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Roland Barthes’s Quotes

Some of the toughest quotes, translated into human English.

The starting point of these reflections was usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of the "naturalness" with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history. In short, in the account given of our contemporary circumstances, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which, in my view, is hidden there. [From the Preface to Mythologies, by Roland Barthes, Trans. Annette Lavers (1972)]

So one day I'm watching TV, and it hits me: if you were an alien just beamed down from outer space, and you happened to turn on a TV, you would have no idea what you had gotten yourself into. Take your average commercial for, say, laundry detergent or margarine (I can't believe it's not butter!).

Commercials only make sense because they're tapping into ideas we already have. And we have tons of these familiar ideas. These ideas are codes that we've learned and that have become basically invisible. In fact, I even argue that these ideas been elevated into myths, myths that reinforce what we think and believe. So where the ancient Greeks had Homer, we have—wait for it—professional wrestling and Hollywood film.

So what's my goal in questioning what-goes-without-saying? I wanted to show that our culture isn't Nature with a capital N—it's History, habits, and common sense (all stuff we've learned). Take the French idea of wine. It's not just about fermented grapes. Wine is the national beverage; it's part of everyday life. In other words, it has all sorts of symbolic baggage.

Structurally, narrative shares the characteristics of the sentence without ever being reducible to the simple sum of its sentences: a narrative is a long sentence, just as every constative sentence is in a way the rough outline of a short narrative. Although there provided with different signifiers (often extremely complex), one does find in narrative, expanded and transformed proportionately, the principal verbal categories: tenses, aspects, moods, persons. Moreover the "subjects" themselves, as opposed to the verbal predicates, readily yield to the sentence model; the actantial typology proposed by A.J. Greimas discovers in the multitude of narrative characters the elementary functions of grammatical analysis. [From "Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives," in Image-Music-Text, by Roland Barthes, Trans. Stephen Heath (1977)]

Okay, so here I'm comparing a sentence with a narrative—and I got a tad bit carried away. But let me break this down. First, we all know that sentences have to follow certain rules. In English you've got your subject, your verb, and your object (usually in that order, too). So when you write a sentence, sure you've got wiggle room, but there are certain rules you have to follow.

Now for the next step: it's the same story with—well, with stories. In a narrative, you've got the character who's your subject, and his or her actions, and a mood, and all the elements that make up a text. Just like we have a grammar for language, we can have a grammar for narrative. And that, friends, is what we like to call Structuralism. (Although a handbook titled The Grammar of Narrative is going to be a lot more complicated than Strunk and White's Elements of Style.)

The consequences are grave: by focusing on the author, by making the literary "genius" the very source of observation, we relegate the properly historical objects to the rank of nebulous, remote zones; we touch on them only by accident, in passing. In the best instances, we indicate their existence, leaving to others the responsibility of dealing with them someday; the essentials of literary history thus fall into default, abandoned by both the historian and the critic. [From "History or Literature?" in On Racine, by Roland Barthes, Trans. Richard Howard (1992). Original 1960.]

Maybe you've already noticed this, but I love to break things down.

So what is an author? Well, first, an author is different from a writer, and, second, the author has two roles: (1) the actual historical person and (2) the mythical unicorn, a.k.a. the genius.

The problem is that when we make authors out to be magical geniuses with flowing manes, we totally neglect the historical side. Unicorns are nice and all, but we might learn something if we studied the hard-working horse (and, you know, literary history).

The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted…Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature…we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author. [Final passage in "The Death of the Author," in Image-Music-Text, by Roland Barthes, Trans. Stephen Heath (1977)]

Let's clear the air. I'm not just bringing authors down to earth (or under six feet of earth). I'm also bringing the reader to life. The reader has always gotten a pretty raw deal. She gets no attention, and yet she's expected to take up these books and be their ideal reader. But readers are people, who are living in a particular moment and with particular minds—and who may or may not get all of Shakespeare's allusions and dirty puns. After we kill off the Author, we'll finally be able to think about the Reader in all her glory.

This is what we might call the referential illusion. The truth of this illusion is this: eliminated from the realist speech-act as a signified of denotation, the "real" returns to it as a signified of connotation; for just when these details are reputed to denote the real directly, all that they do—without saying so—is signify it; Flaubert's barometer, Michelet's little door finally say nothing but this: we are the real; it is the category of "the real" (and not its contingent contents) which is then signified; in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity. [Conclusion of "The Reality Effect," in The Rustle of Language by Roland Barthes, Trans. Richard Howard (1989)]

Complicated, right? I'll translate. So I'm reading Flaubert, and I come across this detail—this room has a barometer in it. Which gets me thinking: this barometer has nothing to do with moving the plot forward (spoiler alert: no one's going to take the barometer off the wall and use it to bludgeon someone in a later scene). And the barometer isn't some key to understanding one of the characters (it's not like the owner is an aspiring weatherman). So why this barometer? What's it doing here?

This made me realize that sometimes authors (especially modern authors) include stuff just to say "hey, look, I'm real!"—I'm a real barometer! Flaubert isn't describing a real room with a real barometer. The word "barometer" doesn't point to an actual barometer—instead, it's pointing at something super broad: the idea of reality. Slippery, slippery barometer.

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