Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

Overview
Roland Gérard Barthes (12 November 1915 – 25 March 1980) (ʁɔlɑ̃ baʁt) was a French
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 literary theorist
Literary theory
Literary theory in a strict sense is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature. However, literary scholarship since the 19th century often includes—in addition to, or even instead of literary theory in the strict sense—considerations of...

, philosopher, critic
Critic
A critic is anyone who expresses a value judgement. Informally, criticism is a common aspect of all human expression and need not necessarily imply skilled or accurate expressions of judgement. Critical judgements, good or bad, may be positive , negative , or balanced...

, and semiotician
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

. Barthes' ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

, semiotics
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

, existentialism
Existentialism
Existentialism is a term applied to a school of 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual...

, social theory
Social theory
Social theories are theoretical frameworks which are used to study and interpret social phenomena within a particular school of thought. An essential tool used by social scientists, theories relate to historical debates over the most valid and reliable methodologies , as well as the primacy of...

, Marxism
Marxism
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

, anthropology
Anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 and post-structuralism
Post-structuralism
Post-structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of French intellectuals who came to international prominence in the 1960s and '70s...

.

Roland Barthes was born on 12 November 1915 in the town of Cherbourg
Cherbourg-Octeville
-Main sights:* La Glacerie has a race track.* The Cité de la Mer is a large museum devoted to scientific and historical aspects of maritime subjects.* Cherbourg Basilica* Jardin botanique de la Roche Fauconnière, a private botanical garden.* Le Trident theatre...

 in Normandy
Normandy
Normandy is a geographical region corresponding to the former Duchy of Normandy. It is in France.The continental territory covers 30,627 km² and forms the preponderant part of Normandy and roughly 5% of the territory of France. It is divided for administrative purposes into two régions:...

. He was the son of naval officer Louis Barthes, who was killed in a battle in the North Sea before his son was one year old.
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Encyclopedia
Roland Gérard Barthes (12 November 1915 – 25 March 1980) (ʁɔlɑ̃ baʁt) was a French
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 literary theorist
Literary theory
Literary theory in a strict sense is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature. However, literary scholarship since the 19th century often includes—in addition to, or even instead of literary theory in the strict sense—considerations of...

, philosopher, critic
Critic
A critic is anyone who expresses a value judgement. Informally, criticism is a common aspect of all human expression and need not necessarily imply skilled or accurate expressions of judgement. Critical judgements, good or bad, may be positive , negative , or balanced...

, and semiotician
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

. Barthes' ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

, semiotics
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

, existentialism
Existentialism
Existentialism is a term applied to a school of 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual...

, social theory
Social theory
Social theories are theoretical frameworks which are used to study and interpret social phenomena within a particular school of thought. An essential tool used by social scientists, theories relate to historical debates over the most valid and reliable methodologies , as well as the primacy of...

, Marxism
Marxism
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

, anthropology
Anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 and post-structuralism
Post-structuralism
Post-structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of French intellectuals who came to international prominence in the 1960s and '70s...

.

Life


Roland Barthes was born on 12 November 1915 in the town of Cherbourg
Cherbourg-Octeville
-Main sights:* La Glacerie has a race track.* The Cité de la Mer is a large museum devoted to scientific and historical aspects of maritime subjects.* Cherbourg Basilica* Jardin botanique de la Roche Fauconnière, a private botanical garden.* Le Trident theatre...

 in Normandy
Normandy
Normandy is a geographical region corresponding to the former Duchy of Normandy. It is in France.The continental territory covers 30,627 km² and forms the preponderant part of Normandy and roughly 5% of the territory of France. It is divided for administrative purposes into two régions:...

. He was the son of naval officer Louis Barthes, who was killed in a battle in the North Sea before his son was one year old. His mother, Henriette Barthes, and his aunt and grandmother raised him in the village of Urt and the city of Bayonne
Bayonne
Bayonne is a city and commune in south-western France at the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department, of which it is a sub-prefecture...

. When Barthes was eleven, his family moved to Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

, though his attachment to his provincial roots would remain strong throughout his life.

Barthes showed great promise as a student and spent the period from 1935 to 1939 at the Sorbonne
Sorbonne
The Sorbonne is an edifice of the Latin Quarter, in Paris, France, which has been the historical house of the former University of Paris...

, where he earned a license in classical letters. He was plagued by ill health throughout this period, suffering from tuberculosis
Tuberculosis
Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body...

, which often had to be treated in the isolation of sanatoria
Sanatorium
A sanatorium is a medical facility for long-term illness, most typically associated with treatment of tuberculosis before antibiotics...

