The Construction of Meaning
Barthes in his own account of his life preferred to leave his biography as an open book like a novel “Any biography is a novel that dares not speak its time”. It goes against the whole flavour of his activitiy as a writer and critic to try and pin him down as a separate individual. One of his key ideas was that of the “Death of the Author”, and much of his analysis of other books was concerned with breaking through the limitations of traditional forms, in seeing works of art or culture as the products of a more than individual effort, and communicating mesages on many different levels about the culture which produced them.
Barthes was born in 1915 to a middle class Protestant family. His father, a naval officer was killed in action within a year, and Barthes grew up with his mother and grandparents near the Atlantic coast at Bayonne. His early years were cloistered and filled with music – his aunt was a music teacher and he himself played whenever he could get at the piano. It was very much a provincial delicate, comfortable existence – his aunt entertaining the local ladies to tea, polite conversation, and plenty of time to devote to thinking and observation of customs and family rituals. There is a certain nostalgia in Barthes early life, like Proust, who was to become one of his favourite writers.
When Barthes was 9 he and his mother moved to Paris, where she earned a meagre living as a bookbinder, and he worked his way easily through school, and stood a good chance of winning a Scholarship to University, when Tuberculosis made its first appearance, and he was sent to the Pyrennees for a cure. In 1935 he returned to Paris to work on a degree in French Latin and Greek, devoting much time to the production of classical plays with a group he helped to found.
When war began in 1939, Barthes, who had been exempted from military service, worked in lycées in Biarritz and Paris, before his tuberculosis put an end to this. He spent most of the next five years, which corresponded with the German occupation, in various sanatoria in the Alps where he had time to read a great deal. – He emerged, as he said, a Sartrean and a Marxist. He eventually found posts teaching French abroad- first in Romania, then in Egypt, before returning to France, working on a thesis on Linguistics in 1952, and publishing his first books “Writing Degree Zero” (1953) and “Michelet by himself” (1954).
After losing his scholarship, he worked for a publisher for a year while writing numerous articles including many of the brief studies of contemporary culture which were published in 1957 as “Mythologies”. This and his subsequent publications established Barthes, by then teaching at an institution somewhat on the fringes of French academic life – the “Ecole pratique des hautes études” – as a cult figure in Parisian intellectual life – along with Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan. Unlike them, however he soon tired of the public lecture tours the media attention, and preferred to remain in the Parisian suburb in which he grew up, conducting his seminar at the école, writing, and seing friends. At the height of his fame as a structuralist, Barthes wrote 2 books which greatly alterd his reputation – The Pleasure of the Text (1973), and “Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes”- the first stressed the moral aspects of his thought, while the second gained him a reputation as a writer. In 1976 he was elected to a Chair at the Collège de France and in 1977 a week long conference was devoted to his writings. Refusing to be Professorial, his inaugural lecture talked of avoiding systems, rather than codifying them. He proposed not to teach learning, but to promote unlearning “Yielding to the unforeseeable modifications that forgetting imposes on the sedimented knowledge, culture and beliefs one has traversed.” For this new movement of forgetting he proposed the term “Sapientia” – which he defined as “no power, a little knowledge, and as much flavour aspossible” (Lecon p.46/478). He continued his off-beat, irreverant pieces of criticism – so much so that in fact he aroused the suspicions of the academic establishment Raymond Picard wrote a scathing critique of Barthes entitled “New Criticism or New Fraud?” ; another confirmation of his place in French cultural life came with the publication of a parody in 1978 “Teach Yourself Roland Barthes” which purported to teach in 18 lessons, ‘Barthes-speak’ – which bore some resemblance to modern French. In February 1980, coming out of a lunchtime meeting with socialist politicians and intellectuals, Barthes was knocked down by a laundry truck and died four weeks later of his injuries.
So, what were these ideas which had aroused so much controversy, acclaim and ridicule?
Firstly there is no long term or pre-planned project – Each one of Barthes books is the result of a particular passion, deliberately unsystematic, and often interrupted or provoked by periods of illness, changes in professional direction, and usually surprising, paradoxical and provocative.
Jean Paul Sartre, In “What is Literature?” had declared that modern literature should turn away from the aestheticism and linguistic play which had characterised it since the time of Flaubert, and become actively engaged in contemporary political life. Barthes “Writing Degree Zero” takes on Sartre and provides an alternative view. To him, the real political content of the work could lie in the very use of language – for instance in the use of slang and swearwords to rupture complacent reading – All writing contains signs beyond its literal or denotative meaning. The very disposition of poetry on a page signals “I am poetry do not read me like prose”. To differentiate this active use of writing to mean something more than the words used, Barthes coined the term ‘écriture‘. An author’s language is something which he/she inherits, the style is a personal perhaps subconscious network of verbal habits and obsessions, but the mode of writing (écriture) is something the author chooses, from amongst the historical possibilities available – it is a social usage of literary form- and it is this which interests Barthes.
