did more than anyone else to affirm the active potential of the reader, and to free him from the attitude of deferential submission to institutional authorities as the custodians of 'correct' interpretation. An important emphasis here was on the idea of 'play' ('jouer' and 'déjouer' are favourite Barthesian terms): Barthes's reader plays (with) the text, in the sense both of the musical instrument and the child's toy, at once strictly regulated and freely ludic. In his later work, notably Le Plaisir du texte (1973), this way of construing the literary experience, in its more radical forms, came to be associated with the life of the unconscious and in particular the erotic. Here the reading of the text, especially the 'modern' text, is posed as an experience in which the 'codes' vacillate and identities dissolve, entailing a dissolution of the socially positioned subject in a manner analogous to the melting rapture of jouissance.

The radical force of literature for Barthes thus lies in its unstitching of the socially woven fabric of our 'subjectivity'. Yet quite what the exact relation is between literature and jouissance was never made fully clear; moreover that a permanently 'deconstructed' subjectivity is necessarily a source of rapture remains a moot point. Other problems remain. For example, in Critique et vérité (1966), Barthes's most programmatic statement of what the study of literature might be, there is the promise of a formalisation of literature's polyvalency, an account of the underlying 'logic' of literary plurality—a promise no sooner made than withdrawn.

Another difficulty, arising from the opposition classique/moderne in S/Z, concerns Barthes's relation to the literature of the past. Although he denied that his use of the terms 'classic' and 'modern' implied a schematic literary history or a view of the 'classic' as the poor relation of the modern, the choice of the very terms generated considerable obfuscation. Finally, and more generally, there was, in his later writings, a clear movement towards a kind of reductive pessimism with regard to language and meaning as such. In the earlier texts, there is a firmly stated distinction: between a healthy and a diseased condition of signification; between signifying practices in which we are producers rather than mere consumers; between systems that are open and self-critical and those which are closed and taken-for-granted. In his later work, however, there appears a tendency to pose the scene of language as such almost exclusively as one of oppression and violence. Like Foucault's police discursive or Lacan's assimilation of language, and the symbolic order it sustains, to the negating authority of the Law, Barthes's later thinking identifies closely with that general disposition of modern French thought to see any constituted system of sense in terms of a totalitarian model of power and domination.

This reaches its height in the last published work, Leçon (the text of his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France), where he proposes that language is inherently fascist, on the grounds that its primary operations of nomination and predication forcibly coerce the subject, both speaking and spoken to, into a system of classificatory categories over which he has no choice or control. A minimal criticism of this somewhat dispiriting view is that if language is repressive, it is also enabling; in Chomsky's emphasis, if constrained and constraining, it is also a rich system.

Yet the problems are an essential part of the inheritance. Barthes does not bequeath us a Wisdom, and the last thing for those of us whom he inspired is to collapse into a reverential hagiography. The 'legacy' is as much a set of problems and questions as anything else. The text of Barthes belongs to the living, to active inquiry, open debate, perpetual revision, unlike what, in Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, he called the text of the dead: Texte des morts: texte litanique ou on ne peut changer un mot. (p. 628)

Christopher Prendergast, "The Open Text," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2562, April 25, 1980, pp. 627-28.

Thomas Merton

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To say [Barthes] is one of the new French "structuralists" is no help: it is only misleading. What is "structuralism" any-way? We shall later see whether such a "school of philosophy" exists at all. Meanwhile, Barthes can be localized as a French critic and indeed as one of the most articulate and important literary critics writing today in any language, although Writing Degree Zero might not be enough, by itself, to convince anyone of the fact.

This is an extremely condensed little book, thick with esoteric language, highly charged with intuitions which may or may not be profound. You need some time to decide whether or not this is really a brilliant book or just another bag of critical tricks.

Barthes is at odds with Sartre on the question of littérature engagée. In other words he does not think the writer has a duty to arouse in the reader a revolutionary consciousness of some sort, though he does seem to think that "writing" is a subversive activity. On the other hand, he carries out an exemplary campaign of criticism against all forms of writing with a message, and particularly of writing with a political message. To be more precise, he separates the writing from the message and dissects the very mode of revolutionary writing (whether of the French or of the Marxist revolutions). He is, however, very much in favor of Brecht precisely as writer. And his model of "writing degree zero" is Robbe-Grillet. (pp. 140-41)

He is not saying that the "only good novelist" is Robbe-Grillet, or that the "only valid theater" is that of Brecht. He just wants to examine how writing works, whether in Robbe-Grillet (who refuses all complicity with the reader) or in Michel Butor (who takes the reader into his confidence). Barthes is not dealing with "good-bad" divisions at all. We must not confuse him with Sartre, a moralist who bristles with pastoral "shoulds" even while he prescribes to us the most austere and melancholy of freedoms, beyond all comfort of good-and-evil.

