Roland Barthes

By: Mark Kingwell
November 12, 2009

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ROLAND BARTHES (1915-80) invented cultural criticism. His 1957 book Mythologies, a collection of short essays written for a monthly magazine, showcased an exciting new way to examine cultural effluvia: close critical attention to things like pro wrestling and steak frites, revealing their place in larger ideological structures, or exposing the economic presuppositions of a novelty-driven fashion system. Barthes’s method, rooted in structuralist semiotics, influenced generations of critics, and helped spawn the contemporary cultural studies academic for whom no television show or celebrity outfit is too trivial. But Barthes is more searching, and more brilliant, in other works. His 1968 essay “The Death of the Author” marked a transition toward post-structuralist insights: there is no master-code to the world of meaning; and writing is ever destabilizing itself. Barthes both exemplified this destabilization — his beautiful 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse is fragmentary and refracted — and argued for it, as in The Pleasure of the Text (1975). Popular culture generates doxa, or fixed beliefs — “the symbolic representation of what we already believe,” as David Foster Wallace put it. Literature, by contrast, creates a parallel meaning system, para-doxa, in which the reader is no longer a consumer but a producer. Now the reader can get lost in the text, let go of selfhood, and finally achieve cathartic jouissance, blissful climax — a lush, and liberating, sentiment from a humane writer whose wisdom transcends fashion.

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