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Roland Barthes and the Nouvelle Critique Author(s): David Funt Reviewed work(s): Source: The Journal of Aesthetics

and Art Criticism, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Spring, 1968), pp. 329-340 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics Stable URL: . Accessed: 09/03/2012 07:56
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FOR SOME TIME discussion and polemic of the images of such substances as air, have centered in France around what has earth, fire, and water through history. A come to be known as the Nouvelle critique. central point of Bachelard's studies, and Those usually counted as its leading ad- one further reinforced by the work of herents include Roland Barthes, Jean- Merleau-Ponty, is his refusal to validate Pierre Richard, Lucien Goldmann, and some of the images and metaphors which Jean Starobinski, with Gaston Bachelard, constitute men's ideas of these substances Jean-Paul Sartre, and Georges Poulet (those that we presently maintain) at the among its mentors. All of the New Critics expense of others, as if our images and metahave, no doubt, been profoundly influ- phors somehow represented an ultimate enced by the method of phenomenological reality more veritable than those of other description with its idea of bracketing the ages. Much of our mental life is formed by world, of "putting out of play," as the continual extension of vast systems of Husserl stated, all existential positions (i.e., metaphors and by the constant deformathose concerning being, illusion, possible tion of the models provided us by phenombeing, being likely, probable, etc.), while ena. Such systems of images and metaphors, the object is described in its multiple per- Bachelard realized, unlike most orthodox spectives. Thus these critics, while far from I;reudians, are not reducible to a single root seeing eye to eye on all matters and fre- image such as sexuality. These systems can quently differing in their dominant ideo- be described but not reduced. Imagination, logical tendencies, are united in their view according to Bachelard, begins, not where a that criticism should be addressed first and model is imitated, but where it is deformed, above all to the internal structure of the and the products of imagination can be rework in question in attempting in one lated to the world, if at all, only after the way or another to accomplish an exhaustive most complete analysis of the system of indescription of its basic unities and their ternal transformations. A decisive influence organization, before endeavoring to relate has also been exerted, particularly on Rothe work to the world external to it. A con- land Barthes, by Claude Levi-Strauss who, siderable influence has been exerted by basing his methods largely on those of strucGaston Bachelard in his psychoanalyses of tural linguistics, has rigorously carried out substances, studies of the transformation the examination of the relation and transformation of systems of pure forms in the DAVID FUNTtaught philosophy at Hofstra University. field of anthropology. He is presently living in Paris and translating into The Nouvelle critique forms to some English a collection of essays from the Nouvelle extent a counterpart to the so-called Noucritique.




vel roman and, indeed, a number of these among Barthes' favorite examples, the critics have written of such authors as rules of the road, clothes styles, or foods. Natalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Jean Semiology is termed a structural science Cayrol, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, for the since it is not concerned with everything preoccupation of the New Novelists with about a system of signs-for example, discontinuity and structure and their con- with its denotative aspect, i.e., semantics cern to avoid conventional psychological -but only with the formal structure of that interpretation fit well with the structural system. Thus the semiologist's task is not to and descriptive interests of the New Crit- discover the meaning of a message that is ics. It is Roland Barthes, the most interest- communicated through a linguistic system ing and certainly the most controversial of but what traits of the system enable the this group of critics, who was the first to communication of messages to take place at write seriously of the works of Robbe- all. The aim of the structuralist critique is Grillet and he has remained a faithful to decompose a system into its constituent supporter of the New Novelists and their unities, that is, to define the vocabulary of techniques, a healthy antidote, as he sees it, the system, whatever it may consist of, and to a tradition of psychologizing literature then to reconstruct the object, or rather a and criticism. Barthes' criticism, however, simulacrum of the object, in which the rules is not limited to literature but is applied according to which the vocabulary is used to such varied subjects as wrestling, Dutch become evident. Barthes' primary concern painting, beefsteak and French fries, as is with the process by which objects come well as to Racine and Brecht. Yet the to signify rather than with what they sigwide range of subjects which he takes up nify. His criticism, then, is avowedly forfor examination implies no randomness in malist, that is, it is not concerned with the his criticism, for the type of examination things designated by the terms of a sysalways follows from a set of central concep- tem, with that which is signified, but rather tions which Barthes has himself developed with the signifying function itself. Linguists in several places. It is these tenets of his distinguish between two correlative aspects critical position which we intend to exam- of the concrete sign: the signifier, i.e., that which does the signifying, and the concept, ine. The key term in Barthes' critical theory i.e., that which is signified. It is primarily in is semiology or structuralism. (Barthes the former that Barthes is interested. Leaving aside the denotative aspect of himself is director of the seminar on the signs, repeated unities signify by means of of and sociology signs, symbols, representations at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes two relations. The first is the relation of Etudes in Paris.) Semiology is the general the sign used to an organized reserve of science of the structure of signs first postu- signs which might have been chosen but lated by the linguist Ferdinand de Saus- were not, a reserve to which the actual sure in 1916 and of which Charles Peirce sign employed is connected by a relation of and from which it is distinwas one of the great forerunners. While the similarity the least possible difference. guished by science of signs was first suggested by the The reserve of virtual signs from which a study of language, and language remains sign may be chosen for use in a discourse its most adequate and general object, Saus- is known as a paradigm and the relation sure conceived of semiology as broader between the sign actually employed and than linguistics proper. It is the science of the reserve is called the paradigmatic reany system which involves the use of recur- lation. The second relation by means of rent unities according to relatively con- which unities signify is that between a stant rules, whether these rules are implicit sign employed in a discourse and those or explicit. Thus the object of study may which precede and follow it. A combinabe the language of a particular author or tion of actual signs is known as a syntagma the language of a society or linguistic and the relation between a sign and its group. But it may also be, to choose from neighbors is called the syntagmatic rela-

