Roland Barthes | Critical Essay by Geoffrey H. Hartman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Roland Barthes.
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Critical Essay by Geoffrey H. Hartman

These are still the Banquet Years in France, though not everyone will savor the feast of books and essays produced there since 1945. One might have thought that Jean-Paul Sartre, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Maurice Merleau-Ponty had exhausted a certain vein. Philosophy and literature invaded each other's realm; science mingled with cultural criticism. Yet Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes and others are still taking on linguistics, semiotics, structuralism, sociology and psychoanalysis. New and fantastic words appear on the scene to express this mixture of disciplines: "economimesis," "anasematics," "mimology." It is a heady period of scribbledihobble.

There is a danger to literature in this Parisian plenty, for it loses part of its privilege. Literature is seen as one kind of "inscription" or sign system among others. Semiology, the study of signs, nourishes this tendency; and Roland Barthes, its most protean and engaging prophet, is as interested in the culture industry, fashion and popular art as in such classic writers as Racine and Balzac. He is himself rapidly becoming an institution, having received the accolade of the Modern Language Association and of Susan Sontag. Sixty thousand copies of the French version of A Lover's Discourse are said to have been sold in a little over a year. Ten of his books are now available in English and he's beginning to have a gurulike influence.

What lies behind his success? Quite simply, he's a fine pedagogical writer in whom toughness of intellect and a remarkable erudition have not killed readability and charm. He actually enjoys doing criticism. It does not seem to him a secondary or subordinated sort of work. We are allowed to see his mind thinking, tussling with metaphors, throwing off aphorisms, constructing and deconstructing systems. More of a scout than a pioneer, he brings essential news from the frontier; but his real importance, I think, might be in doubt were it not for his love of literature, constantly threatened but never overcome by ideological and scientific modes of thought. His passion for science stops short of wishing to substitute a more positive knowledge for what he has labeled "the pleasure of the text."

The dominant perspective of the 13 essays collected in Image/Music/Text is semiology. Barthes extends the "empire of signs" over film and photography, music criticism, biblical narrative, the Bunraku puppet theater, and writing and reading as historically situated activities. Several essays, like the early "The Photographic Image" and the famous "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative" are frankly didactic. They review and expand the domain of a certain terminology: interpretive codes, narrational systems, functions and indices, denotation and connotation. Yet those impatient with special terms will not mind too much, for where else do they get, under the same cover, Beethoven and Goldfinger, the Bible and Double Bang à Bangkok? Besides, as the insights come fast, the terminology has to show athletic prowess in ordering them.

Barthes is perhaps most interesting when he focuses on the fate of reading in a modern technological culture. What makes a reader active rather than passive, a producer rather than a consumer? We see that semiology can be a weapon as well as a science, for it helps Barthes to demystify the realism of media that penetrate life more deeply than we have time to observe. Any medium that, like photography, pretends to give a direct image of reality hides its encoded and manipulative character. Nowhere else, Barthes remarks, "does connotation assume so completely the 'objective' mask of denotation." His careful analysis, revealing the coded structure, builds a resistance to those who fabricate "reality."

If Barthes's interest in mental hygiene seems familiar, it is because of our acquaintance with the New Criticism, which attempted to preserve culture in the 1930's by stressing the intellectual probity of artifacts as compared to political messages. It overemphasized, however, the independence of literature from what Saussure, the founder of semiology, named "the life of signs within society." Barthes shares with Kenneth Burke a refusal to exalt art at the expense of other cultural activities, while still rejecting vulgar sociology. There is an oblique or even gratuitous element in all sign systems, which the thinker can extend but not purge. Barthes writes of "a kind of voluptuous pleasure in inserting, like a perfumed dream, into a sociological analysis, 'wild cherries, cinnamon, vanilla and sherry, Canadian tea, lavender, bananas.'"

"Unfortunately," Barthes adds, "I am condemned to assertion"; and he attributes the fault to the lack, in French, perhaps in all languages, of "a grammatical mode which would speak lightly" of important matters. Must every philosopher be high-serious in style? Is there not a teacherly frivolity? The scruple does Barthes honor, and of all recent French thinkers he has the least German philosophy in him, no Hegel or Heidegger to perplex the mind, no Teutonic straining. He is technical without being heavy, and a professional without ceasing to be an amateur. His precise yet fluent prose treats personal insight and systematic concepts with equal courtesy: as different vocabularies to be matched rather than as dialectical contradictions. This makes him hard to type intellectually. He is a man of roles rather than of allegiances (some affinity with Gide in this); what he is producing is not so much an oeuvre as a series of texts or at best a Roman de Roland.

Yet when he does enter the realm of theory, he is indeed assertive. "Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin," he proclaims in "The Death of the Author," published close to the revolutionary turmoil of May 1968, and included in Image/Music/Text. This concept of writing, which he opposes to the idea of original genius, is elaborated into a theory—better, a vision—of literary history. Genius implies individuality. It is related to our image of the author as one who has a real and potent self that is the source of his creative talent. According to Barthes, however, writing always works against stability of self or any fixed meaning. As he puts it, literature "disseminates" (a fertility metaphor) rather than establishes truth. He introduces the word "scriptor" to make his point that, at least in the modern period, literature does not create something original and stable but rather a "multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash."

