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.

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Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part Two



Hybridity and Pluralism

In her 1966 essay, “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” Julia Kristeva (1941-) privileged the term “Text,” insisting that the subject is composed of discourses, created by a signifying system. The “Text” is a dynamic activity, rather than an object, an intersection of textual surfaces, rather than a point where meaning is fixed. Like Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), Kristeva understood the politically subversive nature of celebrating intertextuality and realized that there was a deeply serious side to the challenge 0f the carnivalesque. Influenced by Kristeva, Roland Barthes (1915-1960) took up the idea that intertexuality was linked to a flouting of authority and referred to intertextuality as cryptographe (cryptogram) in which the reader is perversely split and re-split through codes, or when the text is composed of quotations that are not the actual quotes of other authors. These cryptograms are silenced quotations without quotation marks, using cultural codes which are references to recognized stereotypes, myths, received wisdom, shared assumptions, collective thinking and so on. Any authorial notion of mastery over a supposedly unique “work of art” is a fiction, convenient for those in authority, and, even the “I” or the voice of authority, the subject, is a mere social construction.

Given that reading and writing is the function of a network of citations, the rejection by Barthes of the “author” is also a rejection of author/ity and is therefore a political and revolutionary rejection of centralized control. With his theories of Deconstruction, the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) also rejected the notion of the independent author or unique authorship, understanding the “activity ” (to borrow a term from Barthes) of writing to be a kind of rewriting or an explicit interpretation of or commentary on the works of earlier writers. A reader cannot read without knowledge of a literary tradition of reading and writing, and a writer cannot write without access to his or her heritage. To write, to make art, any artist must use numerous quotations of already readable texts that can be quoted and quotable or readable. To be readable the writing must both draw from and attain the condition of iterability or the ability to be re-read, re-written or to be “grafted,” as Derrida would say, as re-expressions into other texts. As Barthes said, “..a text is an intertext,” an outcome that produced what he termed “a tissue” of quotations or citations. Kristeva, in her turn, defined a “text” as a “permutation of texts,” an intertextuality: “in the space of any given text, several utterances take from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another.”

However, in order to stress how different intertextuality is from previous methodologies of critical analysis, it is important to stress that although there always has to be a language existing before and after and around texts that allows the text to be uttered, but these multiple Intertexts are not sources of influence upon the writer. To posit an “influence” would be to assume a point of origin and to assume origin would be to assume some form of “originality.” But the entire point of Intertextuality is that there is no traceable source and that to attempt to track back upon an author’s path is to free fall into an abyss that has no end. Literature and visual art is nothing but a general field or open territory of anonymous formulae or literary conventions or visual codes whose origin cannot be located and which have already been written. All written and visual utterances and expressions must both import or utilize and, in the process, naturalize, or make familiar through repetition, the speech acts of others. The viewer must work within the resulting tensions among the numerous texts, seek collaborations among numerous artists, and undertake negotiations with the results. The idea is that the text is comparable to a dialogue between the reader and writer: words are neither neutral nor original but are already used and secondhand and saturated with other meanings, leftover and already contaminated and impregnated with their opposites. Meanings can be palimpsests, overlaying one another, transparent slices that one can see through, a past that is still present at odds with that which is on the surface.

Clearly, these Post-Structuralist interpretations of writing and reading and making art were closely related to the visual strategies that Postmodern artists and architects were beginning to employ as early as the 1960s and came into vogue during the 1980s. The literary critic, Jonathan Culler, called the formalist methodology “a bizarre fiction.” “At its most basic,” Culler said in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, “..the lesson of contemporary European criticism is this: the New Criticism’s dream of a self-contained encounter between the innocent reader and autonomous text is a bizarre fiction.” To read, Culler explained, is to read in relation to other texts, and, indeed reading like looking can occur only in relation to preexisting codes that are products of these texts. As “objects of the culture,” the works are required to participate in a variety of systems and must emerge from these networks of meanings. As Derrida put it, the intertextual codes are déjà-la, or already there. The origins are lost, for codification cannot originate or be originated; any code is already encoded in a prior code and these contributions of previous texts to the code makes signification possible, and now signification is redefined as a stacking up as it were of these preexisting codes. Because they have already been appropriated, free floating quotations are already anonymous and always untraceable, being already read, already seen, and refer to the sum of accumulated collective knowledge that makes it possible for texts to have reiterable meaning.

Taking their cue from Bakhtin and inspired by the uprising of the spring of 1968, the French writers and philosophers were invested in taking an anti-authorian position in regards to traditional literary traditions, while the American artists were attempting to break away from their Modernist predecessors and the critical authority of cultural leaders. Clearly, double-coding, a term popularized by Charles Jencks, is a visual counterpart to Intertextuality, but much of architecture’s intertextuality is, in fact, not visible or immediately understandable to the casual visitor,and yet is nevertheless present. Unlike Intertextuality in literature which is deeply embedded within the surface text itself, intertextuality in the visual arts depended upon a near scholarly knowledge of the history of art and of critical theory. The late architect, Charles Moore (1925-1993), utilized an entire history of Western architectural vocabularies for his Piazza d’Italia (1978) in New Orleans. The satirical façade, like a stage set, is a jumble of misaligned parts, assembled from the ruins of history into a deconstruction of stylistic chronology. If multiple texts must exist in order to write, then multiple works of art must be known in order for the work to exist, either for the artist or for the viewer.

While both Barthes and Kristeva were concerned about establishing a new epistemology or foundation for literature and of the visual arts, the more familiar definition of Postmodernism was formed out of the world of architecture by the architectural critic, Charles Jencks, who, unlike his art historical counterparts, was faced with postmodern tendencies as early as the 1960s. For Jencks, Postmodernism evolved out of art and architecture of the sixties, once again, paralleling similar approaches in the world of philosophy–postmodernism was a mere rethinking of Modernism. Jenks would agree with Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1996) that Postmodernism is less of a break and more of a continuation of a particular kind of Modernism. In other words, it is important to understand that Modernism was a period of time and that during this period of time, certain art critics and certain art historians (authority figures) decided to speak only of some art and fell silent on other forms of art making. Postmodernism became a “return” as artists and architects returned to that which had been “repressed” in Modernism: the hybrid (the impure) and the vernacular (popular culture). The architect, Robert Venturi’s books, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and Learning From Las Vegas, written during the sixties, were the equivalents of Andy Warhol’s Soup Cans of 1962 as manifestos that celebrated popular culture.

Jencks, like most of the theorists of the Postmodern, understood that one of the leading characteristics of Postmodernism is the global and international culture of expansionary capitalism that makes any dominate style impossible. Note that, in the visual arts, Postmodernism finally found fertile ground in American academics during the short-lived art boom of the 1980s. Postmodernism as a theory enabled the art world to encompass the capitalist expansion of the art world beyond the narrow borders of New York City. Jencks characterized Postmodern art to be eclectic, due to what he called an embarrass de richesses, or a surplus of unrestricted ability to browse among historical periods or the freedom to “choose and combine traditions selectively—an “election,” as he would have it. The result is “a striking synthesis of traditions,” a “smorgasbord,” “inventive combinations,” and a “confused parody” that come out of a culture of pluralism, which recognizes no dominant style or movement. Despite the fact that, in their day, the best works of Postmodernism are, according to Jencks, “doubly-coded and ironic” producing a “hybrid (non) style” that opposes “an exclusive dogma of taste,” Postmodern architecture quickly became dated and stranded on the sands of its own excess of choice.

A simple contrarian movement or reaction, Postmodernism attempted to move always towards greater pluralism in contrast to the narrow elitism of Modernism, but as evidenced by its own erudition, the movement never believed that gaps between high and low or between different communities could be bridged into one universal culture. It is doubtful that visitors to Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center (1989) in Columbus, Ohio grasped his verbal visual punning exercises with the Jeffersonian grid and an abandoned armory. Resisting this notion of “control” but relying upon complex theory, Postmodernism deployed juxtaposition of motives, as seen in the Wexner Center, acknowledging multiple legitimacies, from the history of Ohio to the theory of Deconstruction. The literary and philosophical counterpart of Jencks’s “double-coding” would be “intertextuality”. This “double-voiced discourse” constitutes the fundamental agenda of the post-modern movement. According to Jencks “Double a strategy of affirming and denying the existing power structures (by) inscribing differing tastes and opposite forms of discourse.” In other words heteroglossia; in other words, intertextuality; in other words, plurality and the play of many voices.