Roland Barthes and the Nouvelle critique tion. These two relations among signs correspond in speech to the functions of selection (paradigmatic) and combination (syntagmatic) described by Roman Jakobson in his famous essay "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasia." Structuralism, says Barthes, can be defined historically as the passage from the consciousness of what is signified (denotation) to the paradigmatic consciousness, which implies a close attention to the variation of a small number of recurrent elements. Thus the analysis of a work or an author's oeuvre will involve the careful tracing of recurrent unities as they are altered through change of context and juxtaposition to one another, extending and deepening the metaphorical system which defines the world of the literary work. (J.-P. Richard, from a rather Freudian point of view, has done this brilliantly in some of his studies of French poets. See his Poesie et profondeur.) While formalist, however, Barthes' criticism is far from being politically and socially neutral or uncommitted. Formalism in art and criticism has traditionally been associated with empty aestheticism and hence has generally been considered the prime enemy of commitment. Barthes believes, however, that if a literary work can be committed at all, it can be so only by its form. Since Flaubert, the first French wvriter,Barthes thinks, to reflect upon and to make a choice of his manner of writing (ecriture) and thus to assume responsibility for it, every writer has been faced with the problem of making such a choice. The way in which an author writes will henceforth carry a social and moral responsibility. The manner of writing, says Barthes, is produced by the reflection of the writer on the social usage of his form and the choice of form that he assumes. "It is thus essentially the moral of the form, the choice of the social space in the heart of which the writer decides to situate the Nature of his language" (Le Degre zero de I'ecriture, p. 18). The writer's technique, in classical literature almost an accepted convention, has become, Barthes believes, the very soul of literature. From Flaubert's day to our own, he writes, all literature

331 has been a problematic of language. From Flaubert through MallarmC, Proust, the Surrealists, Camus, and down to RobbeGrillet every author has had to choose his manner of writing and by his choice of imitation, transformation, or exclusion of various possibilities his work represents a significant commitment and carries in itself a critique of literary form. The question today, states Barthes, is not Why write? but How to write? While his criticism, then, is insistently formalist, it is also emphatically ideological. The foil of Barthes' criticism is what he terms academic or scholarly criticism as well as that journalistic criticism which, in a vulgarized manner, follows in its footsteps. At the present time Barthes' arch-opponent is the Sorbonne professor and avowedly academic critic Raymond Picard, author of a very solid study of Racine (Le Carriere de Jean Racine) and of a highly inflammatory pamphlet attacking Barthes (Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture). But Barthes' real opposition is to a much more generalized phenomenon, a kind of criticism which is accepted as so natural both within and without academic circles that its method passes, and is intended to pass, quite unnoticed, as if, in fact, it had no method at all. This criticism derives, Barthes maintains, from that of the French critic Gustave Lanson and is founded on the positivistic psychology of ThCodule Ribot. In this view, to write is always to imitate, to copy, to reproduce. The work has models and the only accepted relation between the work and its models is that of analogy. The major labor, then, of the academic critic is that of searching out biographical traits (or, now that Freudianism has become respectable in the French university, psychological traits) in the author's life which match those personages, actions, and sentiments which occur in his works. Thus academic criticism is always an attempt to set the work, piecemeal, in relation to something else and represents a premature flight from the work into the world of the author. But this, in itself, Barthes argues, does not make academic criticism either true or false. "It is," he states, "simply one fashion-highly system-