. His repeated physical breakdowns disrupted his academic career, affecting his studies and his ability to take qualifying examinations. It also kept him out of military service during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 and, while being kept out of the major French universities meant that he had to travel a great deal for teaching positions, Barthes later professed an intentional avoidance of major degree-awarding universities, and did so throughout his career.

His life from 1939 to 1948 was largely spent obtaining a license in grammar and philology
Philology
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics.Classical philology is the philology of Greek and Classical Latin...

, publishing his first papers, taking part in a medical study, and continuing to struggle with his health. In 1948, he returned to purely academic work, gaining numerous short-term positions at institutes in France
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

, Romania
Romania
Romania is a country located at the crossroads of Central and Southeastern Europe, on the Lower Danube, within and outside the Carpathian arch, bordering on the Black Sea...

, and Egypt
Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

. During this time, he contributed to the leftist Parisian paper Combat, out of which grew his first full-length work, Writing Degree Zero
Writing Degree Zero
Writing Degree Zero is a book of literary criticism by Roland Barthes. First published in 1953, it was Barthes' first full-length book and was intended, as Barthes writes in the introduction, as "no more than an Introduction to what a History of Writing might be."-Structure:Writing Degree Zero is...

(1953). In 1952, Barthes settled at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
Centre national de la recherche scientifique
The National Center of Scientific Research is the largest governmental research organization in France and the largest fundamental science agency in Europe....

, where he studied lexicology
Lexicology
Lexicology is the part of linguistics which studies words, their nature and meaning, words' elements, relations between words , word groups and the whole lexicon....

 and sociology
Sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

. During his seven-year period there, he began to write a popular series of bi-monthly essays for the magazine Les Lettres Nouvelles, in which he dismantled myths of popular culture
Popular culture
Popular culture is the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena that are deemed preferred per an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the...

 (gathered in the Mythologies collection that was published in 1957).

Barthes spent the early 1960s exploring the fields of semiology and structuralism
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

, chairing various faculty positions around France, and continuing to produce more full-length studies. Many of his works challenged traditional academic views of literary criticism
Literary criticism
Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals...

 and of renowned figures of literature. His unorthodox thinking led to a conflict with another French thinker, Raymond Picard
Raymond Picard
Raymond Picard was an author, prominent Sorbonne professor and Jean Racine scholar noted for his scathing tract "Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture?" , which was aimed at the "subjective" analytical approach of Roland Barthes and other non-traditional approaches by writers of the so called...

, who attacked the French New Criticism
New Criticism
New Criticism was a movement in literary theory that dominated American literary criticism in the middle decades of the 20th century. It emphasized close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic...

 (a label that he inaccurately applied to Barthes) for its obscurity and lack of respect towards France's literary roots. Barthes' rebuttal in Criticism and Truth (1966) accused the old, bourgeois criticism of a lack of concern with the finer points of language and of selective ignorance towards challenging theories, such as Marxism
Marxism
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

.

By the late 1960s, Barthes had established a reputation for himself. He travelled to the US
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 and Japan
Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

, delivering a presentation at Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins University
The Johns Hopkins University, commonly referred to as Johns Hopkins, JHU, or simply Hopkins, is a private research university based in Baltimore, Maryland, United States...

. During this time, he wrote his best-known work, the 1967 essay "The Death of the Author
Death of the Author
The Death of the Author is a 1967 essay by the French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. Barthes's essay argues against traditional literary criticism's practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that...

," which, in light of the growing influence of Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher, born in French Algeria. He developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labeled as post-structuralism and associated with postmodern philosophy...

's deconstruction
Deconstruction
Deconstruction is a term introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1967 book Of Grammatology. Although he carefully avoided defining the term directly, he sought to apply Martin Heidegger's concept of Destruktion or Abbau, to textual reading...

, would prove to be a transitional piece in its investigation of the logical ends of structuralist
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

 thought. Barthes continued to contribute with Philippe Sollers
Philippe Sollers
Philippe Sollers is a French writer and critic. In 1960 he founded the avant garde journal Tel Quel , published by Seuil, which ran until 1982...

 to the avant-garde
Avant-garde
Avant-garde means "advance guard" or "vanguard". The adjective form is used in English to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics....

 literary magazine Tel Quel
Tel Quel
Tel Quel was an avant-garde magazine for literature, founded in 1960 in Paris by Philippe Sollers and Jean-Edern Hallier.-Overview:...

, which was developing similar kinds of theoretical inquiry to that pursued in Barthes' writings. In 1970, Barthes produced what many consider to be his most prodigious work, the dense, critical reading of Balzac’s Sarrasine
Sarrasine
Sarrasine is a novella written by Honoré de Balzac. It was published in 1830 , and is part of his Comédie Humaine.-Commentary:...

entitled S/Z
S/Z
S/Z, published in 1970, is Roland Barthes's structuralist analysis of "Sarrasine", the short story by Honoré de Balzac. Barthes methodically moves through the text of the story, denoting where and how different codes of meaning function...