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

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

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Postmodernism and Heteroglossia, Part One



Texts and Textuality

The phenomenon that would be known by the 1980s as Postmodern theory or “theory” consisted of servings of a French Potée from the 1950s and 1960s, full of different ingredients, a stew of linguistic theory, psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, literary theory, feminist theory, that simmered and served up first Structuralism and then Post-Structuralism. Structuralism and Post-Structuralism are imprecise and inexact terms that roughly coincide with the equally imprecise divide between Modernism and Postmodernism. Although it is possible to roughly retrace the intellectual steps of all the French scholars who were together in Paris and knew each other, it is more difficult to sort out the ways and means in which their ideas were taken up, sliced and diced, renamed and redirected by the next generation of scholars. The journey of the concept of a term discussed by Marcel Mauss, mana, from the significance of the exchange of gifts in a culture to a “floating signifier” in the interpretations of Claude Lévi-Strauss denoting a surplus which is then transformed by Pierre Bourdieu into symbolic capital while Jacques Lacan would reimagine this sliding signifier as the machinations of language making itself while Roland Barthes found this kind of empty signifier in the myths of popular culture, all of which would inspire Slavoj Zizek to realize that politics was nothing more than a fabula of floating signifiers. It is no wonder that American critics would cut through all this interweavings of community influence, seeking a more simple and general definition of Postmodernism.

In American academic circles, the complex mixture of French (and German) ideas were boiled down or reduced to their essence. According to this coulis, Postmodernism acknowledged disillusionment with the supposed transcendent state of the revered art object. Modernism was frowned upon as an uneasy mixture of mystification of the art and the artist and a meta-position of objectivity from the critic/observer. Like “French theory,” Postmodern art was impure, less a method of making and more a mode of making through synthesis that was indulgent, excluding and denying nothing and was tolerant of everything. Unlike Modernism which maintained a cool position of elitism, Postmodern art was concerned with inclusive context, making the map or the overall picture the emblem of Postmodernism. There were territories beyond the surface of the artwork and outside of “art” that needed to be considered. Attempts at staking out boundaries are as futile as the limits are arbitrary and in order to expand the viewpoint it is necessary to have a flexible perspective. Any kind of system is but a superimposition upon vernacular and local formations.

According to Kim Levin in the 1980s article “Farewell to Modernism,” if the grid was the emblem of Modernism, then the grid had gone back to nature allowing the artist to roam free. In America, freedom was seen almost exclusively as the fight to break the grip of Modernism, as exemplified by abstract art, i.e. purity and Abstract Expressionism. In addition, the American version of Postmodernism was a neat modernist compare and contrast. If Modernist art was abstract, then Postmodern art returned to representation. If Modernism was about the future and the teleology of progress, then Postmodernism had to be about the past and began to devour the history of Modernism. Now freed or exempted from the confines of Modernism, artistic “wandering” resulted in an obsession with the past, as artists borrowed from high and popular art and copied and cross-referenced among images. Appropriation replaced (Modernist) creativity. While Modernism excluded this past from its consciousness, Postmodernism used the old as source for the “new,” recognizing the power of the past or what Karl Marx had called the “dead hand of history” or at least trying to use the “dead hand” to some advantage.

American artists of the Eighties, who began to appropriate Postmodern theory as the basis for their art, were playing at second-hand with decades-old ideas developed in the post-war period by a small group of Continental thinkers. These borrowed ideas were put in the service of a small group of New York art critics and art historians who were interested in establishing their own not-Modernist and not-Greenberg turf, and they established an intellectual hegemony over American-style Postmodernism in New York. Out of or derived from complicated ideas, they developed their own ideas, turning heteroglossia into something far more simple and manageable: “double coding,” a term popularized by architectural critic Charles Jencks. A subtle theory of the relationship between language and human consciousness became a use of motifs from history. Both Structuralism and Post-Structuralism were critiques of the human subject and of the sentimental notion that the subject is a free intellectual agent, eternal and unaffected by history or culture. Post-Structuralists wanted to deconstruct the human “reality,” which, after all, was only a convenient fiction, a product of cultural and changeable signifying activities. Even the unconscious mind, once thought to be unreachable was deemed constructed and culturally specific.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism also critiqued the possibility of a fixed and frozen set of linguistic relations, even within a structure. Ferdinand de Saussure had emphasized the distinction between the signifier, or the “sound image,” and the signified, the concept and stated that their relationship was arbitrary. His analysis suggested that the structural relationship between sign and signifier was conventional, and that meaning is known through common usage rather than through pre-figured necessity. Instead, given the instability of signifiers, each signifier acquired semantic value due to its differential position within the structure of the language. In other words, signifiers have no meaning in and of themselves and “mean” or signify only in terms of their differences and distinctions. It was Saussure who literally illustrated this process of differentiation, drawing (a literal drawing) a current of (wiggling) signifiers flowing above a stream of the “signifieds” below. The slipping signifiers were repositioned by Jacques Lacan, who placed them in a dominant position, demoting the once determining signified by placing it below the signifier. This flipping of the position of the linguistic algorithm is also the flip from Structuralism to Post-Structuralism, where the signified is demoted and the signifier is dominant: floating signifiers that defied the signified.

The instability of the structure of the linguistic system designed by Saussure was quickly exploited. Just six years after Saussure’s death, in The Dialogical Imagination (1919), Mikhail Bakhtin put forward a theory of everyday language called “dialogism.” Living and working in the Soviet Union, Bakhtin subtly opposed the prevailing powers under the guise of analyzing Western literature. Understandably, he would consider language as ideological. Without being precisely political, Bakhtin opposed two modes of literature, the monologic and the dialogic. Monologic language was the language of authority, speaking in tones of “truth” with the expectation of being believed. For example, a scientist writes and publishes monologically and reflects the accepted and expected modes of discourse and assumes that the received practices will not be challenged. On the other side of the monological coin is poetry, the highest of high art, uttered by a poet under the illusion that she is writing in a standard literary format which is supposed as “pure” as the words of the scientist are “transparent.” In addition, this ideological homogenizing language holds language together in a centripetal or oppositional force.

Bakhtin, as might be expected, had little use for the illusions of high art and saw fiction as a dialogic mode. The scientist and the poet speak above or transcendently (or so they believe) but the fiction writer must address a specific reader and audience. Bakhtin preferred the low art of make believe because it reflected the ordinary language of everyday people. In fact, Bakhtin pointed out that monologic speech was impossible, and its concept of a unity or plenitude is actually an illusion, covering up the actuality of excess or lack of fixed meaning. People use specific modes of discourse in order to communicate with each other. Language is inherently dialogic: a speaker must make himself understood to the listener and the interchange between the two participants means that language must always be dialogic. However, there are difficulties if the speaker and the listener are from different paradigms. And this is where ideology comes into play. On one hand, the speaker must achieve competence in communicating, and on the other hand, the listener must have the same or similar competence. But since meaning is not fixed, words only appear to have pre-existing meanings–meanings that are “already ready”–in one social paradigm, that, when it is received in another social paradigm, are often alien to the speaker’s intentions.

The discourses are appropriated in order to make one’s intentions clear, however, there will be interference from two sources: the social slippage between speaker and listener and the linguistic slippage in the language itself. Bakhtin understood all legitimation to be relative and that the “crisis” of legitimation is nothing less than the destruction of traditional notions of “society” and the “social subject.” Uninvolved in any nostalgia for the concept of the “original subject” or individual and unique human being, he used a Medieval concept of carivari or the “carnivalesque” as his critical strategy. With his concept of the “dialogic” in which writers and/or speakers create or intensify “hetroglossia,” Bakhtin seems to have understood the idea of “intertextuality” before this way of reading became well-established. There is a “social heteroglossia,” or a kind of natural language or way of communicating in which words do not exist only in formalized dictionaries but are created in and out of people’s inventive and ever flexible mouths. Bakhtin emphasized the carnival or the power of laughter to destroy pre-established hierarchies, not just of language but also of discourses themselves. Laughter, for Bakhtin, was the most radical form of language. It is the carnival of language that makes dialogue possible in its quest to undermine power.

The carnival is a theater of the absurd which reveals the constructed nature of social restrictions. Produced through the activities of the carnival, scornful and subversive laughter serves no higher cause and supports no existing social structures, and operates on the unofficial margins of popular or lower class life, and unfolds in unofficial and unsanctioned practices, and thus cannot be codified or controlled or raised to a higher and fixed level. Bhaktin’s critique of literature through the carnival reveals that all relations are social and human relations arbitrary; and that, despite the iron grip of totalitarianism, alternative political structures are possible. The carnival in history has been allowed by authorities, parceling out moments of freedom and sanctioning a momentary lapse of what is considered the “norm.” These momentary reversals of power and prestige produce a sense of spectacle that is not only seen or exhibited but can also be lived and experienced as “revival and renewal” through the flipping of received wisdom and through showing the verso of power. Mocking the ruling powers, the carnival speaks in parody with a double-voiced and double-coded language that challenges the single-voiced utterances or approved speech and discourses from the higher authorities. Today, we can witness and enjoy parody thorough the “spectacle” of mass media, whether one is viewing Saturday Night Live or reading the blogs of outsiders who become the contemporary player in a carnivalesque undreamed of but predicted by Bhaktin. On late night talk shows, such as the Jon Stewart Show, nothing is sacred–no person, idea or government— and all is fair game, because it is open season on pretentions of wisdom or sagacity. The carnival has come to town.


