As the quintessential man of letters, Roland Barthes had the genial gift of being able to sympathize with an endless variety of discourses, texts, myths, and semiotic systems. The profusion of apparent subjects-Japan, Brecht, Balzac, photography, "mythologies," classical writing, the theater-is perhaps calculated to provoke the purist who insists on the values of thoroughness and well-grounded inquiry. At the same time, one would have to be obtuse to fail to recognize the critical projects that animate the many books, essays, and studies; these are explorations that put into question the often closed and crabbed commitment of the scholar or critic to the confines of what he or she knows in "proper" serious fashion.
Barthes's Empire of Signs may stand as the emblem of his polemic with scholarship; it is an imaginary voyage, undertaken by a traveler who deliberately eschews a knowledge of the language of the country where he travels and dispenses with the apparatus extensive studies of history, literature, and culture-that the traveling scholar typically employs to attain some simulacrum of the mastery that is comfortably taken for granted when one is "at home" with one's own specialty or Fach. Barthes's desire to slide over the surface of Japanese life is, however, tied to his attempt to suspend or, as the phenomenologists (to whom we shall return) would say, "bracket" the Western metaphysical commitment to the values of the center and interiority. Barthes proposes to contest these values and the binary categories of center/periphery and interior/exterior that they exemplify and reinforce. In attributing the Western taste for concentric cities with a full center to "the very movement of Western metaphysics, for which every center is the site of truth," his language comes surprisingly close to the philosophical thematics of Derrida and Deleuze. We might be tempted to say that Barthes is an imaginary traveler in philosophy as well as in Japan. In fact, there are resonances of philosophy and its language(s) throughout Barthes's work, sometimes oblique, sometimes polemical, sometimes simply as part of a body of reference texts (as in A Lover's Discourse). The first book, Writing Degree Zero, is a sustained answer to Sartre's What Is Literature? while the last book, Camera Lucida, is dedicated to Sartre's L'Imaginaire; the names of Plato, Descartes, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, and a bevy of more recent French philosophers play across Barthes's pages.
Essay by Dr. Gary Shapiro is from Signs in Culture: Roland Barthes Today, edited by Steven Ungar and Betty R. McGraw, published by the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 1989 by the University of Iowa Press. Archived with permission. All rights reserved.
Shapiro, Gary. "To Philosophize Is to Learn to Die." In Signs in Culture: Roland Barthes Today, edited by Steven Ungar and Betty McGraw, 3-31. Iowa City: Univeristy of Iowa Press, 1989.