French social and literary critic, whose writings on semiotics made structuralism one of the leading intellectual movements of the 20th century. In his lifetime Barthes published seventeen books and numerous articles, many of which were gathered to form collections. His ideas have offered alternatives to the methods of traditional literary scholarship. Barthes’ writings have had a considerable following among students and teachers both in and outside France.
The writer’s language is not expected to represent reality, but to signify it. This should impose on critics the duty of using two rigorously distinct methods: one must deal with the writer’s realism either as an ideological substance (Marxist themes in Brecht’s work, for instance) or as a semiological value (the props, the actors, the music, the colours in Brechtian dramaturgy). The ideal of-course would be to combine these two types of criticism; the mistake which is constantly made is to confuse them: ideology has its methods, and so has semiology. (from Mythologies, 1957)
Roland Barthes was born in Cherbough, Manche. After his father’s death in a naval battle in 1916, Barthes’ mother Henriette Binger Barthes moved to Bayonne, where Barthes spent his childhood. In 1924 she moved with her son to Paris, where Barthes attended the Lycée Montaigne (1924-30) and Lycée Louis-le-Grand (1930-34). “Not an unhappy youth,” Barthes later recalled, “thanks to the affection which surrounded me, but an awkward one, because of the solitude and material constraint.” In 1927 Henriette gave birth to an illegitimate child, Michel Salzado, Barthes’ half-brother. When Barthes’ grandparents refused to give her financial help, she supported her family as a bookbinder. At the Sorbonne Barthes studied classical literature, Greek tragedy, grammar and philology, receiving degrees in classical literature (1939) and grammar and philology (1943).
In 1934 Barthes contracted tuberculosis and spent the years 1934-35 and 1942-46 in sanatoriums. During the Occupation he was in a sanatorium in the Isère. Numerous relapses with tuberculosis prevented him from carrying out his doctoral research, but he read avidly, founded a theatrical troupe, and began to write. Barthes was a teacher at lycées in Biarritz (1939), Bayonne (1939-40), Paris (1942-46), at the French Institute in Bucharest, Romania (1948-49), University of Alexandria, Egypt (1949-50), and Direction Générale des Affaires Culturelles (1950-52). In 1952-59 he had research appointments with Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, from 1960 to 1976 he was a director of studies at École Pratique des Hautes Études. In 1967-68 he taught at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and from 1976 to 1980, he was the chair of literary semiology at Collège de France.
Barthes entered the French intellectual scene in the 1950s. The work which brought him into modern literature was Sartre‘s What is Literature? (1947) LE DEGRÉ ZÉRO DE L’ÉCRITURE (1953, Writing Degree Zero) was initially published as articles in Albert Camus‘ journal, Combat. It established Barthes as one of leading critics of Modernist literature in France. It introduced the concept of écriture (“scription”) as distinguished from style, language, and writing. The work connected him closely with the writers of nouveau roman. He was the first critic to identify the goals of the writings of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor. Barthes looked at the historical conditions of literary language and posed the difficulty of a modern practice of writing: committed to language the writer is at once caught up in particular discursive orders.
In MICHELET PAR LUI-MÊME (1954), a biography of Jules Michelet, a 19th-century historian, Barthes focused on Michelet’s personal obsessions and saw that they are part of his writing, and give existential reality to the historical moments related by the historian’s writing. In MYTHOLOGIES (1957) Barthes used semiological concepts in the analysis of myths and signs in contemporary culture. His material was newspapers, films, shows and exhibitions, because of their connection to ideological abuse. Barthes’ starting point was not in the traditional value judgements and investigation of the author’s intentions, but in the text itself as a system of signs, whose underlying structure forms the “meaning of the work as a whole” An advertising firm found Barthes’ works so compelling that it persuaded him to work briefly as a consultant for the auto manufacturer Renault.
Barthes’ study SUR RACINE (1963) caused some controversy because of its nonscholarly appreciation of Racine. Raymond Picard, a Sorbonne professor and Racine scholar, criticized in his Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture? (1965) the subjective nature of Barthes’ essays. Barthes answered in CRITIQUE ET VÉRITÉ (1966), which postulated a “science of criticism” to replace the “university criticism” perpetuated by Picard and his colleagues. Barthes recommended that criticism become a science and showed that critical terms and approaches are connected to dominant class-ideology. The values of clarity, nobility, and humanity, taken as a self-evident basis for a research, are a censoring force on other kinds of approach.
I speak in the name of what? Of a function? A body of knowledge? An experience? What do I represent? A scientific capacity? An institution? A service? In fact, I speak only in the name of language: I speak because I have written; writing is represented by its contrary, by speech… For writing can tell the truth on language but not the truth on the real… (from Image-Music-Text, 1977)
During his career, Barthes published more essays than substantial studies, presenting his views among others in subjective aphorism and not in the form of theoretical postulates. In LE PLASIR DE TEXTE (1973) Barthes developed further his ideas of the personal dimensions in relationship with the text. Barthes analyzed his desire to read along with his likes, dislikes, and motivations associated with that activity. L’EMPIRE DES SIGNES (1970) was written after Barthes’s visit to Japan, and dealt with the country’s myths. In this great introduction to the art of definitions, Japanese cooking was for him “the twilight of the raw”, a haiku a “vision without commentary”, and sex “is everywhere, except in sexuality.”