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

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

[email protected]

Michel Foucault: “What is an Author?”

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)


What is an Author? (1969)

To read Michel Foucault, is to feel the grounds of one’s belief systems shift underneath one’s feet. For Foucault, as for Roland Barthes (1916-1980), the notion of the author must come into question. Although Foucault was not a literary theorist, he, like Barthes, was a theorist of history, and “What is an Author?” echoed many of the thoughts of Barthes on the subject of authorship. Over a decade earlier, in Writing Degree Zero (1953), Barthes laid out how the “Author” came into being during a certain historical period and discussed how the term “author” was privileged due to the concept of what Foucault would call “individuation.” The notion of the author as a proper name produced “the author function” that became characteristic of certain kinds of discourses, such as fiction, and not others, such as letter writing. The system that produced the author function is a system of ownership and, by the end of the 18th century, the author was placed at the center of a system of property. Given at the Societé Francais de philosophie on 22 February 1969, this talk was published in 1969 in Bulletin de la Société française de Philosophie.

Foucault turned the concept of “author” inside out by examining the text points to the author and not, as is assumed, vice versa. He began by quoting Samuel Beckett, who wrote, “What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking?” The question connoted an “indifference,” Foucault noted, towards writing that had become an “immanent rule” that precluded expression. Like Barthes, Foucault was acting against Structuralism or a formal reading of a literary work and was opposed to the concept of expression, a holdover of Romantic thinking. Foucault understood writing to be “freed” from the need to “express” and was able to represent only itself. Writing was identified with its own unfolded exteriorly—an interplay of signs arranged to the nature of signifiers. As Foucault wrote,

Writing unfolds like a game (jeu) that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its limits. In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.

Like Barthes, Foucault used drastic language to get his point across. Writing, he stated, is linked to sacrifice: Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer.

“Writing” for Foucault was like “Text” for Barthes and thus, writing possesses the “right to kill” the author, to be the author’s murderer. Writing cancels out signs of particular individuality so that, ironically, the sign of the writer is the singularity of absence. The writer has the role of the dead person involved in a game of writing. But, as Foucault warned,

It is not enough, however, to repeat the empty affirmation that the author has disappeared. For the same reason, it is not enough to keep repeating that God and man have died a common death. Instead, we must locate the space left empty by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings this disappearance uncovers.

Foucault pointed to exceptions to his assertion that the author is an ideological construct and made note of transdiscursive writers, such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud and Ann Radcliffe, all of whom established paradigms or what Foucault called “discursive instaurations.” These are rare figures in the field of writing who created a genre that spawned writing in their particular area. Like Ann Radcliffe, who created the Gothic Novel which inspired a genre that continues to this day, like Karl Marx whose followers created Marxist theory, these individuals started discourses and disappeared into the discourse. That being said, Foucault considered it dangerous to reduce either non-fiction or fiction to the notion of the “author.” Most authors are fictive and Foucault reverted to his familiar stance of defining the “author” in terms of what it was not:

The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s sources and riches, but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning. As a result we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author..the author is not an indefinite source of significations which fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition and recomposition of fiction.

“Literary” discourses were opposed to “truth” discourses, that is, discourses linked to a culturally affirmed “truth” in the sense that a literary discourse was a “fiction.” The distinction between truth and fiction necessitated an author to avoid the kind of appropriation that overtook the discourses of the sciences. In other words, the “author function” was obliterated in the sciences so that anonymity (disinterest) guaranteed “truth” but accelerated in fiction in order to guarantee sales. Foucault made his point, not to cement the idea of the “author” as an owner of ideas, but to destabilize the idea of establishing a bounded and constrained field, for in all of the cases set forward by Foucault, the discourse exceeded the writers–Marxism, Freudian thinking and Romanticism.

In separating the author from his or her body of work, Foucault shifted literature into discourse, so that individual works become part of a larger body of texts. As Foucault wrote,

Perhaps it is time to study discourses not only in terms of their expressive value or formal transformations but according to their modes of existence. The modes of circulation, valorization, attribution, and appropriation of discourses vary with each culture and are modified within each.The manner in which they are articulated according to social relationships can be more readily understood, I believe, in the activity of the author function and in its modifications than in the themes or concepts that discourses set in motion.

Foucault’s attack on the author is much more powerful than that of Barthes. Barthes kept within the boundaries of literary theory in his essay “The Death of the Author” and merely wanted to activate the reader. Foucault, however, seemed to view the author as being implicated in a system of thought that was mired in personification and personalization that got in the way of the preferred object of study: the discourse. Foucault wrote that the author was an “ideological” figure that is linked to a cult of personality:

The question then becomes: How can one reduce the great peril, the great danger with which fiction threatens our world? The answer is: One can reduce it with the author. The author allows a limitation of the cancerous and dangerous proliferation of significations within a world where one is thrifty not only with one’s resources and riches but also with one’s discourses and their significations. The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning. As a result, we must entirely reverse the traditional idea of the author. We are accustomed, as we have seen earlier, to saying that the author is the genial creator of a work in which he deposits, with infinite wealth and generosity, an inexhaustible world of significations. We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.

The question was why had the author become an “ideological figure?” Foucault answered that in conceiving of the author as the source of meaning, meaning is confined to the author’s intention. This artificial containment is why both Foucault and Barthes were both suspicious of the exercise of “close reading.” “Close reading” and the mystification of the author as a creator, closes off what “we fear,” something Foucault called “the proliferation of meaning.” The author has therefore the function as a regulator of meaning and this function as an element (not as someone) that controls meaning is closely linked to the control of distribution and profits. In the end Foucault imagined that in the future the author function and/or the author him or herself would disappear in a proliferating discourse. But as was usual in Foucault’s writings, the actual mechanisms of such a change are never explained. He merely ended his essay by stating,

All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest sell did he express in his discourse? Instead, there would be other questions, like these: What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions? And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?

To women and people of color, who have been denied the privilege of writing, “who” writes makes a difference. Foucault must be compared to his female counterparts who were asserting not only the possible uniqueness of écriture féminine but who were also attempting to subvert a male-made language. Although Foucault, like Barthes, was writing against the social constraints against meaning, his last sentence would be taken out of context and used to obliterate the writing of the Other and to elide the fact that the canon of writers and artists still consisted of the white male. Foucault, like most of the men of his era, did not spend much time considering women or emphasizing with people of color. In reading the text of the Other/Woman, Foucault would dispense with interpretation. Interpretation sets up a play against the original text and leads to infinite regression. For Foucault, it was always too late to recover an “original meaning” and a stable “context” for “everything is already interpretation.” However, it is important to know “who is writing” in order to interpret a statement in the context of gender and race. Without this contextual tool, critique becomes difficult and Foucault, as did his colleagues, carefully neutered critique and rendered social criticism mute, coincidentally or not, at the time of a struggle for the rights of women and people of color.

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

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

[email protected]

Michel Foucault and Archaeology

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)


The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969)

Like many French intellectuals, Michel Foucault witnessed the now-legendary days of May, 1968 in which the students and later the proletariat or working class rose up against the forces of law and order, against oppressive institutions and against post-war materialistic society itself. During a dramatic month, French society itself seemed to be hanging in the balance, caught between total breakdown and a break away into a new future. Foucault held a prestigious chair in history at the Collège de France and was part of a network of patronage within a system that was rapidly becoming more institutionalized. The old free-wheeling ways of academic freedom and intellectual development among café convocations came to an end with the wave of post-War rise of the university system. Foucault remained, nevertheless, a freewheeling individual, moving back and forth from between Paris and Berkeley where he enjoyed the pleasures of the bathhouses of San Francisco. His life was marked by a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown, and a police file when he was accused of theft as a student. He was institutionalized and eventually died of AIDS, a disease that was acknowledge in France and denied in America.

Foucault witnessed one of the great events of 20th century French intellectual life, May 1968 and saw its results: the incarceration of intellectual thought in the university. The revolutionaries were caught up in a revolution for which there was no plan of action and without direction the explosive situation fizzled into the status quo. Charles de Gaulle and his minions regained control and observers, such as Foucault, noted the cooperation of the media with the government in conveying approved information. Knowledge, Foucault realized, was intertwined with power and the spectacle of the exercise of power during the month of May changed his approach to history. The grand ideals could not longer be legitimized and the Enlightenment categories failed to come in close contact with reality. The events of May 1968 or “soiyant huitard” created a political opening for transgressive writing. As a result of his experiences as witness to a failed revolution, Foucault took up transgressive writing to disrupt the notion of language as a set of representations, which mirror the world. He re-looked at the familiar, at the social institutions that (de)form our lives in order to put the audience through the ordeal of de-familiarization. Foucault had long been concerned with how various aspects of culture evolved, but his mature work rejected traditional ways of writing history and became something he called “archaeology.”