. Throughout the 1970s, Barthes continued to develop his literary criticism; he developed new ideals of textuality
Textualism
Textualism is a formalist theory of statutory interpretation, holding that a statute's ordinary meaning should govern its interpretation, as opposed to inquiries into non-textual sources such as the intention of the legislature in passing the law, the problem it was intended to remedy, or...

 and novelistic neutrality. In 1971, he served as visiting professor at the University of Geneva
University of Geneva
The University of Geneva is a public research university located in Geneva, Switzerland.It was founded in 1559 by John Calvin, as a theological seminary and law school. It remained focused on theology until the 17th century, when it became a center for Enlightenment scholarship. In 1873, it...

.

In 1977, he was elected to the chair of Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France
Collège de France
The Collège de France is a higher education and research establishment located in Paris, France, in the 5th arrondissement, or Latin Quarter, across the street from the historical campus of La Sorbonne at the intersection of Rue Saint-Jacques and Rue des Écoles...

. In the same year, his mother, Henriette Barthes, to whom he had been devoted, died, aged 85. They had lived together for 60 years. The loss of the woman who had raised and cared for him was a serious blow to Barthes. His last major work, Camera Lucida, is partly an essay about the nature of photography
Photography
Photography is the art, science and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film...

 and partly a meditation on photographs of his mother. The book contains many reproductions of photographs, though none of them are of Henriette.

On 25th February, after leaving a lunch party held by Francois Mitterand, Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris. He got up unaided, laughed heartily, treated the accident as a joke in the jolly way that was peculiarly his own and made his way home on the tram. But, on the eve of March 25th, after Barthes had smoked six after dinner pipes, he went to ascend the stairs, and finally succumbed to the injuries sustained in said accident, he dropped dead, under painful circumstances, on the landing. {TH}

Early thought


Barthes's earliest ideas reacted to the trend of existentialist philosophy that was prominent in France during the 1940s, specifically to the figurehead of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre was a French existentialist philosopher, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. He was one of the leading figures in 20th century French philosophy, particularly Marxism, and was one of the key figures in literary...

. Sartre's What Is Literature?
What is literature?
What Is Literature? is a 1947 book by Jean-Paul Sartre. The book is divided into three topics of discussion:...

(1947) expresses a disenchantment both with established forms of writing and more experimental, avant-garde
Avant-garde
Avant-garde means "advance guard" or "vanguard". The adjective form is used in English to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics....

 forms, which he feels alienate readers. Barthes’ response was to try to discover that which may be considered unique and original in writing. In Writing Degree Zero (1953), Barthes argues that conventions inform both language and style, rendering neither purely creative. Instead, form, or what Barthes calls "writing" (the specific way an individual chooses to manipulate conventions of style for a desired effect), is the unique and creative act. A writer's form is vulnerable to becoming a convention, however, once it has been made available to the public. This means that creativity is an on-going process of continual change and reaction. Barthes regarded Albert Camus
Albert Camus
Albert Camus was a French author, journalist, and key philosopher of the 20th century. In 1949, Camus founded the Group for International Liaisons within the Revolutionary Union Movement, which was opposed to some tendencies of the Surrealist movement of André Breton.Camus was awarded the 1957...

’s The Stranger
The Stranger (novel)
The Stranger or The Outsider is a novel by Albert Camus published in 1942. Its theme and outlook are often cited as examples of existentialism, though Camus did not consider himself an existentialist; in fact, its content explores various philosophical schools of thought, including absurdism, as...

as an ideal of this notion, thanks to its lack of embellishment or flair.

In Michelet, a critical analysis of the French historian Jules Michelet
Jules Michelet
Jules Michelet was a French historian. He was born in Paris to a family with Huguenot traditions.-Early life:His father was a master printer, not very prosperous, and Jules assisted him in the actual work of the press...

, Barthes developed these notions, applying them to a broader range of fields. He argued that Michelet’s views of history and society are obviously flawed. In studying his writings, he continued, one should not seek to learn from Michelet’s claims; rather, one should maintain a critical distance and learn from his errors, since understanding how and why his thinking is flawed will show more about his period of history than his own observations. Similarly, Barthes felt that avant-garde
Avant-garde
Avant-garde means "advance guard" or "vanguard". The adjective form is used in English to refer to people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics....

 writing should be praised for its maintenance of just such a distance between its audience and itself. In presenting an obvious artificiality rather than making claims to great subjective truths, Barthes argued, avant-garde writers ensure that their audiences maintain an objective perspective. In this sense, Barthes believed that art should be critical and should interrogate the world, rather than seek to explain it, as Michelet had done.

