roland barthesOverview

Roland Barthes was a gifted member of the Parisian intelligentsia, famous for his left-wing attacks on the bourgeoisie in which he blended Existentialism, semiotics and linguistic hedonism. Barthe's thesis that the author is dead — i.e. that writing is beyond the control of the individual author — greatly overstates the case, but introduces an important theme of Postmodernism.


Anti-bourgeois, standing apart from the French academic scene, initially an Existentialist and always anti-essentialist, Roland Barthes (1915-80) came to prominence with the 1957 publication of Mythologies, a ferocious attack on French society. Barthes was a hedonist, and argued for fluidity and plurality, in outlook and social behaviour. Contemporary criticism was ahistorical, he complained, psychologically naive and deterministic, covertly ideological, bovinely content with the one interpretation. In works which followed, Barthes claimed to have unmasked the pretensions of Romanticism and Realism. If the first overlooked the sheer labour of writing, aiming for an art that conceals art, literature in the second becomes a servant of reality and therefore anti-art. Barthes distinguished the clerkly écrivant (who uses language to express what is already there, if only the contents of his thoughts) from the nobler écrivain (who is absorbed into the activity of writing, labouring away towards new elaborations and meanings). In practice a writer might express both aspects, but the more honest and important writer was the écrivain, whose incessant labours did not adopt the ideologies of the bourgeoisie, but bridged the gulf between intellectuals and the proletariat. Writers worked as everyone else worked, and their efforts should not be smoothed over as inspiration of a favoured spiritual class. {1}

Écrivant and Écrivain

The écrivain is a materialist, a worker with language, one who uses its signifiers to create what had not existed before. What he writes comes not from his mind or subconscious, but from the psychic case-history of his body, which is the medium through which language expresses itself. The author is not a self-conscious, crafting entity: that does not exist, or is immaterial. The author is simply the means by which a text emerges, something which we should enjoy as a linguistic spectacle, and not view as a mirror to the world. Certainly the text will lack finality, and possibly shape as well, but it will be authentic, preserving what actually happened. The text which the lover weaves in Barthes's A Lover's Discourse (1978) does not have narrative or purpose but becomes a 'brazier of meaning' as the ambiguous signs of the loved one's behaviour are interpreted. Such behaviour is 'scriptible' — is rewritten by the lover as he reads them, just as we rewrite a text in reading it.

S/Z (1970) was based on an untypical novella by Balzac: 'Sarrasine'. Barthes chopped Balzac's text into 561 units and then dissolved the story further by treating it under five codes: actional, hermeneutic, semic, symbolic and referential. The last code, the references the story makes to 'reality out there', was the most controversial. Barthes argued that this 'reality' was only the glib commonplaces and accepted wisdom of Balzac's own time: not insights but stereotypes. As a Structuralist, he suggested that there was no author but rules, no expression but only technique. In The Pleasure of the Text (1973) Barthes went further. Here the body of the writer (his personal and secret mythology) speaks to the body of the reader — by disconcerting him, rocking his cultural and psychological foundations, bringing him to a crisis in his understanding of language.

Barthes was against doxa, conformism, the status quo. He set no great store by his own work, which was a stick to beat the present and make it more reflective. In writing a text, any text, the writer himself comes undone, remaining only as devices within the text, appearing perhaps in the third person as he does in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975). In his own way, Barthes was a moralist, a hedonistic materialist, arguing that we must surrender our individuality whenever we enter language, which cannot belong to us. {2}


Barthes's flirtation with the scientism of the Nouvelle Critique — that literary criticism should be a scientific discipline, and therefore follow in the steps of structural anthropology and model itself on linguistics — was very brief. By Michelet (1954) Barthes had absorbed the pessimistic and irrational outlook common in the years following W.W.II. He became familiar with the work of Mallarmé (de-realization: the poetics of silence and negation), Kafka (ceaseless struggle with inexhaustible riddles), Blanchot (helplessness and dark pathos of literature) and Bataille (Nietzschean violence and a surrealistic eroticism). {3} Through these influences Barthes ushered in what is most distinctive of Postmodernism — the indeterminacy, self-irony, and critical vagueness {4} that were fashioned by Derrida into deconstruction. Initially at least, Barthes was very much a left-wing intellectual. Hence his interest in myths, which are the products of social groups using an unexamined social code. He excoriated the bourgeoisie in his Mythologies, but overlooked partial demolition of his own position in Camus, Merleau-Ponty and Aaron. {5} By 1960 he was more concerned with writing itself, promoting the priestly écrivain above the subservient écrivant, and in 1963 he extended his stylistic analysis of Michelet to Racine's world of stifled erotic violence. In Sur Racine the plays are studied like primitive societies, their underlying themes and mechanisms receiving a well-publicized Structuralist interpretation.

But the structures were not the 'rules of functioning' that Barthes claimed for them, and his novel use of Saussurian categories did not convince the master's pupils. Merquoir calls him "a very gifted semiologist who had no clear idea what he was doing." {6} Barthes had confused matters. He made everything endowed with meaning into a sign, collected such signs into a system, and called this system a language. Where was the demonstration that Saussure's categories could be applied here? Barthes did not trouble to provided one, either for Sur Racine or his later analysis of fashion, Systéme de la Mode (1967). In his S/Z Barthes loosened his Structuralist interpretation and turned instead to narration and its analysis by the Russian formalists. Most notable about S/Z's was its attack on the "illusions of realism". Unfortunately, Balzac is not a realistic writer in the sense envisaged by Barthes, who overlooked a generation of scholarship in this regard. {7} Nor did the 'innocent eye' of realism apply. {8} But for Barthes, realism came with a stereotyped moral vision, and all strategies were fair in a war against repressive dogma — including Barthe's use of a crude Freudianism, a far-fetched reinterpretation of the plot, and a bullying of Balzac into meaning what he did not say.{9} More than that, claimed Barthes, the better, writerly (scriptible) texts call for a playful reinterpretation of the signifiers. We should not be bound by what the author said, or thought he was saying, but cede authority to the reader. The New Critics may have dethroned the author's intention, but Barthes is not arguing for close textural reading. Interpretation for him must be creative and individual, for how else can we make ourselves free creatures of impulse?

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1. J.L. Merquoir's From Prague to Paris (1986). An irreverent introduction, some telling criticism and a good bibliography. Also Chapter 8 of Raman Selden's (Ed.) The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: Volume 8: From Formalism to Poststructuralism (1995).
2. Chapter 2 of Wendell Harris's Literary Meaning: Reclaiming the Study of Literature (1996).
3. pp. 112-11 5 in Merquoir 1986.
4. A fuller list is given in Essay 8 of Ibn Hassan's The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987).
5. p. 117 in Merquoir 1986.
6. p. 125 in Merquoir 1986.
7. p. 132 in Merquoir 1986.
8. p. 133 in Merquoir 1986.
9. pp. 134-40 in Merquoir 1986.

Internet Resources

1.oland Barthes (1964) Elements of Semiology. 1964/68. Excerpt from Barthes' book.
2. Roland Barthes: The Discourse of History. Stepan Bann (trans.) 1981. Excerpt from Bann's Comparative Criticism (1981).
3. Semiology - Roland Barthes - Theories. Ron Wright. 1998. Introductory material for course COMM 300.
4. Roland Barthes (1915-1980). 1999. Introduction in Critical Theory at Bedford/St. Martin's College.
5. Roland Barthes and Photography. Ron Burnett. Jan. 2002. Note on Barthe's Camera Lucida.