Barthes invents his new mystical category, "writing," and sets it up against all the "shoulds" of style. He confronts Sartre's distinction between language, which is "given," and style, which is "chosen" and "free" (therefore the region of commitment, lucidity, subversion, nobility, and revolution). He shows that this division will not work. Style (he thinks) is as much "given" as language. It springs "from the body and the past of the writer."… In a certain way it places the author outside history—though this cannot be pushed too far, and it assumes too readily that style is merely personal, idiosyncratic: a description which might fit the romantics and is of course adequate for Rimbaud and René Char, who are "saturated with style." (p. 141)

To carry out his job, according to Barthes, the writer must accept his language and accept his style as given: what he has to choose is his writing. Not so much the kind of writing as the act of writing. If he is honest, he makes this choice in the full consciousness that what he is doing is merely writing, not something else ("expressing himself," "arousing a revolutionary consciousness," "exploring the metaphysical abyss of being," etc.). When the choice is completely lucid, when the writer chooses simply to write and renounces all the rest ("message," "expression," "soul," "revolution"), then the writing itself stands out clearly as writing. A distance is established which reminds the reader not to get lost in the writer or in the writing, not to immerse himself in false complicities with the message or the emotion, not to get swept away by illusions of an inner meaning, a slice of life, a cosmic celebration, an eschatological vision. When the writing is just writing, and when no mistake about this is possible because the very writing itself removes all possibility of error, then you have "writing degree zero."

How does writing cool down to this icy state?

Though in this early book Barthes cannot yet be accused of "structuralism," he does appeal to the linguistic theories of de Saussure…. (p. 142)

The "writer" is conscious of words in synchronous interrelated systems (style, etc.) and if he knows what he is doing he can deliberately choose to subvert the systems by his use of words. It is here, and not in his doctrine, his "revolutionary message"—or in a supposed "revolutionary style" that the writer really changes the world—(though he should be free of any obvious purpose to change anything). (p. 143)

The point that Barthes wants to make about "writing" is that it is a genuine matter of choice. The writer's mere decision to write is what matters, not his decision to communicate a political message or share a human experience (say of passion, conviction, discovery, exaltation).

Here we come to the precise point where it is difficult to keep up with Barthes. What precisely does the "writer" choose when he decides to write—and write cool? Where does he stand in relation to the rest of the world? His is not of course a childish and narcissistic choice: "I will be a writer—watch me write!" It has to imply a committed and responsible attitude toward the rest of the world. Where Sartre says that the writer becomes responsible to the world for a message or a style that awakens a new consciousness in man, Barthes sees it differently. For him the writer is more responsible to his writing than he is to his public. To be more exact: the "writer" (if he is cool) does not try to communicate something to the rest of the world, but only to define correctly the relation between writing and the world. This means that he knows his business is to write first of all, not to teach, to amuse, to inspire, to elevate, to shock, or to transform society. He does something to society not by pushing against its structures—which are none of his business—but by changing the tune of its language and shifting the perspectives which depend on the ways words are arranged. He systematically de-mythologizes literature. What the writer owes society is, then, to refuse to communicate with the reader if the urge to communicate interferes with his writing. And what the reader will look for is precisely this refusal. This, at least, is what he will look for in "writing degree zero."

The only thing that remains to be explained is: how does the reader keep awake when reading such writing? Barthes does not enlighten us. He assumes that one will follow Robbe-Grillet with alert attention, and without boredom. Maybe somewhere in "structuralism" there is magic or miracle about which we have not yet heard. Fortunately, Robbe-Grillet is not the only writer. Others are not quite so bleak.

Barthes' subtlety can easily reduce us to blind exasperation if we do not take into account his analysis of other kinds of "writing." When we read all he has to say about "political writing," "revolutionary writing," classicism, romanticism, the nineteenth century novel, and Mallarmé "the Hamlet of writing," we find that he is not just advocating solipsism for purity's sake and a Manichean rejection of art. He is really saying something both new and important about the nature of writing: that it is in fact gestus.