Semiotics and myth


Barthes's many monthly contributions that were collected in his Mythologies (1957) frequently interrogated specific cultural materials in order to expose how bourgeois
Bourgeoisie
In sociology and political science, bourgeoisie describes a range of groups across history. In the Western world, between the late 18th century and the present day, the bourgeoisie is a social class "characterized by their ownership of capital and their related culture." A member of the...

 society asserted its values through them. For example, the portrayal of wine in French society as a robust and healthy habit is a bourgeois ideal that is contradicted by certain realities (i.e., that wine can be unhealthy and inebriating). He found semiotics
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

, the study of signs
Sign (semiotics)
A sign is understood as a discrete unit of meaning in semiotics. It is defined as "something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity" It includes words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds – essentially all of the ways in which information can be...

, useful in these interrogations. Barthes explained that these bourgeois cultural myths were "second-order signs," or "connotation
Connotation (semiotics)
In semiotics, connotation arises when the denotative relationship between a signifier and its signified is inadequate to serve the needs of the community. A second level of meanings is termed connotative...

s." A picture of a full, dark bottle is a signifier
Sign (semiotics)
A sign is understood as a discrete unit of meaning in semiotics. It is defined as "something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity" It includes words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds – essentially all of the ways in which information can be...

 that relates to a specific signified: a fermented, alcoholic beverage. However, the bourgeoisie relate it to a new signified: the idea of healthy, robust, relaxing experience. Motivations for such manipulations vary, from a desire to sell products to a simple desire to maintain the status quo
Status quo
Statu quo, a commonly used form of the original Latin "statu quo" – literally "the state in which" – is a Latin term meaning the current or existing state of affairs. To maintain the status quo is to keep the things the way they presently are...

. These insights brought Barthes in line with similar Marxist theory.

In The Fashion System Barthes showed how this adulteration of signs could easily be translated into words. In this work he explained how in the fashion world any word could be loaded with idealistic bourgeois emphasis. Thus, if popular fashion says that a ‘blouse’ is ideal for a certain situation or ensemble, this idea is immediately naturalized and accepted as truth, even though the actual sign could just as easily be interchangeable with ‘skirt’, ‘vest’ or any number of combinations. In the end Barthes' Mythologies became absorbed into bourgeois culture, as he found many third parties asking him to comment on a certain cultural phenomenon, being interested in his control over his readership. This turn of events caused him to question the overall utility of demystifying culture for the masses, thinking it might be a fruitless attempt, and drove him deeper in his search for individualistic meaning in art.

Structuralism and its limits


As Barthes's work with structuralism
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

 began to flourish around the time of his debates with Picard, his investigation of structure focused on revealing the importance of language in writing, which he felt was overlooked by old criticism. Barthes's "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives" is concerned with examining the correspondence between the structure of a sentence and that of a larger narrative, thus allowing narrative to be viewed along linguistic
Linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

 lines. Barthes split this work into three hierarchical levels: ‘functions’, ‘actions’ and ‘narrative’. ‘Functions’ are the elementary pieces of a work, such as a single descriptive word that can be used to identify a character. That character would be an ‘action’, and consequently one of the elements that make up the narrative. Barthes was able to use these distinctions to evaluate how certain key ‘functions’ work in forming characters. For example key words like ‘dark’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘odd’, when integrated together, formulate a specific kind of character or ‘action’. By breaking down the work into such fundamental distinctions Barthes was able to judge the degree of realism given functions have in forming their actions and consequently with what authenticity a narrative can be said to reflect on reality. Thus, his structuralist theorizing became another exercise in his ongoing attempts to dissect and expose the misleading mechanisms of bourgeois culture.

While Barthes found structuralism
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

 to be a useful tool and believed that discourse of literature could be formalized, he did not believe it could become a strict scientific endeavour. In the late 1960s, radical movements were taking place in literary criticism. The post-structuralist movement and the deconstruction
Deconstruction
Deconstruction is a term introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1967 book Of Grammatology. Although he carefully avoided defining the term directly, he sought to apply Martin Heidegger's concept of Destruktion or Abbau, to textual reading...

ism of Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher, born in French Algeria. He developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labeled as post-structuralism and associated with postmodern philosophy...

 were testing the bounds of the structuralist theory that Barthes' work exemplified. Derrida identified the flaw of structuralism as its reliance on a transcendental signifier; a symbol of constant, universal meaning would be essential as an orienting point in such a closed off system. This is to say that without some regular standard of measurement, a system of criticism that references nothing outside of the actual work itself could never prove useful. But since there are no symbols of constant and universal significance, the entire premise of structuralism as a means of evaluating writing (or anything) is hollow.

