Postmodernism and the Meaning of Art


Postmodernism promises endless creative play in contrast to Modernism, which, according to Roland Barthes (1916-1980), was a fraudulent attempt to find the universal in every solution. For Barthes, Structuralism, or the method of reading a text through the process of seeking its structure or boundaries, was an “activity,” and with this essential insight, he opened the way for the interactivity of Post-Structuralism. All meanings in literature are plural, and the ultimate (non)conclusion is (never)completed by the audience and/or the reader. The “work” is no longer a “work,” but is a “text.” The measure of a text’s success is not its finality but the amount of “production,” or activity, the text brings to the viewer. To read is to discover how the text was written; to view is to see how the painting was painted. One places oneself within the production (the process), not the product, and the audience is freed from presumptions of received or pre given meaning and can enter into the rite of creation itself.

In contrast to Modernism’s aristocratic/autocratic taste for authority, Postmodernism privileges change–better defined as choice–over necessity or singularity, and randomness over preconceived order. In contrast to the presumed “depths” of Modernism, in Postmodernism there is only surface. In contrast to the search for meaning that defined Modernist methodologies, in Postmodernism, there is nothing to be uncovered, no hidden world to discover, no seeking of purpose, just play, and the randomness of a work in process compared to the finished state of Modernist works. Postmodernism preferred metonymy above metaphor’s identification with one object or another. With the operation of metonymy, a play of associations and referrals and substitutions, each element can remain itself (as in allegory). Postmodern surface replaced Modernist depth, because the surface is where the activity of art making takes place between the artist and the spectator.

Postmodernism began to separate itself from Modernism about the same time Structuralism gave way to Poststructuralism in America, in the late sixties and the early seventies. Being preoccupied with the end of Abstract Expressionism and the beginning of Conceptual art, the art world of fine arts in America was introduced rather late to this significant philosophical shift. The break between the dominant tradition of Formalist purism and a hybrid stance that (re)examined the older philosophical systems was paralleled by activities in the art world and the philosophical world. The new generation of the art world that Joseph Kosuth (1945-) wrote about in his essay, “Art after Art Philosophy” (1969) was extricating itself from the hegemony of formalism and “taste,” exemplified by Clement Greenberg’s generation of art criticism. In America, it was the art critics and art historians who defined art or decided what could and would not be deemed “art and the generation that the Marxist art historian, Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996), belonged to, the fifties, was a time in which the art world was very concerned with questions of “Style” (1953) or pure appearance. As Schapiro wrote,

To the historian of art, style is an essential object of investigation. He studies its inner correspondences, its life-history, and the problems of its formation and change. He, too, uses style as a criterion of the date and place of origin of works, and as a means of tracing relationships between schools of art. But the style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible. It is also a vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values of religious, social, and moral life through the emotional suggestiveness of forms. It is, besides, a common ground against which innovations and the individuality of particular works maybe measured.

These two articles, “Art after Art Philosophy” and “Style,” were considered groundbreaking in their time and, written some twenty years apart, establish an important position for the next stage of the art world. Their divergent stance towards art is mirrored by the difference between early and late Barthes: one assumes a definition of “art” and the other critiques that assumption. Kosuth began his book by separating himself from Formalism:

It is necessary to separate aesthetics from art because aesthetics deals with opinions on perception of the world in general. In the past one of the two prongs of art’s function was its value as decoration. So any branch of philosophy which dealt with “beauty” and thus, taste, was inevitably duty bond to discuss art as well. Out of this “habit” grew the notion that there was a conceptual connection between art and aesthetics, which is not true. The idea drastically conflicted with artistic considerations before recent times, not only because the morphological characteristics of art perpetuated the continuity of this error, but also because the apparent other “functions” of art..used art to cover up art.

Schapiro’s essay, “Style,” was a summation of previous art historical attempts to distinguish art of one period from another, an exercise in connoisseurship inspired by Hegelian concepts of thesis and antithesis (compare and contrast) applied to a developmental model in which art evolved and devolved. The only difference between Schapiro and his contemporary, Clement Greenberg, was that Schapiro felt that style emerged from a historical context. For Kosuth, style was synonymous with taste with formalism and, like Marcel Duchamp, he sought to free art from materialism and to reinstate art as concept, free of physicality. But for Schapiro, art always has a purpose, if only to indicate a dominate mode of thinking of a particular society at a certain time. With this art historian who seemed to write with Heinrich Wölfflin’s “period eye” in mind, art is a manifestation of a culture, but he ended on a note of uncertainty—how to discuss art within culture from a Marxist perspective?

