Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes; drawing by David Levine

The writer is someone for whom language is problematic, who experiences its depth, not its usefulness or its beauty.

—Barthes, Critique et Vérité

“Language is never innocent,” Roland Barthes wrote in Writing Degree Zero (1953), the book that began his career as the most provocative critic to emerge in France since the war. In Sade, Fourier, Loyola (published in 1971 and now translated into English), he tells us that a belief in the innocence of language is not innocent either: “This myth is not innocent.” The phrases make Barthes sound like a latter-day Robespierre, and in his more theoretical moments he does affect this stance: severe scrutineer of society’s self-deceptions, demystifier general, the man against the masks.

In practice, though, Barthes is a good deal more amiable, offers agile and tolerant commentaries on all kinds of cultural occasions, from Racine to Garbo, and from Robbe-Grillet to wrestling and steak and chips. In Mythologies (1957), for example, he notices that all the characters in Mankiewicz’s film Julius Caesar have fringes—curly, straggly, tufted, oily, but all well combed, and clearly visible. Why? Because the fringe is the sign of Romanness; it reminds us, in case the faces of Marlon Brando and James Mason should create any confusion, that we are in ancient Rome. In the same book Barthes reflects on the “old Alpine myth,” “this bourgeois promoting of mountains,” which haunts the Guide bleu, and which provokes suggestions of the picturesque “any time the ground is uneven.” He remarks, with casual sarcasm, on the antifeminism of the magazine Elle (“a real mythological treasure”), which insists on the fertility and domesticity of women novelists, who seem to beget books and children in parallel sequence:

Women, be therefore courageous, free; play at being men, write like them; but never get far from them; live under their gaze, compensate for your books by your children; enjoy a free rein for a while, but quickly come back to your condition. One novel, one child, a little feminism, a little connubiality….

As this last example shows, Barthes is not amiable to the point of weakness or indifference. But he is not a public prosecutor. His task, in some thirteen books published since 1953, has been to display myths rather than to accuse them. Sometimes the display is an accusation, of course; but sometimes it is just a dazzling display.

Barthes is at his best with authors and objects and scenes and aspects that serious people usually neglect (Fourier, the Eiffel Tower, the Tour de France, the delicacy of the Marquis de Sade), and he is good on writers who are his own contemporaries, like Queneau and Butor. He is interesting on Racine and Balzac (in On Racine, 1963, and S/Z, 1970), because the lively practice of anachronism, the intelligent reading of older texts with eagerly modern eyes, is always interesting. But anachronism has its price, and Barthes too often condescends to the past simply because it is the past, as if living earlier than yesterday were a grievous cultural misfortune.

Recently (in The Pleasure of the Text, 1973), Barthes has tried to spread himself by setting up two sorts of texts and two sorts of corresponding pleasures: ancient and modern, textes de plaisir and textes de jouissance. Richard Miller translates jouissance as “bliss,” which is no doubt better than “joy” or “enjoyment” or “delight,” but we don’t really have a word which will convey the sexual thrill Barthes wishes to connect with a certain kind of reading:

Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.

Now the subject who keeps the two texts in his field and in his hands the reins of pleasure and bliss is an anachronic subject….

The anachronic subject, of course, is Barthes himself, “out of place,” as he says elsewhere in the same book, “arriving too soon or too late…anachronic subject, adrift.” In an interview in Tel Quel in 1971, Barthes rather charmingly described his critical position as “à l’arrière-grade de l’avantgarde“: “To be avant-garde means to know what is dead; to be rearguard means to go on liking it.”

But we are all anachronic subjects when we read, unless we read only our contemporaries, and Barthes’s classification of texts confuses the modern with the recent, and also confuses reading with writing. Any text can be read as a texte de plaisir or a texte de jouissance, because most of us can manage a “modern” reading of Dickens or Shakespeare, say, as well as a more traditional one. I’m not sure either that the novels of Philippe Sollers and Severo Sarduy, which are Barthes’s prime instances of textes de jouissance, are not perfectly comfortable in their way. The writer who is really unsettling, as Barthes himself seems to say at one point, is someone like Flaubert: conventional narrative is preserved, but all the interest is elsewhere.