atic and perfectly dated-of representing things" (Sur Racine, p. 162). Any number of modes of criticism may be admitted as valid so long as each is capable of coping with the literary object and is applied consistently. At present, there exist in France four major and equally admissible strands of descriptive-ideological criticism: Existentialism, represented by J.-P. Sartre; Marxism, by Lucien Goldmann; Freudianism, in a broad, non-orthodox sense, by J.-P. Richard; and Barthes' own Structuralism. The danger of academic criticism is precisely that it does not, in turn, admit this plurality of criticisms. It claims to be objective criticism, that criticism which does not make a choice of method, ideology, or interest and hence the only valid criticism, labelling all other modes which adopt a particular stance subjective and thereby invalid. Barthes sees a certain bad faith in the academic critic's affirmation of disinterestednes, for while he, as much as the ideological critic, exists in a particular historical situation, which implies that he, too, has a certain set of beliefs, ideals, and concerns, whether vague and undefined or explicit, he attempts to maintain the pretense that there is an essential and eternal nature of literature as well as of criticism in which he, of course, participates, and refuses to admit that both literature and criticism are contingent historical facts perpetually subject to change. In fact, Barthes finds, the so-called objective criticism is founded on three very particular beliefs about how a literary work ought to be understood. These beliefs, however, are rarely, if ever, pronounced, for they do not purport to be part of a method but rather to be premethodological, to be those principles which go without saying, which are always and everywhere the same and not open to question. The three principles, Barthes contends, by which the literary work can be understood according to academic criticism are the certitudes of language, the implications of psychological coherence, and the imperatives of the structure of the genre. All criticism, it is held, must be founded upon the certitudes of language; that is, it is necessary to understand what the terms

of the discourse meant to the author and his public. With this Barthes fully agrees but, he argues, such philological investigation forms no part of literary criticism which begins only when we understand the literal sense of the terms employed by the author. For literature commences only where the idiom employed by a writer gives rise to a second language, a language of multiple senses whose meaning cannot be discovered from any dictionary. The Being of literature resides not in the relation of its language to the world but in its relation to a prior language. Literature, that is, exists only as meta-language and this meta-language can be the only object of criticism. As to the second tenet, what is psychologically coherent depends upon the psychology adopted. Psychology, however, being a notoriously variable field, this principle hardly provides a sound basis for a criticism which claims to be universal. The supreme recourse of academic criticism, Barthes points out, is to "current psychology," to that which common sense easily recognizes and accepts, and which thereby gives a satisfying feeling of security. The fact that this common-sense psychology is largely drawn from the classics themselves makes criticism based upon it constantly tautological. Finally, the structure of the genre is a strictly historical notion drawn from the classical theoreticians and is useful largely for the purpose of decrying the "extravagances" of any work which is not clearly identifiable with one of the traditional genres. In a period in which the obvious boundaries between the novel and poetry and even between literature and criticism are being progressively abolished it becomes an unduly inhibiting factor. The ire raised in such critics as Raymond Picard by any attempt to abrogate these rules either in literature or criticism attests to the sacred, almost ritualistic power that they hold for them. Here the problem leaves the realm of literature and criticism, for to attack these standards is not only to attack literature as it is traditionally thought of but to pose a mortal threat to "good society" and "proper morals." That this is so is amply shown by the

Roland Barthes and the Nouvelle critique terminology characteristic of the polemics against the Nouvelle critique. Thus it is frequently referred to as an "outrage" and it has been repeatedly demanded that Barthes and the Nouvelle critique be "beaten down," "assassinated," "decapitated," "led to the pillory" and to the "gallows." These fears clearly label academic criticism as the proponent of an ideology, of a particular view of what not only literature but society, politics and morality ought to be like. It is not, however, for its ideological stance that Barthes objects to this criticism, though it is a stance which he himself vehemently rejects, but for its claim to absolute objectivity and universality, for its denial that it has, or is, an ideology. In reality, Barthes finds, the objectivity of academic criticism is always leavened with a heavy dose of the irrational, for whatever does not yield to analysis in terms of analogical relations is regularly attributed to genius, that unanalyzable quality by which the commonplace is turned into literature. The decision to view literature as made by the direct imitation of events in the author's experience or world gives rise to the necessity of invoking some occult quality, viz., genius, to account for the difference between the simple recounting of real events, persons, sentiments, etc., and literature. This inadequacy of the chosen mode of analysis to exhaust the work causes academic criticism to see the literary work as a combination of science and magic, a mysterious synthesis of rational elements. The magical character of the synthesis assures that that structure which gives a discourse its particular quality must remain unapproachable and we are ultimately reduced to the tautology that Racine creates by his creative power (which is, says Barthes, none other than the profane name for his muse). Ironically, then, it is the criticism which makes the greatest claim to science which is the jealous guardian of the unknowable. The secret of the persuasive power of the academic method in criticism is the creation of a loaded set of alternatives. Lanson saw only two possible modes of criticism, scientific and impressionistic,