The archaeological approach to the past was part of Foucault’s attempt to find a way out of the Marxist explanation of historical forces. For the post-war generation of disillusioned French scholars, the other fortress that needed to be taken was that of Marxism. The failure of Marxist theory and the extent of its limitations became glaringly clear during the events of May 1968. Disillusioned intellectuals emerged from the wreckage of Marxism with an undiminished need for a tool to critique society and Foucault and Barthes were part of that shift in that they understood that the Marxist mode of production had become irrelevant. It was the Mode of Information, as Mark Poster termed it in his (now outdated) 1990 book, The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Content, that became the key element in social control.

Roland Barthes (1916-1980) was well aware of the role the ordinary discourses, such as mass media, of everyday life played in shaping the public mindset and how these semiotic mechanisms were deployed to to control group thinking. The old form of Marxism had placed the locus of exploitation and alienation in the workplace, but by the late 20th century, it was becoming increasingly clear that oppression was dissipated and existed at many levels, from the family to knowledge itself. Of course oppression had always existed in these sites, but the resulting alienation of women in the family, for example, had always existed but once intellectual attention shifted from class to a more precise view of a complex social world, the old Base-Superstructure model was inadequate.


Foucault Pins

Once it was clear that it was clear that history had no goal and once it was clear that history was enmeshed in language, the question ceased to be what happened? but how did it became possible to make certain statements at a certain time? The answer did not lie in the historical context, for the search for “origins” had changed over the course of the century. Thanks to Structuralism, it was understood that there was no origin in the singular. There was no one point in time, such as in Greek tragedy, when a human event occurred, like Oedipus killing his father, that could be seen as one event that was preceded by other events and that led to subsequent events. There could only be a certain historical period when a certain social practice manifested itself out of, not one event, but many events. What was significant was not that the practice emerged but that at some point of time it became possible to speak of this condition. Therefore there was no origin, only discourse.

Nothing can come into being, except through language, and discourse is language. Therefore, all objects must necssarily be discursive or formed out of language. “Archaeology” is the treatment of the human sciences as an object of discourse or a discourse-object, without regard to their presumed external “value.” The discourse object is neither true nor untrue; it is an object to be studied from a stance of neutrality as to truth or meaning. In other words, the archaeologist studies not so much the object itself, but how the object was constructed out of discourse. The mechanics of discursive formation, as it were, and how the discourse was created had to be studied without being concerned about what “truth” content the discourse might or might not contain. This was an intellectual move that re-directed the way in which historians treat documents, meaning that if what was analyzed was the mechanisms of creating a discursive object, then the intellectual would be “disengaged” and critique would be re-located to mechanics and away from effects. The subsequent disempowerment of critique would be remedied in Foucault’s later work and The Archaeology of Knowledge should be understood as the second in a series of steps to rethink “history.”

Just as The Order of Things sought, on one hand, to make the past strange while creating a “history of the present,” on the other hand, The Archaeology of Knowledge distances the discursive object, distances it in order to make it strange–to alienate the concept or “serious discourse” from the observer. Although these two books can be seen as a sequence, first, establishing the end of the self dissolved in a new episteme and then second, examining the consequences of the disappearance of the active human agent which is a non-humanistic version of history. Between the two volumes, traditional history was severely challenged by Foucault, who said,

The document, then, is no longer for history and inert material through which it tries to reconstitute what men have done or said, the events of which only the trace remains; history is now trying to define within the documentary material itself unities, totalities, series, relations. History must be detached from the image that satisfied it for so long..history is that which transforms documents in to monuments..history aspires to the condition of archaeology to the intrinsic description of the monument.

This shift in perspective or point of view, from taking monuments and turning them into documents to turning documents into monuments would mean that, for example, instead of using records of slavery to tell the story of slavery in the South one would examine the documents themselves to see how and under what conditions these documents “describe” slavery.

The monumentalizing of documents or the archaeological effect had important consequences: the surface effect which replaces continuity with distinct elements that now need to be organized in a series to find the appropriate relations. The result of focusing on elements, discontinuity is made obvious and the discontinuity itself or the gaps becomes the object of study. With the end of continuity, the idea of total history also disappears and something Foucault called “general history” emerges. This general history is quite at odds with the expected mode of document reading. Foucault went to great length (literally many pages) to explain what he was not doing: he would not “interpret” the contents nor attempt to deduce the intention of the writer. Instead, as with Structuralism, the author disappears so that the discourse can be foregrounded. As Foucault wrote, “We must grasp the statement in the exact specificity of its occurrences; determine its conditions of existence, fix at least its limits, establish its correlations with other statements that may be connected with it, and show what other forms of statement it excludes.”

Foucault’s concept of discursive formations was perhaps his most fruitful contribution to the humanities. His former professor Georges Canguilhem (1904-1995) felt that Foucault’s archaeological methods constituted an historical a priori for knowledge or the precondition for knowledge. Knowledge is a metaphysical emanation of a “truth,” but the result of a series of statements (enounce or systematic statement) that may not be continuous but are related and eventually form a “discourse” over time, and that discourse becomes “knowledge.” Many scholars adopted Foucault’s ideas. Canadian scholar Ian Hacking became part of a Foucauldrian group of scholars in many areas who used Foucault’s ideas that knowledge was a construction of discourses and that these discourses which shape the world, arbitrarily through the language, construct society. In his 2006 essay “Making up People” in the London Review of Books, Hacking examined the emergence of various types of psychological “disorders” through discursive formations.

In Rules of Art (1992), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was another scholar who profited from using Foucauldrian methods in the study of the avant-garde in Paris during the 1830s. One scholar, Hacking, is interested in how discourses form people; the other scholar, Bourdieu, was concerned with how discourse formed cultural attitudes. One of the better known examples of a study of a discourse was Edward Said’s (1935-2003) Orientalism (1978), in which the author asserted that the “Orient” was a Western or Occidental discourse formed for the purposes of dominating the East. Said was the most overtly “structuralist” of these authors and violated Foucault’s strictures against Structuralism by setting up a formal opposition between the “East” and the “West.”

Foucault expended a great deal of space in setting up how and under what linguistic–not social or cultural–circumstances a discourse would be formed. He began with the “enunciative function” in which statements are made and related to one another. The “author,” Foucault cautioned “is not identical with with the subject of the statement,”a point he made over and over. The guide must be whether or not a sentence is a proposition or not and he pointed out that a sentence should not be analyzed in isolation. The sentence becomes a statement only when it is part of an associated field. As Foucault stated, “There is no statement that does not presuppose others; there is no statement that is not surrounded by a field of coexistences, effects of series and succession, a distribution of functions of roles.” The subsequent “objects” as Foucault called them are placed in “a domain of coordination and coexistence” where they are placed in a space “in which they are used and repeated.” This space is, for Foucault, is “the operational field of the enunciative function.”

The next stage is the organizations of these statements into a “discourse,” which Foucault described as “a group of verbal performances,” “a group of acts of formulations, a series of sentences or propositions.” “A discourse,” Foucault stated, “is constituted by a group of sequences of signs,” which demonstrate “assigned particular modalities of existence.”He further described the function of this series as a “discursive formation..the principle of dispersion and redistribution of statements that “belong to a single system of formation.” Foucault described “that whole mass of texts that belong to a single discursive formation” as the historical a priori, a term he employed in order to shake off the old fashioned notion of a “history of ideas.” Foucault was concerned with “positivity” or what we would also call productivity that produced discursive formations, which are objects and not ephemeral “ideas.” But then Foucault has to determine the “rules” that create a discourse, but he sidesteps once again and formulates, not rules, but the “archive” or “that which determines that all things said do not accumulated endlessly in an amorphous mass..” The archive “defines at the outset the system of enunciabiltiy” and “the system of functioning.”

The archive is closely linked to “archaeology” and Foucault laid out his steps carefully leading up to describing his method. Given that the archive exists at the level of what he called “practice,” that practice enabled “statements both to survive and to undergo regular modifications, the archive “forms the general horizon to which the description of discursive formations,” which Foucault explained must be uncovered in a search called “archaeology.” Archaeology “designates the general theme of a description that questions the already-said at the level of its existence: of the enunciative function that operates within it, of the discursive formation, and the general archive system to which it belongs. Archaeology describes discourses as practices specified in the element of the archive.”

