Monday, October 29, 2012

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975)

Here we begin thoughts and "discussions," in reading Roland Barthes' earlier work, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. The foreword is by Adam Phillips.

According to Phillips, autobiography is a fiction. Barthes suggests that one is stuck in the arresting identity one creates in the simple documenting of one's life. (v)

What must be in autobiography?
1) an account of the parents;
2) childhood memories and likes and dislikes;
3) something of a person's sexuality;
4) the story must make sense of a life, find a meaning or a pattern. (vi)

This is an autobiography without an author.

Philips states, "A sign system is a consensus in which there has never been an initial agreement; a language is a contract that no one has ever digned." (viii) He goes on to talk about the Barthes of Mythologies, who, it seems, is visited throughout the text by the :established" Barthes (newly instituted, at the time) in the Coll├Ęge de France.

We learn here of Barthes' favourite motto: Larvatus prodeo (I advance pointing to my mask), which suggests "an ironic self-consciousness." (x)

Phillips suggests that the text can be skimmed, something I always felt was what Barthes wanted (Phillips refers often to the short book, The Pleasure of the Text, and I always thought it was in that book that the idea of skimming Barthes first appeared). For Phillips, the book is "about how we might sustain our pleasure without losing our interest, and about how we might sustain our interest without losing our pleasure." (xiii)

The body of the book:

The first 42 pages consist of photographs. Barthes starts off by stating that he has finished the book; the photos are additions, a "treat" for the author (it will be too difficult to paginate my quotations here, as the first 42 pages are unpaginated).

His first comments seem to foreshadow what he ends up doing in Camera Lucida, in discovering why images enthral him. On the first page of substantial text, Barthes suggests that a childhood photograph shows his body "from underneath." Is he just suggesting that it shows his younger self (prehistory)? What does he mean by "from underneath"?

We encounter a photograph showing Barthes' knee-high socks, previously mentioned. In these photos, Barthes mentions boredom. I wonder what he means by this (a recent book, Travels in China, seems a kind of paean to boredom).

Barthes painted!

The last photo (42) is most often used as a kind of "official" photograph. Any ideas as to why this might be?

This is the first section of the book. The next parts are based on much writing, though fragmentary (and thus accessible, in form anyway). This text will be a bit more difficult to read through, and perhaps less applicable to the study of the photograph in crisis. But, then again, he just spent 42 pages showing us photographs, in attempting to show us his life. There must be something there, then, on which to comment.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Last Part of Camera Lucida

Section 41: Barthes is considering the Winter Garden photograph after the passage of time, after "remaining with it," as he suggests. He refers to pioneers of scientific images: "What Marey and Muybridge have done as operators I myself want to do as spectator: I decompose, I enlarge, and, so to speak, I retard, in order to have time to know at last." (99) He wishes to "enter the paper's depth." (100) He gets at notions of desire here: "I can have the fond hope of discovering truth," though he admits he will not find it. (99)

Section 42: He suggests that, sometimes, he perceives something if the truth in a photograph, what he calls "a likeness." But the likeness is imprecise, imaginary: "they conform to what I expect from them." (101-102) For Barthes, the actual truth (that is not imaginary) exists in photos which are not "a likeness" (such as the Winter Garden photograph).

Section 43: Photos also display, not the truth of the individual, but the truth of lineage. This is both reassuring (Barthes suggests that the thought of origin soothes us) and disappointing: "it bares the mysterious difference of beings issuing from one and the same family." (105)

Section 44: He concludes, "I cannot penetrate, cannot reach into the Photograph." (106) The photograph is unlike the tect ("our vision of it is certain"). The photograph arrests interpretation: "this-has-been." (106-107) I am surprised by this observation. e, in semiotics (visual or textual), do not believe that any sign arrests interpretation (photograph or not).

I don't wish to speak for all semioticians here, but this is certainly what I believe.

Section 45: Barthes' frustration is evident here: he still seeks (more properly, desires something more in the photograph. He wishes to discover the person in the photograph completely. It seems here that Barthes is grasping at straws, so to speak. He wants to find the truth in a photograph, and so he finds, as the locus of his desires, the air (or the expression). But then he immediately writes, "The air of a face is unanalyzable." (107) But it evokes for the observer, "little individual soul, good in one person, bad in another." (109) The air is what allows Barthes to identify his mother in the Winter Garden photograph.
All the photographs of my mother which I was looking through were a little like so many masks; at the last, suddenly the mask vanished: there remained a soul, ageless but not timeless, since this air was the person I used to see, consubstantial with her face, each day of her long life. (110)
This is what makes a true photograph: the capturing of the air (one's soul, one's shadow). Barthes suggests it is due to either the photographer's talent or luck, but if it is not present, the photo simply identifies, but it is not a "true" image.

Section 46: He goes to great lengths in this section to come to his point, though he beautifully expresses it:
by leading me to believe ... that I have found what Calvino calls "the try total photograph," it accomplishes the unheard-of identification of reality ("that-has-been") with truth ("there-she-is!"); it becomes at once evidential and exclamative; it bears the effigy to that crazy point where affect (love, compassion, grief, enthusiasm, desire) is the guarantee of Being. (113)
He cites his student, Julia Kristeva, at the end of this section (an honour, I'm sure).

