Category: September 2014

Alex Wermer-Colan: Introduction to The Renaissance of Roland Barthes

In response to French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes’s tragic death in 1980, Michel Foucault observed that Barthes seemed “completely developed” during his lecture course at the Collège de France only a week before the accident. Foucault recalled thinking at the time: “He’ll live to be ninety years old; he is one of those men whose most important work will be written between the ages of sixty and ninety.” Although Barthes passed away before he could create the rest of what scholars categorize as his “late” work, these last writings were, for Barthes, the result of a transition period that approximates the clichés of a mid-life crisis. In light of his mother (his closest companion) recently passing away, Barthes explores, in his final lecture course, The Preparation of the Novel (La Préparation du roman, 1978-1980), his subject position at a pivot point between his middle and his old age, and he comes to realize he must urgently prepare for what he imagines will be his actual “late” work. Barthes’s Preparation of the Novel staged the search for a vita nuova, a new life, a way of coming to terms with his mother’s recent death, and being reborn, motherless, with renewed purpose, dedicated to a project that would transcend the limited forms and genres his writing had previously taken. Barthes figures his anticipated conversion in terms of a Proustian search for a “third form” between or beyond the Essay and the Novel that, in the manner of what Barthes termed “the Neutral” (“le neutre”), would baffle or outplay (“déjouer”) the paradigm of theory and literature that his contemporary readers expected. Even if we can only hypothesize what hybrid or alternative work of critique and narrative, essay and novel, Barthes would have gone on to create, the brilliance, theoretical significance and formal innovation of his late work, especially his lectures, has yet to receive the international attention it deserves. We can, therefore, at the very least, celebrate the renaissance of Roland Barthes in Anglophone cultural and literary studies, as a series of posthumous publications and translations introduces to a larger public Barthes’s most innovative but underappreciated work.1

On April 25th and 26th of 2013, Claire Sommers and I, as members of the Comparative Literature and English programs at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, organized and hosted the second annual interdisciplinary conference on Critical Theory, in order to pay tribute to and initiate debate about Roland Barthes’s late writings. In light of the final publication from his lecture courses, How to Live Together (Comment vivre ensemble, 1976-1977), we invited presentations from all fields to explore any aspect of Roland Barthes’s oeuvre: the evolution of his writing and thinking, his engagement with literary or cultural texts, the tightrope his writings walk between the forms of the novel and the essay, and the relationship of his work not just to Critical Theory, but to any and all other disciplines. This special issue of The Conversant provides a venue for only some of the many outstanding essays presented during our two-day conference on issues ranging from Orientalism to autobiography, queer studies to photography, mourning to Marxism. Although our conference was designed to investigate the value of Roland Barthes’s late work, the underlying question of the conference was what exactly differentiated Barthes’s “late” work from his “early” work, as well as what ways the transformation in his thinking and writing might testify to and illuminate the major transformations in literary and cultural theory during the second half of the twentieth century. Nearly all the conference participants, and especially those whose papers are published in this collection, tackled these difficult questions and spoke to the importance of Barthes’s search for a new form that would not merely satisfy his own artistic and intellectual ambitions, but would more profoundly intervene into the contemporary discourse (literary, social, political) of Barthes’s era, and of our own.

In his keynote speech, a lecture revised and published in this collection, Jonathan Culler, the celebrated scholar who introduced much of the Anglo-American world to French literary theory, laid out the groundwork for the debate over the value of Roland Barthes’s early and late work. Culler’s primary argument remained unchanged from his original assessment of Barthes’s oeuvre in 1983, now available in Oxford University Press’s Barthes: A Very Short Introduction (2002). Culler concluded that Roland Barthes was no longer an unquestionable reference point and authority, stating unequivocally: “I would contend that the value, nay, the genius of Barthes lies not in the blend of knowingness or sentimentality of the late work but in the early work, which tries out possible sciences” (Culler 127).2 For Culler, and for many other critical theorists, Barthes’s early work, especially his Marxist-oriented semiology, exemplified by his magisterial Mythologies (1957), offered the theoretical perspective, methodology and terminology necessary to assess the insidious ways ideology over-determines our experience, especially by means of stereotypical representations that exonerate our frequently unjustifiable lifestyles and encourage us to assume as Common Sense (what Barthes calls doxa), as inevitable and natural, the most deplorable, yet avoidable, aspects of our culture and politics. Jonathan Culler is doubtlessly right to celebrate the importance of Roland Barthes’s contributions to, for instance, the field of semiology. Yet our conference raised the pressing question as to whether Barthes’s late work could prove especially useful in the face of political crises Barthes previously diagnosed and critiqued.

In the aftermath of May 1968, Barthes’s reflections on his early work called into question the Marxist critique of ideology he elaborated previously, and sketched out his intuition that the structure of contemporary doxa would only prove susceptible to modes of intervention and persuasion more sophisticated than discourse analysis. After explicating Barthes’s innovative critique of contemporary ideology, I hope to demonstrate briefly, before our contributors analyze and illustrate in more detail, that whereas Barthes’s early work exposes, critiques, and satirizes, Barthes’s late work baffles, resists and inspires. If Barthes’s early writings demystify our false consciousness, declaring that, so to speak, the emperor wears no clothes, Barthes’s late writings disrupt our stereotypical interpretations, bending genres and frustrating those reading practices that sustain our bad faith, surprising and inspiring us out of our modern cynicism whereby we know quite well the emperor wears no clothes, but still, we follow his lead.

Barthes’s early work, his essays of cultural semiology, sought to analyze the “myths” that structure our ideology and control the way we understand, and misunderstand, the material conditions of our lives. Like Foucault’s, Barthes’s work investigated the distortion of ideology at the hands of power, of capitalist relations of production and imperial hegemony. Barthes’s Mythologies stands as one of the most thorough and accessible attempts to demystify the structures of our ideologies that remained hidden, so to speak, in plain sight, pervading the most quotidian aspects of life, from the French love of wine to wrestling matches, from news reports on colonial wars to celebrity gossip. However, Barthes’s “Preface to the 1970 Edition” of Mythologies carefully disavows the methodology, formal techniques and ideological assumptions that undergirded his project in the 1950s (Barthes wrote the essays that constitute Mythologies between 1954 and 1956). In his “Preface,” Barthes writes that, in the aftermath of May 1968, “this book could today no longer be performed in the same way” and clarifies that, “In other words, I could not, today, write new mythologies in their previous form” (Mythologies ix). Why is Mythologies, in the aftermath of May 1968, no longer the model for the ideal critical intervention? Barthes gives a hint when he insists that “ideological criticism, precisely when the need for it was brutally obvious (May 1968), has become or at least ought to have become more sophisticated” (ix). A year later, in his essay, “Change the Object Itself: Myth Today” (1971), Barthes reflects on his early work to explain more thoroughly why Mythologies was and is no longer sufficient as ideological criticism and political activism, why Barthes, “could not, today, write new mythologies in their previous form” (ix).

If Barthes’s essay “Myth Today,” appended to Mythologies, provides a theoretical blueprint for his semiological method, in his later essay, “Change the Object Itself: Myth Today,” Barthes enumerates his previous argument’s “theoretical articulations” before calling into question their basic assumptions. Barthes explicates his former argument as follows: 1) “Myth” is “close to what Durkheimian sociology calls a ‘collective representation,’” a socially determined “reflection” of material conditions; 2) the “reflection” is “inverted,” as “the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical,” no matter how unjust and unnecessary, are interpreted to be “natural,” ahistorical and unavoidable; 3) contemporary European “myth” in particular is “discontinuous,” no longer a dominant fixed narrative as the Church once imposed, but only “discourse,” a “corpus of phrases (of stereotypes),” and therefore all the more “insidious”; and finally, 4) “semiology” was at one time capable of unveiling and reorienting the “mythical inversion,” enlightening those who misunderstood the actual state of affairs by “breaking up the message into two semantic systems” and revealing what we take to be “natural” as actually historical, artificial, even arbitrary (Image, Music, Text 165-166). At the time he wrote Mythologies, Barthes’s theory of myth was in keeping with the traditional Marxist theory of ideology as false-consciousness, and his method of discourse analysis was meant to provide therapy for the ailing eyesight of the masses. After Barthes’s retrospective survey of his own manifesto, however, he concludes, “Thus appeared, thus at least appeared to me, myth today,” before he coyly asks, “Has anything changed?” (166). In fact, Barthes insists “French society” has not changed, “at any rate, not at this level, mythical history having a time-scale different to that of political history” (166). Neither have “the myths, nor even the analysis” altered—“in our society, the mythical still abounds, just as anonymous and slippery, fragmented and garrulous, available both for ideological criticism and semiological dismantling” (166). Rather, what Barthes concludes has changed in the last 15 years is “the science of reading under whose gaze myth, like an animal long since captured and held in observation, does nevertheless become a different object” (166). In this vehement survey of “Myth Today,” Barthes insists that “denunciation, demystification (or demythification)” has itself become “a mythological doxa,” “discourse, stock of phrases, catechistic declaration,” as “any student can and does denounce the bourgeois or petit-bourgeois character of such and such a form (of life, of thought, of  consumption),” but to no end—the ruling ideology, the mythic discourse that enables injustice, Barthes realizes, has appropriated the “science of the signifier” (166-167).3

The significance of Barthes’s claim that “demystification” has itself become “a mythological doxa” anticipates an increasingly well-respected work of cultural criticism published shortly after Barthes’s death, Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason (1983). In Critique of Cynical Reason, Sloterdijk identifies the transformation in the ruling ideology’s structure that incites Barthes to shift gears from his early to his late work. Sloterdijk argues that contemporary Western society, as well as many prior historical periods, especially the most totalitarian and imperial manifestations of late capitalist society, depend not so much on an ideology of false consciousness, but rather on what he terms “enlightened false consciousness,” or “cynical reason” (Sloterdijk, 5). In The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), Slavoj Žižek succinctly distinguishes the two modes of ideology identified by Sloterdijk, while emphasizing the consequences for politically-committed critical theory and art. For Žižek, the most elementary formulation of false consciousness comes from Marx’s Das Kapital: “they do not know it, but they are doing it” (Žižek, 28). Žižek clarifies that such a theory of ideology implies a “basic, constitutive naiveté: the misrecognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, a distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representation, our false-consciousness of it” (28). In other words, the theory of false consciousness posits that, as in the example of commodity fetishism, individuals under capitalism misinterpret social relations, the material relations of production, and the interconnections between the base and superstructure. To this end, Žižek observes that the traditional “critical-ideological procedure,” exemplified even for Žižek by Barthes’s Mythologies, is designed to “lead the naïve ideological consciousness to a point at which it can recognize its own effective conditions, the social reality that it is distorting, and through this very act dissolve itself” (28). However, in contradiction with the theory of false consciousness, modern “ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical” (29). As Žižek puts it, the “cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less insists upon the mask” (29). Žižek’s pithy formula for Sloterdijk’s proposition is therefore: “‘they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it’” (29). This fetishistic disavowal, Žižek argues, is the “paradox of an enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it” (29). To this end, Žižek insists that an ideology of cynical reason “renders impossible—or, more precisely, vain—the classic critical-ideological procedure” (29). Satire, irony and sarcasm only sustain the ruling ideology’s cynical reason—the traditional critique of ideology, especially demystification, according to Žižek, is insufficient, even counter-productive, in the face of those who in bad faith enjoy their luxury not just at the expense of the poor and the foreign, but, these days, to the detriment of our very planet. Whereas, then, an ideology of false consciousness would prove susceptible to artistic and critical methods that, as György Lukács and Jean-Paul Sartre previously advocated, disturb and remove the veil of illusion in order to reveal the actual material conditions and ulterior motives perpetuating an oppressive system, an ideology of enlightened false consciousness takes into consideration, even sarcastically thrives off, the revelation of an unjust state of affairs.

For Barthes, then, as for Sloterdijk and Žižek thereafter, the ruling “mythological doxa” that cynically tolerates “denunciation, demystification (or demythification)” is precisely what makes the critical essays of Mythologies no longer effective. Barthes concludes his essay “Change the Object Itself: Myth Today,” by attempting to sketch a new “programme,” or what Barthes, in his humble way, qualifies as “perhaps only an ‘inclination’” (Image, Music, Text, 169). The “task” of this new programme is “no longer simply to upend (or right) the mythical message, to stand it back on its feet, with denotation at the bottom and connotation at the top, nature on the surface and class interest deep down, but rather to change the object itself, to produce a new object, point of departure for a new science” (169). For Barthes, as his late work makes clear, a new science involves a new approach to literature and art that, in the vein of reception theory, can assess the personal, social and political effect of aesthetic and critical modes of communication, while also, in the vein of deconstruction, seeking to destabilize the binary systems of reason that undergird ruling ideologies. To this end, in his third-person, aleatory autobiography, Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes (Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, 1975), Barthes, at once the ironic aesthete and committed stylist, clarifies his intentions to reach and affect the reader: “Speaking of a text, he credits its author with not manipulating the reader. But he found this compliment by discovering that he himself does all he can to manipulate the reader, and that in fact he will never renounce an art of effects” (Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, 102). For Barthes, a new science also demands new “forms” that can reach a wide audience before proceeding to undermine the binary relations that structure ideology and discourse, disrupting those polarized stereotypes that allow the contemporary reader to resort in bad faith to a cynical doxa (167).4 In the face of a populace that, especially after the failed revolution of May 1968, knows quite well the injustice it’s leisure depends upon, and even goes so far as to make fun of its own half-hearted illusions, Barthes argues in “Change the Object Itself: Myth Today” that “it is no longer the myths which need to be unmasked (the doxa now takes care of that), it is the sign itself which must be shaken; the problem is not to reveal the (latent) meaning of an utterance, of a trait, of a narrative, but to fissure the very representation of meaning, is not to change or purify the symbols but to challenge the symbolic itself” (167).

Like Theodor Adorno’s pessimistic aestheticism, Barthes’s skepticism about the effectiveness of traditional modes of ideological criticism brings into light the political potential of works of art and criticism that do not teach so much as unteach, that do not preach the truth to the choir so much as resist the interpretation of those who already cynically tolerate an unpalatable truth. Barthes’s response in Writing Degree Zero (Le degré zéro de l’écriture, 1953) to Jean-Paul Sartre’s foundational essay of post-war criticism, What is Literature? (Qu’est-ce que la littérature, 1948) bears much in common with Adorno’s own devastating retort to Sartre’s essay in “Commitment” (1962). Throughout their lives, both Adorno and Barthes increasingly turned against Sartre’s call for “la littérature engagée” (“committed literature”) that would clearly communicate the writer’s political commitment to a demystifying critique of the status quo. Hence in “Cultural Criticism” (1967) Adorno concludes that “The traditional transcendent critique of ideology is obsolete. In principle, the method succumbs to the very reification which is it critical theme” (Adorno, 33-34).5 In this way, Barthes’s late work does not abandon Marx any more than Adorno’s does; instead, in Barthes’s conclusion to “Change the Object Itself: Myth Today,” he figures his theoretical and methodological development as a “move—with all due allowance for difference in importance (obviously) and according to Althusser’s scheme—from Feuerbach to Marx, from the young Marx to the mature Marx” (Image, Music, Text, 169). Whereas Adorno’s pessimism and anti-utilitarianism may well have gotten the better of him, at best arguing in favor of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett’s work as politically subversive for refusing to satisfy the recipient’s desire for the type of closure that capitalist commodities usually provide, Roland Barthes, after spending the first half of his life analyzing the structures of late capitalist and imperial ideology, committed, however ambivalently, the rest of his life to examining, formulating and experimenting with alternative modes of aesthetic persuasion and resistance. If both Adorno and Barthes mark within their theoretical oeuvre a crucial turning point not only in the theory of the politics of aesthetics, but in critical theory more generally from structuralism to post-structuralism, Barthes’s late works provide one of the most illuminating series of experiments for cultural critics and artists today who seek not only to discover and to reveal, but to persuade.

In light of the contemporary ruling ideology’s immunity to traditional modes of critique, rational persuasion and demystification, Barthes’s late writings, from his more nuanced, lyrical rendition of mythologies in Empire of Signs (L’Empire des signes, 1970) to his elegiac writings on photography in Camera Lucida (La chambre claire : note sur la photographie, 1980), should appear as valuable attempts not merely to give the lie to a cynical doxa, but to give Common Sense a taste, so to speak, of its own medicine. As exemplified by Barthes’s turn to autobiographical writing after demystifying, like Foucault, the insidious role of the ritual of confession in systems of surveillance and containment, Barthes’s late writings deploy and distort the popular genres that his earlier writings critiqued. In this way, Barthes’s search for a “third form” was in keeping with his still underexplored concept of “le neutre” (“the neutral”); the “third form” would, like the neutral, baffle and outplay, bypass and short-circuit, the paradigm of the novel and the essay, art and criticism, representation and demystification. For Barthes, the “third form” would not synthesize,as Hegel would have it, the novel and the essay, but rather, would outwit (“déjouer”) the binary division that limits both writer and reader. To this end, Barthes’s conceptualization of “the neutral” serves as the theoretical foundation for his exploration of alternative, aesthetic modes of persuasion—rhetorical strategies exemplified by his resort to fragmentary, paradoxical, and aleatory modes of writing, from the haiku to the notation, from the Zen koan to the lyrical essay. As Lucy O’Meara argues in her scholarship on Barthes’s late lectures (as well as in her essay published in this collection), his lecture notes, published and translated in the new millennium, at times approximate more than any other work by Barthes the enigmatic, fragmentary, yet novelistic and subversive “third form” that his last lecture course, The Preparation of the Novel, fantasized so exhaustively. And yet, if for many critical theorists, Barthes’s emphasis in his late writings, especially in The Pleasure of the Text (Le plaisir du texte, 1973), on “readerly” and “writerly” pleasure comes across as all-too-bourgeois, it is important to note that Barthes’s genre-bending writings, such as his popular A Lover’s Discourse (Fragments d’un discours amoureux, 1977), serve, at the very least, to make the reader’s stereotypical role less pleasant, and, at best, to deprive, paralyze, or over-satisfy into a state of jouissance the reader’s politically-inflected hermeneutic approach. After demystifying contemporary doxa in his early work, perhaps, finally, Barthes’s greatest and most positive achievement in his late work was to stage cautiously his desire and search for the neutral as a possible model (by no means a “masterful” one) for just how pleasurable living in good faith in a relatively demystified society can be.

