Roland Barthes and the Syllogisms of Literary Criticism

By Pagan, Nicholas O. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2000 | Go to article overview

Roland Barthes and the Syllogisms of Literary Criticism


Pagan, Nicholas O., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay sees literary criticism as participating in a dialectic between is and ought, between science and art. Using a neo-Aristotelian version of rhetoric, the essay argues that even a Critic like Roland Barthes, whose work seems to be informed by a predominantly Nietzschean aesthetic, cannot escape the exigencies of logical argumentation.

For much of the checkered history of rhetoric, Aristotle's conception of rhetoric, which emphasizes links to logic and epistemology, has been in conflict with Cicero's version, which privileges eloquence and the artistic and imaginative domain. A more contemporary version of Cicero's position may be found in Nietzsche's rhetoric, with its focus on style and aesthetics. Indeed, Nietzsche would probably endorse Cicero when Cicero says that "wisdom without eloquence has been of little benefit [ldots] but eloquence without wisdom has for the most part been a great hindrance and never an advantage" (qtd. in Kennedy 119). The opposition between the two essential rhetorics--the Aristotelian and the Nietzschean--has been admirably articulated by Steve Whitson and John Poulakos. They argue that "the [Aristotelian] epistemic links power to knowledge, the [Nietzschean] aesthetic associates it with charming words" and that "while the epistemic relies on the cognitive mechanisms of induction and deduction, the aesthetic relies on the sensual process of seduction" (142).

While Whitson and Poulakos privilege the aesthetic strand, I prefer to rely on Aristotle's penchant for logic and epistemology. In this essay, I focus on literary criticism, and using Aristotle's concepts, I argue that literary criticism should be held accountable to the rhetoric-as-epistemic model and to the exigencies of logical argumentation. Literary criticism has nothing to fear from this. Indeed, this essay attempts to locate in literary criticism an underlying logical structure. Some might argue that by subjecting literary criticism to the demands of logic, I am taking a backward step and ignoring the developments of postmodernism and deconstruction; but my argument is that literary criticism cannot be oblivious to its own premises. If we can have literary criticism satisfy the demands of logical argument, we may enhance its status.

I will take as my literary critical focus the work of Roland Barthes. A leading French radical intellectual, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, Barthes had a major impact, particularly on American literary and cultural criticism. Although he has not been without his detractors--for example, Philip Thody and Peter Washington--Barthes's influence has always been substantial and his work, from the start, has transcended national and disciplinary boundaries. At first, the choice of Barthes's work may appear misguided. However, if Barthes, the resister of logical argument, the quintessential "lover of discourse," and the apparent reveler in irrationality and postmodern fragmentation (aptly named by Steven Unger "the professor of desire"), can be made to face up to the rigors of logic, then the logical status of contemporary literary criticism will be established. In this essay, I will resurrect the famous dispute that has gone down in history as "the Picard affair" or "the Quarrel." I will reconstruct this de bate using the Aristotelian syllogism and enthymeme and the is/ought distinction borrowed from John Stuart Mill and David Hume. As well as assessing the distinction between contrasting kinds of literary criticism, I will draw attention to the related distinction between science and art.

We live in a world where empirical science predominates and where academic audiences are generally reassured by logical argument and proof. Although Barthes may have thought that if he had to employ rhetoric it could be as an artist playing the game of seduction, using rhetoric, therefore, in its Nietzshean manifestations, I maintain that he cannot escape the neo-Aristotelian version. …

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