Section 47: What a great start to a section: he concludes his findings (photography shows that "that has been") and confronts his critics. The madness of photography is that it is about the absence of the object and also that the object existed where we see it in the photograph. In this way, photography is a hallucination. (115)

For Barthes (and all of us?), there is a link between Photography, madness, and love, or, more properly, Pity. We love those photos that allow us to enter them, to embrace the subject, to "[go] mad for Pity's sake." (116-117)

Section 48: The last section. Society attempts to control the madness of the photograph (as outlined in the last section). First, it makes photography into art ("no art is made," says Barthes). (117) Photography can be art, but it must be powerless photography. Second, society generalizes and make photography banal. For Barthes, photography is everywhere (he calls this a tyranny).

And, in a way, he calls for the destruction of the medium: "let us abolish the images, let us save immediate Desire (desire without mediation)." (119) But in the end, he suggests the choice is in the hands of the observer, to banalize photography (to make the medium "tame"), or to make it mad, "to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality." (119)

This is a beautiful book, and it has made me want to track down photos of madness, that make me want to get inside of them, that frustrate me because of my inability to do so. I want to find photos of those I love, that show the truth of these people. But, in a way, I also want to find those photographs that hurt me because they simply identify but do not convey the "air" of the subject. Those kinds of photographs don't only point to the absence of the subject, but also the absence of the subject's soul, the truth of them. In that absence, I can grieve, I think. Barthes seems to wave these sorts of photographs, perhaps as art.

I think I can embrace them because of what they lack, and what that lack then evokes from me.

I also want to capitalize "Photography," and write with more semicolons. I won't blame Roland Barthes for that.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Section 33-40 of Barthes' Camera Lucida

These notes are hampered (enhanced?) by my daughter's constant commentary beside me as I was preparing them. She, though, was talking about Nutrios, tea, and Disney's version of Pocahontas, and whether Grandmother Willow was a "man tree or girl tree." On to the notes from these sections of the book.

Section 33: An important thought right at the start: “looking at photograph, I inevitably include in my scrutiny the thought of that instant, however brief, in which a real thing happened to be motionless in front of the eye.” (78) In cinema, that "pose" is swept away. Where Barthes speaks earlier of the pose as disguising the authentic or true, here he suggests the pose contains the authentic or true.

Interestingly, he seems to have found differences between cinema and photography suddenly. Film shows the actor in two "poses": the real one (Barthes calls this "this-has-been") and the role that is being played.

Finally, he mentions that photography is proof of the truth. (79)

Section 34: Who invented photography? Not painters, but chemists. A beautiful passage follows: "The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here." (80)

Photographs are alive (the photographic process itself is alchemic(al?), and vital). This is curious, as Barthes also suggests that photographs show the dead (and die themselves). He decides here that he detests colour photographs, as it is (for Barthes) simply cosmetic a "superadded light." (81)

Section 35: Photography attests to what has existed. But then Barthes makes an astonishing observation: photography resurrects. (82) But then he suggests that photography affects him as he observes it: "why is it that I am alive here and now?" (84)

Section 36: "What has been": maybe death is not the primary signified of the photograph after all. Photography "is authentication itself." (87) These are interesting comments to consider when thinking about digital photography (in fact, pages 87-88 seem key in a discussion of how digital photography is fundamentally different from traditional photography, how it puts traditional photography into crisis). He finished the section with this: "the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation." (89)

Section 37: He returns yet again to the Winter Garden photograph - he calls it "my Photograph." (90) I must quote Barthes at length here:
The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed (that we can sometimes call it mild does not contradict its violence: many say that sugar is mild, but to me sugar is violent, and I call it so). (91)

Section 38: Suddenly Photography equals death again; the photograph itself is mortal, susceptible to the effects of humidity and so forth. In the past, memory was eternal, but not so for the photograph. Camera Lucida, the book, is referred to here as a trace of teh "astonishment of 'that-has-been.'" (94) Is he talking about the Winter Garden photograph here? Note: sad words at the end of this section, about the passage of time and the tenuousness of "proofs" of love, etc.

Section 39: He identifies a second "punctum" that exists in (all?) photographs: Time (and its passage, I assume). Of his mother's photograph: "she is going to die." (96)

Section 40: Here, Barthes suggests that the act of observing photographs is one done alone (Cinema is embarrassing alone). What does Barthes mean when he suggests that the amateur is the one who stands for the professional in photography, who stands closer to the defining character of photography (he suggests that the amateur is not the "immature state of the artist in photography")? (98-99)

This is the penultimate section of the book. The end of this particular volume is in sight, and so, thoughts about its whole are welcome.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The latest - Sections 25-32

What follows is more of my (hopefully helpful) musings on Barthes' Camera Lucida. Read on.

Section 25: Barthes begins his personal search, at this point, for a "true" photograph of his mother. When he suggests that he was wanting to write what he calls a "little compilation," it is quite possible that this is to what the second half of the book amounts.

