Formalism and the Demon of Analogy: A Conversation with Rosalind Krauss

May 4, 2022   •   By Abigail Susik

WHEN I BEGAN studying art history as an undergraduate and later as a graduate student at Columbia University during the mid-1990s, Rosalind Krauss had recently finished her book The Optical Unconscious (1993) and was working on her forthcoming books Formless: A User’s Guide (1997, with Yve-Alain Bois), The Picasso Papers (1999), and A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (1999). Writings by Roland Barthes appeared on nearly all of Krauss’s syllabi during this era — which was by no means unusual given poststructuralism’s extended influence on American academies. But for Krauss, the synergy with Barthes went beyond merely a theoretical armature, instead amounting to what would eventually become a career-spanning discourse about the way in which images and texts become comprehensible to the viewer/reader.

Perusing the pages of a book like The Optical Unconscious, it becomes evident that Krauss was particularly invested in the way Barthes’s work illuminated topics such as surrealism, photography, popular culture, sexuality, biography and autobiography, and of course the legacies of structuralism. Like many of Krauss’s writings from this era, her courses devoted extended attention to essays by Barthes, such as “Metaphor of the Eye” (1962), “Rhetoric of the Image” (1964), and “The Third Meaning” (1970), but also to his books, such as Writing Degree Zero (1953), Mythologies (1957), S/Z (1970), A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977), and the text published in the year of his death, Camera Lucida (1980). What excited me the most were those moments when Krauss unabashedly dove into “the grab bag of goodies” (as she called it) that was Barthes’s oeuvre, to fashion, magpie-like, far sharper tools for art historical analysis than had previously been customary. 

Soon, Krauss will publish her 13th single-author monograph, Roland Barthes: Charms and Demons. She talked with me about this book, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press, and Barthes’s legacy in general.

Rosalind Krauss and Denis Hollier at Roland Barthes’s House in Urt, Pays basque, 2020.


ABIGAIL SUSIK: How does your book on Roland Barthes connect to your past work?

ROSALIND KRAUSS: After I finished my book Willem de Kooning Nonstop: Cherchez la femme (2016), my editor at the University of Chicago Press asked me, “Why don’t you write a book about Roland Barthes?” I thought this was a great idea, since my work has been influenced by Barthes for a long time, particularly when I wrote “Notes on the Index” (1977). That essay was completely dependent on Barthes’s “The Photographic Message” (1961). I was puzzled by how the presence of photography, for instance in Pop Art and Conceptual Art, could be explained and theorized. I found what I was looking for in Barthes’s discussion of the index, so there is a personal aspect to my book.

What is the significance of the subtitle of your new project on Barthes, “Charms and Demons”? 

“Charms and Demons” essentializes the two aspects of Barthes’s work that most interest me: formalism and poststructuralism. When Barthes was offered the Chair of Literary Semiology at the Collège de France, his inaugural lecture admitted that he felt he couldn’t represent semiology because, although he had been influenced by it, his own work had moved past it in some ways. He said that he associated his work more with Tel Quel than anything else. For me, this distinction opened onto his modernism but also his formalism. My book does the very taboo thing of talking about Barthes’s formalism. 

Formalism has interested you in the past, given your relationship to Clement Greenberg. How does it figure in the new book?

I have a story in my book about Greenberg that relates to this idea of charms and to formalism. In his book Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971), Barthes talks about the style of a great writer as the writer’s “charm.” Once, after Greenberg had died, I was asked to be part of a panel at Harvard University in honor of the 80th anniversary of Greenberg’s birth. Heading to Boston on the train I thought, “I can’t be part of this panel celebrating Greenberg and trash him.” I had trashed him, for instance, in The Optical Unconscious — the last part about Jackson Pollock was meant to demolish Greenberg. So, I asked myself, what can I say about Greenberg at Harvard that won’t be hypocritical but will be positive? Then I thought about Barthes’s notion of charm.

