From Phrase to Fantasy: Roland Barthes and the Knowledge of Imagination

Different approaches to literature in literary theory can often be reduced to Lacan’s four fundamental discourses. However, in his later work, Roland Barthes investi¬gates the possibility of another, alternative discourse, namely that of the lover. In this discourse, the Imaginary plays a key role. The Barthesian Imaginary functions as an active (in the Nietzschean sense of the word) and creative hermeneutic tool. Important here is the Phrase, a literary sentence supplied by the discourse of the Other, that almost “magically” helps us to name something of our desire. Barthes also closely links this Phrase to his interpretation of the fantasy as the moving force behind our reading. In this way, literature forces us, as subjects of desire, into confrontation with the deconstructed, but indestructible, sinthome of our love, our desire: our ego.

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The scandalous myth: Psychoanalysis as critical methodology in Barthes’s Mythologies

In Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1957), psychoanalysis is deployed as a critical method to analyze the use of signs in contemporary mass culture in France. Barthes claims that society is permeated by petty bourgeois myths representing phenomena which are basically historical as natural and universal. He wrote his famous ‘mythologies’ to criticize this misrepresentation of the world. In order to develop his mythological criticism, Barthes relies on psychoanalysis, specifically, on Freud’s theory of dreams. At first sight, the socio-critical concept of ‘myth’ in the guise of ‘dream’ appears to be used to challenge the ruling ideology by contesting its presumed rational nature. Critics like Barthes, however, are depicted by the petty bourgeois media as magicians pontificating about the world with discourses (inspired by, for example, psychoanalysis) that can hardly be understood by ordinary people. Both myth and magic appear to be discursive weapons by which both camps attack each other. Yet, after close analysis, it can be demonstrated that, for Barthes, the mythologist has to be susceptible to the magical as well, if, as a critic, he wishes to obtain a total view of reality. The problem of the mythical, however, persists as a symptom of a more profound crisis of society equally stuck to the practice of the mythologist.