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A Roland Barthes Reader Paperback – 15 Jul 1993
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"To read through A Barthes Reader is finally to be left with the image of Barthes as one of the great public teachers of our time, someone who thought out, argued for, and made available several steps in a penetrating reflection on language, sign systems, texts - and what they have to tell us about the concept of the human" (New Republic)
"Susan Sontag contributes an informative introduction to this collection and arranges his greatest hits chronologically... This is an excellent entree to a thinker whose precepts have often filtered down into mass culture" (Glasgow Herald)
"Barthes's work, along with that of Wilde and Valéry, gives being an aesthete a good name... Defending the senses, he never betrayed the mind" (Susan Sontag)
An excellent introduction to the intellectual Roland Barthes, whose distinctive philosophy incorporates art, literature and diverse aspects of mainstream culture.See all Product description
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Of all the hardcore French theorist such as Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and the rest, Barthes is by far the most playful, and in many cases the most profound. It is a wonder to see him wear the masks of so many different philosophical schools (I'd say that one of his most constant, and self-made, identities is an infinitely intriguing hybrid of a Marxist and a Nietzschean). For those interested in the dynamics between the reader, the text, and the author, Barthes is one of the key figures in innovating the ways we understand relationships between personal agency and the text (he's probably the most essential influence on the paradigm shift concerning "the death of the author").
As far as philosophers, critics, and theorists go, Barthes is definitely one of the readable, and I don't mean he barely makes it into the category of reader-friendly: reading Barthes is a sublime joy. Susan Sontag, whose critical orientation was similar to Barthes in that both were informed by an aesthete tradition of writing, provides a masterful essay that elucidates just how important Barthes really is. While many of Barthes's works are readerly-accessible to individuals who aren't necessarily focused on the humanities, The Barthes Reader provides a means to see this master at his most reader friendly AND a glimpse into his more specialized writings. He certainly isn't stuffy or pretentious (not that either quality is necessarily bad by default), and he can provide you with enlightments (plural) that could honestly change your perception on practically every level.
There are two ways to gain a very broad over-view of his life and beliefs. The first involves a philosophical classification and the second a phase classification.
In the philosophical classification, one may designate him as the empiricist, one who insisted that there existed a universal grammar of narrative that could be apprehended by looking for this universal grammar through lenses like linguistics, literature, music, popular culture, and even professional wrestling. One could also label him as a devotee of sensuality, one who sought pleasure and jouissance wherever they might be found. Finally, one could see him as he refused to see himself, as a successful author who refused to credit all other successful authors for the wisdom of their words.
In the phase classification, Barthes passed through four sometimes overlapping categories. In the first phase, he was a critic whose primary focus was on history. He wrote a book on the historical poet Jules Michelet, called Michelet (1957). Further, his early career mindset was heavily influenced by his contemporaries, Sartre, Brecht, and de Saussure. In Writing Degree Zero (1953), Barthes traces a history of writing that ignores historical style but emphasizes the historical role of signs in literature. His conclusion: throughout history all literature was not to be used for social communication but for the creation of forms via semiology. In the second phase, Barthes explored the relation that myth has in its ability to manipulate, often subliminally, society into accepting unhesitatingly the intent of that myth. In Mythologies (1957), Barthes suggests that myth making is little more than a tool of power that ensures that the entrenched Powers That Be can control society while at the same time deceive that society into thinking that it is acting of its own free will even as it is controlled by a recurring series of myths, which do not reflect historical fact but alter them into a more desirable form. The third phase is marked by Barthes' gradual abandoning of semiology as an inflexible linguistics discourse in favor of signs and codes. In his three hundred page S/Z (1970), Barthes subjects a thirty page story by Balzac (Sarracine) to an exhaustive analysis founded on a series of five codes that collectively point that story to a universal structure of meaning. The fourth and final phase Barthes himself terms his period of `moralities.' In a book that strongly resembles autobiography, he wrote Roland Barthes (1980), one of several such efforts that mark the protagonist (presumably Barthes) who wallows in love, sentimentality, and theatrics. In Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes uses photography as a metaphor to express his love for his mother. Even here, he could not totally abandon his earlier reliance on signs as he describes photography as the signifier for the looming death of his mother.