Roland Barthes
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Roland Barthes

Graham Allen

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Roland Barthes

Graham Allen

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Roland Barthes is a central figure in the study of language, literature, culture and the media. This book prepares readers for their first encounter with his crucial writings on some of the most important theoretical debates, including:
*existentialism and Marxism
*semiology, or the 'language of signs'
*structuralism and narrative analysis
*post-structuralism, deconstruction and 'the death of the author'
*theories of the text and intertextuality.
Tracing his engagement with other key thinkers such as Sartre, Saussure, Derrida and Kristeva, this volume offers a clear picture of Barthes work in-context. The in-depth understanding of Barthes offered by this guide is essential to anyone reading contemporary critical theory.

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Key Ideas

1 Writing and Literature

DOI: 10.4324/9780203634424-1
This chapter deals with Barthes’s first major publication, Writing Degree Zero (1953), and that work’s engagement with the twin influences of Marxist theory and Existentialist philosophy and literature. Barthes’s first book is a sustained engagement with these influences, particularly as they are manifested in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80). To understand Barthes’s early work, and thus to build a foundation for an understanding of his most important ideas, we need to look at Sartre’s major engagement with literary theory and literary history, and then at how Barthes develops and revises it.

Commitment: The Influence of Sartre

Roland Barthes entered the French critical scene in the 1950s, a period in which tensions and conflicts emanating from the Second World War still dominated French society and culture. One question often features in official histories of this period. As one historian has phrased the question: is post-war French modernization an attempt on the part of French society to wash itself clean of the ‘stains’ of Nazi occupation? (Ross 1995). That is to say, was France wholly a victim or in some senses a participant (in the form of the Vichy government) in the evil of Fascism? Compounding this ambivalence, and thus perhaps the push towards modernization, the 1950s also saw its colonial past returning to disturb French society, as in the struggle for independence of the African colony of Algeria (full independence from France was granted after eight years of war in April 1962).
The ambiguities just mentioned are accompanied by a developing global conflict. It is in the 1950s that the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union ‘hots up’. Radical French intellectuals, writers and thinkers who would contribute to the liberation of social and cultural life, find themselves, in the 1950s, in something of a no man’s land. Unable to accept their government’s endorsement of American-style capitalism, they are made uneasy by the stifling and rigid character of Soviet-influenced Marxism, symbolized on a political and human level by the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956.
Nowhere were these tensions and ambiguities more vividly and productively felt than in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. A philosopher, novelist, playwright and literary critic, Sartre was a towering figure in French intellectual thought from the 1930s until the 1970s. Among his numerous contributions to thought, Sartre was the leading figure of the philosophical and literary movement known as Existentialism.
Sartre’s What is Literature? (1947) is an attempt, on the basis of Existentialist philosophy, to answer the question posed by his title. Barthes was later to state, in an interview in 1975: ‘Sartre brought me into modern literature’ (GV: 327). To understand Barthes’s early work we have to look at the text which, above all others, provided Barthes with the foundation upon which he began to build his own career. What is Literature? posits literature as an exchange between writer and reader. The writer demands that the reader call upon his freedom to read authentically (rather than in some socially preprogrammed manner) and the reader in turn demands that the writer make this demand upon him (Sartre 2001: 41). Authors write, Sartre argues, ‘so that free men may feel their freedom as they face it’ (Sartre 2001: 47). This model of writing hinges on the notion of commitment, the writer’s (and the reader’s) commitment to address, to call upon, their own and other people’s human freedom.
Sartre, however, is fully aware that the Existentialist language of commitment and freedom is, if not utopian, then at least idealistic. Society puts a considerable amount of pressure on individuals to conform, to practise ‘bad faith’. A great deal of What is Literature? is concerned with what limits the freedom and the commitment of the writer. Two interrelated approaches are taken to this crucial issue:
a history of the development of literature (viewed in terms of the changing relationship between writers and readers); a review of the current position of the writer in post-war France. Sartre produces a history of the whole of French literature, but his main focus is on how literature has changed over the preceding two hundred years. Literature has
developed in this period, Sartre argues, within the context of the rise to dominance of a social class, the bourgeoisie.
Sartre argues that bourgeois authors writing before the French Revolution (1789) could express commitment by writing for and to the members of their own class. Since the desire for increased power within the bourgeoisie seemed to be the expression of a desire for a more equal society, writing to and for the bourgeoisie could, prior to the Revolution, be squared with notions of commitment. Increasingly, however, in the subsequent century and a half after the Revolution, the bourgeois author has been faced with an audience which becomesincreasingly dominant, both politically and culturally. The modern author (and Sartre argues that all notable modern authors are bourgeois) does not want to write for and to his own class, his immediate audience. To do so, in a reversal pivoting around the Revolution, is to write in confirmation of a class which now possesses power and thus the means of social and cultural oppression. The modern author, in this sense, is alienated. Wishing to express his or her commitment to human and social freedom, which invariably means the possibility of an equal and indeed classless society, the modern writer’s audience (the bourgeois literate public) is precisely the audience for whom he does not wish to write. On this basis, Sartre produces a history of modern literature in which literature increasingly attacks its audience and adopts strategies of non-communication. Sartre’s argument, in fact, is a resounding critique of the idea of the avant-garde in literature.
For Sartre, the forms of avant-garde literature which have arisen in the modern period of French cultural history are an expression of alienation (a hatred or loathing of the author’s own culture and audience), rather than expressions of authentic literary commitment. The situation, in fact, can seem very bleak when we examine Sartre’s account of the contemporary scene. The author who would be committed cannot use the forms of bourgeois culture itself (popular forms of a purely commercialized culture), nor, it would seem, can he or she employ the techniques of avant-garde literature without falling into a relationship of
non-communication with the general public. Avant-garde art, according to Sartre, cannot be committed, since it does not wish to communicate directly. The apparent lack of choice for the modern author is exacerbated by the cold war political climate. Unable to accept Western capitalism, Sartre is doubtful about Soviet Communism and its representative in France (the PCF: Parti communiste français, the French Communist Party). Despite the influence of Marxism on his thought, Sartre in What is Literature? sees the PCF as deeply suspicious of intellectuals and all writers save those who acquiesce to its rigid ideological prescriptions. The modern writer, it would seem, has no viable form for writing, and no viable political allegiance: ‘we have fallen outside history and are speaking in the desert’, Sartre writes (2001: 205).
Despite its historical and contemporary diagnosis of the condition and position of the writer, What is Literature? ends with a reaffirmation of Sartrean Existentialism. Even in such an apparently bleak situation, Sartre argues, we can still practise our commitment to a better world; authors can still challenge themselves and their readers to be free. ‘Man’, Sartre defiantly writes, ‘must be invented each day’ (2001: 226).
We need to attend to Sartre’s arguments in What is Literature? since they form the context for Barthes’s most important early work, Writing Degree Zero. While Barthes’s book mirrors many of the themes and preoccupations to be found in Sartre’s study, it disagrees fundamentally about the idea of commitment. The key to this comes when we register the fact that, despite Sartre’s optimism, there is no real sense in his text of what kind of writing would, in fact, constitute a committed kind. There is a lack of attention to the issue of form in Sartre’s analysis, and it is, characteristically, in terms of form – the kind of writing which authors produce – that Barthes conducts his revision and critique of Sartre’s arguments.

