Poor Roland Barthes... So far from God, So Close to the French Academy
Understanding Roland Barthes as a semiologist should not be that difficult; coming to terms with him as an academic figure, well, that's a different story. The difficulty in understanding Barthes is emblematic of the struggle with all new ideas. Fate threw Barthes into the midst of a stagnant period in the French academic establishment. It was a period of time when the status quo was not really engaged in evading or combating "subversive" ideas regarding tradition. After all, they had the bull by the proverbial horns and nothing was going to touch them while they were concretely seated on the driver seat of establishment. When Barthes came along, he became an easy target for the establishment. He suffered greatly because of this but his work was richer for it.
Roland Barthes broke into the academic scene with innovative studies on semiology (study of signs) and revolutionized the serious intellectual discourse by examining how human beings communicated by means other than language. His studies on hair styles, clothes, visual images as modes of communication ran dead straight into the wall of the established academic community in France during the post-war era. You really can't blame the establishment too much, since after the war years every institution in France (or the rest of Europe, for that matter) was in a foot race to re-establish a sense of normalcy. Having said that, this is also the time when status quo seekers aim to consolidate their power grip and stifle new rebellious ideas. This was the struggle Barthes was up against for most of his career. Seeking a position at the Sorbonne was an impossible task without having first written the required 10 year thesis known as the "Doctorat d'Etat." Even when Barthes had comprehensive studies under his belt such as "Writing Degree Zero," or his famous "Mythologies," he had to "settle" for a position of head at the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes (the Sorbonne's main competitor). His lack of a formal education also worked against him, as Barthes was not even allowed to the candidates examinations. The recognition, however, was enough for him to break through enough to be ranked among the establishment intellectuals. He spent his life really combating ideas that the conservatives relied on as their pillars. Barthes was an open homosexual and a radical in all academic ideas. Eventually, his rebellious ways attracted enough of a following to guarantee his eventual success in his battle against the establishment. Many consider his "success" an act of "selling out," yet other see the pragmatic approach as part of his accommodation of ideas outside of his own. This, of course, did not come without its own set of controversy and tension. Barthes study of Jean Racine went counter to that of the establishment (particularly that of Raymond Picard). While France chugged away into the 1960s and the rebellious civil unrest that accompanied, its academy was ablaze with nouvelle critique versus the old guard of old fashion views of literature and its role.
The value of Roland Barthes cannot be measured directly but it is easy to see where the "rebellion for rebellion's sake" led to changes in the canon that has benefited previously silent voices. To read Barthes today seems like an exercise on futility; I don't say this because there is no value to it but because those same views and voices that Barthes' work helped liberate have become the loudest when it comes to censoring ideas, studies and criticism that does not fit the mold of the new establishment. I will let you decide for yourself (assuming you have an objective mind) to see where these parallels are drawn today.