For example the kind of descriptive phrases which abound in 19th-century French novels like the statement in Balzac’s Eugène de Rastignac: “one of those young men moulded for work by misfortune”, is more than a mere description – it implies a whole social world where we, the audience are supposed to know what kind of misfortunes occur, what kind of men Balzac is referring to, what kind of work these misfortunes fit them for and why this is important. In other words, all the things which go unsaid in the novel, in a casual statement, its implications are what carry the real message or hidden text of the book, and it is this aspect which Barthes set about exploring.
In 1953, Barthes was thinking of Albert Camus, whose attempt to write in a deliberately neutral non-emotional style of writing interested him – he called this a kind of “Zero degree writing” or a minimalist approach, in which the personality of the author shrank in importance before the quality of factuality of the events, deed, descriptions in the novel. Sartre had seen Camus’ writing as an avoidance of commitment; Barthes was to praise it for this distancing effect. His subsequent book on Racine, which again focusses on the things around Racine rather than the individuality of the author, helped to establish certain main features of Barthes’ theory.
1) He observes that the political content of a work does not depend on the obvious content or lack of it – the very language can communicate political and other meanings. He further suggests that this exploration of the possibilities of language opens up new utopian experimental and questioning avenues which are in themselves valuable.
2) He makes a distinction between a kind of reading which is familiar, which we already know how to read (the ‘lisible‘) and the other kind which makes us question our beliefs and customs, which is self-conscious and resistant to reading (the ‘scriptable‘);
3) and thirdly, Barthes draws to our attention the powerful secondary level on which literature operates, by revealing the hidden meanings, the subconscious motivations underlying it.
“Mythologies”, written between 1954 and 1956 took the form of brief monthly feature articles on aspects of everyday life. His aim was to discuss aspects of mass culture, and unmask the hidden meanings – the “things which went without saying” behind them. In many of these cases the hidden meanings were ideological – they revealed the unspoken power structure of exploiters and exploited behind the image and the object. An exhibition of Photographs entitled “The Family of Man”, he pointed out, by concentrating on certain aspects like childhood, birth, death, work, play, etc meant to signify that Humanity is the same the world over – in other words to ignore the particular situations of work, class, geography, and power which mean that in reality this is far from true. By attempting to show humanity as united , the real conditions of inequality are disguised – the myth disguises the reality. It was just such “Myths” which he hoped to unmask. These myths, – half truths or lies disguised as truths were ever present :
The whole of France is steeped in this anonymous ideology: our press, our films, our pulp literature, our rituals, our Justice, our diplomacy, our conversation, our remarks about the weather, a murder trial, a touching wedding, the kitchen we dream of, the garments we wear, everything in everyday life, is dependent upon the representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world…bourgeois norms are experienced as the self-evident laws of a natural order.” (Pp127-8/140)
These myths, which are everywhere, are also forms of communication, they are the ways in which an ideology is expressed. Marx had observed that at all times the dominant ideas are the ideas of the dominant classes – the bourgeois ideas of competition and isolated individualism were diffused throughout all the cultural channels available for such messages. The role of the critic, then, was not just to comment on a writers life and works, but to point out these myths, to break through their apparent “common sense” and point to another version of reality, from another point of view. He writes about the latest model Citroën, about the image of plastic emerging in the 1950s, or about the peculiar dramatic scenarios starring soap powders and cleaning liquids – bleaches “kill” dirt and germs, while soap powders and cleaning agents are penetrating agents which “lift” out dirt, thereby “liberating” the object from some subtle and elusive enemy.
“To say that Omo cleans in depth, is to assume that linen is deep, which no-one had previously thought “.
His most impressive analysis of these second-level meanings comes in his ananlysis of Wrestling. Compared to Boxing, wrestling is a much more open and formless phenomenon. In boxing the rules are strictly adhered to, infringements are punished, and the audience comes with a specific set of expectations to do with seriousness, order, structure, rules etc.In wrestling, almostr the reverse is true, and the audience comes to expect certain infringements, for wretlers to go over the top, to fake injuries, to exaggerate pain and theatricality, most appreciate that the outcome is fixed, but this does not affect their expectations. It is geared to a different set of cultural coordinates. Boxing is a moralist and severe sport geared to excellence, endurance, and moral rectitude. Wrestling on the other hand is drama, where each move is played for all it is worth. The wrestlers are themselves caricatures cast in moral roles, and the rules exist to be violated so that the “baddie” can get his due, and pre-arranged, deserts. It is like ancient theatre, or Japanese Noh Plays.
