[jahsonic.com] - [Next >>]

Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980)

Lifespan: 1915 - 1980

Related: culture theory - post-structuralism - structuralism - French philosophy

Key texts: Mythologies (1957) - The Death of the Author (1968)

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. [Aug 2006]

Towards the end of Barthes's career, the appealing subtleties of structuralism were replaced by the ponderous absurdities of deconstruction. [Aug 2006]

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.


Roland Barthes (November 12, 1915 - March 25, 1980) was a French literary critic, literary and social theorist, and semiotician. His long productive career reached from the early days of structuralist linguistics in France up to the peak of post-structuralism, and Barthes's works are considered key texts of both structuralism and post-structuralism. (Because Barthes was openly gay, some take him as an antecedent for queer theory as well.) In addition, the autobiographical and aesthetic qualities of many of Barthes's texts makes them literature in their own right.

In his 1968 essay "The Death of the Author," Barthes made a strong, polemical argument against the centrality of the figure of the author in literary study. (Michel Foucault's later article "What is an Author?" responded to Barthes's polemic with an analysis of the social and literary "author-function.") --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland_Barthes

Intro (R.U. Sirius)

Roland Barthes's early work suggests that literature, in the traditional sense of the word, used language in the service of class divisions. (There. I just saved you from reading a few million words, most of them adjectives.) But the idea that traditional language excludes the exploited classes has unfortunately led to the attempt to alter language by foisting incomprehensible replacements on college students. Barthes also felt that authentic modernist literature would have to testify to its own ideological guilt. His point of view was well articulated by Bataille when he said, "Literature is not innocent." This was adopted by Sex Pistols's memetician Malcolm McLaren as "No one is innocent." You will note that M. Barthes didn't volunteer his own guilty ass for imprisonment or execution. --R.U. Sirius, Pomo To Go, A User's Guide to Trendy French Intellectuals , Wired 2.06, June 1994

Stephen Bayley on Roland Barthes

Stephen Bayley on Roland Barthes in The Independent:

"Had he not been run over by a laundry truck on a Paris street in 1980, Roland Barthes would today be writing about Saddam's moustache, Beckham's crosses, Rollerblades and The Simpsons. Or any other signs that give meaning to our world. Barthes was France's most successful intellectual, and his interests included literature, history, theatre, painting, advertising, design, photography and Moroccan boys. These, north African youth apart, are all collected in a new exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in the city he made his own. Given the way he helped shape our view of the world, the exhibition is entirely justified. Barthes interrogated the everyday world, moving from formal literary criticism to writing brilliantly on steak and chips, Arcimboldo and the Tour de France. It is a happy accident of homophonics that the most endearing champions of popular culture, in theory and practice, are each pronounced Bart -- the professor would have enjoyed consanguinity with The Simpsons. Equally, it is haunting evidence of his legacy that the precise details of the fatal laundry truck still beg to be explained. Barthes had certainly written perceptively on detergents ('dirt is no longer stripped from the surface, but expelled from its most secret cells'). Surely the camion de la blanchisserie must signify something? Was the offending vehicle a Unic a Saviem or a Berliet? Barthes would have wanted to know. We have no one quite like Roland Barthes: our idea of an intellectual is someone more resembling Jeremy Paxman than this suave Parisian boulevardier. Obsessed with thinking about thinking, Barthes' life was a stylish intellectual adventure. He was also a hedonist, a meticulous dresser, gay, sensitive, sardonic, sociable, gossipy. He made reading a sacrament. A lonely, tubercular youth became a Professor of Pleasure. For Barthes, dealing with a text was an erotic transaction: reading was 'jouissance', a word which means both joy and 'coming' in the sexual sense. To experience this enjoyable sense of escape, Barthes argued, you need to get in deeper.

But these same texts which engaged him sensually were also 'signs'. And signs became Roland Barthes' business. He began writing in 1947 in Albert Camus' little magazine Combat, essays subsequently published in 1953 as Le Degré zéro de l'écriture. 'Degré zéro' may be translated as 'bottom line'. This quest for the essence preoccupied Barthes. . . . Barthes, who was born in Cherbourg in 1915, effortlessly crossed barriers between the daunting Collège de France and St Germain's more welcoming Café Flore, still in the brainy and bookish afterglow of its Sartre-de Beauvoir period. But Jean-Paul Sartre and Barthes could not have been more different -- one a priapic old goat, the other an elegant eagle-nosed, ebony-eyed Antinous. Indeed, the example of Barthes confirms every jealous English prejudice about the French: he managed to be intellectually fastidious and immensely popular. Never, as Nietzsche said, trust a god who can't dance.

. . . Through Barthes, the structuralist view of the world has passed effortlessly into the mainstream of modern thought, so much so that it is difficult to appreciate now the freshness of his insights. Meanwhile, in the closed world of French universities, after the laundry-truck incident, new intellectual fashions began to strut the academic catwalk. The appealing subtleties of structuralism were replaced by the ponderous absurdities of deconstruction. Barthes' successors have included a lot of morally and intellectually bankrupt poseurs, viciously exposed in Alan Sokal's and Jean Bricmont's sensational Impostures Intellectuelles of 1997. . . . Barthes enjoyed his success and was a supreme egotist. His friend Susan Sontag said his interest in you was really just your interest in him. He even published a review of his autobiography, titled Barthes on Barthes on Barthes. This dizzying self-reference defines the same popular culture that Barthes made respectable. Yet in his last book, the posthumous journal Incidents, he betrays a touching vulnerability. The book portrays a listless, melancholy figure. He describes wanting a glass of champagne at odd times of day while wandering Paris's streets. He dwells on his fear, and acceptance of, sexual rejection. With time to kill, he is anxious that a cup of coffee may not last more than 15 minutes. There is nothing to read in today's Le Monde. He fancies a Laotian boy he sees in a bar, but goes home instead to read Dante through a daze of migraine. One day in September 1979, he writes: 'I am paralyzed by the boredom of having to attend the opening of Pinter's No Man's Land.' . . . 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.' . . ." --http://www.3ammagazine.com/buzzwords/2002_dec.html [Oct 2005]

See also: Stephen Bayley - Roland Barthes

Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971) - Roland Barthes

  • Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971) - Roland Barthes [Amazon.com]
    Wonderful! The best, most readable book I have read by Barthes, and the best work I have read on Sade. Full of humor and insight with lots of savory biographical tidbits. The startlingly *natural* juxtaposition of Loyola, Fourier and Sade is cool and casual, not at all forced, and all the more remarkable for that. I read this in one sitting. You should too. Ryan Cook for amazon.com

    Camera Lucida (1980) - Roland Barthes

    Camera Lucida (1980) - Roland Barthes [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

    Camera Lucida is a short book published in 1980 by the French literary critic Roland Barthes. It is simultaneously an inquiry into the nature and essence of photography, and an epitaph to Barthes's late mother. The book investigates the effects of photography on the spectator (as distinct from the photographer, and also from the object photographed, which Barthes calls the "spectrum"). In a deeply personal discussion of the lasting emotional effect of certain photographs on him, Barthes considers photography as asymbolic, irreducible to the codes of language or culture, and acting on the body as much as the mind. The book develops the twin concepts of studium and punctum: studium denotes the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, while the punctum of a photograph is its wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.

    Camera Lucida, along with Susan Sontag's work, is one of the most important texts in the criticism and theory of photography.

    Barthes died unexpectedly soon after the publication of Camera Lucida, and many have read the book as Barthes's own epitaph for himself. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camera_Lucida [Dec 2004]

    your Amazon recommendations - Jahsonic - early adopter products

    Managed Hosting by NG Communications