"Gestus" is more than "gesture," more than idiosyncrasy. It is the chosen, living, and responsible mode of presence of the writer in his world. But this gestus has been overlaid and corrupted with all sorts of elements which have turned it into posturing. Nowhere a more brilliant analysis of the rhetoric of the French Revolution—and its human or inhuman implications—than in this little book of Barthes. Nowhere a more devastating commentary on Racine and the whole culture of French classicism than in his essays on Racine. Nowhere a more ruthless unmasking of the phoniness of Marxist "literature" or of the "subwriting" of Zola, Maupassant, and Daudet. Naturalism and socialist realism are pure artifice and pure posture just because they claim to be entirely "real" and to induce, by "style," a new consciousness of reality. Their "realism" is an expression of the decay of a bourgeois consciousness which lost touch with reality a hundred years ago…. Barthes sums it all up: as "mechanizing without restraint the intentional signs of art." For what? To sell the stuff, of course. To make money by creating an illusion of significance.

The authentic gestus of writing begins only when all meaningful postures have been abandoned, when all the obvious "signs" of art have been set aside. At the present juncture, such writing can hardly be anything but antiwriting. The writer is driven back to the source of his writing, since he can no longer trust the honesty of his customary dialogue with the rest of society. But, Barthes argues, in doing so he recovers something of the numinous power of that gestus which is charismatic only because it is completely modest.

To do this, the "writer" must forget all charismatic exaltation, all aspiration to power, all numen, all that would seem to give him some ascendancy over the reader. He must practice writing "without alibi, without thickness and without depth … the exact contrary of poetic writing." Here language no longer "violates the abyss" but slides away from us across an icy surface. (pp. 143-45)

What Barthes says about writing corresponds more or less exactly to what Ad Reinhardt said about painting—and said in painting. It is a kind of quietism, if you like; but a deadly, Zenlike stillness out of which—as you find out by reading Barthes himself—there does nevertheless spring a certain inscrutable excitement….

Perhaps the best place to get acquainted with Barthes is in his fine essay on the staging and acting of Racine in the traditional French theater. Here we see clearly that he is not preaching art for art's sake but just the opposite. The theatrical conventions of the Comédie Française have come to demand that in acting Racine the actors cease to address one another and simply sing pure and perfect words which soar "vertically" to some imagined god of pure "meaning." If we are tempted to think "writing degree zero" means something of the sort, we must begin over again, we have not understood it.

Space does not permit an adequate treatment of Barthes' Racine. It is a masterpiece of literary criticism, the power and impact of which may not be fully felt by one who has not had to study Racine in a French Lycée. The criticism goes far beyond Racine himself. It gets at the roots not only of French civilization but of the entire culture of the Western world. (p. 146)

Thomas Merton, "Writing As Temperature" (originally published in a slightly different form in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXVII, Summer, 1969), in his The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, edited by Brother Patrick Hart (copyright © 1969 by the Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1981, pp. 140-46.

Edward Jayne

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If a consistent theory of criticism emerges in [the] discontinuity of perspectives offered by Barthes … throughout his career, it very probably depends on what might be coined a zero-degree hermeneutics comparable to the concept of zero-degree style which he originally proposed almost three decades ago. As he advocates for literary form, his critical theory seems to be suspended in interspace between the methodologies which dominate it, but without really bringing these into harmony with each other. The critical act verges on each of them, but short of fusion and in a pattern of temptation and quick abandonment which actually seems to have accelerated throughout his career. In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, for example, he described his rejection of orthodox belief ("doxa") as a mode of "cruising," and in his last book, Camera Lucida, published in 1980, he finally turned to photography for a vision of permanence which eluded his literary methodology. In The Pleasures of the Text Barthes missed the opportunity to arrive at an affective synthesis based on the fundamental and almost self-evident premise that both the bliss and pleasure of literary experience (which he tried to distinguish from each other) are comparable to physical gratification as conscious byproducts of tension reduction—or, in a more global sense, of anxiety reduction as mediated by literary form. If Barthes had tried to explore this connection, he could well have established a basis for integrating psychology and stylistics, and with clear implications relevant to the Marxist theory of alienation—a synthesis which might have suggested a much more coherent theory of explication. But this of course wasn't his intention. Like the obsessive seducer who must keep his mistresses apart from each other, Barthes seems to have drawn upon each of these fields with no expectation of sustaining a close relationship or of letting any of them converge so their coincidental ties might be revealed. Instead, he touched upon each dedicated to the precarious task of keeping them proximate but isolated as "zero degree" involvements. (p. 53)

