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Roland Barthes: An Introduction

Updated on May 9, 2020

I. Introduction :

Roland Barthes is one of the most significant figures in modern literary and cultural theory. He has a great contribution to the development of structuralism especially the application of some techniques coming from the field of semiology to the analysis of high and popular culture in France. His works cover various issues in different fields including myth and ideology, photography, narrative and the literary works of many writers such as Proust, Sade and Balzac. Barthes is one of those rare intellectuals who have come up with the first foundations of literary and cultural theory to the extent that if we want to understand theory today, we must go back to his works along with some of his contemporary thinkers. Barthes is mainly famous by his declaration of the death of the author, which turned up literary theory upside down. We may have heard of his key ideas before we know Barthes, the thinker. For instance, many of us are familiar with the signification of red and green lights since we were in primary school. At any rate, as Allen Graham suggests: there are many Barthes available to the reader. For instance, readers who are interested in literature can start reading “the death of the Author” or “Introduction to the structural analysis of narratives”. There are also some of his books and essays about photography like “the rhetoric of the image” and “Camera Lucida”. Ultimately, for those who are specialized in cultural studies may read “Mythologies”. However, throughout this paper we are mainly concerned with Barthes, the semiologist, the structuralist and the literary theorist.


II. Myths and signs


  1. 1. The influence of Ferdinand de Saussure


Ferdinand de Saussure was born in Switzerland. He is the one who established the study of language, linguistics, as an independent academic field of study. Moreover, his works had a huge impact on structuralists as Lévi Strauss, Roman Jacobson and Roland Barthes himself. Saussure had never published any book until 1916 when his notes as well as those of his students based on his lectures were printed as the “Course in General linguistics”. De Saussure stands against the idea that there is a historically connection between a word and its meaning. When it comes to the analysis of meaning, he differentiates between the signifier and the signified. The first one is what language refers to and the latter is the conceptual image of the signifier. These two constituents are the main components of a sign. Moreover, the relationship between them is arbitrary in the sense that it is related to a cultural convention, an agreement.


  1. 2. Key Concepts


  1. a. Semiology/Semiotics

It is the theory of signs. Particularly the way in which signs illustrates the problem of meaning and communication. Despite the fact that many approaches to semiology are deeply rooted in the study of written as well as spoken language, it deals with various forms of human artifacts with the condition of having meaning. Therefore, these human actions can be tackled as signs including images, music, literature, cinema, photograph and so on.

  1. b. Myth

Myth is a very tricky term in the sense that it has multiple and interrelated meanings. In its most traditional sense, myth is used to indicate a narrative about supernatural beings. Other examples of the use of the term myth is in Durkheimian sociology, in which myth is seen as the experience of conscience collective.

The structuralist anthropologist Lévi-Strauss was also inspired by Ferdinand De Saussure semiology. For him, a myth is a sign system and the best way to analyze it is through the surface expression of its underlying deep unconscious structure. Lévi-Strauss’s illustration of Oedipus myth is very significant here. He divides it into a sequence of meaningful symbols. Therefore, Lévi Strauss breaks up the narrative of Oedipus as the following: Cadmos seeks his sister, Europa, ravished by Zeus. Oedipus marries his mother Jocaster and Antigone buries her brother Polynices. Levi Strauss sees these elements as binaries in the sense that some of these groups overvalue blood relationships while the others undervalue them. Some are concerned with humans who are to some extent monstrous and the others deny the bestial side of humans. Thus, Lévi Strauss shows how myths are shaped by the human mind, which perceive the world in terms of binary oppositions.

  1. 3. Roland Barthes’ mythologies :


In the preface to his “Mythologies”, Roland Barthes states that his book is a collection of essays, which were written once each month for about two years from 1954 to 1956. Barthes states that he had a feeling of impatience at the sight of the naturalness with which the media and art dressed up a reality. Therefore, Barthes decided to track down of what he calls “what goes without saying” which is a kind of hidden ideological abuse.

Roland Barthes’ Mythologies consists of two parts. The second part “Myth Today” is a kind of theoretical discussion to how myth works in the first part. In the first essay of the second part, Barthes writes his own definition of a myth. He states “Myth is a system of communication that is a message. It is a mode of signification. Since myth is a kind of speech, everything can be considered as a myth.”

