Rosalind E. Krauss: The “Charm” of Roland Barthes

KraussReading the call-for-papers for this “Renaissance of Roland Barthes,”   I was struck by the historicist focus on the subject: its constant emphasis on the distinction between early and late Barthes, its desire to determine the moment of his departure from structuralist to post-structuralist thought.

Reading this, I could not but think of that poignant moment at the beginning of Sade, Fourrier, Lyola, where Barthes characterizes the treatment he, himself, would desire: “Were I a writer , and dead,” he cautions, “how I would love it if my life, through the pains of some friendly and detached biographer, were to reduce itself to a few details, a few preferences, a few inflections, let us say: to “biographemes” whose distinction and mobility might go beyond any fate, and come to touch, like Epicurean atoms, some future body, destined to the same dispersion; a marked life, in sum, a Proust succeeded-in-writing his,-in-his-work, or even a film in the old style, in which there is no dialogue and the flow of images is intercut, like the relief of hiccough, by the barely written darkness of the inter-titles, the casual eruption of another signifier; Sade’s white muff, Fourier’s flower pots, Ignatius’s Spanish eyes” (Sade/Fourier/Loyola, 9).

That other signifier, he had already named signifiance, “a word,” he says, “which has the advantage of referring to the field of the signifier (and not of signification) and of linking up with, via the path opened by Julia Kristeva who proposed the term, a semiotics of the text” (Image-Music-Text, 54). In “The Third Meaning,” Barthes examines such a semiotics in his analysis of film-frames from Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. There he finds what he calls the Obvious meaning—the shower of gold that signifies Ivan’s royal accession. But he also notices the details in the faces of the two courtiers who flank him, fixing on : the-one-on-the-right’s ‘stupid’ nose, as contrasted with  the other’s finely traced eyebrows,. . . .[and]  “the affected flatness of his hairstyle suggestive of a wig” (Image-Music-Text, 53)  These he names the Obtuse meaning, defining it as a signifier without a signified,. . . . “In short, he says “what the obtuse meaning disturbs, sterilizes, is meta-language (criticism)” (61).

Krauss Image 1

A number of reasons can be given for this, he goes on.  “First and foremost, Obtuse meaning is indifferent to the story and to the Obvious narrative” (61). Further, he characterizes the Obtuse as an image that “lacks a diagetic horizon” so that to the unfolding of the plot it opposes what he calls a “counter-narrative,” a signifier on which there builds a “permutational play” which sets up a barrier to the diagetic unfolding of the story (63).  Barthes continues his reflections on “signifiance” as “his [own] dream of an ‘exemption from meaning’,” exempt “as one is from military service” (Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, 87).

In 1980, in Camera Lucida Barthes would refashion the Obtuse’s “Third Meaning,” as Punctum: the detail that “pricks” or “wounds,” by saying “What I can name cannot really prick me” (Camera Lucida, 51). Thus, it is the Obtuse that enters Camera Lucida as “the nothing to say” (93).

In his penultimate lectures at the Collège de France Barthes rewrote the Obtuse once-more—renaming it now le neutre.  Punctum has attracted a whole literature to itself, collected in a recent anthology, Photography Degree Zero. Michael Fried’s contribution to the discussion of punctum, as we might predict, projects his very own biographeme onto the material, as he assimilates Barthes’s objection to certain photographs to Fried’s own consistent bête-noir, which is theater. Fried’s argument rests on what Barthes says about the operation of the punctum in a photograph, as it “pricks” or “wounds”-the-viewer’s-subjectivity, arising from a detail that Barthes-as-viewer receives immediately:  “right here in my eyes.”  But the condition for the photograph’s reaching out to wound or prick, is, Barthes cautions, the absence of the photographer’s intentional composition of the shot. It also depends on the photographic subject’s being unaware of the camera so that it is impossible for him to pose. The outcome of both of these requirements, Fried says, is “a kind of ontological guarantee that it was not intended to be so by the photographer” (Batchen, 145). Which is to say that the detail that will become the punctum didn’t even exist for the photographer at the time. This absence of the photographer’s intention, Fried insists, totally transfers the activation of the work from the maker to the viewer, as it includes the beholder himself within a work that would be incomplete without his experience of it. Such a dependence on the beholder himself, is what Fried defines as theatrical.

