Do things mean something?

Words cannot have ultimate meaning, after Babel; they are no longer centered on any truth; they don’t correspond to reality the way we think they ought to.  In vain we try to find universal meaning in written and spoken language; in vain we try to make ourselves understood.  But all is vanity, and a chasing after the wind. (EddystoneLight, in The Agony of Babel (Myths of Language, Part II))

Roland Barthes, in an interview entitled ‘Do Things Mean Something?’ (first published in Le Figaro Littéraire, 13 October 1962), explained that his passionate, lifelong interest was “the way men make their world intelligible to themselves. … Men give a meaning to their way of writing; with words, writing creates a meaning which the words do not have at the outset. That is what must be understood. That is what I try to express” (Barthes, 1985 (2): p8).

Such seemingly straightforward speech might wisely be regarded with scepticism. In her Introduction to A Barthes Reader (Barthes, 1982: xi), Susan Sontag reminds us of Barthes’s assertion that “The aim of literature … is to put ‘meaning’ into the world but not ‘a meaning’”. She also warns that “Barthes is always after another meaning, a more eccentric — often utopian — discourse” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: x).

Back in the ‘seventies, Philip Thody (1977: p100) had remarked that “Barthes has not so far always had a very enthusiastic reception in England.” Regarding as self-evident the view that language which sets out to communicate ideas should first of all try to be clear, Thody considered such a view “difficult to eliminate from minds brought up upon Hume, Russell or Ayer” (ibid). Branding Barthes as “one of nature’s structuralists,” Thody — who apparently regarded as axiomatic the view that ‘la clarté est la politesse de l’homme de lettres’ — accused structuralists generally of “the new obscurantism … neither Foucault, Lacan, Lévi-Strauss nor Roman Jakobson writes books whose meaning leaps off the page” (Thody, 1977: p109).

Thody went on to suggest: “Surely it would have been better if Barthes had set out with the conventional aim of communicating with his readers and influencing their way of looking at language and society” (Thody, 1977: p102). Jean-Paul Sartre — with his commitment to writing as communication (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xix-xx), and an “intellectually brutal, bon enfant view of the world, a view that wills simplicity, resolution, transparence” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xxi), but which at times descends to “latent philistinism” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xx) — might well have sympathised with such an attitude.

Always an assiduous and meticulous writer, Barthes (1985 (10): p81) insists that the only way to create a dialectic is “through a readiness to write, to enter into the movement of writing, as exactingly as possible.” Sontag (in Barthes, 1982: viii) observes that “[Barthes] always wrote full out, was always concentrated, keen, indefatigable.” Nevertheless — while not always easy to understand — Barthes makes “no efforts not to be understood” (Sontag, in Barthes, 1982: xvii).

But it is not always Barthes’s intention to be unequivocal: for Barthes, as for Nietzsche, the point — in many instances — “is not to teach us something in particular … [but] to make us bold, agile, subtle, intelligent, detached. And to give pleasure” (Sontag, in Barthes 1982: xvii).


Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.

Barthes, R. 1985. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962‑1980 [39 items], translated from the French by Linda Coverdale. London: Jonathan Cape (1985). Translation copyright © 1985 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc; originally published in French as Le Grain de la voix, copyright © 1981 by Éditions du Seuil. 
(2) ‘Do Things Mean Something?’, from an interview conducted by Pierre Fisson, first published in Le Figaro Littéraire, 13 October 1962.
(10) ‘On S/Z and Empire of Signs’, from an interview conducted by Raymond Bellour, first published in Les Lettres françaises, 20 May 1970.

Thody, P. 1977. Roland Barthes : A Conservative Estimate. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd.


4 thoughts on “Do things mean something?

  1. I wanted to use a Barthes quote in my most recent blog (which is up, by the way), but I couldn’t find a place for it. It was the one, though, where he compares language to a labyrinth without a goal. I think that’s perfectly apt. The difference is that I believe in a deus ex machina that can sweep in and hoist lonely wanderers out — and I think that’s what literature tries to emulate.

    • Thanks for your comment, David. Glad to know you’ve emerged unscathed from the labyrinth of your recent circumstances.

      Not being familiar with the Barthes-labyrinth-metaphor passage you refer to, I went looking — and was fascinated to find not only a post on the passage but also your comment on it: on

      Barthes’ labyrinth metaphor is closely aligned to his statement that “literature is the question minus the answer” — ie, without hope of rescue by any deus ex machina.

      I have read your Myths of Language, III and will read it again before commenting further.

  2. I hadn’t intended the crane to be “the answer” in my analogy — at least, not the answer that our Theseus is looking for. Theseus wants Ariadne, or he wants the Minotaur; his motivation has a certain glory to it, but the deus ex machina devalues all of that entirely. The god swoops in for its own reasons, if it interferes at all; its actions are never the result of our search — though our search may be a misguided attempt to get its attention. Does that make sense?

    In the myth, Theseus has to leave Ariadne, eventually, for she becomes the chosen bride of Dionysus. That is the point at which the story comes in contact with the Absolute, but its not the ending or answer that either of them was looking for.

    • There is so much I might wish to say; thanks for the conversation. Rather than attempting to respond to particular points in your argument, I’ll post something later today.

      Please permit me one suggestion here, though …

      In Ars Poetica, Horace instructs poets never to resort to a deus ex machina to solve their plots (see Wikipedia on this topic). Literally and figuratively, deus ex machina is a dramatic device — a mechanism that facilitates crucial intervention by a god. Perhaps, as Ken Keyes, Jr asserts, in his Handbook to Higher Consciousness, “To see your drama clearly is to be liberated from it.”

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