Roland Barthes Questions for English 492 Modern Critical Theory, CSU Fullerton Fall 2015



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Assigned: Roland Barthes. From Mythologies, "Photography and Electoral Appeal" (1320-21); "The Death of the Author" (1322-26); "From Work to Text" (1326-31 in Leitch, Vincent B. and William E. Cain, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-93292-8.)

From Mythologies, "Photography and Electoral Appeal"

1. On 1320-21, according to Barthes, what change in the way voters connect to political candidates comes about thanks to photography? How does photography, in Barthes' view, constitute not a radical departure from the past but instead a return to a certain aspect of earlier, pre-democratic political tradition?

2. On 1320-21, what "types" of candidate tend to be created or promoted in campaign photography? Moreover, what differences does Barthes suggest between a three-quarter face candidate photograph (in which the subject is turned slightly away from the camera so that you can see only one ear) and a full-face candidate photograph (in which the subject faces the camera directly)? That is, what leadership qualities do these two photographic poses emphasize?

3. General question: it's clear that video and photographic media play a big role in our own political campaigns and, more generally, in officeholders' attempts to govern after an election has been decided. Do you see that role as mostly positive or mostly negative, or somewhere in between? Do you think all the "tech" turns politicians into a Mad Men-style commercial product, or is that too cynical a view? Explain your reasoning.

"The Death of the Author"

4. On pages 1322-25, Barthes makes some key distinctions that should be explored. Perhaps the most important is the one he makes between an author and a "scriptor." What is the main difference between these two, and what further inferences does Barthes draw from the broad distinction he initially makes between the older concept (author) and the newer one (scriptor)? For example, what relationship does Barthes posit between the scriptor and the written text?

5. On pages 1324-25, how does Barthes address the nature of what he calls a "text"? What is a text made of? How is that different from older ways in which works of literature were said to be constituted?

6. On page 1325, how does what a modern reader does with a text differ from the older model in which an interpreter sets out to explain a given work of literature? How has Barthes redefined the role and significance of readers, in this essay? How do you think of this relationship, and why do you configure it as you do?

7. On pages 1325-26, following upon the previous question's concern with the nature of the modern text, what does Barthes suggest about the practice and value of "criticism" in the professional or academic sense, now that the concept of the author seems to be much attenuated? Why is traditional humanistic criticism hypocritical, according to Barthes? How does it -- and even formalist criticism -- work to enhance the power of the author at the expense of the reader?

8. General question: on page 1326, Barthes says sweepingly 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." This brief essay was published during a momentous year – 1968 -- that generated a lot of radical thinking on the political Left both in Europe and here in the United States. It has been well over forty years since Barthes set forth his optimistic ideas about leaving behind the old-fashioned, bourgeois concept of authorship (authors as authority figures, as originators and controllers of meaning, etc.) in favor of a new conception of the reader's experience with "texts." How does Barthes' piece sound today – do you think it's just utopian rhetoric that hasn't come to fruition, or was he on to something, to some extent, regarding the relationship between modern readers and modern texts, and regarding the devaluation of professional criticism? Explain your rationale.

9. General question: in what sense do Barthes' comments about texts and how we might read them today both borrow from and move beyond structuralism as we will have discussed that approach with reference to Ferdinand de Saussure (and perhaps one or two other authors, depending on the scope of the current course)? How does Barthes' model of language and reading in the current selection run counter to the goals of structuralist analysis?

"From Work to Text"

10. On 1326, Barthes prepares the ground for the rest of his essay by explaining why a strongly updated understanding of texts has become necessary. What "break" or departure in our understanding of "the work" occurred in the nineteenth century, and what factors does he specify and discuss as contributing to the currently happening "epistemological slide" in the way his own contemporaries in the early 1970s think about language and literature?

11. On 1327, Barthes begins enunciating seven "propositions" about what he calls the Text as opposed to the earlier concept, the Work. What is the first of these propositions, and what changes does it call for in our understanding and experience of, say, a literary work (to use the older word) sitting on a library shelf – even, to some extent, an older or ancient work of literature?

12. On 1327-28, what is Barthes' second proposition about Texts? How is the ancient principle of interpretive and literary hierarchy being strongly challenged and even undermined by the advent of modern ideas about textuality? How is the Text "paradoxical"?

13. On 1328, what is Barthes' third proposition about Texts? Try to explain some of his reasoning here: what does it mean to suggest that reading a piece of writing as a Text has to do with opening oneself up to "the infinite deferment of the signified"; that "The logic regulating the Text is not comprehensive … but metonymic"; and that "the Text is radically symbolic"? In general, how is Barthes to some extent borrowing a motivated version of Saussurian structural linguistics to drive home his argument about the experience of reading a Text?

14. On 1328-30, what are Barthes' fourth and fifth propositions about Texts? With respect to the fourth, how does he delineate the concept of "intertextuality" (the most common term today for describing the phenomenon Barthes here describes), and what does this concept do to traditional ideas about "interpreting" a literary text as a more or less complete, self-contained linguistic object? With regard to the fifth proposition, what does this new notion do to the traditional concept of authorship – how should we think of an author with respect to the Text, in Barthes' view?

15. On 1330-31, what is Barthes' sixth proposition about Texts? Explain Barthes' comments about the traditional relationship between reading and writing at a society-wide level: what was that relationship like in pre-modern "hierarchical" societies? Which activity is more important in a modern bourgeois society, and why? Why, according to Barthes, do modern Texts, avant-garde paintings or films, etc. sometimes generate only boredom in the citizens of such a society?

16. On 1331, what is Barthes' seventh and final proposition about the Text? In what sense might reading a Text be a more genuinely pleasurable, participatory and even utopian experience than "consuming" a work of literature as traditionally understood? Moreover, in this same section, how does Barthes differentiate between older literary texts written by authors such as Marcel Proust or Gustave Flaubert and more modern productions – why can't the former be enjoyed in quite the same way as the latter?

17. General question: taken broadly, Barthes' essay comments on what its author sees as a shift from an hierarchical relationship between text, critic and reader to a much more open engagement with what I'll call "literature." Clearly, the essay makes strong claims against the viability of traditional models of cultural transmission and education. Consider your own experience with education at all levels, from grade school to college: what reflections occur to you about the manner in which you've been taught to engage with literary texts? Are you happy with the educational approach that has informed your own development, or does Barthes' analysis seem to you to point out a flaw in its fundamental conception? Explain your rationale for answering as you do.

18. Do you think that Barthes' claims about the advent of "textuality" and the going out of fashion of "the work" have at least partly been realized, or do you think Barthes over-predicts? What's the basis for your reasoning on this point – what leads you to believe Barthes was right or wrong, or somewhere in between? For example, do you think the model of open-ended "textuality" is predominant in certain disciplines in the humanities and not in others? Or that it is or is not current amongst "the public"? Do most people, in your view, want to read a "text" or a "literary work"?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-93292-8.