Hit and myth: Barthes's inglorious life and times

Roland Barthes, Phenomenon and Myth
August 20, 1999

It was once said of Roland Barthes that it was perverse of him to die as the result of a street accident, when he could so easily have died of ridicule.

Why Barthes polarised opinion remains obscure, even though the Barthes industry continues to flood the cultural supermarket. This rather average example by Andy Stafford is packaged as "intellectual biography". It is full of facts, dates and yesterday's buzzwords ("dialectical", "undecidability", "fissure", etc) but is uncritical and evades many of the questions about the development of Barthes's views. We are left to work out for ourselves at what stage, if ever, Barthes developed from a left-wing ranter into an original thinker.

This is disappointing, because within the context of that broader question there are some points worth addressing. For instance, Barthes's early "Marxism". Was this, as with so many of the postwar French intelligentsia, no more than a convenient rubric under which to rail against alleged "bourgeois" values? Was the critic far off the mark who said of Barthes in 1957 that, had the bourgeoisie not existed, he would have had to invent it? Or did Barthes actually have a Marxist analysis of the cultural scene that he entered as a "journalist" (a bourgeois qualification if ever there was one)? When asked, Barthes fenced and equivocated.

Similarly, was "structuralism" ever more than a temporary flag of convenience for Barthes? On the face of it, the reply has to be no. He never knew enough linguistics to understand Saussure, or went beyond the trite versions of Saussure's teaching that are commonly purveyed in undergraduate courses. This sits ill with his pretence of being deeply interested in language and how it works. As for Barthes's "semiology", the verdict on that was pronounced years ago by Georges Mounin. Observing that it is impossible to take Barthes seriously as a theorist of the subject, Mounin suggested that what Barthes thought of as doing semiology was actually writing essays on " psychanalyse sociale ". This book offers no reason for revising that judgement.

Had the author of Mythologies ever got to grips with enough anthropology to understand what a myth is? One suspects not. Claude Lévi-Strauss sent him packing. Barthes evidently thought (like his present biographer) that myths need to be "demystified". He failed to distinguish between two quite different enterprises: demystification and demythologisation. It is on such matters that Barthes stands as a sober warning to British Francophiles who suppose that one of the indispensable and valuable ingredients of the French education system is scrupulous concern for le mot juste . The very notion that there is a "Barthes myth" or "myths" (a notion carefully cultivated by Barthes himself) depends essentially on that misconception. The face-saving suggestion put forward here - that the final essay in Mythologies attempts to expound the prolegomena to "a scientific theory of myth" - is little short of ludicrous.

The overall impression that emerges from this book is that Barthes revelled in the petty quarrels of the Parisian cliques and his opinions, perhaps as a result, were often shallow and inconsistent. This can be made to sound like a virtue by describing the muddle in pure postmodernese, as when we are told that "within the swing between voluntarism and determinism (and perhaps as a function of it), there is a definite ambiguity - and perhaps a slippage - in his notion of 'History'." What also emerges, although not perhaps intended, is that despite his penchant for polemics Barthes was not a very good polemicist. But he wore his self-inflicted wounds as if they were honourable scars won in intellectual combat. This book divides his intellectual life into three phases - journalist, academic and novelist - yet Barthes began a journalist and a journalist he remained to the end, constantly looking for a new angle to keep him one step ahead of the pack. This led him into ever more paradoxical but attention-grabbing claptrap. Like the lady in the chansonnier ballad, his most obvious expertise was knowing how to get himself talked about - a "phenomenon" the French have always admired.

Roy Harris is editor, Language and Communication .

Roland Barthes, Phenomenon and Myth: An Intellectual Biography

Author - Andy Stafford
ISBN - 0 7486 0867 2
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 260

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