I hope that this collection of essays, offering only a selection of the outstanding work scholars presented at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Conference, “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes,” will serve to justify further the value of Barthes’s last writings and lectures as models for the methodological approaches and stylistic interventions ever more necessary in our increasingly cynical, hyper-polarized and unjust society. Barthes was always a technician, and the writings that follow, by graduate students and faculty alike, will testify to the importance of Barthes’s late work not just for scholars of literary criticism and theory, but for the wide range of disciplines that constitute the humanities, as well as for artists and writers more generally who, at both micro and macro levels, seek to change the minds of those who will not be persuaded.

We begin The Conversant’s special issue on “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes” with Youna Kwak’s elegant essay that unties the stylistic knot of intimacy in Barthes’s late writings. Just as Barthes once famously asked, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?,” Kwak’s essay itself unveils, without fully disclosing, not only herself as the reader who cruises, but Barthes, the writer who flirts—a little suspicious of the reader’s curiosity, but also, more than ever before, peeking out between the lines of his posthumous, autobiographical texts, Incidents (1987) and the Mourning Diary (Journal de deuil, 2009). By breathlessly meditating upon the distance a reader must maintain in order to both, paradoxically, get close to the text (and by proxy, the writer), and also productively look away from the text to the world, Kwak introduces and engages with the dilemmas of reception theory and the ethics of writing that concern the contributions that follow. After Kwak’s overture, Jonathan Culler’s assessment of Barthes’s late work in the context of his oeuvre serves as a wonderful introduction for newcomers and specialists alike, providing at least in the Anglophone context the foundational assessment of Barthes’s late writings that any contemporary scholar must take into consideration. Lucy O’Meara’s contribution extends her thorough research on Barthes’s lecture courses, while also taking into consideration her panel discussion with D.A. Miller and Diana Knight during our conference. Her paper at once provides a useful introduction to Barthes’s lecture courses while still delving deeply into their most complex contradictions, from the strange way Barthes’s lecture course, How to Live Together, searches for a pleasant and productive way to live alone, to the relationality that lies at the heart of Barthes’s fantasies, a relationality and ethical commitment that remains ignored by simplistic critiques of Barthes’s late work as solipsistic.

After laying out the playing field, we turn to Russell Stephens’ fascinating meditation on Walter Benjamin and Barthes’s approaches to the reception aesthetics of photography. Stephens explores Barthes’s unspoken debt in Camera Lucida to Benjamin, whose contributions to critical theory very well may have inspired the late Barthes as much as such acknowledged influences as Friedrich Nietzsche.6 Stephens’ essay provides the groundwork for further contributions in this collection on Barthes’s writings on photography, especially by situating Barthes’s phenomenology of photography’s reception within the Marxist context that many critics denigrate his late writing for lacking (for instance, Stephens points to the possibility that what Barthes terms the punctum may prove most capable of stimulating and reorienting the contemporary recipient’s postmodern, ahistorical consciousness). From another angle, David Greetham’s provocative and complex meditation upon Barthes’s dichotomy between work and text, the actual and the ideal versions of a text, injects Barthes’s nuanced thinking into the most vital debates in textual studies. Greetham’s bravura performance, weaving etymological and genealogical divagations, raise a series of foundational questions on the integrity of the text that prove crucial not just to Barthes criticism, but to textual scholarship and literary criticism more generally. Expanding further the range of Barthes’s writings and the media he celebrated and analyzed, Margot Note examines Barthes’s understudied writings on the photography of architecture in order to trace the transformation of Barthes’s object of study and his mode of intervention in tandem with his gradual shift in theoretical approach from structuralism to post-structuralism until, in Camera Lucida, Barthes achieves what amounts to another compelling instance of “the third form.” Not only does Camera Lucida disclose, as Note explicates, how the recipient experiences photography according to structuralist and post-structuralist frameworks, but Barthes’s ambiguously confessional text presents a phenomenology of photographic reception that can come to terms with those slippery components of the “image” that traditional semiological analysis struggles in vain to pin down.

Following these contributions to Barthes’s bravura writing on literature, photography and architecture, Claire Raymond’s analysis of Barthes’s theory of photography and “the third meaning” in relation to Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series serves to call into question the problematic critical reception of Mendieta’s oeuvre. Raymond’s essay, thereafter, draws out through Barthes’ theoretical writings the subversive potential of photography and performance art that ambiguously represents freighted issues of racialized and gendered subjectivity, orphanhood and exile. Finally, we conclude The Conversant’s “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes” with the revised version of Rosalind Krauss’s keynote on Barthes’s concept of “le neutre,” a lecture that performs a profound, even dizzying, analysis of Gramscian neutralization in order to assess the significance of Barthes’s late work as a post-structuralist intervention into ideological discourse.

I would like to thank first and foremost Claire Sommers, as well as Professor André Aciman, for their tireless, quasi-magical work in putting on one of, if not the largest Anglophone academic conferences devoted to Roland Barthes to date. I would also like to thank all our sponsors at the CUNY Graduate Center: the Center for Humanities, the English and Comparative Literature Programs, the Writer’s Institute, the Doctoral Students’ Council, the English Students’ Association, the Office of the Provost, the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, and Columbia University Press. I would furthermore like to thank all our participants at “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes”conference, especially our invited speakers, Jonathan Culler, Rosalind Krauss, D.A. Miller, Lucy O’Meara and Diana Knight, as well as the Graduate Center faculty who kindly moderated each of our panels. Finally, I’m grateful to The Conversant for providing an important digital and multi-media venue where such an array of scholars can reach a wider audience than most print journals allow (much less your typical conference proceedings that enter that uncanny genre known as “grey literature” which only Barthes could have properly analyzed). In particular, I want to thank Andy Fitch and Cristiana Baik for their support over the last year as I sent out CFPs, reviewed submissions and edited this exciting collection. I would also like to thank their editorial staff, Ching-In Chen and Caleb Beckwith, for their assistance in the final stages of editing this special issue. Finally, I’m grateful to my dissertation advisor, Wayne Koestenbaum, not only for first introducing me to Barthes’s late lectures during his course, “The Desire to Write,” but for his attentive guidance throughout the last few years of my doctoral studies.

If Barthes’s last wishes were to transform himself and the reader, for both writer and reader to be, in some way, reborn, it is worth concluding with Barthes’s last words during his last lecture of his course, The Preparation of the Novel, where he figured such a rebirth, such a conversion, such a discovery of a “third form,” through the medium of music. At the conclusion of his lecture, Barthes retells the story of Friedrich Nietzsche’s moment of revelation before the pyramidal rock on the shore of Lake Silvaplana. After paraphrasing Nietzsche’s account of his vision of the Eternal Return as the “rebirth of the art of hearing,” Barthes admits that he too is waiting for his “Hearing to be transformed,” a transformation he imagines to be “the real dialectical becoming,” one in which you, as Nietzsche put it, “Become what you are,” or, as in Kafka’s saying, you “Destroy yourself…in order to make yourself into that which you are” (The Preparation of the Novel, 304). In light of this inspiring paradox whereby, according to Barthes, “the distinction between the Old and the New would quite naturally be abolished,” and after noting Arnold Schönberg’s optimism that “it’s still possible to write music in C Major,” Barthes gives us his last enigmatic hint of what his future work, the “third form” beside the novel and the essay, would have been like: “There, to bring things to a close, you have the object of my desire: to write a work in C Major.”

Brooklyn, New York

                                                                                                June 15th, 2014


1) In Roland Barthes at the Collège de France, Lucy O’Meara provides a thorough account of the complex legal and literary reasons Barthes’s late lectures weren’t even published in French until the beginning of the new millennium, more than twenty years after his original lecture courses took place.

2) To this end, Culler disagrees with Foucault’s prediction that Barthes would have been “one of those men whose most important work will be written between the ages of sixty and ninety.” Culler writes in the lecture revised and published in this volume: “I completely disagree.  The death of Barthes’s mother in 1977 left him thoroughly demoralized, struggling for a raison d’être.” Culler continues: “So I disagree with Foucault, whose ostensible praise was doubtless a way of slyly denigrating the structuralist Barthes. Rather than imagine that the late Barthes would have produced great works, we should think about the value of what we have, in La préparation du roman, for example.  What we have is above all a paradoxical operation . . . . The determination to renounce metalanguage is central to this attempt to change perspective and to write not as a critic or theorist, who offers metalinguistic categories to describe the literary objects studied, but to write from the perspective of the writer preparing the novel.” Culler concludes diplomatically: “Though the regressions of late Barthes seem to me dangerous in that they might seduce readers into ignoring Barthes’s earlier compelling analyses, astute readers should be capable of keeping those analyses in play so as to profit from them, while still finding stimulation in the late Barthes and in the possibilities his conflictedly metalinguistic writing provides. In sum, the Renaissance of Roland Barthes must entail substance as well as saveur, early Barthes as well as late Barthes.”

3) It is worth noting that Barthes, as ever, anticipated his critique of ideology as cynical even in “Myth Today,” where, on the one hand, he acknowledged myth as functioning according to the theory of false consciousness (“myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear”), and, on the other hand, Barthes also identified myth’s plasticity: “it is very difficult to vanquish myth from the inside: for the very effort one makes in order to escape its stranglehold becomes, in its turn the prey of myth: myth can always, as a last resort, signify the resistance which is brought to bear against it” (Mythologies, 231, 246).

4) In Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, Barthes identified in a similar vein the potential for ideologues to cynically tolerate discourse analysis, before arguing that the aesthetic offers a privileged means of resistance: “Ideology: what is repeated and consistent (by this last adjective, it is excluded from the order of the signifier). So ideological analysis (or counter-ideology) need merely be repeated and consistent (by proclaiming on the spot its validity, by a gesture of pure clearance) in order to become, itself, an ideological object.

How escape this? One solution is possible: the aesthetic one. In Brecht, an ideological critique is not made directly (or else it would have once more produced a repetitive, tautological, militant discourse): it passes through aesthetic relays; counter-ideology creeps in by means of a fiction – not realistic but accurate. This is perhaps the role of the aesthetic in our society: to provide the rules of an indirect and transitive discourse (it can transform language, but does not display its domination, its good conscience)” (Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, 104).

5) In “Cultural Criticism,” Adorno continues: “There are no more ideologies in the authentic sense of false consciousness, only advertisements for the world through its duplication and the provocative lie which does not seek belief but commands silence” (Adorno, 34). It is in light of the twilight of false consciousness that Adorno’s famous aphorism on “poetry after Auschwitz” should be understood: “The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation” (34).

5) In Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, Barthes explains how such writers as Nietzsche, and perhaps Benjamin as well, influenced his thinking: “Hence there must be a distinction between the authors about whom one writes, and whose influence is neither external nor anterior to what one says about them, and (a more classical conception) the authors whom one reads; but what comes to me from the latter group? A kind of music, a pensive sonority, a more or less dense play of anagrams. (I had my head full of Nietzsche, whom I had just been reading; but what I wanted, what I was trying to collect, was a song of sentence-ideas: the influence was purely prosodic.)” (Roland Barthes on Roland Barthes, 107).

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983.

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

—. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.

—. Empire of Signs. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982.

—. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Everyday Spaces. Trans. Kate Briggs. Ed. Claude Coste. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

—. Image, music, text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

—. Incidents. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

—. Mourning Diary. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

—. Mythologies. Trans. Richard Howard and Annette Lavers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

—. The Neutral. Trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. Ed. Thomas Clerc. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

—. The Preparation of the Novel. Trans. Kate Briggs. Ed. Nathalie Léger. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

—. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

—. Writing Degree Zero. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.

Culler, Jonathan. Barthes: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

O’Meara, Lucy. Roland Barthes at the Collège de France. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. What is Literature? and Other Essays. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Trans. Michael Eldred. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1999.

Alex Wermer-Colan is an English doctoral student at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. In addition to co-organizing the “Renaissance of Roland Barthes” conference at the Graduate Center on April 25th and 26th of 2013, he also organized the “William S. Burroughs Centennial” conference on April 25th, 2014. His essay, “Implicating the Confessor: The Autobiographical Ploy in William S. Burroughs’ Early Works,” was published in Twentieth Century Literature, and his translation of Jean Cocteau’s “Letter to the Americans” will be published by New Directions in the Spring of 2016. He is currently writing his dissertation on decadent aesthetics as a counter-discourse to cynical imperial ideology.

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

Is it authorial evasiveness that obscures our understanding, or rather a readerly tendency to take things too literally? Does he say too little in these works, so that we constantly must supply our own meanings, or do we listen too ardently, hearing language where there is only rustling? Are we misled by our own affective investment in his personal life, thrilled by his new proximity to us, in thrall to the elegiac mood we interpose onto works that we know (as he did not) would be his last?

In his foreword to the published text of Barthes’s 1976 lectures entitled How to Live Together,4 Éric Marty warns of a dissatisfying discrepancy between what Barthes promises and what he delivers. The lectures are “disappointing,” he writes, because for all of their lushly layered erudition, they seem to aim nowhere, toward no particular philosophy or theory. Barthes engages in a “positive exploration of a field of knowledge” without any seeming interest in incorporating his discoveries “into a personal phenomenology” (xiii). Even as Marty recuperates this “disappointment” by claiming it as deliberate, generative, and central to the project of giving a lecture, his defensive repetition of the word “disappointment” only serves to convince the reader of its inevitability. And the question implicitly posed in the very title of the seminar—“Can we live together?”—seems to be answered at every turn, as Marty admits, in the negative. Disappointing indeed.

Of course Barthes opens the How to Live Together seminar by envisioning the idiorrhythmic Living-Together, in which “each subject lives according to his own rhythm,” as a fantasy (6)—and surely no word adheres more pertinently to the word “fantasy” than “disappointment.” The fantasy of idiorrhythmy is founded in an aporia under permanent threat of collapse, that can be described as the difficulty of maintaining a tolerable distance from one another:

Living-Together, especially idiorrhythmic Living-Together, implies an ethics (or a physics) of distance between cohabiting subjects. The problem is a formidable one—without doubt the fundamental problem of Living-Together and consequently of this lecture course. (72)

For Barthes, there is no greater obstacle at the heart of Living-Together than achieving this distance, and thus perhaps no more fraught scenario, or one with greater potential for disappointment. An irresolvable ambivalence concerning desire for the other is at the heart of the aporia: if closeness to other bodies is what arouses desire, then to defuse desire’s tumult, we try to keep other bodies at a distance. But distance succeeds all too well in extinguishing desire, and to live without desire is to be closer to death than to life: “If I’m never unsettled by someone else’s body, if I can never touch anyone else, what’s the point in living?” (73).

Closeness is thus impelled by distance, a tension that both recalls the non-dialectical nature of fantasy itself, in which “there’s nothing contradictory about wanting to live alone and wanting to live together” (4-5), and is reproduced at the scene of reading. Just as Living-Together requires sufficient distance to temper desire without quenching it completely, Barthes suggests that the practice of reading similarly depends on a carefully calibrated distance from what or whom we encounter as we read. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes writes that to devote one’s full attention while reading a text is to miss out on its greatest pleasures, as if looking at it too closely would be to fatally miss its rewards: “[The text] produces, in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else” (24-25). “The best pleasure” results from the reader’s inattention; in the service of that pleasure, we must read as if eavesdroppers, attuned to other conversations. Something else must always compel our attention. However our reading is not only distracted, but derives its pleasurable aspect precisely from this quality of distractedness, as if inclining away from the text in front of us places us at a more auspicious angle to appreciate its charms. Indirection—looking away—is a necessary condition of pleasure. The practice of reading involves constantly adjusting how closely one interacts with the text, in order to counterbalance distraction with attention, admitting our desire without being undone by it.

III. Reading

The reader, like any other subject, cannot live without desire. If the text does not excite our desire, what are the stakes of our reading? Although we may find ourselves disturbed by the revelation of the author’s private life in a text, reading without this intimate presence seems dissatisfying. And yet the distance the reader keeps from the text allows something in the text to escape notice, to slip away undetected, thus forestalling the complete apprehension that would strip it of its seductiveness: “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?” (Pleasure 9). It is not what is baldly apparent but what is barely and only momentarily visible that signals the presence of eroticism, the sliver of flesh intermittently seen. For Barthes, the passages in texts that are skipped, skimmed over, or remain unread by the reader likewise constitute the reader’s secret relationship with the text, his idiosyncratic and idiorrhythmic choice of what not to read, and thus indicate his particular pleasure: “a rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text; our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or to skip certain passages … we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations” (Pleasure 11-12). What makes this relationship secret? Strangely, its very physicality, apparent in the French words “survoler” (to skim, but also to fly over), “enjamber” (to continue across a line break, but also to step over), and “sauter” (to skip from passage to passage, but also to jump), used to describe the movements of the reader’s eyes (Plaisir 21). The practice of reading is a secret the body keeps, sending its eyes here and there on clandestine missions that are imperceptible to others. No praise here for eyes fixed in concentration, the steady, plodding non-rhythm of the “long-term contract,” which for Barthes is “an excellent way to erase desire” (Incidents 164); instead their dynamic movements follow eroticism’s rhythm of intermittence, marked by “the flash [that] seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance” (Pleasure 10).

Skipping, skimming, and leaving passages unread are readerly techniques that recall the habituation of Christian monks who must abide by a litany of rules mandating how far apart they must stand, sit, and sleep from one another, in order to regulate their desire. For Barthes, the “meticulous rigor of the monastic rules with respect to distances between bodies” is exemplary:

It is forbidden to wash your entire body while naked. It is forbidden to wash or anoint anyone else’s body; it is forbidden to speak to anyone else in darkness. It is forbidden to hold anyone’s hand; instead, whether standing or walking a distance of one cubit (around fifty centimeters) from others must be respected at all times. (How to Live Together 189)

In the service of achieving a tolerable “distance between bodies,” these “spatial and metrical” restrictions seek to control eroticism without annihilating it—that is, without resorting to repression or castration (73). Although like all rules, they enumerate prohibitions. For Barthes, the constraints they impose have a positive valence, for they represent “the best of distances, because there’s investment in an activity, a labor of distanciation: alert; keeping your body on alert, in control” (74).

IV. Cruising

The image of the alert body, actively invested in keeping the object of desire at a distance, recalls the concurrence of distracted reading and cruising recounted in the diaristic entries that make up Barthes’s posthumously published “Evenings in Paris.” The solitary nights he spends reading books or newspapers at the Parisian cafés he frequents are punctuated by a symphony of glances and greetings from acquaintances and gigolos, who interrupt his reading or alternatively are solicited by his wandering eyes. Reading and cruising are rhythmic counterparts, two activities simultaneously pursued by the reader’s digressive gaze, which alights on both pages and faces in pleasing alternation. What Barthes claims for theory in The Pleasure of the Text, he enacts in practice, sitting alone at the Deux Magots reading Pascal, “looking up often but still getting something out of [the Pensées]” (Incidents 154). His distraction does not diminish but rather heightens his pleasure in the various objects—book and boys alike—taken in by his restless look: “I went to the Flore to resume Pascal’s Pensées and smoke my cigar. A tall dark gigolo, whom I know by sight, came to say hello, he sat down, ordered a lemonade” (Incidents 154). If reading is cadenced by the eyes’ skimming and skipping, unsurprisingly, cruising is also modulated by the look.