Barthes is not a substantial thinker, he is a writer in the sense that Gide (in his diaries) and Valéry (in his essays) were writers: not a novelist or a poet or even a critic but an articulate consciousness, a mind with a life of its own but also clearly crisscrossed by the ideas of its time. Barthes’s great gift is for the scintillating throwaway—a whole fascinating theory of narrative is dropped in a single paragraph of Sade, Fourier, Loyola—and of course the snag with throwaways is that some of them really do deserve to be thrown away. An example is Barthes’s suggestion, in the same book, that we could classify novels according to the “frankness of their alimentary allusions”: “in Proust, Zola, Flaubert, we always know what the characters eat; in Fromentin, Laclos, or even Stendhal, we do not.” We could also classify writers by the silliness of their ideas, but it would be unfair.

The French critic Gérard Genette was, I think, the first to point out the ethical (as distinct from ideological) basis of Barthes’s work. Mythologies and the Critical Essays (1964) pursue overloaded signs, excesses of meaning, with a language of physical disgust:

For if there is a “health” of language, it is the arbitrariness of the sign which is its grounding. What is sickening in myth is its resort to a false nature, its super-abundance of significant forms….

Myth “transforms history into nature.” A black soldier in French uniform salutes bravely on the cover of Paris Match, and colonialism seems not only tolerant and just, but natural, part of the eternal order of things. The seeming spontaneity of the picture, its “realism,” denies the “contingent, historical, in a word fabricated quality of colonialism.” Myth is a collective trick masquerading as a general truth. Meaning for Barthes is the meaning of others, a swamp of received ideas, and in Japan Barthes found an almost entire absence of such molestations.

Barthes himself regards L’Empire des signes, his essay on Japan, as his most successful work, and it comes off, he thinks, because of his sexual happiness, or as he puts it, his happy sexuality, at the time of writing. But his new book, Roland Barthes (“par” Roland Barthes), suggests another reason, less accidental and more firmly rooted in his earlier work. Barthes describes his insatiable desire to find out what things mean: “for example, if I notice that in the country I like to piss in the garden and not anywhere else, I immediately want to know what that means.” And given this compulsion, he seeks for a holiday from it, and describes himself as “thinking of a world which would be exempt from meaning (in the sense that one is exempt from military service).”

Japan, for Barthes, was partly a real country, meticulously and intelligently described, and partly a realm of banished meaning, an empire of signs (an empire of signifiers, he writes at one point), but of signs that mean nothing. Japan is intelligible and meaningless: “Although intelligible, the haiku doesn’t mean anything.” There are living haikus all over Japan, Barthes says: a boy on a bike, a girl bowing, a man playing Pachinko. “That’s it, it’s like that, the haiku says, it’s so. Or better still: it says, So!”

Barthes is no doubt wrong about the haiku, as he is probably wrong elsewhere in the book about Japanese faces (no expression) and the Japanese puppet theater (no imitation of life), since he is patently inventing something which is not the-West. But Barthes is perfectly aware of this and his invention is powerful and appealing: it is the dream, as he says, of knowing a foreign language without understanding it. The signs are so free of meaning that they don’t even signify an absence of meaning.

Conversely, the most eloquent pages of S/Z, which is an extended commentary on a short story by Balzac, concern Sarrasine, the painter in the story who misunderstands the world because he sees it through a haze of cliché, who succumbs to an excess of ready-made meanings. He falls in love with an Italian castrato and convinces himself that he/she is a woman because he/she behaves in the most conventionally feminine ways—is afraid of the popping of a champagne cork, for example. Sarrasine is killed off by the castrato’s protector, and he thus dies, in Barthes’s phrase, “from the discourse of others,” because he was immersed in stereotypes, in what Barthes calls, again, the “sickening” substance of cultural proverbs.


Barthes’s logic here is melodramatic and dubious. Sarrasine doesn’t die because he can’t extricate himself from the clichés of his perception, or if he does, it is only in the sense that one has a car crash not because the wheels skidded but because one took the car instead of the bus. But the logic is effective, because Barthes’s entire morality is behind it, and it says what he wants to say. Stereotypes can kill. This is a highly literary notion, but it carries with it an admirable vigilance. Barthes’s enemy is not, finally, the “others” or the surrounding culture so stuffed with sickening generalities. It is the loss of freedom, pictured in S/Z as a loss of life, which we suffer whenever our language ceases to be our own.