Writing, Literature, Style

Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero is divided into two interrelated parts: one theoretical, one historical. The second part provides an alternative history of French literature to the one provided by Sartre. This historical account, however, is presented on the basis of a theoretical analysis of the relationship between language, style and what Barthes calls Ă©criture (writing).
Barthes’s purpose in refocusing critical attention on language, style and writing is to redefine the contexts within which we can understand the idea of commitment. If commitment concerns the choices an author makes, as we have seen Sartre arguing, then, according to Barthes, we must attend to the confines within which authors exercise their freedom to choose. Authors exist and make their choices within language. More importantly, they exist within literary language which has pre-existing forms, conventions, genres and codes. No author simply invents his or her own literary language. All authors create their works out of a struggle with the already established language of literature.
Barthes’s argument begins by distinguishing language and style from writing. Language and style are not areas of choice. The language of a given nation at a given time, such as the French language in the 1850s or the 1950s, is not something any author can make decisions about: it exists as a kind of ‘Nature’ for the author, a ‘resistant medium’ (WDZ: 11–12). Language, in this sense, is the medium presented to the author, the sea within which he or she must learn to swim. Style is something else, however. Barthes argues that style comes involuntarily from the author’s body. Style, that is to say, derives from the author’s personal history and the nature of his or her personality. Once again, style, like language, is not something that the author can choose (WDZ: 14). Against language and style, conceived in this fashion, Barthes introduces a third idea, writing.
Writing has a major part to play in Barthes’s entire career, and indeed in the emergence of structuralist and particularly post-structuralist thought within the French intellectual scene of the 1960s. Barthes comments on the significant role the idea of writing plays in his and other theorists' work in a 1971 interview in the journal Tel Quel, but he also notes the different meanings given to the word between the early 1950s and the early 1970s (Res: 263–4). We will return to the idea of writing on a number of occasions in this study.
In Writing Degree Zero, writing is used to represent that aspect of the author’s activity which can involve choice and thus commitment. Writing, here, concerns what we might call form, a set of codes and conventions which the author shares with a specific community. The opening paragraph of the book presents the reader with a vivid example of writing in this sense:
HĂ©bert, the revolutionary, never began a number of his news-sheet Le PĂšre DuchĂȘne without introducing a sprinkling of obscenities. These improprieties had no real meaning, but they had significance. In what way? In that they expressed a whole revolutionary situation. Now here is an example of a mode of writing whose function is no longer only communication or expression, but the imposition of something beyond language, which is both History and the stand we take in it.
Sartre had seen the issue of commitment within a strictly communicational model. Committed writing, for Sartre, must convey a message, an image of the world and a sense of what it is and migh...