333 i.e., everything which is not based on the principles of verisimilitude is mere personal impression. There is, Barthes believes, objectivity in criticism but it is not dependent upon the adoption of a specific critical language but rather upon the rigor with which the chosen language is applied. A language is, in itself, neither objective nor subjective; only the way in which it is applied may be. Thus two tasks are imposed upon the critic, one moral, the other specifically literary. The first is the choice of a language of criticism which the writer feels is adequate to the work or works in question as well as morally, socially, and politically responsible. There being no innocent languages, that is, languages of total ideological neutrality, this choice becomes inevitable. The academic critic chooses by his language to uphold traditional views of man and opts politically for the status quo, at the cost of rejecting from his classificatory scheme non-conforming works such as, for example, Michel Butor's Mobile which by its intentionally emphatic discontinuity and non-conventional manner of relating elements destroys the continuity, the "life of the work," so sacred to traditional critics. Barthes believes that his own critical stance, politically leftist and progressist, enables him to make meaningful a much larger realm of literature while at the same time debunking traditionalist myths of man and society. To make works of literature meaningful is ultimately the critic's task and, while the choice of critical languages is free, those which allow the critic to make a larger range of literary language meaningful are evidently preferable to those which can encompass only a narrower range. The second and strictly literary task of the critic is the rigorous application of the language he has chosen. The critic, Barthes believes, through the language he chooses transforms the work or, speaking metaphorically, we may say projects the work, which has depth, onto a plane. Out of the multiple possible senses that the work possesses in itself-and not by infirmity of those who read it-the critic chooses to develop one. It is the open character of

334 the work, its admission of an indefinite number of senses over and above the preliterary, literal sense of the words employed, that permits and, in fact, demands the multiplicity of critical languages. The critic before the work, Barthes argues, is in the position of the writer before the world. But the writer does not face a world of bare phenomena either; the world is already full of language; there is no reality which is not already classified by men. The writer, then, Barthes contends, does not extract a verb from silence but detaches a second word from an existing language. To write is always to enter into relations with a language which is anterior and the prime matter of literature will not be the unnamable but, on the contrary, the toomuch named. Out of the indefinite number of manners in which the world may be written, the author chooses and commits himself to a transposition in one sense or another. The world admits the possibility of sense: the author gives it sense by the manner in which he orders and relates unities, that is, by his technique. But language, when it is used as a material rather than merely as a tool, always carries more sense than that specifically and consciously chosen. Thus the work, in turn, becomes the world of the critic and before it, his chosen critical meta-language in hand, he gives to the work a sense. Far from the traditional view of the critic as the humble servant of the author, he is seen as the secondary instrument of the creation of the work. "If the Nouvelle critique has any reality," Barthes asserts, "it is not in the unity of its methods, still less in the snobbism which, it is conveniently said, sustains it, but in the solitude of the critical act, affirmed henceforth, far from the alibis of science or of institutions, as a complete act of writing" (Critique et verite, p. 46). As the author transforms the world by his writing so does the critic transform that of the author by his own. It is in the rigor of the transformation that the possible objectivity of literary criticism lies. Barthes specifies the major constraining factors by which the transformation should be ruled as exhaustiveness and coherence. The two requirements are



roughly analogous to the completeness and consistency of a logical language, for Barthes rejects the scientific model for criticism in favor of a logical model. Thus it is the validity of a critical language which is important rather than the truth of critical statements (which could be measured, if at all, only by historical data concerning the author's life or by the norms of an accepted psychology). The logical model allows for a multiplicity of equally valid criticisms just as, for example, there are a number of geometries which express the world differently but which are equally valid (though some may be more useful for certain purposes than others). The criteria of critical languages, as of logical languages, are internal to the systems themselves and hence they do not claim a privileged relation (truth) to external objects. The rule of exhaustiveness in criticism, Barthes explains, means that everything in the work must be considered significant. "A system of sense is incomplete if all the terms cannot be ranged in an intelligible place in it" (Critique et verite, p. 65). The critical language ought to be capable of saturating the work, of coping with everything in it (which may, in some cases, include even the typography) without arbitrarily excluding anything as irrelevant or insignificant. The requirement of coherence means that the language adopted by the critic ought to permit the reading of the work as a consistent system of images and metaphors in a process of transformation. Thus it should allow the establishment of distant but supportable liaisons between different elements of the work, in such a way that the work becomes penetrated by an ever increasing unity. Again, the critic's task is not to determine whether the author speaks truth or falsehood but to develop the sense, or rather a sense of his vision of the world. One of Barthes' constant concerns has been the linguistic process by which myth is created and the attempt to distinguish literature from myth. In a brilliant essay on contemporary myth ("Le Mythe aujourd'hui" in Mythologies), Barthes defines myth as a meta-language the function

