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Barthes, Roland (1915-1980)  

Like André Gide and Marcel Proust, two of his favorite writers, Roland Barthes, a semiotician many " theorists" find inspiring, occupied an extremely marginal position in French society. He was Protestant. (France is predominantly Catholic.) He was left-handed. (France is, of course, predominantly right-handed.) He was déclassé. (Barthes's father, a naval officer, died in the First World War, and his mother had to work as a bookbinder.) He was consumptive. (Barthes spent several years in sanatoria.) And he was expatriate. (Barthes spent the 1950s in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, working for cultural services.)

Barthes also occupied a marginal position within the French academy. Having failed to sit the agrégation exam that would have led to an orthodox career, but having already published extensively, he was forty-four when he began teaching at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, a lackluster post, and sixty when he was elected to a chair in the Collège de France, a prestigious one.

If a single factor, however, can be said to have alienated Barthes from the bourgeois culture he came to distrust and felt compelled to demystify--a deterministic approach Barthes himself rejected--it would be his "perverse" sexuality. Like Proust, if not like Gide, who saw himself as a , Barthes was homosexual. And like Remembrance of Things Past, a work in which everyone except the narrator (who may or may not be named "Marcel") turns out to be gay, Barthes's critical texts--including ones that concern "text"--are best understood in relation to this sexual marginality.

Barthes preferred the notion of "text," which posits writing as open and derivative, to that of "work," which posits it as closed and sui generis. In fact, texts are so open--to playful ("ludic") interpretation and abysmal contextualization--as to be completely meaningless in any conventional sense of the word. Barthes, however, has an unconventional--and appreciative--sense of meaninglessness.

He sees meaninglessness, or "exemption from meaning," as a way of displacing conventional wisdom and dominant ideology. "What is difficult," Barthes writes, "is not to liberate sexuality according to a more or less libertarian project but to release it from meaning, including from transgression as meaning." Meaningless text, for example, displaces the conventional stereotypes (such as sexual "inversion") that pertain to gay male identity.

Because Barthes sees homosexuality, and for that matter any transgressive and eccentric "perversion," as unclassifiable, he takes the classification "inversion" to be inaccurate--a notion that will come as a surprise to gays and lesbians who see themselves as "inverts," but that, contrary to popular belief and to conventional critical wisdom, came as no surprise to Proust.

If he had to characterize--to "predicate"--gays and lesbians, Barthes might have chosen the term noninvert. Noninvert has two advantages: It is both imprecise and paradoxical. Like Oscar Wilde, whom he does not appear to have read attentively, Barthes conceives of truth as antithetical: "A Doxa (a popular opinion) is posited, intolerable; to free myself of it, I postulate a paradox; then this paradox turns bad, becomes a new concretion, itself becomes a new Doxa, and I must seek for a new paradox."

He also conceives of truth as orgasmic: "Paradox is an ecstasy, then a loss--one of the most intense." (Like Wilde, Barthes tends to think in terms of bodily pleasure.) Unfortunately, paradoxical formulae are not quite meaningless because, as Barthes himself realizes, "both sides of the paradigm [doxa/paradoxa] are glued together in [a] complicitous fashion." Noninvert, when all is said and done, means noninvert.

Oddly enough, Barthes does not reject every gay male stereotype in an attempt to exempt (homo)sexuality from meaning. Barthes rejects sexual inversion, but embraces "tricking" and "cruising," activities that he claims represent true sexual liberation. (Not that they did so for Barthes himself; his autobiographical texts suggest he had an unhappy love life.)

People who "trick," he writes, neither "are" nor "aren't" homosexual. They refuse "to proclaim [themselves] something . . . at the behest of a vengeful Other, to enter into his discourse, to argue with him, to seek from him a scrap of identity." Rather, they are "nothing, or, more precisely, [they are] something [that is] provisional, revocable, insignificant."

People who "cruise" avoid repetition and therefore evade stereotypology: Whereas repetition is a "baleful" theme for Barthes ("stereotype, the same old thing, naturalness as repetition"), cruising, he writes, is "anti-natural, anti-repetition."

It may be that Barthes is simply "protecting" his sexuality here (something he feels all writers do), or at least the macho ("phallocentric") part of his sexuality because whereas sexual inversion feminizes gay men, cruising for tricks is a rather manly (and purportedly desirable) thing to do.

Barthes sees tricking and cruising as senseless in another sense as well. The trick, he writes, "is homogenous to the amorous progression; it is a virtual love, deliberately stopped short on each side, by contract." Likewise, men cruise with "the invincible idea that one will find someone with whom to be in love."

Some gays (who cruise for sex, not love) will find these descriptions unrealistic. Barthes, however, feels that sentimentality, in an age such as ours in which love doesn't make too much sense, is essentially--and even nonparadoxically--insignificant. He finds that love is now "perverse" (meaningless) enough to liberate sexuality beyond any possibility of recuperation, and in a thorough estrangement of the category states that the sentimentality of love as an "alien," and therefore radically transgressive, strength that sexual freedom fighters would do well to deploy.

The reintroduction into sexuality of even "a touch of sentimentality," he writes, would be "the ultimate transgression . . . the transgression of transgression itself . . . [the return of] love . . . but in another place."

Although many theorists support this ludic and loving project, others find it ineffective. They find Barthes far too utopian and apolitical, and believe that true sexual liberation will depend upon "materialist" (Marxist) scholarship. Barthes, however, sees Marxism as ideological, and hence both problematic (part of a futile "war of meanings") and counterrevolutionary. This is why he promulgates--and politicizes--the idea of "semioclasm." According to Barthes, "it is Western discourse as such"--discourse that marginalizes and stereotypes gays and lesbians--"that we must now try to break apart."

Kevin Kopelson


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Beaver, Harold. "Homosexual Signs (In Memory of Roland Barthes)." Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 99-120.

Bredbeck, Gregory. "B/O -- Barthes's Text / O'Hara's Trick." PMLA 108.2 (March 1993): 268-282.

Culler, Jonathan. Roland Barthes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Heath, Stephen. "Barthes on Love." Substance 37-38 (1983): 100-106.

Kopelson, Kevin. Love's Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

_____. "Wilde, Barthes, and the Orgasmics of Truth." Genders 7 (March 1990): 22-31.

Kritzman, Lawrence D. "The Discourse of Desire and the Question of Gender." Signs in Culture: Roland Barthes Today. Steven Ungar and Betty R. McGraw, eds. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989.

Lavers, Annette. Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After. London: Methuen, 1982.

Miller, D. A. Bringing Out Roland Barthes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Moriarty, Michael. Roland Barthes. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Morton, Donald. "The Politics of Queer Theory in the (Post) Modern Moment." Genders 17 (Fall 1993): 121-150.

Schehr, Lawrence. The Shock of Men: Homosexual Hermeneutics in French Writing. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995

Schor, Naomi. "Dreaming Dissymentry: Barthes, Foucault, and Sexual Difference." Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics. Elizabeth Weed, ed. New York; Routledge, 1989. 47-58.

Stanton, Domna. "The Matter of the Text: Barthesian Displacement and Its Limits." L'Esprit créateur 25.2 (Summer 1985): 57-72.

Ungar, Steven. Roland Barthes: The Professor of Desire. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.


    Citation Information
    Author: Kopelson, Kevin  
    Entry Title: Barthes, Roland  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated April 14, 2006  
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    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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