In a recent issue of Film Comment, critic Kent Jones recalled the film culture that predominated in 1970s and ’80s New York, his memories weary and tinged with rancor. More cinephobic than cinephilic, this film culture, Jones argued, had more to do with the heady pronouncements of theory than it did with any authentic engagement with, or enthusiasm for, actual films. “Certain names and phrases and references were invoked so regularly that one had the impression of Benedictine monks chanting morning prayers—‘the notion of…Barthes wrote…imaginary Signifier…Heath…mirror phase…Brechtian.’”

Roland Barthes loomed large over the intellectual landscape to which Jones refers. But Barthes played a curious role: Even though his name was a flashpoint for film culture in the ’70s and ’80s, only seldom do dedicated considerations of films figure in his own writings. Furthermore, any reference to Barthes’s writings would need to reckon with the enormous changes they underwent over time; for there was, effectively, not one Barthes, but several. The structuralist, pseudo-scientific, jargon-heavy, and even occasionally condescending voice that streaked Barthes’s earlier work gave way—in his later writings—to a spirited thrust in the opposite direction, wherein he exhibited a suppleness of thought, a limpidity of reflection, and an allergy to dogma. The gulf separating this latter Barthes from the Barthes of Jones’s recollection is considerable.

Was one mode of his writing more influential for film culture? And was one mode more influenced by film? These curiosities are central to Philip Watts’s new book, Roland Barthes’ Cinema. Here, Watts contends that film in fact occupied a privileged place in Barthes’s life, and that his regard for cinema—somewhat covert, intermittent, and certainly complex—was also the latent site of his dramatic evolution as a thinker.

Perhaps ironically, Roland Barthes’ Cinema is only secondarily a book about film. Foremost, its sights are set on ideas, their circulation in different circles and their transformation over time. And there have been few milieus more conducive to the frenetic life of the mind than the one that Watts’s book considers: the French scene spanning the 1950s to the ’80s, an era rife with divisive politics (various strains of contending leftisms, all set against the entrenched, conservative Gaullist Fifth Republic) and intellectual and artistic sectarianism (competing philosophies, antagonistic aesthetic camps), all swiveling around political crises (Algeria, Vietnam), and all positively electrified around the time of May ’68.

It was in the thick of all this, in the 1950s and the early- to mid-1960s, that Barthes came closest to resembling the serious intellectual of the day—theorizing under the triple aegis of structuralist Marxism, psychoanalysis, and linguistics; aspiring to the pure heaven of a scientific thought unsullied by ideology; and harboring (albeit more hesitantly than his peers) elitist antipathies for entertainment and popular culture, suspecting the latter of being little more than an instrument of calculated domination. It was at this time that Barthes funneled his critical energies into the project of “demystification” then in vogue. Fueled mainly by semiotic analysis, demystification entailed the uncloaking of the purportedly insidious messages and codes that lay hidden in the language of images, especially those intended for popular consumption—from saccharine box-office hits and late-night talk shows to inky newspaper spreads, from the manufactured bravado of Marlboro ads to the glossy pages of tabloids like Paris Match.

Without condemning it wholesale, Watts’s book is nonetheless attuned to some of the bald contradictions of this project, pointing out the irony of “a bourgeois intellectual who demystifies a spectacle only to remystify it, or at least recast it, in another bourgeois language.” Watts’s criticism is positively shy compared to that lodged by philosopher Jacques Rancire, who, in Althusser’s Lesson, sarcastically calls demystification the “exalted task of bringing … science to the blind masses,” which inevitably devolves into an elitist conviction in the “inability of the ignorant to be cured of their illusions, and hence the inability of the masses to take charge of their own destiny.”

It is, despite all this, in Barthes’s most programmatic texts—in the mold of precisely this kind of demystification and “ideology critique”—that Watts begins to recognize miniature subversions in the ruffles and folds of arguments that were otherwise de rigueur for their time. Watts demonstrates how, even if Barthes, employing the parlance of the time, refers to cinema as a “degraded spectacle” in his early essay collection Mythologies, it is also there that he first articulates an intimate, pensive, even pleasure-seeking experience of film. It is in the pithy demystifications that comprise Mythologies that Barthes first discloses his acute eye for such peculiarities as the “rhetorical excess” of exaggerated gestures (as in gangster films) and of beguilingly goofy hairdos (namely, those of the Romans in Julius Caesar), as well as a fascination with the erotics of a genderless plasticity, as broadcast by the masklike countenance of Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. Watts shows how, even at the height of Barthes’s embrace of an arid, structuralist academicism and a culturally conservative, heteronormative Marxist officialdom, he was simultaneously, if still a little tacitly, attentive to the poetry, camp, and play of the “sensuous surface of things.”

