Roland Barthes: Structuralism



Towards Structuralism

The goal of all structuralist activity, whether reflexive or poetic, is to reconstruct an object so as to manifest the rules of its functioning.

In 1980, Edith Kurzweil published a still-indespensible book, The Age of Structuralism: From Lévi-Strauss to Foucault in which her introduction to the 1996 edition, she wrote of the problems she encountered when she undertook the task of introducing Structuralism to American readers. As has been pointed out repeatedly in numerous posts on this website, the post-war intellectual scene among the university professors in Paris was constantly on the move, always changing, composed of numerous perspectives from a number of disciplines, and reacting to declining positions, such as Existentialism and Marxism, and responding to political events. All of the so-called “Postmodern” theorists in France, from Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and so on, evolved over the post-war decades, but when their ideas reached American shores, they were, as Kurzweil pointed out, lumped together incorrectly and largely misunderstood and misinterpreted.

I knew that the Parisians foster a sort of intellectual establishment as do the English, that their milieus encourage the formation of a broad stratum of soi-disant intellectuals and that such an ambiance is lacking in the United States..Why is it, I asked myself that American academics, for the most part, spend so much time speaking to colleagues in their own disciplines whereas the French have so much to say to people from other fields of endeavor, and are familiar with work that may be quiet remote from their own?

A possible answer to Kurzweil’s question could be the way in which American universities are divided into segments that are isolated from each other both physically and institutionally and extend this separation by publishing in specialized journals. In addition, American culture has not produced the “public intellectual” and ideas are confined to the narrow world of the Ivory Tower where they become largely irrelevant. Given this habit of segregation, it is predictable that American universities would slice and dice French theory and in the process distort the ideas and mislabel the theories all in the name of territory. Like all of his colleagues, Roland Barthes crossed professional and intellectual territories, mixing semiotics from linguistics, structuralism from anthropology, Freudian theory from Lacan’s seminars with a late Marxist critique of post-war culture, all the while acting as a literary critic.

The early work of Barthes provide ample clues as to future directions. In Writing Degree Zero (1953), he linked style to the body and in Mythologies opened the way for post-Structuralism by noting that myths can be emptied and filled with any available content and thus, once the signifiers were changed, were open to a change in meaning. As Kurzweil pointed out, this individual evolution would be disrupted by the haphazard publication of the works of Parisian intellectuals into English and this non-chronological presentation was further complicated by the insider nature of the writings themselves. The authors not only referred to a long French tradition of philosophy and literature but also to each other as they would fold refutations and debate into larger projects. When Roland Barthes shifted from semiology to structuralism, he was acknowledging what he, as an analyst of writing, the limitations of semiotics. And he did so under the impact of the anthropological shift towards structuralism under the influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Structuralism allowed Barthes to examine writing as culture, as being embedded in society. Indeed he replaced a rather passive “method” for a more active examination of literature in which the reader intervened in the text.


Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

The Activity of Structuralism (1963)

L’activité structuraliste was written for Les Lettres Nouvelles in 1963, and reprinted in his collection of Essais Critiques (1964). The essay Barthes wrote in 1963 was translated into English twice, first by Stephen Bann for Form in 1966 as “The Activity of Structuralism,” and second by Richard Howard, as “The Structuralist Activity” in 1972. The Bann version cut off the introduction which began by stating,

What is structuralism? Not a school, nor even a movement (at least, not yet), for most of the authors ordinarily labelled with this word are unaware of being united by any solidarity of doctrine or commitment. Nor is it a vocabulary. What is structuralism? Not a school, nor even a movement (at least, not yet), for most of the authors ordinarily labelled with this word are unaware of being united by any solidarity of doctrine or commitment. Nor is it a vocabulary.

English translations, however complete or incomplete, doubly dislocated the essay from its intellectual roots. Ten years earlier, Barthes had written “Myth Today” under the influence of Bertold Brecht (1898-1956) and the traces of Brechtian thought run through the essay. The desire of Barthes to make received wisdom–social myths–“strange” again came directly from Brecht’s “Epic Theater,” which discussed Verfremdungseffekte or in English the “alienation effect” or as Brecht shortened it, V-effekt. Brecht used formalism as a tool to analyze Nazi texts which, through his careful reading, reveal their ugly ideology. That language was never neutral or innocent and this was a lesson learned and repeated many times by Barthes.

