Key Theories of Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes was born at Cherbourg in 1915. Barely a year later, his father died in naval combat in the North Sea, so that the son was brought up by the mother and, periodically, by his grandparents. Before completing his later primary and secondary schooling in Paris, Barthes spent his childhood at Bayonne in south-west France. Between 1934 and 1947, he suffered various bouts of tuberculosis. And it was during the periods of enforced convalescence that he read omnivorously and published his first articles on Andre´ Gide. After teaching in Romania and in Egypt, where he met A. J. Greimas, then at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Barthes was appointed to the Colle`ge de France in 1977. He died in Paris in 1980, the same year as Sartre, after having been struck by a van near the Sorbonne.

roland-barthesBiography and Criticism

Such elementary facts of biography have often provided the psychocritic with material for explaining underlying (unconscious) aspects of the writer’s oeuvre. Barthes, however, takes them in hand and uses them as the raw material of his own writing, and even of his style. This is so in two books he wrote towards the end of his life: Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, and Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Here, the status of raw material is the key; for Barthes in no sense becomes a conventional autobiographer. Instead, he fictionalises his life through using the third person when (conventionally) referring to himself, as he – like Joyce – reveals the profundities of life in the ‘bread’ of everyday experience. He writes, for example, of a photograph of his mother in the above-cited essay on photography, that he had found his mother’s face – that face he had loved – in the photograph: ‘The photograph was very old. The corners were blunted from having been pasted into an album, the sepia print had faded’ (Barthes 1993: 67). Eventually, he says, ‘I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother’ (Barthes 1993: 69). Godard’s disenchanting words then ring in his ears: ‘‘‘Not a just image, just an image’’’ (Barthes 1993: 70). In his grief, Barthes wants a just image.

This ‘personalised’ style, characteristic of the later Barthes, confirmed the semiotician and literary critic as a writer in his own right. Barthes writes ‘the novelistic without the novel’, as he himself put it. Indeed, this is arguably the true basis of his originality, over and above his theories of writing and signification. Thus in A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes says that ‘we do not know who is speaking; the text speaks that is all’ (Barthes 1978: 112). Today, a lover’s discourse can only be one of solitude; it has no specific subject but may be invoked by ‘thousands of subjects’. The lover’s discourse, as the equivalent of the novelistic, becomes the discourse of the construction of a lover’s discourse: a pure weaving of voices spelling out what one would say and could say were the narrative to be enacted.

Photography in Detail

Barthes’s writing on photography, as based on the last book he published in his lifetime, is now being seen as his culminating achievement. We shall take a moment to elaborate and interpret the more technical aspects of Camera Lucida, recalling that it is Sartre and phenomenology that were the basis of Barthes’s original inspiration.

The Orthographic Moment

Barthes’s writing on photography shows, says the noted philosopher of technology, Bernard Stiegler, that the photograph is constitutive of the self because it is (part of) the self. It does not represent or express the self. This is an ‘orthographic’ moment (a moment of absolutely accurate reproduction), where part of the past is reconstituted (Stiegler 1996: 78). As analogical (and this is Barthes’s frame), the photograph coincides materially (i.e. chemically and luminously) with what is photographed, so that it can be simultaneously past and present. A photograph cannot be taken after the event; it is necessarily and essentially simultaneous with the event itself. In this way photographs give access to a past that ‘one has not lived’, the past as the ‘alreadythere’.

Not just death, but death as a virtual object, only accessible via the photo through intuition is at issue. That is, when we say: ‘he is dead and he is going to die’ (= effectively: he is living and he is dead), as Barthes says of Lewis Payne (Barthes 1993: 95), the image of death is a strictly virtual image, an image that is quite distinct, if not quite separate, from the physical, analogical, mechanism of photography. Although time as death cannot be denied, it can only ‘be’ virtually. So, while there is physical evidence of life, there is no such correlate for death. Indeed, this can be tested by asking an uninformed spectator whether the person in the photo is alive or dead. This spectator will be able confirm the life of the photographic subject but not the death, at least not immediately.