Following a colorful inspection of his post-Mythologies reflections on film, what emerges is a portrait of Barthes the fetishist, deriving furtive pleasure from “the insignificant detail, the trivial object, the commonplace element that somehow seems slightly out of place.” The import of Barthes’s relish for the “ticklish detail” or the “obtuse meaning,” however, is not confined to mere fetishism. Watts persuasively argues that Barthes’s eye for the sensuous surface of things—whether the idiosyncratic exactness of Sergei Eisenstein’s mise en scne or Michelangelo Antonioni’s meandering landscape shots—has trenchant consequences for what Watts calls a “micropolitics” of film. This micropolitics, according to Watts, finds expression in a kind of egalitarian cinematic gaze, in “an aesthetic sensibility intent upon exploring the inexhaustible fascination with the ordinary.” This angle identifies the revolutionary potential of a film not strictly in its story, message, or even style, but rather in its “fractions and particles,” in those miniature, fleeting, fortuitous, or seemingly insignificant elements that nonetheless manage to “transmit to viewers . . . new conceptions of being a body, of linking one gesture to another, of moving in space, of being together.” This sensibility, conveyed across several of Barthes’s late writings from the mid- to late-1970s, also marks his repudiation of the fettering protocols of theory and the universalizing claims of abstract science. By this time, he is no longer under the impression that the power of cinema resides “in its capacity to hypnotize or render us passive,” but rather in its “ability to transform the sensory experience of the world around us.” According to Watts, Barthes’s cinema not only gradually became a delectable pastime but also a bridge to the world, and a machine for dreaming of ways to change it.


Roland Barthes’ Cinema is a meticulously researched book, layering sundry references to contemporary scholarly work, including Kristin Ross’s exceptional commentary on the relays between French thought and everyday life; engaged readings of Barthes’s contemporaries Christian Metz and Michel Foucault; and interpolations of Barthes’s own voice, borrowing from his various writings, such as his alternately poignant, wry, and melancholic self-portraiture.

Watts passed away in the summer of 2013, leaving behind a manuscript of the book’s first draft. Roland Barthes’ Cinema was capably assembled and polished by a quartet of editors. (It also includes hard-to-find writing by Barthes himself, concluding with nine new translations of rare pieces about topics as diverse as Cinemascope, the sociology of film, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Sal, or the 120 Days of Sodom.)But the book’s projected prologue and conclusion—both crucial for framing Barthes’s relationship with film in the context of French intellectual life—could not be fully realized.

Though the prologue has been left out altogether, the book’s editors were able to salvage the conclusion. Here, Watts begins to map an affinity between Rancire and Barthes. The comparison is a shrewd one, although Barthes’s manner as a writer was considerably more labile and impressionistic than is Rancire’s. Even still, a number of Barthes’s late insights converge with those of Rancire. In his recent book The Intervals of Cinema, Rancire announces what he calls the amateur’s position—a position that “sidelines the authority of the specialists by re-examining the way the frontiers of their domains are drawn at the points where experience and knowledge intersect.” It is precisely along this axis of experience and knowledge, flouting the confines of academic specialization, that Barthes’s late writings plumb for their most incisive insights. Unmoored from the rigidities of conventional intellectual labor, the work of both Barthes and Rancire inhabit zones of trans- and interdisciplinarity—yielding cogent minglings of poetics and politics, of aesthetics and philosophy, passion and theory.

In an interview with Rancire included in the book as a kind of coda, the French philosopher admires Watts’s work while also voicing several of his reservations with it. According to Rancire, Barthes is “never talking about cinema when he’s talking about cinema.” Barthes’s attentions, says Rancire, are never directed toward the art of moving images but rather toward that of the still image, and his writings on film revolve primarily around photograms of certain individual shots—only rarely do they take stock of the lived experience of the sequence and duration of the scene. Rancire intimates that Barthes’s pensive experience of clutching these images in hand, contemplating them closely, practically as if under a magnifying glass, is a manner of engagement that bears little resemblance to watching a film. And indeed, Barthes’s impressions on the “jubilation” of the singular shot and the “perfect instant” bely an unequivocal affinity with photography. Roland Barthes’s cinema, seen from this light, is one marked more by immobility than movement.

Rancire’s reservations about Watts’s book can be difficult to disagree with. But it’s also hard to dismiss Watts as simply overreaching or exaggerated in his mapping of the proximity between Barthes and film. The fact that Watts’s book is able to sustain Ranciere’s critique is a testament to the strength of its argument, and presents Watts as a modest and warm guide to Barthes’s exciting thought. Not only does Watts shed light on a lesser-known side of a beloved critic.Through his imaginative readings and analyses, he also mobilizes Barthes's thought, in particular his ability to draw connections between film and broader social and cultural forces. Full of provocation and pleasure, Roland Barthes’ Cinema propounds a theory of film that, crucially, doesn’t avert its eyes from the screen.

Michael Blum is a writer and critic based in New York.