Barthes, Roland

Assigned: Barthes, Roland. From Mythologies, “Photography and Electoral Appeal” (1266-67); “The Death of the Author” (1268-72); “The Reality Effect” (1272-77); “From Work to Text” (1277-82). Also read the editors’ introduction (1262-66).

From Mythologies. “Photography and Electoral Appeal” (1957)

1. On 1266-67 (Some candidates for Parliament…”), according to Barthes, what change in the way voters connect to political candidates comes about thanks to modern photography? How does photography, in Barthes’ view, constitute not a radical departure from the past but instead a return to a certain aspect of an earlier, pre-democratic political tradition? In what sense does it encourage the persistence of “something deep and irrational co-extensive with politics” (1266 bottom), and even tend to obliterate or at least obfuscate the directly political concerns (policy, issues, party platforms, etc.) that one would think were central to a democratic election?

2. On 1267 (“The types which are thus delegated…”), what “types” of candidate, according to Barthes, tend to be created or promoted in campaign photography? How closely do they seem to match up to reality, in his view? Moreover, what differences does Barthes suggest between a three-quarter-face candidate photograph and a full-face photograph? Describe these two kinds of candidate photo in terms of their physical characteristics, and explain the leadership qualities they are said to emphasize in connection with the candidates. In what sense do such photos as Barthes describes, in his view, amount to a “veritable blackmail” perpetrated against the French people? 3. General question: À propos of Barthes’ essay “Photography and Electoral Appeal” in Mythologies, it is clear that video and photographic media (along with various social media platforms and the Internet) play a big role in twenty-first-century political campaigns and in officeholders’ attempts to govern after an election. Do you see that role as mostly positive, mostly negative, or somewhere in between? Do you think all this “tech” turns politicians into a Mad Men-style commercial product, or is that too cynical a view? (Or is the high-tech approach symptomatic rather than the cause of such candidate-as-commodity peddling?) Explain.

“The Death of the Author” (1968)

1. On 1268 (“In his story Sarrasine Balzac…”), how does Roland Barthes initially define “writing” in a way that divorces it from any stable conception of personal identity as its source? How does he trace the origin of the author in modern times—what philosophical, social, economic, and historical developments led this concept of “the author” to emerge in Western Europe after the Middle Ages ended? In what sense, according to Barthes, is “ordinary culture” in his own time entirely saturated with authorship as the explanatory key to all sorts of literary effort?

2. On 1268-69 (“Though the sway of the author remains…”), which writers and movements, according to Barthes, have long been engaged in questioning or tearing down the concept of individual authorship and its domineering influence in literature? What does he suggest about the efforts of Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Marcel Proust, Surrealism, and the influence of structural linguistics in this regard? For instance, what was Mallarmé’s fundamental insight about the primacy of “language itself” (1269 top) and the act of writing?  How has modern linguistics largely agreed with the insight that we can find in Mallarmé and others who would free us from the need to invoke the individual author (or speaker) as the controller of meaning?

3. On 1270 (“The removal of the Author…”), how does Barthes describe the transformation in our understanding of the “text” when the author-concept is replaced with the concept of the “scriptor”? (Latin scribo, I write; scriptor, writer.) What is the new understanding of the “text,” and how does the “scriptor” relate to the text temporally and in terms of its signification? In what sense does the act of writing become, to borrow a key term from J. L. Austin (see Leitch 1234-48), performative rather than an act of “recording, notation, representation,” etc.? Even though a human being, a person, is making graphological marks or typing away on a laptop keyboard (to update Barthes’ scene of writing somewhat), in what sense, according to Barthes, is the “origin” of the writing on the page or screen “language itself”?

4. On 1270-71 (“We know now that a text is not…”), how does Barthes further delineate the boundaries and nature of the modern “text”? In what sense is he replacing the older expressive theory of writing as produced by and mostly anchored to an author with what we might now call a “postmodern” theory involving an intertext? Why is it impossible to pin such a text or intertext down in terms of a stable, determinate meaning? What happens to the interiority of the “scriptor” who writes such a text?

5. On 1271 (“Once the Author is removed…”), how does Barthes explain what happens to criticism once we move from the old-fashioned nexus of author/literary work to the combination of scriptor and text? Why was the older nexus much more serviceable to critics than the new understanding of textuality without authorship? Why is it the case that “historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic”? How does the new kind of textuality lead to a revolutionary “anti-theological activity” that replaces the referential certainties of yesteryear’s professional critic, who set out to explain a given work of literature to an audience eager to receive such instruction? Is there any room for “criticism” and “critics” in this formulation, or does the concept of “readers” simply replace the hierarchical notion of the learned critic tied to truth-fields such as “reason, science, law”? Explain.