Contingency and Phenomenology

Moreover, although inspired by phenomenology, Barthes also manifests an ambivalence for the phenomenological method and terminology. Thus, he refers to a paradox regarding his approach: on the one hand, he seeks, with phenomenology, the essence of photography – an essence established, of course, by way of the epoche´,1 or bracketing of the contingent, natural attitude – while, on the other hand what, for him, is essential in photography is its contingency. The latter, were it to be absolutely true, would make photography difficult, if not impossible for phenomenology of a Husserlian kind, to deal with. We need to ask, then: How contingent is photography for Barthes? Although contingency is said to be primary in photography (Barthes 1993: 40), when it comes to defining the most precious element of the photograph, he invokes the uniquely Husserlian terminology of noema. Given the idiosyncratic nature of this term, it could hardly have been chosen by accident. Its technical aspect and its significance should therefore be noted as follows: correlate of a noesis, or thought act, the noema is a thought object. And in both cases, we are dealing with virtual objects, not real objects. The noema may or may not be linked to a real object. The purpose of the noema is to make it possible to avoid being ensnared in the natural attitude or the contingent world. Simply put: the object of thought, or of consciousness, is not the object of the natural world. Now, it is as the latter that Stiegler has defined the object of photography. Orthography means that there is a physical relation between object and inscription, object and representation.

The Punctum

In the case of Barthes, the noema of photography is, as we know, the ‘it has been’. The question Camera Lucida raises is whether the noema can, strictly speaking, be a contingent object, or whether it is not rather the case that the ‘it has been’ is the object as experienced in thought and consciousness by Roland Barthes himself. There is a tension here, acknowledged by Barthes himself. There is also the difference between actual and virtual, where the virtual opens out onto subjectivity as the punctum (the subjective ‘sting’ of the image). Ultimately, the punctum is the ‘it has been’ – it is time – and is most intensely experienced in relation to death as the play between actual image as stadium (the narrative aspect of the image) and virtual image as punctum. Thus with the image of Lewis Payne, Barthes discovers something new in the punctum. The latter has ceased to be reducible to a detail and has become Time itself: the ‘it has been’ as noeme becomes the punctum as time: ‘This new punctum, which no longer has a form but an intensity, is Time, it is the fractured force of the noeme (‘‘it has been’’), its pure representation’ (Barthes 1993: 148).

A Diverse Oeuvre

Roland Barthes’s work embodies a significant diversity. It ranges between semiotic theory, critical literary essays, the presentation of Jules Michelet’s historical writing in terms of its obsessions, a psychobiographical study of Racine, which outraged certain sectors of the French literary establishment, as well as the more ‘personalised’ works on the pleasure of the text, love and photography.

The early Barthes aimed, in 1957, to analyse and criticise bourgeois culture and society. Mythologies (1973) is the clearest statement of this. There, the everyday images and messages of advertising, entertainment, literary and popular culture and consumer goods, are subjected to a reflexive scrutiny quite unique in its application and results. Sometimes Barthes’s prose in Mythologies is, in its capacity to combine a sense of delicacy and carefulness with critical acuity, reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s. Unlike Benjamin, though, Barthes is neither essentially a Marxist philosopher nor a religiously-inspired cultural critic. He is, in the 1950s and 1960s, a semiotician: one who views language modelled on Saussure’s theory of the sign as the basis for understanding the structure of social and cultural life.

the-front-cover-of-the-paris-match-magazine-that-barthes-analyzes.jpgThe nascent semiotician formulates a theory of myth that serves to underpin the writings in Mythologies. Myth today, Barthes says, is a message – not a concept, idea or object. More specifically, myth is defined ‘by the way it utters its message’; it is thus a product of ‘speech’ (parole), rather than of ‘language’ (langue). With ideology, what is said is crucial, and it hides. With myth, how it says what it says is crucial, and it distorts. In fact, myth ‘is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion’ (Barthes 1973: 129). Consequently, in the example of the ‘‘Negro’’ soldier saluting the French flag, taken by Barthes from the front cover of Paris-Match, the Negro becomes, for the myth reader, ‘the very presence of French imperiality’. Barthes’s claim is that because myth hides nothing its effectiveness is assured: its revelatory power is the very means of distortion. It is as though myth were the scandal occurring in the full light of day. To be a reader of myths – as opposed to a producer of myths, or a mythologist who deciphers them – is to accept the message entirely at face value. Or rather, the message of the myth is that there is no distinction between signifier (the Negro soldier saluting the French flag) and the signified (French imperiality). In short, the message of the myth is that it does not need to be deciphered, interpreted or demystified. As Barthes explains, to read the picture as a (transparent) symbol is to renounce its reality as a picture; if the ideology of the myth is obvious, then it does not work as myth. On the contrary for the myth to work as myth it must seem entirely natural.

Despite this clarification of the status of myth, the difficulties in appreciating its profundity derive from the ambitiousness of the project of distinguishing myth from both ideology and a system of signs calling for interpretation. While, on the one hand, the subtlety of giving myth a sui generis status of naturalised speech has often been missed by Barthes’s commentators, the issue is still to know what the import of this might be, other than the insight that the successful working of myth entails its being unanalysable as myth.


