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. He was particularly known for developing and extending the field of semiotics through the analysis of a variety of sign systems mainly derived from middle to upper class, occidental popular culture.
Roland Barthes was born on 12 November in the town of Cherbourg in Normandy. His mother, Henriette Barthes, and his aunt and grandmother raised him in the village of Urt and the city of Bayonne. When Barthes was eleven, his family moved to Paris , though his attachment to his provincial roots would remain strong throughout his life.
Barthes showed great promise as a student and spent the period from to at the Sorbonne , where he earned a licence in classical literature. He was plagued by ill health throughout this period, suffering from tuberculosis , which often had to be treated in the isolation of sanatoria.
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They also exempted him from military service during World War II. His life from to was largely spent obtaining a licence in grammar and philology , publishing his first papers, taking part in a medical study, and continuing to struggle with his health.
In , 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 In , 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 dismantled myths of popular culture gathered in the Mythologies collection that was published in Consisting of fifty-four short essays, mostly written between —, Mythologies were acute reflections of French popular culture ranging from an analysis on soap detergents to a dissection of popular wrestling.
Barthes spent the early s 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 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 s, Barthes had established a reputation for himself.
During this time, he wrote his best-known work [ according to whom? 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 , Barthes produced what many consider to be his most prodigious work, [ who? Throughout the s, Barthes continued to develop his literary criticism; he developed new ideals of textuality and novelistic neutrality. In , he served as visiting professor at the University of Geneva. In the same year, his mother, Henriette Barthes, to whom he had been devoted, died, aged 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.
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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 25 February , Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris.
One month later, on March 26,  he died from the chest injuries he sustained in that collision. Barthes' earliest ideas reacted to the trend of existentialist philosophy that was prominent in France during the s, specifically to the figurehead of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sartre's What Is Literature? In Writing Degree Zero , Barthes argues that conventions inform both language and style, rendering neither purely creative. Instead, form, or what Barthes calls "writing" the specific way an individual chooses to manipulate conventions of style for a desired effect , is the unique and creative act.
A writer's form is vulnerable to becoming a convention, however, once it has been made available to the public. This means that creativity is an ongoing process of continual change and reaction.
In Michelet , a critical analysis of the French historian Jules Michelet , Barthes developed these notions, applying them to a broader range of fields. He argued that Michelet's views of history and society are obviously flawed.
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In studying his writings, he continued, one should not seek to learn from Michelet's claims; rather, one should maintain a critical distance and learn from his errors, since understanding how and why his thinking is flawed will show more about his period of history than his own observations. Similarly, Barthes felt that avant-garde writing should be praised for its maintenance of just such a distance between its audience and itself.
In presenting an obvious artificiality rather than making claims to great subjective truths, Barthes argued, avant-garde writers ensure that their audiences maintain an objective perspective. In this sense, Barthes believed that art should be critical and should interrogate the world, rather than seek to explain it, as Michelet had done. Barthes' many monthly contributions, collected in his Mythologies , frequently interrogated specific cultural materials in order to expose how bourgeois society asserted its values through them.
For example, the portrayal of wine in French society as a robust and healthy habit is a bourgeois ideal that is contradicted by certain realities i. He found semiotics , the study of signs , useful in these interrogations. Barthes explained that these bourgeois cultural myths were "second-order signs," or " connotations. However, the bourgeoisie relate it to a new signified: the idea of healthy, robust, relaxing experience.
Motivations for such manipulations vary, from a desire to sell products to a simple desire to maintain the status quo. These insights brought Barthes in line with similar Marxist theory.
Barthes used the term "myth" while analyzing the popular, consumer culture of post-war France in order to reveal that "objects were organized into meaningful relationships via narratives that expressed collective cultural values.
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In The Fashion System Barthes showed how this adulteration of signs could easily be translated into words. In this work he explained how in the fashion world any word could be loaded with idealistic bourgeois emphasis. In the end Barthes' Mythologies became absorbed into bourgeois culture, as he found many third parties asking him to comment on a certain cultural phenomenon, being interested in his control over his readership.
This turn of events caused him to question the overall utility of demystifying culture for the masses, thinking it might be a fruitless attempt, and drove him deeper in his search for individualistic meaning in art. As Barthes' work with structuralism began to flourish around the time of his debates with Picard, his investigation of structure focused on revealing the importance of language in writing, which he felt was overlooked by old criticism.
Barthes' "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative"  is concerned with examining the correspondence between the structure of a sentence and that of a larger narrative, thus allowing narrative to be viewed along linguistic lines.
By breaking down the work into such fundamental distinctions Barthes was able to judge the degree of realism given functions have in forming their actions and consequently with what authenticity a narrative can be said to reflect on reality.
Thus, his structuralist theorizing became another exercise in his ongoing attempts to dissect and expose the misleading mechanisms of bourgeois culture. While Barthes found structuralism to be a useful tool and believed that discourse of literature could be formalized, he did not believe it could become a strict scientific endeavour. In the late s, radical movements were taking place in literary criticism.