Section 26: History: "the time when my mother was alive before me." (65) Barthes shows such sensitivity here; he refers to his mother's scent and her personal things. By the way, the photo to which he refers, of his mother and himself on a beach (see section 25, and see below) is published in Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes.


Section 27: Barthes blames photography for forcing him to engage with "painful labour," that is, "straining toward the essence of her identity." (66)

Photographs are like dreams for Barthes: they are not the object, they are about the object. This is different from what he says earlier in the book in terms of a photograph "meaning" its referent, but he is now discussing his mother, not some universal characteristic of the medium (he returns, though, to the idea of the referent in section 32).

Section 28: The heart of the book is here in this section: the Winter Garden photograph. Just as a photograph never shows the true person due to the pose, so here is the true person because of her innocence (he says it means, "I do no harm"). (69) So, for Barthes, this is a "just image." (70)

Section 29: Barthes suggests here that the photograph of his mother as a little girl makes him recall her last days, as a "little girl," needing his assistance always.

From that tender idea, Barthes seems to teeter on the edge of despair: "I could do no more than await my total, undialectical death." (72)

Section 30: So, he here suggests that desire in photography is not rooted in pleasure but rather in love and death. I do wish that he would have reprinted the photograph here (as do my students), but he does not; after all, it's not for us.

Section 31: Barthes expresses a bit of his own background here, raised as protestant. But as for the rest (psychoanalysis discussion aside), he simply states that "everything has remained motionless." (75)

Section 32: Photography: "I can never deny that the thing has been there." Photography, for Barthes, is not art or communication, but Reference: "it has been here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred." (77)

That brings me to the end of this week's section. I have written less here, but this is truly the emotional heart of the work, and the importance of the beginning of the second part of the book remains.

Monday, October 01, 2012

More on Barthes - Sections 17-24

Here is more on Barthes and Camera Lucida, to the end of the first part. The questions are fewer here (and the dialogue more like monologue), but we will continue on.

Section 17: Here, Barthes discusses the unary photograph, which comes to him in the form of journalistic photographs and pornographic photographs. These are photographs which interest Barthes but do nothing else for him. Such photographs "[transform] 'reality' without doubling it ... no duality, no indirection, no disturbance." (41)

News photographs are very often unary, in that they can shock, but not in any real way (not like a punctum). Furthermore, for Barthes, pornographic photographs present a single idea (interestingly, he states that Mapplethorpe's photos become interesting because of fabrics).

Section 18: Here Barthes returns to the Nicaraguan photo from earlier, and begins to explore how different figures view the composition of the scene. The Operator views reality, and the socio-political factors which contribute to the presence of the nuns. From the perspective of the Spectator, the detail is random (part of me wonders, though, if an analytical spectator might recognize the socio-political reality of the photograph). (42)

Barthes makes an important point: one shouldn't need to study a photograph to discover the punctum: "I should receive it right here in my eyes." (43)

Section 19: The punctum is "lightning-like," but, for Barthes, works to "expand" the photograph. It works in terms of metonymy, where the punctum as "part" stands in for the "whole." It also works to fill the whole picture (while remaining a detail). (45)

Section 20: Intentionality works against the punctum. Rather, the photograph whould indicate the Operator "could not not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object." (47)

Section 21: Photography (with punctum) is likened to Haiku: they are both "undevelopable." He makes the point that the "essence" ("of a wound") can only be repeated under insistent gaze. Everything is given. This is seemingly contradictory to what he mentions in section 19, that the punctum expands the photograph. I suppose there may be subtlety between expansion and development. (49)

Section 22: Important: "The studium is ultimately always coded, the punctum is not." (51) If one is able to apply code (convention, meaning) to the "punctum," it is not punctum: "What I can name cannot really prick me." (51) The punctum often reveals itself in remembering the photograph.

"In order to see a photographe well, it is best to look away or close your eyes." (53) Agree?

Section 23: The punctum is what the Spectator adds to the photograph and "what is nonetheless already there." (55) He says something interesting here: that one doesn't have time to add to the image in movies. The figures in photographs "do not emerge, no not leave" like the images in film that are always moving, emerging, leaving. (57)

An aside: Barthes' line, "they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies," predates The Smiths' lyric, "pin and mount me like a butterfly" (without the sexual connotations of the latter).

He returns here to section 17 and the pornographic photograph. He suggests that the erotic photograph "launches desire": he calls this a "subtle beyond," a "blind field." (57-58) His work on desire is always important and certainly, at the heart of all of his exploration of photography is the notion of desire.

Section 24: In the last section of Part 1, Barthes admits failure: he has discovered something about how desire works in photographs, but nothing of the nature of photography. He admits that this has been a deeply personal project so far (and far from universal); this fact does not change as the book progresses.

Palinode: "a poem in which the poet retracts a view or sentiment expressed in a former poem." (from the built-in OS X Mountain Lion dictionary)

Thus ends the first part of the book. Barthes' thoughts get increasingly personal as the book continues. Please continue the fine comments and encourage others (anyone else) to contribute. Dialogue is ideal, though certainly absent in the last few weeks (my fault, not the fault of P.W.) - in any case, carry on.