Today is the birthday (1915) of Roland Gérard Barthes, French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician. Barthes’ ideas explored a diverse range of fields and he influenced the development of many schools of theory, including structuralism, semiotics, social theory, design theory, anthropology, and post-structuralism. His book, Mythologies (1957), originally a series of essays on the interpretation of popular culture published periodically, was an influential work in anthropology because it introduced anthropologists to semiotics – the analysis of signs and how they operate. Barthes’ work had its vogue in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially because he was a French intellectual whose writings were somewhat clearer and more readable than those of many of his contemporaries, and they appeared to be fertile ground. I always felt that his analyses were trivial, and most of the social scientific world now agrees with me – with the exception of holdouts in France. No worries: I despaired of French social scientists and philosophers a long time ago.
Barthes was born in Cherbourg in Normandy. His father, a naval officer, was killed in a battle during World War I in the North Sea before Barthes’ first birthday. His mother, Henriette Barthes, and his aunt and grandmother raised him in the village of Urt and the city of Bayonne. When Barthes was 11, his family moved to Paris. He claimed that his attachment to his provincial roots remained strong throughout his life – although he does a fair imitation of the bored, Parisian, left-bank intellectual that you could easily be fooled.
Barthes spent from 1935 to 1939 at the Sorbonne, where he earned a degree in classical literature. He was plagued by ill health throughout this period, suffering from tuberculosis, which often had to be treated in isolation in sanatoria. His repeated physical breakdowns disrupted his academic career, affecting his studies and his ability to take qualifying examinations. They also exempted him from military service during World War II. His life from 1939 to 1948 was largely spent obtaining a degee in grammar and philology, publishing his first papers, taking part in a medical study, and continuing to struggle with his health. He received a diplôme d’études supérieures from the University of Paris in 1941 for his work in Greek tragedy. In 1948, he returned to purely academic work, gaining numerous short-term positions at institutes in France, Romania, and Egypt. During this time, he contributed to the leftist Parisian paper Combat, out of which grew his first full-length work, Writing Degree Zero (1953).
In 1952, Barthes settled at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, where he studied lexicology and sociology. During his seven-year period there, he began to write a popular series of bi-monthly essays for the magazine Les Lettres Nouvelles, in which he examined “myths” of popular culture (gathered in Mythologies). The essays in Mythologies were reflections on French popular culture ranging from an analysis of soap detergent advertisements to a dissection of popular wrestling. Though knowing little English, Barthes taught at Middlebury College in 1957 and befriended the future English translator of much of his work, Richard Howard.
Barthes spent the early 1960s exploring the fields of semiology and structuralism, chairing various faculty positions around France, and continuing to produce more full-length studies. Many of his works challenged traditional academic views of literary criticism and of renowned figures of literature. His unorthodox thinking led to a conflict with a well-known Sorbonne professor of literature, Raymond Picard, who attacked the French New Criticism (a label that he inaccurately applied to Barthes) for its obscurity and lack of respect towards France’s literary roots. Barthes’ rebuttal in Criticism and Truth (1966) accused the old, bourgeois criticism of a lack of concern with the finer points of language and of selective ignorance towards challenging theories, such as Marxism.
By the late 1960s, Barthes had established a reputation for himself and traveled to the US and Japan. During this time, he wrote the 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” which, in light of the growing influence of Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction, would prove to be a transitional piece in its investigation of the logical ends of structuralist thought. Trust me. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you don’t want to know. Derrida, Bourdieu, Foucault . . . are all names that have me running for the exit.
Barthes continued to contribute with Philippe Sollers to the avant-garde literary magazine Tel Quel, which was developing similar kinds of theoretical inquiry to that pursued in Barthes’ writings. In 1970, Barthes produced what many consider to be his most prodigious work, the dense, critical reading of Balzac’s Sarrasine entitled S/Z. Throughout the 1970s, Barthes continued to develop his literary criticism; he developed new ideals of textuality and novelistic neutrality. In 1971, he served as visiting professor at the University of Geneva.
In 1975 he wrote an autobiography, and in 1977 he was elected to the chair of Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France. In the same year, his mother, Henriette Barthes, to whom he had been devoted, died, aged 85. They had lived together for 60 years. The loss of the woman who had raised and cared for him was a serious blow to Barthes. His last major work, Camera Lucida, is partly an essay about the nature of photography and partly a meditation on photographs of his mother. The book contains many reproductions of photographs, though none of them are of Henriette. On 25th February 1980, Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris. One month later, on March 26th, he died from the chest injuries he sustained in that accident.
I was going to gather together a series of pithy quotes from Barthes as a small homage, but as I re-read his work I realized that I detest his writing so much that I could not find a single one I like. Here’s a small sample:
Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire. The emotion derives from a double contact: on the one hand, a whole activity of discourse discreetly, indirectly focuses upon a single signified, which is “I desire you,” and releases, nourishes, ramifies it to the point of explosion (language experiences orgasm upon touching itself); on the other hand, I enwrap the other in my words, I caress, brush against, talk up this contact, I extend myself to make the commentary to which I submit the relation endure.
Some anthropologists find this kind of thing useful in interpretive analysis. I find it a complete waste of time. He rails against bourgeois culture, yet this sort of writing could not be more elitist. How many coal miners or steel workers are going to be intrigued by his words? How are these sentiments going to help them in their daily struggles? I have no time for this kind of self-centered, self-congratulatory twaddle, and I am glad to say that a great many intellectuals now agree with me. Einstein once said that if you cannot explain something simply, you do not understand it. Roland Barthes and his kin want to turn that sentiment on its head: “If you cannot make a simple idea impenetrable to the masses, you are not trying hard enough.” “Confusing” is not a synonym for “nuanced” or “profound.” Ask yourself, in the cracks, why every one of my photos of Barthes here shows him smoking.
This video, Semiotics in the Kitchen by Martha Rosler, is a perfect parody of semiotics and Barthes. Also perfect as my recipe du jour. That is, at the end of the video you will not have learned anything new, you will not have help in creating a dish, and you will still be hungry.