Renaud Camus’s “cruising memoir” Tricks, for which Barthes wrote the preface, reads as a primer in both the syntax of cruising, animated by bodies in motion, brushing up against each other, following each other or standing noticeably still, the better to be seen; and in its diction, comprised of a typology of looks including, among others, the quick glance, the indiscreet peek, and the slow stare. The dozens of brief accounts of spontaneous, mostly joyful sexual encounters that comprise Camus’s book affirm that the eyes are never deprived of an object of desire, as long as they know where to look. Both the Manhattan, the club where Camus meets most of his tricks, and Le Palace, the club to which Barthes pays homage in his essay “At the Palace Tonight,” provide the terrain for inexhaustible opportunities for observation: “Le Palace is indeed a place devoted to seeing: you spend your time looking around the room, and, when you come back from dancing, you start looking again” (Incidents 120).

Among the many kinds of looks in Camus’s inventory is one that is, paradoxically, a look away. The look away most closely mimics the gesture of the inattentive reader, who lifts his head while reading, and thus represents a curious specimen within the catalog of looks that the trick deploys in the choreographed exchange that will culminate—or not—in an invitation to action:

He was standing quite still, but as soon as I noticed him, he stopped looking in my direction and moved away, disappearing from my field of vision. … Three or four minutes later, the cowboy was back. … This time he gave me the chance to see him better … At the moment he shifted position, his eyes were on me. It seemed a clear invitation. (Camus 184, my emphasis)

Just as Barthes’s reader lifts his head to listen elsewhere, the trick averts his eyes, not simply to feign inattention in a mode of seduction, but to offer up the non-reciprocity of gaze as a gift. To avert his eyes in this context is to create a space of privacy, without which the man cruising him could not luxuriate in “the chance to see him better,” as Camus writes of another trick: “I had trouble looking at him because he didn’t take his eyes off me” (13). Being looked at too closely can interfere with the pleasure of looking, so that only when the trick consents to turn away can the other look freely, as long and as much as he likes. The distance that is created by the trick’s averted eyes both invites and is the prerequisite for closeness and pleasure.

V. Listening

In both cases—reading and cruising—distance is put into place in the service of proximity. Barthes does not specify precisely what compels the reader to lift his head—nor does the trick who looks away feel compelled by a different man who attracts his notice. Indeed, the compulsion is not to look at but rather to look away; what the attention actually turns towards is of secondary importance. The gesture is not one of promiscuity but, rather of intimacy; not one of attraction but rather, of discretion. The look away is an act of modesty that softens the aggression of encounter; direct address is replaced by indirect address as the trick’s eyes withdraw their question in a momentary suspension of desire, just as, for Barthes, monastic rules of distance redirect and suspend desire without abolishing it.

In like manner, the reader’s look away from the text is also an act of discretion, a willingness to suspend both desire and judgment in the face of the text’s potential to disappoint, and its tendency towards the incomplete. For the text leaves something out. It contains only all that can be said, not all that can be expressed, as Barthes notes: “My suffering is inexpressible but all the same utterable, speakeable” (Mourning 175); “pleasure is speakable, jouissance is not” (Plaisir 187, my translation). There remains a node of opacity, an affective core that, for Barthes, remains unrepresentable. Nevertheless, he does not resign himself to silence, but rather, turns his desire, like an object, over and over in his hands, worrying it, trying to say its name, committing himself to a kind of speaking that he knows in advance will not—and cannot—say what he most needs it to say. And so the reader lifts his head, listening elsewhere, for nothing in particular: a missing piece, a remainder, an ambient discourse carried along by the wind: “I am not necessarily captivated by the text of pleasure; it can be an act that is slight, complex, tenuous, almost scatterbrained: a sudden movement of the head like a bird who understands nothing of what we hear, who hears what we do not understand” (Pleasure 25). Like a bird who is unable to decipher speech yet who is acutely attuned to inchoate sound, the listener’s idiosyncratic hearing is not a failure but rather the product of both discretion and attentiveness.

Barthes invokes an ethics of distance in the service of living together; in his idiorrhythmic fantasy, we keep our distance from each other as a means of remaining proximate. And indeed, the intimacy of Barthes’s late writings calls for a practice of reading that must constantly negotiate its distance from the text. The reader must tread lightly, remain at a certain distance from the text, keep an ear cocked for what is unsaid, and in exchange, the “I” will try to say his suffering and his desire, even knowing the extent to which it must remain inexpressible. Barthes notes that the writer’s pleasure is not automatically reciprocated by the reader; rather, the writer “must seek out the reader (must “cruise” him) without knowing where he is” (Pleasure 4). To achieve intimate distance, readers must learn when and how to look away, out of an ethical concern for the integrity, privacy, and vulnerability of the writer. Here, Barthes seems to say—remain at a distance to keep close to me, avert your eyes and listen.


1) The handwritten epigraph to this “autobiography,” Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, reads: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel” (trans. Richard Howard).

2) In his 1968 essay “Deliberation,” Barthes diagnoses what he calls “diary disease” as the following “insoluble doubt”: “The question I raise for myself: ‘Should I keep a journal?’ is immediately supplied, in my mind, with a nasty answer: ‘Who cares?’ or, more psychoanalytically: ‘It’s your problem’” (The Rustle of Language, 359-373, trans. Richard Howard).

3) The “Winter Garden Photograph,” an old photo that Barthes discovers of his mother at the age of five, is arguably the founding document of his book Camera Lucida, despite the fact that it is not reproduced anywhere in its pages.

4) Published by Seuil in 2002, Comment vivre ensemble comprises not a transcription, but rather the preparatory notes that Barthes wrote for his first series of seminars at the Collège de France in 1976-1977, and to which he hewed surprisingly closely in his lectures. The English translation of the text by Kate Briggs was published in 2013.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982. Print.

—. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces. Trans. Kate Briggs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Print.

—. Incidents. Trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. London: Seagull Books, 2010. Print.

—. Mourning Diary. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Print.

—. Le Plaisir du texte. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973. Print.

—. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.

—. “Preface.” Tricks. By Renaud Camus. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1981. vii-x. Print.

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

—. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986. Print.

Camus, Renaud. Tricks. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1981. Print

Youna Kwak was born in Seoul, Korea. Her poems, articles and translations have appeared in journals including the Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Cerise Press, The Horizon Review, Left-Facing Bird, Muthafucka, Neo, Po&sie, and West Branch Wired. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of French at New York University.

Jonathan Culler: Late Barthes

Culler PhotoThe call for papers for “The Renaissance of Roland Barthes” conference maintains that “the brilliance, theoretical significance, and formal innovation of his late work, especially his lectures, has yet to receive the international attention it deserves.”1 Now there has certainly been a renaissance of Roland Barthes in France. Although, in the years after his death, he came to be celebrated as a writer, a lover of the French language, a commentator on everything from art to dieting, from sport to laziness, in France during the past decade, there has been a great renaissance of scholarly interest, with a new five volume complete works, biographies, critical studies, and, especially, the editing and publication not just of the courses at the Collège de France, now all translated into English in three volumes, but the editing of Barthes’s nachlass, with publication of the materials used in the production of books such as S/Z, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, and Fragments d’un discours amoureux. Specifically, this involves the materials from the seminars at the Ecole des hautes études on “Sarrasine,” on Le discours amoureux, and on Le lexique d’auteur. There is also a huge illustrated edition of Mythologies, about two feet tall, which presents the visual and textual materials on which Barthes was commenting in his analyses. There is a veritable Barthes industry.

Despite this French renaissance, I would have agreed with the call for papers that international attention has not followed until I received the program for this conference, which displays a remarkable efflorescence of interest in Barthes, not just a nostalgic engagement of aging structuralists but new interest among graduate students especially. This remarkable efflorescence calls for reflection, for it has not been evident until now. The range of titles for the conference indicates that Barthes has something to say to people working on a broad array of topics. He seems to have reemerged as a figure of some authority, but what sort of authority? Back in the 1970s, Wayne Booth called Barthes “the man who may well be the strongest influence on American criticism today” (69). This was meant, I should stipulate, less as praise of Barthes than as a complaint about the nefarious temptations to which American criticism was seen as succumbing, but still, it is a statement that, read today, brings you up short, reminding you of the importance he had in the 1970s. That importance is hard to describe, and that in itself is interesting: It certainly wasn’t the importance of what Foucault calls the founder of a “discursivity,” such as Freud or Marx, where attempts to advance thought take the form of commentaries on or interpretations of the thinker’s original texts. Nor was it the importance of the founder of a school, who had established a theoretical framework within which lots of people were working (there weren’t in America Barthians the way there are Lacanians). Nor was it the importance of a discoverer, who is routinely credited with an insight, the way in which, say, Benedict Anderson is routinely cited for showing us that nations are “imagined communities.” The mark of the special kind of importance Barthes had, it seems to me, was that his authority could serve as a starting point that required no justification: “Roland Barthes remarks that …” was a good way of starting an essay on almost any topic — and his importance consisted precisely in the fact that no one would say “so what?”

This authority of the uncontested reference point –as one might call it – seemed for several decades to have evaporated. One could say it passed to Walter Benjamin, whose enigmatic statements could serve as point of departure for any essay, whereas to start an essay, “Roland Barthes says …” would have been to court the question “so what?” Is it this sort of authority that has returned to Barthes – perhaps as people have tired of citing Benjamin? Not exactly, I would venture. The authority of the uncontested reference point requires more of a presumption of truth: a shared presumption that there is likely to be some sense in which statements so used are true; and it seems to me that Barthes was too much given in his later years to contesting, rejecting, or even mocking the pronouncements of his earlier career for a given statement of his to serve as an uncontested reference point.

The papers at this conference suggest, rather, that Barthes is returning as something like a universal stimulus – a writer with something provocative or engaging to say about a very wide range of topics. This was the sort of goal he surprisingly set himself in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977. What most captured people’s attention at the time was the claim in this lecture that language is at bottom fascist (it imposes itself), but his boldest step, really, comes at the end of the inaugural lecture, Leçon. Taking up this chair in literary semiology –sémiologie littéraire –at the most distinguished institution in the French academic system, instead of outlining an ambitious research program, as is usual, he announces that he will allow himself to be borne forward by the force of any living life, l’oubli, forgetting, désapprendre, unlearning: “laisser travailler le remaniement imprévisible que l’oubli impose à la sédimentation des saviors, des cultures, des croyances que l’on a traversés.” [Allow to function the unpredictable reorganization that forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of knowledges, cultures, and beliefs that one has traversed] (45/478).2 This move is particularly daring and thus piquant coming from a man with the reputation as decipherer of codes and apostle of the death of the author. Barthes gives this projected experience of unlearning the name sapientia, which taking etymologically, he idiosyncratically translates as “nul pouvoir, un peu de savoir, un peu de sagesse, et le plus de saveur possible.” [No power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and the most flavor possible] (45/478). This saveur, flavor, zest, may be what we are experiencing with a conference like this – the zest people find in Barthes.

When, in the 1970s, Wayne Booth called Barthes the strongest influence on American criticism today, he was attributing to him, above all, a seismic shift from a criticism that did either literary history or else close reading designed to demonstrate the harmonious fusion of form and content, to a criticism with a much wider range of possible projects and concerns, in which there were, I would say, three principal strands, to each of which Barthes had given impetus.

First, there was a critical championing of writerly or disruptive texts over well-made literary objects with organic unity, recognizable plots, characters and themes. Many of Barthes’s works contributed to this project: Writing Degree Zero contended (against Sartre) that it is by work on language that literary works become radical, socially and ideologically innovative, that experimental writing is where commitment or engagement is in fact to be found. His essays on Brecht and on the nouveau roman in Essais critiques celebrated a literature that undermines the conventions of drama or the novel, by foregrounding them and flouting them. The task of literature, he wrote in Essais critiques, is not, as is commonly supposed, “to express the unexpressible … [but] to unexpress the expressible” (15/ xvii). To unexpress the expressible, a radical program indeed. And, of course, S/Z begins with the contention that the writerly is our value. The model of what we don’t know how to read but what it is possible to write today serves as reference point for critical thought: and thus the foundation of a productive critical orientation. Much of this work of critique made evident the need for a new theoretical account of literature, connected with linguistics, semiotics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, the various discourses that were changing forever the terrain of the humanities.

Second, therefore is the project of a literary semiotics or poetics: approaching literature through a science of signs, an attempt to make explicit the mechanisms of meaning-production, as undertaken in Mythologies and Elements of Semiology for popular culture, in Système de la mode for fashion, and in the studies of narrative, in S/Z, and in Critique et vérité for literature. Critique et vérité elaborates the program of a science of literature or poetics which would not discover meaning in hermeneutic fashion but focus on how meaning is produced, while S/Z tries to make explicit the variety of codes through which literature functions, revealing both the strangeness, the unnaturalness, of everything we have considered natural in the realist novel and the intimate connections between meaning-production in literature and life. In the United States, the perspective of S/Z with its focus on the reader as the site of codes which make meaning possible could give rise to a reader-oriented criticism, but in Barthes’s own work, the project of a poetics is linked, rather, as S/Z makes clear at the outset, to the idea of writing practices challenging the codes on which they depend.

This leads to the third, and perhaps most influential, dimension of Barthes’s early work: the claim that criticism, which he distinguished in Critique et vérité from a science of literature or poetics, should not be conceived of as a hermeneutics attempting to discover or reconstruct some original meaning but as a process of trying out on a work or a corpus of an author’s work, the languages of our century. The critic, he writes, is a public experimenter, trying out languages in public, for the public. This conception of criticism (though in somewhat milder form) became much more influential than any of the actual critical studies in which Barthes put into action, no doubt because the authors he took up were rather idiosyncratically French. He did not write about Proust or Flaubert, but Michelet, Sade, Fourier, and Loyola, and Racine. Sur Racine, developing an anthropology of Racinian man, tried out the language of psychoanalysis on the greatest French classical author to the scandal of many. A phenomenological study of Michelet, an existential thematics, he called it, explored Michelet’s intense investments in blood, warmth, dryness, fecundity, smoothness, and liquefaction. Sade, Fourier, Loyola attempted a grammar of each of these thinkers’ works, identifying their basic elements and their rules of combination. It turns out that trying out the languages of our century on works of the past is not an attempt to make them politically relevant but rather an act of estrangement, a way of “ungluing the text,” as Barthes says, from its vision and purpose, bringing discordant languages into contact, as linguistic terms grate against the violent content of Sade’s sexual visions or psychoanalysis denatures the moral clarity of the Racinian hero (9).

I oversimplify, certainly, in reducing early Barthes to these three major contributions: the championing of a literature as a disruptive, critical force; the advancing of a program of literary semiology or poetics – structuralism for short — and a potent assertion of a notion of criticism, not as the recovery of an original meaning, but as a production of meaning through the deployment of a wide range of contemporary languages that estrange the works they engage and treat them as practices of writing. For me, the greatest contribution of his early work was the discovery of the heuristic value of systematicity – a ludic systematicity, one might say. Just as linguistics tries to make explicit what we know when we know a language, semiotics seeks to understand how things have the meaning they do, focusing on what goes without saying as much as on interpretive difficulties. What is crucial is the requirement to look at all the elements of a text or practice, asking how the apparently insignificant function. What is happening in the captions in fashion magazines? How does a picture of a Black soldier saluting the French flag signify? How does a remark about the weather reveal social class? The obligation to take account of the apparently insignificant leads to insights into the working of literature never gained by criticism that focuses on main themes or interpretive problems – such as the revelation of the effet de réel: the effect of details that do not contribute to plot, character, or theme, that are apparently insignificant, but that nevertheless signify the real, if only by their absence of meaning. Barthes was a brilliant diagnostician of the signifying of the apparently non-meaningful.

What undermined his influence, subsequently, until this recent renaissance, was his disinclination to pursue further any of the many vital critical projects he had announced and inaugurated, and which subsequently he would treat in rather cavalier fashion. When I was working on my Structuralist Poetics, (I should stress that Barthes was extremely important in my own intellectual life) I had many thoughts about his proposals for the analysis of narrative, for instance, and when I saw him would be full of questions –“I don’t understand why you said X — wouldn’t it be better to say Y?” He would just shrug his shoulders and say something like “sans doute vous avez raison,” – no doubt you are right — which I took as evidence that he was not interested in discussing or taking further these projects he had announced and outlined. (I realize that there is another possible interpretation, that he just did not want to be bothered with this annoying young American, but I prefer the first interpretation, for which there seems to be abundant evidence.) He lost interest in his earlier projects or proposals, once they were written. A very reluctant polemicist – his critique of Sartre does not even mention Sartre’s name – he did not defend his thought against attacks, except to Raymond Picard’s Nouvelle critique ou nouvelle imposture? of 1965, which was directed largely at Barthes and really had to be answered.3 Nor did he return to theoretical statements to refine them or build on previous work. Whenever he looked back on earlier works, he did so wryly, ironically, as an episode in his career. Stephen Heath’s fine early book on Barthes was entitled Vertige du déplacement [Dizziness of displacement].

Rather than pursue the analysis of codes and structures or attempt to elaborate previous proposals, Barthes preferred to ignore them or even to make fun of them, speaking of his early “dreams of scientificity,” treating his central concepts as ways of writing something. In Barthes par Barthes, for example, he speaks of the conceptual oppositions that have been central to his work, such as denotation versus connotation, readerly versus writerly, écrivain versus écrivant, not as a metalanguage of semiotics or poetics to be evaluated, modified, or developed further, but as devices to generate a text. He borrows from different disciplines, he says,

certain conceptual procedures, an energy of classification: one steals a language, though without wishing to apply it to the end: impossible to say: this is denotation, this connotation, or: this passage is readerly, this writerly, etc. The opposition is struck (like a coin), but one does not seek to honor it. Then what good is it? Quite simply, it serves to say something…It is a way to make the text go.(1977, 92)

He is always disinclined to value what he has previously been done or to treat it as foundational for others. Of course now that he is dead, you can use his concepts – say studium and punctum – without fear that he will later make fun of them.