Transition


Such groundbreaking thought led Barthes to consider the limitations not just of signs and symbols, but also of Western culture’s dependency on beliefs of constancy and ultimate standards. He travelled to Japan
Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

 in 1966 where he wrote Empire of Signs (published in 1970), a meditation on Japanese culture’s contentment in the absence of a search for a transcendental signified. He notes that in Japan
Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

 there is no emphasis on a great focus point by which to judge all other standards, describing the centre of Tokyo
Tokyo
, ; officially , is one of the 47 prefectures of Japan. Tokyo is the capital of Japan, the center of the Greater Tokyo Area, and the largest metropolitan area of Japan. It is the seat of the Japanese government and the Imperial Palace, and the home of the Japanese Imperial Family...

, the Emperor’s Palace, as not a great overbearing entity, but a silent and non-descript presence, avoided and unconsidered. As such, Barthes reflects on the ability of signs in Japan
Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

 to exist for their own merit, retaining only the significance naturally imbued by their signifiers. Such a society contrasts greatly to the one he dissected in Mythologies, which was revealed to be always asserting a greater, more complex significance on top of the natural one.

In the wake of this trip Barthes wrote what is largely considered to be his best-known work, the essay “The Death of the Author” (1968). Barthes saw the notion of the author, or authorial authority, in the criticism of literary text as the forced projection of an ultimate meaning of the text. By imagining an ultimate intended meaning of a piece of literature one could infer an ultimate explanation for it. But Barthes points out that the great proliferation of meaning in language and the unknowable state of the author’s mind makes any such ultimate realization impossible. As such, the whole notion of the ‘knowable text’ acts as little more than another delusion of Western bourgeois culture. Indeed the idea of giving a book or poem an ultimate end coincides with the notion of making it consumable, something that can be used up and replaced in a capitalist market. “The Death of the Author” is sometimes considered to be a post-structuralist work, since it moves past the conventions of trying to quantify literature, but others see it as more of a transitional phase for Barthes in his continuing effort to find significance in culture outside of the bourgeois norms . Indeed the notion of the author being irrelevant was already a factor of structuralist thinking.

Textuality and S/Z


Since there can be no originating anchor of meaning in the possible intentions of the author, Barthes considers what other sources of meaning or significance can be found in literature. He concludes that since meaning can’t come from the author, it must be actively created by the reader through a process of textual analysis. In his ambitious S/Z
S/Z
S/Z, published in 1970, is Roland Barthes's structuralist analysis of "Sarrasine", the short story by Honoré de Balzac. Barthes methodically moves through the text of the story, denoting where and how different codes of meaning function...

(1970), Barthes applies this notion in a massive analysis of a short story by Balzac called Sarrasine
Sarrasine
Sarrasine is a novella written by Honoré de Balzac. It was published in 1830 , and is part of his Comédie Humaine.-Commentary:...

. The end result was a reading that established five major codes for determining various kinds of significance, with numerous lexias (a term created by Barthes to describe elements that can take on various meanings for various readers) throughout the text. The codes led him to define the story as having a capacity for plurality of meaning, limited by its dependence upon strictly sequential elements (such as a definite timeline that has to be followed by the reader and thus restricts their freedom of analysis). From this project Barthes concludes that an ideal text is one that is reversible, or open to the greatest variety of independent interpretations and not restrictive in meaning. A text can be reversible by avoiding the restrictive devices that Sarrasine
Sarrasine
Sarrasine is a novella written by Honoré de Balzac. It was published in 1830 , and is part of his Comédie Humaine.-Commentary:...

suffered from such as strict timelines and exact definitions of events. He describes this as the difference between the writerly text, in which the reader is active in a creative process, and a readerly text in which they are restricted to just reading. The project helped Barthes identify what it was he sought in literature: an openness for interpretation.

Neutral and novelistic writing


In the late 1970s Barthes was increasingly concerned with the conflict of two types of language: that of popular culture, which he saw as limiting and pigeonholing in its titles and descriptions, and neutral, which he saw as open and noncommittal. He called these two conflicting modes the Doxa
Doxa
Doxa is a Greek word meaning common belief or popular opinion, from which are derived the modern terms of orthodoxy and heterodoxy.Used by the Greek rhetoricians as a tool for the formation of argument by using common opinions, the doxa was often manipulated by sophists to persuade the people,...

 and the Para-doxa
Paradox
Similar to Circular reasoning, A paradox is a seemingly true statement or group of statements that lead to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition...

