Roland Barthes (1915 –1980) was a French philosopher, semiotician, and literary and media theorist. Over three decades, he produced articles and monographs concerned with the general problem of how different systems of communication operate. His activity spanned the periods in which authors who are identified with structuralism, and then those identified with poststructuralist and postmodernist theory, dominated critical debates in France and elsewhere. Barthes joined in these debates, often critiquing prevailing intellectual views on one hand and contemporary popular culture on the other.
Barthes’s first major work was Writing Degree Zero (1st pub. 1953), in which he took part in the discussion on existentialism and Marxism that marked French intellectual life in the early 1950s. Barthes’s turn toward structuralism produced a series of short essays, eventually published as Mythologies in 1957: these were semiotic analyses of diverse cultural forms and everyday artifacts, such as detergents, wine and milk, wrestling, and popular entertainment. In the programmatic essay “Myth today,” Barthes defined “myth” not in traditional literary terms, but instead as a second-level semiological system, or meta-language, extending the linguistics of Saussure, and facilitating the examination of tensions between the uncoded (or denotative) and the coded (or connotative) levels of signification. The fashion system (1st pub. 1963) is a systematic work of structuralism, in which Barthes analyzed the “vestimentary code” of French women’s fashion, as depicted in magazines. In general, Barthes’s structuralist analyses of the 1960s had a significant influence on qualitative media studies. His 1964 essay “Rhetoric of the image” further provided communication scholars with powerful tools for analyzing images and their relationship with texts.
While those working in communication studies found Barthes’s structuralist essays most immediately useful, students of film, art history, and literary theory drew inspiration from Barthes’s writings from the mid-1960s to 1980. In this period, Barthes influenced and was influenced by those who were questioning structuralism as a theory of communication. He was in dialogue with Jacques Derrida when Derrida was producing works such as Of grammatology and Writing and difference, critiquing key western notions about the nature of and warrant for written communication. Barthes’s The empire of signs (1st pub. 1970) shows this influence; the book examined elements of Japanese culture in a set of short chapters superficially resembling those in Mythologies. Rather than identifying mythic structures, however, Barthes described breakdowns of systematic communication in what he called “an emptiness of language which constitutes writing” (1982, 4).
In 1967, Barthes produced his essay “Death of the author,” in which he challenged the assumption that the author of a given work served as the guarantor of the work’s meaning. Barthes’s position resonated with those of Derrida, Foucault, and a new generation of literary theorists and critics in Europe and North America, who were no longer satisfied with the traditional view of the transcendent value of canonical literary texts and the subordinate position assigned to theorists and other readers of these texts.
Barthes participated in this poststructuralist redefinition of the relationship of author, text, and reader, and he helped to foster in communication studies a greater awareness and appreciation of literary and other critical theory. He produced a classic example of poststructuralist critique in S/Z (1st pub. 1970), a close reading of “Sarrasine,” a story by Balzac. Image – Music – Text (1977), a collection of Barthes’s essays, included “From work to text,” which defined a key distinction between “writerly” and “readerly” texts. A work is a frozen production of an author as authority figure; works constitute the literary canon and are not in that sense available for dialogue with other works in a culture. A text, however, is open to such dialogue. Barthes’s distinction, again, fit nicely with the work of Derrida and other deconstructionists as well as “readerresponse” theorists such as Stanley Fish. At this same time, Wolfgang Iser and others were developing a distinct, empirically oriented approach to the study of the reader’s response. All of these theorists began from the premise that the process of reading is one of actively constructing the meaning of a text.
Barthes’s writings in the 1970s are particularly resistant to classification, as evidenced by his 1975 “anti-autobiography” Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and his fictional 1977 A Lover’s Discourse. His final and in some ways most personal book was Camera lucida (1st pub. 1979), a lyrical analysis of photography through a series of examples. Here, Barthes explored the tension between the indexical nature of photography and the apparently arbitrary character of its cultural interpretation. He maintained, on the one hand, that a photograph does have a value as a record of an actual moment. On the other hand, a photograph has meaning through its special quality to affect us as viewers. A photograph is always an image of something past, always recalling death. Furthermore, there is an element in any photograph that seems tangential to the main representational subject, but is in fact central to our reaction as viewers. Barthes called this element the “punctum.” The picture whose punctum was most compelling for Barthes was one of his mother as a girl; Henriette Barthes had died three years before he wrote Camera lucida. Barthes himself died at 64, soon after completing this book and a month after being struck by a truck in the streets of Paris. The circumstances of his death have often been interpreted as confirming the melancholy of his final book.
- Barthes, R. (1967). Writing degree zero. London: Jonathan Cape.
- Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies, trans. A. Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Barthes, R. (1974). S/Z, trans. R. Miller. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Barthes, R. (1977). Image, music, text. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Barthes, R. (1981). Camera lucida: Reflections on photography, trans. R. Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Barthes, R. (1982). Empire of signs, trans. R. Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Barthes, R. (1983). The fashion system, trans. M. Ward and R. Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Back to Communication Theory and Philosophy.