Similarly, Barthes sees the modern automobile (The Citröen DS) as “the exact equivalent of the great Gothic Cathedrals : “I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object” (P.150/88)
The dangers in Barthes demystifying of the sign were to appear to him later – Once the politician’s mask had been revealed, it wasn’t the truth which followed, but merely a more self conscious approach to mask making – Modern politicains, conscious that their every move and action will be scrutinised for their hidden meanings, now consciously plan to have the right image for each particular scenario – The President or Prime Minister is losing votes just now?.. well, his or her aides can come up with just the right sort of image to nudge public opinion one way or the other – the photo opportunities, being photographed with a baby or a cute animal, will do the job…
Moreover, once the mythic or phallic qualities of the sportscar are revealed they tend to become more not less desirable. The secondary level of meaning functions as a primary reason for purchasing, and the advertising back-room boys work on new schemes to entice you to buy the product specifically for these secondary level meanings- this car will increase your sex-appeal; this soap will make you confident, etc. Similarly, the revolutionary art of yesterday becomes the new academic art of today.
Barthe’s other main activity as a critic was his championing of a certain kind of avant-garde literature, particularly the work of Brecht and the Nouvel roman (New Novel) of Alain Robbe-Grillet. In Brecht, he found the breaking through of the dramatic illusion – Brecht’s fundamental notion of Verfremdung or estrangement, and his fundamental proposition that an effective theatre requires, not that we empathise with the major characters, but that there is a critical distance which enables us to judge and comprehend their situation. Brecht challenges the view that drama is a unified spectacle and showed Barthes that, “Codes of expression can be detached from one another…The responsibility of dramatic art is not so much to express reality as to signify it”, and this signifying procedure should be self-conscious, drawing attention to the very artificiality of the sign.
A particular writer that Barthes came to champion for doing just this was Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose novels attempt to eliminate meaning by deliberately countering our, the readers’ expectations of traditional plot, narrative, logical structure. In Robbe-Grillet images float into consciousness, are juxtaposed without a particular plot or narrative structure to tie them together – this is very much “écriture” a writing which reveals itself to us as a process, which narrates its own making, which breaks through conventional codes of “lisibility”.
Barthes saw in Robbe-Grillet’s rejection of the story, of anecdote, psychology of motivation, and signification of objects, a powerful questioning of the way we order experience.
“Since…things are buried under the assorted meanings with which men, through sensibilities, through poetry, through different uses, have impregnated the name of each object, the novelist’s labour is in a sense cathartic: he purges things of the undue meaning men ceaselessly deposit upon them. How? Obviously by description. Robbe-Grillet thus produces descriptions of objects sufficiently geometrical to discourage any induction of poetic meaning and sufficiently detailed to break the fascination of the narrative…” (“Essais Critiques” p.199/198)
Barthes sees Robbe-Grillet’s work as writing that is about surface, where traditional literature has been about depth ( of character, of motivation); secondly Barthes sees his work as escaping from the tyranny of the narrative – He is interested in the presentation of living fragments rather than linear story lines. They are works which question the very nature of writing- the deconstruct it. If Romantic literature had tried to “express the unexpressable”, Barthes saw the new writing’s rôle as: “Unexpressing the expressible” – to render problematic all that which we had assumed was safe and ordered, because this very process of ordering was oppressive, and a mask for ideology.
The writer struggles, as he says “to detatch a secondary language from the slime of primary languages afforded him by the world” (“Essais Critiques”, p.15/xvii).
His non conformist approach to literary studies earned him some enemies in the French academic world, and a polemic arose after a series of articles he wrote for the Times Literary Supplement in 1963. He attacked the traditional stale academicism of literary studies which aimed only to give an account of a writers work, instead of trying to break through the form of the work from various viewpoints.
Particularly, he disliked the fact that conservative academics always presented their views as if they were “common sense” and “Impartial”-
Barthes argued that with the “New Criticism” you at least knew where you were – they declared their political allegiances ‘up front’ or made plain their opinions and their differences from traditional views. Barthes’ type of criticism was frequently attacked by this academic establishment which claimed to understand the essential nature of literature, and calling on notions like “common sense” to back it up, rather than clear arguments. Barthes, pointed out that what is considered “common sense” at any one period is strictly ideological, (= the views of the dominant group at any one time) and changes from age to age (as the dominant group changes).
