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Roland Barthes - Biography

Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

Roland Barthes was born in Cherbough, Manche. His father died in a naval battle in Barthes' infancy, forcing his mother to move to Bayonne. Barthes spent his early childhood there, until they moved to Paris in 1924 where he attended the Lycée Montagne, followed by studies at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand from 1930-34. Life became difficult for them when Barthes mother had an illegitimate child, for their grandparents refused to give her financial aid, and so she took work as a bookbinder. Barthes was able to continue his studies at the Sorbonne, in classical letters, grammar and philology (receiving a degrees in 1939 and 1943 respectively), and Greek tragedy.

Barthes' doctoral studies were hampered by ill health. He suffered from tuberculosis, spending time in sanatoriums in the years 1934-5 and 1942-46, during the occupation. He continued to read and write, established a theatrical group, and in spite of his condition, managed to teach at lycées in Biarritz (1939), Bayonne (1939-40), Paris (1942-46), at the French Institute, Bucharest, Romania (1948-49), University of Alexandria, Egypt (1949-50), and Direction Générale des Affaires Culturelles (1950-52). His teaching career expanded: research positions with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (1952-59), a directorship of studies at the École Practique des Hautes Étude (1960-76), a teacher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (1967-68), and a chair of literary semiology at Collège de France (1976 to 1980). At this time he was considered a leading critic of his generation, his book, A Lover's Discourse (1977), sold more than 60,000 copies in France. His work became known in popular culture in Europe and America, securing the translation of many of his books since his death at the age of sixty-four. Such works include: Writing Degree Zero (1953), Mythologies (1957), Criticism and Truth (1966), S/Z (1972), The Pleasure of the Text (1973), and The Rustle of Language (1984).

In his early work, Barthes was a structuralist and semiotician, influenced by the writings of Ferdinand de Saussure's study of signs and signification. He preferred not to classify his thought, evident in the range of subject-matter for analysis in his works, often to provoke the bourgeoisie. He wrote on popular phenomena from soap-ads to wrestling, articles that originally appeared in Le Monde, which perhaps inspired him to conflate elements of what had been perceived as high or low culture. His interest in popular media and events was due in part to what he saw as an abuse in such phenomena of ideology. Barthes believed that the starting point for such works did not lay in the author's intentions of traditional value judgments, but by the texts produced, as systems unto themselves whose underlying structures form the "meaning of the work as a whole." His works had a diversity, applying semiotic theory and/or literary critique, looking to disrupt the French literary establishment, while other essays focused on more personal issues such as the text, music, love and photography.

Thus, Barthes works inspired criticism from colleagues. Raymond Picard, a professor at the Sorbonne and Racine scholar, critiqued what he saw as an unscholarly and subjective approach of Barthes' study, Sur Racine (1963), in his essay, Nouvelle Critique ou Nouvelle Imposture?(1965). Barthes responded with the publication of Critique et Verité in 1966, in which he argued for a science of criticism over the university criticism, showing that the latter promulgated critical terms and approaches connected to dominant class ideology. Terms such as the value of clarity, humanity and nobility cannot be taken as self-evident for research, but act as a censoring function for other means. Barthes went so far as to question the extent to which one can know one's purpose or place of understanding apart from language, the written in relationship to its contrary in speech, "…for writing can tell the truth on language, but not the truth on the real…" (from Image-Music-Text, 1977). This strain of structural linguistics in Barthes' thought was developed in greater detail in S/Z (1970), an analysis of the fiction of Balzac's work, Sarrasine.

Barthes primary thesis in S/Z demonstrates that the power of fiction lies in the products of artifice in the form of intriguing details, enigmas, and plausible actions rather than in the imitation of reality. His complex analysis is not intended to construct a system of classification, he envisions Balzac's work as the weaving of codes that come together in the reader, in which the reader makes of them a unity. This runs contrary to the idea of a text as having an origin in the author; it is thus interpreted as a death of the author and the birth of the reader. Barthes identified a series of five codes within the text of fiction that form the network of significations in the reader: the hermeneutic code (presentation of an enigma); the semic code (connotative meaning); the symbolic code; the proairetic code (the logic of actions), and the gnomic, or cultural code, which evokes a particular body of knowledge.

Barthes final book, La Chambre Claire (Camera Lucinda, 1980), illustrates the close relationship he had with his mother. It was written in the three years between the death of his mother and his own; the book is a discussion of the communicating medium of photography. He describes portraiture, the experience of being before the camera in which his "body never finds its zero degree, no one can give it to me (perhaps only my mother? For it is not indifference which erases the weight of the image — the Photomat always turns you into a criminal type, wanted by the police — but love, extreme love)." He points to a ritual magic of photography, disclaiming it as an art. Perhaps recalling something of Benjamin's writings on photography, he struggles with the experience of his mother and an image of his ailing mother (who he was nursing near the time of her death) within him as "my inner law, as my feminine child… Once she was dead I no longer had any reason to attune myself to the progress of the superior Life Force (the race, the species)." Barthes died in a street accident in Paris on March 23, 1980.