6. On 1271-72 (“Let us come back to the…”), Barthes describes the transformation effected by the new understanding of writing that he promotes. We know that with “the death of the author,” writing emerges. In connection with the new concept of writing,what kind of reader now comes into being? Who or what is this new reader, and in what sense is the newly transformed reader the “unity” and “destination” (1271) of the text itself? Why, according to Barthes, is it “hypocritical” of “classic” critics to attack his revolutionary understanding of writing and reading on the alleged grounds that it strips readers of their ancient “rights” (1271)? Ultimately, how has Barthes redefined the role and significance of readers in a manner he apparently equates not with a deprivation of longstanding rights but instead with an affirmation of liberty?

7. General question: On 1272 of “The Death of the Author,” Barthes concludes sweepingly that “to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” This essay was published in 1968, a momentous year that generated a lot of radical-Left thinking in Europe and the U.S.A. It has been over fifty years since Barthes set forth his ideas about leaving behind the bourgeois concept of authorship (authors as originators and controllers of meaning, etc.) in favor of a pleasurable, liberating new conception of the reader’s experience with “texts.” How does Barthes’ piece sound today—it is just utopian rhetoric that hasn’t come to fruition, or was he on to something about what readers want? Explain. 8. General question: In what sense do Barthes’ comments in “The Death of the Author” about texts and how we might read them today both borrow from and move beyond structuralism as we will have discussed that approach with reference to Ferdinand de Saussure (and perhaps one or two other authors, depending on the scope of the current course)? How does Barthes’ model of language and reading in the current selection in part run counter to the goals of structuralist analysis as you understand them?

“The Reality Effect” (1968)

1. On 1272-73 (“When Flaubert, describing the room…”), Barthes reflects on fictive description and “insignificant notation”; he is interested particularly in the “scandalous” (1272) quality of what might be called “useless details” in nearly any fictional narrative we might care to name. Consider a few of his examples: what kind of “useless details” (1272 bottom) is he referencing here? What key question does his reflection on these first few pages lead him to raise “which has the greatest importance for the structural analysis of narrative” (1273)?

2. On 1273-74 (“First of all, we must recall…”), Barthes discusses the discipline of rhetoric in its relation to the status of “detail” in speeches and texts. How did rhetorical theory and practice result in what Barthes calls “an aesthetic function” (1273) for description? What was the significance of ecphrasis in the development of “the very idea of an aesthetic finality of language”? (1273) According to Barthes (citing E. R. Curtius), what effect did such practices have on any notion of “realism” (1274 top) in rhetorical description from neo-Alexandrian times (second century A.D.) through the Middle Ages?

3. On 1274-75 (“Moving ahead to Flaubert…”), Barthes moves on to examine Flaubert’s realistic narrative, as evidenced most impressively in Madame Bovary. What is it about Flaubert’s keen description of the northern French city of Rouen that so interests Barthes? How is it at once still imbued with “the aesthetic purpose of description” and yet “thoroughly mixed with ‘realistic’ imperatives, as if the referent’s exactitude […] governed and alone justified its description….” (1274)? What insights does Barthes derive from the nineteenth-century literary realist Flaubert as well as from the period’s emphasis on “objective” history (1275) regarding the changing rationale for textual description?

4. On 1276 (“Since antiquity, the ‘real’ has been…”), how does Barthes conclude his reflections on what the treatment of “detail” reveals about a given era’s assumptions regarding language and reality? What seems to be implied by the statement that “All classical culture lived for centuries on the notion that reality could in no way contaminate verisimilitude”? (1276) Above all, what semiotic shift has occurred with the advent of realism? In responding, consider what Barthes implies on 1276 (bottom) about a redefinition of the relationship between the semiotic triad signifier (word), signified (concept) and referent (external thing referred to by the combined word/concept): what happens to the “referent” in this new way of understanding description?

