Roland Barthes 1915–1980
(Full name Roland Gerard Barthes) French theorist, critic, essayist, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides an overview of Barthes's career. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Vol. 24.
One of the seminal figures in the French intellectual movement known as Structuralism, Barthes was a fundamental influence on the practice of modern social and literary criticism. His most widely studied works are those in which he rigorously applied semiologic principles—derived from Ferdinand de Saussure's structural linguistics and influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre's approach to political engagement—to the practice of literary criticism and the analysis of modern cultural artifacts. Barthes's theoretical approach developed and changed over time, however, and his later works largely eschew systematic, scientific investigation for more meditative, belletristic considerations. While some commentators view this evolution negatively as an abandonment of his earlier aspirations toward a scientific theory of narrative and culture, most see it as a refinement of style and perspective.
Barthes was born in Cherbourg, France, to middle-class Protestant parents. His father was killed in a naval battle in World War I, and Barthes was raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, first in Bayonne and then in Paris from the age of nine. In 1935 he began his studies at the Sorbonne, focusing on French, Greek, and Latin. A case of tuberculosis that Barthes suffered when he was nineteen left him ineligible for military service during World War II. He taught off and on for a number of years in Bayonne, Paris, Biarritz, and Bucharest, Romania, although a relapse of his TB in 1941 forced him to spend most of the next six years in sanatoriums. After being pronounced cured of tuberculosis in 1947, Barthes began publishing the essays that would later be collected in his first book, Le degré zéro de l'écriture (1953; Writing Degree Zero). From 1952 to 1959, while working as a teaching fellow at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, Barthes published the essays that were later compiled in his famous book, Mythologies (1957; Mythologies). In 1960 he joined the faculty at the École Practique des Hautes Études, serving as director of studies from 1962 until 1977 when he was elected to the chair of literary semiology at the Collège de France. From the 1960s on, Barthes's reputation as France's foremost literary theorist, social critic, and essayist was confirmed by such works as Système de la mode (1967; The Fashion System), S/Z (1970, S/Z), Le plaisir du texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text), and Frag-ments d'un discours amoureux (1977; A Lover's Discourse). Commentators have noted that Barthes came to assume the unofficial position—formerly occupied by Jean-Paul Sartre—of the leading French intellectual and preeminent Western thinker. Barthes remained at the Collège de France until his death in 1980 from injuries suffered during a traffic accident.
Critic Bjørnar Olsen has distinguished four stages in Barthes's critical development. He labels Barthes's first three works—Writing Degree Zero, Michelet (1954; Michelet), and Mythologies—his "committed writings" in that they reflect the influence of the two dominant ideological systems of their time, Marxism and Sartrean existentialism. Writing Degree Zero examines the distinctions Barthes perceived between language, literary style, and écriture, the aspect of discourse in which the author's existential situation, or sociohistorical context, imbues writings with unintended meanings that are revealed through close structural analysis. In Michelet he demonstrated the significance of écriture in the writings of French historian Jules Michelet, analyzing linguistic characteristics and textual structure in order to reveal hidden connotations and meanings. Karl Marx's early writings provided a model for Mythologies, in which Barthes studied aspects of contemporary French culture—such as professional wrestling, strip-tease, travel guides, the advertising of soap and laundry detergent—to illuminate the ways in which bourgeois ideology is disseminated and made to seem natural. The second phase of Barthes's career according to Olsen encompasses his most rigorous semiological writings of the 1960s, works that marked the highpoint of Structuralism in France. In his 1964 essay "Eléments de sémiologie," published in English in book form as Elements of Semiology, Barthes elaborated on ideas from Saussure, Roman Jakobson, and other noted linguists to distinguish between language, which refers to the abstract set of rules and conventions governing verbal and written communication, and speech, which refers to individual instances of the actual use of language. In The Fashion System Barthes's method, according to Mason Cooley, was "to study and classify the captions under the photographs in a year's issues of two fashion magazines, examining the theoretical ramifications of such statements as 'Prints win at the races' and 'Slim piping is