The analysis and practice of writing which begins in Writing Degree Zero (1953) gives a further clue about the concerns implicit in Mythologies. These centre on the recognition that language is a relatively autonomous system, and that the literary text, instead of being the transmitter of an ideology, or the sign of a political commitment, or again, the expression of social values, or, finally, a vehicle of communication, is opaque, and not natural. For Barthes, what defines the bourgeois era, culturally speaking, is its denial of the opacity of language and the installation of an ideology centred on the notion that true art is verisimilitude. By contrast, the zero degree of writing is that form which, in its (stylistic) neutrality, ends up by drawing attention to itself. Certainly, Nouveau Roman writing (originally inspired by Camus) exemplifies this form; however, this neutrality of style quickly reveals itself, Barthes suggests, as a style of neutrality. That is, it serves, at a given historical moment (post-Second World War Europe), as a means of showing the dominance of style in all writing; style proves that writing is not natural, that naturalism is an ideology. Thus if myth is the mode of naturalisation par excellence, as Mythologies proposes, myth, in the end, does hide something: its ultimately ideological basis.

Narrative and Fashion

Barthes’s influential study of narrative in 1966 (Barthes 1966: 1–27) continues the semiotician’s mission of unmasking the codes of the natural, evident between the lines in the works of the 1950s. Taking a James Bond story as the tutor text, Barthes analyses the elements which are structurally necessary (the language, function, actions, narration, of narrative) if narrative is to unfold as though it were not the result of codes of convention. Characteristically, bourgeois society denies the presence of the code; it wants ‘signs which do not look like signs’. A structural analysis of texts, however, implies a degree of formalisation that Barthes began to reject. Unlike theorists such as Greimas, the reader is nearly always struck by the degree of freedom and informality in his writing. Although linguistic notation, diagrams and figures appear in works like The Fashion System (1983), Barthes was unhappy with this foray into ‘scientificity’ and only published his book on fashion (originally intended as a doctoral thesis) at the behest of friends and colleagues. It is in The Fashion System, however, that Barthes clarifies a number of aspects of the structural, or semiotic, approach to the analysis of social phenomena. Semiology, it turns out, examines collective representations rather than the reality to which these might refer, as sociology does. A structural approach, for its part, attempts to reduce the diversity of phenomena to a general function. Semiology – inspired by Saussure – is always alive to the signifying aspect of things. Indeed, it is often charged with revealing the language (langue) of a field such as fashion. Barthes therefore mobilises all the resources of linguistic theory – especially language as a system of differences – in order to identify the language (langue) of fashion in his study of fashion.

Much of The Fashion System, however, is a discourse on method because fashion is not equivalent to any real object which can be described and spoken about independently. Rather, fashion is implicit in objects, or in the way that these objects are described. To facilitate the analysis, Barthes narrows the field: his corpus will consist of the written signs of women’s clothing fashion as these appear in two fashion magazines between June 1958 and June 1959. The complication is that there, fashion is never directly written about, only connoted. For the fashion system always implies that things (clothing) are naturally, or functionally, given: thus some shoes are ‘ideal for walking’, whereas others are made ‘for that special occasion . . .’. Fashion writing, then, refers to items of clothing, and not to fashion. If fashion writing has a signified (the item), it is now clear that this is not fashion. In fact, the language of fashion only becomes evident when the relationship between signifier and signifier is taken into account, and not the (arbitrary) relationship between signifier and signified. The signifier–signified relation constitutes the clothing sign. Barthes orients his study along a number of different axes all of which have to do with the nature of signification. After methodological considerations, he looks at the structure of the clothing code in terms of: the fashion signifier – where meaning derives from the relationship between object (e.g. cardigan), support (e.g. collar), and variant (open-necked) – and the fashion signified: the external context of the fashion object (e.g. ‘tusser = summer’). The fashion sign, however, is not the simple combination of signifier and signified because fashion is always connoted and never denoted. The sign of fashion is the fashion writing itself, which, as Barthes says, ‘is ‘‘tautological’’, since fashion is only ever the fashionable garment’ (Barthes 1993: 220n.16).

In the third section of The Fashion System, Barthes examines the rhetorical system of fashion. This system captures ‘the entirety of the clothing code’. As with the clothing code, so with the rhetorical system, the nature of the signifier, signified and sign are examined. The rhetoric of the signifier of the clothing code opens up a poetic dimension, since a garment described has no demonstrably productive value. The rhetoric of the signified concerns the world of fashion – a kind of imaginary ‘novelistic’ world. Finally, the rhetoric of the sign is equivalent to the rationalisations of fashion: the transformation of the description of the fashion garment into something necessary because it naturally fulfils its purpose (e.g. evening wear), and naturally fulfils its purpose because it is necessary.