A cavalier attitude toward one’s previous work is, of course, seductive; how can one not admire the hutzpah of publicly proclaiming, in a lecture inaugurating one’s accession to a distinguished professorial chair, that one’s research will be guided by forgetting? Barthes’s last course, La Préparation du roman, is attractive and seductive because it takes place under the injunction of Rilke’s “you must change your life.” The determination to forge a vita nova rather than persevere in an academic routine certainly elicits sympathy and admiration, even if one is tempted to ironize on the form it takes for Barthes – not resigning his chair and heading off for Morocco to write a novel but choosing to give a course at the Collège de France about preparing to write a novel! But Barthes presents it well: “il faut que je choisisse ma dernière vie, ma vie nouvelle, Vita Nova” [I must choose my final life, my new life, Vita Nova] (28). To change his life, escape acedia, for him entails finding a new practice of writing. He will organize his life around a single or unique task: not writing a novel but working as if he were writing a novel, identifying with the perspective of this consecration of one’s life to the phantasm of the novel.

And he alludes to a third form, apropos of which the call for papers for this conference quotes Michel Foucault as saying of Barthes, “He’ll live to be ninety years old; he is one of those men whose most important work will be written between the ages of sixty and ninety.” I completely disagree. The death of Barthes’s mother in 1977 left him thoroughly demoralized, struggling for a raison d’être. A poignant testimony is “Soirées de Paris,” which Barthes refers to as “Vaines soirées” (Pointless Evenings), from the summer before Barthes’s death. This text recounts evenings in Paris in which nothing much happens: he dines with friends, looks for a movie to take in, hangs out in cafés, indecisively pursues young men, or else finds their approach annoying, wishing he might be left alone to read his newspaper or Pascal’s Pensées in peace. “Soirées de Paris” titillates by the half-concealment (behind initials) of friends who were subsequently annoyed to find that evenings Barthes had spent with them qualified as “empty.” (Fortunately there is nothing about an annoying American wanting to discuss structuralism!) Above all, this text seduces by its frank admission of aimlessness. The pathetic spectacle of the famous intellectual bored with his Parisian evenings and half-heartedly seeking sexual partners ends on a somber note:

A sort of despair overcame me, I felt like crying. How clearly I saw that I would have to give up boys, because none of them felt any desire for me, and I was either too scrupulous or too clumsy to impose my desire on them; that this is an unavoidable fact, averred by all my efforts at flirting, that I have a melancholy life, that, finally, I am bored to death by it, and that I must divest my life of this interest, or this hope. … Nothing will be left for me but hustlers. (But then what would I do when I go out? I keep noticing young men, immediately wanting to be in love with them. What will the spectacle of my world come to be?) – I played the piano a little for O [a young friend Olivier he had brought home], after he asked me to, knowing at that very moment that I had given him up; how lovely his eyes were then, and his gentle face, made gentler by his long hair: a delicate but inaccessible and enigmatic creature, sweet-natured yet remote. Then I sent him away, saying I had work to do, knowing it was over, and that more than Olivier was over: the love of one boy. (Soirées 115-6/ 73)

The experience of boredom and aimlessness, after the death of his mother, brings a crisis, which leads to the idea of a change of life — vita nova: act as if preparing to write a novel — which animates the last course, but this is the idea of a project rather than a project. Barthes remarks at the end of the course that “the mourning I mentioned at the beginning of this course two years ago “a remanié profondément et obscurément mon désir du monde“ [has reshaped in profound and obscure ways my desire for/to be in the world] (Preparation, 386). And when he was hit by a laundry truck crossing the Rue des Ecoles in front of the Collège de France, he lingered for a month in hospital. At the time, people who had visited were said to have concluded that he had lost the will to live.

So I disagree with Foucault, whose ostensible praise was doubtless a way of slyly denigrating the structuralist Barthes. Rather than imagine that the late Barthes would have produced great works, we should think about the value of what we have, in La Preparation du roman, for example. What we have is above all a paradoxical operation: teaching a course about preparing to write a novel but which rejects the idea of the meta-roman, the novel about writing a novel. Imagining the desired novel, Barthes tells us that “writing is not fully writing unless there is a renunciation of metalanguage. One cannot articulate the desire to write except in the language of writing” (Preparation 33). The determination to renounce metalanguage is central to this attempt to change perspective and to write not as a critic or theorist, who offers metalinguistic categories to describe the literary objects studied, but to write from the perspective of the writer preparing the novel. But, of course, the writer discussing the desire to write cannot avoid describing possibilities: insofar as the course is interesting, it does function as metalanguage: about writing, about novels, about novelistic desire.

This paradox or aporia is typical of Barthes: he may mock the metalinguistic but always installs himself in it, playfully, even exuberantly, if reluctantly. He enjoys multiplying metalinguistic categories, subsequently pretending that they were just writing rather than metalanguage. Metalanguage is inescapable, but he does what he can to destabilize his metalanguages. The function of writing, he writes metalinguistically in S/Z, is to dissolve any metalanguage as soon as it is constituted. He is given to what I call disposable typologies: lists of types of x, which provide insight but are sufficiently idiosyncratic or ludic that we are not likely to preserve them as a framework for future thinking. In such typologies, he exercises the heuristic force of systematicity, inventively dividing up a domain, even though the system is not presented seriously as a durable contribution to the metalanguage about fiction.

La Préparation du roman offers quite a few off-the-cuff typologies: “a historical typology of ways of writing the ‘I’” or various typologies of types of writers, different models of the book, the ur-livre, le livre-guide, le livre clef, and l’anti-livre, for instance or the distinction between the Livre, with its variants (le livre total, le livre somme, le livre pur), and the album (Preparation, 229, 242-9). These categories are stimulants offered to readers.

Barthes’s project of simulating someone who wants to write a novel has the signal virtue of a shift of perspective from the usual critical one. It removes the element of necessity that so often presides over critical analyses, which characteristically seek to show why the various aspects of a work had to be just so and not some other way. It introduces a thinking of multiple possibilities, choices, and so, in effect, moves us from criticism, seeking to elucidate a work as a given, to rhetoric, which describes verbal strategies and possibilities. This is not quite poetics but it is no longer criticism and gives a new angle on Proust, for example.

Another advance is the shift in the understanding of writing. Previously Barthes had treated to write as an intransitive rather than transitive verb: one wants to write, not to write something in particular — writing as a compulsion, a destiny, linked to that undifferentiated object, the text. Here, rethinking the matter from the perspective of doing, he recognizes that this view needs qualification: écrire as absolute and intransitive is one perverse historical possibility among others, and to write is generally to aim at writing something, requiring models or genres.

But fantasizing writing a novel is an especially perverse desire for Barthes, since he does not want to write his life or to tell a story. His is a phantasm of the novel but not of narrative nor of memory, summation, capturing of the past, in the manner of Proust’s Recherche, nor certainly of extracting the meaning of experience by casting it in narrative form. Barthes has no interest in plot, character, or theme, usual elements of the novel, but nor does he want to unwrite the novel, as a latter day Robbe-Grillet; he will not invent a nouveau nouveau roman. What he desires is the possibility of what he calls “une épigraphie personnelle de l’instant,” a writing of the instant, a kind of notation, which he sees as neutral, non-interpretive. It is this odd conception of the novel – really, we should say the novelistic — that leads him to approach the novel through haiku, as an art of notation. Here is perverse Barthian inventiveness: haiku as the model for the novel, or novelistic.

What this imagined project of notation without plot, theme or character gives us, though, is the everyday, as object of attention. It is the focus of many of Barthes’s late publications, such as Incidents, Soirées de Paris, and La Chronique, a regular column of observations about daily life published over three months in Le Nouvel Observateur — little mythologies without the critical edge of the original Mythologies. These remind us just how far the everyday was always an object attention for him. It was part of the impetus behind Mythologies, though their theoretical and critical cast makes us focus on its cultural critique rather than their notation of the everyday. Fragments du discours amoureux gives us everyday affect and its figures by stripping a lover’s discourse of any particular love plot. Elsewhere, attention to every detail in a narrative generates an account of how notations that do not contribute to plot, character or theme still have a semiotic function, signifying “we are the real.” That is, we are the everyday.

When I was a graduate student at Oxford, Barthes came to give a lecture and since I had met him, I was deputed to show him around. Well, I had carefully planned a visit through the most historic and architecturally interesting colleges and the most beautiful college gardens, but it swiftly became apparent that he was bored, so I asked him if there was anything in particular that he would like to see, and he said he had heard that the English had very strange electrical plugs, very different from those in France (which was certainly true) and was there somewhere we could go to see them. So I took him to Woolworths and we spent a happy three-quarters of an-hour looking at de menus objets de la vie quotidienne anglaise – exotic objects of everyday English life. Barthes’s conception of the real is a nice antidote to the Lacanian conception of the real as traumatic kernel, and he did a great deal, if rather surreptitiously until these late works, to make the everyday an object of academic study.

Despite these advances, there seems to me much in late Barthes that is regressive in relation to the incisive insights of early Barthes. Barthes claims to return en spirale to earlier, rejected positions: you spiral back, at another level, so they are not the same, but it can be hard to distinguish spiral from regression. Consider the notions of author and work. In Preparing the Novel, the work Barthes imagines is une oeuvre blanche, colorless, neutral, silent, stripped-down writing, what in concluding the course he calls ‘this degree zero of the work’ (378), evoking his first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, which described “colorless writing” and cited Camus’s l’Etranger as an example. But Camus’s novel, if once seen as neutral notation, now seems a distinctive style of literature, and the early Barthes understood this mechanism very well. “Nothing is more fickle than a colorless writing,” he wrote, “for writing that strives to be neutral, undefined, ‘un-literary,’ nevertheless becomes une écriture, a way of connoting literature” (Writing 76). This, I would say, is a semiotic law: neutralization becomes a style and signifies. The early Barthes, while imagining a utopia of language, recognized the impossibility of escaping literature through literature; thus there is, in Le Degré zéro de l’ecriture, “un tragique de l’écriture,” writing as a form of the tragic, because of the impossibility of escape.

Thirty years later, Barthes understands the degré zéro quite differently. Blanchot, who exemplifies le tragique de l’écriture in Le Degré zéro is in La Préparation du roman explicitly disavowed. The new oeuvre blanche is imagined as “simple, filial, desirable” — a surprising trinity (378). Simple in its “submission to an esthetics of the readerly,” Barthes’s phrase, with “an overall narrative or logico-intellectual structure,” “a non-deceptive anaphoric system,” a renunciation of metalanguage, and a renunciation also of irony and pastiche (376-7). As for filial, the 1971 essay “From Work to Text,” which summed up a whole series of developments in literary theory and criticism, spoke of the oeuvre, as enmeshed in a process of filiation, unlike the texte, which is irreducibly plural, disruptive of tradition. The pleasure of the oeuvre is a pleasure of consumption, unlike the active pleasure of jouissance which texte offers (61-2). If late Barthes values oeuvre rather than texte, with a wholesale reversal of values, what saves this line of thinking is that this oeuvre blanche is only imagined, never to be written, whereas before it was the texte that was virtual, imaginary, never actually realized.

The interest in the author, by one who had previously claimed that the death of the author was the condition of a proper understanding of the functioning of literature, is perhaps not so surprising, given Barthes’s growing pleasure through the years in writing about his own daily habits, his note cards, his desk and other everyday matters. In La Préparation du roman, he cites his article “The Death of the Author” as example of the tendency to “erase the author to benefit of the Text … as a structure transcendent with respect to the author”; he adds, “today I take a completely opposite view” [je suis aux antipodes de cette attitude] (276), but his attempt to defend the reversal is unconvincing. He writes, “Telegraphically: Death, lack of curiosity [incuriosité], return of curiosity, return of the author,” as if the Death of the Author were not a theoretical position but just a lack of curiosity about authors (276).

In an article of Mythologies called “The Writer on Holiday,” Barthes had tellingly satirized the media’s curiosity about the life of the writer and concluded that the details of the writer’s daily life, far from bringing one closer to the nature of his inspiration, actually emphasize the mythical singularity of the writer’s condition. La Préparation du roman retains a trace of this skepticism: Barthes finds in Castex and Surer, the scholastic manual which embodies the idées reçues that Barthes had once combatted, “one thing that is surprising and amusing in its regularity, a real tic: the life of practically every author is articulated by a central crisis, from which flows a renewal of the work, that is, from which the triumphant Oeuvre arises” (326). Noting that the idea of crisis is facile and attuned to the needs of the myth of the productive crisis (crise féconde), Barthes nevertheless adopts it and produces a typology of crises – anecdotal, amorous, political, spiritual — and declares, “In my story (story of a man who wants to write, to undertake an Oeuvre), the idea of the Oeuvre, solemnified, is linked to that of a Rupture, a new Way of Life, the Organization of a New Life, Vita Nova,” with mythifying capitals on all these nouns (280). It is hard to distinguish Castex and Surer’s myth from Barthes’s own imaginary here.

If the return of the author in late Barthes is different, a spiraling back at another level rather than a simple regression, it is because it is explicitly mythic. Barthes is not interested in the thought of authors, nor concerned with their historical intentions, or social and political situations – factors usually taken as determining in biographical criticism. He prefers, as he says, ‘la nébuleuse biographique,’ the biographically hazy, perhaps, or biographèmes –salient images, which are, in fact, novelistic, life as literature (278). What comes back with the return of the author is not the traditional author but, he writes, ‘the division, fragmentation, or pulverization of the subject’ (279). Though the regressions of late Barthes seem to me dangerous in that they might seduce readers into ignoring Barthes’s earlier compelling analyses, astute readers should be capable of keeping those analyses in play so as to profit from the them, while still finding stimulation in the late Barthes and in the possibilities his conflictedly metalinguistic writing provides. In sum, the Renaissance of Roland Barthes must entail substance as well as saveur, early Barthes as well as late Barthes.


1) Conference at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York, USA, in April 2013.

2) When two page numbers are given, the first refers to the French original and the second to the English translation listed in Works Cited.

3) Le Degré zéro de l’écriture is an implicit answer to Sartre’s Qu’est-ce que la littérature? Barthes’s Critique et vérité is an explicit response to Picard’s attack.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Essais critiques, Paris: Seuil, 1964. Critical Essays. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972.

____.“From Work to Text,” in The Rustle of Language. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.

____. Leçon: Leçon inaugurale de la chaire de sémiologie littéraire du Collège de France. Paris : Seuil, 1978.

____. “Inaugural Lecture,” in The Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

____. La Préparation du roman I et II, Cours et séminaries au Collège de France (1978-9 and 1979-1980), ed. Natalie Léger. Paris: Seuil, 2003.

____. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

____. Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

____. “Soirées de Paris,” in Incidents. Paris: Seuil, 1987. Incidents. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

____. Writing Degree Zero, Hill and Wang, 1976.

Booth, Wayne. Critical Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Jonathan Culler is the Class of 1916 Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cornell University. He is also a former President of the American Comparative Literature Association. He is one of the most prominent voices in critical theory and has written extensively on French literature and literary theory. His publications include Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty, Structuralist Poetics, Roland Barthes, Ferdinand de Saussure, On Deconstruction, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, and The Literary in Theory.


Lucy O’Meara: Some Remarks on Roland Barthes’s Lectures

OMeara PhotoI would like to discuss Roland Barthes’s lectures at the Collège de France. He was elected to the Chair of Literary Semiology at that institution in 1976, and between 1977 and his death in 1980, he delivered four lecture courses there. In 2002 and 2003, Barthes’s lectures notes for these series, as well as recordings of most of the lectures themselves, were published by Seuil. Barthes’s growing posthumous corpus provides us with the means to reconceptualise what we think “late Barthes” is. What was “late Barthes” has been superseded by “later Barthes.” Jonathan Culler spoke during this conference about La Préparation du roman (The Preparation of the Novel) – the last series of the lectures to be delivered by Barthes, from 1978 to early 1980. The notes of these lectures were published in English translation in 2011. For my part, I’d like to make some remarks about the first and second lecture courses Barthes gave – the first one, Comment vivre ensemble (How to Live Together), ended up being the last one to be translated into English, with Kate Briggs’s translation appearing just a few months ago. The second lecture series, Le Neutre (The Neutral), was the first to be translated, presumably because the title was attractively and recognisably Barthesian in preoccupation.

The full title of the first lecture course Barthes gave at the Collège de France in 1977 is How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Everyday Spaces. Its title seems to promise an overall preoccupation with shared concerns: questions of community and space. A certain fantasy is present here. With willful provocativeness, Barthes stated in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in January 1977 that he wanted his future teaching at that august institution to be explicitly informed by a subjective fantasy: “I sincerely believe that at the origin of teaching such as this we must always locate a fantasy, which can vary from year to year” (Barthes, Inaugural Lecture, 477). The fantasy that Barthes articulates in this lecture course is rooted in the word “idiorrythmie” or “idiorrhythm,” a word which, as he explains, he found when reading a study of the monks of Mount Athos by Jacques Lacarrière (1976).1 Lacarrière describes the Athos monastic communities as being lightly-regulated; each monk lived at his own individual “rhythm” or pace. For Barthes, idiorrythmie means a fantasised form of living which manages to reconcile the problems of social living and of a life too lonely, balancing the needs for both companionship and solitude. The How to Live Together series is, says Barthes, a search for “idiorrythmie,” the ideal community. But we realise on closer examination of the course that Barthes is much more concerned with the position of the individual within the community than with the topos of community itself. Indeed, the recognised marginalism of groups which have an overt cause – communes, convents, phalansteries – is not of interest to Barthes, because the structure of these groups “is based on an architecture of power,” and so they are “openly hostile to idiorrythmy” (Barthes 2013, 8). Every community, he concludes as the course goes on, ends up being to at least some extent sclerotised by dogma, whether it be religious or political. Concomitantly, every community brings about a reduction of individual nuance.

So, given Barthes’s constant interest in and valorisation of individual experience over generality, How to Live Together is perhaps ultimately more concerned with aloneness than it is with togetherness. Many of the figures explored reflect this: figures such as Akedia or “accidie,” the monk’s sense of futility or loss of faith; Xeniteia, the idea of voluntary exile. Barthes’s interest in Robinson Crusoe, also, is tellingly oriented around Robinson’s solitude on the island. What Barthes likes most in Defoe’s novel is its account of “a day-to-day existence with no events […], [Robinson’s] domestic set-up, the hut, the vines, the bucolic.” When events and people interrupt this focus on the slow everyday rhythms of the castaway, “the powerful charm of the book” is lost for Barthes (2013, 84).

In some ways, then, one can argue that How to Live Together doesn’t answer the question implied in its title. Barthes freely admits this, saying at the end of the lecture course that he can’t “construct […], in front of you, a utopia of idiorrhythmic Living-Together” (2013, 130). This might indicate that the late Roland Barthes is incapable of thinking through questions of shared commonality: incapable by temperament, or by an unwillingness to make unqualified truth claims (this unwillingness is much more marked in his late work than it was in his earlier material). Incapable also, perhaps, by method: famously, Barthes is an exponent of fragmentation and of aleatory order: in most of his late work he refuses linear or cumulative exposition of ideas.