Writing just a few years later, in a series of monthly or bimonthly columns in Lettres Nouvelles between 1954 and 1955 culminating in the essay, “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes began to extricate himself from the strictures of Modernism. Barthes has a general audience and not being a traditional art historian he was free to embrace the vernacular as the site of his discussion of (popular) culture from a Marxist perspective. The collection of observations upon post-war politics in France was gathered together in one volume, Mythologies, which was translated in 1970 and produced in a new and unabridged edition in 2012. But Barthes also came to the point in his career where he realized that it was not the role of art to be in the service of society in the “reflective” fashion of vulgar or simple minded Marxism. He left “vulgar” Marxism behind, along with politically based art making, for what he called écriture blanche, or white writing. White writing, according to Barthes, was uninflected with politics (ideology), but, due to its lack of dependence upon codes and conventions,the neutrality of écriture blanche could intervene upon the reader’s expectations of received meanings.

If white writing is writing about writing, then the art world equivalent of white writing would be Minimal Art’s non-referential objects, uninflected by art world codes and gallery conventions. Barthes searched for a clean and clear language that could smash meaning: the “semioclasm,” perhaps best reached by the Minimalists insistence of a kind of “bracketed” form of perception of their “specific objects,” recommended by Edmund Husserl. Likewise, Joseph Kosuth spoke of a “blank” slate for art and returned to the Kantian notion of the a priori, noting that art was an analytic statement, containing its own definition. But Kosuth took Kant apart, discarding Greenberg’s use of Kantian notions of “art for art’s sake,” but returning to the philosopher’s first Critique on Pure Reason. In so doing, Kosuth placed art in a different place, in the site of language as a statement that contains its own definition. In following Marcel Duchamp, the artist moved away from object-based art that lent itself to a personal response based upon critical “taste.” In releasing art from “objecthood” and “taste,” Kosuth walked through the doors opened by Neo-Dada artists, Rauschenberg and Johns, and made the case that it is the art world that establishes “art.” Thinking along the same lines as Arthur Danto and George Dickey, Kosuth came to the conclusion that art was not a transcendent absolute. “Art” is an institutional entity.

Just as Kosuth fought against conventional definitions of art as a beautiful object, Roland Barthes, in his examination of literature, also was concerned with “style” as a middle ground for the prose writer who was trying to invoke something else, reaching beyond mere “realism.” The bête noir for Barthes was “realism,” a literary practice he saw as being composed of ideological codes that served to reinforce the very social system the writer was purporting to investigate. His struggle as a critic was to not only actively intervene as a critic and to expose the iconological underpinnings of literary practice, but he also struggled to re-imagine a new way to write. Barthes turned his back on “horizontal” writing, that is, writing that logically led to a conclusion and looked instead to a highly stylized écriture, writing with no purpose other than jouissance, for the writer and the reader. For Barthes, the structurality of Structuralism–the straight line from beginning to end–and its belief in style as depth was a form of ideology. He understood that realism was a form of style that reinforced the dominant belief systems, and the attempts on the part of Barthes to break the spell of good writing with neutral writing or self-conscious writing were also attempts to call attention to Formalism as an ideology of authority.

These decades between the 1950s and 1970s were the grounds for struggle upon which a series of transitional critics wrested Postmodernism out of Modernism. As will be discussed in future posts, it was Jacques Derrida who fired the final warning shot across the bow of Structuralism/Modernism in 1966 with his talk, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” which interrogated the structural theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Derrida warned,

The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure—although it represents coherence itself, the condition of the epistémé as philosophy or science—is contradictorily coherent. And, as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.

Intertextuality is linked to Deconstruction and the techniques of Deconstruction involve a kind of reading that fundamentally undermined unified or finalized meaning. Most famously practiced by Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction read text as pure productivity, a literary offering without essence or fixed meaning, an utterance that could not be unique only a re-writing of the already written. However, the text was also a singularity in that it is always repeatable and iterable–resayable. Freed from Modernist formalism, the postmodern text was seen as a “performance” by the writer, advertising the ability to collect, containing a record of other texts, or an act that re-en-acts. To “deconstruct” a text is to draw out its conflicting contained logics and to show that the text never means what it says or never says what it means. Borrowing from the Modernist practice of “close reading,” or analysis of a supposedly bounded “work of art,” Deconstruction inverted and reinterpreted close reading by making this form of exposition to a reading against the grain of the overt meanings and intentions of the text.