Foucault ended his book on archaeology by expressing his doubts on the concept of the “author,” an issue that he would take up quickly. The author is not exactly eliminated but must be understood as the agent of a series of statements that in their turn must be properly placed within a discourse. The author is part of a larger practice and is subsumed under the task of examining the rules that allowed the discourse to form. Foucault also expressly distanced himself from Structuralism. Although throughout the book, he used linguistic and semiotic language, discussing sentences, statements and so on, Foucault’s intention was to denounce the Formalism of Structuralism. What he was trying to do was to move away from the major project of Structuralism which was the reading of specific documents and analyzing them through a “close reading” or a Formal analysis. Far from examining the “structure” of the discursive formation, Foucault examined the “practices” or the dynamics of how discourses were formed over time and the mechanisms of their placement (the rules that allowed them to exist) in the archive. Archaeology sought to redirect the gaze of the historian away from the “history of ideas” to the ways in which certain speech acts were gathered together into a specific practice.

Foucault’s position needs to be understood in relation to what he is “not” writing about. Reading Foucault always involves wading through many sentences that state what he is not doing in order to find a sentence that states what he is doing. The negative sentences will outnumber the positive sentences. Foucault’s rather backwards approach–that of backing into his position–is necessary because he must clear away the rubble of past methodologies. What Foucault is not doing is traditional history. “History” is not a natural phenomenon but a cultural construct. We all have a “past”, but the “past” is simply a random un-patterned cacophony of non-events and non-incidents until this jumble of moments is taken up by a historian and is constructed into something called “history.”

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

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

[email protected]

Michel Foucault: The Order of Things

MICHEL FOUCAULT (1926 – 1984)


The Order of Things. The Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1966)

For English speaking readers lacking the intellectual and cultural background to understand the transformation of French philosophy after the Second World War, French theory is something of a puzzle. First, there is the organization to the books and essays themselves. For the Anglo-American reader and writer, it is standard practice to create a narrative that builds from beginning middle and end, with the main point at the conclusion. To those readers, it is confusing when a French writer embeds the main argument in the middle and even more baffling then the same ideas are repeated throughout a book, appearing and reappearing. But this approach is very French. In France, American directness and desire to get to the point is considered rude and aggressive. All conversations begin, not with the purpose but with a lead-in, and, after slipping in the substance in the middle, end with additional elements that are ancillary. The substance is built up, often through repetition and reiteration, and this substance will be revisited across many books. This mode of writing is very clear in the works of Roland Barthes (1916-1980), especially in his last book, Camera Lucida (1980) where the most significant section–about Death–is in the middle, where his main them surfaces.

Second, this post-war generation of French scholars were engaged in a major project–to find new ways to analyze a contemporary culture that had out run the old theories. This need to renew and reestablish explains the enormous outburst of intellectual achievements in a fairly brief thirty year period, between 1950 and 1980. All of the now-famous French scholars came from different fields and the re-writing of the past towards the future took place on many fronts with many individuals. No where is this effort to rethink history in view of the present more obvious than in the work of Michel Foucault. Large parts of his many books are spend with explaining, not what he was doing, but what he was not doing. But in writing so extensively about the negative–this is not about that–Foucault was trying to clear away the ground rubble of the ruins of the crumbling edifice of Enlightenment philosophy. He was dueling with a number of targets, the foremost of which was the subject or as he put it “man,” present in theories of “consciousness.” In the sixties, when Focault’s doctorat d’état was published in 1961 as Madness and Unreason: History of Madness in the Classical Age, the major proponent of the free subject who had agency and choice of action over his or her own life was, of course, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). Sartre was the Oedipal Father for most of the post-war generation who were greatly impacted by structuralism, which categorically dismissed the idea of the “self.” Sartre became the force to be reckoned with, and he and Foucault had a wary relationship of admiration and dissent. The Order of Things was the book in which Foucault ended the anthropological study of “man.”

Michel Foucault was a historian who, at the time his books were published, in the sixties and seventies, was denounced by traditional historians. Today, his theories have had impact, not just on the profession of history but also upon the humanities in general, even generating a new way of examining historical conditions through an analysis of discourse. Unfortunately, most students in colleges and universities encounter Foucault through a list of assigned readings, devoid of context, forcing the readers into a very complex debate that was interdisciplinary: historical, philosophical, linguistic, with little or no preparation. In order to understand what Foucault was both not doing and was doing, it is necessary to have extensive background in Enlightenment philosophy–years of reading are required, from Kant to Hegel. History, as it is known today, from a traditional perspective, was developed in the Nineteenth century in a period of optimism, positivism, and dominance of the known world by Western powers who were convinced of a grand idea called “progress.” It was Georg Hegel (1770-1831) who developed the theoretical basis for history: thesis, anti-thesis: the clash that produced synthesis or progress and evolution. The establishment of the concept that “history” was driven by an “engine” towards “progress” led, intentionally or not, to the neglect of women and people of color, who were considered to be rooted in “nature” and therefore incapable of being part of “culture” or history. Even though Hegel’s tripod approach was ideal or abstract, the effects upon the writing of history was very real. From the standpoint of minority groups, history became a history of “great men” and their deeds, which is why Foucault supported not just homosexual rights and also women’s rights.

But the left out part of history were never Foucault’s main target, it was the Hegelian system which suggested an inevitable continuity of history. Foucault was interested in gaps and spaces that were unaccounted for, concerned with discontinuities and breaks and fissures in time. The position of the historian was that of a storyteller who told a smooth teleology of the march of time towards preconceived goals but these narratives were overlaid upon selected events and hid the fault lines. The problem with establishing continuity is not that one thing doesn’t lead to another–it does–but that the stories we tell ourselves as “history” transform history into something familiar: we see the past through the anachronistic lens of the present. Foucault’s task is twofold: the defamiliarize the past which is infinitely strange and second to trance the strangeness of the past into the present in order to mark how strong the contrast is. Only by reestablishing the alien and even frightening nature of the past can we understand how change occurred. Foucault hoped to write a “history of the present.” As Foucault related, I seek to diagnose, to carry out a diagnosis of the present. To say what we are today and what it means, today, to say what we do say.”

Because of Foucault’s rewriting of history, historians have re-examined the practice of the writing of history. Historian Hayden White has noted the “story” aspect of history and has pointed out that historians construct history in terms of a trope. The Les annales school of historians in France have been writing that part of history that was neglected: the lives of ordinary people over the longe duré or great sweeping long term trends in history. Foucault was part of the generation that understood that so-called serious discourse is never innocent and that science and philosophy was never innocent. Like Theodore Adorno, Foucault saw the dark side to the Enlightenment and to “history.” Progress and History have been linked ever since Hegel, connected to Western ideas of linear thinking and to Western ideas of dominance and control and mastery. For the Westerner, progress is the progress to greater and greater “civilization” defined as that which is valued and exemplified by Western societies and cultures. Thus “History” is defined as a linear and a teleological process towards greater “Civilization.”

History, then, has a purpose and life, then, has meaning and purpose. The role of the historian is to tell a tale of progress-as-meaning. In order to construct this narrative, the historian works within the confines of the larger meta-narrative (life has meaning, reason and purpose) and connects events through the use of cause and effect constructs, which in turn construct unity and a smooth linear progression from point to point. This unity is in the service of the lesson or moral that is embedded in a seemingly scientific and objective analysis of a moment in time. Isolated and designated as an “event,” termed “significant” and “important,” this event is seen in terms of the present and thus serves the purposes of what is called “the Master Narrative,” which is then presented as “history.” The master narrative in Western culture has always been concerned with and is in the service of continued dominance of those in power and the maintenance of their mastery of the Other.

This process of making history is arbitrary and falsifying and is an act of sheer power, but Foucault did not judge, he merely examined. He was a libertine, not a revolutionary. He had seen the “revolution” (the days of May) and it never happened. Foucault was a sanguine observer who re-made himself into a archaeologist. Foucault located a different history, not one of events, but one of systems of representation or modes of order. “Western thinking” is a mere construct, implying a constancy, or a unity, that, in fact, does not exist. Foucault was able to locate different systems of epistemology, called épistemé, or the foundations of knowledge. The way in which the world is ordered has changed over time, indeed in the larger scheme of things, over a relative brief period, from the pre-Classical or pre-Modern era of the Renaissance to the Classical period of the 17th century to the contemporary time, the now of the late 19th century. Foucault is at his most maddening in this book, because he refuses to explain why an episteme would change from one century to the next. In fact it precisely the “why” Foucault avoids. The point is not way; the point is that one episteme is different from the one that preceded it.