Barthes is, in fact, profoundly concerned with questions of relationality. As Youna Kwak explained in her paper at this conference, in How to Live Together, an ethics of distance is a means of remaining proximate: maintaining distance allows intimacy to occur. The fact that Barthes’s thinking about community is subtended by individualism is not a paradox. In fact, it is the very unwillingness to speak for others, or to articulate a discourse couched in anything other than subjective, personal terms, that bespeaks a profound concern for the other – for us, for his audience (remember, these are lectures). We are always exhorted to do what we want or need to do with the materials presented. Barthes constantly reminds us, in his first two lecture courses at the Collège de France, of the fact that he is merely opening a dossier of ideas, which subsequently we should explore (or not!) as we wish.2 How to Live Together contains no real answer to the question of how to live together, but presents us with a lot of musings on what makes living together difficult, or easier. Barthes is interested in ideas about the spaces between us and around us. Throughout How to Live Together and The Neutral, Barthes’s fantasies are situated, spatialised, involving a dream of an unmediated and vibrant relationality: “distance and respect, a relation that’s in no way oppressive but at the same time where there’s a real warmth of feeling. Its principle would be: not to direct the other, other people, not to manipulate them, to actively renounces images. […] = Utopia in the strict sense, because a form of Sovereign Good” (2013, 132).

The generosity and much of the importance of the Collège de France courses inheres, I think, in this concern with relationality, as it is displayed thematically and also methodologically, in the care given to the listener’s experience of and investment in the lectures. To this extent, How to Live Together and Le Neutre, which I’ll talk about in a moment, really do respond to what Barthes sets out in his inaugural lecture as being an imperative: to try, in one’s teaching, to attenuate the power and the arrogance of language; to analyse dogmatism, and to try not to practise it oneself.3This is a goal that is entirely consonant with his early work, notably the cultural analyses of Mythologies (1957). Indeed, Barthes reminds us in the mid-70s that all of his work proceeds from the same impulse – that of analysing what appears to be natural, and showing that it is in fact culturally constructed. He explains this by using a quotation from Brecht: talking about the idea of ‘“what seems natural to most people” in a 1975 interview, he says this:

It’s a very familiar theme in my writing, one already at work in Mythologies, which present themselves as a denunciation of “what goes without saying”. It’s also a Brechtian theme: “Underneath the rule discover the abuse”. Under cover of the natural, discover history, discovery what is not natural, discover abuses (“Twenty Key Words,” 208).

This demystificatory urge is more clearly critical in early work such as Mythologies – not least because in that work it is allied to an obviously political, Marxist discourse – but it has by no means gone away in the later work. One could argue, as Jonathan Culler did this morning during his keynote address on “Late Barthes,” that the viability of the critical power of Barthes’s later work depends on what has gone beforehand, what has been set up in the previous work to then be implicitly relied on in the less directly counter-ideological later work. Be that as it may, I think the critical power of the later work is intact, and is of a piece with earlier demystificatory work, if stripped of certain critical appurtenances, notably the use of Marxism and of a discourse of social class.

The lecture course on The Neutral has many of the same preoccupations as How to Live Together – the fantasy here is of a neutral mode of discourse and of being, in which conflict would be minimised. The Neutral is informed throughout by Barthes’s concerned distaste for the conflictual bases of interaction and of intellectual discourse. Thus, like How to Live Together, this lecture series is informed by a fantasy that is in reaction against the prevailing norms of Barthes’s society, and specifically, his political and intellectual context. These lectures articulate a negative: “The Neutral is this irreducible No: a No so to speak suspended in front of the hardenings of both faith and certitude and incorruptible by either one” (2005, 14).

The Neutral is in many ways a more confident series than How to Live Together. Both series articulate many very similar desires. But in How To Live Together, Barthes makes very extensive use of material taken from other sources – the novels referred to in the “novelistic simulations” of the subtitle, lots of religious texts about monastic life, encyclopedia entries and so on – and often his own desires and critical views are put forward under the cover of this other material. The Neutral is a bit more upfront, and one of the things it is upfront about is Barthes’s aversion to the often combative nature of intellectual discourse. Instead, he relishes what he calls “beside-the-point answers” (2005, 109): he is fascinated by modes of discourse – such as Zen koans, for example – which avoid the conflictual logic and competing truth claims that structure our own public discourses. Koans tend to rely on principles of rupture and disconnection. Their responses, by refusing to answer unsought questions directly, allow other ideas and forms of dialogue to resonate. Barthes imagines, in one of his lectures, having the audacity to try something similar:

Imagine for an instant that to the large, pompous, arrogant, pedantic questions, of which our social, political life is excessively woven, the stuff of interviews, of round tables, etc. ([…] “Do you think that the writer seeks truth?” “Do you think that writing is life?” etc.), imagine that someone answers: “I have bought myself a shirt at Lanvin’s,” “The sky is blue like an orange,” or that, if this question is put to you in public, you stand up, take off a shoe, put it on your head, and leave the room → absolute acts because baffling all possibilities for a complicitous reply, all possibility of interpretation. (117-18)

Unable to perform such feats, Barthes can only describe them as a fantasy. His notes for The Neutral reveal a writer and public intellectual whose opinion and judgment are in constant demand – even during a period when he is in a period of deep mourning for his recently-deceased mother. The only way of avoiding being “targeted” by these demands, he comments, would be by means of a drastic physical retreat: “I can’t ‘suspend’ my presence to the world (except by making a total, definitive decision: the monastery, the desert – eremetism)” (2005, 205). With this comment, we can see, retrospectively, some of the reasons underpinning the choice of the depopulated scenes that were so central in How to Live Together: the desert island, the private lair, the hideout.

It’s easy to identify with Barthes’s own example here of his desire to get away from letters and telephone calls, from incessant demands for his opinion on this book or that thesis, from requests and offers. It’s a banal example, too. But there’s an important point at stake. And this is where we come back, I think, to the question of community, and to Barthes’s relationship to his own intellectual community. In How to Live Together and The Neutral, as well as in other late work, we find in Barthes a determined resistance to the currents and trends of intellectual thought. This is a thinker who in his previous work has been either identified with, or has helped to create, major trends in critical thought – Marxism, for example, in his theatre criticism and Mythologies of the 1950s; structuralism in the 1960s, the turn to post-structuralism with S/Z in 1970. He’s a thinker who has, as Jonathan Culler was saying this morning, always shifted position, partly because of a lack of willingness to continue to carry the flag for a movement of thought that has already crystallised. But in these late lecture series, we find more than a desire to move on to the next thing. There is a more deep-rooted desire to abstract himself completely from the currency of intellectual discourse. The lectures show Barthes in open reaction against collective explanatory discourses. Marxism and psychoanalysis in particular are at this point associated by Barthes with a pernicious “arrogance”: “one is assaulted by the arrogance of discourse everywhere there is faith, certitude, will-to-possess, to dominate” (2005, 152). The refusal, in How to Live Together, to articulate an ideal of community seems to me entirely of a piece with this objection to “arrogance.” Now, in some respects, I think Barthes’s refusal to perpetuate what at this time Jean-François Lyotard was beginning to refer to as the “grand narratives” of theory is a sign of the times: there was an anti-totalising turn in French thought at this time, partly due to the fact that Marxism was quickly losing its legitimacy within intellectual discourse (the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in France in 1974 was an important event in this context, as was the belated but decisive end to the Tel Quel journal’s infatuation with Maoism in 1976). Lyotard, for example, in Instructions païennes (“pagan instructions”), published in 1977, advocates an end to the “piety” that the grand theoretical narratives of Marxism and Freudianism have inspired in their followers – he thinks it is precisely the question of intellectual faith that is problematic: “L’injustice que [le récit marxiste] engendre procède de la piété même qu’il appelle et qu’il exige” (“The injustice engendered by the Marxist narrative comes precisely from the piety which it demands”). The terms Lyotard uses here resonate with Barthes’s own distrust, articulated several times in How to Live Together and The Neutral, of intellectual faith in generalising, conceptual theories:

the law always springs from the signified in that the signified is what’s presented and received as final. The effects of [an] exemption from faith – in whatever form it presents itself (political faith included, now the substitute for religious faith for the entire intellectual caste) – are for the moment incalculable, almost intolerable. For what it’s a matter of lifting, outmoding, trivializing are the generators of guilt. (2013, 12)

In terms of the overlap with Lyotard, Barthes’s disavowal of membership of an intellectual community in some ways makes him part of one: he’s not the only person making this kind of statement at this time. But his position is one of a more extreme retrenchment into the self, into subjectivity and contingency, than that of any other comparable thinker at this time (an aside: Barthes’s interest in fostering and protecting one’s own subjectivity, as set out in How to Live Together and The Neutral, could be said to anticipate Foucault’s work several years later on the Care of the Self (1988)). The retrenchment into the self is why late Barthes has been castigated: in his late work – not only the teaching but also in the many essays from this period – he is concerned with personal taste, with the articulation of individual aesthetic response, with an insistence on contingency. For this reason, it can be argued that his late work is solipsistic, and that because it’s reduced to the sphere of the self, it lacks the use-value of his earlier work. But I think the work itself, and especially How to Live Together and The Neutral, disproves this thesis, because of their careful consideration of shared ethical and social questions, and because of their address to and implication of the listener.

It is during Barthes’s late period, the period when he seems to look inward, rather than creating outward-moving, systematising thought, that he is, let’s remember, more in the public eye than he has ever been. His work is more famous, and his audiences are bigger. At the Collège de France, he has to address his lectures to a large and fairly diverse audience. He worried about how to make his discourse more “human” for this listenership. And he succeeded in doing so, by staging his own subjectivity, and by using subjective concerns as a means to discuss shared, universal concerns: how to have space, how to avoid dogmatism, how to be well in your work, how to respond to demands. There are interesting tensions and distances in Barthes, especially with regard to the idea of intellectual community. I find it fascinating that during his late period, in the work which is often seen as merely self-indulgent, he is in fact very much disposed to thinking about common, communal questions, via what he underlines as personal fantasy. It is at his most personal that Barthes gains his most universal relevance. This is seen to best advantage in his final book, Camera Lucida (2000 [1980]), the crux of which is the problem of how to reconcile the individual and society, how to reconcile the particular response and universal norms. Aesthetic judgment – judgment of photographs in this instance, but this applies also to judgment of literature and other aesthetic objects – is, of course, the arena within which this oscillation between subjective response and more universal importance takes place. At the Collège de France, it is because of his desire, outlined in the inaugural lecture, to try to attenuate the “will-to-power” inherent in discourse, that Barthes’s lecture material is articulated around the axis of the personal fantasy – the fantasy of the ideal inter-personal distance in How to Live Together, the fantasy of neutral discourse and being in The Neutral, the fantasy of the mode of writing that would manage to express the emotion inspired by one’s loved ones in The Preparation of the Novel. In the Collège de France lectures, he manages to resolve the problem of wanting to articulate particularity, but also wanting that particularity to have general validity without being oppressive. This is perhaps the major achievement of this teaching. For this reason, this work is resonant and inspiring: we as listeners (or readers), the great unknown public to whom the lectures were read, have our place in this work, and it can thus continually reward us.


1) Idiorrhythm: “idios,” the individual, and “rhuthmos,” rhythm.

2) In his summary of How to Live Together, Barthes stated that “the research […] consisted in ‘opening dossiers.’ The responsibility for filling those dossiers was assigned to those attending the lectures, who were invited to do so in their own manner, the principal role of the professor being to suggest ways of structuring the themes” (2013, 171-2).

3) “We must inquire into the conditions and processes by which discourse can be disengaged from all will-to-possess” (Inaugural Lecture, 459).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Vintage, 2000.

—. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Everyday Spaces. Trans. Kate Briggs. Ed. Claude Coste. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

—. Inaugural Lecture, Collège de France. Trans. Richard Howard. In A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. London: Vintage, 1992. 457-78.

—. Mythologies. Paris: Seuil, 1957.

—. The Neutral. Trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. Ed. Thomas Clerc. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

—. The Preparation of the Novel. Trans. Kate Briggs. Ed. Nathalie Léger. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011

—. “Twenty Key Words for Roland Barthes.” Interview with Jean-Jacques Brochier for Le Magazine littéraire, February 1975. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980. Trans. Linda Coverdale. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 205-32.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, vol. 3: The Care of the Self. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Vintage, 1988.

Lacarrière, Jacques. L’Été grec. Une Grèce quotidienne de 4000 ans. Paris: Plon, 1976.

Lyotard, Jean-François. Instructions païennes. Paris: Galilée, 1977.

Lucy O’Meara is Lecturer in French at the University of Kent, UK. She is the author of Roland Barthes at the Collège de France (Liverpool University Press, 2012) as well as of several articles and chapters on Barthes’s work. She has also published on crime fiction, the Oulipo group, and French literary responses to Japan.

Russell Stephens: On the Reception of Photography: Between Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin

In November of 1977, a French translation of Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography was included in a special issue of the prominent Parisian magazine, Nouvel Observateur. Re-titled Les analphabetes de l’avenir, the essay was only the second translation of Benjamin’s Kliene Geschitchte der Photographie to appear in French (Iversen 71),with the original 1931 German version having been published in the Berlin periodical Die literarische Welt during the last years of the Weimar Republic (Benjamin 528).

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First page of the French translation of Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography in the Parisian magazine, Nouvel Observateur.

In the late spring of 1979, roughly a year and a half after the appearance of Benjamin’s essay in Nouvel Observateur, Roland Barthes completed a manuscript subsequently entitled La chambre claire: Note sur la photographie,which delineated his own critical approach to the medium of photography (Calvet 235-236).2 This new document by Barthes concluded by citing the time period over which it had been written – April 15th to June 3rd, 1979 (184). An English translation of Barthes’s text was subsequently published in 1981 under the title Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. The 1977 special issue of Nouvel Observateur, which included Benjamin’s essay, was dedicated to the subject of photography. Interspersed among its articles, it exhibited numerous striking photographs. When comparing Barthes’s Camera Lucida with this 1977 special issue, one is immediately struck by the fact that Barthes’s short book, which itself contains only twenty-five images, took six of its photographs directly from the pages of Nouvel Observateur. Fully four of the images he presents and discusses, including G. W. Wilson’s 1863 picture of Queen Victoria on horseback and Alexander Gardner’s 1865 image of Lewis Payne awaiting his execution, were also contained within the layout of Benjamin’s republished essay. In fact, in the original layout of Benjamin’s Little History of Photography the images of Queen Victoria and Lewis Payne were presented side-by-side. Of the haunting photograph of Lewis Payne, Barthes writes, “… he is going to die … This will be and has been” (Barthes, Camera Lucida 95-96).

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Two-page layout of the Nouvel Observateur – Left:  Alexander Gardner’s 1865 image of Lewis Payne awaiting his execution. Right: G. W. Wilson’s 1863 picture of Queen Victoria on horseback

While the special issue of Nouvel Observateur from which Barthes took the photographs is acknowledged by him in the bibliography of La chambre claire, there is no effective corresponding citation for Les analphabets de l’avenir, the French version of Benjamin’s Little History of Photography. Interestingly, neither are the Nouvel Observateur or Benjamin’s text subsequently cited within Camera Lucida. In an interview conducted in late 1977, Barthes does acknowledge the importance of Benjamin’s writings on photography, saying, “There are few great texts of intellectual quality on photography. I don’t know of very many. There is Walter Benjamin’s essay, which is good because it is premonitory” (Barthes, On Photography 354).3 However, Barthes never clarifies exactly which of Benjamin’s essays he is speaking of, and could well have been referring to the 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility which, at the time, had also recently been translated into French (Batchen, Palinode 25). Underlining the fact that Barthes would most likely have been familiar with Benjamin’s Little History of Photography essay was his professional proximity to the Nouvel Observateur itself. For a period of four months just prior to writing La chambre claire (Camera Lucida), Barthes had actually been employed by Nouvel Observateur as a weekly columnist (Calvet 230-231).4


Alexander Gardner’s 1865 image of Lewis Payne within the two-page layout of Roland Barthes’s La chambre claire: Note sur la photographie.

Recent scholarship has highlighted a number of other correspondences between the two works. Geoffrey Batchen suggests that both essays were structured around a central “fulcrum” at the “half way point of the text” upon which their respective arguments “pivot” (Batchen 260). Batchen argues that while Benjamin locates the concept of the “aura” at the center of Little History of Photography, Camera Lucida is divided into two parts of twenty-four sections, “so that one half of the book is a mirror image of the other” (260). Additionally, Batchen also notes that both Barthes and Benjamin approach the photographic medium through critical analyses of everyday “banal” images (260). As such, within this approach, Benjamin is seen to discuss one of Karl Dauthendey’s nineteenth century engagement photographs (Father of the Poet), while Barthes chooses to examine a childhood image of his mother (510-511).

The photograph was very old. The corners were blunted from having been pasted into an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory, what was called a Winter Garden in those days. My mother was five at the time (1898), her brother seven. (Barthes 67)

Professor Margaret Olin has gone so far as to suggest that the title “Winter Garden Photograph” which Barthes gives to this family picture of his mother and uncle, and which is clearly the most important image discussed by him within Camera Lucida, could have actually been derived from Benjamin’s essay. Olin notes that Barthes never shows or reproduces this seminal childhood photograph of his mother within his book. She asserts that this was likely because the photograph didn’t exist (Olin 81). Olin argues that Barthes had been inspired to label the imaginary image as the “Winter Garden Photograph,” based upon a reference within the body of Benjamin’s text to a melancholic picture of a six year old Franz Kafka (81). In Little History of Photography, the English translation of Benjamin’s allusion to Kafka reads, “There the boy stands, (Kafka) perhaps six years old, dressed up in a humiliatingly tight child’s suit overloaded with trimming, in a sort of greenhouse landscape” (515). However, Olin points out that the French text found in Les analphabetes de l’avenir and Nouvel Obserateur’s special issue translates the phrase “greenhouse landscape” as a “winter garden” (81). Thus, according to Olin, the oblique reference to a decorative photographic background within Benjamin’s essay provided Barthes with the term for what she refers to as his “fabricated” “Winter Garden Photograph” (83). However, these observations aside, there has been little attempt in the literature to follow the development, alteration, or continuity of Benjamin’s ideas within Barthes’s analysis of photography. Accordingly, I will examine the ways in which aspects of Benjamin’s critical approach to the medium have influenced and shaped Barthes’s text.