Barthes’ adversary, however, continuous throughout his work and given special point in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, was not theater but fascism.  As he says in the inaugural lecture, “But the performance of a language system is neither reactionary nor progressive; it is quite simply fascist: for fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech” (October, 5). At various points in the lecture, he cites the events of May ’68. Indeed, May ’68 marks a context very different from the one in which Barthes experienced semiology. It was the moment of Oswald Ducrot’s dissertation –“Implicit and Presuppostion in Language.”  Presuppositions were what Ducrot hunted throughout language as the hidden form of compelling speech.  Speaking of pronouns in a way far from that of Benveniste’s, Ducrot wrote, “they are not just an economic way of stating a proper name.  They force the interlocutor to share the same self-designation.  They are the vehicles of reciprocity.  They mark the presence of inter-subjectivity at the very interior of language.”  Ducrot’s notorious examples of this compelled inter-subjectivity were: a police interrogation and a university exam. Equally famously, the student protesters of May ’68 refused the linguistic presuppositions-of-pronouns by addressing their professors as tu and by their first names.

Barthes broadened his distaste for fascism’s “discourse of power,” in Mythologies, where his analysis of myth, turns around it as “depoliticized speech” (Mythologies, 142) Such speech holds out the photographic image’s “denotation,” as a version of “the nothing to say,” masking its exercise of power by its silence (the negro boy scout; the Family of Man show). It is as “Neutral” that Barthes reworks his fascination for the Third Meaning and the nothing to say‘s astonishment at the photograph’s registration of death. Under the portrait of Lewis Payne he writes, “he is dead and he is going to die . . .”; and under that of little Ernest, “ he says, “It is possible that Ernest is still alive today; . . . but where? How?. . . What a novel!” (Camera Lucida, 83).

Krauss Image 2

If I may revert to a personal reminiscence, my husband, Denis Hollier, with whom I translated Barthes’ course on the Neutral, joined me in our frustration about what to put on the book’s cover.  Despite his extraordinary beauty, it seemed to us that yet another photograph of Barthes would simply be redundant. It was at a little talk by the Los Angeles artist, Ed Ruscha, on the occasion of an exhibition of his drawings at the Whitney Museum, that Ruscha spoke of having been induced to draw by the gift of a bottle of India ink, which he then slide-projected on the screen.

“That’s it!” Denis exclaimed, pointing at the image. Immediately, I understood.

At the middle of his course Barthes tells the story of his own bottle of ink. “Thursday, March 9, fine afternoon,” he begins, “I go out to buy some paints (Sennelier inks),  capsules of pigment: by taste for the names (golden yellow, sky blue, brilliant green, . . . sun yellow, cartham pink); I buy sixteen capsules of it. In putting them away, I knock one over: in sponging up I made a new mess: little domestic complications . . . And now, I am going to give you the official name of the spilt color, the name printed on the little bottle (as on the others vermillon, turquoise, etc.): it was the color called Neutral (obviously I had opened this capsule first to see what color it was, this Neuter about which I speak for thirteen weeks). Oh well, I was punished and disappointed: punished because Neuter spatters and stains (it’s a type of dull gray-black); disappointed because Neuter is a color like the others, and for sale (therefore, Neuter is not unmarketeable): the unclassifiable is classified; all the more reason to return to discourse which, at least, cannot say what the Neuter is” (The Neutral, 48-49).

Krauss Image 3

As a good structuralist, Barthes would certainly have known the work of the Prague School and Louis  Hjelmslev, with their interest in neutralization at the level of phonology. Neutralization is the eradication of the binary oppositions crucial to structuralism—so that writing under the rubric “The love for an idea,” Barthes declares over binarism; “binarism became for him a kind of erotic object.  This idea seemed to him inexhaustible, he could never exploit it enough.  That one might say everything with only one difference produced a kind of joy in him, a continuous astonishment” (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 51-52).

The neutral’s eradication of the very binarism that was erotic for Barthes, should therefore strike us as a curious turn. Whether that turn should be seen, however, as the entry into post-structuralist thought needs to be held in abeyance.