To select an example from the art world, Renaissance perspective was an example of the belief that perspective was a science that was capable of replicating three dimensional space. Part of the pre-Modern episteme was an ordering in terms of similitude and resemblance, but in contrast, the Baroque era, working under another episteme, played with trompe l’oeil and knew that the illusion of reality was not in terms of resemblance but due to the skillful use of representational codes. The Order of Things (1966/70), began with an essay on Diego Velazquez’s Las Meniñas (1656), a painting he used as an example of 17th Century representation, which was the belief in the transparency of representation.


Diego Velazquez. Las Meniñas (1656)

The more modern understanding of representation denies the possibility of transparency, and, for Foucault, as well as for those of his generation, language was actually opaque. Representation is a process of symbolization or of coding, and, even more, of language. If this is the case, then, as Foucault pointed out at the end of The Order of Things, “man” disappears with this realization and is reduced to mere “representation” as Foucault wrote,

This gap is caused by the absence of the king – an absence that is an artifice on the part of the painter. But this artifice both conceals and indicates another vacancy which is, on the contrary, immediate: that of the painter and the spectator when they are looking at or composing the picture. It may be that, in this picture, as in all the representations of which it is, as it were, the manifest essence, the profound invisibility of what one sees is in­separable from the invisibility of the person seeing – despite all mirrors, reflections, imitations, and portraits. Around the scene are arranged all the signs and successive forms of representation; but the double relation of the representation to its model and to its sovereign, to its author as well as to the person to whom it is being offered, this relation is neces­sarily interrupted. It can never be present without some residuum, even in a representation that offers itself as a spectacle. In the depth that traverses the picture, hollowing it into a fictitious recess and projecting it forward in front of itself, it is not possible for the pure felicity of the image ever to present in a full light both the master who is representing and the sovereign who is being represented.

Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velazquez, the representation as it were, of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us. And, indeed, representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements, with its images, the eyes to which it is offered, the faces it makes visible, the gestures that call it into being. But there, in the midst of this dispersion which it is simultaneously grouping to­gether and spreading out before us, indicated compellingly from every side, is an essential void: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation – of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject – which is the same – has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was im­peding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.

It was Foucault, more than any other Postmodern writer, who combined Saussure and Marx at the level of language and ideology to critique “representation.” Representation was linked with power. Those who represented were those who owned the “gaze”, those who had or owned or used the power to depict and to portray. Representation was an act of ideology, implicated in a system of oppression, and never innocent, never transparent. Las Meñinas was a painting of painting as a belief system, that contains within itself the mirror, a relic of the old belief that a portrait could replicate the King and Queen as a mirror, a belief in the absolute ability of painting to represent “transparently,” as a mirror of nature. Velasquez has turned his canvas to the viewer, concealing the “work” of representation while at the same time emphasizing that pure visibility is impossible. The “order” or “things” must be recounted through indirection.

The modern épistemé, on the other hand, understands that representation is not a mirror of nature, not a window on reality, but a linguistic and coded system complicit with the structures of power. Given that this is the world we have inherited, some writers, following some implications of Foucault, analyze “representation” to reveal how these codes function. Up until the 17th century, the world was “ordered” (in the West) in terms of “resemblance” or the repetition of the things through the world in speech and writing. By virtue of similitude the world had to “fold in upon itself, duplicate itself, reflect itself, or form a chain with itself so that things can resemble one another.” And then a change occurred and the “arrangement of signs was to become the connection of a significant and a signified.” What Foucault wanted to do was to make the idea of a system of signification based on resemblance strange and to emphasize the strong difference that was a break. As Foucault wrote,

The new arrangement brought about the appearance of a new problem unknown until then: in the sixteenth century, one asked oneself how it was possible to know that a sign did in fact designate what it signaled; from the seventeenth century, one began to ask how a sign could be linked to what it signified..This involved an immense reorganization of culture, a reorganization of which the Classical age was the first and perhaps the most important stage, since it was responsible for the new arrangement in which we are still caught–since it is the Classical age that separates us from a culture in which the signification of signs did not exist, since it was reabsorbed into the sovereignty of the Like..

The classical episteme, Foucault explained, was binary and therefore arbitrary and functioned within a system allowed the random relationship between the word and the thing to be considered “universal.” “All of this,” Foucault said, “was of the greatest consequence to Western thought. Resemblance, which for a long been the fundamental category of knowledge–both the form and the content of what we know–became dissociated in an analysis based on terms of identity and difference.” Foucault laid out the rift between similarity and difference and the division between the activity of interpretation that must be activated in the case of resemblance and the new mode of epistemology which is analysis. The Classical episteme orders scientific knowledge along a system of contrast rather than similarities.

But Foucault, ever alert to discontinuity, noted the change from the Classical episteme and its regime of positivity to the Modern episteme that emerged in the 18th century, one that is still not completely evolved. Foucault wrote,

Until the end of the eighteenth century, this new analysis has its place in the search of the representative values of language. It is still a question of discourse. But already through the inflection system, the dimension of the purely grammatical is appearing: language no longer consists only of representations and of sounds that in turn represent the representations and are ordered among them as the links of thought require; it consists also of formal elements, grouped into a system, which imposes upon the sounds,syllables, and roots of an organization that is not that or representation.

Foucault, ever the anti-historian never explained why these changes took place, he just asserted, to the irritation of more traditional historians that one episteme broke from another. To the traditionalist, the historian was a detective, who searched for clues through primary documents, but Foucault presented another way of doing history by presenting a new way to theorize history as a series of discontinuities and breaks. There was no need of him to explain history because Foucault was discussing discourse and the way in which the Cartesian form of “self” was dissolved into language. “This displacement of the word, this backward jim, as it were, away from its representative functions, was certainly one of the important events of Western culture towards the end of the eighteenth century. And it is also one of those that have passed most unperceived.” What happened in the modern world is the dissolution of the “self” into language which can only speak itself. In other words the final break, following the cleavage of the word from the thing, is the break between the self and language, puts the project of “man” in jeopardy. Foucault concluded his book by saying,“ will be erased like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.”

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Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)


Camera Lucida (1980)

When he wrote Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes had little time left to him. It is one of the ironies of his ironic life that his last book–an extended act of mourning–would be his last before his ironic death. For Barthes, attending the lectures of Jacques Lacan and hearing of the Oedipal struggle between the Law of the Father for the body of the Mother, an agon that would traumatically wound the son with a castration complex, would have been like listening to fiction. As he said, “No father to kill, no family to hate, no milieu to reject: great Oedipal frustration.” Because his father had been one of the millions who died in the Great War, he had no father to rebel against and he lived his entire life with his mother, always fused into the warmth of her love. Her death in 1977 ended that fusion as traumatically as the intervention of the Father but out of that long delayed primal wound came one of the most widely read of his books, a book–not on photography but on photographs and their power. Barthes was very interested in film but he seemed to have little interest in photography as an art and he probably came to write this book, not as an expert but as a grieving son.

All his life Barthes had been the outsider, hampered by bouts of tuberculous, which kept him from serving in the Second World War, indeed he spent the Occupation in a sanatorium in the Alpines. Due to the constant interruptions to his formal education, Barthes never completed his intellectual training at the higher levels and for years he was on the fringes of the university community. But being outside worked to his advantage: by not being part of the establishment, Barthes owed no allegiance to the institutions of knowledge. He was close enough to the center and smart enough to be aware of the currents and could read the trends. He worked his way in, largely by positioning himself on the edge of a waning tradition, Existentialism, and at the beginning of structuralism, which he approached through semiotics. Unlike philosophy which required extensive education and training, literary criticism was a more accessible avenue for Barthes.

Once again turning an disadvantage into a disadvantage, Barthes focused on a neglected area of society, the consumer culture or the popular culture, which he saw as the main site of ideology and social control. Just as the main trope of his writing was the “third term,” Barthes himself was an in between person, never “in” but associated with the “in crowd,” celebrated and successful, accepted late in life into the university system. He lived in the gap, a closeted but active homosexual who lived with his mother, and wrote of the body in a profoundly erotic way, as though literature was a substitute. Reading was an act of sublimated pleasure and the place where he could work his will and have his way–something that society would never allow. The death of his mother upset him profoundly and drove him to write Camera Lucida a book hated by the critics of the time, a book that could be published only because he was famous and because French publishers are indulgent towards their public intellectuals.

This moment in his life must have seemed like the ultimate state of “in between:” one phase of his life was ended and, with the younger generation adopting his ideas and his approach to critique, he was no longer unique. But his eminence won him an invitation to lunch with François Mitterand on a Monday, February 25 in 1980. As Brion Dillon of The Guardian wrote in “Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes,”

It may well have been exasperation or boredom (for he was often bored) that made him decide, when the lunch concluded, to clear his head and walk home alone to his apartment on the rue Servandoni. At about 3.45pm, witnesses recalled, Barthes paused before crossing the street at 44 rue des Écoles; he looked left and right, but failed to spot an advancing laundry van, which knocked him down. Unconscious and bleeding from the nose, he was taken to the Salpêtrière hospital, where it took several hours to establish his identity.