. While Barthes had shared sympathies with Marxist thought in the past (or at least parallel criticisms), he felt that, despite its anti-ideological stance, Marxist theory was just as guilty of using violent language with assertive meanings, as was bourgeois literature. In this way they were both Doxa and both culturally assimilating. As a reaction to this he wrote The Pleasure of the Text
The Pleasure of the Text
The Pleasure of the Text is a short book published in 1973 by Roland Barthes. It was written in French and later translated into English. Barthes sets out some of his ideas about literary theory....

(1975), a study that focused on a subject matter he felt was equally outside of the realm of both conservative society and militant leftist thinking: hedonism
Hedonism
Hedonism is a school of thought which argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure .-Etymology:The name derives from the Greek word for "delight" ....

. By writing about a subject that was rejected by both social extremes of thought, Barthes felt he could avoid the dangers of the limiting language of the Doxa. The theory he developed out of this focus claimed that while reading for pleasure is a kind of social act, through which the reader exposes him/herself to the ideas of the writer, the final cathartic
Catharsis
Catharsis or katharsis is a Greek word meaning "cleansing" or "purging". It is derived from the verb καθαίρειν, kathairein, "to purify, purge," and it is related to the adjective καθαρός, katharos, "pure or clean."-Dramatic uses:...

 climax of this pleasurable reading, which he termed the bliss in reading or jouissance
Jouissance
The term jouissance, in French, denotes "pleasure" or "enjoyment." The term has a sexual connotation lacking in the English word "enjoyment", and is therefore left untranslated in English editions of the works of Jacques Lacan. In his Seminar "The Ethics of Psychoanalysis" Lacan develops his...

, is a point in which one becomes lost within the text. This loss of self within the text or immersion within the text, signifies a final impact of reading that is experienced outside of the social realm and free from the influence of culturally associative language and is thus neutral.

Despite this newest theory of reading, Barthes remained concerned with the difficulty of achieving truly neutral writing, which required an avoidance of any labels that might carry an implied meaning or identity towards a given object. Even carefully crafted neutral writing could be taken in an assertive context through the incidental use of a word with a loaded social context. Barthes felt his past works, like Mythologies, had suffered from this. He became interested in finding the best method for creating neutral writing, and he decided to try to create a novelistic form of rhetoric that would not seek to impose its meaning on the reader. One product of this endeavor was A Lover's Discourse: Fragments
A Lover's Discourse: Fragments
A Lover's Discourse: Fragments , written by Roland Barthes, contains a list of "fragments", some of which come from literature and some from his own philosophical thought, of a lover's point of view...

in 1977, in which he presents the fictionalized reflections of a lover seeking to identify and be identified by an anonymous amorous other. The unrequited lover’s search for signs by which to show and receive love makes evident illusory myths involved in such a pursuit. The lover’s attempts to assert himself into a false, ideal reality is involved in a delusion that exposes the contradictory logic inherent in such a search. Yet at the same time the novelistic character is a sympathetic one, and is thus open not just to criticism but also understanding from the reader. The end result is one that challenges the reader’s views of social constructs of love, without trying to assert any definitive theory of meaning.

Photography and Henriette Barthes


Throughout his career, Barthes had an interest in photography and its potential to communicate actual events. Many of his monthly myth articles in the 50s had attempted to show how a photographic image could represent implied meanings and thus be used by bourgeois culture to infer ‘naturalistic truths’. But he still considered the photograph to have a unique potential for presenting a completely real representation of the world. When his mother, Henriette Barthes, died in 1977 he began writing Camera Lucida as an attempt to explain the unique significance a picture of her as a child carried for him. Reflecting on the relationship between the obvious symbolic meaning of a photograph (which he called the studium) and that which is purely personal and dependent on the individual, that which ‘pierces the viewer’ (which he called the punctum), Barthes was troubled by the fact that such distinctions collapse when personal significance is communicated to others and can have its symbolic logic rationalized. Barthes found the solution to this fine line of personal meaning in the form of his mother’s picture. Barthes explained that a picture creates a falseness in the illusion of ‘what is’, where ‘what was’ would be a more accurate description. As had been made physical through Henriette Barthes's death, her childhood photograph is evidence of ‘what has ceased to be’. Instead of making reality solid, it reminds us of the world’s ever changing nature. Because of this there is something uniquely personal contained in the photograph of Barthes’s mother that cannot be removed from his subjective state: the recurrent feeling of loss experienced whenever he looks at it. As one of his final works before his death, Camera Lucida was both an ongoing reflection on the complicated relations between subjectivity, meaning and cultural society as well as a touching dedication to his mother and description of the depth of his grief.

Posthumous publications


A posthumous collection of essays was published in 1987 by François Wahl
François Wahl
François Wahl is a French editor and structuralist.-Biography:François Wahl was editor at the Éditions du Seuil, a publishing company in Paris. He was the editor of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, among others....

