Roland Barthes as a Cultural Theorist

Roland-Barthes-1.jpgFrench literary critic, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a key figure both in the development of structuralism — in particular in the application of techniques derived from semiology to the analysis of everyday life and popular (as well as high) culture — and in the post-structuralist criticism of structuralism. His work covers an enormous range of issues and topics, including the nature of writing, authorship and reading; myth and ideology; fashion; photography; narrative; the work of diverse writers (including Sade, Michelet, Proust and Balzac) and composers; and subjectivity and sexuality.

Barthes’ early works, published in the 1950s, including Writing Degree Zero (1967a) and Mythologies (1973), are centrally concerned with the illusions of contemporary bourgeois culture, and particularly the bourgeois denial of the ‘opacity’ of language. Within contemporary culture, it is assumed generally that language is a neutral medium that the writer may use, without restriction, to express and communicate his or her ideas. This culture is concerned with verisimilitude, or the faithful and unbiased reproduction of an independent reality (both in visual representation and is verbal description). Barthes challenges these assumptions, arguing rather that language (or more properly writing — ecriture) is already bound up within particular social forms, and as such does not report an independent reality, but creates a reality. Different forms of writing bring with them ‘realities’, and crucially, realities that fuse together accounts of the sort of facts that exist in the world and evaluations of those facts. Because bourgeois culture denies this opacity (i.e. the fact that language creates or presupposes a reality), the value-laden and selective realities that are offered in language appear to be natural, and thus the way in which the world really is. It may be noted that Barthes’ work on narrative, similarly, is concerned with the structural conventions that a story must obey, if, paradoxically, it is to appear to the reader as if it was unfolding, not according to a convention, but rather naturally (Barthes 1977b).

Paris-Match.jpgIn Mythologies, in particular, Barthes analyses the way in which a second, ‘mythological’, level of meaning is added onto signs. The signs under investigation are not only linguistic signs, but also any carriers of meaning, including photographs and other visual images. Myth, for Barthes, works by allowing a particular image to reinforce our prejudices, making them appear to have universal validity. A particular image (or signifier) is fused with a value system (which, at this mythological level, is what is signified). Thus, for example, in Barthes’ most famous example, the photograph of a French Negro soldier comes to reinforce the positive value and legitimacy of French imperialism. Myth works through the way in which the soldier is photographed (in this case, loyally saluting the French flag). Mythology hides nothing, but presents everything with a certain inflexion. Precisely because signifier and signified are fused, the value associations of the image are taken as self-evident and indeed natural.

Barthes’ Elements of Semiology (1967b), written in the early 1960s, on the one hand begins to draw together the methodology of such semiological approaches, but on the other hand, and more importantly, begins to question the basis of semiology itself. He finds in semiological research a ‘dream of scientificity’. That is to say, semiology, while allowing the critical approach to bourgeois culture described, still presupposes that it is capable of achieving some fixed point from which it can gain an objective, unbiased and undistorted view of reality. In orthodox semiology, that which is signified is assumed to preexist the act of signification (so that a signifier simply refers to some pre-existing reality). For Barthes, the signifier is now seen as creating the signified (just as writing creates reality). There is no access to reality independently of language, and because there is no neutral language, there can never be an account of how reality ‘really’ is. For literary criticism, as explored in Criticism and Truth (1987), this entails that there can be no objective or definitive interpretation of a work, nor can one assume that there is some author, as the originator of meaning, behind the text. Hence, Barthes posits The Death of the Author (1977c) and also a shift From Work to Text (1977d).

This shift, which in effect marks a shift from structuralism to poststructuralism, is exemplified in S/Z (1974). Barthes offers a close reading of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine, in order to explicit the conventions (or codes) that govern its apparently naturalistic narrative. The crucial distinction that is posed is between a ‘readerly‘ (or realist) text, that conforms to the conventions that a reader expects from a well-made narrative, and a ‘writerly‘ text. The latter disrupts the realist narrative codes, and therefore makes the position of reader insecure. (Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is the model of such texts.) The reader cannot passively consume the text with pleasure. In The Pleasure of the Text (1975) and in his final, more autobiographical and novelistic texts of the 1970s (1977e, 1978,1981), Barthes explores the difference between readerly and writerly in terms of the difference between pleasure (plaisir) and jouissance. If the readerly text gives pleasure in the comfort and security of reading, then the writerly text gives ecstatic ‘enjoyment’ (akin to the enjoyment of sexual orgasm). It is an enjoyment in the loss of subjectivity, and in the transgression of academic forms and conventions.

More topics related to Roland Barthes

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge


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