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Is there any such thing as revolutionary literature? Can literature, in fact, be political at all? These are the questions Roland Barthes addresses in Writing Degree Zero, his first published book and a landmark in his oeuvre. The debate had engaged the European literary community since the 1930s; with this fierce manifesto, Barthes challenged the notion of literature's ob Is there any such thing as revolutionary literature? Can literature, in fact, be political at all? These are the questions Roland Barthes addresses in Writing Degree Zero, his first published book and a landmark in his oeuvre. The debate had engaged the European literary community since the 1930s; with this fierce manifesto, Barthes challenged the notion of literature's obligation to be socially committed. Yes, Barthes allows, the writer has a political and ethical responsibility. But the history of French literature shows that the writer has often failed to meet it—and from his perspective, literature is committed to little more than the myth of itself. Expert and uncompromising, Writing Degree Zero introduced the themes that would soon establish Barthes as one of the leading voices in literary criticism.


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Is there any such thing as revolutionary literature? Can literature, in fact, be political at all? These are the questions Roland Barthes addresses in Writing Degree Zero, his first published book and a landmark in his oeuvre. The debate had engaged the European literary community since the 1930s; with this fierce manifesto, Barthes challenged the notion of literature's ob Is there any such thing as revolutionary literature? Can literature, in fact, be political at all? These are the questions Roland Barthes addresses in Writing Degree Zero, his first published book and a landmark in his oeuvre. The debate had engaged the European literary community since the 1930s; with this fierce manifesto, Barthes challenged the notion of literature's obligation to be socially committed. Yes, Barthes allows, the writer has a political and ethical responsibility. But the history of French literature shows that the writer has often failed to meet it—and from his perspective, literature is committed to little more than the myth of itself. Expert and uncompromising, Writing Degree Zero introduced the themes that would soon establish Barthes as one of the leading voices in literary criticism.

30 review for Writing Degree Zero

  1. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    Often just as impenetrable and abstruse as you fear - Susan Sontag's introductory essay to the 1968 English translation is enormously helpful in suggesting what to look for and laying out the ground rules of Barthes' thought - also by suggesting which essays to start with (not at the beginning). Inevitably a reader educated in the Anglo-American tradition, first language English, is going to retain a bit of ethnocentrism, so it is good medicine to read someone for whom "literature" means "French Often just as impenetrable and abstruse as you fear - Susan Sontag's introductory essay to the 1968 English translation is enormously helpful in suggesting what to look for and laying out the ground rules of Barthes' thought - also by suggesting which essays to start with (not at the beginning). Inevitably a reader educated in the Anglo-American tradition, first language English, is going to retain a bit of ethnocentrism, so it is good medicine to read someone for whom "literature" means "French literature" and "language" means French; it does make me want to get a much better grip on things I feel I have only plodded through (Flaubert). Also interesting, at this remove from when he was criticizing and being criticized - by now any educated American has at least taken a stab at, and possibly even enjoyed (!), Robbe-Grillet, Beckett and Queneau, all of whom were considered examples of Barthes esotericism when he was championing them in the 1950s.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Soeine

    Roland Barthes succinctly expresses his concern about the separation between the (writer’s) individual “style” and the “language” of society. According to him, these two “objects” of convention (“style” and “language”) escape the writer’s control. The writer cannot choose them; they are given to him. Style results from one’s habits formed over the passage of time in his personal and biological conditions, and is alien to language which results from social convention, common to all social members Roland Barthes succinctly expresses his concern about the separation between the (writer’s) individual “style” and the “language” of society. According to him, these two “objects” of convention (“style” and “language”) escape the writer’s control. The writer cannot choose them; they are given to him. Style results from one’s habits formed over the passage of time in his personal and biological conditions, and is alien to language which results from social convention, common to all social members. As a way to bridge these two, Barthes introduces “écriture” (writing), by which the writer commits himself to society. In this operation, écriture works as a “function” which connects style and language through the individual’s intention to carry out his moral responsibility to reach out to society.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Peter Landau

