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
Theory: An Introduction to Lacan, Derrida, and Kristeva
here to learn more about this book
here for more Barthes Books
Some Terms of Roland Barthes
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.
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
- 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
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
1990, p. 7).
Credit: Jenny Pinkus