Barthes – Camera Lucida / Baudrillard – “It is the Object Which Thinks Us…”

– Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

Camera Lucida (1980) was written after his mother’s death and published just after his death. Although, like Mythologies (1957), this book could be regarded as a critique of the myth of bourgeois culture, he seems to turn his political critiques to more or less private investigations of the meaning of Photography. From his “ontological desire” to learn what Photography is “in itself” and which features make it distinguished from other images, Barthes’ investigation of Photography begins.

What makes Photography special, what is specialty of the Photograph? 1) “the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially” (4). The event or the body taken in the photograph is the “absolute Particular,” something that cannot happen again, and the photograph is nothing but the designation of the This and nothing else. 2) “a specific photograph… is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent” (5), and it “always carries its referent with itself” (5). Because of this adherence of the referent, it is difficult for him (Barthes) to concentrate on Photography itself. Although what he wants to know is the essence of the Photography, what he must confront is the specific (singular) body in the specific time and space.

This is “the uneasiness of being a subject torn between expressive language [a desperate resistance to any reductive system] and critical language [discourses of sociology, semiology, psychoanalysis…]” (8). He is hesitating or reconciling between subjectivity and science, between a primitive and culture. At this impasse, Barthes offers himself as a mediator between them, and tries to mediate his personal impulses to the fundamental features, or rather “to extend this individuality to a science of the subject” (18). Thus, his investigation of Photography becomes a kind of phenomenology of Photography, though he does not try to escape from a paradox of photography’s essence and singularity and agrees to “compromise with a power, affect” (21), which has not been the object of phenomenology. Thus, for Barthes, “the anticipated essence of the Photograph could not … be separated from the ‘pathos’ of which … it consists” (21).

In his analyses of several photographs, Barthes pays attention to the “co-presence of two discontinuous elements” (23): studium and punctum. While studium means the general, intellectual interest in the cultural element from which we can learn and understand what is expressed in the photograph, punctum means, as the element breaking and disturbing the studium, the accidental point in photograph, which pricks and hurts us. Thus, there is no punctum in the journalistic photographs and the pornographic ones. But, no matter how they seem insignificant, the sheet carried by the weeping mother, a child’s bad teeth, an old lady’s strapped pumps, etc are punctums which arouse “great sympathy” in him. When we recognize the cultural and historical codes in a photograph, it gives us more or less pleasure (studium), but not punctum, a detail and a blind field.

In part 2, while reading a photograph of his mother-as-child (Winter Garden), Barthes seems to attain the essence of Photography, “the impossible science of the unique being” (71). What he found in her mother’s photograph, the noema of Photography, is a superimposition of reality and the past (76) – “it has been here, and yet immediately separated” (77). Since the Photograph is an “emanation of the referent” (80), the reality of the thing of the past, “by action of light” (81), touches “the surface which in its turn my gaze will touch” (81).

*  *  *

– Jean Baudrillard, “It is the Object Which Thinks Us…”

At first glance, Baudrillard’s question does not seem to be different from Barthes’ : what makes the “properly photographic image” which is opposed to “our visual universe” where “images refer on from one to another in an uninterrupted sequence” (145). In other words, he wants to isolate photographic image from the image in general. Due to the “technical potentialities of the camera” photography is “exhausting all the possible images” and generating an “irrepressible flow” of images. Thus, for him “the only true photograph is the one which eliminates all the others” (145-6).

However, contrary to the method of Barthes, Baudrillard thinks that there is photographic “acting-out,” “a way of grasping the world by expelling it” (146): disappearance of the subject as well as the object in the photographic event. With this “reciprocal disappearance” (147), there might be a successful way for photography to evade “forced signification” (148). Succumbed to this forced signification, the realist photography “captures not what exists, but what … should not exist”(148). Then, what does the image reveal? It is not “something moral or related to ‘objective’ conditions, but that which remains indecipherable within each one of us” (150). Furthermore, he asserts that “it is not the role of a photograph to illustrate an object or an event, but to be itself an event” (150).

In the proliferation of digital images, what is lost is punctum, in the sense that “the flow of images produced in ‘real time’”(151) lost the memory of the moment and the place – i.e. the event. What he wants to extract as the essence from the photographic image is the a-significant dimension in which the images can be relieved from the reality principle and forced signification. Whatever meaning it takes and reveals from the real, photography is essentially a violent confrontation between the object and the subject at the photographic event. “Without signification” – is it why Barthes argues that Photography is associated with camera lucida, not with camera obscura (106)?



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