Last week my Specialized Literature Area Committee approved my exam proposal. I’ll be taking the exam on the 5th of December. Basically, one of the features of our program is that we are supposed to be well-rounded scholars, able to teaching not only Composition courses (history, theory, pedagogy, research methods, etc.), but we are also required to have a working knowledge of a specifica area of literature with the idea that we could teach a class in that area or cultivate it as an additional scholarly pursuit. For the several months leading up to the exam, we work with our committee members to isolate a set of texts we’d like to research, the conversation in which those texts already participate, and a short set of research questions that will guide our inquiry. I’ve included mine below. (My committee members follow.)
Roland Barthes on Authorship, Roland Barthes as Author
Roland Barthes is an author easy to categorize. You could find his name on many lists of important structural theorists. You could say the same for his status as a post-structuralist or semiotician. The fact is there are several ways of categorizing Barthes. What fascinates me about him, however, is how such divergent scholarly identities could be inhabited by a single author. After encountering the work of several post-structuralists in the 1960s, Barthes quickly became critical of the very structural and semiotic theories he had been exploring for so long. Fifteen years after the publication of Mythologies, he revisits the motivations of his earlier work: “…it is no longer the myths which must be unmasked… but the sign itself which must be perturbed: not to reveal the (latent) meaning of a statement, of a feature, of a narrative, but to fissure the very representation of meaning” (Rustle 66). Barthes effectively operates on multiple levels. In one sense he rejects one methodology (unmasking myths) for another (perturbing meaning). However, closer attention to the language he uses to characterize both methodologies reveals a common impulse: destabilization. I don’t intend, with this example, to offer a totalizing frame reconciling and shaping different periods in Barthes’s production. Instead, I want to merely point out that, in this case, there is a common impulse present among divergent methodologies.
As my project for this exam, I would like to explore several of Barthes’s seemingly divergent intellectual projects-his work as a structuralist, a semiotician, a post-structuralist, etc.-in terms of what I’ve come to understand as a preoccupation present in all of them: notions of authorship.
Michel Foucault, in his essay, “What is an Author?”, argues that authorship is a socially constructed concept serving a variety of purposes, framing different notions of textual unity. Readers invoke what he calls the “author-function” in order to unify texts in various ways. The author-function implies a singular cohesion within an isolated text. Similarly, the term resist unevenness or contradictions within a series of texts produced by a single writer. Finally, the author-function serves as a unifying “source of expression who, in more or less finished forms, is manifested equally well, and with similar validity, in a text, in letters, fragments, drafts, and so forth” (144). Foucault’s three levels of textual unity-an isolated text, a set of publications, and the entirety of an author’s writings-offer a framework within which I would like to consider Roland Barthes.
When writers examine or invoke the work or Roland Barthes, the three most common texts referenced are: Mythologies, “The Death of the Author”, and Camera Lucida. Each of these texts is very different from the others, and to a certain extent, they stand as representatives of various, overlapping stages or periods in Barthes’s career. Mythologies often stands in as representative of his work with structuralism and semiotics. “The Death of the Author” can be read as a productive point of access for many of his ideas regarding post-structuralism. And Camera Lucida is understood by many as the best representation of his interests in visual theory and aesthetics. As a scholar working toward and understanding Barthes’s work over the course of his career, I will approach Barthes’s life as an author in two ways. First, I would like to frame his body of publications as the progression of an author through different stages of inquiry toward some specific intellectual purpose. A useful perspective is that Barthes’s work might be understood as a long preparation towards a theoretical and practical understanding of autobiography.
Several of Barthes’s texts, especially early in his career, are sustained inquiries into the works of a single author. His studies of Michelet and Racine, among others, are most often framed as Barthes’s application of, and experimentation with, the structuralist methods he articulated in Writing Degree Zero. These inquiries focused on the style and identity of a given author in terms of the history from which he emerged. Barthes writes that “for the writer, a language is nothing but a human horizon which provides a distant setting of familiarity, the value of which, incidentally, is entirely negative” (10). A writer’s inherited language, in other words, is the ground on which a writer establishes his own style, his identity. And that style is established almost entirely by a given writer’s personal background. However, Barthes later argues, that same socially and historically evolving language will eventually absorb any author’s style, potentially rendering efforts at authorial identity rather futile. Instead of resting on this sort of nihilistic position, Barthes argues that an author’s only potential for identity rest in what he calls a “commitment” to a “morality of form, the choice of that social area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature of his language.” (Writing, 15). In other words, an author’s literary choices must emerge not only from the language he inherits and the life into which he has born, but also from his understanding of the literary forms best fitting his own sense of morality. Barthes undertakes these sustained inquiries into particular authors within the frame of languages available to the author, the author’s background as manifested in his style, and the nature of an author’s formal commitment to his own work. This methodology prompts several questions in light of some of Barthes’s later work, as he explores those forms most appropriate for his own set of principles.