Codes and Languages

Barthes’s S/Z, analyses Balzac’s short story ‘Sarrasine’, and is an attempt to make explicit the narrative codes at work in a realist text. ‘Sarrasine’, Barthes argues, is woven of codes of naturalisation, a process similar to that seen in the rhetoric of the fashion sign. The five codes Barthes works with here are the hermeneutic code (presentation of an enigma); the semic code (connotative meaning); the symbolic code; the proairetic code (the logic of actions); and the gnomic, or cultural code which evokes a particular body of knowledge. Barthes’s reading aims less to construct a highly formal system of classification of the narrative elements, than to show that the most plausible actions, the most convincing details or the most intriguing enigmas, are the products of artifice, rather than an imitation of reality.

After analysing Sade, Fourier and Loyola as ‘Logothetes’ and founders of ‘languages’ in Sade, Fourier, Loyola – an exercise recalling the ‘language’ (langue) of fashion – Barthes writes about pleasure and reading in The Pleasure of the Text. The latter marks a foretaste of the more fragmentary, personalised and semi-fictional style of the writings to come. The pleasure of the text ‘is bound up with the consistencyof the self, of the subject which is confident in its values of comfort, of expansiveness, of satisfaction’ (Barthes 1985: 206. Translation modified). This pleasure, which is typical of the readable text, contrasts with the text of jouissance (the text of enjoyment, bliss, loss of self). The text of pleasure is often of a supreme delicacy and refinement, in contrast to the often unreadable, poetic text of jouissance. Barthes’s texts themselves, especially from 1973 onwards, can be accurately described in terms of this conception of pleasure. Thus after distilling the language (langue) of others, Barthes, as a writer of pleasure, then came to give vent to his own, singular language. From a point where he became a critic for fear of not being able to write (fictions in particular), Barthes not only became a great writer, he also blurred the distinction between criticism and (poetic) writing.

1 On this, and other terms, such as noema, see the entry on Husserl.

Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Barthes, Roland (1966), ‘Introduction a` l’analyse structurale des re´cits’, Communications 8. In English as ‘Introduction to the structural analysis of narratives’ in Barthes (1979) Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins.
—— (1973), Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, St Albans, Herts: Paladin, 1973, p. 129.
—— (1978), A Lover’s Discourse, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill & Wang.
—— (1983), The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard, New York: Hill & Wang.
—— (1985), The Grain of the Voice. Interviews 1962–1980, trans. Linda Coverdale, New York: Hill & Wang.
—— (1993), Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, London: Vintage.
Stiegler, Bernard (1996), La Technique et le temps 2: La De´sorientation Paris: Galile´e.

Barthes’s Major Writings
(2005) The Neutral: Lecture Course at the College de France, 1977–1978, trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier, New York: Columbia University Press.
(1987a [1966]) Criticism and Truth trans. Katrine Pilcher Keuneman, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
(1987b [1954]) Michelet, trans. Richard Howard, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
(1986 [1970]) The Empire of Signs (1970), trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill & Wang, fourth printing.
(1985a [1982]) The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill & Wang.
(1985b [1981]) The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962–1980, trans. Linda Coverdale, New York: Hill & Wang.
(1984 [1977]) A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill & Wang.
(1983a [1980]) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, London: Vintage.
(1983b [1967]) The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard, New York: Hill & Wang.
(1979 [1966]) ‘Introduction to the structural analysis of narratives‘ in Image- Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins.
(1977a [1975]) Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill & Wang.
(1977b [1964]) Elements of Semiology, trans. Annette Lavers and Collin Smith, New York: Hill & Wang.
(1977c [1953]) Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, New York: Hill & Wang.
(1976 [1971]) Sade, Fourier, Loyola, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill & Wang.
(1975 [1973]) The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill & Wang.
(1974 [1970]) S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill & Wang.
(1973 [1957]) Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, St Albans, Herts: Paladin.
(1972 [1964]) Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

Further Reading
Allen, Graham (2003), Roland Barthes, London and New York: Routledge. Gane, Mike and Gane, Nicholas, eds, (2004), Roland Bathes, London and Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Knight, Diana (2000), Critical Essays on Roland Barthes, New York: G.K. Hall.
Rabate´, Jean-Michel (1997), Writing the Image After Roland Barthes, Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania.


Categories: Deconstruction, Linguistics, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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