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Writing Degree Zero Reissue Edition

3.7 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0374521394
ISBN-10: 0374521395
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Editorial Reviews


"Barthes's career was an exemplary search for understanding how man creates meaning, a lifelong exploration of man's definition as Homo significans, the maker of meaning in signs. In anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, and the discourse upon literature, this has been a characteristic preoccupation of our age, and no one addressed himself to it so persistently, so multifariously, so ingeniously, as Barthes." --Peter Brooks, The New Republic

About the Author

Roland Barthes was born in 1915 and studied French literature and the classics at the University of Paris. After teaching French at universities in Romania and Egypt, he joined the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, where he devoted himself to research in sociology and lexicology. He was a professor at the College de France until his death in 1980.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; Reissue edition (April 1, 1977)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374521395
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374521394
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.3 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #212,640 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
*Writing Degree Zero* is one of those 100-page books you need a 500-page book to really understand. You know you're in trouble when, like me, you find yourself having a problem fully comprehending even the `explanatory' preface. In which, by the way, Susan Sontag warns of the difficulty of the text and states that *Writing Degree Zero* serves as a kind of précis of Barthes' early views that presupposes the reader's familiarity with the literary argument of the time, specifically as it was presented in Sartre's book on the subject *What is Literature?*

That all said, there was still much that I found of interest in this slim volume. The main thrust of the argument seems to be the `impossible' dilemma inherent in the act of writing. And, by `writing,' we mean here the act at its highest level of intent. How, for instance, can the writer compose an authentic text when the very tools he's forced to use--the conventions of language and Literature--are those that belong to a tradition he had no part in choosing, let alone creating? How can he write a text socially and historically engaged in the present when this tradition is handed to him from the past? How can he avoid slipping into cliché, commercialism, and sloganistic propaganda, all pitfalls of the present, and yet still make himself understood and relevant to his time?

Barthes makes much of the distinction between speaking and writing, the former more genuine than the latter in his view, inasmuch as speech is less bound by `Order,' which is, by its very nature, always closed and authoritarian. Yet all attempts to convert the idiosyncratic, free-form rhythms and authenticity of speech into text ((as in the works of Celine)) remains, in the final analysis, when written, artifice.

What's a writer to do?
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"Classical language is a bringer of euphoria because it is immediately social." pg 49

"This erect discourse [modern poetry esp.] is full of terror, that is to say, it relates man not to other man, but to the most inhuman images in Nature: heaven, hell, holiness, childhood, madness, pure matter, ect."

Barthes's sympathies appear to lie in classical over modern forms and modes of writing. He indicates in his analysis of modern poetry, that the Word remain hegemonic without being communicative itself--it being in essence an assertion of solipsistic individuality in reaction against the tyrannical inertia of Doxa. This line of thought is carried through to its conclusion (proletarian and petit bourgeois natured writings being two faces of the same Janus) especially in the sections "Triumph and Breakup of Writing" through "Writing and Revolution" and "Writing and Silence."

His conclusion: The Utopia of Language, Writing Degree Zero.
Synthesis of the classical distribution of meaning applied to the whole language, and modern force of Words themselves, reigned back to their status of tools of communication: subordinate to their social use-their original and sole purpose ("instrumentality" in his words). see pg. 46 "a total gesture of intellection, that is, of communication." A synthesis between the modern and classical, without the solipsism of the former or dogmatic adherence to Form in the latter. Something new, the Text.

"[. . .] there is no thought without language, that Form is the first and last arbiter of literary responsibility, and it is because there is no reconciliation within the present society, that language, necessary and necessarily orientated, creates for the writer as situation fraught with conflict." pg.
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When Roland Barthes published WRITING DEGREE ZERO in 1953, he was determined to set out what he perceived to be the unique essence of writing. His task was made complex mostly because of a vastly differing version of writing offered by Sartre's WHAT IS LITERATURE? Sartre had insisted on a linking of form and content whereas Barthes upheld the dominance of form. Form making, Barthes urges relentlessly, is the primary goal of literature. The society and culture that forms the background against which one may write is bound to language in a literary bear hug that demands that the writer distinguish between form and content. It is only when they are linked in a Sartrean bonding that the previously hidden ideology surfaces, overwhelming both writing and intended content. The undesirable result is that a myth is engendered, one that imposes a patina of reality but is truly no more than a linguistic sleight of hand. Barthes describes such linking of form to content as a denial of history. What takes the place of history is a myth that the reader is required to recognize as literary legedermain. Sadly enough, Barthes muses, a reader is most often unable or unwilling to do so. The "Zero" of the title enters the picture when a writer creates a text that is free of the constraints and conventions of his predecessors all of whom may have had some very definite literary axes to grind. When a writer can neatly dodge the thicket of buried ideology to write a text that is unique, creative, and ideologically neutral, then that writer has assumed the much desired mantle of a zero degree writer. Barthes admits that this attempt is not a "one step and you're done" process; to create such a zero text requires ongoing struggle and constant experimentation with a myriad of writing modes.Read more ›
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