from: first draft of a presentation on S/Z

When Barthes says, “The bodies in Sarrasine…cannot with any certainty be situated on either side of the sexual paradigm,” he is gesturing toward a crucial theoretical distinction that had yet to be made, utilized, and institutionalized (as it now is) in literary criticism and elsewhere, and that is the distinction between sex and gender, most famously expounded in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble in 1990 but proposed much earlier in lesser-known works like Esther Newton’s Mother Camp, an ethnography of female impersonators published in 1972, just two years after S/Z.

So, why doesn’t Barthes find and name among the many meanings of Sarrasine something, anything, concerning homosexuality? Here is my best answer:

If Sarrasine can be said to represent homosexuality at all, then it does so in a negative light, as a destructive force—a threat to heterosexuality in particular and human emotion—love—in general. The man who loves Zambinella is the man murdered for his desire.   

Barthes could have read this representation against the grain, but the point of his book is that he didn’t have to. Just as the reader must continue reading Balzac to find a character who is cured of his castration, so the scholar must continue reading literary criticism to find the critic who makes a radical reading of homosexuality not as the enemy of all human desire but rather as a liberating because destructive anti-normative force………if that is what the scholar is seeking. 

…we can say that any classic (readerly) text is implicitly an art of Replete Literature: literature that is replete: like a cupboard where meanings are shelved, stacked, safeguarded (in the text nothing is ever lost: meaning recuperates everything); like a pregnant female, replete with signifieds which criticism will not fail to deliver; like the sea, replete with depths and movements which give it its appearance of infinity, its vast meditative surface; like the sun, replete with the glory it sheds over those who write it, or finally, acknowledged as an established and recognized art: institutional. This Replete Literature, readerly literature, can no longer be written: symbolic plenitude (culminating in romantic art) is the last avatar of our culture.

Roland Barthes, S/Z

Heavy darkness comes on fast when you’re leaving New York City in the rain, and the place you’re going just isn’t going to comfort you the way that New York City always will. Woody Allen said of of New York City that it’s the only place where he can get Chinese duck soup in the middle of the night. He doesn’t want it, Chinese duck soup, because who needs such a thing in the middle of the night—but he likes that he can get it. 


The streets of New York City are never empty. Somewhere a light is always turned on. It’s a kind of glow, a stubborn restlessness (I don’t need to sleep and I don’t want to sleep); it’s the refusal to abide a noiseless state, anything other than a state of intimate strangeness (none of this is mine and somehow all of this is mine), and it’s this particular New York City thing that wraps me up like a crisp new sheet at night, switches the nightlight on and leaves a glass of cold water beside my bed, a well-worn novel on the nightstand. How could anything happen to me in such a place?