Jonathan Culler: Late Barthes

Culler PhotoThe call for papers for “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes” conference maintains that “the brilliance, theoretical significance, and formal innovation of his late work, especially his lectures, has yet to receive the international attention it deserves.”1 Now there has certainly been a renaissance of Roland Barthes in France. Although, in the years after his death, he came to be celebrated as a writer, a lover of the French language, a commentator on everything from art to dieting, from sport to laziness, in France during the past decade, there has been a great renaissance of scholarly interest, with a new five volume complete works, biographies, critical studies, and, especially, the editing and publication not just of the courses at the Collège de France, now all translated into English in three volumes, but the editing of Barthes’s nachlass, with publication of the materials used in the production of books such as S/Z, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, and Fragments d’un discours amoureux. Specifically, this involves the materials from the seminars at the Ecole des hautes études on “Sarrasine,” on Le discours amoureux, and on Le lexique d’auteur. There is also a huge illustrated edition of Mythologies, about two feet tall, which presents the visual and textual materials on which Barthes was commenting in his analyses. There is a veritable Barthes industry.

Despite this French renaissance, I would have agreed with the call for papers that international attention has not followed until I received the program for this conference, which displays a remarkable efflorescence of interest in Barthes, not just a nostalgic engagement of aging structuralists but new interest among graduate students especially. This remarkable efflorescence calls for reflection, for it has not been evident until now. The range of titles for the conference indicates that Barthes has something to say to people working on a broad array of topics. He seems to have reemerged as a figure of some authority, but what sort of authority? Back in the 1970s, Wayne Booth called Barthes “the man who may well be the strongest influence on American criticism today” (69). This was meant, I should stipulate, less as praise of Barthes than as a complaint about the nefarious temptations to which American criticism was seen as succumbing, but still, it is a statement that, read today, brings you up short, reminding you of the importance he had in the 1970s. That importance is hard to describe, and that in itself is interesting: It certainly wasn’t the importance of what Foucault calls the founder of a “discursivity,” such as Freud or Marx, where attempts to advance thought take the form of commentaries on or interpretations of the thinker’s original texts. Nor was it the importance of the founder of a school, who had established a theoretical framework within which lots of people were working (there weren’t in America Barthians the way there are Lacanians). Nor was it the importance of a discoverer, who is routinely credited with an insight, the way in which, say, Benedict Anderson is routinely cited for showing us that nations are “imagined communities.” The mark of the special kind of importance Barthes had, it seems to me, was that his authority could serve as a starting point that required no justification: “Roland Barthes remarks that …” was a good way of starting an essay on almost any topic — and his importance consisted precisely in the fact that no one would say “so what?”

This authority of the uncontested reference point – as one might call it – seemed for several decades to have evaporated. One could say it passed to Walter Benjamin, whose enigmatic statements could serve as point of departure for any essay, whereas to start an essay, “Roland Barthes says …” would have been to court the question “so what?” Is it this sort of authority that has returned to Barthes – perhaps as people have tired of citing Benjamin? Not exactly, I would venture. The authority of the uncontested reference point requires more of a presumption of truth: a shared presumption that there is likely to be some sense in which statements so used are true; and it seems to me that Barthes was too much given in his later years to contesting, rejecting, or even mocking the pronouncements of his earlier career for a given statement of his to serve as an uncontested reference point.