Laying the text bare to a new kind of Postmodernist scrutiny, Deconstruction is a form of activist reading, a search through the multiple texts, locating the “unconscious” of philosophy in signs and symptoms of the text’s repressed rhetorical and figural and metaphorical tradition that contain a surplus of meaning that spills over in its own excesses. Writing disseminates a surplus of meanings, like a sower tossing seeds into the air, allowing them to randomly fall and take root. Derrida claimed that language itself is always subject to dislocating forces at work which throw meaning in other directions. He followed Kant’s interrogation of the grounds of the possibility of meaning itself, and Deconstruction follows a mode of argument in which epistemological problems of knowledge, meaning, and representation are raised once again and redeployed to define Postmodernism. These questions–the grounds of knowledge, how meaning “works,” and how representation constructs the subject are the main issues of Postmodernism.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Roland Barthes: “The Death of the Author”

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)


“The Death of the Author” (1968)

“The Death of the Author,” written in 1967 and published in 1968, is a stance against the enclosure of Structuralism and the authority of formalism. While the essay by Roland Barthes makes sense in the context of the intellectual life of Paris, it has often been misinterpreted when it was removed from the transitional context of theory passing out of Structuralism into Post-Structuralism as a reaction to the events of May 1968. However, as was pointed out the date of writing predated the date of publication, but the “revolution” of the essay had been a long time in the making. As a product of Literature and the classical tradition in France, the “author” was part of a system of political and economic authority that Barthes began working to dismantle from the 1950s. As Barthes wrote, “The author is a modern character.” But more interestingly are the words he uses to describe the social condition of being an author: “..the author still reigns..” and “culture is tyrannically centered on the author..” In other words, by conflating the work and the author, the classical system of reading controls the interpretation to the authority of a single voice, that of the creator.

The “Death of the Author” is an extension of the end of the unified subject, and as such, Barthes was expressing the prevailing intellectual stance that was being written and would be expressed among that group of thinker who were attending the seminars of Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) in Paris. If the subject is dissolved into language, then so too is the fiction of the author or the independent creator of a work of art. Moreover, from a Marxist perspective, the “author” is a modern invention, derived from capitalist ideology that granted importance to the author’s person that was part of the wider system of ownership, property and privilege. “The Author” is part of a capitalist stress on control through authority: the authority of the writer him/herself or the authoritative interpretation of privileged interpreter. “The Author” is also part of the Enlightenment stress on individuality that inversely prioritized expertise and uniqueness. An explanation for the work of art would be sought in the person of the producer, his tastes, his history, his passions. In addition it is possible to locate an “origin” for the Romantic notion of the writer as creator, for the author is a historical entity, created by Romanticism and the stress on the significance of subjectivity.

This essay is very short, and indeed many of the texts of Barthes are quite brief, with “Myth Today” being uncharacteristically long. Part of the impact of Barthes is not just that he gave voice to ideas in circulation but also that he did so in a timely manner–short essays are easier to publish than long books which take years to write–and in a public language that was easily accessible. American writers would later find his writings difficult but that was only because they were reading them twenty years late and were not part of the conversation that generated them in the first place. When it was published in 1968, the anti-establishment tone of the essay hit the right note and fell into keeping with its own time. That said, because the essay predated much of contemporary Postmodern theory, subsequent Postmodern thinking has assumed that the point Barthes was making is that the author does not exist, or that the artist has been eradicated. However, the author was resurrected in The Pleasure of the Text in 1971, indicating that ending the role of the author was not the intent of Barthes.


Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

Barthes wanted only to extend the meaning and interpretation of the work of art to include the interaction of other texts and the responses of the reader. The German School of Constance will take up this notion of the active reader and develop the role of the reader into “reader-response” criticism and the impact of plural readings upon the act(s) of interpretation. The theoreticians of Constance developed Reception Theory to explain the interaction between the work and the audience as the “horizon of expectations,” but it is important to make a distinction: the scholars of Constance were motivated by the student movements of the late sixties. The ongoing battle fought by Roland Barthes was with the fortress of French Literature which was part of a network of ownership and control. Classical Marxism would necessitate the concept of property, but Structuralism, on the other hand, would understand writing, not as property, but as part of a linguistic system. From either or both perspectives, the aesthetic or the form of the text becomes irrelevant. “The Death of the Author” puts forward a series of ideas far more important than whether or not the Author is “dead.” It is here that Barthes would write of the concept of “intertextuality.”

