Happy 100th birthday, Roland Barthes

Little did the great demythologiser know that after his death he would become famous, commodified and mythic himself

In Mythologies, his influential 1957 collection of micro-essays on topics ranging from striptease to steak-frites, Gide to Garbo, Roland Barthes used “myth” to mean things wrongly taken to be natural, that which “goes without saying”, the “falsely obvious” – cultural phenomena or celebrity representations in need of “demystification”. Then an obscure researcher, Barthes was not to know that after his death (in 1980) he would become famous, commodified and mythic himself, with today’s centenary of his birth in 1915 heralded by academic conferences, a Bibliothèque Nationale exhibition in Paris and even a Hermès tribute scarf priced at €895.

In the Barthes myth, what goes without saying is that he practised structuralism and/or poststructuralism and was a literary critic who believed that authors were somehow “dead”. Each has some truth, but represents only one strand or phase of his writings. He did borrow a structural approach from linguistics and anthropology, but only from Elements of Semiology in 1964 to S/Z, his experiment-like dissection of Balzac’s “Sarrasine”, in 1970; the science-mimicking approach and advocacy of neutrality disappeared (though not the urge to theorise) in his markedly subjective final decade, which included first-person musings on photography, The Pleasure of the Text, a fragmentary novel, journals and travel writing.

For someone acclaimed as one of the century’s greatest critics, Barthes’s actual output on literature was notably spotty, including only one single author study (On Racine, 1963) and one single text analysis, S/Z: the latter – about a bizarre short story, rather than part of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine – exemplifies an approach to the French canon that zeroes in on marginal works or authors, or marginal aspects of leading writers’ oeuvres. Nor is his lit crit a model students can readily copy: S/Z is now almost unreadable without an induction course in its jargon. As Barthes himself all but abandoned this discourse soon after devising it, it’s hardly surprising that literary poststructuralism (like its successor, deconstruction) has long been out of vogue in academia.

With “The Death of the Author” (1967), the mythic element is the tendency to see it as the key to his work, a dethroning of all Authors, who deludedly imagine themselves in control, in favour of now-almighty Readers – an insurgency of myriad Barthes – who can gloss or anatomise books as they please. Yet if revisited now, it looks the expression of a passing mood – partly irritation at humdrum critics who simplistically use authors’ intentions or biographies to “solve” texts – albeit disguised by Barthes’s characteristic certainty and rhetorical flair. In portraying the Author as someone who “can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior”, whose “only power is to mix ... a tissue of quotations”, he can be seen as voicing the woes of one literature-saturated author in 1967 – the would-be and future novelist Roland Barthes – rather than a universal postmodern predicament. Not dead, just blocked.

The real Barthes legacy, then, is not the literary criticism or theory, but the journalism he wrote offhandedly back in the 50s and later, related projects that, like Mythologies, are about looking and decoding: Empire of Signs (1970), on Japan, Camera Lucida (1980), on photography, and The Fashion System (1967) - the latter recently both invoked and crisply summarised by the Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley in noting that “the fashion system chews up and spits out trends on an almost hourly basis”.

Mythologies itself was reworked last year for the era of selfies, vaping and Nando’s by Peter Conrad on Radio 4 (startling lunchtime listeners waiting for The Archers); but it has exerted an influence for decades via cultural studies, where Barthes’s aim of exposing hidden “ideological abuse” in popular culture is retained. Once filtered into mainstream culture, the residue of Marxist ideology-detection tends to vanish, but the debunking, demythologising spirit is still there in everything from standup comedy to John Crace’s Digested Read literary takedowns. Nous sommes tous Roland – or at least we’re faintly echoing him if we tweet sarcastic insights about Doctor Who or The X Factor.


John Dugdale

The GuardianTramp

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