Roland Barthes records a nightmare straight out of Borges: a writer who, late in his life, would discover that he had, the whole time, been using the wrong language. “At night,” Barthes writes of himself, in a phrase that actually sounds like Borges, “the adjectives come back, en masse.” Roland Barthes is Barthes’s finest achievement so far because it allows him, more than anything else he has written, to bring his ethics and his easy brilliance together. Yet it is apparently the most self-indulgent of works.

The book started, Barthes says, as a joke. He would be the first figure to write about himself in this well-known French collection (Balzac/Baudelaire/Beaumarchais/Bernanos/Borges, etc. par lui-même). The format involves a lot of pictures, some sort of introduction, and a selection of texts, so that the book is in that sense “by” the author himself. What Barthes is doing is to take this publisher’s metaphor entirely literally. The story ends in a rather fine poker-faced joke too, with Barthes himself reviewing the book in the Quinzaine littéraire, and beginning his review with the words, “I suppose that if Barthes were asked to review his own book, he would have to refuse.”

But between the jokes the book is perfectly serious. It is a set of comments, memories, plans, insights, arranged alphabetically according to their key words (because this is an “unmotivated,” arbitrary order, a writer’s attempt at an acte gratuit—Barthes’s first published piece of writing was on Gide). Above all it is a book without vanity—a remarkable achievement given the circumstances, and something of an achievement in any circumstances, come to think of it. Barthes is very hard on his whole career.

He speaks of himself as fiddling with the dials of the radio of language, as falling into infatuations, crushes, “perishable manias” for particular words; as indulging in a “pseudo-linguistics, a metaphorical linguistics,” in which he raids that discipline for a poetic vocabulary (a good example is the passage on Sade in Sade, Fourier, Loyola, where Barthes speaks on a single page of the language, the grammar, the syntax, and the lexicon of the sexual antics of Sade’s libertines). He hangs on to words, he says, in the way that a child hangs on to a cherished piece of cloth:

A word, a figure of thought, a metaphor, in short a form takes hold of him for years, he repeats it, uses it everywhere, but he doesn’t think any further about what he means by these words or these figures (and if he did, he would only find more metaphors by way of explanation)….

The he in this quotation is Barthes himself. Throughout the book he alternates between the first and third persons, and occasionally slips into the second: his way of signaling the different voices in which we talk to ourselves, the varying relations which compose our self-consciousness. The book is an exercise not in self-praise or in mock modesty, or even self-exploration, or even self-criticism in the broadly moral sense, but in the criticism of a writing self, of the self as a writer. Although this, of course, is moral criticism too—writing is not something that Barthes does instead of living.

There is very little confession or revelation: there are childhood pictures, glimpses of the writer’s mother, news of the death of his father, allusions to Barthes’s tuberculosis, discreet intimations of homosexuality. But there is a genuine vulnerability running through the book, the necessary consequence, perhaps, of a refusal of vanity. “Often, he felt stupid: that was because he had an intelligence which was only moral (that is, neither scientific, nor political, nor practical, nor philosophical etc.).” He is only, although this is not how Barthes puts it, a writer. At another point he admits that he is “more classical” than the theory of the text that he defends.

A l’arrière-garde de l’avant-garde, a position that looked, in The Pleasure of the Text, like a strategy for having the best of two literary worlds, is also an extremely exposed situation, an expression of the homelessness of a man trying to live intelligently at the confluence of his personal life, the life of his times, and the life of all those pieces of the past he cares about.

I have tried to suggest that Barthes is well worth reading for his own sake; but he is often read as a self-confessed “structuralist,” even as offering something like a key to structuralism. He is aware of this, and in Roland Barthes he gives us a mischievous bit of advice.