Although he died before Camera Lucida became a classic, Barthes had entered into a nascent field, the history and criticism of photography. It was only during the 1970s that the disciplines began to emerge as separate fields, coincidentally with the increased presence of photography in the field of fine arts, with important photographers such as Christian Boltanksi and Cindy Sherman. Most of the writing on photography had been done by a scattering of scholars, such as Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, photographer, Gisèle Freund in France, curators Beaumont Newhall and Peter Brunell, but most of what was being written was laying the historical foundations for the field and the critique of photography, with the exception of the American counterpart of Barthes, the writer Susan Sontag, was still in development. While Camera Lucida was a totally personal book, Barthes developed a new vocabulary for the theory of photography by simply by looking at an album of old photographs and a random selection of portrait and documentary images. In his hands, a rambling commentary on a scattering of images became a elegiac meditation on the latent power of the photograph.

As with all his work, Barthes took something and made it strange. But for the historian of photography (full disclosure I was the graduate assistant for Helmut Gernsheim), the limitations of Camera Lucida are interesting: Barthes was apparently interested in photography of the real or the actual. If he was aware of the previous decade’s concern with photography-as-theory and with self-reflexivity of visual culture, Barthes kept his gaze focused on portraiture with occasional forays into documents of events or places. Despite the rather general history of photography he provides the reader, this short book is a search for a way to talk about photography, that ubiquitous condition of contemporary society, so common that it hard to analyze or to understand them. But despite their ordinariness, the photograph is mystified by Barthes, who finds the uncanny even in the banal. The book begins with a spectral statement, hinting at the them of haunting that will come: “One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photography of Napoléon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am now looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.'”

The first half of the book is taken up with Barthes attempting to establish a criteria beyond “I like” for his attraction or lack of attraction to a certain photograph. As always the position of Barthes to Formalism is ambiguous: he wanted to locate the “essence” or noeme of photography, that which was intrinsic and unique to the image made by a camera. The term noeme came from phenomenology, meaning that for Barthes, the photograph was the object seen or perceived. But far from seeking the materiality of the photography as he looked for the materiality of language, Barthes, all through the book, tied the photograph to Death. By gazing into the eyes of Jerome Bonaparte who had gazed into the eyes of his brother, Napoléon, Barthes “sees” the long dead Emperor through a palimpsest of glances. For Barthes, photography is characterized by “fatality” and “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photography: the return of the dead.” “Death is the eidos of that photograph.”

Unlike his other books, there is a sense of floundering in Camera Lucida with Barthes obsessed with death and the photograph, while attempting to corral his subjective feelings into his normal structure of a pair of binaries. The binaries that Barthes found in photography are the most famous part of this essay but although they drift across the chapters, it is the author’s mourning that spills over into the pages. Barthes wasn’t particularly interested in photography as an art form and there were no photographs that he particularly liked. Although he was attempting to define what “attracted” him or what “fascinated” him, the images he selected seemed quite arbitrary. Indeed, he seemed to be quite unaware of the power of news photographs, an astonishing absence in the wake of the Viet Nam War, a war which was brought into question by Malcolm Browne and Nick Ut and Eddie Adams. In fact Barthes dismissed most photojournalism as banal or uninteresting. The term for uninteresting was borrowed from Latin: studium, which for photography was the equivalent of “readerly” in literature or what he called “the average effect.” The opposite of the studium is what Barthes called the punctum which is the surprise or the adventure in the photograph–the detail that interested the viewer.

It is important to understand that Barthes is a formalist who presented a pair of formalist codes which are the very opposite of objectivity, for the judgment of what is a studium or a punctum is purely individual and subjective. The stadium for Barthes applies to the “inert” photograph which belong to the “order of liking” and reflect the photographer’s intentions and “a certain training.” The studium then is the photograph as a sentence, but the punctum is the punctuation: “this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me..this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument..” The studium is also the “unary” in photography, such as, Barthes said, the average news photograph or pornography, which is undisturbed by the “detail” that is the punctum. Even these pairings are quite well known, to the historian of photography or for the historian who knows photography, the linguistic method used by Barthes was strangely inadequate in its adherence to the Formalism which is locked into only what is seen.


James van der Zee

What was fascinating about James van der Zee’s photograph of a black family in Harlem in 1926 is not the “strapped pump” that pricked Barthes, but the cultural knowledge that these individuals could well have been slaves or the children of slaves who had fled the South for the freedom of the North. Barthes was touched by the presence of the “Scotsman” holding the horse of Queen Victoria, but the historian knows that this man was John Brown, who was frequently photographed holding the reins of the stalwart horse with the tiny queen perched on its back. Coming into the picture, so to speak, after the death of Prince Albert, Brown was considered to have far too much influence on the Queen and his firm hand on the reins is the real punctum that Barthes seemed to sense but could not locate. The importance of the man rests on the simple fact that he was never cropped out of the Queen’s equestrian portraits. This inability of Barthes to go further with photography is due to his repeated insistence that “Since every photograph is contingent (and thereby outside of meaning). Photography cannot signify (aim at generality) except by assuming a mask.” “In photography, the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment) is never metaphoric..” “The photograph was literally an emanation of the referent.” “Every photograph is a certificate of presence.”

Having divided photography into the voice of banality and the voice of singularity, the second half of the book is taken up by the search of a son for his mother who is to be “found” only in family photographs. “Now one November evening shortly after my mother’s death, I was going through some photographs. I had no hope of finding her.” Barthes regarded the photograph not as a conveyer of memory but as an anti-memory, an image the fixed a place and time and replaced reminiscences with the insistence of presence. And then Barthes stumbled upon (trébuchet) what he called “the Winter Garden photograph:” “There I was, alone in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother, one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I loved. And I found it.” Like the Greeks, Barthes entered into the death of his mother backwards, from an image taken of her just a year before she died to this photograph, which is not in Camera Lucida, taken when she was five years old and already in possession of her intrinsic kindness.

“Here again is the Winter Garden Photograph. I am alone with it, in front of it. The circle is closed, there is no escape, I suffer, motionless. Cruel, sterile deficiency: I cannot transform my grief, I cannot let my gaze drift; no culture will help me utter this suffering which I experience entirely on the level of the image’s finitude..the Photograph–my Photograph–is without culture: when it is painful, nothing in it an transform grief into mourning.” In this paragraph, Barthes seemed to sum up his refusal to grant meaning–“despite its codes, I cannot read a photograph”–to photography, a refusal which is bound up with his grief at the loss of his mother. The photograph, for Barthes, “blocks memory” and “becomes a counter-memory.”

Barthes was best when he examined the correlation of photography with death. A photograph stopped time and reduced it to a frozen instant. Life went on, the subject changed but the photography stayed the same, even when the person died, the image was left behind. The photograph is both the sole remaining relic of the individual and the most inadequate record imaginable. But it is also dangerous because, like a simulacrum, it could replace the loved one and become more real than the memory. Towards the end of the Camera Lucida, Barthes wrote, “Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print. With the Photograph, we enter into flat Death.” It is here, in the region of a piece of slick paper that the image is captured and the Photograph becomes Death. In reading the Winter Garden Photograph, Barthes realized that he, who had never “procreated” had somehow “engendered” his own mother as she reverted to a childlike state where he nursed her with tenderness. Once she died, he had little reason to go on and towards the middle of the book, Barthes wrote,

From now on I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death.

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.

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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.

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: Mythologies

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)


Mythologies (1957)

In the fifties, Roland Barthes was a semiologist, following Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), in using the sign, the signifier and the signified to study the social condition. The timing of this volume is an interesting one, coming after the deprivations of a long war and occupation and during the decade in which France tried to recapture its pre-war prestige before surrender and humiliation. The nation was entering into the delirium of consumerism and mass media that was the common property of a European culture, rapidly becoming Americanized. The period was also one of nationalism with the country being still mired in the throes of late-Empire, struggling with what would be a long and depressing decade of colonialist chaos. Mythologies, like its content is also part the longer turn towards Structuralism, still in development, and owes much to Lévi-Strauss whose groundbreaking works taught Barthes how to look at cultural forms and analyze them. It is no accident that the foundational article, or the afterword of the book, is entitled “Myth Today,” which discusses contemporary mythology.