    WRITING DEGREE ZERO isn’t a poem, though the title is as inscrutable and evocative as one. Roland Barthes’ first book is an essay on literature, that much I got. Even Susan Sontag notes in her revealing preface that it’s not a good place to start in Barthes’ oeuvre. The prose is academic, difficult and assumes that the reader has already done the homework. I didn’t even know there was a test! Like having a dream where I’m in my underwear, totally unprepared, I figured I might as well go with it WRITING DEGREE ZERO isn’t a poem, though the title is as inscrutable and evocative as one. Roland Barthes’ first book is an essay on literature, that much I got. Even Susan Sontag notes in her revealing preface that it’s not a good place to start in Barthes’ oeuvre. The prose is academic, difficult and assumes that the reader has already done the homework. I didn’t even know there was a test! Like having a dream where I’m in my underwear, totally unprepared, I figured I might as well go with it until I woke up. I don’t have a terrible body, for a man of my age, and I’m not a sound sleeper. While biding my time, trying to unravel reams of knotty ideas about writing and history, I’d be struck by a sentence or two. For example, “Modernism begins with the search for a Literature which is no longer possible.” I don’t know what that means, but I like it. Barthes has you digging through the fruit of his creative prose until you hit your teeth on a stone of truth that stops you. It’s not understanding — for me, at least — but an inarticulate knowledge. I get that I don’t get it. That's a start.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Kent

    Barthes' primary allegiance is to the impulse that leads an artist to write. The language the writer uses, his style, is an organic response to what he feels needs to be said. It all seems so simple. And what I'm especially interested in is his statement describing accessibility in literature. It is merely a decision, for the writer, to participate in the dominant (for Barthes, this reads "bourgeoisie) rhetoric of that time. The writer is the one in control, then. There is no one language system Barthes' primary allegiance is to the impulse that leads an artist to write. The language the writer uses, his style, is an organic response to what he feels needs to be said. It all seems so simple. And what I'm especially interested in is his statement describing accessibility in literature. It is merely a decision, for the writer, to participate in the dominant (for Barthes, this reads "bourgeoisie) rhetoric of that time. The writer is the one in control, then. There is no one language system the writer is beholden to. They are his to manipulate, or his to use.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Fariba

    I read only the title essay. Barthes is concerned about the relationship writing has to power. He argues that writing is always a question of power not only in the content it communicates but even and especially in its style. The utopian ideal is a neutral blank writing style, but that’s unattainable.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Nikola Tasev

    Written in a style heavy with complex, unneeded, heavy expressions and clumsy similes. Using words outside their normal definitions without providing his own definition. Using different meanings of a word without clarifying which one he means (Language, History - personal and societal). Talking about Literature and meaning just French literature. A whole lot of fluff you need to go through before you can see what he means. The author never states clearly something he can dance about - "let me te Written in a style heavy with complex, unneeded, heavy expressions and clumsy similes. Using words outside their normal definitions without providing his own definition. Using different meanings of a word without clarifying which one he means (Language, History - personal and societal). Talking about Literature and meaning just French literature. A whole lot of fluff you need to go through before you can see what he means. The author never states clearly something he can dance about - "let me tell you about Language and Style, Language springs from the body and past of the writer, while Style is of biological origin and its secret is locked in the recollection of the writer". Almost a quote. And when you do, you can find it it full of unbacked and untrue assertions (every Form is a Value), and drawing illogical and false conclusions from them. I am left with the impression that noone wanted to point out that the emperor had (almost) no clothes, fearing they would seem too stupid to understand the profound truths (intentionally vague and ambiguous deepities, mostly). There is a point and meaning behind all this, but it is not given easily, or willingly. You have to dig through a lot of sand to get your small gold reward... not worth it in my opinion. I have no desire to read an author that does not wish to be understood, I don't want to pry truth from someone who does not wish to share it freely.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Stefan Szczelkun