It is with this inspiration that Barthes adapted a more rigid and non-political brand of Formalism to a more flexible and more critical way of reading texts through a Structuralist approach, which could be open to a social critique. In pointing to a later direction, Barthes expressed doubts about a “metalanguage” and said,

But since structuralism is neither a school nor a movement, there is no reason to reduce it a priori, even in a problematical way, to the activity of philosophers; it would be better to try and find its broadest description (if not its definition) on another level than that of reflexive language.

Roland Barthes described Structuralism as an “activity,” emphasizing its ongoing and generative nature, and, in doing so, questioned the enclosure of traditional Modernist Structuralism: “..structuralism is essentially an activity, i.e., the controlled succession of a certain number of mental operations..” He described Structuralism as “neither school nor movement” but an activity which controlled a succession of a certain number of mental operations. The real is decomposed and recomposed and the object is reconstructed according to the rules of a functioning simulacrum. As Barthes explained,

The goal of all structuralist activity, whether reflexive or poetic, is to reconstruct an “object” in such a way as to manifest thereby the rules of functioning (the “functions”) of this object. Structure is therefore actually a simulacrum of the object, but a directed, interested simulacrum, since the imitated object makes something appear which remained invisible, or if one prefers, unintelligible in the natural object.

This simulacrum is the intellect added to the object, the fabrication of the world to render it intelligible. This “activity” is a mediating act of imitation. The new category of object is functional and is composed of a fabrication of meanings and this fabrication, or the act of fabrication within a structure, is more important than the meanings themselves. What Barthes was stating is that writing is about writing, not about the writer, which is located the (not) writer in the system of writing in which the author is embedded. Barthes did close reading–that is, he examined the system of language not what was expressed in the words: what made meaning possible? the structure. He was interested in the “plural” qualities of codes, without seeking a unified structure to the writing, such as theme or narrative or closure, all of which circumscribe meaning. He asked instead how each detail worked, what codes it related to in order to discover its functions. Structuralism, with Barthes, shifted to discourse: meaning as source and effect of codes and conventions. As one reads this essay, one can discern traces of Lévi-Strauss in his “activity:”

The structuralist activity involves two typical operations: dissection and arrangement. To dissect the first object, the one which is given to the simulacrum activity, is to find in it certain mobile fragments whose differential situation engenders a certain meaning; the fragment has no meaning in itself, but it is nonetheless such that the slightest variation wrought in its configuration produces a change in the whole..

Some translations take the French word agencement, the word Barthes used and translate it as “articulation,” which causes a distortion of meaning. In my opinion, “arrangement” has to be the preferred translation, because Barthes was examining codes or small units and determining how they might be “arranged” in a structure that allows the analyst to decode the meanings. Both Lévi-Strauss and Barthes followed Ferdinand de Saussure in building charts and creating clusters of terms, but the rigidity of the structure deployed by Lévi-Strauss becomes more flexible under Barthes who belonged to the second stage of Structuralism and was situated somewhere between the careful structure or charts of Lévi-Strauss and the deconstruction of the text by Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). As Barthes said,

Once the units are posited, structural man must discover in them or establish for them certain rules of association: this is the activity of arrangement (articulation), which succeeds the summoning activity. The syntax of the arts and of discourse is, as we know, extremely varied; but what we discover in every work of structural enterprise is the submission to regular constraints whose formalism, improperly indicted, is much less important than their stability..

In the background of this argument that gently shoves aside the maker in favor of the reader is the post-war rejection of Descartes and Enlightenment philosophy, an old philosophical system that put the subject in the center. Structuralism replaced the independent transcendent consciousness with language which determined the subject. Therefore, according to Barthes, the “moral goal” of the reader is “not the decipherment of a work’s meaning but the reconstruction of the rules and constraints of that meaning’s elaboration..” The word “moral” in an interesting one, suggesting the French tradition of the engaged intellectual who simultaneously disengages from what the words say to how the structure made it possible to utter them.

