roland barthes

‘Refrain from total disclosure to basic strangers.’ —Rachel Rosenfelt


In his story Sarrasine, Balzac, describing a castrato disguised as a woman, writes the following sentence: “This was woman herself, with her sudden fears, her irrational whims, her instinctive worries, her impetuous boldness, her fussings, and her delicious sensibility.” Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

{ Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, 1967 | Continue reading }

The Sphinx Without a Secret


Le pop art dépersonnalise, mais il ne rend pas anonyme : rien de plus identifiable que Marilyn, la chaise électrique, un pneu ou une robe, vus par le pop art ; ils ne sont même que cela : immédiatement et exhaustivement identifiables, nous enseignant par là que l’identité n’est pas la personne : le monde futur risque d’être un monde d’identités, mais non de personnes.

We must realize that if Pop Art depersonalized, it does not make anonymous: nothing is more identifiable than Marilyn, the electric chair, a tire, or a dress, as seen by Pop Art; they are in fact nothing but that: immediately and exhaustively identifiable, thereby teaching us that identify is not the person: the future world risks being a world of identities, but not of persons.

{ Roland Barthes, Cette vieille chose, l’art, 1980 }

art { Andy Warhol, Foot and Tire, 1963–-64 }

related { David Cronenberg on Foot and Tire }

Little parlour game: talk about a piece of music without using a single adjective


Language, according to Benveniste, is the only semiotic system capable of interpreting another semiotic system. How, then, does language manage when it has to interpret music? Alas, it seems, very badly. If one looks at the normal practice of music criticism (or, which is often the same thing, of conversations “on” music), it can readily be seen that a work (or its performance) is only ever translated into the poorest of linguistic categories: the adjective. Music, by natural bent, is that which at once receives an adjective.

The adjective is inevitable: this music is this, this execution is that. No doubt the moment we turn an art into a subject (for an article, for a conversation) there is nothing left but to give it predicates; in the case of music, however, such predication unfailingly takes the most facile and trivial form, that of the epithet. Naturally, this epithet, to which we are constantly led by weakness or fascination (little parlour game: talk about a piece of music without using a single adjective), has an economic function: the predicate is always the bulwark with which the subject’s imaginary protects itself from the loss which threatens it. The man who provides himself or is provided with an adjective is now hurt, now pleased, but always constituted.

{ Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice, | Continue reading }

Ah, in the dead sea, floating on his back, reading a book with a parasol open


If photography is to be discussed on a serious level, it must be described in relation to death. It’s true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more. Even if the person in the picture is still alive, it’s a moment of this subject’s existence that was photographed, and this moment is gone. This is an enormous trauma for humanity, a trauma endlessly renewed. Each reading of a photo and there are billions worldwide in a day, each perception and reading of a photo is implicitly, in a repressed manner, a contract with what has ceased to exist, a contract with death.

{ Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida }

photo { John Gutmann }

‘The evidence that, within the image, there is always something else.’ –Roland Barthes



{ Ezra Stoller | Top: Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, New York, NY, 1958 | Bottom: General Motors Technical Center, Eero Saarinen, Warren, MI, 1950 | Yossi Milo Gallery, NYC | more }

related { At about 3.45pm, witnesses recalled, Barthes paused before crossing the street at 44 rue des Écoles; he looked left and right, but failed to spot an advancing laundry van, which knocked him down. | Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes | Roland Barthes, ‪Camera lucida: reflections on photography, 1981 | Google Books }

‘Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.’ –Oscar Wilde


I like, I don’t like.

I like: salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay, roses, peonies, lavender, champagne, loosely held political convictions, Glenn Gould, beer excessively cold, flat pillows, toasted bread, Havana cigars, Handel, measured walks, pears, white or vine peaches, cherries, colors, watches, pens, ink pens, entremets, coarse salt, realistic novels, piano, coffee, Pollock, Twombly, all romantic music, Sartre, Brecht, Jules Verne, Fourier, Eisenstein, trains, Médoc, having change, Bouvard et Pécuchet, walking in the evening in sandals on the lanes of South-West, the Marx Brothers, the Serrano at seven in the morning leaving Salamanca, et cetera.

I don’t like: white Pomeranians, women in trousers, geraniums, strawberries, harpsichord, Miró, tautologies, animated cartoons, Arthur Rubinstein, villas, afternoons, Satie, Vivaldi, telephoning, children’s choruses, Chopin concertos, Renaissance dances, pipe organ, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, his trumpets and his kettledrums, the politico-sexual, scenes, initiatives, fidelity, spontaneity, evenings with people I don’t know, et cetera.

I like, I don’t like: this is of no importance to anyone; this, apparently, has no meaning. And yet all this means: my body is not the same as yours.

{ Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 1975 }

‘Look at an Avedon portrait: in it you will see, in action, the paradox of all great art, of all high art: the extreme finish of the image opens onto the extreme infinity of contemplation.’ –Roland Barthes


The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face. (…) The face brings a notion of truth which is not the disclosure of an impersonal Neuter, but expression: the existent breaks through all the envelopings and generalities of Being to spread out in its “form” the totality of its “content,” finally abolishing the distinction between form and content. (…) to receive from the Other beyond the capicity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity.

{ Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, A.5. Transcendence as the Idea of Infinity, 1969 }

{ Natassja Kinski photographed by Richard Avedon, New York, February, 1982 }

‘Always worth more than what I write.’ –Roland Barthes


Finally I went to 104, still musing, alarmed by the grim power of this corner of Paris, passing in front of the hotel Royal-Aboukir (what a name!). All this was like some disinherited New York neighborhood, on the smaller Parisian scale. At dinner (a good risotto, but the beef, of course, not cooked at all), I felt comfortable with friends: A. C., Philippe Roger, Patricia, and a young woman, Frédérique, who was wearing a rather formal gown, its unusual shade of blue soothing; she didn’t say much, but she was there , and I thought that such attentive and marginal presences were necessary to the good economy of a party. (…)

In the taxi on the way home, storm and heavy rain. I hang around the house (eating some toast and feta), then, telling myself I must lose the habit of calculating my pleasures (or my deflections), I leave the house again and go see the new porno film at Le Dragon: as always—and perhaps even more so than usual—dreadful. I dare not cruise my neighbor, though I probably could (idiotic fear of being rejected). Downstairs into the back room; I always regret this sordid episode afterward, each time suffering the same sense of abandonment.

{ Roland Barthes, Incidents, 1979 | Continue reading }