By Theory Possessed   /   Spring 2023   /    Thematic: By Theory Possessed

“I Love You” (in Theory)

In which Roland Barthes asks “Alors, l’amour?”

Blake Smith

Portrait of Roland Barthes (detail), 1979, © François Lagarde; Agence Opale/Alamy Stock Photo.

On Thursday, January 23, 1975, Roland Barthes lectured in Paris at the École pratique des hautes études on the theme of love, focusing on the phrase “I love you.”  Barthes was then at the summit of his career. From his beginnings as a literary and cultural critic of the “mythologies” of mass media in the years after World War II, he had become both a famous writer and (despite never finishing any of his three attempts at graduate study) one of the more influential figures in French academia. Known best for his pioneering application of structural linguistics to the analysis of texts ranging from the classics of literature to detergent packaging, Barthes seemed in the 1960s and early ’70s to have laid the basis for a new science, or semiotics, of culture.

Barthes’s analysis of love, however, came at a critical moment in his thinking, just after he had announced, in his experimental autobiography Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (finished in the autumn of 1974) that he was tired not only of semiotics but of the pretenses to epistemic “heroism” and “arrogance” that characterize all forms of theory.11xRoland Barthes, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, in Roland Barthes, Œuvres complètes IV, livres, textes, entretiens, 1972–1976, ed. Eric Marty (Paris, France: Seuil, 2002): 575–774. He condemned what he called “the blackmail of theory,” by which we seem to hear ideas saying that we must “love, maintain, [and] defend” them because they align with our intellectual commitments. But isn’t thinking a kind of pleasure, Barthes asked, and isn’t it in the nature of pleasure, whether intellectual or erotic, to make us question such certainties?

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