To some extent this re-envisioning of author as scriptor returns us to a medieval notion of the anonymous scribal artist. To locate the scriptor only in the modern period is obviously a myth; but the important thing for Barthes is that through this notion of scriptor we come to reinterpret all art, not only modern works. He wants to purge from criticism the Romantic idea of a personal genius writing a personal book that only he was capable of producing. Barthes proposes a belated and desperate theory of impersonality.

Already a century ago, Matthew Arnold denounced the "French mania" for translating ideas into a revolutionary program. The Anglo-Saxon reserve in matters of theory has something to do with the assertiveness of theory. (Compare Barthes's propaganda for a radical change in our perception of past works of art with T. S. Eliot's laconic statement of 1919 that a new work of art changes the "order" of all existing works.) Where we confine ourselves to "practical criticism," Barthes summons us toward an "unknown praxis," a form of reading that could match the blending and clashing energy of what he calls the disseminative text.

Like most French intellectuals, of course, Barthes is under constant ideological pressure, and especially that of responding to Marxism and allied forms of social critique. By his sponsorship of structuralism, and more recently of semiotics, as well as his special theory of impersonality, he seeks to reconstruct poetics in the midst of politics—a very broad poetics that includes narrative and symbol formation of all kinds. Gide could flaunt the gratuitousness by which art escapes social constraints; Barthes must justify it. He accepts the analogy of art to work or to a mode of production; also of writers to workers that produce meaning. But the obliquity of signs and the impersonal energy of literature show that art is productive precisely because it is plural and escapes ownership by any one person (even the author) or social group. If ownership is anywhere, it is with readers.

All art aspires to the condition of music, as Walter Pater said; and rarely has a translation caught, like Richard Howard's, the musical genius of its original. A Lover's Discourse is a Passion narrative or recitative broken curiously into dictionary headings: from "s'abymer/to be engulfed" to "vouloir-saisir/will-to-possess."

The dictionary form, a cool and unrhetorical mode of presentation, lets us know at once that there is nothing private or confessional here. More important, it suggests that the lover, too, is not an original genius but rather an exploiter of received ideas and stock phrases. The lover acts the part of the lover. Convention prescribes his role; the arts supply his feelings and words. His anguish is non-attainment, but in the sense that he cannot bypass convention to realize his desire by more direct means. He is forced to magnify sign or fetish, token or trace, the loved one's "absence," which is the only "presence." In short, his desire—even when realized—remains unreal. Barthes associates this pattern, enacted so many times since Petrarch, with semiotic process. The ego on love's stage is a passionate machine: a restless producer and consumer of signs.

No distinction is made between a man's and a woman's discourse. Barthes remains a structuralist who will not give up his search for universals even if they prove to be as arbitrary as linguistic forms. Language rather than anatomy is fate. How much evasion is there in this slighting of sexual difference? The "dazzling" of love, as Stendhal calls it with a nice lapse into English, is diminished in my mind by Barthes's indifference to sexual difference.

Yet Barthes is profound in showing that while the unstable and voluble sign is love's very element, it achieves exceptional permanence in the structures we call texts. The writings of Plato, Proust, Balzac, Boehme, Winnicott, Lacan, Schubert, Goethe—and more!—feed a meditation that also embraces conventional exchanges ("I-love-you/So-do-I") and anonymous fragments of inner colloquy. All these orders of discourse blend into a single musical mélange. And though the word "discourse" (as in the title) seems odd—it suggests a highly analytic writing purged of figure and fable—Barthes is clearly seeking to invest analysis with a music of its own. The beast of "discourse" is to be made beautiful.

Hence only the pleasure of the text is felt in this text about pleasure. Here is how Barthes describes what goes on between lovers: "Nothing but signs, a frenzied activity of language: to institute, on each furtive occasion, the system (the paradigm) of demand and response." Is this how a lover would perceive or speak his passion? Surely Barthes's language is a stylized, uncolloquial product, made up of technical expressions and exegetical pensées. His erotics of semiotics approaches at times the diction of the précieuses ridiculed by Molière.

Yet Barthes persists in his folly, and succeeds. Not only does the influence of the fortuitous and the trivial emerge hauntingly in love, but by refusing the novelist's way of dealing with the power of trifles—the way, essentially, of "Romantic irony"—Barthes rethinks Racine, Valéry and the Neo-Classical tradition. The discretion and minimalism of signs is a "Classic" virtue, and what is signified recedes, as in periphrasis, until it approaches a second muteness. "With my language I can do everything," we read in A Lover's Discourse, "even and especially say nothing."

Barthes, like Flaubert, writes that "nothing." Whether our language is veiled, as in the Classic manner, or exhibitionistic as in the modern, we confront, says Barthes, "the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little." So Barthes's own style shuttles between too much and too little, between operatic and Classic.

In this book then, the "discourse of an Amateur," as Richard Blackmur called criticism, seeks to become "amorous discourse." Barthes as critic, semiotician, master of metalanguage, constructs an elegant confection out of his struggle with both fictional and systematic forms of learning. From these, by a recycling that literature is always meditating, he draws a new "primary" language. Jacques Derrida in Glas (1974) and Norman O. Brown in Love's Body (1966) accomplish, in very different ways, a similar feat. Is criticism finding its own style at last? Or recovering a formal possibility that is, in truth, very old? To make criticism creative, to reconcile learning with the language of love, inspired one of the first essays of the vernacular muse in the Renaissance, appropriately entitled by Dante "La Vita Nuova."

Geoffrey H. Hartman, "Signs and Symbols," in The New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1979, pp. 12-13, 34-5.

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This section contains 2,128 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Geoffrey H. Hartman
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