By far the most obvious rejection of Sartre's theory of engagement … was made by Roland Barthes in his first book, Le Degre Zero de l'Ecriture, published in 1953 and translated in 1967 as Writing Degree Zero…. Barthes proposed here a formal compromise that anticipated the structuralist perspective perhaps a decade before it crystalized and acquired widespread popularity as an intellectual movement. With a typically Gallic mixture of elliptical pronouncements, he delineated a critical theory which stretched in scope from Sartre's notion of political commitment at one extreme to a formal, non-political theory of language and style at the other. Within these rather wide limits he could range as a "critic in motion," never staying at a position long enough to develop its ramifications with any thoroughness, but swiftly and almost imperceptibly shifting to a new orientation, often radically different if not the exact opposite. His political views appear to have remained militant enough to provoke attacks by Dieguez and others, but his real interest came to its focus on language and style, formal dimensions of literature which he found to be independent of history. He was apparently struggling within himself at an initial stage of transition from engagement to structuralism, not fully prepared to accept his apostasy and still somewhat confused about his course of direction as a critic. Anticipating his later concern with a linguistic model of experience, he seems to have been trying to explain Sartre's theory of engagement in terms of Saussure's theory of language, and in lieu of synthesis to have nervously shifted back and forth between the two. His indecisiveness actually prefigured the ambivalence he was later to find essential to the identity of the tragic hero. By means of this vacillation, he progressively reduced the theory of engagement until it lost its impetus as a moral obligation and became instead an impediment to the formal lucidity he considered the primary objective of literature. His uncertainty thus obliged his rejection of engagement, though he often returned to its theme with renewed fascination. Unable to free himself entirely from its demands, he obsessively sought its denial, an engagement to undermine engagement, and this pattern of reaction formation offers, I think, the key to his development as a critic.

If there was any logic to Barthes' pattern of withdrawal, it seems best explained as having been a three-stage transition from commitment to formalism, a flexible "strategy" of detours, retreats, and advancements without any definite progressive sequence except in its cleverness as a texture of argument. He often backtracked upon himself, but only to recover and incrementally move forward, actually modulating his thesis from one stage to the next: (1) conceding the political relevance of language with enough militancy to suggest Sartre's demands for commitment, (2) nevertheless proposing a broader context, a comprehensive theory of form to deal with commitment in its interaction with other influences upon the writer, and then (3) altogether nullifying his original concession to engagement by proposing a theory of non-political commitment more appropriate to this interactive context as "writing degree zero." With these three stages—concessive, tensive and formalist—he first acknowledged with a generous tautology that historic responsibility is an important feature of prose having social implications, which he called ecriture, or, loosely translated, writing as process—a concept which can be traced beyond Sartre to Saussure's definition of parole. At the next step, he eluded Sartre's social imperatives by reifying style and language to be specific influences upon ecriture outside social history, yet loosely connected or "linked" to provide a formal history of literature. Finally, he eliminated mediation from ecriture in the sense intended by Sartre by proposing that "writing degree zero" is ultimately the most satisfactory mode of ecriture for contemporary literature since it provides a perfect balance between journalism and literary style which nullifies each through its compromise with the other. (pp. 55-6)

Both language and style separately influence ecriture according to Barthes, but whatever polarity exists between them, they must primarily be recognized to be permanent dimensions of literature counterbalanced against the ephemeral influence of journalism committed to history. The engagement advocated by Sartre involves a futile imbalance of ecriture as journalism, whereas "writing degree zero" supposedly achieves the perfect but precarious balance between history on one hand and style and language on the other. (p. 56)