The traditional approach is, in fact, the most presumptuous of all, since it claims to know under what circumstances every other method might be right and when it is wrong. The concealment of ideology as ‘common sense’, was what Barthes objected to most of all. Traditional historians of culture have allowed their fascination with the works of one individual to obscure the broader issues as to the function and social role of culture as a whole at any one time. The traditional approach, which was to deal with the psychology of the individual artist/genius was the most elusive (= the furthest from the truth).
“Of all the approaches to Man, psychology is the most unprovable, the most marked by its time. This is because, in fact, knowledge of the profound self is illusory: there are only different ways of articulating it. Racine lends himself to several languages – psychoanalytic, existential, tragic, psychological (others can be invented, others will be invented); none is inocent. But to acknowledge this incapacity to tell the truth about Racine is precisely to acknowledge, at last, the special status of literature.” (p.166/171)
Because, Art is broader/wider/deeper than the uses to which it is/has been put by these languages.
One of the leading thinkers and writers of the Tel Quel group in Paris, writing on linguistics, psychoanalysis, and feminism, and concerned with the construction of meaning, including the meanings ascribed to social and gender behaviour.
She arrived in Paris from Bulgaria in 1966 aged 25, to research for her Ph.D under Lucien Goldmann, at a vital time in French intellectual life – Jacques Lacan had just published his “Writings“, and Michel Foucault “The Order of Things“. Helped by her compatriot Tzvétan Todorov, she was introduced to most of the important figures of the day including Roland Barthes who remained her most important intellectual mentor. By 1967 her writings were already appearing in the leading French intellectual journals (Tel Quel, Critique, Langages). Shortly afterwards, she published two books, “The Text of the Novel” and “Sémiotiké“, as well as (in 1974) her Ph.D Thesis: “The Revolution in Poetic Language“, which earned her a Chair of Linguistics at Paris University.
From the start, as Barthes observed her work consistently destroyed preconceptions, forcing the reader to think again and reformulate his/her perceptions. Her knowledge of Russian equipped her to study first hand the important work of the Russian Formalists which Tzvétan Todorov has translated into French, such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Boris Eikenbaum, Ossip Brik and others, and her Marxism enabled her to make the most of the Structuralist thought then active in Paris. The third most important influence on her thought was the Philosophy of Hegel, which allowed her to take a critical view of contemporary Structuralism, which Toril Moi has defined as a kind of Post-Structuralism ‘avant la lettre’. But the single most significant factor in her theorising is her position as a woman in an essentially male-oriented environment, within the Tel Quel group, and within the French University system generally, and then within the power structures in the country as a whole.
“It was perhaps also necessary to be a woman to attempt to take up the exorbitant wager of carrying the rationalist project to the outer borders of the signifying venture of men”. (Kristeva, “Desire in Language“)
From the start her work was associated with the Tel Quel group headed by the novelist and theorist Philippe Sollers, who later became her husband. By 1970 she had become an editor of the Magazine of the same name, where she remained until the end of the magazine in 1983. The central aim of the group was to come up with a Modernist theory of communication, art, etc., which took the notion of language as central. Implied in this project was an attempt to analyse society and politics, as well as to attempt to define the Self, and how this is constituted or given meaning. A sub-section of this is of course to define the male or female self, and to analyse the cultural differentiations between the genders. Artistic or literary production was seen in the wider context of Cultural production, writing as Écriture, Signifying practice or signifiance, occupying a social space or intertextuality. Special terms like paragramme, genotext and Phenotext were coined to help describe this new kind of inter-denominational type of thinking, which defied traditional classifications, and which attempted to formulate a politics around a non-representational kind of writing.
“Tel Quel” and its theory of practice became increasingly associated with Maoism, and came to the fore during the events of May 1968. Amongst the major implications of the May events was the role of the French Communist Party (PCF), which actively campaigned to prevent workers and students uniting against the government of De Gaulle, thus siding with parliamentary democracy, as the only practical way it saw for radical change. The Left subsequently singled this out as the main reason for defeat, and it caused a massive disaffection away from the Party towards a New Left in the 1970’s, sympathetic to the youth and student movements. And there were plenty of issues to take up: Black Power, feminism, psychoanalysis, Third world politics, the anti-Vietnam movement, the Peace movement, the Gay rights movement, environmental issues, and radical alternatives to traditional ways of doing politics, which stimulated a wealth of critical thinking about Marxism and Capitalism, which is still going on.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia shortly after confirmed the New Left’s disillusionment with Orthodox Marxism, and either China, or a libertarian anarchism seemed to offer a different, more radical solution. Part of the Maosit project was the attempt to refound cultural practice on a popular political base, which the Tel Quel group found challenging enough to organise a visit to China in 1974.