The post-structuralist movement and the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida were testing the bounds of the structuralist theory that Barthes' work exemplified.
Derrida identified the flaw of structuralism as its reliance on a transcendental signifier; a symbol of constant, universal meaning would be essential as an orienting point in such a closed off system.
This is to say that without some regular standard of measurement, a system of criticism that references nothing outside of the actual work itself could never prove useful.
But since there are no symbols of constant and universal significance, the entire premise of structuralism as a means of evaluating writing or anything is hollow. Such thought led Barthes to consider the limitations not just of signs and symbols, but also of Western culture's dependency on beliefs of constancy and ultimate standards.
He travelled to Japan in where he wrote Empire of Signs published in , a meditation on Japanese culture's contentment in the absence of a search for a transcendental signifier.
He notes that in Japan there is no emphasis on a great focus point by which to judge all other standards, describing the centre of Tokyo , the Emperor's Palace, as not a great overbearing entity, but a silent and nondescript presence, avoided and unconsidered.
As such, Barthes reflects on the ability of signs in Japan to exist for their own merit, retaining only the significance naturally imbued by their signifiers. Such a society contrasts greatly to the one he dissected in Mythologies , which was revealed to be always asserting a greater, more complex significance on top of the natural one. In the wake of this trip Barthes wrote what is largely considered to be his best-known work, the essay " The Death of the Author " Barthes saw the notion of the author, or authorial authority, in the criticism of literary text as the forced projection of an ultimate meaning of the text.
By imagining an ultimate intended meaning of a piece of literature one could infer an ultimate explanation for it. But Barthes points out that the great proliferation of meaning in language and the unknowable state of the author's mind makes any such ultimate realization impossible.
Indeed, the idea of giving a book or poem an ultimate end coincides with the notion of making it consumable, something that can be used up and replaced in a capitalist market. Indeed, the notion of the author being irrelevant was already a factor of structuralist thinking. Since Barthes contends that there can be no originating anchor of meaning in the possible intentions of the author, he considers what other sources of meaning or significance can be found in literature.
He concludes that since meaning can't come from the author, it must be actively created by the reader through a process of textual analysis. The end result was a reading that established five major codes for determining various kinds of significance, with numerous lexias throughout the text — a "lexia" here being defined as a unit of the text chosen arbitrarily to remain methodologically unbiased as possible for further analysis.
From this project Barthes concludes that an ideal text is one that is reversible, or open to the greatest variety of independent interpretations and not restrictive in meaning. A text can be reversible by avoiding the restrictive devices that Sarrasine suffered from such as strict timelines and exact definitions of events.
He describes this as the difference between the writerly text, in which the reader is active in a creative process, and a readerly text in which they are restricted to just reading.
The project helped Barthes identify what it was he sought in literature: an openness for interpretation. In the late s Barthes was increasingly concerned with the conflict of two types of language: that of popular culture, which he saw as limiting and pigeonholing in its titles and descriptions, and neutral, which he saw as open and noncommittal.
He called these two conflicting modes the Doxa and the Para-doxa. While Barthes had shared sympathies with Marxist thought in the past or at least parallel criticisms , he felt that, despite its anti-ideological stance, Marxist theory was just as guilty of using violent language with assertive meanings, as was bourgeois literature.
In this way they were both Doxa and both culturally assimilating.
As a reaction to this he wrote The Pleasure of the Text , a study that focused on a subject matter he felt was equally outside the realm of both conservative society and militant leftist thinking: hedonism. By writing about a subject that was rejected by both social extremes of thought, Barthes felt he could avoid the dangers of the limiting language of the Doxa.
This loss of self within the text or immersion in the text, signifies a final impact of reading that is experienced outside the social realm and free from the influence of culturally associative language and is thus neutral with regard to social progress. Despite this newest theory of reading, Barthes remained concerned with the difficulty of achieving truly neutral writing, which required an avoidance of any labels that might carry an implied meaning or identity towards a given object.
Even carefully crafted neutral writing could be taken in an assertive context through the incidental use of a word with a loaded social context.
Barthes felt his past works, like Mythologies , had suffered from this. He became interested in finding the best method for creating neutral writing, and he decided to try to create a novelistic form of rhetoric that would not seek to impose its meaning on the reader.
One product of this endeavor was A Lover's Discourse: Fragments in , in which he presents the fictionalized reflections of a lover seeking to identify and be identified by an anonymous amorous other.
The unrequited lover's search for signs by which to show and receive love makes evident illusory myths involved in such a pursuit. The lover's attempts to assert himself into a false, ideal reality is involved in a delusion that exposes the contradictory logic inherent in such a search. Yet at the same time the novelistic character is a sympathetic one, and is thus open not just to criticism but also understanding from the reader.
The end result is one that challenges the reader's views of social constructs of love, without trying to assert any definitive theory of meaning.