, Incidents. It contains fragments from his journals: his Soirées de Paris (a 1979 extract from his erotic diary of life in Paris); an earlier diary he kept (his erotic encounters with boys in Morocco); and Light of the Sud Ouest (his childhood memories of rural French life). In November 2007, Yale University Press
Yale University Press
Yale University Press is a book publisher founded in 1908 by George Parmly Day. It became an official department of Yale University in 1961, but remains financially and operationally autonomous....

 published a new translation into English (by Richard Howard) of Barthes's little known work What is Sport. This work bears a considerable resemblance to Mythologies
Mythologies
Mythologies is a book by Roland Barthes, published in 1957. It is a collection of essays taken from Les Lettres nouvelles, examining the tendency of contemporary social value systems to create modern myths...

and was originally commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, commonly known as CBC and officially as CBC/Radio-Canada, is a Canadian crown corporation that serves as the national public radio and television broadcaster...

 as the text for a documentary film directed by Hubert Aquin
Hubert Aquin
Hubert Aquin was a novelist, political activist, essayist, filmmaker and editor....

.

In February 2009, Éditions du Seuil
Éditions du Seuil
Éditions du Seuil is a French publishing house created in 1935, currently owned by La Martinière Groupe. It owes its name to this goal "The seuil is the whole excitement of parting and arriving...

 published Journal de deuil (Journal of Mourning), based on Barthes' files written from 26 November 1977 (the day following his mother's death) up to 15 September 1979, intimate notes on his terrible loss:
He grieved his mother's death for the rest of his life: "Do not say mourning. It's too psychoanalytic. I'm not in mourning. I'm suffering." and "In the corner of my room where she had been bedridden, where she had died and where I now sleep, in the wall where her headboard had stood against I hanged an icon—not out of faith. And I always put some flowers on a table. I do not wish to travel anymore so that I may stay here and prevent the flowers from withering away."

Influence


Roland Barthes's incisive criticism contributed to the development of theoretical schools such as structuralism
Structuralism
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

, semiotics
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

, existentialism
Existentialism
Existentialism is a term applied to a school of 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual...

, Marxism
Marxism
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

 and post-structuralism
Post-structuralism
Post-structuralism is a label formulated by American academics to denote the heterogeneous works of a series of French intellectuals who came to international prominence in the 1960s and '70s...

. While his influence is mainly found in these theoretical fields with which his work brought him into contact, it is also felt in every field concerned with the representation of information and models of communication, including computers, photography, music, and literature. One consequence of Barthes' breadth of focus is that his legacy includes no following of thinkers dedicated to modeling themselves after him. The fact that Barthes’ work was ever adapting and refuting notions of stability and constancy means there is no canon of thought within his theory to model one's thoughts upon, and thus no "Barthesism". While this means that his name and ideas lack the visibility of a Marx, Dewey
Dewey
-Places:*Dewey, Arizona*Dewey, Illinois*Dewey, Oklahoma*Dewey, Utah*Dewey Square, Boston, Massachusetts*Dewey, Wisconsin , multiple places*Dewey Beach, Delaware*Dewey County, Oklahoma*Dewey County, South Dakota*Dewey Marsh, Wisconsin...

, or Freud, Barthes was after all opposed to the notion of adopting inferred ideologies, regardless of their source. In this sense, after his work giving rise to the notion of individualist thought and adaptability over conformity, any thinker or theorist who takes an oppositional stance to inferred meanings within culture can be thought to be following Barthes’ example. Indeed such an individual would have much to gain from the views of Barthes, whose many works remain valuable sources of insight and tools for the analysis of meaning in any given manmade representation.

Key terms


Readerly and writerly are terms Barthes employs both to delineate one type of literature from another and to implicitly interrogate ways of reading, like positive or negative habits the modern reader brings into one's experience with the text itself. These terms are most explicitly fleshed out in S/Z
S/Z
S/Z, published in 1970, is Roland Barthes's structuralist analysis of "Sarrasine", the short story by Honoré de Balzac. Barthes methodically moves through the text of the story, denoting where and how different codes of meaning function...

, while the essay "From Work to Text", from Image—Music—Text (1977) provides an analogous parallel look at the active and passive, postmodern and modern, ways of interacting with a text.

Readerly text


A text that makes no requirement of the reader to "write" or "produce" their own meanings. The reader may passively locate "ready-made" meaning. Barthes writes that these sorts of text are "controlled by the principle of non-contradiction" (156), that is, they do not disturb the "common sense," or "Doxa," of the surrounding culture. The "readerly texts," moreover, "are products [that] make up the enormous mass of our literature" (5). Within this category, there is a spectrum of "replete literature," which comprises "any classic (readerly) texts" that work "like a cupboard where meanings are shelved, stacked, [and] safeguarded" (200).

