Barthes, Roland (1915–1980)

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Ronald Barthes was a French writer most widely known for declaring "the death of the author." It is ironic, then, in a way Barthes would surely appreciate, that his Œuvres completes fill nearly 6,000 pages with the unmistakable observations, distinct voice, and style that shaped the form and content of what came to be known as "cultural studies." He was sixty-five years old in 1980 when a laundry truck struck him down in a street in front of the College de France. He died of his injuries four weeks later.

Barthes was born in November 1915, in Cherbourg. His father died before his first birthday, and he was raised by his mother and paternal grandparents in coastal Bayonne. Normal progress to a university degree was blocked by the onset of tuberculosis. Over the course of ten years convalescing in and out of sanatoria, Barthes earned advanced degrees in Greek and Latin, performed in the Ancient Theater Group, and taught French in Romania and in Egypt where A. J. Greimas introduced him to linguistics. He gained his first regular academic post at the Écoles practique des haute etudes in 1962 on the basis of his publications Le degré zéro de l'écriture (1953), Michelet par lui-même (1954), and Mythologies (1957). He gained wider public notice with the publication of Le plaisir du texte (1973), a critical erotics of reading pleasures, and Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975), an autobiography prefaced, as it were, on the page ordinarily reserved for a dedication with the handwritten remark, "It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel." He was appointed Chair of Literary Semiotics at the College de France in 1976 where he lectured until his death.

Barthes's contributions to philosophy fall under four headings defined, in each case, by pairs of opposed terms: mythology (nature/culture), semeiology (langue/parole ), structuralism (reading/writing), and hedonism (plaisir/jouissance ).


Myth today, according to Barthes, is found in a conflation of nature and culture or, more specifically, in the production and consumption of culture as nature. In his most famous example, it is no accident that the scurrilous competitor in a professional wrestling match is bested by the fair play of his adversary: his foul play (as the "fairness" of the victor) is fabricated to stage the "natural" and inevitable triumph of "good" over "evil." Again, in Parisian striptease, the artiste sheds layers of patently cultural trappingsfeathers, furs, and exotic costumesto reveal her naked body as the "natural" state of woman unnaturally desexualized, in this act, to forgive the voyeur and the culture that condones his voyeurism for their sins. In modern myths, an apparently natural meaning contains the form of a cultural signification whose content discloses the artifice of what is "natural" in appearance only. "Demythologization" was the name given to the critical practice of exposing these myths.


Barthes's literary semeiology follows Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between la langue, the syntactic and semantic paradigms that define the language one learns, and parole, the series of signifying acts that compose the language one speaks. On this model, meaning is the product of a system of distinctions and conventions, found in la langue, which anchor otherwise unruly syntagms of signifying units, articulated as parole. The meaning of this sentence, for example, depends on identifying the parts of speech in it and the rules governing their use that define the linguistic system in which the sentence is uttered. Reversing Saussure, semeiology was, for Barthes, a subset of linguistics, a science of the signifying function of language. In his studies of advertising, gastronomy, fashion and Japan, Barthes consistently emphasized the multiplicity and variability of the signifier over the system that governed its significations.


As Barthes defined it, structuralism studies the rules, norms, and organizing structures that make meaning possible. These structures are the products of cultural practices, which the structuralist uncovers beneath the singular meaning attributed to an image, an artifact, or a text. It is Author who could authorize a Single meaning (the capital letters standing for the "theological" authority supposed by such a concept of signification) who dies in Barthes's analysis of the rules, norms, and organizing structures, of the narrative and social and moral codes that govern the writing (literal and figurative) of a text or any other cultural artifact. In addition, this writing is governed by the rules, norms and structures of reading. So that writing, écriture, arranges a meeting of the structures and codes that have formed a writer and a reader and stages the multiplication of meanings sustained by the text a writer and reader share. Barthes calls a text "writerly" which invites the reader to write meanings into it and "readerly" when the text insists on a single authorial intention.