Little History of Photography

As mentioned, Benjamin’s Little History of Photography was originally published in 1931. The essay attempts to unfold the history of what, at the time had been a visual art form for just ninety years, through an exploration of the connections between the technological and social aspects of the medium. Benjamin begins by examining photography’s first decade which took place from the late 1830s to the late 1840s – a period that he refers to as its “pre-industrial heyday” (Benjamin 507). During this phase, the medium was predicated on the iodized silver plate reproductive process known as the daguerreotype (507-508). According to Benjamin, at this time, photography was closer to “the arts of the fairground” than to that of industry (507). Benjamin also distinguishes this earlier period from the slightly later period of the visiting-card picture, when he suggests that in the latter, “industry made its first real inroads” into the new medium, and its manufacturer “became a millionaire” (507). In 1860, carte de visite effectively became a craze, as unlike the daguerreotype, it allowed for the realization of multiple inexpensive images from a single plate (Coe 35). Benjamin notes that within the first decade of the advent of the new medium, a passionate debate was sparked with respect to its impact and significance (508). On the one side of the debate were the reactionary, anti-technical forces who opposed its use. They argued that a machine could never match “God’s” superior creative hand.

Man is made in the image of God, and God’s image cannot be captured by any machine of human devising. The utmost the artist may venture, borne on the wings of divine inspiration, is to reproduce man’s God-given features without the help of any machine, in the moment of highest dedication, at the higher bidding of his genius.5 (Benjamin 508)

For Benjamin, this argument stood as an embodiment of “the philistine notion of art,” which was a “stranger to all technical considerations, (and) which feels that its end is nigh with the alarming appearance of the new technology” (508). On the other side of the debate were those who spoke perceptively about the probable wholesale human benefit of the new invention (508), “from astrophysics to philology: alongside the prospects for photographing the stars and planets we find the idea of establishing a photographic record of the Egyptian hieroglyphs” (508). However, one of the aspects that set the critical tack of Little History of Photography apart from other more orthodox approaches to the history of the medium was the importance Benjamin placed on the reading of his own personal, emotional, and esoteric responses to photographic images as a dimension of their aesthetic effect. This included being acutely attuned to discerning subtle shifts in the very nature of images arising out of the new medium.

Benjamin demonstrates this approach in a discussion of an unexpected phenomenon that became associated with this new technology during the first years following its introduction. He points out that initial photographic endeavors which had been undertaken by early practitioners who had been schooled in the art of painting often met with unintended consequences. Moments of pictorial reception which could not be explained by their previous experience as painters began to surface within photographs taken of human subjects. Here, Benjamin specifically cites the 1840s work of David Octavius Hill (Benjamin 508-510). Inadvertently breaking with the characteristic “posed” image, Hill had taken a series of what Benjamin describes as “unpretentious makeshift” photographic studies of human subjects. Hill had intended these only for his own use as visual research for a fresco he was producing for the Church of Scotland (508-510). Benjamin muses upon some unexpected effects which surfaced within Hill’s photographs of a Newhaven fishwife:

With photography, however, we encounter something new and strange: in Hill’s Newhaven fishwife, her eyes cast down in such indolent, seductive modesty, there remains something that goes beyond testimony to the photographer’s art, something that cannot be silenced, that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name was, the woman who was alive there, who even now is still real and will never consent to be wholly absorbed in “art.” (Benjamin 510)

The “… new … strange … something …” that “… goes beyond testimony to the photographer’s art …” which Benjamin saw within Hill’s fishwife images included gestures and details which had not previously been depicted by painters (510). Benjamin suggests that the gestures and details which now surfaced specifically within the realm of photography due to the medium’s clarity and fidelity to nature had the effect of inextricably altering the reception, reading, and experience of the image (510). According to Benjamin, unlike in the more deliberate field of painting, the technology of photography allows for small details within the frame to surface, conveying meaning, which in this case, had overridden Hill’s painterly intentions. The term Benjamin uses to describe this phenomenon within photography is the “optical unconscious.”

Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person actually takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis. (Benjamin 510-511)

In her own book of the same name – The Optical Unconscious – critic and cultural theorist Rosalind Krauss discusses Benjamin’s use of the term and the analogy he makes between the photographic process and psychoanalysis, which she describes at one level as “strange” (Krauss 178). Krauss asks,

…what can we speak of in the visual field that will be an analogue of the unconscious itself, a structure that presupposes first a sentient being within which it operates, and second a structure that only makes sense insofar as it is in conflict with that being’s consciousness? Can the optical field – the world of visual phenomena: clouds, sea, sky, forest – have an unconscious? (Krauss 178-179)

Despite acknowledging that Benjamin’s use of the term is “at an angle” to her own, Krauss does zero in on an understanding of Benjamin’s concept of the optical unconscious as being related to the application of technology (179). Drawing upon both the Little History of Photography and Benjamin’s later 1936 essay, Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility Krauss states that for Benjamin,

…the camera is an instrument that enlarges vision, much the way Freud spoke of it in Civilization and Its Discontents, where technological advances are viewed as a set of “prosthetic limbs” that expand the power of the individual. Benjamin likens the camera for example to the surgeon’s knife that can operate dispassionately on the human body and by seeing it in fragments can enter more deeply into reality. (Krauss 179)

In fact, in his 1936 Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility essay, Benjamin moves even beyond the concept of technology as a “prosthetic limb.” In this essay, he discusses how human perception itself, the way in which we see and experience the world, is not a fixed entity but one that has been historically conditioned by the increasing productive capacity of world.

Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history. (Benjamin 104)

Within the modern context, the medium of photography plays a role in the reorganization of human perception through its ability to bring things closer. As such, “everyday the need to possess the object in close-up in the form of a picture, or rather a copy, becomes more imperative” (Benjamin Little 519). The ability to copy, or to mechanically reproduce the surrounding world, has lead to the destruction of what Benjamin refers to as the ‘aura’ of the object – its uniqueness in space and time (518-519).6 Much like in the revelation of sedimentary layers, the historic progression which Benjamin unfolds within Little History of Photography evidences the ways in which technological advances within the medium of photography had served to shift the nature of modern experience. For example, in the 1840s, David Hill’s subjects described the phenomenon of being photographed as being “a great mysterious experience” (512). This would remain the case even if for these people, as Benjamin continues, the actual experience was no more than the consciousness of “standing before a device which in the briefest time could capture the visible environment in a picture that seemed as real and alive as nature itself (512).”7 However, the arrival of better, faster lenses in the later part of the century resulted in a shift with respect to what was considered to be “photographically” real. In the 1880s, the disappearance of deep blacks or darkness from pictures further enhanced the ability of the medium to record “as faithfully as any mirror” (517). Yet, Benjamin notes that immediately thereafter, photographers began to simulate this lost quality of darkness from the past (517). In other words, the lost “aura” of one generation’s pictures was then mimicked by the succeeding generation.8 So, while on the one hand, Benjamin saw photography as a medium which cut more deeply into reality and which brought to light new layers of detail within the world, he also saw it as diminishing the aura and the experience of these objects.

As a critical strategy, Benjamin’s interest in the “particular,” the “trace,” or “the microscopic” can be linked back to his earliest inclinations. In the 1910s, his readings of the Kabbalah, the ancient text of Jewish mysticism, had centered his focus on the idea that meaning could arise from within a document’s smallest fragment (Buck-Morss 74-75). Later, this thinking evolved into a method of philosophical cognition which, according to Susan Buck-Morss, provided a means for making “the particularity of the object” release a significance that dissolved the object’s reified appearance (74). Thus, according to Benjamin, though seemingly small and inconsequential, the microscopic, or “concrete particular” was understood to have the power to expose larger unintended social and historical truth (74).9 As such, with respect to the importance of small and insignificant details of an object, Buck-Morss argues that Benjamin had a strong influence on the thinking of Theodor Adorno (74).10 What is unique to his 1931 essay, Little History of Photography is that Benjamin applies the concept of the “particular” as a theory of reception with respect to the photographic image. Speaking of the importance of the small details within the realm of what he labels the “optical unconscious,” which have now have been brought to light by the power of this new medium Benjamin states,

Photography reveals in this material physiognomic aspects, image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things – meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams, but which, enlarged and capable of formulation, make the difference between technology and magic visible as a thoroughly historical variable. (Benjamin 512)

Camera Lucida

There are parallels to aspects of Benjamin’s methodological approach to the medium of photography within Camera Lucida. Barthes’s text encompasses a search for what he refers to as photography’s “essence” or noeme (Barthes 76-77). In some respects, his entire book can be understood as a long attempt to both approach and define the medium. To this end, he begins by rejecting a myriad of classification systems – realism, pictorialism, the landscape, as well as notions of the “amateur” and “professional” as being external to the “object,” and therefore incapable of revealing what is actually “new” about photography (4). Barthes also emphasizes his “unease” and “ultimate dissatisfaction” at deploying the critical language of several different discourses, among them sociology, semiology, and psychoanalysis (8). In this respect, he notes that, “having resorted to any such language to whatever degree, each time I felt it hardening and thereby tending to reduction and reprimand, I would gently leave it and seek elsewhere: I began to speak differently” (8). Thus, quickly finding himself in a dilemma, Barthes moves to resolve his crisis by rendering himself the measure of his own investigation – “So I decide to take myself as the mediator of all Photography” (8). Over the course of the book, he sets out to discover photography’s “universal” quality. In so doing, he determines his mediating principle to be that which he personally finds appealing within photographs. Barthes labels his personal methodology as a “cynical Phenomenology,” one laced with the power “of affect,” allowing it to make room for the qualities of “desire” and “mourning” (20-21). However, like Benjamin, Barthes has simply broadened his own critical approach to photography to include his own personal receptivity and subjective experience of the medium. Barthes states, “as Spectator I was interested in Photography only for ‘sentimental’ reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think” (21).

In the book, Barthes surrounds himself with a small number of what he considers to be his own (found) photographs. In examining an image taken by the Dutch photographer Koen Wessing of a 1979 battle scene from Nicaragua, he notices the juxtaposition of two discontinuous elements – soldiers and nuns. Barthes notes that he prefers viewing heterogeneous images such as Wessing’s photograph, which exhibit a contrasting duality (23-25). Other images from the same reportage, but which “bore no mark or sign,” and which were unvarying in their display of the horrors of rebellion and war, were less engaging for Barthes (25). Based on his acute observations of his own reactions to these images, Barthes manages to distill two codependent elements of interest within a picture, and he gives both of these Latin names. The first is studium, which he defines as the overall field of information present in a photograph. Barthes states that studium does not mean, at least not immediately, “study,” but rather the application to a thing, a taste for someone, a kind of general enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity (26). The second Latin term is punctum, by which Barthes means variably “a cut,” “a sting,” as well as “a role of the dice” (27). He suggests that “a photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (27). In a 1959 image of a Russian street scene, Barthes suggests that the studium presents the subject of “what Russians wear” (28-30).11 According to Barthes, a photo based solely on studium is something you can like, but will never “love” (27).12 However, the punctum is different from a qualitative point of view, and it is the element of a photograph that pierces the studium (27). For Barthes, this act enables the picture to “touch him,” or “arouse great sympathy” (42-43). For example, a 1954 New York photograph by William Klein has the studium of a scene from Little Italy (46). However, the punctum which bursts through this image is the element of one small smiling boy’s bad teeth, which Barthes declares has “stubbornly” grabbed his attention (43-46).

Some photographs, like those from news magazines or pornography, work only at the level of studium. For Barthes, there was “nothing more homogeneous than a pornographic photograph” (Barthes 41). Pornography is like, “a shop window which shows only one illuminated piece of jewelry, it is completely constituted by the presentation of only one thing: sex: no secondary, untimely object ever manages to half conceal, delay, or distract …” (41). Barthes refers to these types of banal images as “unary photographs,” images that emphatically transform reality “without doubling it” (40-42). They are homogenous, entirely coded compositions. Punctum, on the other hand, can be seen as an uncoded fragment lacking in intentionality (47). It is the “detail” within the studium that “alas all to rarely” catches his attention (42). Barthes states, “I feel that its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value. This “detail” is the punctum” (42).

However, punctum, when seen as a detail (42-43) (or fragment) that bursts out of the image, can be likened to Benjamin’s concept of the particular. In fact, both “punctum” and the “particular” describe the effect of a small element within a photograph that pierces or breaks through a larger field of representation. In Benjamin’s case, that field was considered to be the “interesting” or “arty” photography of journalism (Barthes 526). It is a place of fetishism, where “the creative in photography is its capitulation to fashion” and the watchword is the world of the “beautiful” (526). Analogous in some respects to Barthes’ studium, it is something that Benjamin argued could help perpetuate reified social relationships (526). Here, Benjamin quotes Brecht as saying that, “… less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG tells us next to nothing about these institutions” (526). Barthes also references Brecht’s invocation of the (critical) weakness of photography stating, “he was hostile to Photography because (he said) of the weakness of its critical power; but his own theater has never been able to be politically effective on account of its subtlety and its aesthetic quality” (36). Notably, Barthes never provides a direct citation for the quote (36).

At this point, in attempting to discern the degree of influence that Benjamin’s essay had on the formulation of Barthes’ ideas with respect to photography, it is necessary to step back and examine a text that Barthes had written ten years earlier on the topic of photography.

The Third Meaning

Barthes’ ideas of studium and punctum were prefigured in a text he wrote on the subject of photography that appeared a decade before Camera Lucida. Published in 1970, The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills provides an examination of movie stills from the work of the Soviet Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein, which includes images from The Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the Terrible. Barthes begins his analysis by defining the presence of three separate levels of meaning. He quickly enumerates the first two levels which he names information (communication) and symbolism (signification), and then sets them aside. The primary focus of his essay is an exploration of what he refers to as “the third meaning,” that which exceeds signification within the image. Characterized by Barthes as simultaneously “persistent and fugitive, apparent and evasive,” he names this third level the obtuse meaning (Barthes 44).

In this essay, Barthes lays out an approach to photography in which small details, qualities, inflections, either separately, or in unison with other details, challenge, disrupt, shift or otherwise alter the image’s overall dominant meaning. Barthes explicitly states as much when he refers to the role of what he terms the obvious meaning (44) within the image. Over the course of the text, he describes numerous instances in which the obvious meaning within Eisenstein’s respective movie images is undercut by this third or obtuse layer. For example, in an image from the funeral of the figure of Vakulinchuk in The Battleship Potemkin, we are presented with a close-up of a young woman bent over in mourning. However, because of her actual position within the frame, we can only see the edges of the scarf covering her shoulder and the very top of her head, which is dipping forward and out of view (49-50). Here, Barthes argues that the image’s obvious meaning is undercut by an obtuse meaning residing within the particular details of the shape and style of the woman’s hair. He states, “the folk significance of the wool scarf (obvious meaning) stops at the chignon; here begins the fetish – the hank of hair – a kind of non-negating mockery of expression. The entire obtuse meaning (its power to disturb) functions in the excessive wad of hair” (49).

In another still from Vakulinchuk’s funeral, we are shown the medium close-up of an old weeping woman. Referring to this image, Barthes notes how several details including an “absurdly low kerchief” and the woman’s “squinting eyelids” again come together to undercut the obvious meaning within image (48). Barthes observes that, “united with the noble grief of the obvious meaning they (low kerchief, squinting eyelids) form a dialogism so tenuous that there is no guarantee of its intentionality. The characteristic of this third meaning – at least in Eisenstein – actually blurs the limit separating expression from disguise…” (48). Tellingly, Barthes points out that in a second still image of this old woman taken from exactly the same angle but either a few moments earlier or later, the details underpinning the obtuse meaning have vanished, leaving no more than the image’s obvious meaning and message of grief (48). In other words, Barthes considers the phenomenon of details running counter to the obvious meaning within the frame as precariously balanced and fleeting.

Throughout his essay, Barthes continues to expand and elaborate upon the nature of obtuse meaning, noting that “unlike the obvious meaning, it copies nothing,” and also that it lies “outside (articulated) language, but still within interlocution” (Barthes 48). He also references George Bataille’s infamous image of the “big toe” as identifying “one of the possible regions of the obtuse meaning” (51). It should be noted that Bataille was an extremely complex and idiosyncratic social critic and thinker who conceived of human existence as being entirely mediated by and through a language which resided exterior to our own being (Hollier 65).13 However, Barthes’s most far reaching definition concerns his measure of the obtuse meaning in relation to the idea of narrative.

The obtuse meaning is clearly the epitome of counter-narrative; disseminated, reversible, trapped in its own temporality, it can establish (if followed) only an altogether different “script” from the one of shots, sequences, and syntagms (whether technical or narrative): an unheard-of script, counter-logical and yet “true.” (Barthes 57)

In other words, the obtuse meaning not only stands in opposition to narrative, but it also provides the fragmentary embodiment of another as yet unfulfilled contingent reality. It is the other “script,” the other reality, that lies submerged and “unheard” within story.

Near the conclusion of the text, Barthes references Eisenstein’s theories with respect to film editing and montage, and acknowledges that they provided part of the critical basis for his approach to the photographic medium. In the 1920s, Soviet cinema developed extensive theories about montage and the process of film editing. Experiments by Lev Kuleshov demonstrated that ideas could be suggested to an audience simply but cutting back and forth between different images. For example, he showed that cutting between an image of a man and a bowl of soup could evoke the idea of hunger (Bentancourt 97). Eisenstein’s own theories of montage were based on notions of collision (Eisenstein 34-37).14 He argued that new ideas “exploded” from the juxtaposition of different images (34-37). The rising stone lions which appear at the end of the “Odessa Steps” sequence in his movie The Battleship Potemkin are one of the most well-known examples of this phenomenon. Following a civilian massacre by the Czar’s troops in the town of Odessa, mutineers on the battleship Potemkin respond by launching an artillery attack. In the midst of the bombardment, Eisenstein’s rapid montage of three successive images of stone lions – one sleeping, one waking, and one rising to its feet – give the impression that the marble creature has come to life. But more crucial for Eisenstein is the idea that explodes out from the edited sequence – that of the city of Odessa itself rising up against the horror of the Czar’s injustice.

Having cited Eisenstein’s theory of a film-based montage in which concepts explode between images, Barthes then quotes from the director with respect to the possibility of a montage existing within the image frame.

“… the basic center of gravity … shifts to inside the fragment, into elements included within the image itself. And the center of gravity is no longer the element ‘between shots’- the shock, but the element ‘inside the shot’- the accentuation within the fragment…” Of course there is no audio-visual montage within the still, but Eisenstein’s formulation is a general one, insofar as it establishes a right to syntagmatic disjunction of images and demands a vertical reading, as Eisenstein call it, of the articulation. (Barthes Third Meaning 57)

Here, Barthes underlines the fact that Eisenstein himself has left the possibility of an internal montage within the frame of the image open. Thus, Barthes both locates and attempts to legitimize the critical possibilities of the obtuse meaning.