In Writing Degree Zero (1953), the goal was a neutral and blank language that used words in a material and concrete manner that freed them from social codes. For Barthes, as he had mentioned several times before, it was the nineteenth century poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) who understood that language speaks, not the author. In his famous poem Un coup de dés, Mallarmé explained the importance of the gaps between the words that rattled across the white pages like a die rolling across a casino table: “..the ensuing words, laid out as they are, lead on to the last, with no novelty except the spacing of the text. The ‘blanks’ indeed take on importance, at first glance; the versification demands them, as a surrounding silence, to the extent that a fragment, lyrical or of a few beats, occupies, in its midst, a third of the space of paper: I do not transgress the measure, only disperse it..” In other words, Mallarmé equated words with silence or gaps, emphasizing the materiality of language and the performative nature of reading.

And then, several decades later, came Surrealism. Due to the use of psychological games, such as automatic writing, it was Surrealism, Barthes said, that “helped desacralize the image of the Author.” After a process of questioning and slow unraveling, from a Structuralist perspective, the author’s only tool is language itself and therefore trapped in language, authorship is never personal and the author is secondary to language. Compared to the strong pseudo “presence” of the Author, writing is neuter or “zero degree” or “white” and composite or plural, a site of the loss of the subject and of identity. Because, post-Enlightenment philosophy challenged the notion of the Cartesian subject, writing is the destruction of every voice and every origin. When one recounts/writes/represents, Barthes noted, a gap appears and the voice looses its “origin.”

The withdrawal of the author, Barthes wrote, “utterly transforms the modern text” and time is also transformed. When the Author is “present,” there is the before and after writing time, when writing begins, the author enters into his/her own death. In order to write, one must utilize language, and language, as Lacan asserted, “speaks the subject.” The reader or “the scriptor is born at the same time as his text..and every text is written essentially here and now.” Therefore “writing” changed from an act of recording or representation to a performance or a speech-act, which Barthes christened as “performative.” The term “scriptor” is then linked to“a pure gesture of inscription” which “traces a field without origin..” Barthes elaborated when he stated that the text was “a multidimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture.”Therefore, certain consequences occur: first, the “book itself is but a tissue of signs, endless imitation, infinitely postponed” and it is “futile” to attempt to “decipher” a text.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of the unified subject came under question through Lacan’s re-reading of Freud through the filter of semiotics in the fifties, and in the sixties semiotics gave way to Structuralism with Roland Barthes as its major spokesperson. If language speaks the subject, then there can be no pure gesture of inscription. The character Barthes referred to as the “Modern Scriptor” buried the Romantic notion of the Author. The hand/writing has become detached from the voice and writes traces without origin. The result is a “Text” which is a multi-dimensional space, a fabric of quotations, activated from thousands of sources from modern culture. According to Barthes, “..the writer can only imitate an ever anterior, never original gesture; his sole power is to mingle writings..” A book is a woven cloth of signs, endless imitation, with meaning infinitely postponed.

To impose an Author upon a text is to impose a brake on interpretation, to give the work a final signified. Writing becomes closed. The “author” becomes a component of reading, a theoretical designation, a fiction employed for the sake of discursive convenience. In other words “Vincent van Gogh” is a capitalist invention suitable for selling art and Ernest Hemingway is a signifier of a particular genre of American writing. Over the years, Barthes built a case that work could be only of its own time but that in order to exist art was a composite. As he wrote,

..a text consists of multiple writings, proceeding from several cultures and entering into dialogue, into parody, into contestation: but there is a site where this multiplicity is collected, and this sie is not the author, as has hitherto been claimed but the reader; the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any of them being lost, all the citations out of which a writing is made; the unity of a text is not in its origin but in its destination, but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history; without biography, without psychology, is is only that someone who holds collected into one and the same field all traces from which writing is constituted..

But as the end of the essay indicated, the death of the author does not mean the demise of the writer and points instead to the agency of the reader in bringing meanings to a text. The reader and the writer co-create a text that in itself cannot be singular or bounded as a “work,” but is inherently intertextual, (a term he borrowed from Julia Kristeva) that is, a “text” rather than a “work.” The total being of writing is multiple writings that are engaged in a dialogue. Writing is where multiplicity is collected, not by the author, but by the reader. The unity of the text is not its origin but its destination. According to Barthes, “The birth of the reader must be required by the death of the author”.

