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Roland Barthes (1915-1980)


French social and literary critic, whose writings on semiotics made structuralism one of the leading intellectual movements of the 20th century. In his lifetime Roland 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." Henriette gave birth in 1927 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.

As a child, Barther often felt bored, and although it was less common in his adulthood, he had bouts of boredom all his life. "It is a panic boredom, to the point of distress: like the kind I feel in colloquia, lectures, parties among strangers, group amusements: wherever boredom can happen." (The Afterlives of Roland Barthes by Neil Badmington, 2017) Barthes once revealed that books can easily bore him.

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 ("What else did you have to do except read?"), started to do a little writing, founded a theatrical troupe, the Groupe Théâtral Antique, and cofounded the magazine Théâtre populaire.

While in the mountain village of Touvet, he wrote an article, 'Notes sur André Gide et son Journal', which was published in 1942 in Existences, the student magazine of the Sanatorium des Estudiants de France at Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet, saying in the opening of the notes that "incoherence seemst to me prefetable to a distorting order". 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). Barthes' column for Les Lettres nouvelles, a magazine founded by Maurice Nadeau, was to form the basis for Mythologies (1957). In 1952-59 he had research appointments with Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. For a period, in order to make ends meet, he taught French to foreign students at the Sorbonne. His economic position improved when his grandmother died, leaving him a legacy. 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, although later he returned to the classics of French literature. By abandoning his earlier positions, Barthes shocked many of his disciples. In the French press he was seen to present a radical turned conservative.

Nevertheless, Barthes was the first critic to identify the goals of the writings of Michel Butor and Alain Robbe-Grillet; he devoted to the latter four of the pieces in Essais critiques. 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. While the objects of traditional realism carry a certain depth of meaning, he argued that Robbe-Grillet's fiction has "no alibi, no density and no depth: it remains on the surface of the object . . ."

Michelet par lui-même (1954), a biography of Jules Michelet,  focused on  the personal obsessions of the 19th-century historian. Barthes saw that they are part of his writing, and give existential reality to the historical moments related by the historian's writing.

The impressionistic Mythologies drew on semiological concepts in the analysis of myths and signs in contemporary culture. Barthes used as his material newspapers, films, shows and exhibitions, mainly due to their connection to ideological discourse. The 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. Sollers tells in The Friendship of Roland Barthes (2017) that Barthes could play the piano, drawing was easy for him, and "it was a pleasure to see his writing in blue ink, his whole way of writing; then there was his voice, the timbre of his voice, his diction. . . Where are we now when it comes to voices? Who still has a voice?" 

Sur Racine (1963), three impressionistc essays on the dramatist, caused some controversy because of its nonscholarly point of view and neologisms. 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. Thus Barthes dismissed such stylists as Flaubert and Gide and praised Sartre – it was "never said that he wrote well."

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 Plaisir du 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)

As a gesture of solidarity Barthes travelled in 1974 to China with Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, François Wahl, and other writers. The notes on the journey, Carnets de voyage en Chine, in which Barthes expressed his boredom and disappointment with Chairman Mao's China, were published in 2009. Barthes final 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, at the age of 84. 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)." A day after the death of his mother, Barthes began to keep a diary, which was published in 2009 under the title Journal de deuil (Mourning Diary).

Barthes died three years later in Paris as the result of a street accident on March 23, 1980. While walking home from a lunch given by François Mitterrand, he was hit by a laundry van as he was crossing the street outside the Collège de France. He was rushed to the Salpêtre hospital, bleeding and unconscious. First the accident did not seem to be particularly serious and the Public Prosecutor's Department decided not to bring proceedings against the driver. At hospital Barthes began to receive a steady stream of visitors. A month later he died. According to the doctors, the accident was not the immediate cause of death, but it had exacerbated Barthers' chronic breathing difficulties. Posthumously published Incidents (1987) revealed the author's homosexuality.

For further reading: Photography after Postmodernism: Barthes, Stieglitz and the Art of Memory by David Bate (2022); Understanding Barthes, Understanding Modernism, edited by Jeffrey R. Di Leo and Zahi Zalloua (2022); The Afterlives of Roland Barthes by Neil Badmington (2017); The Friendship of Roland Barthes by Philippe Sollers; translated by Andrew Brown (2017);  Barthes: A Biography by Tiphaine Samoyault (2017); Roland Barthes: Critical Evaluations Cultural Theory (edited by Neil Badmington, 2009); Roland Barthes (edited by Mike Gane & Nicholas Gane, 2004); Barthes: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler (2002); Critical Essays on Roland Barthes (edited by Diana Knight, 2000); Roland Barthes, Phenomenon and Myth: An Intellectual Biography by Andrew Stafford (1998); Eroticism, Ethics and Reading: Angela Carter in Dialogue with Roland Barthes by Yvonne Martinsson (1996); Roland Barthes: A Biography 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).