In The Third Meaning, which was published in 1970, we can make out a prefiguring of the ideas of studium and punctum through the notions of the obvious meaning and the obtuse meaning. Here, the obvious meaning(s) of grief, revolution, and fascism which Barthes discusses with respect to the still images can be seen to be crossing over into the “homogeneous” subject themes of war, pornography, and rebellion used within Camera Lucida in characterizing studium. Details such as the “excessive wad of hair” and the “squinting eyes” that Barthes mentions in relationship to the obtuse meaning make their way into certain characterizations of punctum, such as “the small smiling boy’s bad teeth” or “the other boy’s crossed arms” (Barthes Camera 51).15 Barthes also cites qualitative similarities between the obtuse meaning and punctum. He perceives both as uncoded fragments lying outside of language and lacking in intentionality. Further, he also loosely carries forward the contingent relationship that he has established between the macro and micro fields of representation. In her article Notes on the Punctum, Rosalind Krauss surmises as much when she points to the fact that Barthes had long sought out a “third language” to break through the “coercive powers of speech” (188). However, there are also sharp differences between the two texts. Nowhere in his definition of the obtuse meaning found in his earlier essay is there equivalence to Barthes’ recognition in Camera Lucida of the substance of “Time” with which all photographs are imbued as being a punctum. Barthes describes this shift in his thinking, “I know now that there exists another punctum (another “stigmatum”) than the “detail”.” This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (“that-has-been”), its pure representations (Barthes, Camera 96).

Here, it is important to emphasize that all the images Barthes had analyzed in The Third Meaning were movie stills, and all but one were pictures taken of people who were acting in theatrical films. As such, most of the the detail within the photos had been purposefully constructed to participate in propelling a theatrical narrative. The lone exception was from the documentary Ordinary Fascism, in which Barthes identifies the obvious meaning with Fascism itself, and the obtuse meaning as resting in “the disguised blond stupidity of the youth carrying the arrows, the slackness of his hand, and his mouth, Goering’s course nails, his trashy ring” (Barthes, Third Meaning 54). My point is that Barthes had developed his theory of third meaning within the context of a very specialized niche of photographic imagery and to a large extent, as a foil for the medium of cinema. Within Barthes’s exploration of film, Krauss finds there to be a “perverse” desire to halt the temporal unfolding of the narrative of the cinematic medium (189). Many of the manifestations of obtuse meaning cited by Barthes touch upon the seam that exists between what is considered to be a “convincing” theatrical performance, and what is not. Costumes, make-up, styling, lighting, casting, framing, props, and, of course, the expressions and gestures of the actors: this is the stuff of theatre, mimesis, and it is also the place where Barthes finds his obtuse details. As previously mentioned, these include things like an “absurdly low kerchief,” “squinting eyelids,” as well as “a chignon that contradicts a tiny raised fist,” or the “curds-and-whey texture of skin” (Barthes 49-51). All of these details, whether they were held, worn, or physically a part of a person, could be considered as props, costumes, or to otherwise be embodied by the actors themselves. In many respects, theatrical stills provide the perfect photographic vehicle through which to derive an anti-narrative theory of the “third meaning” that “sides (for Barthes) with the carnival aspect of things” (44). However, in their construction and function, they are far from representative of the type and range of imagery found within the medium of photography in general.

Between Barthes and Benjamin

At one level, I would argue that what Barthes discovered upon reading Benjamin’s essay Little History of Photography was an application of his theory of the “third meaning” which had been largely conceived of in reference to cinema, to the “banal” photographs of everyday life. Benjamin’s “optical unconscious,” a methodological approach rooted in the phenomenon of small details (the particular) that pierce through a larger “reified” field of representation, would most certainly have been recognized by Barthes as resonating with his own concepts regarding photography which were detailed in The Third Meaning. As his own books such as Mythologies attest, Barthes was himself no stranger to critical engagement with forms of popular culture. However, leaving aside Benjamin’s larger theory with respect to the role photography played in the reorganization of human perception, what must have intrigued Barthes about Benjamin’s work was its incorporation of both culturally high and culturally low subjects. On the one hand, Little History of Photography waded through discussions of Hill’s daguerreotypes, the Parisian images of Atget, and the portraits of August Sander, much of which Barthes would himself later discuss in Camera Lucida. On the other hand, Benjamin’s text also explored the more pedestrian layout of homes as a way of examining the medium as it passed through the everyday lives of people. For example, he notes that within early 20th century bourgeois households, photograph albums always got placed in what he refers to as the “chilliest spots” (Benjamin 515). The albums were, “leather bound tomes with repellent metal hasps … where foolishly draped or corseted figures were displayed: Uncle Alex and Aunt Rickchen, little Trudi when she was still a baby, Papa in his first term at university” (515). Further to this point, Benjamin discusses not only the childhood image of Kafka, who was “dressed in a humiliatingly tight child’s suit,” but, with some embarrassment, he also touches upon childhood photographs of himself (515). These photos, “make our (Benjamin’s) shame complete, we ourselves – as a parlor Tyrolean, yodeling, waving our hat before a painted snowscape, or as a smartly turned-out sailor, standing rakishly with our weight on one leg, as is proper, leaning against a polished door jamb” (515). Again, it needs to be emphasized that Benjamin offered a description of his own personal experience with the medium. My point is that within the context of his critical investigation of photography, Benjamin created a place, not only for a discussion of the role and function of everyday images, but also of how the “banal” realm of the medium had affected his own life. Certainly, this is an approach that Barthes fully embraced with respect to the images of his own mother. He begins the second section of Camera Lucida with this passage,

Now, one November evening shortly after my mother’s death, I was going through some photographs. I had no hope of “finding” her, I expected nothing from these “photographs of a being before which one recalls less of that being than by merely thinking of him or her” (Proust). I had acknowledged that fatality, one of the most agonizing features of mourning, which decreed that however often I might consult such images, I could never recall her features (summon them up as a totality). (Barthes 63)

In piecing together the elements of Benjamin’s critical approach to photography, we arrive at a template which must have suggested a direction for a shift in Barthes’ own methodological approach to the medium. This shift would be one that would include an adjusted altered application of his own theory of the “third meaning” to a wide spectrum of images across a broad popular and historical range. It was an approach that would also be applied to images from his own personal life. However, it was also a shift through which he could explore the phenomenon of “Time” as it was embedded within the substance of pictures. As I have pointed out, Barthes identifies the quality of “Time” with which photographs are imbued as a punctum within Camera Lucida. It should be noted that Barthes’s argument with respect to this idea is again predicated upon a complex understanding of the nature of the photographic image. For Barthes, a photograph was understood to be indexically linked to the person or “referent” depicted within the image, and whose “real body” “emanated” from within the material substance of the photo (Barthes 80). In other words, Barthes understood every photograph of a person or scene to be “a certificate of presence,” (87) a statement that “this-has-been” (80). The notion of indexicality was an idea that Barthes had prefigured in his 1961 essay entitled The Photographic Message. In this text, Barthes argued that photography consisted of two “separate” but “contiguous” structures (4). One structure was linguistic, whereas the other was “a prefect analogon” of “literal reality,” and ” a message without a code” (5). Within Camera Lucida, Barthes argues that the crisis of photography arises out of the temporal space between the present moment and the optical emanations from the past (96). The photograph of the would-be assassin Lewis Payne is deployed by Barthes within Camera Lucida as a direct case in point. In discussing Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of the young man seen sitting in his cell awaiting his execution, Barthes writes, “this will be and this has been [Barthes’s italics]; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake … Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” (96). Here it needs to be emphasized that for Barthes, every photograph is by its very “chemistry”(80)16 and nature, imbued with this quality of “catastrophe.” Barthes states, “All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents of death” (92). Indeed, it is precisely with the reading of the Lewis Payne image that Barthes makes his declaration of “Time” as a “new punctum” (96).

However, it should be noted that within Little History of Photography, Benjamin makes a very similar observation with respect to medium. In a discussion of a photo of Karl Dauthendey (Father of the Poet) and his fiancée, who would later commit suicide after the birth of her sixth child, Benjamin notes the strange and awkward perspective that we, in the present have when we look across time at images from the past.

Immerse yourself in such a picture long enough and you will realize to what extent opposites touch, here too; the most precise technology can give its products a magical value, such as a painted picture can never again have for us. No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it. (Benjamin 510)

While, in this passage, Benjamin does not preface his observations with an indexical explanation of photography, he clearly expresses an awareness of the temporal disjuncture inherent in the medium with respect life and death. I would argue that the condition Benjamin in fact identifies as mediating between the past and future, between a subject and their fate, parallels Barthes understanding of Time as punctum, and “the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (“that-has-been”) (Barthes 96). Indeed, passages from Benjamin’s description presented above, such as “the tiny spark of contingency” or “the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long forgotten moment the future nest so eloquently,” speak to the discovery of “Time” and “Fate” within the very detail and “particularity” of the photographic image.

Providing one more twist to this argument is the fact that the Lewis Payne photo upon which Barthes makes his “Time is a punctum” pronouncement was one of the images he took directly from the Nouvel Observateur publication of his Benjamin’s essay. Again, it is true that the photograph is not an image that Benjamin’s text directly references. However, the issue of the conflation and crossover of ideas that arises from Barthes’s electing to make one of the key points in his argument using a photograph taken directly from Benjamin’s published essay on the medium, is something that needs to be taken into account.

As mentioned previously, professor Margaret Olin argues that Barthes’s “Winter Garden Photograph,” clearly the most important image discussed by him in Camera Lucida, was actually drawn from a reference within Benjamin’s essay (Olin 81). And as I’ve further pointed out, Olin has suggested that the key childhood picture of Barthes’ mother, an image that he spends the last half of Camera Lucida discussing, was in fact a “fabrication” (Olin 83). However, I believe that in making this observation, Olin misses a larger point. With respect to the relationship between the two texts, I would argue that Barthes’s conception of Camera Lucida proceeds directly from his reading of Little History of Photography. As such, Benjamin’s essay becomes the crucible in which the shifts in Barthes’s thinking with respect to the medium are hatched. This is not to suggest that Barthes’s text was an act of plagiarism, though again he never references or cites Benjamin’s essay. Rather, it is to grasp it as an instance in which, at a particular moment in time, the thinking of one intellectual passes through and transforms the ideas of another. Barthes was listening to what Benjamin had to say in Little History of Photography. And on account of what he heard, he wrote his book.


1) “Little History was first translated into French in 1971” (Iversen 71).

2) “He (Barthes) wrote the whole of La chambre claire (Camera Lucida) at one go or almost, during the period between 15 April and 3 June, 1979” (Calvet 235–236).

3) Taken from an interview conducted by Angelo Schwarz (late 1977) (Barthes, “On Photography,” 354).

4) Hired by Jean Daniel, editor of Nouvel Observateur, Barthes weekly column in the magazine ran from December 1978 to March 26th 1979 (Calvet 230–231).

5) Benjamin quotes from the German newspaper Leipziger Stadtanzeiger (508).

6) In the Work of Art essay, Benjamin further develops this idea: “In the light of this description, we can readily grasp the social basis of the aura’s present decay. It rests on two circumstances, both lined to the increasing emergence of the masses and the growing intensity of their movements. Namely: the desire of the present-day masses to “get closer” to things, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness by assimilating it as a reproduction” (Benjamin, Art in the Age 105).

7) In this passage, Benjamin uses quotes that appear to reference observations made by individuals at the time (1840s) commenting on their experience. However, he provides no citations (Benjamin 512).

8) This is a phenomenon we see replicated in our own time when some digital video is given “scratches” and “flashes” of “over exposure” on its edited images to provide the effect of the analog film footage that it has historically replaced.

9) “The particular was not ‘a case of the general’; it could not be identified by placing it within a general category, for its significance lay in its contingency rather than its universality” (Buck-Morss 76).

10) “At the crossroads of two seemingly contradictory positions, insisting on the dialectical relationship of the phenomenon to the totality and, at the same time, on the necessity for microcosmic analysis, [Theodor] Adorno grounded his concept of the ‘concrete particular.’ There can be no doubt that it was Walter Benjamin who convinced Adorno of the validity of this approach” (Buck-Morss 74).

11) “The photographer teaches me how the Russians dress” (Barthes 28–30).

12) “The studium is of the order of liking, not of loving; it mobilizes a half desire, a demi-volition; it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainments, the books, the clothes one finds all right” (Barthes 27).

13) In his essay, Hollier uses the metaphor of the Labyrinth (drawn from Bataille) to explain and describe Bataille’s understanding of the relationship of human beings to language: “Human beings have a labyrinthine structure, the labyrinth is the structure of existence because existence is unthinkable without language (“man existing entirely through language”) that is, it could not take place without the mediation of words (words, their mazes…). Language makes man into a relationship to, an opening to; it prohibits his withdrawing into utopian self-presence, cuts off his retreat toward closure. It dispossesses him of his origins. Language is the practical negation of solipsism. The impossibility of finding a basis within oneself. Like a negative umbilical cord (one that would attach a person not to the origin but to the absence or origin), an umbilical lack that must be produced through writing, and in writing, until death comes to cut the thread” (Hollier 65).

14) Also, see Eisenstein’s own books: Film Form and The Film Sense.

15) Nadar, in his time (1882), photographed Savorgnan de Brazza between two young blacks dressed as French sailors; one of the two boys, oddly, has rested his hand on Brazza’s thigh; this incongruous gesture is bound to arrest my gaze, to constitute a punctum. And yet it is not one, for I immediately code the posture, whether I want to or not, as ‘aberrant’ (for me, the punctum is the other boy’s crossed arms)” (Barthes 51).

16) “It is often said that it was the painters that who invented Photography (by bequeathing it their framing, the Albertian perspective, and the optic of the camera obscura). I say: no, it was the chemists” (Barthes 80).

This paper was originally conceived of as a brief response to several articles which I had been introduced to in an art history graduate seminar conducted by Professor John O’Brian at the University of British Columbia on the subject of photography. I want to thank Professor O’Brian for his continued assistance in the development of this material. I would also like to thank Alex Wermer-Colan at the CUNY Graduate Center for his many helpful suggestions in the editing of this project.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: The Noon Day Press, 1981. Print.

____. La Chamber Claire: Note sur la Photographie. Paris: Cahiers du Cinema, 1980. Print.

____. “On Photography.” The Grain of the Voice. Trans. Linda Coverdale. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985. 353–360. Print.

____. “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Several Eisenstein Stills.” The Responsibility of Forums: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 41-62. (1970) Print.

____. “The Photographic Message.” The Responsibility of Forums: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 3-30. (1970) Print.

Batchen, Geoffrey. “Camera Lucida: Another Little History of Photography.” Photography Degree Zero: Reflection on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2009. 259-273. Print.

____. “Palinode.” Photography Degree Zero: Reflection on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2009. 3-30. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “Les Analphabetes de l’avenir.Nouvel Observateur. Special Photo 2, 1977. Print.

____. “Little History of Photography.” Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume 2, part 2, 1931 – 1934. Trans. Rodney Livingstone and others. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Gary Smith. Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. 507-530. Print.

____. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Walter Benjamin Selected Writings Volume 3, 1935 – 1938. Trans. Edmund Jephcott and others. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. 99-140. Print.

Bentancourt, Michael. Structuring Time. Wildside Press: 2009. Print.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute. New York: The Free Press, 1977. Print.

Calvet, Louis Jean. Roland Barthes: A Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Print.

Coe, Brian. The Birth of Photography: The Story of the Formative Years 1800 – 1900. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1976. Print.

Eisenstein, Sergei. “Collision of Ideas.” Film as Montage of Theories. Ed. Richard Dyer. New York: Dutton, 1966. 34-37. Print

____. Film Form. Trans & Ed. Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt, 1969. (1949) Print.

____. The Film Sense. Trans & Ed. Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt, 1969. (1949) Print.

Hollier, Denis. “The Labyrinth and the Pyramid.” Against Architecture: The Writings of George Bataille. MIT Press, 1989. Print.

Iversen, Margaret. “What is a Photograph.” Photography Degree Zero: Reflection on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2009. 57-73. Print.

Krauss, Rosalind. “Notes on the Punctum.Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 2009. 187-192. Print.

____. The Optical Unconscious. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1994. Print.

Olin, Margaret. “Touching Photographs.” Photography Degree Zero: Reflection on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2009. 75-89. Print.

Raised in the city of North Vancouver, Russell Stephens attended Simon Fraser University where he received a BA from the interdisciplinary “Centre for the Arts” program, which encompassed a minor in film and extensive work in the visual arts. After working as an independent filmmaker, a video editor, and running his own new media company, Russell returned to school, receiving his MA in Art History from the University of British Columbia in 2012. His graduating thesis was written on the subject of Honoré Daumier and the 1867 World’s Fair. He is currently working on his PhD in the department of Art History, Visual Art & Theory at the University of British Columbia.

David Greetham: Retexting the Barthesian Text in Textual Studies

Greetham_David-FR038Text as a Field of Contention

“Text” has proved to be a particularly problematic—and productive—term in both the critical theory with which Roland Barthes is associated and in the textual and editorial scholarship in which I have operated for most of my professional life. Perhaps inevitably, there is often considerable consensus on usage and meaning in the two fields. And equally inevitably, a good deal of dissent. A large part of my agenda as a textuist has been to discover the common threads and to demonstrate that there is much to be gained (for both groups) in an attempted understanding of the theoretical and practical operations of both dispensations. It was this belief that motivated my founding of the determinedly interdisciplinary Society for Textual Scholarship in the late 1970s (together with the journal Text, now Textual Cultures, the ongoing series of international conferences of STS. And this same conviction has driven the composition of most of my major publications, including Theories of the Text (1999) and The Pleasures of Contamination (2010). This current essay, in which I address the “renaissance” of Barthes from the two perspectives, is another attempt to show that, while we may seem to be speaking different languages and to have different critical aims, “critics”—in the bailiwick of structuralism, poststructuralism, and so on—and textuists have much to learn and profit from each other

Even the three “texts” in the title of this essay—a present participle (or possibly a gerund?), a noun, and an adjective—can begin to illustrate both the commonalty and the differences: as will be shown, “text” has been the focus of much debate in textual scholarship, as well as a pervasive concern in Barthesian criticism.  According to Geoff Dyer’s “Preface” to Barthes’s Camera Lucida, “the classic Barthesian insight into the nature of an event or thing, [the word] “text” was his consistently preferred term” (Barthes 1981: xi); and it should hardly be surprising that “text” should be so ubiquitous, or that this ubiquity should be just as evident in philological or editorial discussion as in critical theory. Barthes himself admits that “I know the word [text] is fashionable (I am myself often led to use it)” (1977: 156). And  we now inhabit a communication universe in which text or more properly its abbreviated form (txt) has become the preferred verb for messaging, an example of an obsolete usage1 having been resuscitated by a new technology2. Complementing Barthes’s self-citation, I would note that the index entry for text in my own Theories of the Text (Greetham 1999: 378) runs to well over a hundred citations for the word, not even including such sub-sections as “diachronic,” “paradigmatic,” “hierarchy of,” “as passive female,” “as scripture,” and “transactive,” culminating in a throwaway Barthesian moment “(see also “work”),” which then generates a further forty-seven citations. From long before Stanley Fish (1982) used the ambiguity of text (Is There a Text in This Class?) to demonstrate both the ambivalence, the polyvalence, and the contested semantic field of “textual” study, the word  has been testimony to a strange duality.