“To Write: an Intransitive Verb?” (1966)

Three years after defining Structuralism as an “activity,” Barthes became a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. A fish out of water at this unlikely setting, he was joined by many of his colleagues at the now famous international symposium, entitled ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” at the Johns Hopkins Center, between October 18 and the 21 in 1966. On this occasion, he presented “To Write: an Intransitive Verb?” In one brief passage, Barthes links “writerly” and “readerly” to the French terms: lisible and scriptible. The readerly ( lisible) text is a classical work: it is the Novel, his old nemesis. In place of the passive reader, Barthes posited the active reader who reanimated a text through a performative act of intervention into the text. That said, a glimmer of future problems could be discerned. In this talk, Barthes mentioned “the new union between literature and linguistics” or “semio-criticism.” At this point, Barthes still believed in what he termed “a single unified science of culture.”

Interestingly, Barthes referred to Lévi-Strauss by explaining his term “homology” or the structure of similarities, but this symposium will also be the occasion where Jacques Derrida decimated the very idea of the structure. Indeed, this very paper, given by Barthes, sought to place a middle term between reading and writing–the reader as the writer–which actually puts great stress on the very structure he is describing. This symposium was a key moment in literary theory, ushering out Structuralism and introducing Derrida’s Deconstruction. But at the time the import of the juxtaposition of Barthes’ talk and Derrida’s “Structure, Sign and Play.” Indeed, Barthes, without being aware of it was already involved in deconstructive analysis. For years he had struggled with his penchant for binaries, which, he found, always forced him to insert a third term. As Barthes related,

To write is traditionally an active write is becoming a middle the middle voice of to write, the distance between script or and language diminishes asymptomatically, such as romantic writings, which are active, for in them, the agent is not interior but anterior to the process of writing..

As his writings make clear, Derrida’s attack on Structuralism had an impact on Barthes. The dichotomy between reading and writing with the middle term–now a familiar device on the part of Barthes–was also present in his 1973 analysis of S/Z where he began by explaining “writing:” “Our evaluation can be linked only to a practice, and this practice is that of writing. On the one hand, there is what it is possible to write, and on the other what it is no longer possible to write: what is within the practice of the writer and what has left it..” It is here in this book that Barthes establishes yet another binary: the writerly and the readerly. He continued, What evaluation finds is precisely this value: what can be written (rewritten) today: “..the writerly. Why is the writerly our value? Because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” Returning to an argument he made almost twenty years ago against “classical literature,” Barthes pointed out that the reader of the products of the “literary institution” which divides the writer from the reader is rendered intransitive when “reading is nothing more than a referendum.”Barthes recommended “manhandling” the text as a way of “interpreting it.” The opposite of the writerly text is the readerly text or the “classic” text.

S/Z (1973)

Structuralism destroyed the fiction of the individual and the myth of the literary “creator” but retained the fiction of logocentricism, or the metaphysics of presence. Barthes and those who followed him were faced with the task of completing Structuralism, a task which ultimately led to the disclosure of inherent contradictions which in turn led to deconstructionism. Barthes wrote frequently of the plural meanings embedded in texts which, through the presence of connotation, lend themselves to the plural because of the active presence of the activated reader. As Barthes wrote in S/Z,

The writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinities play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersect, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages. the writerly is the novelistic without the novel, poetry without the poem, the essay without the dissertation, writing without style, production without product, structuration without structure. But the readerly texts? they are produces 9and not productions), they make up the enormous mass of our literature.

In his active and productive reading of S/Z, Barthes found the trope of castration, the central motif of the story, to be the equivalent of a plural reading–always incomplete. The text is fragmented by a number of “voices” at work in the codes that construct the narrative. The meaning of this short story by Honoré Balzac is thus destabilized from within. Stable meaning also depended upon supposed conscious and intentional sources of meaning. The journey Barthes took in intervening between the unchanging text and the passive reader resulted in a slow rethinking of Structuralism. Once these multiple fictions and assumptions are revealed, the result or the next step for Roland Barthes was The Death of the Author, written in 1968, which ended the practice of the authoritarian readings emanating from a singular source of interpretation (a critic). The singularity, in turn, was dependent upon the author’s biography or perceived “intent,” an example of circular reasoning that sets up one interpretation at the expense of others. As Barthes asserted in his essay was not so much the “death” of the author, but the “birth” of the reader. But these “births” and “deaths” also bring the work of art itself under investigation, a task Barthes would take up in 1971 in From Work to Text.

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