Roland Barthes and the Nouvelle critique


of which is to deform the factual by mak- produced, nothing is chosen, hence nothing it into a value, thereby giving it a kind ing is troubling, everything is as it must be. of necessity or essentiality and negating its The mythologizing mentality is associcharacter as contingent; this value, in turn, ated, by Barthes, with the bourgeoisie, the pretends to be a fact, but now a necessary mainstay of the status quo. It is a conand eternal fact. The whiteness (sign of tinual flight from reality which protects purity), for example, for the sake of which the status quo for the real bourgeois while we are told to buy brand X of soap it gives comfort and security to the petitflakes is really a value (cleanliness, purity, bourgeois. The opposite of the mythic hospitals, white-collar workers, etc.) pre- meta-language is transitive language, that sented in the form of a chemical property. language which exists in an active relation It is a peculiar mythical entity, a kind of to things and which one speaks or writes in causal value which is projected over and order to change things. When language is above the contingent causes and effects of intimately related to the transformation of science. In fact, analysis will show that in things, it does not become mythified: the various areas of popular thought whole wood-cutter does not mythologize the tree mythical chemistries exist, such as those of as does the city-dweller, for he exists in a colors, textures, etc. In his Mythologies, transitive relation to it. The tree cannot Barthes has examined the mythic structure become image for him, essential and eterof various areas of social life. But such nal, for it is an object to be worked upon mythic structures are untestable and ir- and changed. Similarly, the language of refutable for they pertain not to facts but the man for whom society is an object to to values and consist really of tautologies: be worked upon and changed-that of the the purity of the soap flakes is seen in their left, when it is authentic, i.e., revolutionwhiteness, the purity is, in fact, none ary-who speaks in order to transform, is other than the whiteness itself. A relation not mythic. of images is substituted for a relation of The troublesome problem is whether facts. And, while the relation of facts is literature can ever be transitive while yet contingent and subject to empirical con- remaining literature or whether literature firmation or disconfirmation, the relation is necessarily meta-language and thereby of images has an eternal character, for no different from the comforting static debeing a tautology, it is immediately self- lusion which is myth. Classical French verifying. It is subject to no possible dis- literature which, Barthes believes, lasts up confirmation, except that of the demystifi- until about 1850 is by its very conception cation of the myth, that is, the re-intrusion of language a form of myth. The lanof the factual realm into the mythic. The guage of the classical writer is the property relation of images is "naturalized" in the of a certain social class-the bourgeoisiemyth so that the tautology presents itself which in mid-seventeenth-century France as a relation of facts, but facts devoid of was in the process of constituting itself any troublesome contingency. The factual, as the dominant social class. Nevertheless on which the myth nourishes itself (it the author sees himself as the representacould not exist without primary level asso- tive of the universal. Language in the clasciations), is degraded in the process of sical period is conceived of as a transparmythologizing to the level of the acciden- ent medium by which essential truths, tal, the "real" becoming a system of es- preformed in the spirit, are communicated, sences. Thus myth consists in the replace- with a certain amount of decoration. The ment of a system of essences for a system language ought never to obscure the idea, of facts and the consequent negation of which is thought of as prior to it (Boileau's, contingency and hence of the possibility of "That which is clearly conceived will be change. With the disappearance of the his- clearly expressed," for example). That tory of things, Barthes states, both free- there are several different French languages dom (choice) and determinism (contin- and hence several manners of writing gent causality) disappear too. Nothing is never occurs to the classical writer since

336 language, for him, is not an opaque object which can itself speak and reveal its infinite potentialities of signification, but is simply the means of communicating with clarity-the essential virtue for the classical writer-the universal consciousness. The signification of language is always the same, only the ideas communicated by its means differ. The difference between prose and poetry, for the classical writer, is merely one of degree, not of kind, poetry being merely a more decorative and slightly more formalized sort of prose. The word itself is not seen and used as an object charged with signification of its own but is instead taken as being perfectly neutral. It is this pretended neutrality, and hence ideal universality, of classical literary language, which is factually the exclusive property of a specific social class, which constitutes this language and literature, as well as the criticism which sustains its values, a form of myth. One of Barthes' continual efforts has been to show how modern literature, with its choice of its language, is differentiated from myth. The opposite of mythic language is transitive language, that in which the word is an action. In Le Degre zero de l'ecriture (1953) Barthes seems to envision the possibility of transitive literature, which would be thus distinguished from myth which is meta-language. "To the general suspicion which accompanies language throughout modern literature would be substituted a reconciliation of the verb of the writer with the verb of man. It is only then that the writer could be said to be entirely committed, when his poetic liberty would be placed within a verbal situation whose limits were those of society and not those of a convention or a public: otherwise the commitment will always remain nominal; it will be able to provide the salvation of a conscience but not the foundation of an action" (p. 72). In his Essais critiques (1964) and Critique et verite (1966), however, Barthes clearly sees that literature cannot be distinguished from myth as transitive language from meta-language. It is not the literal, active, provocative character of language which is the Being of literature. It is the second