    In 1953 I was five and the coronation of Queen Elisabeth II of England was the main event. There was a surge in TV buying as the ceremony was relayed live and someone on our street got one and soon after we got our own black and white set and I was watching Bill & Ben the Flowerpot Men and Andy Pandy and Hopalong Cassidy. Meanwhile over in Paris the renegade critic Roland Barthes had his first book of essays printed - Writing Degree Zero. These essays contained startling and brilliant insight int In 1953 I was five and the coronation of Queen Elisabeth II of England was the main event. There was a surge in TV buying as the ceremony was relayed live and someone on our street got one and soon after we got our own black and white set and I was watching Bill & Ben the Flowerpot Men and Andy Pandy and Hopalong Cassidy. Meanwhile over in Paris the renegade critic Roland Barthes had his first book of essays printed - Writing Degree Zero. These essays contained startling and brilliant insight into the nature of Western European writing and language. I only recently read this book and it made me think a lot about my patchy experience of literature - my affinity with science fiction and then experimental writing from William Burroughs and Brion Gysin's cut-ups to Bob Cobbing's sound poetry. From Joyce and Beckett to the Fluxus instructions. He starts by impressing on us the depth at which writing springs "from the body and the past of the writer". Words themselves "have a second-order memory which mysteriously persists in the midst of new meanings". "Under each word in modern poetry there lies a sort of existential geology, in which is gathered the total content of the Name… Pregnant with all past and future specifications." p.48. "Every man is a prisoner of his language…. is put on show and delivered up by his language, betrayed by a formal reality which is beyond the reach of his lies, whether they are inspired by self-interest or generosity". p.81. Throughout the book Barthes refers to 'classical writing'. Classical writing is defined as the writing that appears as the national languages are standardised and codified by way of dictionaries and grammars under the economic focus of the expanding book market (around 1700). It is Literature that is at the core of the new Bourgeois culture and self-identity. Its exemplary form is the novel. The mythic unity of this language is an article of classical dogma. This singular language claims to externalise everything that is important about the human mind. In the end it claims its achievement as universal. Barthes calls the use of the preterite, past tense or simple past, which is rarely used in oral speech, the 'cornerstone' of classical Literary narration. The preterite is used to "reduce the exploded reality to a slim and pure logos, without density, without volume, without spread, and whose sole function is to unite as rapidly as possible a cause and an end." "He who tells the story has the power to do away with with the opacity and the solitude of the existences which made it up..." p.31. In C16th and beginning of C17th there was a profusion of literary languages. The written form has not yet come to a standardised dominant grammar and form. This is what he calls the pre-classical period. As written language comes to have national norms it become invisible as nothing else is allowed. All dialect variants are judged as incorrect usage. Within this dominating language varying rhythms and styles are possible of course but form is supposed to be at the service of content. "The only thing in question was rhetoric". "This classical writing is, needless to say, a class writing." p.57. Forged by those close to power, shaped by dogma, it had separated from speech by getting rid of 'colloquialism' and was drilled by definition for clarity and to be the unquestionably superior language of the elite. The national language of France remained intact through the revolution of the late 1700s and stayed all-powerful until 1848. It was promoted as universal but really was the cultural movement of an period of bourgeois dominance. The Realism of writers like Emile Zola (1840 - 1902) that was a part of this attempted break, used a combination of the formal signs of Literature (The past tense, indirect speech, written rhythms) with a smattering of colloquialisms, shock words and working class speech. It becomes a convention of 'the real', a spectacular fabrication. In the mid C19th national writing was so established that most writers were unaware that there were many ways of speaking French. What was most often quoted from these other 'inferior' forms, were humorous of picturesque phrases. "There began to find their way into literary language proper a few extraneous scraps lifted from inferior forms of language, provided they were suitably eccentric (otherwise they would have been a source of danger)." p.79. It is only Marcel Proust who uses language's breadth to "fully account for the whole content of society." p.80. With Proust literature becomes a useful qualitative information on the human world, it no longer exists to imply 'pride or escape'. Barthes claims that the use of a real language by a writer is the most human act they can make. However languages are surrounded by conventional usages that are most often strictly policed. Marxist writing broke with the moral justifications and grandiloquence of the French Revolutionaries, it was univocal, lexical, understated and above all maintained a cohesion of knowledge and the certainty of science. Naming and judging are simultaneously carried out by a strict terminology. "Between a proletariat excluded from all culture, and an intelligensia which has already begun to question literature itself, the average public produced by primary and secondary schools, namely lower middle class, roughly speaking, will therefor find in the artistic-realist mode of writing - which is that of a good proportion of commercial novels - the image par excellence of a Literature which has all the striking and intelligible signs of its identity." p.70. This invisible 'universal' form was assumed by many communist writers. There is an almost mechanised use of metaphors, like 'crystal clear'. Liberal use of metaphor give the stamp of 'good' writing. "Perhaps there is, in this well-behaved writing of revolutionaries, a feeling of powerlessness to create forthwith a free writing." p.73 If only I could have had this read to me when I was five, or at least given it to read when I was moved to Sunbury Grammar School at age 11. It would have saved me a lot of bloody head scratching. This has been remixed from my blog: http://stefan-szczelkun.blogspot.co.u...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    The introduction helps a little, but you really don't need it. If people spent more time reading the fucking books and less time bitching about how the books were unreadable, then people might actually be able to read the books. There's so much crap about so much French literature being unreadable. I'm about 90% sure it's because everyone is taught to be terrified of Marx and so there's a massive chunk of world literature to which no one understands a significant section of the influence. Barthes The introduction helps a little, but you really don't need it. If people spent more time reading the fucking books and less time bitching about how the books were unreadable, then people might actually be able to read the books. There's so much crap about so much French literature being unreadable. I'm about 90% sure it's because everyone is taught to be terrified of Marx and so there's a massive chunk of world literature to which no one understands a significant section of the influence. Barthes is a structuralist. Structuralists believe social structures are real. They believe social relationships have an ontological status. It's almost like saying a social relationship has physical properties except that its intangible and invisible. Trust, feelings, words, memories are all parts of social relationships. So when you find someone saying something about how "Barthes writes in an obtuse style," first, no, he doesn't. He's pretty fucking clear. Second, he has a belief that people need to treat social relationships and history as substantive things. It's not him making it sound like "society is crazy man." It's him writing according to a fundamental belief that social relationships should be valued on the same level as something physical.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Sunny

    Relatively interesting book but I’m not sure I totally understood it to be honest. It’s about writing and literature. And had some interesting chapters like what is writing, writing and the novel, poetic writing, writing and revolution, writing and silence, the utopia or writing and bourgeois writing! A few of my best bits: • Poetry = prose +a+b+c • Prose = Poetry – a-b-c • These unrelated objects – words adorned with all the violence of their irruption the vibration of which though wholly mechanic Relatively interesting book but I’m not sure I totally understood it to be honest. It’s about writing and literature. And had some interesting chapters like what is writing, writing and the novel, poetic writing, writing and revolution, writing and silence, the utopia or writing and bourgeois writing! A few of my best bits: • Poetry = prose +a+b+c • Prose = Poetry – a-b-c • These unrelated objects – words adorned with all the violence of their irruption the vibration of which though wholly mechanical strangely affects the next word, only to die out immediately – those poetic words exclude men – there is no humanise of modern poetry. This erect discourse if full of terror that is to say it relate man not to other men but to the most inhuman images in nature – heaven hell holiness childhood madness, pure matter etc.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bruce Johnson

    A short, strange, uneven, and often fascinating book. Some of it is quite difficult to follow unless you know a lot about French literature, since 100% of the writers he cites are French. But the latter half's analysis of the traps fiction writing has found itself in for the last two hundred years is definitely worth the read. A short, strange, uneven, and often fascinating book. Some of it is quite difficult to follow unless you know a lot about French literature, since 100% of the writers he cites are French. But the latter half's analysis of the traps fiction writing has found itself in for the last two hundred years is definitely worth the read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Christopher McCaffery

    A whole lot of fun even though I don't know anything about French literature. A whole lot of fun even though I don't know anything about French literature.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Parsa

    Recommended reading by English prof

  13. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Ochal

    I've got to take a break from reading books from school. Yes Roland, you say some things, you make some points... but I just dont C A R E! I'm so sorry. I've got to take a break from reading books from school. Yes Roland, you say some things, you make some points... but I just dont C A R E! I'm so sorry.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Gilbert Wesley Purdy

    "I was recently at a bookstore to pick up a copy of Writing Degree Zero I had ordered. The bookstore was a franchise of one of the old chains being driven out of business by the new mega-stores. In the particular area there are few privately owned bookstores and all are at a considerable distance. My desire to keep alive diversity and to prevent the publishing industry from descending to a mere commodity exchange would have to be satisfied by this ambivalent and surely inconsequential act. I felt "I was recently at a bookstore to pick up a copy of Writing Degree Zero I had ordered. The bookstore was a franchise of one of the old chains being driven out of business by the new mega-stores. In the particular area there are few privately owned bookstores and all are at a considerable distance. My desire to keep alive diversity and to prevent the publishing industry from descending to a mere commodity exchange would have to be satisfied by this ambivalent and surely inconsequential act. I felt that I needed to go back to Roland Barthes’s brilliant book on ‘non-style’ — on the ‘zero level’ or ‘spoken level’ of writing — in order to recapture a mythical clarity I once possessed...." Click here to read the complete essay/review at >>> Jacket Magazine. It is far and away my best known piece on the web.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    Cryptograms of the writing of novels and histories with an singular approach using the styles of Flaubert, Camus, Balzac, Voltaire, Rousseau, Cayrol, Gide, Borges, Beckett, and on and so forth, to make some point about the Novel, History, and the languages found and made. It's a dense book, and it even seems that Susan Sontag is trying to make you not read it in her preface. This book was probably too much for the heavy American literary audience at one time, but I'm not so sure now. Then again Cryptograms of the writing of novels and histories with an singular approach using the styles of Flaubert, Camus, Balzac, Voltaire, Rousseau, Cayrol, Gide, Borges, Beckett, and on and so forth, to make some point about the Novel, History, and the languages found and made. It's a dense book, and it even seems that Susan Sontag is trying to make you not read it in her preface. This book was probably too much for the heavy American literary audience at one time, but I'm not so sure now. Then again it may not stand the test of time all that well. That said, I did find it to have quite a quality of joy and a poignancy that travels well. Plus, it fit in my back pocket well enough.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Tosh

    Not my favorite of the Barthes book, but the "Empire of Signs" is the one that springs to mind as being a masterpiece of some sort - as well as his great "Mythologies." Nevertheless, a very dense piece of work and an early Roland title as well. Geared totally to French literature, it is interesting in how it conveys a thoughtfulness on the art of reading and writing literature. There's text, and then there is how Barthes looks at that text. He is the scientist of the mood, and therefore probably Not my favorite of the Barthes book, but the "Empire of Signs" is the one that springs to mind as being a masterpiece of some sort - as well as his great "Mythologies." Nevertheless, a very dense piece of work and an early Roland title as well. Geared totally to French literature, it is interesting in how it conveys a thoughtfulness on the art of reading and writing literature. There's text, and then there is how Barthes looks at that text. He is the scientist of the mood, and therefore probably one of the great critical writers. A modern mind looking at the history of French writing. Not perfect, mind you, but what is these days?

