Roland Barthes  

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"Re-read Barthes now and you realise that there was no great methodology, no "great theory". Rather, he makes his point through cumulative aphorism and shrewd observation. His achievement? To make us take The Simpsons seriously. As Professor Morris Zapp says in David Lodge's academic satire Small World, 'I'm a bit of a deconstructionist myself.' . . ." --Stephen Bayley on Roland Barthes in The Independent of May 2002

"By the early 1960s structuralism as a movement was coming into its own and some believed that it offered a single unified approach to human life that would embrace all disciplines. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida focused on how structuralism could be applied to literature. Towards the end of Barthes's career, the appealing subtleties of structuralism were replaced by the ponderous absurdities of deconstruction. Structuralist philosopher Roland Barthes, in an essay about the car, said that the Citroën DS looked as if it had "fallen from the sky." To Barthes, the car was a "monster of modernity," a symbol of the new and somewhat threatening future ahead."--Sholem Stein

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Roland Barthes (November 12, 1915 – March 25, 1980) was a French intellectual. Barthes's work extended over many fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiology, existentialism, Marxism and post-structuralism.

Barthes is perhaps best known for his 1957 essay collection Mythologies, which contained reflections on popular culture, and 1967 essay "The Death of the Author," which critiqued traditional approaches in literary criticism.


Writings and ideas

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. Sartre's What Is Literature? (1947) expresses a disenchantment both with established forms of writing and more experimental, avant-garde forms, which he feels alienate readers. Barthes's 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. However, a writer's form is vulnerable to becoming a convention once it has been made available to the public. This means that creativity is an ongoing process of continual change and reaction.

In Michelet, a critical analysis of the French historian Jules Michelet, 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 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, collected in his Mythologies (1957), frequently interrogated specific cultural materials in order to expose how bourgeois society asserted its values through them. For example, Barthes cited the portrayal of wine in French society. Its description 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, the study of signs, useful in these interrogations. He developed a theory of signs to demonstrate this perceived deception. He suggested that the construction of myths results in two levels of signification: the "language-object", a first order linguistic system; and the "metalanguage", the second-order system transmitting the myth. The former pertains to the literal or explicit meaning of things while the latter is composed of the language used to speak about the first order. Barthes explained that these bourgeois cultural myths were "second-order signs," or "connotations." A picture of a full, dark bottle is a signifier 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. These insights brought Barthes in line with similar Marxist theory. Barthes used the term "myth" while analyzing the popular, consumer culture of post-war France in order to reveal that "objects were organized into meaningful relationships via narratives that expressed collective cultural values."

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's 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 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 Narrative" 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 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 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 deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida were testing the bounds of the structuralist theory that Barthes's 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.


Such 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 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 signifier. He notes that in Japan there is no emphasis on a great focus point by which to judge all other standards, describing the centre of Tokyo, the Emperor's Palace, as not a great overbearing entity, but a silent and nondescript presence, avoided and unconsidered. As such, Barthes reflects on the ability of signs in Japan 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 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 Barthes contends that there can be no originating anchor of meaning in the possible intentions of the author, he 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 S/Z (1970), Barthes applies this notion in an analysis of Sarrasine, a Balzac novella. The end result was a reading that established five major codes for determining various kinds of significance, with numerous lexias throughout the text – a "lexia" here being defined as a unit of the text chosen arbitrarily (to remain methodologically unbiased as possible) for further analysis. 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 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 (the official and unacknowledged systems of meaning by which we know culture) and the Para-doxa. While Barthes had sympathized 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 (1975), a study that focused on a subject matter he felt was equally outside the realm of both conservative society and militant leftist thinking: hedonism. 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 climax of this pleasurable reading, which he termed the bliss in reading or jouissance, is a point in which one becomes lost within the text. This loss of self within the text or immersion in the text, signifies a final impact of reading that is experienced outside the social realm and free from the influence of culturally associative language and is thus neutral with regard to social progress.

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 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.

Mind and body

Barthes also attempted to reinterpret the mind-body dualism theory. Like Friedrich Nietzsche and Levinas, he also drew from Eastern philosophical traditions in his critique of European culture as "infected" by Western metaphysics. His body theory emphasized the formation of the self through bodily cultivation. The theory, which is also described as ethico-political entity, considers the idea of the body as one that functions as a "fashion word" that provides the illusion of a grounded discourse. This theory has influenced the work of other thinkers such as Jerome Bel.

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, 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 which explicitly detailed his paying for sex with men and boys in Morocco; and Light of the Sud Ouest (his childhood memories of rural French life). In November 2007, Yale University Press 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 and was originally commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as the text for a documentary film directed by Hubert Aquin.

In February 2009, Éditions du Seuil published Journal de deuil (Journal of Mourning), based on Barthes's files written from 26 November 1977 (the day following his mother's death) up to 15 September 1979, intimate notes on his terrible loss:

The (awesome but not painful) idea that she had not been everything to me. Otherwise I would never have written a work. Since my taking care of her for six months long, she actually had become everything for me, and I totally forgot of ever have written anything at all. I was nothing more than hopelessly hers. Before that she had made herself transparent so that I could write.... Mixing-up of roles. For months long I had been her mother. I felt like I had lost a daughter.