language which is created by a discourse, the signification which it gives rise to, over and above the literal, that constitutes it as literature. Hence all literature is meta-language and can by its nature never found an action. In the Essais critiques Barthes states: "Each time that one validates or sacralises the 'real' it is perceived that literature is only language, and furthermore, second language, parasitical sense, such that it can only connote the real, not denote it. The logos appears then irremediably cut off from praxis, powerless to consummate the language, that is, to surpass it toward a transformation of the real; deprived of all transitivity, condemned ceaselessly to signify itself at the moment when it wants only to signify the world, literature then is an immobile object, separated from the world which is in the process of realizing itself.... In sum, literature does not permit the world to walk, but it permits it to breathe" (p. 264). But if all literary language is meta-language, that is, if its function is not to transform reality but to double realityliterary language, says Barthes, has for its sole limit a contrary language, which can only be transitive language-how can literature be "committed" by its form? For Barthes, as we have noted, is not concerned with that which is signified-whether the novel is about heroic workers or middleclass merchants is not an object of his criticism-but the process by which signification is developed. What is it which distinguishes literature which is "committed" from myth? The answer can only lie in the difference between the form of the proposal and that of the assertion. The function of the writer is to multiply significations without filling them or closing them, to create a world with language which signifies but in which that which is signified is never finally determined. The writer, even when he seems his most dogmatic, always offers a proposition or a question about the world, the response to which is never definitively known. The function of myth, on the other hand, is to limit signification. The myth is concerned, having once emptied the language of its factual content, to fill it immediately and

Roland Barthes and the Nouvelle critique completely and to close it to other possibilities of signification which might conflict with the motivation of the myth in question. Hence the myth is always assertive. Literary language can be limited only by its contrary, transitive language, but one mythical language may well be limited by another mythical language. While Flaubert consciously adopts a language of the bourgeoisie, Sartre one of the left, and Camus a language as close as possible to absolute neutrality (ecriture blanche), these languages do not oppose or exclude one another; rather than closing off other possibilities, each forms an opening onto the world. A myth, however, always attempts to attach to a certain set of linguistic forms or images an exclusive signification, and may well find itself destroyed or neutralized by another myth which attempts to give to the same set a divergent exclusive signification. Thus, for example, as Barthes points out, the imposition of the myth of Khrushchev required the destruction-but not the demystification-of the myth of Stalin. In literature as in criticism it is not, for Barthes, the question of what ideological stance, that is, what language, is chosen that is primary but that of whether this language is used to multiply or to inhibit signification. Mythical language is precisely that language which claims to have no ideological stance, the meta-language which purports to be fact. It is that which claims to be the one language, that which involves no choice and which thus makes choice impossible. In frankly choosing his language the author admits his own contingency and assumes responsibility for the choice he has made. For the writer and for the critic both, the existential question of choice or the pretense that choice does not exist dominates the question of what is chosen. And it is the latter option that constitutes a language of literature or of
criticism mythic.

337 system of relations along which the reader is led (objects are defined rather than named), the word, in modern poetry, is given frontally, often brutally and in isolation, and is left to speak or resonate by itself. It is no longer the weightless and transparent form through which its object is seen, nor even a symbol of something else. The word, here, is not a functional element in a discourse but, absorbing its relations within it, it presents itself as an object which stands quivering, ready to burst asunder with its manifold significations. Mallarme was the first to see that a whole world could be contained in a word. At bottom, Barthes argues, all modern poets have taken words as real properties of things. The attempt of modern poetry has been to reduce to nothing the distance between the word and the thing, to make the word speak the object or to make the object deliver its own sense. Thus Barthes defines modern poetic language as a "regressive semiological system." While the myth strives for an ultra-signification by the amplification of a primary system (language), poetry, on the contrary, tries to recover the infrasignification, or presemiological state of language. It seeks not the sense of words but the sense of things. Modern poetry seems to come dangerously close to myth and, indeed, it displays its essentialist ambitions in its rejection of its desire to be an antilanguage-or language-and its claim to grasp the thing itself. But it is thereby the very inverse of myth, for while myth is a semiological system of essences which pretends to be a system of facts, poetry is a semiological system of things which pretends to be a system of essences. It is for this reason that modern poetry (unlike classical poetry) troubles the language and is perhaps the greatest enemy of myth. The traditional view of literature sees the subject (mind) as a plenum which expresses itself in the medium of words. Thus the metaphor of the writer warming to his work, as a gas in a closed container, or feeling pressed to express the fullness of his being. The writer, in this view, experiences a sort of creative gas pain. The greater the transparency of his language