He invokes the ship Argo, “of which the Argonauts gradually replaced each part, so that they finally had an entirely new ship, without having to change either its name or its form.” This is an allegory, Barthes says, for an “eminently structural” object: “Argo is an object whose only cause is its name, whose only identity is its form.” Barthes continues with “another Argo”: he describes his two working spaces, one in Paris, another in the country, identical places although they have no single object in common, nothing is transported between them. Why are they the same? Because the arrangement of paper, pens, tables, clocks, and calendars is the same. “It is the structure of the space which determines its identity.” This private instance, Barthes slyly suggests, should throw some light on structuralism: “the system prevails over the substance of the objects.”

The instance is striking because it seems to deliver structuralism so completely into the hands of its enemies. Is a little compulsion all it takes to become a structuralist? Is the writer a structuralist when he is tidying his desk but something else when he is writing? Are we all structuralists some of the time without knowing it, children of Molière’s M. Jourdain, who discovered that he had unwittingly been speaking prose all his life? Barthes himself—and this should put us on our guard—uses just this comparison in his essay on the Eiffel Tower, where every visitor constructs the landscape of Paris spread out beneath him, deciphers it, orders it into intelligibility. But does this mean that structuralism is merely an excuse for seeing what we want to see, an alibi for the projection of our habits on to the world?

Barthes gives us all these cards to play, but he knows we can’t play them. Structuralism, if it is anything at all, is a perspective, an “aventure du regard,” as Jacques Derrida says in L’Ecriture et la différence, and perspectives have no value in themselves. We can find structuralism in our compulsions in the same way that Roman Jakobson found poetic devices at work in the phrase “I like Ike,” but if we choose to dignify our compulsions on this score, or to confuse a jingle with Shakespeare, that is our problem. What the perspective gave us was a sense of a system where we thought there was only the reign of chance, a glimpse of rules where we hadn’t even seen that there was a game, and if in our eagerness for symmetry we fell in love with the system and the rules, that was hardly the fault of the perspective. Conversely, if in our distrust for triviality and pattern-making we stayed away from the perspective altogether, we have not saved our souls or the culture. We have simply refused a view.

It is true that structuralism has often looked like an ideology, as Gérard Genette suggested some time ago, because it insists on structures at the expense of substances, and Barthes’s own language illustrates just this (“the system prevails over the substance of the objects”). But this is polemical bravura, the gesture that all formalisms make, a brandishing of form against content, a response to what is seen as an overvaluation of matter and a slighting of manner.

Barthes himself, in any case, is on his way to pastures new. In Critique et Vérité (1966) he linked structuralism and psychoanalysis as modern disciplines, but he speaks now, in his Roland Barthes, of his “structuralist phase.” He envisions an antistructuralist criticism which would seek “not the order, but the disorder of the work”; and wonders, rather snobbishly, whether there are any structuralists left: “Is anyone still a structuralist?”

We may begin to wonder whether anyone ever was, in a way that we can usefully talk about. Structuralism sometimes seems to include any pursuit which makes use of the word “structure,” and sometimes it appears to be merely a name for whatever has been happening in France since existentialism. Anthologies of structuralist writings1 give us some good texts—Marx, Freud, Saussure, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Lacan—but still owe us a definition of what it is they are anthologizing.

The most serious and intelligent books on the subject2 see structuralism as the projection of a model from linguistics on to a range of other disciplines, notably literature and anthropology, and this makes good sense. If structuralism as an activity outside linguistics has a date it is 1949, the year of Lévi-Strauss’s Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, and the launching of structural anthropology not as a scattered practice but as a program. But even so, I think I would be happier with a looser notion, something like Derrida’s aventure du regard, which would convey the sense not so much of a borrowing from linguistics as of the subtle but far-reaching infiltration of the world by language.

Structuralism, the thing behind the word, is perhaps best understood as a tangled and possibly unnamable strand in modern intellectual history. At times it seems synonymous with modernism itself. At times it seems to be simply one among several twentieth-century formalisms, a sort of French cousin of the New Criticism, for example. And at times it seems to be the inheritor of that vast project which was born with Rimbaud and Nietzsche, spelled out in Mallarmé, pursued in Saussure, Wittgenstein, and Joyce, defeated in Beckett and Borges, and is scattered now into a host of helpless sects: what Mallarmé called the Orphic explanation of the earth, the project of picturing the world not in language but as language.