Writerly text


A text that aspires to the proper goal of literature and criticism: "... to make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text" (4). Writerly texts and ways of reading constitute, in short, an active rather than passive way of interacting with a culture and its texts. A culture and its texts, Barthes writes, should never be accepted in their given forms and traditions. As opposed to the "readerly texts" as "product," the "writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages" (5). Thus reading becomes for Barthes "not a parasitical act, the reactive complement of a writing," but rather a "form of work" (10).

The Author and the scriptor


Author and scriptor are terms Barthes uses to describe different ways of thinking about the creators of texts. "The author" is our traditional concept of the lone genius creating a work of literature or other piece of writing by the powers of their original imagination. For Barthes, such a figure is no longer viable. The insights offered by an array of modern thought, including the insights of Surrealism
Surrealism
Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for the visual artworks and writings of the group members....

, have rendered the term obsolete. In place of the author, the modern world presents us with a figure Barthes calls the "scriptor," whose only power is to combine pre-existing texts in new ways. Barthes believes that all writing draws on previous texts, norms, and conventions, and that these are the things to which we must turn to understand a text. As a way of asserting the relative unimportance of the writer's biography compared to these textual and generic conventions, Barthes says that the scriptor has no past, but is born with the text. He also argues that, in the absence of the idea of an "author-God" to control the meaning of a work, interpretive horizons are opened up considerably for the active reader. As Barthes puts it, "the death of the author is the birth of the reader."

Criticism


In 1971, Barthes wrote "The Last Happy Writer", the title of which refers to Voltaire
Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet , better known by the pen name Voltaire , was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher famous for his wit and for his advocacy of civil liberties, including freedom of religion, free trade and separation of church and state...

. In the essay he commented on the problems of the modern thinker after discovering the relativism in thought and philosophy, discrediting previous philosophers who avoided this difficulty. Disagreeing roundly with Barthes' description of Voltaire, Daniel Gordon, the translator and editor of Candide
Candide
Candide, ou l'Optimisme is a French satire first published in 1759 by Voltaire, a philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment. The novella has been widely translated, with English versions titled Candide: or, All for the Best ; Candide: or, The Optimist ; and Candide: or, Optimism...

 (The Bedford Series in History and Culture), wrote that "never has one brilliant writer so thoroughly misunderstood another."

Works on Roland Barthes

  • Graham Allen, Roland Barthes, London: Routledge, 2003.
  • Réda Bensmaïa, The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text, trans. Pat Fedkiew, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
  • Louis-Jean Calvet, Roland Barthes: A Biography, trans. Sarah Wykes, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-253-34987-7 (This is a popular biography)
  • Jonathan Culler
    Jonathan Culler
    Jonathan Culler is a class of 1966 Harvard graduate and Professor of English at Cornell University. He is an important figure of the structuralism movement of literary theory and criticism.- Background and career:...

    , Roland Barthes: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Paul de Man
    Paul de Man
    Paul de Man was a Belgian-born deconstructionist literary critic and theorist.He began teaching at Bard College. Later, he completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University in the late 1950s...

    , "Roland Barthes and the Limits of Structuralism", in Romanticism and Contemporary Criticism, ed. E.S. Burt, Kevin Newmark, and Andrzej Warminski, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
  • Jacques Derrida
    Jacques Derrida
    Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher, born in French Algeria. He developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labeled as post-structuralism and associated with postmodern philosophy...

    , "The Deaths of Roland Barthes," in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Vol. 1, ed. Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth G. Rottenberg, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.
  • D.A. Miller, Bringing Out Roland Barthes, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. (A highly personal collection of fragments, aimed at both mourning Barthes and illuminating his work in terms of a "gay writing position.")
  • Michael Moriarty, Roland Barthes, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991. (Explains various works of Roland Barthes)
  • Jean-Michel Rabate, ed., Writing the Image After Roland Barthes, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
  • Mireille Ribiere, Roland Barthes, Ulverston: Humanities E-Books, 2008. Downloadable from http://www.humanities-ebooks.co.uk/Catalogue/Barthes.html (A comprehensive introduction to Barthes's work)
  • Susan Sontag
    Susan Sontag
    Susan Sontag was an American author, literary theorist, feminist and political activist whose works include On Photography and Against Interpretation.-Life:...

    , "Remembering Barthes", in Under the Sign of Saturn, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.
  • Susan Sontag
    Susan Sontag
    Susan Sontag was an American author, literary theorist, feminist and political activist whose works include On Photography and Against Interpretation.-Life:...

    , "Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes", introduction to Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.
  • Steven Unger. Roland Barthes: Professor of Desire. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
  • George R. Wasserman. Roland Barthes. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

External links