The papers at this conference suggest, rather, that Barthes is returning as something like a universal stimulus – a writer with something provocative or engaging to say about a very wide range of topics. This was the sort of goal he surprisingly set himself in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977. What most captured people’s attention at the time was the claim in this lecture that language is at bottom fascist (it imposes itself), but his boldest step, really, comes at the end of the inaugural lecture, Leçon. Taking up this chair in literary semiology – sémiologie littéraire – at the most distinguished institution in the French academic system, instead of outlining an ambitious research program, as is usual, he announces that he will allow himself to be borne forward by the force of any living life, l’oubli, forgetting, désapprendre, unlearning: “laisser travailler le remaniement imprévisible que l’oubli impose à la sédimentation des saviors, des cultures, des croyances que l’on a traversés.” [Allow to function the unpredictable reorganization that forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of knowledges, cultures, and beliefs that one has traversed] (45/478).2 This move is particularly daring and thus piquant coming from a man with the reputation as decipherer of codes and apostle of the death of the author. Barthes gives this projected experience of unlearning the name sapientia, which taking etymologically, he idiosyncratically translates as “nul pouvoir, un peu de savoir, un peu de sagesse, et le plus de saveur possible.” [No power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and the most flavor possible] (45/478). This saveur, flavor, zest, may be what we are experiencing with a conference like this – the zest people find in Barthes.

When, in the 1970s, Wayne Booth called Barthes the strongest influence on American criticism today, he was attributing to him, above all, a seismic shift from a criticism that did either literary history or else close reading designed to demonstrate the harmonious fusion of form and content, to a criticism with a much wider range of possible projects and concerns, in which there were, I would say, three principal strands, to each of which Barthes had given impetus.

First, there was a critical championing of writerly or disruptive texts over well-made literary objects with organic unity, recognizable plots, characters and themes. Many of Barthes’s works contributed to this project: Writing Degree Zero contended (against Sartre) that it is by work on language that literary works become radical, socially and ideologically innovative, that experimental writing is where commitment or engagement is in fact to be found. His essays on Brecht and on the nouveau roman in Essais critiques celebrated a literature that undermines the conventions of drama or the novel, by foregrounding them and flouting them. The task of literature, he wrote in Essais critiques, is not, as is commonly supposed, “to express the unexpressible … [but] to unexpress the expressible” (15/ xvii). To unexpress the expressible, a radical program indeed. And, of course, S/Z begins with the contention that the writerly is our value. The model of what we don’t know how to read but what it is possible to write today serves as reference point for critical thought: and thus the foundation of a productive critical orientation. Much of this work of critique made evident the need for a new theoretical account of literature, connected with linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, the various discourses that were changing forever the terrain of the humanities.

Second, therefore is the project of a literary semiotics or poetics: approaching literature through a science of signs, an attempt to make explicit the mechanisms of meaning-production, as undertaken in Mythologies and Elements of Semiology for popular culture, in Système de la mode for fashion, and in the studies of narrative, in S/Z, and in Critique et vérité for literature. Critique et vérité elaborates the program of a science of literature or poetics which would not discover meaning in hermeneutic fashion but focus on how meaning is produced, while S/Z tries to make explicit the variety of codes through which literature functions, revealing both the strangeness, the unnaturalness, of everything we have considered natural in the realist novel and the intimate connections between meaning-production in literature and life. In the United States, the perspective of S/Z with its focus on the reader as the site of codes which make meaning possible could give rise to a reader-oriented criticism, but in Barthes’s own work, the project of a poetics is linked, rather, as S/Z makes clear at the outset, to the idea of writing practices challenging the codes on which they depend.

This leads to the third, and perhaps most influential, dimension of Barthes’s early work: the claim that criticism, which he distinguished in Critique et vérité from a science of literature or poetics, should not be conceived of as a hermeneutics attempting to discover or reconstruct some original meaning but as a process of trying out on a work or a corpus of an author’s work, the languages of our century. The critic, he writes, is a public experimenter, trying out languages in public, for the public. This conception of criticism (though in somewhat milder form) became much more influential than any of the actual critical studies in which Barthes put into action, no doubt because the authors he took up were rather idiosyncratically French. He did not write about Proust or Flaubert, but Michelet, Sade, Fourier, and Loyola, and Racine. Sur Racine, developing an anthropology of Racinian man, tried out the language of psychoanalysis on the greatest French classical author to the scandal of many. A phenomenological study of Michelet, an existential thematics, he called it, explored Michelet’s intense investments in blood, warmth, dryness, fecundity, smoothness, and liquefaction. Sade, Fourier, Loyola attempted a grammar of each of these thinkers’ works, identifying their basic elements and their rules of combination. It turns out that trying out the languages of our century on works of the past is not an attempt to make them politically relevant but rather an act of estrangement, a way of “ungluing the text,” as Barthes says, from its vision and purpose, bringing discordant languages into contact, as linguistic terms grate against the violent content of Sade’s sexual visions or psychoanalysis denatures the moral clarity of the Racinian hero (9).

