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.


Phil Wiebe said...

Section 25: The true photograph will speak. Meanwhile, Barthes, realizing that he can’t shake the urge to make things personal, decides to drop any pretense of universality and Part II marks his further descent into autobiography.

Section 26: Barthes capitalizes history; often, but not always, it seems that when French writers capitalize common nouns they mean something very particular, and a bit different from the usual sense of the word. It is not very clear whether Barthes is doing that here or why he is capitalizing history at all, but the translator let it stand so it probably has some significance.

His description of stupefaction (64) is spot on – the familiar in the company of the other (and it is other, because it was ‘perished’ before Barthes was even in alive) is bewildering, and this feeling is thrown into sharp relief by the realization of familiar objects in other settings, and these too are disturbing for, while they remain, their presence only makes sense in light of their owner, who is now gone, leaving Barthes with the beloved sound of the ivory powder box lid but without the beloved mother.

This aside doesn’t have much to do with photography, but in another context may be one of those compelling/contentious things Barthes says in the book:
“History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it – and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it. As a living soul, I am the very contrary of History, I am what belies it, destroys it for the sake of my own history (impossible for me to believe in “witnesses”; impossible, at least, to be one; Michelet was able to write virtually nothing about his own time).

Section 27: Here, Barthes’ thinking moves like a set of koans, slipping between paradox and negation: “I recognized her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being, and that therefore I missed her altogether;” “I was struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false.” The denouement to his thought process is Barthes’ practical explanation: “To say, confronted with a certain photograph, “That’s almost the way she was!” was more distressing than to say, confronted with another, “That’s not the way she was at all” (66).

While distressed that photographs only provide differential rather than complete essential insight into their subjects, Barthes finds that his mother’s eyes provide a part of her essential being to the photograph by conveying her attitude and ‘posture’ (or lack thereof) to being photographed.

Phil Wiebe said...

Section 28: In the Winter Garden photograph, Barthes sees the ‘essential innocence’ of his mother. Her kindness is essential because Barthes posits that it could not have come from her context (divorcing parents) and thus must have come only from herself (i.e. essential), or as Barthes says, “out-of-play, it belonged to no system, or at least it was located at the limits of a morality” (69). In her face, Barthes finds the abstract manifest in the specific, and the collection of all “possible predicates from which my mother’s being was constituted” (70). Finally, he is now speaking of a universal aspect in photography, and has thus discovered the ethical dimension of a photograph – a ‘just image.’ Most importantly, he has experienced that photography can convey ‘a truth.’

Section 29: Barthes’ ‘reading’ of the Winter Garden is at first of the past (its history) and then the future: he realizes that he has no progeny other than his writing and thus his inevitable death is ‘total’ and ‘undialectical.’ I think that perhaps he is mourning the fact that there may be no ‘Winter Garden’ photo of him for someone to find and realize his essential nature through it, and he can only help that his writing conveys some semblance of his essential self.

Section 30: Now, Barthes places the Winter Garden at the centre of all Photography, thinking that he may have more luck with inductive rather than deductive reasoning to discern the essential thread of photography. Interestingly, he decides to “interrogate the evidence of Photography, not from the viewpoint of pleasure, but in relation to what we romantically call love and death.” I think this represents a choice to analyze photography not from an aesthetic point of view but rather a metaphysical or ethical one. It is also interesting that Barthes assumes that the Winter Garden would possess no punctum for any of the readers; perhaps if he realized the signifiance Camera Lucida would have to generations of photographers, critics, and theorists, who all in turn are now curious and wonder what the photo is like, he would see the rise of some kind of meta-punctum: “This wounded Barthes, now it wounds me.”

Phil Wiebe said...

Section 31: The contingency of a photograph holds the irreplaceable that is not indispensable, stops the flow of Time and thus holds loss still in its grasp, and fills us with a sense of the unqualifiable.

Section 32: Unlike other arts and media, Photography inevitably contains a measure of reality. This may be the essential differentiator for photography, but can it also be Photography’s genius? Barthes thinks that the effect of interfuit and intersum is “not repressed (a noeme cannot be repressed) but experienced with indifference, as a feature which goes without saying,” which runs counter to the traditional notion of genius, and yet, he believes that this unique trait truly is genius because it renders photography the only art that forces him to believe something ‘really existed’ (and as we know, things that ‘really exist’ are important to Barthes).

Nicholas Greco said...

My, my, Phil. What a jewel: “This wounded Barthes, now it wounds me.” I should put that on a t-shirt.

Very good observations of this section. So, as things are getting more and more personal (and, as you suggest, autobiographical), is there still worth here?

Of course, I think there is. But what is this worth? What can we learn in this?

We can learn a bit about the consumption (what a crude way of putting it) of photography, and I think we will see the notion of love and death played out in the rest of the text. I suspect these are the driving forces behind much of "common" photography, why we take photos. And Barthes would agree: photos mean their referent, but they also signify love and, of course, they signify death.