Youna Kwak: Avert Your Eyes: Roland Barthes and the Ethics of Intimacy

Kwak Photo

I. Intimacy

Roland Barthes’s late works enfold the reader in a disquietingly intimate embrace. Not because the glimmers of personal life he delivers up for inspection are particularly shocking; on the contrary, the fact that our prurient interest can be aroused by such slender offerings is the source of our trouble. It is not what he shows us, but rather our eagerness to look that makes us blush—an eagerness that we did not know we felt, having kept it buried so long by mutual contract with the coolest of critics, whose disarming obliqueness leaves us ill-equipped to answer intimacy’s summons.

Barthes seems to share our discomfort. Having set the stage for intimacy, he finds it difficult to follow the script. In texts such as Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, the posthumously published Mourning Diary and Incidents, and his last seminars at the Collège de France, he makes a skittish tour guide to his affective interior. He gives vague directions to places that don’t seem to exist. He beckons us to follow only to disappear around a corner. He offers us an “autobiography” consisting of aphoristic fragments in which he refers to himself in the third person.1 He occupies himself by writing diaries while publishing an essay proclaiming the uselessness of such a project.2 He constructs a critical reflection on photography on the basis of an image of great personal significance that he nevertheless refuses to reveal.3