In ELÉMENTS DE SÉMIOLOGIE (1964) Barthes systematized his views on the “science of signs”, based on Ferdinand de Saussure’s (1857-1913) concept of language and analysis of myth and ritual. Barthes made his most intensive application of structural linguistics in S/Z (1970). By analyzing phase-by-phase Balzac’s short story ‘Sarrasine’, he dealt with the experience of reading, the relations of the reader as subject to the movement of language in texts. According to Barthes, classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader. But the reader is the space, in which all the multiple aspects of the text meet. A text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. “… the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” The study has become the focal point and model for multilevel – nearly playful – literary criticism because of its analytical concentration on the structural elements that constitute the literary whole.
One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” (from Camera Lucinda, 1980)
Barthes’ last book was LA CHAMBRE CLAIRE (1980, Camera Lucida), in which photography is discussed as a communicating medium. It was written in the short space between his mother’s death and his own. The author himself confesses that he is too impatient to be a photographer, but whenever he poses in front of the lens, his “body never finds its zero degree, no one can give it to me (perhaps only my mother? For it is not indifference which erases the weight of the image – the Photomat always turns you into a criminal type, wanted by the police – but love, extreme love).” Photography, especially portraits, was for him “a magic, not an art.” Through his life Barthes lived with or near his mother, who died in 1977. During her illness Barthes nursed her, and later wrote in Camera Lucida, that “ultimately I experienced her, strong as she had been, my inner law, as my feminine child… Once she was dead I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the progress of the superior Life Force (the race, the species).” Barthes died three years later in Paris as the result of a street accident on March 23, 1980. Posthumously published INCIDENTS (1987) revealed the author’s homosexuality.
For further reading: Roland Barthes by Louis-Jean Calvet (1995); The Barthes Effect by Réda Bensmaïa (1987); La Littérature selon Barthes by Vincent Jouve (1986); The Barthes Effect by Réda Bensmaïa (1986); Roland Barthes, the Professor of Desire by Steven Ungar (1983); Roland Barthes by Jonathan Culler (1983); Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After by Annette Lavers (1982); Roland Barthes by George R. Wasserman (1981); Under the Sign of Saturn by Susan Sontag (1980); Structuralism and Since, ed. by John Sturrock (1979); Roland Barthes: A Conservative Estimate by P. Thody (1977); Vertige du déplacement by S. Heath (1974); New Criticism in France by S. Doubrovsky (1973); Roland Barthes: Un regard politique sur le signe by L.S. Calvet (1973); Barthes by G. de Mallc and M. Eberbach (1971) – Structuralism: Essential premises are that social and aesthetic phenomena do not have inherent meaning but rather can be sensibly defined only as parts of larger governing systems, and that the true meaning of these phenomena can be revealed only when these larger systems are recognized and understood. Major figures: Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Levi-Strauss. – Semiotics: A study of signs as products of human culture and as means of communication. Central terms: ‘signifier’ (the form of sign), and ‘signified’ (the idea expressed). Linked to structuralism: both seek out structures that govern diverse individual expression. – Suom.: Barthesilta on suomennettu artikkeleiden ja esseiden lisäksi mm. Pariisin iltoja (1988), Tekijän kuolema, tekstin syntymä (1993).
- LE DEGRÉ ZÉRO DE L’ÉCRITURE, 1953 – Writing Degree Zero
- MICHELET PAR LUI MÊME, 1954 – Michele by Himself
- MYTHOLOGIES, 1957 – Mythologies (selected trans. by Annette Lavers) – Mytologioita
- SUR RACINE, 1963 – On Racine
- LA TOUR EIFFEL, 1964 – The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies
- ESSAIS CRITIQUES, 1964 – Critical Essays
- ELÉMENTS DE SÉMIOLOGIE, 1964 – Elements of Semiology
- CRITIQUE ET VÉRITÉ, 1966 – Criticism and Truth
- SYSTÈME DE LA MODE, 1967 – The Fashion System
- S/Z, 1970
- L’EMPIRE DES SIGNES, 1970 – Empire of Signs
- SADE, FOURIER, LOYOLA, 1971
- NOUVEAUX ESSAIS CRITIQUES, 1972 – New Critical Essays
- LE PLAISIR DU TEXTE, 1973 – The Pleasure of Text – Tekstin hurma
- ERTÉ, 1975
- POURQUOI LA CHINE?, 1976
- ROLAND BARTHES PAR ROLAND BARTHES, 1977 – Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes
- Image-Music-Text, 1977 (essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath)
- FRAGMENTS D’UN DISCOURS AMOUREUX, 1977 – A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
- LEÇON INAUGURALE AU COLLÈGE DE FRANCE, 1978
- SOLLERS, ÉCRIVAIN, 1979 – Sollers, Writer
- LA CHAMBRE CLAIRE, 1980 – Camera Lucinda – Valoisa huone
- Barthes Reader, 1980
- L’OBVIE ET L’OBTUS, 1982 – The Responsibility of Forms
- LE BRUISSEMENT DE LA LANGUE, 1984 – The Rustle of Language
- L’AVENTURE SÉMIOLOGIQUE, 1985 – The Semiotic Challenge
- INCIDENTS, 1987
- ŒUVRES COMPLÈTES, 1993-95 (3 vols.)