For instance, how is it possible to make sense of these texts focusing so intensely on the work of particular authors with Barthes’s rather polemical essay, “The Death of the Author”? Further complicating this inquiry is that Barthes undertook these authorial studies both before and after he declared the death of the very concept he proposes to investigate. He characterizes “the author” as a constructed fiction:
The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end… the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us. (Image 143)
Barthes’s “author” resembles Foucault’s description in several ways. His references to “ordinary culture” and “criticism” align closely with Foucault’s sense of the author as a social construction. And Barthes’s assertion that the author is the location where explanations are “always” sought echoes Foucault’s identification of the author as the response to some sort of public or critical need. However, whereas Foucault works to articulate the advent of the author as arbiter or source of meaning, Barthes argues for a more post-structural understanding. Instead of a single meaning imbued by a single author, Barthes argues that meaning is constructed idiosyncratically by different readers. Inquiries into post-structural authorship, then, necessarily must incorporate studies of reading practices as part of a given text’s meaning. As part of my project for this exam, I would like to explore the ways in which Barthes realized these studies of reading practices through several sustained, close readings of particular texts or particular authors.
Barthes’s interests both in structuralism and semiotics emerged from his impulse toward a “science” of literature. He was hoping to infuse some of the methodological power and respectability of linguistics into the study of literature and, by extension, texts circulating more widely in the culture. It is possible that his interests in authorship and particular authors were merely an extension of those interests. As already mentioned, a sustained inquiry into the both the background and formal commitments of an author are essential to understanding the production and circulation of particular texts constituting particular discourses within literature. In this regard, Barthes might have undertaken these authorial studies merely as a means toward understanding a larger system of literature.
Even from his earliest writings, Barthes was constantly working toward a theoretical and practical understanding of his own work and identity as a writer. In this sense, his interests in structuralism can be understood as Barthes looking for a productive strategy by which authors, particularly himself, operate within the larger discourse of literature. When those notions of a stable system of literature begin to be undermined by post-structuralist theories, Barthes is forced to reconsider the very notions of authorship he has been investigating. In this way, it texts such as “Death of the Author” or his autobiography might be understood as working out these tensions or instabilities introduced by post-structuralism conflicting or challenging his impulse toward a system of literature.
Further complicating any analysis of Barthes’s authorial studies is his relationship to Jacques Derrida. I am curious about the ways Barthes’s projects align with and are influenced by Derrida’s own sustained, close readings of particular authors such as Husserl, Saussure, or Rousseau. In these readings throughout Derrida’s career, he offers close readings of text, and in turn reads those same texts within what he identifies as the author’s projects, assumptions, or arguments. And it is Barthes’s later work that must reckon with such close attention to authorship through close reading which seems to suggest that indeed, the author is not dead, but very much alive and working within the text and as its author.
As I mentioned above, Barthes was a scholar of widely varying methodologies. As he continuously adopted new strategies, and left others behind, he offered little explanation for changing his mind or admitting the necessity of a new direction. However, it is possible that Barthes found an explanation unnecessary because he had articulated this very strategy in first book, Writing Degree Zero. Towards the end that text he warns against the dangers of relying too long on one consistent method of inquiry:
Unfortunately, nothing is more fickle than a colourless writing; mechanical habits are developed in the very place where freedom existed, a network of set forms hem in more and more the pristine freshness of discourse, a mode of writing appears afresh in lieu of an indefinite language. The writer, taking his place as a ‘classic’, becomes the slavish imitator of his original creation, society demotes his writing to a mere manner, and returns him a prisoner to his own formal myth. (78)
Barthes suggests the necessity of constantly shifting his methods in order to keep his writing “afresh” and continually challenging. “Habits” and “set forms” are too easily absorbed into the larger world of literature, leaving the writer as merely a “slavish imitator” of himself. But this quotation refers only to the methodology and content taken up by a given author, not necessarily his overall projects. Given that he makes this claim early in his career, it is reasonable to consider it in light of his shifts in methods and content. This assertion allows for an understanding of his movement through structuralist, semiotic, and post-structuralist periods as sought-after opportunities to change his methods and keep his writing fresh rather than as responses to theoretical challenges or dead ends.
In keeping with this understanding of the various periods of Barthes’s career as consistently exploring authorship, it is important to incorporate Barthes’s critical and personal autobiographical work within this frame. Most simply, I hope to consider the ways in which Barthes’s previous work–with specific methods of authorship, myth-making, and the advent of the reader as arbiter of meaning–can be read as theoretical and practical preparation for his own self-titled autobiography.
Striking in this text are Barthes’s strategies for referring to himself: sometimes as “Barthes”, other times as “R.B.”, often “I”, “he”, “the boy”, “the writer”, etc. He also challenges reader expectations of chronological progression, moving eclectically from his childhood, early career, and later work. What his reader is left with is an undifferentiated mass of memories, musings, reflections, and aphorisms. However, there is a discernible project for the text. We can locate each of his prior preoccupations operating in this text. In one sense, this autobiography is an inquiry into his own personal background and social commitments (Writing Degree Zero). In another sense, he openly admits to the artificial nature of the “author” he constructs (Mythologies). So, too, the text is thoroughly post-structural by destabilizing the notion of a singular, embodied author (“Death”). I hope to tease out this reading of his autobiography not only through a close reading of the text itself, but also in light of Barthes’s very different approach to self-reflexivity in his interview with Tel Quel and others, as well as though representations of him in specific scholarly texts.