One of the charms of Greenberg’s writing was that he hated Latinate terms. He only wanted to write with Anglo-Saxon single-syllable words. One of these words was “stuff.” When he gave a lecture called “After Abstract Expressionism” at the Guggenheim in the ’60s, at a certain point he said that Pollock had “lost his stuff” in the late work, and the audience got very upset, of course. For Greenberg, “stuff” was the term used for baseball pitchers when they throw curveballs and fastballs. If you’ve lost your stuff, you’ve lost your ability to do those things. And Pollock had lost his stuff. So that, for me, was one of the charms of Greenberg’s writing.

Another thing Greenberg hated was the term “criticism.” He wrote an essay called “How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name” (1962), in which “art writing” becomes the substitute for the Latinate term “criticism.” I thought this was Greenberg’s charm, transforming these terms in this way, and this question of terms was also linked to formalism for me. 

Were you influenced by Barthes’s own writerly “charm” or style while composing your book?

One of the problems for me in writing about Barthes was how to structure the book. I chose to write a series of little texts, each with its own entry, based on Barthes’s writing about his own process in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975). In the section, “The circle of fragments,” he describes how he writes in pieces. He also has a section called “The order I no longer remember.” This discussion of his own writing as a fragmentary process justified my procedure in abandoning a linear, expository development and writing in a meandering series of episodes, in no coherent order.

What about the demons in your title? How does that relate to formalism? 

In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, there is an entry called “The demon of analogy.” Barthes writes, “Saussure’s bête noire was the arbitrary (nature of the sign). His is analogy.” (Barthes refers to himself both in the first person and in the third person.) Barthes goes on to write: “The ‘analogical’ arts (cinema, photography), the ‘analogical’ methods (academic criticism) are discredited. Why? Because analogy implies an effect of Nature. […] [H]umanity seems doomed to Analogy.” Barthes then asks, how can you escape analogy? He answers, there are “two ironies which flout Analogy.” The first is “feigning a spectacularly flat” aspect — and we could say that the flatness of Andy Warhol would in Barthes’s terms defeat analogy. Or, Barthes said, the other way is regularly distorting the imitated object with “anamorphosis.”

In a section of my book called “This is Anamorphosis,” I talk about Lacan and the objet petit a, since Lacan had a profound impact on Barthes’s intellectual development. At a certain point, I also discuss Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” which I claim became important to Barthes as a sub rosa way of thinking about formalism in his work. A place where we see this is in S/Z, where the underlying theme — and one, of course, that relates to Lacan’s objet petit a — is castration. Castration is the linking term of every part of S/Z, and Barthes’s whole procedure in reading Balzac’s Sarrasine (1830) is to create a way of thinking about that novel formally. Barthes himself talks about how he chose the title of the book as S/Z — “S” for the hero Sarrasine, and “Z” for the soprano Zambinella, Sarrasine’s beloved. The whole story is in parentheses or bookends, between two names that act as a formal structure, beginning with the “S” of Sarrasine and his falling in love with Zambinella, and ending with another name, Cardinal Cicognara, who has Sarrasine murdered.

Barthes’s most gifted student, Julia Kristeva, speaks of his work and the way it operates as a grid. The grid, for her, represents his scientificity and rigor.

If Barthes problematizes the demon of analogy, because the process shows how humans are doomed to a game of verisimilitude, why do you think he was so interested in the autobiographical?

To return to Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, I’m interested in the strange way in which Barthes switches back and forth between the personal pronoun “I” and the third-person pronoun who is narrated as “he.” This was based on a decision by Éditions du Seuil to imitate a series of books called “X by Himself,” in which scholars would create biographies from an assemblage of writing fragments by the given author — for example, Joyce, Woolf, or Baudelaire. Barthes participated in this by writing a “Michelet by Himself.” At a certain point, one of the editors at Seuil thought it would be witty to have a living author like Barthes write “by himself.”

