Friday, May 22, 2009

Barthes on the photograph

Roland Barthes said of himself somewhere that he took up in turn the great intellectual enthusiasms of his time without ever committing himself firmly to any of them. We are to think of his work as reflecting, or refracting, the light of those around him. So in his first years he is something like a phenomenologist and a Marxist (Sartre: Michelet, Degrée Zero, the writings on Camus). By the end of the 1950s, he has taken up structuralism and will follow it through a series of ‘scientific’ moments into its frantic self-dissolution in what we now call ‘post-structuralism’ (Mythologies is an important step from Marxism to structuralism, S/Z, which I haven’t read, is usually cited as the text in which structuralism swallows its own tail and becomes something else). In the 1970s Lacan and Lacanians become important; Barthes’ work becomes less ‘scientific’ and more ‘literary,’ more personal (Barthes par Barthes). Throughout all this, Barthes’ work seems governed by the idea of the text. Already in Degrée zero, the literary text is a kind of utopia. Probably Barthes’ most read work, Mythologies, is an origin-moment for cultural studies because in a sense it treats world as text, revealing layers of meaning and ideology attached to such self-evident staples as steak frites.

I go through this because La chambre claire [1979], which I have just finished reading, is quite a different sort of book than one might expect from his other late work. To begin with, it is about photographs, not text. It quite explicitly returns to a Sartrean and phenomenological viewpoint in order to treat this material. For Barthes, the photograph is the opposite of text: it is pure reality—its essence is to have been, rather than to ‘play.’ Barthes’ later work is insistently personal, but La chambre claire is ‘personal’ in a radically different way than is Barthes par Barthes [1977, i think]. I immensely enjoyed this last book—I have also enjoyed La chambre claire. The two books, taken together, might be an argument for Barthes’ status as a great French writer.

La chambre claire is divided into two parts. In the first part, Barthes gives us a sort of phenomenology of the photograph. He makes his distinction between studium and punctum. The studium of a photograph is something like one’s intellectual, or cultural, interest in it. In historical photographs, we might be very interested in the clothes worn by those in the photograph, in the building we can see in the background, and so on. A photograph of an author whose work I have read may interest me in this way. This is our usual way of interacting with photographs. Then there is the second way,

Le second élément vient casser (ou scander) le studium. Cette fois, ce n’est pas moi qui vais le chercher (comme j’investis de ma conscience souveraine le champ du studium), c’est lui qui part de la scène, comme un flèche, et vient me percer...Ce second élément qui vient déranger le studium, je l’appellerai donc punctum...Le punctum d’une photo, c’est ce hasard qui, en elle, me point (mais aussi me meurtrit, me poigne). [pgs 48-49]

Sometimes, but not always, and entirely contingently, according to no expressible rule, the surface of studium presented by a photograph will be broken by a punctum. Often, Barthes says, the punctum is a detail (71-3 ff), it might be a necklace, a shoe, or the precise form of an open hand. The punctum may also have to do with the temporality of a photograph. Barthes reproduces the well-known picture of Lewis Payne, who was condemned to death in 1865 for plotting to assassinate the US secretary of state. Barthes says, of this photo, “le punctum, c’est: il va mourir. Je lis en même temps: cela sera et cela a été; j’observe avec horreur un future antérieur dont la mort est l’enjeu...Que le sujet en soit déjà mort ou non, toute photographie est cette catastrophe” (150).

I suspect that it is this distinction, these conceptual tools, that students are generally expected to take from the book. The second part of the book becomes increasingly personal and lyrical, less careful and more powerful. The concluding passages are perhaps something like a theoretical statement, but it feels more to me as though Barthes was simply obliged, somehow, to conclude with a transgressive and transportable conclusion.

What I find most remarkable, however, is the cascade of associations provoked by the photograph: the disjunction of temporalities, absence, but then also reality unmediated by method, death. Barthes contrasts photography with cinema, with writing, with painting. Barthes dislikes cinema. It will never be subversive in the way that photography can be. But photography clearly means death (and not only because of the circumstances in which the book was written), whereas text means life. Photographs fix and assert meaning. They are absolutely what they are—and here it makes no difference if the photograph has been altered, or that Barthes lives before digital photographs, the reference is to Sartre’s imaginaire, which is a realm of the simply and immediately true, which cannot not be true--a realm in which perception is reality. Painting emerges as not at all the source of photography, but rather as a radically different mode of artistic production. Indeed, in the end, photography looses its special ontological characteristics when it is reduced to art.

This book deserves more than I can give it just now. I should look into what I am sure is the enormous quantity of secondary material on it. I am intrigued, for instance, by the presence of race in the book (that is, several of the pictures are of African-Americans), which I think must be linked for Barthes in interesting and subtle ways to the immediate reality of the photograph, and also to the idea of his own family photographs and identity. I would want to look carefully at what Barthes says about his method, and the obvious violations of this method (he says explicitly that the one thing he does not want to do is erect his own experience as abstract socius, and then he does precisely this—what’s his game?).

The book is, at any rate, wonderful. It almost convinces me to buy the recently published Journal de deuil, made after his mother’s death. At the very least, I’ll look at his late seminars.

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