Language was depicted by Barthes as the force upon ecriture probably the most secure in its independence from history, again suggestive of the structuralist emphasis upon synchrony which may be traced to the concept of langue proposed by Saussure. Its lexicon of rules and definitions exactly counterbalances parole—and ecriture as well—in either case offering itself as an alternative to the ongoing accumulation of words and locutions in an utterance. According to Barthes, langue is a corpus of habits and prescriptions internalized by the individual as "a reflex response involving no choice," much as it had been defined by Saussure. One may enjoy considerable latitude in making his selection from this lexicon, but in order to be understood he must be able to combine words and locutions in habitual patterns which can be recognized by others of his language group. Barthes accordingly treated language as a "collective preconscious," a vast accumulation of shared linguistic formulas which dominate our ideas and lives much more than we realize. He even went so far as to attribute to this aggregate a sacred truth as the foundation of literature which makes it immune to historic change…. Obviously at the second stage of his strategy, he elevated language to serve as a higher authority which necessarily imposes rules and structures upon the experience of literature. Though the importance of language can hardly be denied, nor the relative durability of syntax, the approach he took obliged an authoritarianism entirely at conflict with Sartre's ideal of responsibility to intellectual freedom. It would also seem to have been in conflict with the judgment of Barthes himself when he elsewhere deplored, at the first level of his strategy, "the eternal repressive content of the word 'order.'" Language had become practically a benevolent deity, an unmoved mover with a structural "ethic" to be imposed upon all experience. (pp. 58-9)

Barthes successfully deemphasized history's effect upon ecriture as diachronic behavior by resorting to both style and language as vertical influences reflective of the axis of simultaneities proposed by Saussure, a synchronic repository of signs, functions, and even biological need. Blind forces or not, language and style could be hypostatized in this manner to provide an escape to permanence from the responsibility of engagement.

But a qualified synthesis was needed, and according to Barthes this could only be attained through literary form which interrelates language and style and then connects them to history in perfect unmediated equipoise. Through form these three elemental forces, language, style, and history, impinge upon each other to bind the writer to society through shared structural expectations. Form is the essential middle term which makes literature possible by relating and integrating the others. It cannot be entirely subordinated to engagement as Sartre recommended for tipping its balance toward history, since this disruption of its equilibrium would merely compound the problems of form without escaping them. Rather, form itself becomes the principal concern of the author,… more essential to literature than any of its ingredients and in fact "the first and last instance of literary responsibility." For this reason Barthes could praise "writing degree zero" for having liberated form from ideology, which he felt to be irrelevant to the literary task except in periods when journalism has usurped "zero degree" symmetry. He construed "writing degree zero" not to be a reaction to political commitment, but the perfect source of equipoise which makes this commitment altogether unnecessary. Without retreating from politics, he was marching in a different direction, toward "zero-degree" balance between journalism and the timelessness of style and language wrought by form. (pp. 59-60)

Barthes found style's departure from classicism to have been regrettable and by implication socially divisive. He attacked realism as an artificial combination of formal signs and "pieces brought in from popular language, strong words or dialect words." He also criticized the literary preterite (passe simple) as much the cause of this artificiality in narration. But he was primarily concerned with the modern shift in emphasis from classical syntax to the connotative "density" of words, the new "dwelling place" of ideation. He claimed that with the increased emphasis upon style, meaning has been conveyed by a "lexical basis" for words approaching complete independence from syntax. Compared with classical purity, modern literary expression has gained a "brute" objectivity in the isolated identity of words loosely strung together in a "parody" of syntax…. Consequently Barthes wanted to reverse priorities by shifting signification to an intra-referential formalism among words, a syntactic dominance best represented by classicism; and he seems to have had reservations about "style" precisely because of its density of personal connotations as explained by the theories of both Merleau-Ponty and Ogden and Richards. The abstract core of one's identity he could accept as the root of style, but not its more inclusive manifestation as personality. He could only abhor the superabundance of personal implications too thoroughly rooted in individual experience, as well, of course, as the social circumstances which situate this experience in the context of history.

As indicated earlier, Barthes proposed that the "stylistic" trend toward non-communication has been brought to its ultimate extreme in "writing degree zero," a synthesis which restored clarity to language through formal "silence."… Through "zero degree" symmetry, he claimed, the excesses of journalism and dense literary style cancel each other out, leaving us with the "absence of all signs," the "style of absence which is almost an ideal absence of style." The "zero-degree" writer is aware of modern disorder but anticipates with trepidation an "absolutely homogeneous state of society," presumably the democratic socialism advocated by Sartre. (pp. 60-1)

