Sam Anderson takes to the pages of the New York Times to praise Roland Barthes, “the man who essentially created cultural criticism,” from the systematic analysis of novelistic structure to the TV recap:
Instead of constructing multivolume monuments of systematic thought, Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he called jouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment…
His critical metabolism ran unusually high: he would flit from subject to subject, defining new fields of interest (semiology, narratology) only to abandon them and leave others to do the busywork. He treated canonical French works with such unorthodox flair it drove conservative professors crazy…
In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France — a sort of mission statement for the most prestigious academic post in the country — Barthes announced that he aspired above all to “forget” and to “unlearn” and proposed, as a kind of motto, “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom and as much flavor as possible.”
I have a hard time giving up knowledge so easily — and really, Barthes did too. (I think it’s mostly the pretense to knowledge, the use of knowledge as a cudgel, that he saw as the problem.)
The part I probably love best and most fully endorse is the section on what a critic is supposed to do:
“Mythologies” is often an angry book, and what angered Barthes more than anything was “common sense,” which he identified as the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, a mode of thought that systematically pretends that complex things are simple, that puzzling things are obvious, that local things are universal — in short, that cultural fantasies shaped by all the dirty contingencies of power and money and history are in fact just the natural order of the universe. The critic’s job, in Barthes’s view, was not to revel in these common-sensical myths but to expose them as fraudulent. The critic had to side with history, not with culture. And history, Barthes insisted, “is not a good bourgeois.”
The pairing of these things, the genuine jouissance and the relentless critical awareness, the ruthless crusade against the conventionally obvious, is what makes it all work.
Never just a cheerleader. Never just a killjoy. Something beyond either. And listing always in favor of flavor.
PS: Mythologies was just published in a terrific new edition/translation which is like twice as long as the bowdlerized version we’ve had in English for forty years. That’s the occasion for the essay.