The real contrary, however, of classical literature and of all prose, for Barthes, is modern poetry. It is here that the word comes to be taken as an opaque object full of possibilities. While in classical literature the word itself is suppressed in favor of a

338 the more clearly the reader will be able to see through it (like a window) to the subject (which is really a species of object) which has given rise to it. If the language is sufficiently transparent and if the reader's literary vision is adequate, he ought to perceive the secret of the work which lies in the subject hidden behind the language. Another way (the critic's) of deciphering the author's secret is to circumvent the work itself and to study the author's life and environment. The subject, Barthes sees, is not a plenum but a void, an expression, again, of the irreducibility of the author's metaphors. It is, as in Sartrean existential philosophy, simply the derivative absence which we discover by our inability to complete the sense of the objective. All attempts to complete forcibly the sense of the objective eventuate in the reduction of the being of the object to one of its aspects which claims to be the object itself. At bottom the literary work is an absence, a silence. It is this absence, which allows literature to have multiple significance, that constitutes the work always a proposal rather than an affirmation or dogma, and which thus validates the concept of a multiplicity of criticisms. Literary criticism, Barthes maintains, is not a



A science of literature, he believes, is possible and, in fact, necessary, but it will not have for object such or such a sense of the literary work but rather the plurality of senses of the work, which is the Being of literature. It will be the study of how a variety of senses are, or may be, engendered by a written discourse; not of why such or such a sense ought to be accepted but of why it is acceptable, by virtue of the logic of signs. Thus the science of literature, disregarding the author of the discourse, would assimilate the study of literature, even though it is signed, to the study of ancient and primitive myths, which are unsigned. (Similarly, some French thinkers, such as Claude Levi-Strauss and, most recently, Michel Foucault, have attempted to assimilate the study of contemporary and historical society to the methods of anthrophological study of primitive or non-histor-

ical societies.) What is necessary is a mythology of the written discourse as we have developed one of the oral, a science of the forms by which written discourse signifies for man. While the science of literature treats of senses, says Barthes, criticism produces them. Thus criticism is related to the science of literature as, in linguistics, parole (actual verbal expression which signifies by virtue of its sanction by a code of linguistic rules or habits) is related to langue (the virtual structure of the language within which actual expression may be inscribed). The critic, then, cannot claim to exhaust the total being of a literary work, any more than a single discourse can claim to be the complete definition of all the words and phrases contained therein. What the critic can attempt is to place all of the author's language in the service of one of the multiple senses evocable from the work (without claiming that it is the only sense). But the pretentions to universality and truth in criticism, dear to Lanson and his followers, must be given up. It will no longer be possible to state, as Lanson did of Larroumet's thesis on Marivaux: "All of Marivaux was there, and the true Marivaux." The work of art, like any language, is for Barthes not a problem to be explained but a structure whose intelligibility must be completed, and accordingly, his criticism does not claim to be explicative but rather to be comprehensive. In shifting his critical model from science to logic, from truth to validity, Barthes is attempting to evolve a form of criticism adequate to contemporary literature-in which the traditional concept of verisimilitude has become irrelevant-and revealing, retrospectively, of the relation of the literature of the past to the present creative effort and its concerns. Truth applies to things, that is, to the people and events within a discourse, but validity concerns forms and the relationships of the formal elements of the system which constitutes the discourse. Barthes' interest is in the significance of the act of writing itself rather than in that which occurs within the written discourse and hence one rarely finds a clear

Roland Barthes and the Nouvelle critique distinction in his work between theory of criticism and criticism itself. While his books on Racine and Michelet reveal a penetrating literary understanding, his most important essays fall in the category of theory of criticism and when, as they frequently do, they treat of a work of Brecht or Butor or Robbe-Grillet, they more often attack the common understanding and criticism of such works than the works directly. To write, in itself, is to operate, not on the world but on language, to transform language and hence to transform understanding. Therefore it is the act of writing and the specific way in which this act is carried forward that must be examined if literature is to be found. There is, of course, the "informative writer"-what Barthes calls the Scrivant as distinct from the ecrivain-who does not tamper with the language as it exists but accepts it and employs it as a tool for the communication of preformulated information. His work may be accepted or rejected on the basis of the information it conveys but the separation of his act of writing (or what might better be called, though without denigration, transcribing) from its product is evident. It is shown, for example, in the fact that he would never tolerate a psychoanalytic examination of his work, which would be irrelevant in any case. For the ecrivain, on the other hand, language itself is the great problem. His action is immanent in its object, is exercised upon its own instrument. "The