Our pleasures, in Barthes's writing, are divided along the same lines. There is, on the one hand, plaisir, the warmth of sensation that opposes cold abstraction, the contentment, euphoria and delectation that relieve the method, commitment and science of the intellect. It is found in texts of and on pleasure (Gustave Flaubert and Marquis de Sade, for example) and connected to a reading practice that is comfortable and continuous with the culture of the reader and the text. There is, on the other hand, the ecstatic pleasure of jouissance, a feeling of enjoyment characterized by a state of loss. It is not centered in the heart (as opposed to the head) but spread sensuously across the entire surface of the body. Jouissance is found in a reading practice that "cruises" the text, skipping passages anticipated as "boring," looking up distractedly to consider ideas associated with the body and dissociated from the culture of the reader or the text. Jouissance is found in distinctly "writerly" readings and texts that multiply meanings for the sheer pleasure of it.

There is, finally, a distinctive normative orientation in Barthes's writings. While he did not author or advocate an alternative, single meaning of culture, Barthes did license and exhort readers to take ecstatic pleasure in multiplying the meanings of culture and in rewriting the authority of its hegemonic codes.

See also Hedonism; Language; Myth; Structuralism and Post-structuralism.


works by roland barthes

Le degré zéro de l'écriture. Paris, 1953. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith as Writing Degree Zero (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968).

Michelet par lui-même. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1954. Translated by Richard Howard as Michelet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

Mythologies. Paris, 1957. Selected translation by Annette Lavers as Mythologies (London: Paladan Books, 1973). Translation of remaining essays by Richard Howard as The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979).

Sur Racine. Paris, 1963. Translated by Richard Howard as On Racine (New York: Octagon Books, 1977).

Essais critiques. Paris, 1964. Translated by Richard Howard as Critical Essays (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972).

Éléments de sémiologie in Le degré zéro de l'écriture, suivi de: Éléments de sémiologie. Paris, 1965. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith as Elements of Semiology (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968).

Critique et verité. Paris, 1966. Translated by Katrine Kueneman as Criticism and Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

Système de la mode. Paris, 1967. Translated by Matthew Ward and Richard Howard as The Fashion System (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).

L'empire des signes. Geneva, 1970. Translated by Richard Howard as Empire of Signs (New York: Noonday Press, 1989).

S/Z. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970. Translated by Richard Miller as S/Z (London: Cape, 1975).

Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1971. Translated by Richard Miller as Sade, Fourier, Loyola (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Nouveaux essais critiques in Le degré zéro de l'écriture suivi de: Nouveaux essais critiques. Paris, 1972. Translated by Richard Howard as New Critical Essays (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980).

Le plaisir du texte. Paris, 1973. Translated by Richard Miller as The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975).

Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes. Paris, 1975. Translated by Richard Howard as Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

Et la Chine? Paris, 1976.

Fragments d'un discours amoureaux. Paris, 1977. Translated by Richard Howard as A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978).

Image, Music, Text. Essays selected and translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Sollers ecrivain. Paris, 1979. Translated by Philip Thody as Sollers Writer (London: Athlone, 1987).

La chambre claire: note sur la photographie. Paris, 1980. Translated by Richard Howard as Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).

Le grain de la voix: entretiens 19621980. Paris, 1981. Translated by Linda Coverdale as The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 19621980 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985).

A Barthes Reader. Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

L'obvie et l'obtus. Paris, 1982. Translated by Richard Howard as The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985).

Le bruissement de la langue. Paris, 1984. Translated by Richard Howard as The Rustle of Language (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986).

L'aventure sémiologique. Paris, 1985. Translated by Richard Howard as The Semiotic Challenge (New York: Hill and Wang, 1988).

Incidents. Paris, 1987. Translated by Richard Howard as Incidents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

Œuvres completes. 5 vols. New, revised, and corrected ed. Paris: Seuil, 2002.

works about roland barthes

Culler, Jonathan. Barthes: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Heath, Stephen. Vertige du déplacement: Lecture de Barthes. Paris: Fayard, 1974.

Lavers, Annette. Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Miller, D. A. Bringing Out Roland Barthes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

John Carvalho (2005)

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Barthes, Roland (1915–1980)

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