Barthes, Roland (1919–1980)
Barthes, Roland (1919–1980)
Barthes, Roland (1919–1980), French critic. Roland Barthes was a leading figure in semiology, a critical method that analyzes expression—from the artistic to the merely communicative—as a system of signs. His principal subject was, inevitably, language itself, and his principal theme was the imprecision of language as a means of communicating a fixed idea. For Barthes, any literary work yields a multiplicity of interpretations, and even literary interpretations of a given work are open to varied readings. Therefore, a reduction of Barthes's own work is somewhat paradoxical: His basic premise is that there is no such thing as one basic premise.
The development of Barthes's critique of language was influenced by several schools of thought: first by Marxism and the work of Jean-Paul Sartre; second by structuralism; third by such post-structuralist thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva; and fourth by aesthetic introspection. Of the first phase, Barthes's most significant work is Le Degre zero de l'ecriture (Writing Degree Zero), in which he considers both language and literature within historical contexts. Prior to the class upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century, Barthes claims, all literature adhered to basic premises of logic and continuity. In the alienating, chaotic twentieth century, however, literature fragmented into various dissimilar styles. For Barthes, the only response to this confusing state, in which a work's style becomes its content, is to promote a colorless, "objective" literature—what he called "writing degree zero"—as exemplified by such writers as Albert Camus and Alain Robbe-Grillet. With Writing Degree Zero Barthes showed himself to be a provocative critical theorist.
Another among Barthes's early works is the essay collection Mythologies. Included in this volume is "Myth Today, " in which Barthes explicates and elaborates his notion of myth as a form of expression within an historical context. He sees such phenomena as professional wrestling and the fashion industry as contemporary myths, and he finds these myths consistent with the increasing prevalence of bourgeois ideology, which, as a Marxist, he disdains as benefiting only the ruling class. But the political left, he laments, offers little alternative, wedded as it is to sociopolitical issues.
In Mythologies Barthes discusses a wide range of topics, and in subsequent books he continues to apply himself broadly. In Elements de semiologie (Elements of Semiology), first published in France in 1964, he moves into his second, structuralist, phase, outlining semiology as a method for perceiving virtually anything—even physical movements or noises—as systems. Beginning with an overview of the concepts of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), whose groundbreaking work in the theoretical foundation of the study of language resulted in the consideration of language as a social phenomenon, Barthes expands them into such areas as food selection and clothing. After entering into an explication of such semiological relationships as signifier-signified-signification, he then takes up the consideration of the dual "axes" of language—syntagmas (individual "utterances") and the entire language system taken as a whole—and illustrates their application.
In a related work, Systeme de la mode (The Fashion System), Barthes examines fashion magazines for their semiological content. He maintains that "discourse" through the language of clothing occurs on two levels—denotation and connotation—and that the significance of such discourse is valued independently of the wearer.
Among Barthes's other works devoted to the visual forms of language are The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, first published in France in 1964, and his controversial The Empire of Signs. Written as a sequel to Mythologies, The Eiffel Tower comprises a series of twenty-nine essays devoted to the continued examination of the many layers of "language" structures that underlie modern culture and social interaction.
In the radical S/Z Barthes devotes himself to an exhaustive post-structuralist semiological analysis of Honore de Balzac's story "Sarrasine." Barthes further explores reading in Le Plaisir du texte (The Pleasure of the Text), a relatively accessible work that characterizes reading as a sensual, nearly hedonistic activity. Reading, Barthes charges, is a deliberate, contemplative means of obtaining pleasure and satisfaction, and as such it is far more than mere intellectual process.
When The Pleasure of the Text appeared in French in 1973 (and in English in 1975), Barthes was recognized as a leading figure in French critical thought. With other intellectuals, ranging from radical psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to controversial socio-historical theorist Michel Foucault, Barthes enjoyed immense influence in both Europe and the United States. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s, with works such as Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes) and Fragments d'un discours amoureux (A Lover's Discourse), Barthes added to his stature as a provocative, engaging thinker. A Lover's Discourse proved a particularly intriguing work, for in it Barthes presents uncharacteristically poignant ruminations on love, its expression, and its articulations. Despite its subject, however, A Lover's Discourse is hardly an uplifting work. Barthes views love as an exhausting, enslaving emotion, one that often seems masochistic.
In 1980, only a few years after publishing A Lover's Discourse, Barthes was fatally struck by an automobile while crossing a Paris street; one month later he died from the massive chest injuries incurred during the accident. But with the Barthes Reader anthology—edited by Sontag—and several posthumous volumes, Barthes continues to hold high standing in academia as one of his country's most important contemporary thinkers.
Barthes died of chest injuries sustained in an automobile accident, March 25, 1980, in Paris.