I oversimplify, certainly, in reducing early Barthes to these three major contributions: the championing of a literature as a disruptive, critical force; the advancing of a program of literary semiology or poetics – structuralism for short — and a potent assertion of a notion of criticism, not as the recovery of an original meaning, but as a production of meaning through the deployment of a wide range of contemporary languages that estrange the works they engage and treat them as practices of writing. For me, the greatest contribution of his early work was the discovery of the heuristic value of systematicity – a ludic systematicity, one might say. Just as linguistics tries to make explicit what we know when we know a language, semiotics seeks to understand how things have the meaning they do, focusing on what goes without saying as much as on interpretive difficulties. What is crucial is the requirement to look at all the elements of a text or practice, asking how the apparently insignificant function. What is happening in the captions in fashion magazines? How does a picture of a Black soldier saluting the French flag signify? How does a remark about the weather reveal social class? The obligation to take account of the apparently insignificant leads to insights into the working of literature never gained by criticism that focuses on main themes or interpretive problems – such as the revelation of the effet de réel: the effect of details that do not contribute to plot, character, or theme, that are apparently insignificant, but that nevertheless signify the real, if only by their absence of meaning. Barthes was a brilliant diagnostician of the signifying of the apparently non-meaningful.

What undermined his influence, subsequently, until this recent renaissance, was his disinclination to pursue further any of the many vital critical projects he had announced and inaugurated, and which subsequently he would treat in rather cavalier fashion. When I was working on my Structuralist Poetics, (I should stress that Barthes was extremely important in my own intellectual life) I had many thoughts about his proposals for the analysis of narrative, for instance, and when I saw him would be full of questions –“I don’t understand why you said X – wouldn’t it be better to say Y?” He would just shrug his shoulders and say something like “sans doute vous avez raison,” – no doubt you are right –which I took as evidence that he was not interested in discussing or taking further these projects he had announced and outlined. (I realize that there is another possible interpretation, that he just did not want to be bothered with this annoying young American, but I prefer the first interpretation, for which there seems to be abundant evidence.) He lost interest in his earlier projects or proposals, once they were written. A very reluctant polemicist – his critique of Sartre does not even mention Sartre’s name – he did not defend his thought against attacks, except to Raymond Picard’s Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture? of 1965, which was directed largely at Barthes and really had to be answered.3 Nor did he return to theoretical statements to refine them or build on previous work. Whenever he looked back on earlier works, he did so wryly, ironically, as an episode in his career. Stephen Heath’s fine early book on Barthes was entitled Vertige du déplacement [Dizziness of displacement].

Rather than pursue the analysis of codes and structures or attempt to elaborate previous proposals, Barthes preferred to ignore them or even to make fun of them, speaking of his early “dreams of scientificity,” treating his central concepts as ways of writing something. In Barthes par Barthes, for example, he speaks of the conceptual oppositions that have been central to his work, such as denotation versus connotation, readerly versus writerly, écrivain versus écrivant, not as a metalanguage of semiotics or poetics to be evaluated, modified, or developed further, but as devices to generate a text. He borrows from different disciplines, he says,

certain conceptual procedures, an energy of classification: one steals a language, though without wishing to apply it to the end: impossible to say: this is denotation, this connotation, or: this passage is readerly, this writerly, etc. The opposition is struck (like a coin), but one does not seek to honor it. Then what good is it? Quite simply, it serves to say something…It is a way to make the text go.(1977, 92)

He is always disinclined to value what he has previously been done or to treat it as foundational for others. Of course now that he is dead, you can use his concepts – say studium and punctum – without fear that he will later make fun of them.