So the author must die in order to allow a space for the reader. It is the reader, after all, who makes meaning. The reader/critic can never get outside of the language any more than the writer/author be an original author and go beyond known language. Barthes took up the question of the breakdown of the boundaries of the “work” into the “text” which has no bounds in his 1971 essay, “From Work to Text.” At the time he was writing, the old disciplines were breaking down in favor of the trend towards the interdisciplinary, a mixing of fields and professions quite comfortable for Parisian intellectuals. Barthes refers to the breakdown of old disciplines as a “mutation” that is part of an “epistemological shift.” A new objectless object and a new language was formed, as “work” evolved into text, which is located at the intersection of author and reader. Barthes borrowed a distinction from Lacan: “reality” is shown, but the “real” is proved. Therefore the text must not be understood as “a computable object” but as “a methodological field.”

The Work is seen, “held in the hand,” while the text is demonstrated, “held in language” and exists only when caught up in language. Text is experienced only as an activity in production. The text is “constitutive movement” or a moment of construction or assemblage and cannot stop at “literature” which is formally interpreted. The text is plural and fulfills the plurality of meaning and depends upon dissemination which Barthes described as “traversal.” “Text is experienced only in an activity, in a production,” he emphasized. The author cannot be returned except as a guest because the text is a network, a combinative operation. The text is play, task, production and practices, meaning that reading and writing are linked together in the same signifying practice. The pleasure of the text is that the text is a social space where languages circulate, because “..the theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of reading..”

Barthes criticized Structuralism for setting up a meta-language to critique language, claiming that a metalanguage is a linguistic impossibility, for one can never escape the effects of language. Post-Structuralism or a reconsideration of Structuralism admits that it can never be a theory, only an activity, because the post-Structuralist can never escape language. If reading was a performative activity, then the “Text..practices the infinite postponement of the signified..the Test is thus restored to language; like language, it is structured but decentered, without closure..Text is fulfills the very plurality of meaning..” Text depends upon “dissemination.”Although less well known that the predecessor essay, “The Death of the Author,” “From Work to Text” was quite well developed and Barthes developed a complex discussion of Text,which he capitalized. He wrote, ” ..the Text tries to place itself very exactly behind the limit of the doxa (is not general opinion — constitutive of our democratic societies and powerfully aided by mass communications — defined by its limits, the energy with which it excludes, itscensorship?). Taking the word literally, it may be said that the Text is always paradoxical..”

In explaining that the Text is “plural,” Barthes presented an early explanation of “intertextuality.” Intertexuality will be discussed in greater detail in another post, but the idea was introduced to the Parisian university community by Julia Kristeva (1941-) in 1966, but was disseminated and popularized by Barthes who defined intertextuality he wrote in his characteristic run-on fashion: The intertextual in which every text is held, it itself being the text-between of another text, is not to be confused with some origin of the text: to try to find the ‘sources’, the ‘influences’ of a work, is to fall in with the myth of filiation; the citations which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet already read: they are quotations without inverted commas. However due to ” a process of filiation, there is “an appropriation of the work to its author.” But, Barthes insisted, As for the Text, it reads without the inscription of the Father. Here again, the metaphor of the Text separates from that of the work: the latter refers to the image of anorganism which grows by vital expansion, by ‘development’ (a word which is significantly ambiguous, at once biological and rhetorical); the metaphor of the Text is that of the network; if the Text extends itself, it is as a result of a combinatory systematic (an image, moreover, close to current biological conceptions of the living being).”

For Barthes, as he frequently wrote, the consumable work or classical “book” produced more than mere boredom, it produced nausea. The solution is that the text be considered as pleasure: “ is bound to jouissance, that is to a pleasure without separation..” Barthes took the position of a politically engaged writer who combines Marxism with Structuralism to critique the bourgeois mythologies embedded in popular narratives. He was haunted, as were all Postmodern writers with the difficulty of using language to criticize language. Barthes and his fellow critics understood the critic as being trapped into the use of a meta-language that is as implicated in language as the language that is being examined. For the transitional writers, there is no way out of this dilemma but later writers will find a solution to the problem of language. Barthes was an important link between structuralism and post-structuralism because he understands that the use of language is tantamount to the use of power. The world is composed of language is is a logosphere composed of discourses that create their own truth by their internal force and their inner connections. The writer spent his career examining how the use of language and its structures construct “truths” that are accepted as “reality” instead of what these arguments actually are–writing or literature.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

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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