I thought this was very interesting in terms of his later identification with Proust. In Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913–1927) the narrator writes in the first person, but he is narrating the story of Marcel, so there is both the first person and third person operating. Another important element of this idea of I/he can be found in the preface to Sade, Fourier, Loyola, where Barthes brings up the idea of the “biographeme.” Barthes admits that, “were I a writer, and dead, how I would love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer,” would be examined and reduced to “Epicurean atoms,” which would then be scattered to the winds. This triggers the identification with Proust and the idea of self-cremation. Barthes had serious tuberculosis and spent a long time in a sanitarium. There, one of his ribs was surgically removed to help him breathe better. Barthes tells this story in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes: “For a long time I kept this fragment of myself in a drawer,” until one day he “flung the rib chop and its gauze” from his balcony as if “romantically scattering” his own ashes into the street “where some dog would come and sniff them out.” This idea of throwing himself to the winds is like the statement in Sade, Fourier, Loyola.

In Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, there is a section called “Love of an idea,” where he writes about being a semiologist: “For a certain time, he went into raptures over binarism: binarism became for him a kind of erotic object. […] That one might say everything with only one difference produced a kind of joy in him, a continuous astonishment.” Of course, S/Z is a binary. Then he also writes, in relationship to this question of the binary, a fragment called “The ship Argo”:

A frequent image: that of the ship Argo (luminous and white), each piece of which the Argonauts gradually replaced, so that they ended with an entirely new ship, without having to alter either its name or its form. […] Argo is an object with no other cause than its name, with no other identity than its form.

So, we have a concept that is key for Barthes: this notion of “no other cause than its name.” When Barthes talks about the demon of analogy, he includes academic criticism as a demon. What he is referring to is the kind of academic criticism that relates the meaning of a text to the author’s childhood or some other person in the author’s life. The idea of “no other cause than its name” is a way of getting out of this demon of analogy. Barthes moves from there into what I call his “nominalism.”

This discussion reminds me of what you critique as the art history of “the proper name” in your 1981 essay “In the Name of Picasso.” Does your book tie Barthes’s nominalism to this formalism in his work that interests you?

In the late 1970s, Barthes was asked by the Whitney Museum to write an introductory essay for the catalog of a Cy Twombly show. In his essay, he turns to a beautiful Twombly painting in the MoMA collection called The Italians (1961), which actually has the word “ITALIANS” written on it. Barthes insists that we should not look for the Italians anywhere except in the painting’s title or in this inscription, because the canvas is entirely abstract. Again, we get the notion of the name as an escape from the analogical, an escape from nature and from realism, because the name is a word that is arbitrary, like Saussure’s idea of the sign.

My book begins with Barthes’s brilliant essay on Twombly, which is the best thing written on the subject. Barthes turns to the names that populate many of Twombly’s works, like Virgil or Apollo, and again he talks about how he is not interested in them in terms of some sort of iconography of classicism but rather because of their formal qualities. The name “Virgil” is inscribed on the canvas as though it was written by a schoolboy learning how to write, copying vocabulary in his copybook.

How is formalism allied with the Saussurean arbitrary in your reading of Barthes?

One thing that Barthes picks up from Saussure and semiology is the comparison with chess. Saussure says that chess pieces are named arbitrarily. For instance, the knight doesn’t look like a horse — it’s not in that sense analogical. The knight has a certain function on the board: it moves two spaces forward and one to the side. If a knight is lost during a game, anything can be substituted: a saltshaker can take the place of the knight. If the substitution adheres to the correct values, then it is keeping to the grammar of chess.

Barthes retains this idea of values. One of the values he thinks of all the time is the Argo, this thing that has no other origin than its name and no other cause than its form — a name having nothing naturalistic about it, being just a value in the rules of the game, which make up a grammar.


Abigail Susik is associate professor of art history at Willamette University and author of Surrealist Sabotage and the War on Work (Manchester University Press, 2021). She is co-editor of the volumes Surrealism and Film After 1945: Absolutely Modern Mysteries (Manchester University Press, 2021) and Radical Dreams: Surrealism, Counterculture, Resistance (Penn State University Press, 2022).