A cavalier attitude toward one’s previous work is, of course, seductive; how can one not admire the hutzpah of publicly proclaiming, in a lecture inaugurating one’s accession to a distinguished professorial chair, that one’s research will be guided by forgetting? Barthes’s last course, La Préparation du roman, is attractive and seductive because it takes place under the injunction of Rilke’s “you must change your life.” The determination to forge a vita nova rather than persevere in an academic routine certainly elicits sympathy and admiration, even if one is tempted to ironize on the form it takes for Barthes – not resigning his chair and heading off for Morocco to write a novel but choosing to give a course at the Collège de France about preparing to write a novel! But Barthes presents it well: “il faut que je choisisse ma dernière vie, ma vie nouvelle, Vita Nova” [I must choose my final life, my new life, Vita Nova] (28). To change his life, escape acedia, for him entails finding a new practice of writing. He will organize his life around a single or unique task: not writing a novel but working as if he were writing a novel, identifying with the perspective of this consecration of one’s life to the phantasm of the novel.

And he alludes to a third form, apropos of which the call for papers for this conference quotes Michel Foucault as saying of Barthes, “He’ll live to be ninety years old; he is one of those men whose most important work will be written between the ages of sixty and ninety.” I completely disagree. The death of Barthes’s mother in 1977 left him thoroughly demoralized, struggling for a raison d’être. A poignant testimony is “Soirées de Paris,” which Barthes refers to as “Vaines soirées” (Pointless Evenings), from the summer before Barthes’s death. This text recounts evenings in Paris in which nothing much happens: he dines with friends, looks for a movie to take in, hangs out in cafés, indecisively pursues young men, or else finds their approach annoying, wishing he might be left alone to read his newspaper or Pascal’s Pensées in peace. “Soirées de Paris” titillates by the half-concealment (behind initials) of friends who were subsequently annoyed to find that evenings Barthes had spent with them qualified as “empty.” (Fortunately there is nothing about an annoying American wanting to discuss structuralism!) Above all, this text seduces by its frank admission of aimlessness. The pathetic spectacle of the famous intellectual bored with his Parisian evenings and half-heartedly seeking sexual partners ends on a somber note:

A sort of despair overcame me, I felt like crying. How clearly I saw that I would have to give up boys, because none of them felt any desire for me, and I was either too scrupulous or too clumsy to impose my desire on them; that this is an unavoidable fact, averred by all my efforts at flirting, that I have a melancholy life, that, finally, I am bored to death by it, and that I must divest my life of this interest, or this hope. … Nothing will be left for me but hustlers. (But then what would I do when I go out? I keep noticing young men, immediately wanting to be in love with them. What will the spectacle of my world come to be?) – I played the piano a little for O [a young friend Olivier he had brought home], after he asked me to, knowing at that very moment that I had given him up; how lovely his eyes were then, and his gentle face, made gentler by his long hair: a delicate but inaccessible and enigmatic creature, sweet-natured yet remote. Then I sent him away, saying I had work to do, knowing it was over, and that more than Olivier was over: the love of one boy. (Soirées 115-6/ 73)

The experience of boredom and aimlessness, after the death of his mother, brings a crisis, which leads to the idea of a change of life – vita nova: act as if preparing to write a novel – which animates the last course, but this is the idea of a project rather than a project. Barthes remarks at the end of the course that “the mourning I mentioned at the beginning of this course two years ago “a remanié profondément et obscurément mon désir du monde“ [has reshaped in profound and obscure ways my desire for/to be in the world] (Preparation, 386). And when he was hit by a laundry truck crossing the Rue des Ecoles in front of the Collège de France, he lingered for a month in hospital. At the time, people who had visited were said to have concluded that he had lost the will to live.