In Mythologies, written in 1957 from a compilation of fifty-three short articles published between 1954-56, Barthes became concerned with mass culture and the messages it sends to the hapless watchers of television and readers of magazines. By examining popular culture, Barthes, an admirer of Bertold Brecht, was following in the footsteps of Brecht’s friend, Walter Benjamin. Like Benjamin before the Second World War, his colleague Theodor Adorno examined the ideology of the “culture industry” and revealed how the interests of the dominant classes were furthered through Hollywood films. At this time, however, the pioneering and preceding work of Benjamin and Adorno was not well known and the analyses of Barthes were some of the earliest and most accessible de-codings of contemporary myths. Make no mistake, “Myth Today” was an extremely political tract, a scathing indictment of French colonialism and racism that still resonates in the 21st century. As Marco Roth pointed out in his 2012 article in The New Yorker on the new edition of Mythologies, the essays lay out

..his frustrations with social and political landscape of France from 1954 to 1956: a time of increasing middle-class prosperity, coinciding with France’s struggle to hold onto its colonies in North Africa and Southeast Asia, and DeGaulle’s attempts to restore some kind of national pride in the aftermath of the Second World War. Most worryingly for Barthes, these were years that also saw the rise of an explicitly anti-intellectual, racist, and populist political party..

American readers would have not been familiar with the political background of the quarrel Barthes, a Marxist, had with nationalism and right wing politics and French imperialism but “Myth Today” entered into very controversial territory. Keeping in mind the association between Barthes and Jean-Paul Sartre, Sartre was associated with and connected to Francis Jeanson, a post-war “resistance” figure who started a network of opponents to colonialism in France. According to a 1991 article by Martin Evans, “French Resistance and the Algerian War,” the Jeanson networks were sympathetic to the National Liberation Front (FLN), the Algerian insurrectionists. Jeanson had published a book condemning French behavior in Algeria in 1955, spreading the resistance from Africa to France. As Evans wrote,

In 1954 there were 200,000 Algerians living in France. Of those 150,000 were working, the majority in the building or steel industries. Slowly but surely the FLN began to organise Algerians in France. It was Algerians in France that were to finance the war.In 1954, French Algeria was a society rigidly polarised along racial lines, economically, politically and culturally. On the one side there were one million French settlers; on the other nine million Algerians..During the Algerian war the resisters’ activity was seen as ‘abnormal’ behaviour, it marked them out as traitors, rebels, outsiders in the eyes of French society. And, despite the time that has elapsed, even now a large number of French people would be reluctant to endorse what they did. For the right they were traitors; for the established left they were irresponsible, adventurists. The Communist Party might have taken a clear position against the war but it never condoned illegal siding with the FLN in such a way they crossed too many taboos. This means that their action has never been accepted within the dominant culture in the way that Second World War resistance was..

In uncovering this hidden corner of French history, the article by Evans highlights the extent to which Barthes was taking a transgressive position. In fact “Myth Today” goes on for a number of pages before Barthes introduces his major character, found on the cover of Paris Match:

..a young Negro officer is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolor..I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any color discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.


This sudden tough political confrontation is all the more striking, given that the reader of the volume of essays had been browsing through short little narratives on bourgeois habits: the spectacle of wrestling, soap-powdrs, margarine, steak and chips and striptease. Barthes is the sarcastic observer of the absurdities of consumer culture but Mythologies is also a very serious attempt to use semiology as a science and the first half dozen pages of “Myth Today” carefully lay out the semiological structure of myths. Heavily influenced by the 1955 essay by Claude Lévi-Strauss “The Structural Study of Myth,” Barthes organized the structure of myth into a framework that brought its constituent parts together into an assemblage. It is the arrangement of the elements that give the meaning to the myth. Lévi-Strauss pointed out the myth was a third term between the implied times of langue and parole, because “myth is language.” Myth has a double structure, both historical and ahistorical. Of course from a political point of view, this very frozen state of a myth is exactly what gives it power: because it has always existed, it must be true or “natural.”


In an attempt to “denaturalize” received wisdom, which is the role of the critic, Barthes de-coded familiar myths and made them un-familiar by pointing out that “Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on..because all materials of a myth..presuppose a signifying consciousness..” Given that the myth must be familiar, it is constructed, as Barthes instructed, “from a semiological chain which existed before it: sign, signifier, signified. As a “second-order semiological system,” myth is divided into the “language-object” or the raw semiotic materials used by the myth and the myth itself or the “metalanguage.” Therefore, the signifier has two points of view: meaning and form, while the signified is the concept or the correlation of meaning and form. In terms of signification, according to Barthes, signification had a “double function: it points and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.”

“Myth is a type of speech” and Barthes gave a great deal of attention to the structure of the linguistics of the myth, which is a system of communication, a message. The mode of signification is the form of the myth which is not defined by the object of the message but only by the way or mode in which it utters the message. The mode of writing the myth is representation, that is, the use of material that has already been worked and is suitable for communication. Each myth has two levels of meaning: a primary message is conveyed, but when the main message is bracketed, a secondary message can be discerned. This secondary message reveals the workings of socio-economic structures that function to continue the oppression of the people who receive the messages and continue an ideological world view that keeps the ruling classes in power. As Barthes stated,

..When it becomes form, the meaning leaves it contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes improvised, history evaporates, only the letter remains..the essential point in all this is that the form does not suppress the meaning, it only improvises it, it puts it at a distance, it holds it at one’s disposal..the meaning loses its value, but keeps its life, from which the form of the myth will draw its nourishment..

The myth works with raw materials, reduced to pure signifying functions so that the myth becomes a sum of signs. In fact the myth prefers to work with poor and incomplete images. The myth will naturalize the concept and will transform history into nature. The reader then consumes the myth innocently as a factual system. The myth is already a form of language that can reach out and corrupt everything as depoliticized speech, organizing the world without contradictions and establishing clarity. Barthes pointed out that the myth was emptied out and became pure form into which new and ideological contents could be poured. The significance of the dozens of essays Barthes wrote for Les Lettres nouvelles is that most of his topics are based on commercial images in mass advertising, making him a semiologist of images the same way Lévi-Strauss was the structuralist of human behavior. In crossing the techniques Lévi-Strauss used for his analysis of the myth of Oedipus with a Sassurean examination of ordinary photographs, Barthes uncovered the inner workings of the myths that shaped the mindset of fifties France.

To decode a myth is to expose a delusion, making a revolutionary of a literary critic who can point to the “science” of semiology. The myths that Barthes found floating throughout popular culture were not, at that time, taken seriously, but the role of wine in French society was as important as the role of Charles de Gaulle, for as Barthes wrote, wine was political: ..its production is deeply involved in French capitalism, whether it is that of he privae distillers or that of the big settlers in Algeria who impose on the Muslims, on the very land of which they have been dispossessed, a crop of which they have no need, while they lack even bread.. Indeed, the seemingly benign exhibition The Family of Man which had originated at the Museum of Modern Art, was curated by Edward Steichen, and renamed “The Great Family of Man” in France, flattens differences into a universal cycle of birth, life and death, mythologizing the “human condition.” Barthes pointed out that the exhibition, which was also much criticized in America, obliterated the historical facts of the “condition,” which for some was positive while for others was grindlingly negative. As Barthes explained in “Myth Today,”

..In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves..

For example, America is characterized by and characterizes itself on the myth of the “Wild West.” The history of the “wild west” with its plural cast of characters, cowboys, social misfits, sociopaths, whores, settlers, opportunists, victims, lawyers and schoolteachers and sheriffs and so on. What is conveniently forgotten or emptied out is the exploitation of Chinese laborers, the genocide of Native Americans, the savage struggles between the settler and the rancher, and the wholesale rape of the land. Thus, through forgetting or suppression of the facts, the truth or history is emptied out, leaving a hollow form. What is left is the myth of the Frontier. To the consumer of the myth, this image of America is linked to nature to make “America” seem inevitable and natural. We do not question this myth of America and when those who question the myth are called “unpatriotic,” we are hearing ideology at work.

Because as Barthes stated, “Myth is depoliticized speech” that is “political in its deeper meaning,” precisely because it talks about, for example, French colonialism or American imperialism, in to “purify” these events, “it gives them clarity.” This clarity which Barthes called “blissful” is what makes it so difficult to challenge myths: to call a depoliticized myth political is to risk being refuted, in turn, charged with being “political.” Barthes understood the dilemma and suggested that the best strategy was to “produce an artificial myth”..”why not rob a myth?” he asked. To read and receive a social myth is to be complicit in the making of the myth. The myth is always form, never content, and operates as a sign of the real or as a meta-language. Myths, he pointed out, exist on the left and right as political tools that tell cultural stories. Rather than study signs from an “objective” standpoint or from the position of “scientific” analysis, Barthes understood that signs are embedded, not just in a cultural context or a network of purely linguistic relationships, but belong to politics, economics, and ideology. Although he hinted at the notion of political critique in Writing Degree Zero, it is at this point with this essay that Barthes became a critic of culture or a critic of the workings of power and a revealer of the trappings of ideology.

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

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

[email protected]