However, Roland Barthes is not Barthes’s final text. Within the frame of authorship and autobiography as a unifying course of inquiry, it is important not to forget or exclude his subsequent works such as Camera Lucida or A Lover’s Discourse. In order to do so, I want to locate yet another of Barthes interest operating in his autobiography: pleasure. Barthes first serious treatment of the concept appears as The Pleasure of the Text, just two years prior to Roland Barthes, but is still one of the most important concepts operating within the autobiography. He writes: “Bliss is not what corresponds to desire (what satisfies it) but what surprises, exceeds, disturbs, deflects it. …’I call intoxication of the mind that state in which pleasure exceeds the possibilities which desire had entertained'” (Roland Barthes 112). This is the vocabulary–bliss, desire, intoxication, satisfaction–which operates throughout his subsequent texts. What I find most challenging about the post-autobiography set of texts is Barthes’s turn away from autobiography toward something more akin to aesthetics or nostalgia. In light of what I understand as his intellectual exploration of autobiography, this transition is difficult to reconcile.
I have proposed this exam and the study questions below as a frame through which the entirety of Barthes’s oeuvre might be reconsidered within the scope of a progressive inquiry into authorship and autobiography. In this way, each of Barthes’s texts might more productively be understood, in Barthes’s own words, as a “written trace [which] precipitates, as inside a chemical at first transparent, innocent and neutral, mere duration gradually reveals in suspension a whole past of increasing density, like a cryptogram” (Writing 17).
1. In what ways might Barthes’s essay, “The Death of the Author” be read as consistent with, rather than opposed to, his close studies of individual authors?
2. After the publication of his autobiography, Barthes turns his attention away from himself as an author. instead he reflects on his own experiences and processes as a reader, or one who experiences texts of different kinds (i.e. music, photographs). In what ways can this shift in methodology and content be understood as an extension of his interest in authorship and autobiography?
3. In what ways might Barthes’s autobiography be read as the culmination of his previous and subsequent methodologies?
Bibliography of Primary Texts
Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.
—. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.
—. Elements of Semiology. Trans. Annette Lavers & Colin Smith. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
—. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
—. Michelet. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1987.
—. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
—. “Reponses: Interview with Tel Quel.” The Tel Quel Reader. Trans. Verene Grieshaber. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 249-269.
—. Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkely and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1977.
—. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.
—. Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.
—. “Textual Analysisof Poe’s ‘Valdemar’.” Untying the Text: a Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981. 133-161.
—. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. Trans. Linda Coverdale. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984.
—. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.
—. The Responsibility of Forms. Trans. Richard Howard. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
—. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkely and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1989.
—. “Theory of the Text.” Untying the Text: a Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Trans. Ian McLeod. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981. 32-47.
—. Writing Degree Zero. Trans. Annette Lavers & Colin Smith.
Bibliography of Critical Texts and Secondary Texts
Allen, Graham. “The Text Unbound: Barthes.” Intertextuality. London and New York: Rou, 2000. 61-94.
Burke, Sean. The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1998.
Champagne, Roland. Literary History in the Wake of Roland Barthes: Re-Defining the Myths of Reading. Birmingham, Alabama: Summa Publications, 1984.
DeMan, Paul. “Autobiography as De-facement.” Modern Language Notes 94.5 (1979): 919-930.
—. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.
—. Speech and Phenomena: And Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Northwestern UP, 1973.
—. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978. 278-293.
—. “The Deaths of Roland Barthes.” The Work of Mourning. Ed. Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2001. 34-67.
Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?.” Critical Theory Since 1965. Ed. Hazard Adams & Leroy Searle. Trans. Donald F. Bouchard & Sherry Simon. Tallahassee: Florida State UP, 1986. 137-148.
Knight, Diana, ed. Critical Essays on Roland Barthes. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 2000.
Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, & Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
—. “Revolution in Poetic Language.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. W. W. Norton, 2001. 2169-2179.
Lavers, Annette. Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.
Lombardo, Patrizia. The Three Paradoxes of Roland Barthes. Athens and London: U of Georgia P, 1989.
Macksey, Richard, and Eugene Donato, eds. The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007.
Mavor, Carol. Reading Boyishly: Roland Barthes, J. M. Barrie, Jacques Henri Lartique, Marcel Proust, and D. W. Winnicott. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2007.
Stafford, Andy. Roland Barthes, Phenomenon and Myth: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004.
Ungar, Steven. Roland Barthes: The Professor of Desire. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1983.
—. “Saussure, Bathes and structuralism.” The Cambridge Companion to Saussure. Ed. Carol Sanders. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 157-173.
Date for Approval: November 12, 2008
Date of Exam: December 5-7, 2008