There are levels of signification, Barthes builds on De Saussure’s semiology, which is the first level of a signification in order to analyze some myths of French daily life guided by his own interests. A sign for Roland Barthes is made up of both denotative and connotative orders. Detonation means the process of referring to something in the world while connotation serves the second level of signification of what Barthes calls “Metalanguage”. It is the allusion to cultural values, which are linked to the distribution of power, an ideology. The fact that we take the connotative aspect of a particular sign seriously is what is what Barthes calls a myth. In this sense, myth is quite analogous with Marx’s idea of ideology, a synonym of false consciousness. The ruling class propagates its concealed ideas due to its control of mass media, church and schools. For instance, Barthes suggests that wine, as a substance is not associated with intoxication and the primary cause of crimes. On the contrary, wine is a metaphor of French identity. It is a part of France. This is how myths function in modern world. They take cultural objects and then transform them into universal and natural value. In this way, mythology turns culture into nature. Barthes concludes his essay “Wine and Milk” by reminding us that myths are not innocent. Through colonilisation, wine is imposed on Muslim countries such as Algeria while they do not have even bread to eat.

  1. Intertextuality :

It is a common sense that when we read a literary work, we try to find meaning. In one way or another, there is meaning in every work of literature. The process of looking for meaning is called interpretation. However, in modern theory, critics argue that both literary and non-literary works have no independent meaning.

  • Julia Kristeva

Julia Kristeva coined the term intertextuality in 1960’s in order to indicate that a text be it a novel, a play, a poem, a film, or a historical document is not self-contained and autonomous but rather it is a product of other texts. She claim that there is a network relationship between texts. In this way, the meaning of a particular text depends on other previous texts. For instance, when we read Conrad’ Heart of Darkness it influences our understanding of Cupola’s Apocalypse Now. The Bulgarian literary theorist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva came into appearance in Paris as the interpreter of the Russian Formalist, Mikhail Bakhtin.

  • Mikhail Bakhtin

Kristeva’s introduction of Bakhtin to the Europeans is a major work in what is called the theory of the text. Bakhtin is not interested only in literature but also in the study of language and philosophy as well. His most crucial idea is that language has a dialogic nature. Bakhtin is against Ferdinand De Saussure’s perception of language as an abstract system. Bakhtin believes that language is always evaluative. That is, it depends on social situations between actual speakers. In this way, a word can have different meanings. For instance, the word friend in a classroom is not as a friend in a bar, religious service or in a television interview. In a literary context particularly in his collected essays The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin refers to the novel as dialogic because it contains a multiplicity of voices or what Bakhtin calls Heteroglossia. In this way, a novel is not fixed as other forms of literature but rather it is subjected to change because it possess parodies, travesties, and reaccentuates.


  • Roland Barthes:

Roland Barthes develops the term of Interxtuality in his famous essay “The Death of the Author” in 1968. Influenced by Kristeva’s work in Bakhtin, Barthes extends the idea of the text as a non-unified authorial consciousness but a plurality of voices, of other words, other utterances and other texts. The text as Roland Barthes states is a “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.” it is this theory of the text and Interxtuality, which makes the essay of the death of author post-structuralist. It is a common knowledge that, Post-modernism adopted post-structuralism as a mode of analysis. Roland Barthes’s shift from structuralism to post-structuralism is an indication of his tendency to what is called in post-modernism “intertextual elements” such as parody, pastiche and allusion. For Barthes, the theory of intertextuality effaces the origin of meaning. Since the text is a “tissue of quotations”, the author is no longer the god-like originator of meaning. In this way, and as Roland Barthes states at the end of his essay, the death of the author is the birth of the reader.

IV. Conclusion

The shift of Roland Bathes from structuralism to post-structuralism must not be seen as a self-contradiction. Barthes himself suggests that writing is not the establishment of a particular school of thought. Writing for him is like an intransitive verb, which does not need an object to be complete. In other words, writing is the disturbance of meaning and not the production of meaning. Barthes remains one of the most significant French thinkers in different fields especially the humanities. Various critics quote from the works of Barthes. Thinkers such as Julia Kriesteva and Tzvetan Todorov appreciate Barthes by describing him as a non-master to be imitated but rather an irreplaceable writer. Barthes is not easy to be followed. His works on structuralist analysis narratives, demythologizing and his style of criticism need precise scrutiny. One must be aware of the methods of his textual analysis and the radical way by which he questions myths on both theoretical and ideological levels. Barthes asks his reader to look for new methods to approach different phenomena and not to imitate him as what physicists and psychoanalysts do with the works of Einstein and Freud. In case we want to mimic his works, as I have noted in the introduction, there are several Barthes available to the reader then which Barthes we are going to follow?


V. Work cited

Allen, Graham. Roland Barthes. Routledge. 2003

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Tran. Stephen Heath. Fontana Press. 1997

Edgar, Andrew and Sedgwick, Peter. Cultural Theory: Key Thinkers. Routeldge. 2002

___________________________Cultural Theory: Key Concepts. Routeldge. 2002

© 2020 Issam El Masmodi

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