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Roland Barthes Writing the Political: History, Dialectics, Self


University of Leeds


Anthem Press







Roland Barthes Writing the Political: History, Dialectics, Self is a re-reading and a re-purposing for the twenty-first century of the work and the critical theories of France’s most important writer of the twentieth century. Drawing on articles and chapters published since 2007, and including new material written for the volume, it argues that Barthes’s wide-ranging analyses and critical essays – from Voltaire to Nietzsche, Marx to myth, gay love to Japan – can be applied to debates and controversies in the contemporary world. By applying his 1958 essay on Voltaire to the aftermath in France of the 2015 terrorist attacks, by using Edouard Glissant’s work as an unspoken dialogue to look at post-colonial writing strategies, the volume sets out what a dialectical critical practice might look like in our complex world of political, ethical and aesthetic choices.

In order to address the complexity of his critical practice, the study takes up a seldom-discussed notion which Barthes had originally developed in relation to the nineteenth-century historian Jules Michelet: that of the ‘double grasp’. This ‘double grasp’ is used to think through photography and innovative forms of historiography (including a comparison with the work of Walter Benjamin), but also to account for the ‘stereographic’ approach with which Barthes read Balzac, visited Japan and then China, and even considered both the writing self and the imagined self.

The book considers the persistence – and the functions – of myth in the era of image-saturated social media, using both early Marx and early Nietzsche, whilst relating Barthes’s radical homosexuality and his questioning of binary structures to today’s debates on post-gender. The volume ends with discussion of Barthes’s essay-writing and its similarities with the theories on the essay of Hungarian Marxist George Lukaćs in his 1910 ‘Letter to Leo Popper’, and asks whether the essay, in its many Barthesian guises, is the future for radical forms of writing in the twenty-first century.

Table of contents

Chapter One ‘The dialectical logic of Love’
Chapter Two ‘Amorous dialectic’
Chapter Three ‘The People chorus’
Chapter Four ‘Double grasp’
Chapter Five ‘Stereographic space’ 
Chapter Six ‘Non-classifiable’ 
Chapter Seven ‘New Dialectic’
Chapter Eight ‘Opacity’
Chapter Nine ‘Undialectics’
Afterword: Essayism and the Politics of Writing 


‘This book is daring yet meticulous intervention into the myth of ‘an apolitical Barthes’ and a convincing foregrounding of ‘other spaces for critique to take place’. This enables the author to cast new light on a set of intertextual affinities between Barthes and Marx, thereby reinterpreting the former’s work in the context of a uniquely Marxist materialism or the ‘Capital of linguistics’. What emerges is a new insight into the multiple significances of Barthes’s preoccupation with paradox and dialectic.’–Fuhito Endo, Seikei University, Tokyo.

‘Stafford shatters a common assumption about Barthes’s writing. Against the grain of the dominant strain in Barthes scholarship that views him as an aesthete whose work has little–to-no political dimension, Stafford convincingly demonstrates that the political is a key component of his work. The aesthete is dead – long live the political Barthes!’–Jeffrey R. Di Leo,Co-editor, Understanding Barthes, Understanding Modernism; Professor of English and Philosophy, University of Houston, USA; Series editor, Anthem symploke Studies in Theory.

‘Stafford brilliantly bridges the gap between a Marxist Barthes debunking bourgeois myths and a later hedonist by deploying a concept of un-dialectics thank to which his original political vision emerges, dialoguing with Lukacs, Goldmann, Thompson and Benjamin, a vision attuned to today’s preoccupations with tolerance, social justice and the question of how to “live together.”’ –Jean-Michel Rabaté,University of Pennsylvania, and American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, USA.

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