This project, once launched, appears to have two major modern moments, and here I have to lapse into violent and shaky shorthand. There is an early moment, a long one, in which the lessons of language are learned and the elements of a new metaphor are forged. It is a phase summed up in Heidegger’s thought that language speaks, rather than man. I have in mind the work of Saussure, the later Wittgenstein, and William Empson, but those names are listed more or less at random, and other people will think of plenty of other examples. Roughly, the typical word is no longer a name, like “apple,” say, which tempts us to check language off against the tangible universe, but a member of a system, like the word “same,” which doesn’t make any sense unless we also know how to use the word “different.” Knowing a language is like knowing how to play a game (both Saussure and Wittgenstein are fond of this image), and poetry, with Empson, becomes a special instance of words talking to each other.

Empson would not like this formulation, and I am exaggerating the interest of these men in the internal relations of language—to say nothing of ignoring huge variations of temperament and preoccupations. All three were extremely interested in the nonlinguistic contexts of language too. But I wish to make clear how the old pact between words and the world is disturbed by the new view of language. Language does not become a hall of mirrors, referring only to itself. But it does become a system of allusions, internal and external, which refers to the world only across a complex pattern of operations of its own.

We can see this very clearly in much of Jakobson’s work with literary texts. A poem offers a particularly artful piece of grammar. Fernando Pessoa’s “Ulysses,” for example, banishes all nouns and adjectives from its central stanza, relates to its title only by casual allusion, and shifts the gender of its nouns from masculine to feminine as the poem proceeds. The poem is about the creative properties of absence, about Ulysses’ being able to found the city of Lisbon because he is a myth and not a reality; and reality, which finally swallows up even the most powerful of myths, is a feminine noun in Portuguese. The grammar, in other words, mimes the poem’s theme with uncanny closeness, and I don’t think we can really speak, as Jakobson does, of the poet’s “supreme mastery,” since the only mastery clearly at work is an ordinary mastery of the Portuguese language.

Nor can we speak, as Jakobson does elsewhere, of the poem as an “absolute object,” for that is to fall into the fragile arms of the New Criticism or even those of Roland Barthes, who wrote in Critique et Vérité that the work proposes and man disposes. What we are seeing here, what we should doubtless not have seen without Jakobson’s analysis, is something that the poet is not likely to have intended, consciously or unconsciously, and that the reader is not likely to have perceived, even subliminally. And yet it is there, and an awareness of it enhances the poem for us.

I realize it sounds like a mystification to say, with Heidegger, that language is speaking on such occasions, but it’s hard to see what else one can say. The linguistic competences of the poet and the reader interact at a level that we just can’t place conceptually, and the only decent analogy, invoked by Jakobson himself, is tautological: language is behaving here like a piece of language, since “phonology and the grammar of oral poetry offer a system of complex and elaborate correspondences which come into being, take effect, and are transmitted from generation to generation without anyone’s being conscious of the rules which govern this complicated network.” The word “intuition,” which Jakobson also uses, is perfectly proper, but it looks like a flag being waved at the incomprehensible. “How does language hook on to the world?” Wittgenstein asked. What we need, perhaps, is less an answer to the question than an understanding of its depth and difficulty.

All of these men were interested in language itself (and Empson and Jakobson still are), but they can also be seen as elaborating a rich metaphor based on language, a picture of the world as a place which is purely contingent and yet internally coherent, where God is dead but meaning somehow persists. Language becomes a portrait of the world as intelligible and mysterious, as Japan was for Barthes, and it is this portrait that comes to the fore when structuralism crops up in France with Barthes and Lévi-Strauss.

This is the second moment of the project. Language is now taken up as a major figure and theme, and although Barthes and Lévi-Strauss are ostensibly engaged in semiology, the science of signs that Saussure had adumbrated (“A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable”), hindsight suggests that they were collaborating on the grand metaphor all along: seeing language everywhere. When Lévi-Strauss, for example, calls kinship terms parts of speech (“éléments du discours“), he means literally that kinship is a language. But then language itself becomes universal, a scheme of signs beckoning from every corner of human life, and what we used to call language dwindles to a has-been, a straight man in the world’s routines, just one language among many.