Barthes also argued that brief "revolutionary" oases of "zero-degree" style punctuate the presumably non-revolutionary flux of history—a peculiar formalist inversion of the theory of permanent revolution. On this basis he was able to propose that "writing degree zero" is actually more revolutionary than Sartre's concept of engagement since it dispenses with the dialectic effort to mediate social change in order to help bring about whatever oasis one might find desirable. Actually, Barthes' approach must be understood to have been just as much a response to social conflict, though it was necessarily limited to the author's silent observation without fruitlessly committing himself to praxis in the implementation of a social program. On one hand, with engagement, there was optimistic commitment to political objectives, on the other, with "writing degree zero," a pessimistic clarity which transcends involvement. Both might be considered to have been "revolutionary," but with entirely different results, one dialectic and the other formalist…. "Writing degree zero" was consequently justified as a neutral response to politics, a withdrawal to form from social conflicts which apparently defy resolution. It retains the clarity of the best journalism, but without its presumably clumsy objectives. In contrast to the public role of the committed propagandist, the "zero-degree" writer retires from society, as did Camus, to explore with lucid silence his own personal anguish in response to the distraction of endless public crises. Rejecting the ignis fatuus of social mediation, he turns instead to the authority of form, always "the first and last arbiter of literary responsibility." Secure under this authority, he becomes free to experiment with "zero-degree" style to express his politically emancipated vision of life. Social commitment has become inessential to the jobs of literature and criticism. (p. 62)

[In his introduction to Essais Critiques Barthes once again equated] ecriture with silence and form, even describing it as the discovery of the "largest language" and as a "secondary language" detached from the "slime of primary languages afforded him by the world, history, his existence …" Barthes claimed to share this solipsistic transcendence as a critic through a "kind of zero degree of the person"—also through his "secret practice of the indirect" and his ability "to accomplish his project of writing even while eluding it." It would be a mistake to ignore or downgrade the full implications of his confession here, for indeed he wholeheartedly committed himself to this evasive ambiguity. His criticism consistently proposed strategies to escape the demands of engagement, but without really putting an end to the matter. It almost seems as if Barthes spent thirty years denying the obligation imposed by Sartre's theory of engagement by turning first to alternative sources and then to formal structure, always finding safety in paradox yet complex enough in his cryptic honesty to acknowledge his evasiveness without fully exposing himself.

Perhaps the most significant work of Barthes in its range of eclectic borrowings in the service of formalism would be his important study Sur Racinè, published in 1960 and translated in 1964. Here he made what seems to have been a mature reconsideration of his transitional theories in Writing Degree Zero, and with the same basic purpose to elevate form over history, though he now turned from the general topic of ecriture to the more specific investigation of classical French tragedy. He was apparently engaged in the same conflict, but on a different battlefield and with a slightly different strategy. In Writing Degree Zero, he had tangentially suggested the "tragic element" in ecriture to be the struggle against "all-powerful signs" imposed by history. Now he expanded this point by entirely extracting tragedy from history as an absolutely timeless form of art which lacks even the interior features of process and duration. His new task seems to have been to remove time and process from tragedy as well as tragedy from history, establishing an aesthetics of double timelessness. Toward this objective he primarily concerned himself once again, as to be expected, with the question of form.

Not surprisingly, though, he also returned to the concept of "writing degree zero," which he anachronistically discerned in a Racinian transparence "eternally open to signification."… ["Zero degree"] consequently remains the key to On Racine as well as Writing Degree Zero and most of the rest of his books…. Whereas Racine would have been treated in Writing Degree Zero as a classical poet at the origin of style's evolution toward "zero-degree" lucidity to the twentieth century, he was now transfigured into its most consummate practitioner. This coincidence would suggest that the seventeenth century suffered from roughly the same problems as we do today and that "writing degree zero" somehow brought style to its full circle, exactly recreating classical purity in modern prose. As Camus' style restored classical syntax in prose, so the tragic vision of Racine, a renegade from Jansenism, foreshadowed our modern "zero-degree" disengagement. Separated by three centuries of stylistic excesses, both possess exactly the proper balance among journalism, style, and history, the external categories established by Barthes in Writing Degree Zero. In another sense, though, the category of language, essential to classicism in Writing Degree Zero, was given a more fundamental role in On Racine to become the primary source of form in both classicism and modern "zero-degree" ecriture. Meanwhile, history and style could be abandoned as alternatives to engagement because of this new and holistic emphasis upon language. Barthes also ignored the obvious differences between classical and modern "zero-degree" styles on the assumption that they are fundamentally identical in their approximation to syntactic perfection since they are impervious to the accidental influence of any particular epoch. (pp. 65-6)

