Roland Barthes: Writing Degree Zero

ROLAND BARTHES (1914 – 1980)


Writing Degree Zero (1953)

One of the most interesting facts of the life of Roland Barthes was that he was struck by a laundry van and, after lingering for a month, died of his injuries. “The Painter of Modern Life,” Constantin Guys had also been struck down in a similar fashion: almost a century earlier, he was run over by a cab and his legs were crushed. Guys died more slowly and succumbed ten years later. If being run down by a laundry truck when walking home from lunch with the future President of France, seems an odd way to die, Barthes had always walked an uneven path. He was unfortunate enough to come of age at a time where homosexuality was not a public matter and he spent his life in the closet, living with his only parent, his mother, his entire life. As he got older and became less attractive to the young men he desired, he declined to impose himself upon them. Barthes, who preferred a quiet life in the home he shared with his mother, was so fond of his colleague and intellectual confident, Julia Kristeva, he wished he was a heterosexual.

Although to outsiders, especially dazzled Americans, he seemed to be the chain smoking quintessential French intellectual, he was something of an autodidact whose education was never completed. Barthes had taught himself the prevailing French ideas floating through the post-war decades, but remained mostly an essay writer until his new tendencies were publicly criticized by a Sorbonne professor, Raymond Picard. As one of his biographers Jonathan Culler related, from 1965 on Barthes became the intellectual representative of criticism after Existentialism. However, exalted his public persona, Barthes was both in the center and in the margins and, indeed, Michel Foucault was somewhat disdainful of the self-education of Barthes. Barthes finally achieved a place in the scholarly community he at once chided and aspired to when he was elected to a chair in Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France.

Post-war Paris was in a state of intellectual flux. The scholarly community had been united by two elements during the Occupation: hatred for the Nazis and adherence to Marxism. When the war ended, Existentialism emerged as the prevailing philosophy, but Marxism as a philosophy seemed to be discredited by the brutal Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It was the events of 1968 that finally ended the faith in a practical Marxist theory of class revolution and, in the ruins of the “days of May,” Existentialism seemed too focused on the individualistic “act” of a single person, Marxism seemed too political and too tainted with failure, leaving Structuralism as the comfortably apolitical philosophy of the day.


Paris “Days of May” 1968

Based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Structuralism was established by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, which was followed up by Structuralist Anthropology in 1958. The work of Lévi-Strauss moved away from linguistic signs to social signs, from behavior and costumes, rituals and customs. The work of the Structuralist was to reveal the underlying structure of cultural signifiers which were arranged along binaries. Reflecting the structure of the human mind, paired opposites such as the raw and the cooked should be read as part of a larger sign system and gains meaning within a network of other signs. The raw and the cooked, the inedible and the editable, for example, are part of a larger concept of nature and culture.

It is important to understand that by the time Structuralism was introduced to America, it was already “over” in Paris, challenged by newer versions of Structuralism from those who also repudiated Structuralism, such as Foucault and those who undermined it, such as Jacques Derrida. From the late sixties to the mid eighties, works by French and German writers arrived, via translations, in an unsystematic manner and with alien labels, such as “Post-Structuralism.” In the blank space following the exhaustion of New Criticism and the aging of the Anglo-American tradition, French theory fell on fertile ground and was consumed by eager Americans, few of whom were familiar with the very real differences among the scholars in the very competitive universities and colleges of Paris. Instead, the “French” was all lumped together and were not understood as having distinctive intellectual lineages and very distinctive bodies of work. Compared to the scientific work of Lévi-Strauss, to the historical scope and extended projects of Foucault, to the twisted syntax and ever-evolving re-writings by Lacan, to the dense and circular layered writing of Derrida, the books and essays by Roland Barthes are brief, concise, eclectic and, in the case of Camera Lucida, an extended mourning for his mother, very personal. Not a trained philosopher, as were many of his colleagues, Barthes is best understood as a literary critic who used Structuralism as an analytic tool to better foreground “writing” over “literature” and to understand the system of social signs of ordinary life.