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 hung 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."

In 2012 the book Travels in China was published. It consists of his notes from a three-week trip to China he undertook with a group from the literary journal Tel Quel in 1974. The experience left him somewhat disappointed, as he found China "not at all exotic, not at all disorienting".


Roland Barthes's criticism contributed to the development of theoretical schools such as structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism. 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's breadth of focus is that his legacy includes no following of thinkers dedicated to modeling themselves after him. The fact that Barthes's 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".

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, while the essay "From Work to Text", from Image—Music—Text (1977), provides an analogous parallel look at the active–passive and postmodern–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 texts 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 his/her 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, 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."


In 1964, Barthes wrote "The Last Happy Writer" ("Le dernier des écrivains heureux" in Essais critiques), the title of which refers to Voltaire. 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's description of Voltaire, Daniel Gordon, the translator and editor of Candide (The Bedford Series in History and Culture), wrote that "never has one brilliant writer so thoroughly misunderstood another."

The sinologist Simon Leys, in a review of Barthes's diary of a trip to China during the Cultural Revolution, disparages Barthes for his seeming indifference to the situation of the Chinese people, and says that Barthes "has contrived—amazingly—to bestow an entirely new dignity upon the age-old activity, so long unjustly disparaged, of saying nothing at great length."

In popular culture

Barthes's A Lover's Discourse: Fragments was the inspiration for the name of 1980s new wave duo The Lover Speaks.

Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot draws out excerpts from Barthes's A Lover's Discourse: Fragments as a way to depict the unique intricacies of love that one of the main characters, Madeleine Hanna, experiences throughout the novel. In the film Birdman (2014) by Alejandro González Iñárritu, a journalist quotes to the protagonist Riggan Thompson an extract from Mythologies: "The cultural work done in the past by gods and epic sagas is now done by laundry-detergent commercials and comic-strip characters".

In the film The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996) by Michael Lehmann, Brian is reading an extract from Camera Lucida over the phone to a woman whom he thinks to be beautiful but who is her more intellectual and less physically desirable friend.

In the film Elegy, based on Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal, the character of Consuela (played by Penélope Cruz) is first depicted in the film carrying a copy of Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text on the campus of the university where she is a student.

Laurent Binet's novel The 7th Function of Language is based on the premise that Barthes was not merely accidentally hit by a van but that he was instead murdered, as part of a conspiracy to acquire a document known as the "Seventh Function of Language".


His Works
  • Essais critiques (1981), Editions du Seuil:Paris.
  • Le Degré zéro de l'écriture suivi de Nouveaux essais critiques (1972), Editions du Seuil:Paris.
  • Le plaisir du texte (1973), Editions du Seuil:Paris.
  • Litérature et réalité (1982), Editions du Seuil:Paris.
  • Michelet (1988), Editions du Seuil:Paris.
  • Mythologies (1957, Seuil:Paris.
  • Œuvres complètes (1993), Editions du Seuil:[Paris].
  • Poétique du récit (1977), Editions du Seuil:Paris.
  • Recherche de Proust (1980), Editions du Seuil:Paris.
  • S/Z (1970), Seuil:[Paris].
  • Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1980), Editions du Seuil:Paris.
  • Sur Racine (1979), Editions du Seuil:[Paris]
  • Système de la mode (1967), Editions du Seuil:Paris.
  • "Éléments de sémiologie" (1964), Communications 4, Seuil:Paris.
  • "Préface" (1978), La Parole Intermédiaire, F. Flahault, Seuil:Paris
Translations to English
  • A Barthes Reader (1982), Hill and Wang, New York.
  • A lover's Discourse : Fragments (1990), Penguin Books:London.
  • Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography (1981), Hill and Wang :New York.
  • Criticism and Truth (1987), The Athlone Pr.:London.
  • Elements of Semiology (1968), Hill and Wang:New York.
  • Image, Music, Text (1977), Hill and Wang:New York.
  • Incidents (1992), University of California Press:Berkeley.
  • Michelet (1987), B.Blackwell:Oxford.
  • Mythologies (1972), Hill and Wang:New York.
  • New critical essays (1990), University of California Press:Berkeley.
  • On Racine (1992), University of California Press:Berkeley
  • Roland Barthes (1988), Macmillan Pr.:London.
  • The Eiffel Tower, and other mythologies (1997), University of California Press:Berkeley.
  • The Fashion system=[Systeme de la mode] (1967), University of California Pr.:Berkeley.
  • The Grain of the Voice : interviews 1962-1980 (1985), Jonathan Cape : London.
  • The Pleasure of the Text (1975), Hill and Wang:New York.
  • The Responsibility of Forms : Critical essays on music, art, and repre (1985), Basil Blackwell:Oxford.
  • The Rustle of Language (1986), B.Blackwell:Oxford.
  • The Semiotic Challenge (1994), University of California Press Berkeley.
  • What is Sport (2007), Yale University Press: London and New Haven
  • Writer Sollers (1987), University of Minnesota Press:Minneapolis.
  • Writing Degree Zero (1968), Hill and Wang:New York.

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