Selected bibliography:

  • Le Degré zéro de l'écriture, 1953
    - Writing Degree Zero (translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, 1967)
  • Michelet par lui-même, 1954 (edited by Roland Barthes)
    - Michelet (translated by Richard Howard, 1987)
  • Mythologies, 1957
    - Mythologies (selected & translated by Annette Lavers, 1972);  Mythologies: The Complete Edition (translated by Richard Howard and Annette Lavers, 2012)
    - Mytologioita (suom. Panu Minkkinen, 1994)
  • Sur Racine, 1963
    - On Racine (translated by Richard Howard, 1964)
  • La Tour Eiffel, 1964 (photographs by André Martin)
    - The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (translated by Richard Howard, 1979)
  • Essais critiques, 1964
    - Critical Essays (translated by Richard Howard, 1972)
  • Eléments de sémiologie, 1964
    - Elements of Semiology (translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, 1967)
  • Critique et Vérité, 1966
    - Criticism and Truth (translated by Katrine Pilcher Keuneman, 1987)
  • Système de la mode, 1967
    - The Fashion System (translated by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard, 1983)
  • S/Z, 1970
    - S/Z (translated by Richard Miller, 1975)
  • L'Empire des signes, 1970
    - Empire of Signs (translated Richard Howard, 1975)
  • Sade, Fourier, Loyola, 1971
    - Sade, Fourier, Loyola (translated by Richard Miller, 1976)
  • Nouveaux essais critiques, 1972
    - New Critical Essays (translated by Richard Howard, 1980)
  • Le Plaisir du texte, 1973
    - The Pleasure of Text (translated by Richard Miller, 1976)
    - Tekstin hurma (suom. Raija Sironen, 1993)
  • Erté (Romain de Tirtoff), 1975
  • Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, 1975
    - Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (translated Richard Howard, 1977)
  • Pourquoi la Chine?, 1976
  • Image-Music-Text, 1977 (essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath)
  • Fragments d'un discours amoureux, 1977
    - A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (translated by Richard Howard, 1978)
    - Rakastuneen kielellä (suom. Tarja Roinila, 2000)
    - films: Mouvements du désir, 1994, prod. Catpics Coproductions, dir. Léa Pool, featuring Valérie Kaprisky, Jean-François Pichette, Jolianne L'Allier-Matteau, William Jacques; A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, 2004 (short film), dir. Donna Vermeer, featuring Sarah Desage, Tracey Godfrey, Eleanor Hutchins
  • Leçon inaugurale au Collège de France, 1978
  • Sollers écrivain, 1979
    - Writer Sollers (translated by Philip Thody, 1987)
  • La Chambre claire: Note sur la photographie, 1980
    - Camera Lucinda: Reflections of the Photography (translated by Richard Howard, 1982)
    - Valoisa huone (suom. Martti Lintunen, Esa Sironen, Leevi Lehto, 1985)
  • Le Grain de la Voix, 1981
    - The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980 (translated by Linda Coverdale, 1985)
  • A Barthes Reader, 1982 (edited by Susan Sontag)
  • L'Obvie et l'Obtus, 1982
    - The Responsibility of Forms (translated by Richard Howard, 1985)
  • Le Bruissement de la langue, 1984
    - The Rustle of Language (translated by Richard Howard, 1986)
  • L'Aventure sémiologique, 1985
    - The Semiotic Challenge (translated by Richard Howard, 1988)
  • Incidents, 1987
    - Incidents (translated by Richard Howard, 1992)
  •  Œuvres complètes, 1993-95 (3 vols.; 5 vols. 2002)
  • Écrits sur le théâtre, 2002
  • Comment vivre ensemble: simulations romanesques de quelques espaces quotidiens, 2002 (ed. Claude Coste)
    - How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces (translated by Kate Briggs, 2013)
  • Préparation du roman. I et II, Notes de cours et de séminaires au Collège de France, 1978-1979 et 1979-1980, 2003
    - The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France, 1978-1979 and 1979-1980 (translated by Kate Briggs; text established, annotated, and introduced by Nathalie Léger, 2011)
  • Le sport et les hommes, 2004
    - What Is Sport? (translated by Richard Howard) , 2007)
    - documentary film: Le Sport et les hommes, 1961, prod. National Film Board of Canada, dir. by Hubert Aquin, narrated by Robert Gadouas
  • The Language of Fashion, 2006 (edited by Andy Stafford and Michael Carter, translated by Andy Stafford)
  • Journal de deuil, 2009
    - Mourning Diary (translated by Richard Howard, 2010)
  • Carnets de voyage en Chine, 2009
    - Travels in China (edited, annotated and with a foreword by Anne Herschberg Pierrot; translated by Andrew Brown, 2012)
  • Album: Inédits, correspondances et varia, 2015 (edited by Éric Marty) - Album : Unpublished Correspondence and Texts (established and presented by Éric Marty; with the assistance of Claude Coste for On Seven Sentences in Bouvard et Pécuchet; translated by Jody Gladding, 2018)
  • "A Very Fine Gift" and Other Writings on Theory: Essays and Interviews, Volume 1, 2015 (translated by Chris Turner)
  • "Simply a Particular Contemporary": Interviews, 1970-79, 2015 (translated by Chris Turner)
  • "The 'Scandal' of Marxism" and Other Writings on Politics: Essays and Interviews, Volume 2, 2015 (translated by Chris Turner)
  • Évocations et incantations dans la tragédie grecque, 2023 (édition critique par Christophe Corbier et Claude Coste)

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