So I disagree with Foucault, whose ostensible praise was doubtless a way of slyly denigrating the structuralist Barthes. Rather than imagine that the late Barthes would have produced great works, we should think about the value of what we have, in La Preparation du roman, for example. What we have is above all a paradoxical operation: teaching a course about preparing to write a novel but which rejects the idea of the meta-roman, the novel about writing a novel. Imagining the desired novel, Barthes tells us that “writing is not fully writing unless there is a renunciation of metalanguage. One cannot articulate the desire to write except in the language of writing” (Preparation 33). The determination to renounce metalanguage is central to this attempt to change perspective and to write not as a critic or theorist, who offers metalinguistic categories to describe the literary objects studied, but to write from the perspective of the writer preparing the novel. But, of course, the writer discussing the desire to write cannot avoid describing possibilities: insofar as the course is interesting, it does function as metalanguage: about writing, about novels, about novelistic desire.

This paradox or aporia is typical of Barthes: he may mock the metalinguistic but always installs himself in it, playfully, even exuberantly, if reluctantly. He enjoys multiplying metalinguistic categories, subsequently pretending that they were just writing rather than metalanguage. Metalanguage is inescapable, but he does what he can to destabilize his metalanguages. The function of writing, he writes metalinguistically in S/Z, is to dissolve any metalanguage as soon as it is constituted. He is given to what I call disposable typologies: lists of types of x, which provide insight but are sufficiently idiosyncratic or ludic that we are not likely to preserve them as a framework for future thinking. In such typologies, he exercises the heuristic force of systematicity, inventively dividing up a domain, even though the system is not presented seriously as a durable contribution to the metalanguage about fiction.

La Préparation du roman offers quite a few off-the-cuff typologies: “a historical typology of ways of writing the ‘I’” or various typologies of types of writers, different models of the book, the ur-livre, le livre-guide, le livre clef, and l’anti-livre, for instance or the distinction between the Livre, with its variants (le livre total, le livre somme, le livre pur), and the album (Preparation, 229, 242-9). These categories are stimulants offered to readers.

Barthes’s project of simulating someone who wants to write a novel has the signal virtue of a shift of perspective from the usual critical one. It removes the element of necessity that so often presides over critical analyses, which characteristically seek to show why the various aspects of a work had to be just so and not some other way. It introduces a thinking of multiple possibilities, choices, and so, in effect, moves us from criticism, seeking to elucidate a work as a given, to rhetoric, which describes verbal strategies and possibilities. This is not quite poetics but it is no longer criticism and gives a new angle on Proust, for example.

Another advance is the shift in the understanding of writing. Previously Barthes had treated to write as an intransitive rather than transitive verb: one wants to write, not to write something in particular – writing as a compulsion, a destiny, linked to that undifferentiated object, the text. Here, rethinking the matter from the perspective of doing, he recognizes that this view needs qualification: écrire as absolute and intransitive is one perverse historical possibility among others, and to write is generally to aim at writing something, requiring models or genres.

But fantasizing writing a novel is an especially perverse desire for Barthes, since he does not want to write his life or to tell a story. His is a phantasm of the novel but not of narrative nor of memory, summation, capturing of the past, in the manner of Proust’s Recherche, nor certainly of extracting the meaning of experience by casting it in narrative form. Barthes has no interest in plot, character, or theme, usual elements of the novel, but nor does he want to unwrite the novel, as a latter day Robbe-Grillet; he will not invent a nouveau nouveau roman. What he desires is the possibility of what he calls “une épigraphie personnelle de l’instant,” a writing of the instant, a kind of notation, which he sees as neutral, non-interpretive. It is this odd conception of the novel – really, we should say the novelistic – that leads him to approach the novel through haiku, as an art of notation. Here is perverse Barthian inventiveness: haiku as the model for the novel, or novelistic.

