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About this book

Roland Barthes was one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, but why should the reader of today, or tomorrow, be concerned with him? Martin McQuillan provides a fresh perspective on Barthes, addressing his political and institutional inheritance and considering his work as the origins of a critical cultural studies.

This stimulating study:
• provides a biographical consideration of Barthes' writing
• offers an extended reading of his 1957 text Mythologies as a text for our own time, drawing Barthes' work into a historical relation to the present
• examines his connection to what we call cultural studies
• features an annotated bibliography of Barthes' published work.

Thought-provoking and insightful, Roland Barthes is essential reading for anyone who is interested in the writings of this key theorist and his continuing relevance in our post-9/11 world.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Roland Barthes, About This Book

The aim of this book is to ask: why should the reader of today (or tomorrow) attend to the text of Roland Barthes? It is not in a straightforward sense an ‘introduction’ to Barthes as an explication of the basic theories and paradigms to be found in Barthes’ work. There are two very fine books that already fill this niche: Jonathan Culler’s Barthes: A Very Short Introduction (2002) and Graham Allen’s Roland Barthes (2003). There have been posthumous publications by Barthes since these books first appeared but these late books ‘signed’ by Barthes do little to undo the lucid comprehension of his work offered by Culler and Allen. These books should be read alongside this present study by any student reader wishing to gain a foothold in Barthes’ text. The opening chapter of this book is an account of the life and textual production of Roland Barthes. This introduction is necessary because this ‘bio-bibliography’ directly impinges upon the work that follows as an account of the complexities of the theory-writing life. Readers who feel themselves to be suitably familiar with Barthes’ biography might wish to proceed straight to Chapter 2, ‘Reading Roland Barthes in a Time of Terror’.
Martin McQuillan

1. R.B.: Bio-bibliography

Roland Barthes and Jean-Paul Sartre died within three weeks of each other in the spring of 1980. Barthes’ funeral in the town of Urt in the Bayonne region of south-west France was attended by a handful of his close friends; Sartre’s funeral in Montparnasse in Paris attracted a crowd of over fifty thousand mourners along a two-hour route. Today, the name of Sartre is instantly recognisable in the media as a touchstone for the ‘committed intellectual’. In contrast the name of Roland Barthes is readily familiar to humanities academics and students of cultural studies or literary theory, perhaps to the readership of ‘elite liberal’ publications such as The London Review of Books, but has little currency with a more general audience. However, what remains untold in this scenario is the fact that from the perspective of today the majority of Sartre’s cold war political interventions look disastrously misjudged, while his philosophy and literature appear, on first inspection, to be somewhat dated, while the majority of the text of Barthes seems, to the theory-hound, fresh and vital some thirty years after his death. Now, Sartre is a fascinating writer, a complex and compelling figure who deserves to be read and reread: we will never be done with Sartre. However, there is no time for that here, this is not a book about Jean-Paul Sartre.
Martin McQuillan

2. Reading Roland Barthes in a Time of Terror

Roland Barthes died in the Saltpêtrière hospital, Paris, on 26 March 1980 at 1.40 p.m. from pulmonary complications after a road-traffic accident a month earlier. Dying when he did, Barthes was to know nothing of the accelerated transformations in the material conditions of western and global culture that characterised the subsequent three decades. He knew nothing of the Internet, climate change, nanotechnology, satellite television, the end of state communism in Europe, so-called globalisation, energy wars, global Jihad, and all the bêtes noires of the contemporary scene. And yet Roland Barthes remains a significantly important influence on academic writing today. This has been achieved seemingly in almost the complete absence of a substantial body of readers of Barthes at this moment. On the one hand, Barthes remains the unquestioned point of reference for the intellectual justification of what is known in the Anglophone humanities as cultural studies (a term Barthes himself never used). On the other hand, little attention is paid today to the actual reading of Barthes, outside of a recuperation of Barthes as a late-flowering queer theorist.2
Martin McQuillan

3. An Answer to the Question: What is Cultural Studies?

To hear Barbara Engh tell it, it all begins with Kant.1 I have stated elsewhere that if cultural studies, troubled by its own rapid institutionalisation, wishes to reorientate itself it ought to do so with a turn, if not a return, to Kant, rather than, say, to Birmingham or even Derrida.2 This will now require a little justification in the light of the extended commentary on Roland Barthes and the origins of a French cultural studies in the previous chapter. I think that there are three ‘strong’ theoretical claims made with regard to Barthes in the text that you will have just read. First, what we call cultural studies has a much longer provenance than one might expect and one that places Barthes, as the logothete of contemporary cultural study, in an extended tradition of philosophical reflection on the present that can be traced through the likes of Benjamin and Adorno to Kant and the Enlightenment tradition. Second, an alternative history of ideology and demystification as a concept and operation can be traced coterminous with this and according to the same indices. Third, something like a method of critical inquiry that followed the historical play of différance in a text, tangentially referred to here as ‘cultural archaeology’, emerges from this rereading of Barthes today. I will have to postpone a fuller examination of these last two points until another occasion.
Martin McQuillan
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