The Art of Reviewing: Roland Barthes

The Art of Reviewing explores reviewing as an art form and as a valuable element to understanding society and profiles specific reviewers of merit.

“Criticism does not always demonstrate its customary incisiveness: it often ignores the most worthless ephemera.” – Karl Kraus

“I would go to the stake for a sensation and be a skeptic to the last.” – Oscar Wilde

Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980) was a theorist, literary critic, and semiotician, but most importantly, he expanded the field of reviewing.  In addition, he reinvented the ways in which things could be reviewed.  He looked at old works in new ways.  This installment of the Art of Reviewing will explore how Barthes reinvented and reinvigorated the concept of reviewing.  (This article is not meant to function as purely biographical or theoretical, but more as a means to show nascent reviewers the potential of Barthes’s ideas and continually evolving philosophy.)

One of the great things about Barthes was his ability to deconstruct his own philosophical perspective.  He began his career from the vantage point of orthodox Marxism, amplified with some semiotic theory taken from linguistics.  In the end, his philosophy became more personal, intimate, and autobiographical.  One of his last works was Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes.  He was too inventive and too passionate to remain affixed to any particular philosophical or ideological box.  As reviewers get older, their ideas change.  The slow evolution from the ideological Marxist to contemplative individual makes for a useful case study in the importance of changing one’s mind.

Barthes represents an important bridge between the complicated Marxist mysticism of pop culture critic Walter Benjamin and Michel Foucault’s large-scale deconstructionist archaeologies of institutions.  Barthes’s writings are a Rosetta Stone of pop culture studies and how cultures manufacture ideology with its ephemera.

Mythologies (1957)

Written in 1957, Mythologies has tautly written dissections of French pop cultural artifacts and is an indispensible educational tool for aspiring pop culture observers.  The first half has a collection of newspaper articles, most no longer than two pages, examining a specific item.  The selection is incredibly diverse and disregards arbitrary barriers like High and Low Culture.  It examines everything from TV wrestling matches (of the WCW variety), cuisine, science fiction, and museum exhibits.  A veritable Whitman’s Sampler of cultural detritus, a monument to the mundane and commonplace.  The second half of the book is an expanded explanation of semiotics (connotation, denotation, signifier, signified, etc.), along with its linguistic roots, and the accusation that the bourgeoisie is a “joint-stock company.”

Barthes takes the position of an orthodox Marxist to dissect and examine the cultural products of the postwar French bourgeoisie.  His status as an ideological outsider gives him a much-needed critical perspective.  The semiotic background gives him the intellectual apparatus to read the artifact.  More specifically, to read against the grain of the status quo.  In academic parlance, the “queer the text,” since Barthes was gay, like Foucault (and those contemporary Fifties bulwarks of American conservatism, Whittaker Chambers and Roy Cohn).

The book is a must read for cultural critics and curators of museums and historical societies.  Less for the Marxist readings per se, but for the book’s illustration of how to read material culture.  Material culture is a means of passing along our culture’s mores, codes, and traditions.  While these things are important, anyone tasked with writing exhibit labels should understand how these things are socially constructs manufactured by humans.  As such, each embodies a specific ideology and point of view.  Whether that is good or bad depends on the individual’s interpretation.  But one needs to understand that this manufactured ideology is present within the object.  In the book, Barthes gives the example of the black child soldier in a French military uniform saluting on the cover of the weekly magazine Paris Match.  On the surface, it is a poster that glorifies the patrie and the republican “us.”  Dig a little deeper and one realizes that the poster operates as a legitimizing force for colonialism and imperialism.  Mythologies was published shortly after France’s disastrous Indochina War (1946 – 1954) and amidst the brutalities of the Algerian Revolution (1954 – 1962).  This explains the vituperative passion Barthes had as a Marxist and utilizing the tools of linguistics as an intellectual means of exposing the oppressive agendas buried beneath seemingly innocent pop cultural artifacts.

On a more mundane level, the miniature shopping carts kids push around the grocery conditions them to become consumers.  Whether this is a horrifying example of mental abuse against a developing child or business as usual depends on the individual’s specific interpretation.  But to say that this social conditioning is not taking place seems like a particularly weak example of willful ignorance.  The recent rebooting of the GI Joe franchise and America’s Middle Eastern foreign policy seem like something far more ominous than tiny shopping carts.  “Go Joe!”

Sade Fourier Loyola (1976)

Sade Fourier Loyola explores the works of three major innovators of language: the French philosopher, pornographer and atheist Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (2 June 1740 – 2 December 1814); the French utopian socialist François Marie Charles Fourier (7 April 1772 – 10 October 1837); and Basque Spanish theologian and founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) Ignacio López de Loyola (Saint Ignatius of Loyola) (1491 – July 31, 1556).  Barthes goes on to illustrate how each writer in this superficially blasphemous trio transformed language.  How the three writers reflect off each other displays Barthes’s unique take on the subject, transcending the standard academic category of “comparative literature.”