What this imagined project of notation without plot, theme or character gives us, though, is the everyday, as object of attention. It is the focus of many of Barthes’s late publications, such as Incidents, Soirées de Paris, and La Chronique, a regular column of observations about daily life published over three months in Le Nouvel Observateur – little mythologies without the critical edge of the original Mythologies. These remind us just how far the everyday was always an object attention for him. It was part of the impetus behind Mythologies, though their theoretical and critical cast makes us focus on its cultural critique rather than their notation of the everyday. Fragments du discours amoureux gives us everyday affect and its figures by stripping a lover’s discourse of any particular love plot. Elsewhere, attention to every detail in a narrative generates an account of how notations that do not contribute to plot, character or theme still have a semiotic function, signifying “we are the real.” That is, we are the everyday.

When I was a graduate student at Oxford, Barthes came to give a lecture and since I had met him, I was deputed to show him around. Well, I had carefully planned a visit through the most historic and architecturally interesting colleges and the most beautiful college gardens, but it swiftly became apparent that he was bored, so I asked him if there was anything in particular that he would like to see, and he said he had heard that the English had very strange electrical plugs, very different from those in France (which was certainly true) and was there somewhere we could go to see them. So I took him to Woolworths and we spent a happy three-quarters of an-hour looking at de menus objets de la vie quotidienne anglaise – exotic objects of everyday English life. Barthes’s conception of the real is a nice antidote to the Lacanian conception of the real as traumatic kernel, and he did a great deal, if rather surreptitiously until these late works, to make the everyday an object of academic study.

Despite these advances, there seems to me much in late Barthes that is regressive in relation to the incisive insights of early Barthes. Barthes claims to return en spirale to earlier, rejected positions: you spiral back, at another level, so they are not the same, but it can be hard to distinguish spiral from regression. Consider the notions of author and work. In Preparing the Novel, the work Barthes imagines is une oeuvre blanche, colorless, neutral, silent, stripped-down writing, what in concluding the course he calls ‘this degree zero of the work’ (378), evoking his first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, which described “colorless writing” and cited Camus’s l’Etranger as an example. But Camus’s novel, if once seen as neutral notation, now seems a distinctive style of literature, and the early Barthes understood this mechanism very well. “Nothing is more fickle than a colorless writing,” he wrote, “for writing that strives to be neutral, undefined, ‘un-literary,’ nevertheless becomes une écriture, a way of connoting literature” (Writing 76). This, I would say, is a semiotic law: neutralization becomes a style and signifies. The early Barthes, while imagining a utopia of language, recognized the impossibility of escaping literature through literature; thus there is, in Le Degré zéro de l’ecriture, “un tragique de l’écriture,” writing as a form of the tragic, because of the impossibility of escape.

Thirty years later, Barthes understands the degré zéro quite differently. Blanchot, who exemplifies le tragique de l’écriture in Le Degré zéro is in La Préparation du roman explicitly disavowed. The new oeuvre blanche is imagined as “simple, filial, desirable” – a surprising trinity (378). Simple in its “submission to an esthetics of the readerly,” Barthes’s phrase, with “an overall narrative or logico-intellectual structure,” “a non-deceptive anaphoric system,” a renunciation of metalanguage, and a renunciation also of irony and pastiche (376-7). As for filial, the 1971 essay “From Work to Text,” which summed up a whole series of developments in literary theory and criticism, spoke of the oeuvre, as enmeshed in a process of filiation, unlike the texte, which is irreducibly plural, disruptive of tradition. The pleasure of the oeuvre is a pleasure of consumption, unlike the active pleasure of jouissance which texte offers (61-2). If late Barthes values oeuvre rather than texte, with a wholesale reversal of values, what saves this line of thinking is that this oeuvre blanche is only imagined, never to be written, whereas before it was the texte that was virtual, imaginary, never actually realized.