We are probably at the end of this second moment now, but many people will remember how fashionable it was, until very recently, to drop the word “language” in all kinds of unlikely places. The phenomenon is hard to illustrate properly, but it was real enough: we were excited by the idea of language, and this happened to people who had never heard of structuralism. Within the realm of literary study the event can be more clearly marked, and was eloquently represented by Georges Poulet, the author of Studies in Human Time, and himself a new French critic before a newer criticism overtook him. Poulet was responding to a paper Barthes had given at a conference at Johns Hopkins in 1966:

I would like to express the very great pleasure that I felt in listening to Roland Barthes and also a certain feeling of melancholy, for there seems to exist between us a sort of misunderstanding. We are a little like people who live in the same building but on different floors. This difference can be seen in our use of the word language, a word that I, myself, never like to pronounce—and this was perhaps the tendency of thinkers of an earlier period—but one which has recently become an extremely important word….

At times language has seemed merely a French fad, the password of a literary freemasonry: Proust shows his interest in the theory of language and is admitted to the pantheon. Michel Foucault, at the end of L’Archéologie du savoir (1969)3 , reminds us that “Le discours n’est pas la vie,” but in Moi, Pierre Rivière (1973),4 the record of a seminar on the case of a youthful nineteenth-century murderer, he describes discourse as a weapon—and in the context of the case, Rivière’s trial for having hacked his mother, sister, and small brother to death with a billhook, the metaphor is alarming. Rivière, it seems, like Kipling and Claudel for Auden, is to be forgiven because he wrote so well, because he converted his crime into the lucid words of a memoir.

I don’t think it is necessary to insist on the perils of such a view, on the importance of separating a useful metaphor (language is everywhere) from a crippling prejudice (language is everything). The point, no doubt, is that we have to make our own choices about where we wish to see language in the world. And where we wish to see others see it.

I suggested earlier that Barthes was at his best with neglected authors and scenes, but he is also brilliant with neglected aspects of language itself: with the language of strip-tease and Billy Graham, but also with the language of language. There are some remarkable pages in Writing Degree Zero on the use of the French past historic tense in novels:

It is the ideal instrument for any construction of a universe; it is the factitious tense of cosmogonies, myths, histories and novels. It supposes a world which has been constructed, elaborated, detached, reduced to significant contour, and not a world thrown out, spread out, offered to the view. Behind the past historic there is always a demiurge in hiding, god or narrator,…and the past historic is the functional sign by means of which the narrator confines the profusion of reality in a pure and slender verb.

I don’t think this is true, either about the past historic in general or about the way it is used in novels, but it offers us a way of looking at the smallest details of a text that will not turn us into pedants. A great deal can be said about narrative, not by accepting Barthes’s simplification, but by starting where he ends and complicating the question: by looking at the interplay of past tenses in a novel, for example, which suggests that the imperfect is the tense where the profusion of reality gets its chance after all.

Barthes’s determination to make everything in a text mean something often leads him to see literature as no different from pissing in the garden, but it also keeps the form of a text alive without sacrificing its content. It reminds us that form is a content (and content is a content too, and the question is the kind of sense we can make of them together). Barthes speaks of the “morality of form,” and this is perhaps his special province. “Structuralism,” he once wrote, “does not withdraw history from the world: it tries to link history, not only with contents (that has been done a thousand times), but also with forms….”

Elsewhere he writes, with tongue in cheek, that “a little formalism turns one away from History, but…a lot brings one back to it.” In this sense, George Lukács, in The Theory of the Novel, treating the shape of a genre as a clue to the shape of human consciousness at a given time, is a model structuralist. The program is not new, and of course it’s easy to betray it, and Barthes himself often leads the way in showing us how. But we need the program, the search for the meaning and the morality of form. I don’t think we can quarrel with it.

Or rather we can, but only by quarreling with language itself, and it is this further turn of the screw that I would like to follow another time, in a consideration of the work of Jacques Derrida.

This Issue

March 4, 1976