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.


Phil Wiebe said...

Section 17 is relatively straightforward for Barthes. His thinking almost approaches syllogism:
1. Most photographs do not have a punctum
2. Photographs containing only a studium are unary
3. Unary photographs are basic, homogeneous, and merely ‘interesting’
However, there is a problem. Barthes notes that photos that have two interesting elements (yet may still lack a punctum) are not unary. Thus, not all photographs containing only a studium are unary. It is only the ones that possess just one ‘subject’ and one ‘theme.’ What is the value of categorizing photos as unary or not? It does not get Barthes closer to the essential nature of photography; it is only useful for narrowing down which photos have the potential to ‘really exist’ for Barthes (so far, he has not said whether photos that wound him are ‘good’ photos by any modicum of judgment).

Barthes description of the experience of punctum in 18 casts it far more as an event than an aspect of the photograph. Barthes may say that it is a ‘detail,’ but the significance of the punctum is not its existence but rather its discovery. There is no guarantee that this discovery will matter for anyone else – it would make more sense to ask what the punctum felt like or incurred rather than what the punctum was. In a way, there is no such thing as a punctum in any essential or objective sense – it only really exists for the person who experienced it. Perhaps this is what Barthes means when he talks about photos that ‘really exist’ for him. I am reminded of the scene in American Beauty where Ricky talks about how the bag made him experience “so much beauty in the world,” but as we can see in the videotape of the event, this beauty is not directly encoded in any aspect of the scene. For Ricky the tape was a memory of this contingent moment; is the experience of punctum a realization of contingency, like when Barthes looks into the “eyes that gazed on the Emperor”?

In 19, Barthes reveals that “good” photographs speak: it contains a narrative, but good photos do not necessarily go beyond the studium. This suggests to me that Barthes is not very interested in whether photographs are good or not, and that makes sense if he isn’t sure that photography has a genius of its own. As an experience, punctum is not inclined to any kind of goodness, but it necessarily involves the beholder – it “makes me add something to the photograph,” the punctum fills the whole picture not independently but with the cooperation of the viewer.

Phil Wiebe said...

In section 20, Barthes decides that the detail from which the punctum springs is always unintentional – any deliberate attempts at duality or wounding are recognized as artifice and lose their power. Most importantly, the punctum is inseparable from its studium.

21: The punctum sends the viewer to a primordial, primal state – without knowledge, culture, and anything outside of the self. Do photographs help us realize our inner “noble savage”?

In 22, Barthes’ suggestion that punctum is never coded gives it a sort of noumenal aspect. It allows us to apprehend the photograph in itself, not the photograph has produces a reading coded with our own foibles and predilections. What exists after we close our eyes is the essential photograph - the contingency of the photograph brings us in touch with the true Forms our sight hides. However, I am in the opposite camp when it comes to seeing a photograph well: scrutiny is the key to understanding – “there is something here, but I am not content just to experience it, I must discern it and perhaps name it.”

Phil Wiebe said...

I think by Section 23 Barthes is trying to have his cake and eat it too when he claims that the punctum is what “I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.” The punctum is subjectivity reliant on objectivity, were it not for the facticity of a certain detail that triggers the experience it would not exist, but it does not share in this objectivity. Barthes says he does not like whimsy either, but his punctum are often very fanciful – he wants to meet Robert Wilson, he asks “what if” questions about the horse.

His reading of desire and erotica reminds me of Zizek, who says “the most elementary desire is the desire to reproduce itself as desire (and not to find satisfaction).” The unseen excites our desire but does not satisfy it, and this desire replicates itself; this is the result only of photographs that were shot at just the ‘right moment’ to launch desire.

As Barthes concludes Part I, he realizes that his inspections so far were useless for determining a universal aspect of Photography because they were by design intensely subjective. Instead of adopting an aesthetic attitude that seeks to be impartial, disinterested, or otherwise step outside of the self, he thinks he must go deeper inside to tap universal human experience.

Nicholas Greco said...

Interesting insights, Phil. A couple of things, though: where is the Zizek quote from?

Also, do you think that Barthes sort of discredits himself with the notion that the punctum already exists in the photograph, while it exists because he brings it (you seem to suggest that this just can't be). Of course, he probably wouldn't care about being discredited. This is a personal journey for him. You are right that he claims not to like whimsy, but he is obviously drawn to the playful.

I also think that the last section of the first part is quite telling - wonderfully so. He can't find the universal in Photography because he has approached the medium so personally. The most interesting thing is that he gets more personal as the book progresses. I'm not sure if he is ever successful (we can ask that question again once we get to the end).

Phil Wiebe said...

The Zizek quote is found in his best book (for communications students), The Plague of Fantasies. It can also be found here:

I would say Barthes contradicts himself, but these kinds of paradoxes are integral to his work so he is by no means discredited except maybe by angry photographers. I also get the sense that Barthes was an internally conflicted man, especially regarding the circumstances of his life (growing up without a father, the death of his mother, homosexuality, etc.).