20th Century Philosophy


coverReading Knowledge : An Introduction to Barthes, Foucault, and Althusser by Michael Payne.

Michael Payne introduces the principal writings of Roland Barthes, Michael Foucault and Louis Althusser by means of a detailed focus on their common interest in the forms and conditions of knowledge. His careful reading reveals their profound commitment to a critical understanding of how truth, meaning, and value are constituted in language and in non-verbal texts. In his first three chapters, Payne examines in considerable detail brief texts by Barthes, Foucault, and Althusser that seem to be their own strategically designed introductions to their projects. The next three chapters take up the most important books by each of these writers: Foucault's The Order of Things, Barthesīs S/Z, and Althusserīs Reading Capital. Chapter 7 examines a specific text by each author writing on one of the visual arts, in an effort to investigate the assumption that knowledge - whether as theory, enlightenment, vision, illumination, or insight - is in some sense visual. The last chapter briefly examines the work of Gilles Deleuze. Payne writes here with the same lucidity and acuity to be found in his highly successful companion to this volume, Reading Theory: An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida, and Kristeva (1993).  

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Roland Barthes Biography

A short biography with a list of suggested reading along with a list of Barthes' written works.



By Roland Barthes.  French toys: one could not find a better illustration of the fact that the adult Frenchman sees the child as another self. All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world; they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size...


Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes on Photography and their relevance for photos found in second-hand shops

Walter Benjamin in a famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," claimed that what was lost in a work of art when it was reproduced was its "aura," a uniqueness that gave it its mysterious power. But he was also thinking of photographs and wondering how we respond to them, though he believed they don't have the aura that a traditional work of art supposedly has.

Roland Barthes, from Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography [trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981], provides a Proustian answer to Benjamin: photographs do have an aura, the aura of lost time and lost memories. I would add that this aura is sharply increased when the gaze of those who "knew" the person or scene in the photo seems lost.


Sites Pertaining to Roland Barthes


Some Terms of Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes presented the postmodernist tradition with many useful terms with which to describe what is occurring semioticly within discourse. The following list covers the more useful semiological terms and more significant theorists.

Semiotics, Semiosis, Semiology: The noun form of the study of signs and signification, the process of attaching signifieds to signifiers, the study of signs and signifying systems.


  • Symbol: Stands in place of an object - flags, the crucifix, bathroom door signs.
  • Index: Points to something - an indicator, such as words like "big" and arrows.
  • Icon: A representation of an object that produces a mental image of the object represented. For example, a picture of a tree evokes the same mental image regardless of language. The picture of a tree conjures up "tree" in the brain.

Signifier: Is in some ways a substitute. Words, both oral and written, are signifiers. The brain then exchanges the signifier for a working definition. The word "tree", for example, is a signifier. You can't make a log cabin out of the word "tree." You could, however, make a log cabin out of what the brain substitutes for the input "tree" which would be some type of signified.

Signified: What the signifier refers to (see signifier). There are two types of signifieds:

  • Connotative: Points to the signified but has a deeper meaning. An example provided by Barthes is "Tree" = luxuriant green, shady, etc...
  • Denotative: What the signified actually is, quite like a definition, but in brain language.

Slippage: When meaning moves due to a signifier calling on multiple signifieds. Also known as "skidding."

Discourse: Messages that serve a communicative function and are usually more complex than simple signs.

Mythic Signs: Messages that "go without saying" that reinforce the dominant values of their culture. These messages don't raise questions or inspire critical thinking.

Denotative system: A signifier, signified, and sign that together form a meaning

Second-order semiological system: Connotative system that incorporate the sign of an initial system which becomes the signifier of the second system.

Taxonomy: A kind of structural analysis where features of a semiotic system are classified.

Credit:  Ron White

It was Barthes (1968) who coined the phrase 'The death of the author', in which he rejected the traditional view that the author is the origin of the text, the source of its meaning, and the only authority for interpretation. For Barthes, each text possesses a plurality of meanings, just as each 'I' which reads is 'already itself a plurality of other texts' and 'each text refers back differently to the infinite sea of the 'already written'' (Barthes, 1970, cited in Selden, 1985, p. 76). Thus to try 'to see all the world's stories within a single structure' (Barthes, 1970, cited in Selden, 1985, p. 76) is a vain ambition which limits meaning and reduces the reader to a consumer of fixed meaning rather than turning the reader into a producer of meaning. Barthes states:

Textual analysis indeed requires us to represent the text as a tissue...as a skein of different voices and multiple codes which are at once interwoven and unfinished. (Barthes, 1981, cited in Lodge, 1988, p. 193).

Yet what this also suggests is that any reading of a text, however good, will only be a partial one and 'as the reader adopts different viewpoints the text's meaning is produced in a multitude of fragments which have no inherent unity' (Barthes, 1970, cited in Selden, 1985, p. 77).

Barthes' contribution to literary theory is a useful reminder for all writers and readers and his contention that:

The worst sin a writer can commit is to pretend that language is a natural, transparent medium through which the reader grasps a solid and unified 'truth' or 'reality'... Bourgeois ideology, promotes the sinful view that reading is natural and language transparent; it insists on regarding the signifier as the sober partner of the signified, thus in authoritarian manner repressing all discourse into a [single] meaning ( Selden, 1985, p. 74).

has resonances in Culler's (1982) observation that:

Structuralists are convinced that systematic knowledge is possible; Poststructuralists claim to know only the impossibility of this knowledge (cited in Gavey, 1990, p. 7).

Credit: Jenny Pinkus


More Terms and Concepts

Barthes uses many different terms and concepts...The following notes take some of those terms and concepts and distills their meanings and intellectual heritage.


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