tigation of the nature of literature, explicit value judgments rarely appear in Barthes' critical writings. And it is perhaps in this respect that his thought is least developed. The adequacy of the one criterion of value that he has advanced seems doubtful. "It is," he states, "an impression of rigor, the feeling that the author has persistently submitted himself to a single and unique value" (Essais critiques, p. 162). The traditional novelist, he continues, often innocently mixed what he saw, what he knew, and what his character saw and knew. The first novelist to introduce a systematic viewpoint into this disorder was Proust, and it goes without saying that it is Alain Robbe-Grillet who has carried this rigor to the furthest point. Yet we may easily question whether the rigor of the technique of Robbe-Grillet automatically places him above Stendahl, for example, whose work, Barthes points out, frequently represents a melange of varying points of view. But the lack of development of value criteria in Barthes' writings is accountable to his view that evaluation is not the primary or dominant concern of criticism rather than to unintentional neglect. The excessive importance given to overall evaluation in contemporary popular criticism has, no doubt, a kind of economic foundation. This criticism (better called reviewing) is less concerned with making manifest the signification of the work in question, which presupposes a prior knowledge of the work by the reader ecrivain," says Barthes, "is the man who of the criticism, than with providing the radically absorbs the why of the world into public with a guide to what is worth reada how to write" (Essais critiques, p. 148). ing in a society in which all books cannot In attempting, through language, to break be read. A criticism in which the major traditional categories and to work perhaps emphasis is placed upon assigning a value unheard-of relations, or equally, in his term to each work, however, often results choice to uphold or re-evaluate tradition, in the view that the value judgment literature is created. Thus literature has reached represents the culmination of the always to do not merely with a specific set critique, a conclusion from which the of events and characters but with the na- premises may be conveniently separated. ture of man and his relation to the world. The sense of critique for Barthes is unAll literature, we may say, even that which doubtedly that one, more European than claims to be the most determinedly real- American, in which it implies examination istic or naturalistic, has a metaphysical or logic (as, for example, in Kant's signification which must be sought by the critiques) rather than evaluation. The closest examination of its techniques. aim of this endeavor, then, is always to Being concerned always with the inves- disengage the Being of literature rather

340 than to pass judgment upon individual works. There is no question that, at least since Proust, the form of the novel has been submitted to more constant experimentation in France than elsewhere. The American novel, on the other hand, with a few notable exceptions, has remained almost totally traditional in form and technique. The form remains invisible for it is "normal"; it goes without saying and provides nothing to prevent one from passing directly to the "content" with that feeling of security which is fostered by the normalcy of the form, the fact that everything is in its place and ready to yield to conventional psychological interpretation. The verbal medium serves as the unclouded window opening onto a vicarious world which is, in fact, just like the one in which we live, for all that the characters may perform acts which we might not perform or approve. The attitudes in which we may discover man are limited by the norms of language and, where language is frozen in conventional forms, where it becomes hidden and everyday, we find in it only that which we already know, that which we expect to find. Critic and reader alike in America are thus found today in a state very much like those readers described by Robbe-Grillet in Jealousy: "Speaking instead of the scenes, events and characters as if they were real: a place they might remember (located in Africa, moreover), people they might have known, or whose



adventures someone might have told them.... On the other hand, they frequently blame the heroes for certain acts or characteristics, as they would in the case of mutual friends." Some recent developments in American thought and criticism have emphasized the major role of the medium in communication. In art this role is all-important, even if regularly neglected. A film, for example, is not merely a novel in pictures, nor is a novel merely a life in words. As medieval culture created the window not to be looked through but rather to be looked at, through which the light of the world was received transformed into a cultural symbolism, so Renaissance and modern scientism have given us the clear, invisible pane. But it is time now to look back to the window and to examine what man makes of himself and his world in the manipulation of his media, verbal and otherwise, a task for which Barthes and the other creators of the Nouvelle critique have provided a valuable initiative.
LE DECRE ZERO DE L'ECRITURE(editions du Seuil,

MICHELETPAR LUI-MEME (editions du Seuil, 1954).

MYTHOLOGIES (editions du Seuil, 1957). SUR RACINE (editions du Seuil, 1963); in English, ON RACINE,trans. Richard Howard (Hill and Wang, 1964). ESSAIS CRITIQUES (editions du Seuil, 1964).
CRITIQUEET VERITE(editions du Seuil, 1966).