12/06/2015, by CLAS
One hundred years of Roland Barthes
One of the most often quoted intellectuals of the twentieth century, Roland Barthes’s name resonates far beyond the French-speaking world – whether for his Marxist-semiotic analysis of the ideology of French consumer society (Mythologies, 1957), as one of the main representatives of structuralism, a linguistic-formalist approach to literature and other cultural phenomena, as a celebrator of the blissful nature of reading (The Pleasure of the Text, 1973), or finally, as the author of Camera Lucida, his 1980 book on photography that is also a poignant search for the essence of his late mother in a family photograph.
Students of literature most likely associate Barthes with his short, but seminal text on ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967), in which he provocatively challenges a traditional view that the author’s intentions and biography are the key to understanding their literary work, while simultaneously stressing the openness of textual meaning, rooted in the reader’s interpretative activity. Barthes’s stance on this and other subjects established him as a main advocate of the nouvelle critique, a novel set of approaches to literary study inspired by structuralism. An outsider to mainstream academia for most of his life, Barthes was eventually elected to the prestigious Collège de France in 1977. He died only three years later, after a traffic accident on the Rue des Écoles.
This year is teeming with centenary celebrations and events, marking Barthes’s birth in 1915 and his enormous impact on numerous disciplines, from literature and cultural studies to visual studies and philosophy, across a variety of languages, cultures and countries. Ranging quite fittingly from traditional academic conferences, to art exhibitions, readings and film screenings, the celebrations clearly reflect the diversity of Barthes’s own thinking and writing. One major UK conference, which will take place at the British Academy in October, puts the interdisciplinary nature of Barthes’s work centre stage. Organised by Diana Knight (Nottingham) and Michael Sheringham (Oxford), Interdisciplinary Barthes promises to be an exciting event, bringing together Barthes scholars from Belgium, France, Switzerland, the UK and the US.
The author may be dead, but long live Roland Barthes!
Kathrin Yacavone, French and Francophone Studies
Image: Roland Barthes, Leçon inaugurale au Collège de France (1977) (photograph by Jacques Pavlovsky / Sygma – Corbis) http://www.roland-barthes.org/iconographie.html