However, Barthes came to Structuralism late in his career. The first twenty years of his development was essentially a learning curve, including numerous essays that led to significant books, one of them being his first extended foray into literary criticism in 1953 when he published Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Early in his career, like all young intellectuals, Barthes digested Existentialism and was very inspired by What is Literature? (1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre. “The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture and music,” Sartre wrote and the reader of the works of Barthes immediately recognizes a famous phrase that would later become the title of a book by Barthes. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize language..he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs.” In both accepting this book by Sartre and in slipping away from Existentialism, Writing Degree Zero is very much a transitional book. A reaction against Existentialism, it combines Marxism in its critique of bourgeois literature and moves beyond a class critique to a critique of what Barthes called “Literature,” seeking a new non ideological way of writing. The roots of the short book go back to the late 1940s and is one of the most obvious of his excursions into semiotics.

In her introduction to Writing Degree Zero, when it was translated into English in 1967, Susan Sontag noted that American writers would have difficulty in understanding the book. Part of what disturbed her in the late sixties–the unfamiliarity with French literary criticism–has since passed and the book does not seem difficult at all, but the entire foundation of the book, an analysis of a tradition of literature that is specifically French, remains alien to many Americans. As Sontag pointed out, not only do American have an Anglo-Ameircan literary heritage but the canonical authors are quite different. When Barthes wrote of “Literature,” without explanation, he was referring to the French tradition of classical and official literature that dated back to the 17th century. Because Literature was designed to provide knowledge, information, and received wisdom, it was considered, not a mode of writing but a “natural” and inevitable form of communication. Due to its effectiveness, Literature remained supreme, even after the French Revolution. Early 19th century writers adopted the official language of power and what had once belonged to the ancien regime was appropriated by the “triumphant” middle class.

As an example of the authority of this form of language, Barthes made note of a form of grammar that does not exist in the English language: the “preterite,” or a verb that “implicitly belongs with a causal chain..set of related and oriented actions.” “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock,” was a famous phrase used by Paul Valéry as a convention used for novels and Barthes notes that the same conventions are used for the recitations of history. Barthes stated that “Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter..the preterite is the expression of an order.” For the contemporary writer, the preterite is a phasing of authority and can be thought of as director’s establishing shot or the screenwriter’s ellipse–a way of moving the narrative from here to there. The order could hold as long as the class system remained intact and the bases of power seemed secure but after the Revolution of 1848, the social organization broke down due to historical forces, from industrialization and the urbanization of society. With the fracturing of the old society, the language of old France, Literature, lost its authority and writers had to find a new way of writing.

According to Barthes, “Literature” is a modern creation, part of a larger system of ownership and property resulting from capitalism and as such, this cultural concept constituted a new or modern form of writing that was “owned” by the “author” and “owned” by the publisher. By the 19th century, in its new version,“literature” was bought and sold and was no longer communal property as were the epic poems of an oral tradition named “Homer.” Bourgeois literature was an art form in the Kantian sense, in that it had no “useful” purpose. Therefore that which was bourgeois writing was distinguished from forms of writing that were considered versions of the “truth,” such as religion. Marxist theorist György Lukács (1885-1971) asserted that Realist writing of the 19th century was based upon seeing, meaning that the writer was merely describing what was seen or witnessed, no matter how painful. The mediation or the apparently neutral description was in fact a political act in that Realism made the power of the middle class seem to be inevitable. Notice that the supposedly distanced and omnipotent position of the narrator mimics the conventions of Literature. It is no accident that the Realist or Naturalistic novels of George Sand and Honoré Balzac and Gustave Flaubert emerged during a period of rising capitalism, the steady of empowerment of the bourgeoisie and the demise of the proletariat.

In Le Degrè zéro l’écriture, 1953, Barthes understood language to be a historical phenomenon and style as an individual feature. Barthes noted that descriptive or naturalistic writing was not innocent and was bound up in its own historical period. The avant-garde, situated in the Generation of 1848, broke with the horizontally and continuity of realism and liberated words from other words. From the 1850s on, the writer is “without Literature” which is in a “tragic predicament,” and the question becomes what is the mark of “good writing” now that Literature had lost its place? Barthes recounted that the late 19th century writers foregrounded “labor” as a value and stressed their bourgeois origins as workers. The new elevation of the “craft” of writing to an independent aesthetic began with Flaubert and modern authors strove to generate “good writing,” or the ability to use words well. The problem for writing became one of extracting oneself from the precincts of power and to find a way for writing to function as writing within a system of language.