The interest in the author, by one who had previously claimed that the death of the author was the condition of a proper understanding of the functioning of literature, is perhaps not so surprising, given Barthes’s growing pleasure through the years in writing about his own daily habits, his note cards, his desk and other everyday matters. In La Préparation du roman, he cites his article “The Death of the Author” as example of the tendency to “erase the author to benefit of the Text … as a structure transcendent with respect to the author”; he adds, “today I take a completely opposite view” [je suis aux antipodes de cette attitude] (276), but his attempt to defend the reversal is unconvincing. He writes, “Telegraphically: Death, lack of curiosity [incuriosité], return of curiosity, return of the author,” as if the Death of the Author were not a theoretical position but just a lack of curiosity about authors (276).

In an article of Mythologies called “The Writer on Holiday,” Barthes had tellingly satirized the media’s curiosity about the life of the writer and concluded that the details of the writer’s daily life, far from bringing one closer to the nature of his inspiration, actually emphasize the mythical singularity of the writer’s condition. La Préparation du roman retains a trace of this skepticism: Barthes finds in Castex and Surer, the scholastic manual which embodies the idées reçues that Barthes had once combatted, “one thing that is surprising and amusing in its regularity, a real tic: the life of practically every author is articulated by a central crisis, from which flows a renewal of the work, that is, from which the triumphant Oeuvre arises” (326). Noting that the idea of crisis is facile and attuned to the needs of the myth of the productive crisis (crise féconde), Barthes nevertheless adopts it and produces a typology of crises – anecdotal, amorous, political, spiritual – and declares, “In my story (story of a man who wants to write, to undertake an Oeuvre), the idea of the Oeuvre, solemnified, is linked to that of a Rupture, a new Way of Life, the Organization of a New Life, Vita Nova,” with mythifying capitals on all these nouns (280). It is hard to distinguish Castex and Surer’s myth from Barthes’s own imaginary here.

If the return of the author in late Barthes is different, a spiraling back at another level rather than a simple regression, it is because it is explicitly mythic. Barthes is not interested in the thought of authors, nor concerned with their historical intentions, or social and political situations – factors usually taken as determining in biographical criticism. He prefers, as he says, ‘la nébuleuse biographique,’ the biographically hazy, perhaps, or biographèmes –salient images, which are, in fact, novelistic, life as literature (278). What comes back with the return of the author is not the traditional author but, he writes, ‘the division, fragmentation, or pulverization of the subject’ (279). Though the regressions of late Barthes seem to me dangerous in that they might seduce readers into ignoring Barthes’s earlier compelling analyses, astute readers should be capable of keeping those analyses in play so as to profit from the them, while still finding stimulation in the late Barthes and in the possibilities his conflictedly metalinguistic writing provides. In sum, the Renaissance of Roland Barthes must entail substance as well as saveur, early Barthes as well as late Barthes.


1) Conference at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York, USA, in April 2013.

2) When two page numbers are given, the first refers to the French original and the second to the English translation listed in Works Cited.

3) Le Degré zéro de l’écriture is an implicit answer to Sartre’s Qu’est-ce que la littérature? Barthes’s Critique et vérité is an explicit response to Picard’s attack.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Essais critiques, Paris: Seuil, 1964. Critical Essays. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972.

____.“From Work to Text,” in The Rustle of Language. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.

____. Leçon: Leçon inaugurale de la chaire de sémiologie littéraire du Collège de France. Paris : Seuil, 1978.

____. “Inaugural Lecture,” in The Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

____. La Préparation du roman I et II, Cours et séminaries au Collège de France (1978-9 and 1979-1980), ed. Natalie Léger. Paris: Seuil, 2003.

____. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

____. Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

____. “Soirées de Paris,” in Incidents. Paris: Seuil, 1987. Incidents. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

____. Writing Degree Zero, Hill and Wang, 1976.

Booth, Wayne. Critical Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Jonathan Culler is the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University. He is also a former President of the American Comparative Literature Association. He is one of the most prominent voices in critical theory and has written extensively on French literature and literary theory. His publications include Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty, Structuralist Poetics, Roland Barthes, Ferdinand de Saussure, On Deconstruction, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, and The Literary in Theory.