striking.'" Whereas Elements of Semiology laid out the blueprint for semiological analysis, The Fashion System demonstrated it. The third phase of Barthes's career—in which he popularized concepts formulated by French literary theorists Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva—signalled the general shift in Western critical thinking in the early 1970s from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism. While his previous writings championed the notion that a text's meaning inheres in the structure of its components and is therefore knowable and fixed, works such as S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text examine the ways in which texts present a plurality of shifting connotations that are open to numerous interpretations. S/Z is a painstakingly detailed, line-by-line analysis of the Honoré de Balzac novella Sarrasine in which Barthes detects five "codes"—specific kinds of references, meanings, and connotations—that, through their interplay, offer the reader a multiplicity of meanings. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes categorizes all literary works as either texts of pleasure or texts of bliss. He associates the former with classic literary works and those that emulate them, describing texts of pleasure as "readerly" texts in that they reward traditional forms of interpretation and refer to common areas of knowledge. Texts of bliss he associated with modernist works, describing them as "writerly" texts in that they require the reader to "complete" the text by filling in gaps and making intertextual connections in ways that mainstream literature does not. The final phase of Barthes's career—typified by such works as Roland Barthes, (1975; Roland Barthes), A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, and Le chambre claire (1980; Camera Lucida)—is frequently described as his "hedonist" period because his subjects are more purely aesthetic than earlier ones and his style is meditative and introspective. Referring to himself in the third person throughout his autobiography, Roland Barthes, Barthes comments on photographs from his childhood and expounds upon matters of personal intellectual interest, presenting a portrait of his mind rather than of his social, emotional, and professional life. The most popular book Barthes ever wrote, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments was a bestseller in France and served as the basis for a play. The work grew out of a seminar he taught on "amorous discourse" in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The Sorrows of Werther) and uses monologues by a semi-autobiographical narrator to attempt to explain the meaning of love in a variety of contexts. In the first section of Camera Lucida, he analyzes news photographs and family snapshots and concludes that photography, though it can touch the emotions, is not an art because its close connection to reality fixes the interplay of connotations and thus leaves little room for interpretation. In the second part Barthes meditates on a photograph of his deceased mother and, writing movingly of his relationship with her, draws a connection between photography and death.
Being at the forefront of "the new criticism" in France, Barthes's works of the late 1950s through the 1960s were frequently criticized by older, university-based academics and critics for being pseudoscientific and jargon-laden. In two essays later collected in Essais critiques (1964; Critical Essays)—"Les deux critiques" ("The Two Criticisms") and "Qu'est-ce que la critique?" ("What Is Criticism?")—Barthes distinguished between the kind of criticism practiced in universities; which he disparaged as boring, naively objective, and excessively reliant on author biographies for causal explanations; and the structuralist, ideologically aware criticism he espoused. The controversy sparked by these two essays came to a head when Barthes published Sur Racine (1963; On Racine). This structuralist and psychoanalytic reading of the French dramatist's works was attacked by noted Racine scholar Raymond Picard in an essay entitled "Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture?" (meaning "New Criticism or New Fraud?"). Picard's main points were that Barthes's brand of criticism was subjective and did not take history into account. Outside of France, Barthes's works were accorded great critical acclaim and did much to establish Structuralism and, subsequently, Post-Structuralism in the United States. As his work began to focus on issues of pleasure and became increasingly autobiographical, Barthes was attacked by some commentators for abandoning his earlier Marxist and Structuralist agendas. However, his work, praised for its uniqueness and instructiveness, is generally regarded as among the most significant contributions to critical theory of the twentieth century, as much for the qualities of individual works as forthe unique and instructive character of the oeuvre. As noted Marxist scholar Fredric Jameson noted, Barthes's work is "a veritable fever-chart of all the significant intellectual and critical tendencies since World War II."