Everybody has heard of DAF Sade, yet very few have read his works.  In the opening sections of Sade Fourier Loyola, Barthes reflects on the contradictory accusations leveled against Sade: His works are boring and his works are shocking.  How can one be both?  Mythologies dissected pop cultural artifacts while Sade Fourier Loyola examined well-known works in a different way.  The comparative literary criticism Barthes achieves is reminiscent of the ad slogan, “Think different.”

He examines Sade’s work, seeing it in mathematical terms, with each carnal atrocity building upon each other until they reach a séance, a kind of Enlightenment clockwork made of frenzied bodies.  Sade’s writing exemplifies what Barthes terms “a contamination of discourses,” with extended speeches championing reason and rationality suddenly broken by curse-laced shouts and blasphemies involving orgies, murder, and torture.  One of many things bedeviling critics is the inability to place Sade within a neat framework of periodicity.  Sade is simultaneously a Gothic writer, embracing the darker strains of Romanticism, an Enlightenment philosopher, and a literary satirist.  Furthermore, his work continually champions crime over law and power over morality.  Those who are more powerful are thus because of Nature.

The theme of subservience is picked up in his analysis of Loyola, whose Spiritual Exercises bears resemblances to Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.  Each work appears like a glorified outline.  While both writers come from completely different backgrounds, Barthes brings our attention to the meticulousness and concentration involved in writing these books.  Loyola even has a section where the success or failure of the spiritual retreat’s practitioner can be measured on a graph.  Loyola and Sade also have their practitioners in severe isolation and endure physical hardships.

Fourier, the utopian socialist, uses language that combines aspects of both Sade and Loyola.  His utopia is spiritual in nature, but man’s perfection is attained by the release of bodily passions that have been repressed by civilization.  Barthes also explores the playfulness of Fourier’s brand of utopia, especially regarding his notorious phrase about turning the sea into lemonade.  The treatment of Fourier as a literary figure to be celebrated shows how Barthes has evolved from an orthodox Marxist to a non-ideological literary critic.  Marxists shy away from Fourier because of his wild eccentricities and the non-scientific basis for his utopian vision.  Barthes embraces him as he does Sade and Loyola.

The Pleasure of the Text (1975)

Barthes approaches reviewing and criticism as joyful acts, hence the title of the small book, the Pleasure of the Text.  Inspired by Severo Sarduy’s Cobra, a novel about a Cuban drag queen who transforms into a Tibetal bardo during an orgy with leatherclad biker studs, Barthes wrote down mini-essays in alphabetic order.  The essays focused on how a text can bring pleasure to the reader.  He elucidates the much-misunderstood concept of the Death of the Author.  The concept, maligned by the likes of Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia, does not involve turning a literary work into an amalgamation of social forces, thus negating the author.  The explanation is much more prosaic.

The Death of the Author is thus: After the Author has finished his or her work; he has no control over it.  The Author’s interpretative power is negated.  This is because the Reader is not consuming the Author’s Interpretation, but simply a Text.  (Barthes’s book can be seen as a precursor to the current discipline of Reader Reception Theory.)

The book also focuses on the concept of pleasure as it relates to the practice of reading.  He asserts that literature does not require a moral component to be pleasurable to the reader.  As an American subject to High School English classes, there was the tendency to examine works with a Major Moral Lesson, whether it was Grapes of Wrath or Heart of Darkness.  Literary consumption became analogous to an annual teeth cleaning: painful, tedious, and instructive.  But knowing the Moral Lesson made one feel good, or at least pass the quiz.  What became a rarity was how to enjoy the texts as objects of pleasure.  (Unfortunately, Americans have a schizophrenic relationship with pleasure and morality.)

When reading a text, this usually is administered to the skull.

Readers should be able to enjoy the language of the narrative without having to endure horse pills of morality.  An appreciation can be made on how the author formulates the language in the same way art can be appreciated once one becomes aware of specific brushstrokes and manipulation of pigments.  Appreciating books just on their moral level is stunningly pedestrian.

Roland Barthes was revolutionary both in what he reviewed and how he reviewed.  He began as an orthodox Marxist but evolved a personal philosophy that embraced many things.  Ecumenical and joyful, his approach to the review showed a writer both erudite and expansive.


Susan Sontag raised awareness of Barthes’s value to a well-rounded intellect.  The closing line of her seminal essay, “Against Interpretation” (1964) reads, “In place of a hermeneutrics we need an erotics of art.”  Barthes provides this much-needed erotics of art.

Sontag wrote two major essays on Barthes:

  • “Remembering Barthes” (1980) in Under the Sign of Saturn (1980).
  • “Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes” (1982) in Where the Stress Falls (2001).


At present, many of Barthes’s lesser-known works remain hard to come by.  Except for Mythologies, his critical work remains unknown to lay audiences.  This is unfortunate, especially since the Internet has provided the perfect medium for discussions about pop culture.  The publisher Hill & Wang have volumes of Barthes more notable volumes in print.  So long as one isn’t averse to scouring used bookstores and Internet shopping sources, one can also find his lesser known works in English translation.  Despite his untimely death, Barthes remained prolific.

His instrumental work in the interpretation of pop cultural artifacts and Susan Sontag’s relentless championing should be reason enough to bring his works back into print.


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