Kristeva, perhaps because of her communist background was more distant from the wholehearted acceptance of Chinese solutions than the other members of the group. She became increasingly interested in the individual as a locus for the defining process of culture, gender, and meaning on the Self. In 1974 she published her analysis of her Chinese experience “About Chinese Women“, and from then on, her work was marked by an increasingly psychoanalytic approach – this was in part related to the birth of her own son in 1976, and the completion of her training as a psychoanalyst in 1979.
Her 1977 article “A New Kind of Intellectual : The Dissident“, marks a move away from the notion of collective action towards a politics of marginality. The piece ‘Why the USA?‘ has been widely attacked by the Left for suggesting that America, because it is predominantly a non-verbal culture has somehow managed to escape from the repressive aspects of Patriarchy. In the 1980s Kristeva has seemingly denied the political a central place, preferring to concentrate on the personal aspects of love and desire.
When looking at her relationship to Feminism it is important to note that French feminism had become institutionalised under the group ‘Psych et Po’ which in the U.K. or U.S.A. would be described as a bourgeois-liberal feminism seeking to improve women’s share of the existing male structure, rather than a radical alternative to it. Thus, she is often critical of this type of feminism. Essentially, her texts aim to subvert the dominant power and structure of all discourse.
Her 1974 essay, ‘From Ithaca to New York‘, sets out her views on the feminist movement. She found a hysteric split between a non-verbal substance (the body, the drives) and ‘the Law’ (that which controls/demands) is repeated internally within the feminist movement itself, which in turn imposes its own ‘law’ within its own substance. The dream, or ultimate goal of Kristeva’s writing is to somehow get beyond the limitations which language, as a structuring, or power process, must always impose – an ultimately untenable position, but one whose seeking is liberatory. Her fears are that any kind of discourse gets bogged down in the new orthodoxy which it imposes on itself to replace the old. Perhaps she underestimates feminism.
For Kristeva, feminism is different from other discourses like language and meaning, but only possible within the realm of the symbolic, and therefore subject to the Law.
In the late 1960’s linguistic theory became increasingly influenced by psychoanalysis, and Kristeva’s own work evolved into a fusion of the two. Her “Revolution in Poetic Language“, presents a theory of the process which constitute language, centred on the speaking subject, and transforming Lacan’s distinction between the imaginary and the symbolic into a distinction between the semiotic and the symbolic. The interactions between the two constitute the signifying process. She links the semiotic to the pre-Oedipal primary processes (expulsion/introjection; life/death) or pulsions, which are gathered in the chora (womb). Essentially, she sees subjectivity/identity as a process (not a state of being) and yet contained as a ‘thing’ within a humanist or essentialist framework (a social structure). An analyst’s task is to give some kind of identity to the patient which will equip them to live in the ‘symbolic order’ of the world, dominated by the ‘law’, which up until then their psychological unease has prevented them from doing.
Her work has certain parallels with Derrida, but she has been critical of his “On Grammatology” which she sees as essentially positivistic in approach. The book certainly disturbs/disrupts the traditional logic/confidence of the Subject, but she argues that it does not operate any breaks (‘coupures’) with the existing world because it is unable to account for the subject and the splitting (of the thetic) which accompanies it. Kristeva has in fact been in the lead of the attack on Deconstruction, because she wants to preserve a place for the subject, albeit a subject-in-process, because, without this, the ‘pulsions’/drives in language cannot be explained.
Her concern is for a linguistics of the speaking subject, and her notion of language as work or production leads her to question the de-centred subject of Deconstruction. Because Deconstruction relativises all notions of Truth and ethics, it cannot account for the experience of truth in analysis – the analyst is not free to engage in the free play of symbols: s/he is obliged to try and cure the patient, and must make ethical judgments and decisions, even if this ‘truth’ changes from day to day. Its proof lies in the cure, for if there were no object of analysis, there would be no cure either; and the cure leaves the patient in the position to be able to create imaginary fantasies/art. (ie their imagination frees them rather than oppresses them).
For this to happen depends upon the possibility of love – transference of the Self onto an imaginary ideal alter ego ‘the father of personal pre-history.’ Its image is the Mother, whose love is unconditional and directed towards the final separation of the amorous relationship.
(Notes from Toril Moi’s Introduction to Kristeva in” The Kristeva Reader”)