Barthes was suspicious of “realism” in theory and in texts and considered realism not a form of seeing or describing that what existed, but as being based upon a set of practices and signification. The texts of the Realists were founded on a set of conventions that limited the text and, in naturalizing society, became a mediator between the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Barthes, the key moment in his analysis of the history of French literature, was the disjuncture between bourgeois realism and avant-garde realism. For the world of visual art, Literature, which was so transparent it appeared to have no style, would have its counterpart in academic art of the mid to late 19th century. Paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme or Ernst Meissionier were the bourgeois form of Realism as Literature. In contrast, examples of the avant-garde Realism would be the labored working class craft exhibited so proudly by Gustave Courbet or the visible marks of production kept on view by Édouard Manet in their paintings. Understanding the French Classical tradition of Literature which was supposedly invisible to itself but was actually a evidence of power and order allows the art historian to comprehend the cultural anger that met the avant-garde artists who called attention to the “un-naturalism” of “naturalism.”

It would be an exaggeration to see Barthes as a Structuralist in 1953 but he was certainly aware of Saussure and Marx, both of who had built binary models. For Saussure there was langue and parole, or the system of language and the way in which language is used in everyday life. Seeing a conflict with Saussure’s binary system–between the will and the system–Barthes sought a middle term: écriture. Écriture is not translatable into English and is now left in the original French, but in Writing Degree Zero the term is translated as “writing,” a rather colorless term. For Barthes, there is language, the system and style, which is both historical and personal or as he put it “biological.” If the language is social then the style is personal. But in between language and style is writing. As Barthes wrote,

A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing (écriture) is an act of historical solidarity. A language and a style are objects; a mode of writing (écriture) is a function; it is the relationship between creation and society, the literary language transformed by its social finality, form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crises of History.

For Barthes écriture had a specific relationship of form to content, embodied in the conventions of writing and operating within ethical and political values as a social fact. Always concerned with writing (écriture) as a moral act as a social fact, Barthes set up a ternary schema–a tripod model that would become his trademark–langue, style, écriture, which intimates or gestures at something beyond–a critique. “Writing,” Barthes asserted, “is always rooted in something beyond language, but develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti communication, it is intimidating.” Writing Degree Zero breaks down into three major sections with his discussion of the transition from Literature to avant-garde writing in the middle, as the meat in the sandwich, as it were. Having established écriture as a third element, wedged between language and style, Barthes then ended his slim volume of meditation on the French tradition of writing with another middle term: zero degree writing.

Concerned with getting literature out of trap of bourgeois realism, Barthes had little patience with the “craft of writing (which) does not disturb any order.” He includes in those non-disturbers writers, who think they are disrupting the system or can “exorcise this sacred writing by dislocating it,” the still ascendent Surrealists, such as André Breton. Even the attempts of Stéphane Mallarmé to renounce language were equivocal. The solution Barthes put forward was “a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordined state of language.” His new breaking of the binaries centered upon placing “a neutral term or zero element.” The zero element is an aspect of grammar, a term in the middle of the singular-plural binary. As Barthes explained, “..writing at the zero degree is basically in the indicative mode, or if you like, a modal..a journalist’s writing.”

Barthes was interested in the neutral or what Sartre called, the “white writing” of Albert Camus, purged of the characteristic mark of “literature” (mannerism or style), “achieves a style of absence, which is almost an idea absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert state of form..neutral writing in fact rediscovers the primary condition of classical art: instrumentality. But this time, form as an instrument is no longer at the service of a triumphant ideology; it is the mode of a new situation of the writer, a way of certain silence has of existing; it deliberately foregoes any elegance or ornament, for these two dimensions would reintroduce Time into writing..” Unlike Marxist literature which is a language of “value-judgments” or “professional language signifying ‘presence,” writing should be linked to the project of revolution by renegotiating its relationship to history.

Barthes comes from the exhausted traditions of Marxism and Existentialism and extends their shared values of a moral writing by an engaged intellectual and looks for an ethical dimension in literature. “White writing” negates the false transparency of the algebraic system of the cause-and-effect writing of Literature, in which one element “naturally” follows another in a “logical” fashion. For Barthes the critic’s job is to construct intelligibility for his/her own time and to develop conceptual frameworks for analysis. In this critical and analytical fashion, the critic exposed the habitual ways of making the world intelligible and worked to modify these meanings that seem “natural.” For Barthes, all writing contains social signs, indicating a social mode of writing. No prose is transparent; the author’s language is inherited, while his/her own style is personal, but writing can be “white” or “zero degree.”

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