5. On 1276-1277 (“This new verisimilitude is very…”), what final insight does Barthes offer about the direction of the “disintegration of the sign” (1276) moving forward from nineteenth-century realism to his own era, the late 1960s? Based on your understanding of the entire piece (and whatever you may know about structural linguistics as well as postmodern notions about the relation between language and the world around us), how does this development “challenge, in a radical fashion, the age-old aesthetic of ‘representation’”? (1277)

6. General question: In “The Reality Effect,” Roland Barthes tracks the changes in attitudes toward literary realism from the nineteenth century to his own time, and he apparently believes that the referential quality entailed by realism is rapidly being replaced by a post-structuralist understanding of language. In “The Decay of Lying” (Leitch 766-70), Oscar Wilde also addresses the value of literary realism, a then-powerful doctrine with which he, as an Impressionist artist and critic and a member of the Decadent Movement, has very little patience. What are Wilde’s reasons for disliking and rejecting realist doctrine and assumptions, and to what extent is there common ground between Wilde and fellow analyst of realism Roland Barthes?

“From Work to Text” (1971)

1. On 1277-78 (“It is a fact that over the last…”), Barthes prepares the ground for the rest of his essay by explaining why a strongly updated understanding of texts has become necessary. What “break” or departure in our understanding of “the work” (1277) occurred in the nineteenth century, and what factors does he specify and discuss as contributing to the currently happening “epistemological slide” (1277 middle) in the way his own contemporaries in the early 1970s think about language and literature?

2. On 1278 (“1. The Text is not to be thought…”), Barthes begins enunciating seven “propositions” about what he calls the Text as opposed to the earlier concept, the Work. What is the first of these propositions, and what changes does it call for in our understanding and experience of, say, a literary work (to use the older word) sitting on a library shelf—even, to some extent, an older or ancient work of literature?

3. On 1278 (“2. In the same way…”), what is Barthes’ second proposition about Texts? In his view, how is the ancient principle of interpretive and literary hierarchy being strongly challenged and even undermined by the advent of modern ideas about textuality? How is the Text “paradoxical”?

4. On 1278-79 (“3. The Text can be approached…”), what is Barthes’ third proposition about Texts? Try to explain his reasoning here: what does it mean to suggest that reading a piece of writing as a Text has to do with opening oneself up to “the infinite deferment of the signified” (1279); that “The logic regulating the Text is not comprehensive […] but metonymic”; and that “the Text is radically symbolic”? In general, how is Barthes to some extent borrowing a version of Saussurian structural linguistics to drive home his argument about the experience of reading a Text?

5. On 1279-81 (“4. The Text is plural…”), what are Barthes’ fourth and fifth propositions about Texts? With respect to the fourth, how does he delineate the concept of “[t]he intertextual” (1280) or intertextuality (the most common term today for describing the phenomenon Barthes here describes), and what does this concept do to traditional ideas about “interpreting” a literary text as a more or less complete, self-contained linguistic object? With regard to the fifth proposition, what does this new notion do to the traditional concept of authorship—in Barthes’ view, how should we think of an author with regard to the Text? (1280-81)

6. On 1281-82 (“6. The work is normally the object…”), what is Barthes’ sixth proposition about Texts? Explain his comments about the traditional relationship between reading and writing at a society-wide level: what was that relationship like in pre-modern “hierarchical” societies? Which activity is more important in a modern bourgeois society, and why? Why, according to Barthes, do modern Texts, avant-garde paintings or films, etc. sometimes generate only boredom in the citizens of such a society?

7. On 1282 (“7. This leads us to pose…”), what is Barthes’ seventh and final proposition about the Text? In what sense might reading a Text be a more genuinely pleasurable, participatory and even utopian experience than “consuming” a work of literature as traditionally understood? Moreover, in this same section, how does Barthes differentiate between older literary texts written by authors such as Marcel Proust or Gustave Flaubert and more modern productions—why can’t the former be enjoyed in quite the same way as the latter?

8. General question: Taken broadly, Barthes’ essay “From Work to Text” comments on what its author sees as a shift from a hierarchical relationship between text, critic and reader to a more open engagement with “literature.” Clearly, the essay makes strong claims against the viability of traditional models of cultural transmission and education. Consider your own experience with education at all levels, from grade school to college: what reflections occur to you about the manner in which you have been taught to engage with literary texts? Are you happy with the educational approach that has informed your own development, or does Barthes’ analysis seem to you to point out a flaw in its fundamental conception? Explain.

9. General question: Do you think Barthes’ claims in “From Work to Text” about the advent of “textuality” and the going out of fashion of “the work” have at least partly been realized, or do you think he over-predicts? What’s the basis for your reasoning on this point—what leads you to believe Barthes was right or wrong, or somewhere in between? For example, do you think the model of open-ended “textuality” is predominant in certain disciplines in the humanities and not in others? Or that it is or is not current amongst the general public? Do you think most of the people you know want to read open-ended “texts” or more traditional “literary works”? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake