Roland Barthes and the significance of autonomy for the modern author


The aim of this article is to reflect on the conditions of literature as a “modern” phenomenon, and the potential of social and intellectual factors to either promote or threaten the functioning of a modern literature. This discussion is applied to contemporary South African literature (in Afrikaans and English).

Using the insights of the literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes – as described in his first work Le degré zéro de l’ecriture (1953) / Writing degree zero (WDZ) (1967a) – certain attributes/quests found in “modern literature” are discussed. It is argued that these quests are essential for the activity of a modern literature to exist, and that they had caused a radical break with the historically preceding manifestations of literature.

These primary quests of modern literature are referred to as: the writerly endeavour to create as many forms of literary expression as possible; the quest for radical originality in literary expression; and the modern author’s obsession with making ethical choices. For these quests to exist, an important prior condition is also necessary, namely the author’s autonomy to express him- or herself.

As a broad contextualising backdrop to the exposition on modern literature (as viewed by Barthes), a concise overview is first provided of how the concepts of writer and literature have developed from primeval times to Grecian and Roman antiquity up to present-day late modernity, and how South African literature fits into this picture. (It will be necessary for the reader to distinguish the historical terms premodernity, modernity and postmodernity used in the article from the related literary terms modernism, postmodernism and modern literature.)

Though Barthes discusses modern literature according to developments in his native French literature, the focus of this article applies his insights to South African literature.

According to WDZ there are factors that either promote or thwart the functioning of a modern literature, and the article expounds on these. The most invasive development regarding the existence of modern literature as it has been known up to now, has been the influence of postmodern developments in thinking, a development in which Barthes (and other thinkers of his time) had a central significance.

The consequently ambiguous status of the postmodern (late modern) author is touched on: how this construct has come to outstrip its condition of freedom and paradoxically now faces the disintegration of its most important property, namely autonomy.

Particular implications that derive from the insights in WDZ for contemporary South African literary dilemmas are addressed. The article concludes with a critique of some aspects of the thesis in WDZ.

Provided above is a broad outline of the article, and what follows is a brief summary of the various main arguments.

In the introduction the significance of the term author is discussed as opposed to the term writer. It is clear that Barthes uses author in WDZ in reference to the modern variety of writer. It is noticeable that in contrast to writer, the etymology of the term author shows the connotation “autonomy”, which is central to the definition of the modern writer. It is precisely this autonomy which allows for the heightened significance of both individualism and the ethical quest of the author. The prevalence of the ethical aspect of the modern author’s quest has been very noticeable in the shaping of the South African writer, most notably in opposition to the 40-year rule of apartheid.

My discussion draws a comparison between South African literature and French literature (as described by Barthes). I argue that Afrikaans literature and literary criticism have become strongly infused by English tradition and assumptions, despite at times having shown close links to European literature, notably in the literary revival period of the sixties. In the latter respect Afrikaans literature has differed historically from South African English literature.

The article refers to the important Preface to WDZ written by Susan Sontag (1967), in which she argues that English literatures lacks the “horizon of revolution” presupposed in French literature. In her opinion it is this “revolutionary horizon” that makes the quest for individualism a more single-minded enterprise for writers in a Barthesian scenario.

In comparing the influential Afrikaans writer and literary theorist N.P. Van Wyk Louw with his near contemporary Roland Barthes, it becomes clear that a cultural chasm separated the idea realms of the two authors – to such an extent that the more far-reaching implications of leading modern literary thought, as found in a work like WDZ, was out of reach for Van Wyk Louw, despite his acumen as a thinker and his links to European literature. The article discusses the work of other South African authors, notably J.M. Coetzee and Marlene van Niekerk, and the discourse around their work in the light of a Barthesian approach. As mentioned, this is an approach in which the conditions of unhampered freedom of thought and creation for the individual writer, aesthetically as well as ethically, take central place.

The analysis considers ever more closely the Barthesian argument that the net effect of modern literature should be a force that opens up spaces for psychic, intellectual, cultural and physical liberation. Not for nothing does this thrust for liberation then comprise the two main defining characteristics of a modern literature, namely individualism and the heightened search for ethical interrogation. But, judged by Barthes’s own critique of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideas of “liberation through literature” (littérature engagée), and judged by his condemnation of socialist realist literature in some communist states of his time, WDZ unequivocally points towards the potential that liberation discourses themselves have to fail the liberation quest and to provide new shackles in the service of totalitarian and prescriptive thinking.

The discussion unpacks some arguments found in current liberation discourses, including postcolonial literary discourse and analyses that might have proscriptive effects which constrain the freedom of texts to speak in their fullness. Some current critiques which, like Barthes’s own critiques delivered in WDZ that criticise such pitfalls in liberation discourses, are discussed.

After having considered the ethical ambit in modern literature and the dangers and constraints that this sphere sometimes faces, the article turns to the equally important ambit of individualism in literature and the dangers and constraints faced here. The apogee of Barthes’s description of individualism in literature is his concept of zero degree writing, which is discussed by analysing the terms used by Barthes to describe this enigmatic concept. The concept is compared with the similar, more well-known concept avant-garde to point out important differences and to shed more light on Barthes’s understanding of literary individualism.

Attention is given to the partial and sometimes erroneous understanding that the concept of zero degree writing has met with among some Afrikaans literary commentators up to now. An analogy is drawn between zero degree writing and a later concept of Barthes’s, namely the concept of the neutral, which amounts to an extension of the zero degree writing concept. Both of these concepts pose implications for the writing of unitary literary historiographies, and the two radical constructs supplement each other.

The potential of the book WDZ to speak to current issues and conundrums, despite its having been written more than half a century ago, is discussed. One such issue (among many possible ones) within the South African context is the contestation between standardised language and dialects. The article uses the views found in WDZ to speculate on this problematic and its implications for literature.

In conclusion, WDZ is briefly reconsidered within the context of a world order that has radically changed since it was written.

Keywords: Albert Camus; écriture; littérature engagée; hegemony; Jean-Paul Sartre; Michel Foucault; mythology; Roland Barthes; Susan Sontag; Writing degree zero, WDZ

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Roland Barthes en die belang van outonomie vir die moderne skrywer


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