The Neutral is certainly homophonic with the linguistic term neutralization. Phonological neutralization was itself made more radical with the semantic neutralization that would soon be introduced by A.J. Greimas. But the phonological neutralization of difference took its examples from the cancelation of  distinctive sounds in German, as the contrast between d and t disappears at the end of one-syllable words like hund and bund, which are pronounced, however, as:  hunt and bunt. In English the same experience of difference between d and t is neutralized when d follows s so that the word still is given to the ear as s/d/ill.

But Greimas based his semantic neutralization on the difference between marked and unmarked terms within an initial binary such as old and young or man and woman. Arguing that the marked term gives more specific information than the unmarked, the examples of “John is as Old as Mary,” is unmarked as contrasted with “John is as young as Mary.” “As old as” produces old as the simple indication that what is at stake is age; where on the other hand, “as young as” informs us that it is a question of youth. Age is thus the unmarked difference from the binary’s marked term as young.

Krauss Image 4

The semiotic square itself can be narrativized as a rotating set of binaries, as follows, “Once any unit of meaning (S1) is conceived, we automatically conceive of the absence of that meaning (-S1), as well

Krauss Image 5

as an opposing system of meaning (S2), that correspondingly implies its own absence” (Positions, 43).

This correspondence is expressed in the square by the arrows connecting the term S1 with not S2., a correspondence that notices their logical equivalence.  For Greimas, the issue of the unmarked term is that it can pass to its complementary as a universal, or as the generalized category “agedness.” That the transcendentalizing, unmarked term has a kind of hierarchical privilege over the marked one, makes it a prime object for deconstruction. Speaking of this opposition to the transcendentalizing category by a fourth term, Derrida describes it as resisting and disorganizing it, without ever constituting a third term, w/o ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dialectics” (Positions,43).

An example of the crucial fourth term in a Derridian semantic neutralization would be grammatology which takes the marked term writes in the binary says/writes—the third, or positive neutral being the generalizing term asserts—and, repeating this transcategorical third term to make a forth, it grafts together says and writes into the negative neutralization gramme and logos, repeating the transcategorical, unmarked term (says) as what Derrida calls a ‘trace’.

Deconstruction positions the negative (or marked)-complex-term of the semiotic square, where, he writes, in the (complementary) position of the unmarked term –says, by exploding the square through its repetition as grammatology.

It reorients us in relation to the seemingly ‘natural’ and ‘self-evident’ meanings which inhabit our language.

The use of “grammē” in place of the third term (communicate).  For deconstruction, the use of the marked term (writes) in the forth position, makes the ‘third term’ impossible, or ‘irreducibly nonsimple.’ The deconstructive term, grammē conveys what Derrida calls the violence inscribed in the seemingly natural and self-evident use of assertion to mean ‘communication‘.  The deconstructive term is neither marked nor unmarked, and thus it resists constitution as a ‘third term’–it is neither second nor third. Deconstruction’s idea is to mark the seemingly universalizing unmarked term.

By substituting a marked term–, writing, or mark–deconstruction conveys more information than neutralization permits.  In this way it ‘explodes’ neutralization in the enunciation of its own intervention. Accordingly, FredericJameson calls this fourth position (the negative complex) the “place of . . . paradoxical emergence”(On Meaning, p. xvi).

This detour through semantic neutralization is meant to allow us to wonder, collectively, whether Barthes’s Neutral is possibly homologous to Derrida’s Deconstructive neutralization.

It is Barthes’ entirely consistent “biographeme,” however, that encourages me to resist that idea. His own Neutral was prepared for by signifiance and the Obtuseness of the Third Meaning, not its overturning power. Likewise it was by the punctum’s “nothing to say,” and photography’s extinction of the prolix connotations of the image, that he submerged them in what he calls denotation’s “bath of innocence.”
Krauss Image 6

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

____. “Inaugural Lecture.” October. No. 8, Spring 1979.

____. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

____. The Neutral. Trans. Rosalind Krauss and Denis Hollier. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

____. Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

____. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.

____. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Batchen, Geoffrey, ed. Photography Degree Zero. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 2009.


Rosalind E. Krauss is professor of Art History at Columbia University. She is also cofounder of the academic journal October. She has written extensively on modernist art, photography, the avant-garde, and concepts such as formlessness, the optical unconscious, and pastiche. Her publications include The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The Optical Unconscious, and Under Blue Cup. She also translated, along with Denis Hollier, Roland Barthes’s The Neutral: Lecture Course at the College de France.