Eclectic formalism pervades On Racine and gives the impression of a brilliantly disarranged catalogue of new dimensions beyond history, each having been explored to subordinate process to structure in its own unique fashion. With a psychocriticism derived from Mauron, Barthes investigated primordial family jealousies as the matrix for all tragic action. With the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss, he explored unreconciled mythic patterns, for example the antinomy between the powers of the sun and underground which he found to be of central importance in Phedra. And with the critical phenomenology of Bachelard and Poulet, he established a strictly spatial dimension for tragedy in the relationship among three tragic sites, the chamber, antechamber, and outside world. He also invoked his earlier theory of equipoise, but now applied to the phenomenology of the stage as spectacle. He assigned tragedy to the antechamber, the "site of language," a zero-degree threshold caught between the inner chamber, a psychological "abode of power," and the confused social realities of exterior space. Once again his threefold strategy of disengagement is to be detected in which … concrete experience was balanced against its structural sources, while form, the fulcrum between the two, effectively denied his concession through its imposition as a more inclusive consideration. Reductionism was thus even further "reduced" in the sense that all theories of behavior could be treated as questions of form. On this basis Barthes could borrow from a surprising variety of reductive approaches in order to extract tragedy from history through its presumably formal timelessness. (p. 67)

As indicated earlier, Barthes largely concentrated his attack upon process and duration to eliminate from tragedy even the most remote references to history and the responsibilities it might impose. In Writing Degree Zero, he had boldly proclaimed, "What must be destroyed is duration, that is, the ineffable binding force running through existence …" In Elements of Semiology, he similarly tried to eliminate process and density from verbal connotation with an ingenious theory of regressive "planes of expression." Here, in On Racine, he explained tragic action to be timeless by, hence free of history, treating duration as a tautological cancellation of terms which only accidentally occupy time…. He accordingly reduced all tragic processes to logical and mathematical formulations outside the dimension of time…. He viewed Racinian tragedy as an "autonomous object" existing beyond history, process and human frailties in a limbo of aesthetic perfection we must apprehend to appreciate as the final denial of praxis and engagement. In its perfection it finally offers the model he wanted to find of literary commitment which is absolute in its transcendence of engagement and its social imperatives.

The eclectic formalism of Barthes remains unquestionably brilliant despite his analytic extravagances. Attacks upon his consistency by Raymond Picard and others were inconsequential, for consistency was never his particular hobgoblin. Whatever he has sacrificed to contradictions and overlooked exceptions was more than regained in the fertility of his insights. To have abided by stringent tenets of veracity would have largely obstructed his quest for a formalist perspective adequate to explain writers such as Racine, Brecht, and Robbe-Grillet…. But it cannot be ignored that Barthes primarily committed himself to formalist objectives in order to supplant dialectics with a hermeneutics of zero-degree equipoise, and that he fell victim to most of the problems of formalism in his "radical" struggle to eliminate political relevance from consideration. His undeniable contribution to criticism, often justified in its risks, was more than burdened by his determination to minimize the tangible relationship between history and literature, first in Writing Degree Zero by subordinating history to form, and then in On Racine by removing process and duration from tragedy to the extent that these suggest even the vestigial influence of history. It seems to have been his sustained effort to extract process from art in order to eliminate art from the process of history, refining his formalism to the acute edge of what might be coined the Fallacy of Double Timelessness. This provided the single most important source of consistency in his syncretism, and it can be traced without much difficulty to his initial commitment to deny the importance of engagement.

If Sartre elected himself the conscience of France, Barthes epitomizes the endeavor of the modern French intellectual to squirm free from its demands, in his case by subsuming process to equipoise, experience to linguistic categories, and even language to the transcendent concept of silence. He chose to ignore Sartre's organic definition of history, shared with Marx, as simply "the activity of man pursuing his own ends," and instead construed it to be a reification, the abstract dimension of time as an inorganic category somehow inferior to the timelessness of form. But in his pursuit of unmediated equipoise, he neglected his early acknowledgement in Writing Degree Zero, "Now it is when history is denied that it is most unmistakably at work." And this, I think, was his problem, for by trying to escape history he made his acquiescence to it through the Gaullist and structuralist illusion of stability which might let him withdraw to the gratification of form. His commitment to this evasion defined his career as a critic, and successfully enough to guarantee his importance in the history of French criticism. (pp. 68-70)

Edward Jayne, "Zero-Degree Form: The Anti-Dialectics of Roland Barthes" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Minnesota Review (© 1977 The Minnesota Review), n.s. No. 9, Fall, 1977, pp. 52-70 [these excerpts revised by the author in January, 1983 for this publication].


Barthes, Roland


Barthes, Roland (Vol. 83)