Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Roland Barthes's analysis of photography, Camera Lucida, claims that photography is ultimately a question of affect, and famously delineates two forms of affect that photographs may provoke, or that provoke our interest--perhaps even our obsession--in photography.

First, the studium is "general interest" or "a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment" to photography as cultural or historical documentation (26). We may be curious or intrigued; our interest may "even [be] stirred sometimes," but in the end our investment in photography for what it tells us (say) about the conditions of life fifty years ago--or about the scenery or customs of distant lands, or even about our friends' children or summer vacations--derives from or constitutes no more (and, I'd add, no less) than an "average affect, almost from a certain training" (26).

Second, however, the punctum is what "break[s] (or punctuate[s]) the studium"; it is what "rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me" (26). Often the punctum arises from a detail, perhaps at the margins of the image: Barthes's own examples, taken from news photographs of the Nicaraguan revolution, include two nuns crossing a road, a "corpse's one bare foot," "the huge eyes of two little boys," or the rag covering a guerrilla's face (23-5). If the studium is "of the order of liking" (27), the punctum by contrast invests the experience of viewing a photograph with a certain shock or surprise, perhaps even disgust, that reveals something of the viewer's desire.

Barthes is undoubtedly more drawn to the punctum than to the studium. If we can more or less equate the studium with habit--for what is habit but "average affect" or, perhaps better, affect that has been averaged out?--then Barthes is concerned with rediscovering the ways in which photographs break our sense of routinization, of the everyday. If "Society is concerned to tame the Photograph" (117), Barthes's concern is to show that photography remains wild, untamed. And if the "two ways of the photograph" are to be "mad or tame," then there is no question than that Barthes prefers madness, or what he also terms "the photographic ecstasy" (119).

(Pierre Bourdieu, on the other hand, might be someone who is more interested in photography as habit, as a regularized affect that coincides with a "certain training"; it would be worth returning to Bourdieu's own book on the subject, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, with this distinction in mind. It would enable us to provide a more generous, let us say, or perhaps simply more complex understanding of photography and "general interest.")

Barthes is interested in the punctum as what supplements the routinized, banalized practice of photography ("it is an addition" [55]) but is "nonetheless already there," ready to prick or shock the unwary observer. Even, indeed, the most everyday snapshots, he suggests, have something "scandalous" about them in that, by "attest[ing] that what I see has indeed existed," they have "something to do with resurrection" (82). Hence "the Photograph" (and note the capitalization, for this in Barthes's view is the essence of photography) "astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly" (82).

This astonishment brings interpretation to a halt. Perhaps strangely for someone known as the founder of semiology, of the "science of signs," who made his name in Mythologies with astute readings of the semantics of the image, Barthes is not here particularly interested in "reading" the photograph. Affect undoes or bypasses the mechanisms of signification and perhaps the symbolic order as a whole. If the studium allows for and indeed motivates interpretation, the punctum actively resists it: "the studium is ultimately always coded, the punctum is not" (51). Moreover, the punctum is somehow blinding, in that it opens up to what Barthes terms a "blind field" (57). Hence the paradox that "in order to see a photograph well, it is best to turn away or close your eyes" (53), for "to shut my eyes [is] to allow the detail to arise of its own accord into affective consciousness" (55).

(For this reason among others--the punctum as supplement, for instance--Barthes is especially close to Jacques Derrida in this book; see my comments on Memoirs of the Blind.)

We should not be surprised that for Barthes photography is essentially about the body ("What does my body know about Photography?" is his initial question [9]), and about "the return of the dead" (9) not simply as resurrection but as the return of death itself. The sense of astonishment or shock provided by the photographic detail is redoubled (or underwritten) by what Barthes calls "another punctum" (96); for if it is astonishing to realize that what I see has indeed existed, this shock owes to the simultaneous awareness that it no longer is. Death, and so time, is encoded in the photograph. Seeing a photograph of his mother as a young child (and much of this book is sparked by reflections on his mother, recently dead, as he scans through old photographs "looking for the truth of the face I had loved" [67]), Barthes realizes that "she is going to die: I shudder [. . .] over a catastrophe that has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe" (96).

But photography does not merely register temporality and hence death. For Barthes, photographers are themselves "agents of Death." The photograph "produces Death while trying to preserve life" (92; my emphasis). This is then the second way in which photography is comparable to religion--or even takes the place of religion in that it provides a new location for Death now that religion does not have same hold it once had:
Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final click. (92).
Photographs perform the scandalous miracle of resurrection, but at the price of reminding us of, or even imposing upon us, the catastrophic and uncompromisingly final death that makes that resurrection necessary--and agonizingly desired.

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