  17. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    I only feel like reading Barthes mid-morning, at the caffeine crest. I'm skimming this as part of an obligatory lit-survey. His particular statement of 'classic vs. romantic' is perceptive (smooth, monotonous, compacted 'relational' diction as opposed to a more various and individually colorful word-choice) but needlessly elaborate; Strachey says the same thing, but in less than half the page-space. I only feel like reading Barthes mid-morning, at the caffeine crest. I'm skimming this as part of an obligatory lit-survey. His particular statement of 'classic vs. romantic' is perceptive (smooth, monotonous, compacted 'relational' diction as opposed to a more various and individually colorful word-choice) but needlessly elaborate; Strachey says the same thing, but in less than half the page-space.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Daryn

    Barthes was trained as a philosopher, so his account of French literary history is a little dated. Also, his lectures are too brief and one-sided to be compelling. That said, this presents a provocative counterargument to Jean-Paul Sartre's equally relevant What is Literature?, pointing up some of the weaknesses in Sartre's case for a "committed" or "engaged" literature. Barthes was trained as a philosopher, so his account of French literary history is a little dated. Also, his lectures are too brief and one-sided to be compelling. That said, this presents a provocative counterargument to Jean-Paul Sartre's equally relevant What is Literature?, pointing up some of the weaknesses in Sartre's case for a "committed" or "engaged" literature.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Timothy

    I enjoyed feeling like I actually understood most of his book, and Susan Sontag's introductory essay helped. I don't actually like the schema that Barthes uses of language, style, and writing: the idea that the first two are immutable givens (linguistic/social and biological, respectively) doesn't make sense to me in light of later theory. But the rest of the book is a great read. I enjoyed feeling like I actually understood most of his book, and Susan Sontag's introductory essay helped. I don't actually like the schema that Barthes uses of language, style, and writing: the idea that the first two are immutable givens (linguistic/social and biological, respectively) doesn't make sense to me in light of later theory. But the rest of the book is a great read.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Conor

    Not exactly what I expected, but not a bad time either. I really only liked the later half when Barthes talks about the drive toward fresh language in the novel. One wonders what he'd make of something like Ridley Walker. Not exactly what I expected, but not a bad time either. I really only liked the later half when Barthes talks about the drive toward fresh language in the novel. One wonders what he'd make of something like Ridley Walker.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    I wouldn't recommend this book as an intro to Barthes. Susan Sontag even seems to think the same. She wrote the preface. I might rather recommend Mythologies if you want to ease into Barthes. Of course, how you read is up to y o u. I wouldn't recommend this book as an intro to Barthes. Susan Sontag even seems to think the same. She wrote the preface. I might rather recommend Mythologies if you want to ease into Barthes. Of course, how you read is up to y o u.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Grace

    The introduction, by Susan Sontag, gave me a clear picture of what to expect. This was a really tough read. I think it's something I will read again when I have a little more background, more than likely after I've read Sartre's What is Literature? The introduction, by Susan Sontag, gave me a clear picture of what to expect. This was a really tough read. I think it's something I will read again when I have a little more background, more than likely after I've read Sartre's What is Literature?

  23. 5 out of 5

    Archer

    recommended by my secret obsessions

  24. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    Barthes is pure intellectual pleasure. Here he combines a history of the actions of writing that are applicable to many areas of life. A must read for the arts.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Leonard Pierce

    If this is less staggeringly powerful than "Mythologies" and "S/Z", it's only by an eyelash. A must-read for any serious writer -- or reader. If this is less staggeringly powerful than "Mythologies" and "S/Z", it's only by an eyelash. A must-read for any serious writer -- or reader.

  26. 5 out of 5

    mh

    I'm not sure of my view of this book. I probably ought to reread it. I'm not sure of my view of this book. I probably ought to reread it.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tony

    Crunchy.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    Thank you, Matthew for taking me up on the suggestion to read something at the same time. The conversations are proving very fruitful! And Barthes to be a wonderfully lucid craftsman.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Vasile

    A good and modern insight to poetry.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    808.02 B285 2012

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