The Historical Evidence

This is not the place for an extended philological excursus, but from the very first appearance in English, in the thirteenth century, text has betrayed this paradoxical dichotomy: the etymology includes, on the one hand textus, “the Scriptures,” “the Gospel,” and thus an authority, and, on the other, a textile, “that which is woven, web, texture,” “the tissue of a written work,” from texere, “to weave.” This duality operates in two (contradictory?) modes. On the one hand, the OED defines one strand of the meaning of text as “the wording of anything written or printed,” as in OED (c1380) Cleanness (Nero) l. 1634 “Fyrst telle me Þe tyxte of Þe tede lettres” (which manages to combine the physicality of the text with a graphic networking—the “tede lettres”). But, on the other, OED also uses a quotation from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a citation that seems to anticipate the Barthesian relation between text and work; “Hit is the tytelet token & tyxt of her werkkeȝ.” Barthes’s “From Work to Text” (1977) is the best known argument for what we may call the “textile” metaphor (the networked, the multiform, or what Barthes sees as an aspect of the “Einsteinian science [that] demands that the relativity of the frames of reference be included in the object of study” (156). But Barthes sets this “Einsteinian” model against the “Newtonian way” (156), “the traditional notion of the work.” The evidence of OED shows that this linguistic aporia between text as authority and text as network has been inferentially there from the start. Without dwelling on the possible misrepresentations of science in Barthes’s potted history, it is clear that his distinction between text (the woven network) and work (the fixed, concrete form in which a text is embodied) has become a fundamental rhetorical donnée in the discourse of criticism. Witness Barthes’s claim that “the work is a fragment of substance, occupying a part of the space of books (in a library, for example)”

(Barthes, “Work to Text” 156-7) and that “it can be held in the hand” (157). Such citations place work in a spatial, concrete tactility; whereas “the Text is a methodological field” (157), i.e., a continually woven textile fabrication. Like Penelope’s weaving, the text is always simultaneously making and unmaking itself. Text is therefore a fabric[ation], the pattern in the carpet, as when a fabricator (knitter, weaver) continually “rips out” the textile to begin anew—again, like Penelope.

The Inversion of Terminologies

To an expert audience, like the Barthes conferees for whom the earlier version of this essay was presented, there was no need to demonstrate the utility of Barthes’s dichotomy, or its importance to the lexicon of critical theory. But what if his philology were as flawed, or at least as incomplete, as his history of science?  What if the triad of texts in my title were to provide a very different vocabulary and a rival or at least alternative usage?

As an historian of textuality, I have always found this Barthesian dichotomy a challenging paradox, in that most contemporary textual scholars and scholarly editors might be familiar with the gap laid out in Barthes’s argument, but in their practice and conceptualization would usually invert the terminology: far from being concrete and physical, a work in much (but not all) contemporary textual criticism lies beyond phenomenological reach and will be enshrined at best imperfectly in a text. Contrary to Barthes’s view, it is the text that can be held in the hand (or in a library). The work is (re)constructed by a critical intervention on the text(s), with the aim of resuscitating a now-lost state of the work, perhaps the original or the final authorial intentions.

According to such major figures as G. Thomas Tanselle, it is this very concrete physicality of a text that is its major liability as a witness to the ideal form of the work lying behind it. Because a text is very much in the world, it is subject to change, erosion, and corruption, whether it be an inscription on stone, a papyrus or parchment/vellum manuscript, a printed book or even a digital code. According to this view, it is the task of the textual critic to see beyond these corrupt remains and to try to reconstruct the ideal work that lies behind them. As Tanselle puts it:

Our cultural heritage consists, in Yeats’s phrase, of “Monuments of unageing intellect”; but those monuments come to us housed in containers that—far from being unageing—are, like the rest of what we take to be the physical world, constantly changing. Verbal works, being immaterial, cannot be damaged as a painting or a sculpture can; but we shall never know with certainty what their undamaged forms consist of, for in their passage to us they are subjected to the hazards of the physical. Even though our reconstructions become the texts of new documents that will have to be evaluated and altered in their turn by succeeding generations, we have reason to persist in the effort to define the flowerings of previous human thought, which in their inhuman tranquillity have overcome the torture of their birth (Tanselle 1989: 93).

Note the almost Platonic, plangent longing for this immanence: “verbal works, being immaterial, cannot be damaged as a painting or a sculpture can, but we shall never know with certainty what their undamaged forms consist of,” whereas “[editorial] reconstructions become texts [i.e., the physical, concrete presence] of new documents.”  For Tanselle and other textuists of this persuasion, it is indeed text that can be “held in the hand” and work that is an ineffable, immaterial (and therefore an unknowable and inaccessible entity).

The Originary versus the Socialized

This inversion of terms might be thought of as mere verbal sparring, were it not that the distinction reaches back (as I’ve earlier shown) to the origins of textual study and the book trade in the West: the texts (the actual physical readings) of manuscripts aboard ships passing through the entrepôt of Alexandria in the third century BC were used by the Alexandrian librarians to attempt to establish the lost and immanent work that putatively lay behind the corrupt remaniements of the physical texts. As is well documented in the history of textuality, it was the librarians of Pergamum in Asia Minor (Stoics rather than Platonists) who put their faith in these admittedly “socialized” texts, simply because they did represent an actual documentary state rather than what became known as an ineffable “O prime,” that originary stage beyond even the recovery of the archetype, and was thus speculative or immanent, rather than concrete and documentary. And this distinction became one of most persistent in textual history, down to the late twentieth/twenty-first-century endorsement of “social” textual theory, associated with the work of Jerome McGann (1991, 2001, 2006, 2014) and D.F.Mckenzie (1986, 1992), holding that because the so-called “originary moment of inscription” (the work) was beyond recovery, the proper business of textuists was to chart the post-inscriptional history of texts, again seen as concrete media that “could be held in the hand.” The emblematic work in such a lost inscriptional origin is Coleridge’s account of the opium-induced vision that lay behind Kubla Khan having been interrupted by the visit by the “person on business from Porlock,” with a similar lament over origins that Shelley described in insisting that the very moment of inscription was a “fading coal,” lost in the act of setting down the text that might have become the work.  So, the text/work dialectic has had a long and polemical history long before Barthes’s reinvigoration of the debate, though in different terms.

But there are other parts of Barthes’s critique of text and work that might accord better with his dialectic. As has been observed, often with some acrimony, Continental textuality (as opposed to Anglo-American) has shown an affiliation, even a derivation from Franco-German structuralist principles, concentrating on stages of différence in variant texts as being essentially the history of the work, though again without any firm hope of resuscitating the work.  And some Anglo-American textuists have been almost apoplectic in their suspicion of these foreign incursions into the discipline, as witness David Shaw’s (1992) barely concealed fury in the collection The Book Encompassed (211-12):

[t]here has been no McKerrow or Greg or Bowers in French textual studies. The theoretical interests of French scholars have notoriously tended to structuralist criticism and its various offshoots, many of which have stressed the reader’s rôle in re-creating the identity of a text as he reads it. There has been a bias against the notion of texts having an author who possesses some sort of textual right of ownership and there has been a consequent lack of interest in the concept of a ‘correct’ text restored through the study of the historical process of transmission. . . a theory of copy text is needed before any other is possible.

To my mind, the more challenging parts of George Bornstein’s and Hans Walter Gabler’s collection of essays on “contemporary German Editorial Theory” (1995) is this record of cumulative textual différence, usually couched in structuralist principles, rather than in the lame concluding essay showing a final, authorized version after all the variants had been put in their place, that is, buried. And Hans Walter Gabler’s attempted rapprochement between Franco-German structuralist text and Anglo-American “final intentions” (the work) in his edition of Joyce’s Ulysses generated more intemperate heat than light, as what I have called the “estranging openings” of the facing recto and verso pages [Fig. 1] were largely taken as irreconcilable graphic and ideological contradictions. I regard these openings (“verso” [left]- and “recto” [right]-hand) as “estranging” because the first is a visual display of the “structure”—the different documentary stages of the text—according to structuralist principles of différence. The left page in the Gabler edition is therefore full of special, non-alphabetic, symbols charting these stages. But the second (right-hand) page represses this evidence to present a “clear” text without symbols, a text that represents not variance but completion. And this supposed completion (“final intentions”) is a critical construction by the editor and is not a reflection of the readings in a single document. This “estrangement” was rendered invisible when the full three-volume “synoptic and critical” edition was withdrawn and only the right-hand pages made available.

While it is inevitably something of a simplification, during the hegemony of “final intentions” in Anglo-American editing (roughly mid-twentieth century until the 1980s/1990s), the aim of such editing was to produce “eclectic” texts. These “eclectic” editions presented “clear” texts free of the symbols drawn from the evidence of various individual documents, this evidence being relegated to an “apparatus” of variants buried in the back of the book.

While this conceptual distinction is still pretty much in place in Anglo-American textual studies, in Continental criticism there are other traces of Barthes’s formulation: the devenir perpétuel of recent French textual work (in say Cerquiglini’s concept [1999] of mouvance, in which the primary interest is in “whatever is unstable, multiple, and precarious” xiii), together with the structuralist principles of much Franco-German work on Proust, Goethe, and Joyce, suggest that the edges of text and work are still under negotiation. A further complication has been added in the last few decades by the swerve away from the concept of single authoriality towards “multiple” or “socialized” texts. This swerve sets the text within a wide social context, which could include the contributions of the author’s friends and relatives, the printers and publishers, and the “readers,” including the critical reception. In addition, there has been increased concern with the medium of transmission (for example, manuscript, printed book—in its various manifestations—periodical, newspaper, and electronic media). The swerve toward the social text is consistent with the growth, during roughly the same period, of such critical movements as feminism and gender studies, or Marxism and subaltern or post-colonial studies. I have previously argued that this shift also represents Barthes’s distinction between a lisible or “closed” text and a scriptible or “open” text, which invites further “reinscriptions” and participation in the “recomposition” of the work. Barthes’s S/Z, in which the “host” Balzac text is cut into lexias or reading units, is a particularly stark example of critical interventions into the text, and can be paralleled by an increased awareness of how such seemingly dry and objective editorial operations as annotation and commentary (see Barney) can change the way a text is negotiated.

Thus, the boundaries of text and work are as fraught in textual studies as they are in literary theory and criticism. And it is perhaps emblematic of this uncertainty that in such comprehensive accounts as the Lentricchia/McLoughlin Critical Terms for Literary Study (1995), there is no separate chapter on text/work, although the rival concepts behind the terms occur prominently, for example in the chapters on “interpretation,” “intention,” “author.”  Perhaps it was just too much of a challenge for the editors to commission an essay in which the basic terminology was still in a state of devenir perpétual.

S/Z as a Textual Marker

This continued negotiation has not prevented me from drawing some of the most challenging of Barthes’s work into the textual-critical debate, even into the most familiar of editorial/philological graphemic displays. The very title (and front cover) of S/Z, [Fig. 2] demonstrate a bar of difference that encodes a Saussurean phonemic distinction between the unvoiced and voiced versions of its major characterSarrasine and “opposite” number La Zambinella—and that character’s shifting gender identity. This graphemic device is a form of the basic lemma of textual apparatus, whose function is precisely to use the bar of difference (in editorial practice the half square bracket—]) as the marker of the play of difference. And the bar separates the lemma (the reading referred to in the text, say an emendation) to the left of the half-bracket, and the copy-text variant to the right, say Tweedledum] MS Tweedledee. The half-bracket “]” thus encodes a series of bipolar oppositions (right and wrong, truth and error, sincere and corrupt). Such oppositions are the very raison d’être of the critically edited text.

But there is more to it than this just this visual display. I have long argued that the emended reading (i.e., the one accepted by the editor despite the reading found in the copytext), or Barthes’s “S” (before the bar of difference and “Z) is, like all the other morphological or phonological units on the textual page, a potentially unstable signifier whose instability is highlighted by the existence of the lemma and of the formal listing of alternative signifiers after it (Barthes’s “Z”). In an emended reading, the signifier contextualized by the copy-text has been found inadequate to express the signified—the postulated conceptual referent that ought to be inferable from the context—and has been displaced by another signifier, either drawn from another context (another “witness” or document) or constructed by the editor from a vertical or horizontal (paradigmatic or syntagmatic) reading of the system of reference in which the signifier signifies.

Pleasure and Jouissance

And the simultaneity of the paradigmatic and syntagmatic produces what Barthes calls jouissance—of reading for those moments when “the garment gapes” (1975 Pleasure: 9), when the textual fabric can be seen through its holes, what a textuist might call its lacunae, the gaps, or missing pieces in the evidence, transmission, and reading of a text. Barthes makes a distinction between, on the one hand, the “Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading” (1975: 14), and, on the other, “the Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language” (14). This is the same distinction made in textual studies between the “perfected,” “definitive” edition (“a comfortable reading”) and the genetic edition, the one whose text is held in fieri, the formulation used in Italian textual criticism to suggest the continued forging of a text.

Both of these tendencies may produce and represent pleasure in textual editing, but with starkly different rationales and procedures. For example, the famous (some might say infamous) Kane-Donaldson edition of the “B” text of Piers Plowman takes as its core responsibility the “smoothing” out of the imperfect scribal copies to produce a “comfortable” text, a “text that never was” since scribes and other transmitters are notoriously unreliable and intrusive, reducing authorial originality to bland ordinariness. This belief favors the lectio difficilior (the “more difficult” reading) as being more likely to be authorial, even when it has no documentary support among the extant texts). A similar editorial “pleasure” in the editing of Piers Plowman or other intractactable texts may attempt an aesthetic “smoothing” of the prosody, for example, perfecting the alliterative verse line to produce what the editors regard a “fulfilled” aesthetic, despite the evidence of scribal copies. But there is a very different sort of editorial pleasure in the recent concentration on, for example, the scraps, fragments, unresolved poetics of the texts of Emily Dickinson preserved on the backs of envelopes or of telegrams (Fig. 3 Gorgeous Nothings).  This sort of pleasure celebrates the gaps, the incompletions, the unfulfilled. It has gained a wide contemporary currency in, say, the production of facsimile editions with diplomatic transcriptions of, for example, Wordsworth and Yeats [Figs. 4 and 5], showing the hesitations and changes of mind in authorial composition. And a similar concentration on what are called the avant texts, those stages in pre-publication construction, has motivated the Franco-German promotion of critique génétique over the Anglo-American production of “final intentions,” in which an editorial “clear text” demotes variance to an apparatus, or even the back of the book, so that the editorial handiwork is repressed or obscured.

Culture and Variants

Considering these shifts in recent textual work, it is surely telling that the annual publication of the (largely Anglo-American) Society for Textual Scholarship is now called Textual Cultures and the publication of the sister organization, the European Society for Textual Scholarship, is called Variants. The one places textual study in a social context, and the other promotes variance or mouvance. And similarly, the concept of “full score” that Barthes (1968), following Lévi-Strauss’s formulation of the axes of paradigmatic and syntagmatic “bundling,” uses to illustrate jouissance can be seen (and performed) in the simultaneity of a typically dense vertical and horizontal display, like this page from the score of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony [Fig. 6]. Barthes sees such horizontal and vertical “bundling” in the simultaneous “system” (the vertical axis of possible selection) and “syntagm” (the actual linear, horizontal selection)–langue and parole respectively. Such “scoring” has its genetic literary analogue in this spatially arranged mapping of the “gross constituent units” (and the lack thereof) in a graphic representation of a section of the 1805 and 1850 texts of Wordsworth’s Prelude. (Fig. 7 Greetham 1999: 316-17).

I recognize that this account of some moments when the Barthesian text can share (or radically diverge from) the features of the philologist’s text may both be very incomplete and may obscure a deeper set of problems. For example, no textuist has yet fully confronted the dizzying range of meanings of Barthes’s punctum in Camera Lucida (1981), with its deft, sometimes inconsistent, evidence for the relation between the phenomenology of present surface (the tactile, physical photograph) and the loss—of time, of the moment superseded by, but misrepresented in, this tactility. So, textuists are continually confronted, not just by the alterity of any historical document (including that produced earlier the same day), but by the act of both forgetting and yet nostalgically longing for, that “originary” moment that the document/photograph disturbs and devalues, as Barthes fully recognizes in his account of camera lucida (a deliberate provocation to the traditional camera obscura). Thus, as Barthes notes, there is “[n]othing surprising, then, if sometimes, despite its clarity , the punctum should be revealed only after the fact, when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it. I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly, engaging it in an effort of description which will always miss its point of effect, the punctum” (1981: 530). In Camera Lucida Barthes captures the editorial problem of belatedness (perhaps related to Shelley’s “fading coal”: “The name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: ‘That has been,’ or again, the Intractable. In Latin (a pedantry necessary because it illuminates certain nuances) this would doubtless be said: interfuit; what I see has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject (operator or spectator); it has been here, and yet immediately separated, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred.” (1981: 77). This sense of the photograph (as text) occupying a position that is neither perfectly present nor past is similarly, if puzzlingly, caught in the statement posed by French textuist Louis Hay:  “Le texte n’existe pas” (1985), rendered more interrogatively in its English translation as “Does text exist?” (1988).

Digitization, Morphing, and the Album

Moreover, Barthes’s later work on the punctum can also be seen as anticipating the technological and ontological issues raised by such textual/editorial challenges as digitization. The sense of a passing from one mode of (re)presentation to another is caught, for example, in Michael Fried’s comment (2011) that Barthes’s Camera Lucida “is indeed a swan song for an artifact on the brink of a fundamental change” (152). The struggle over representation and essence celebrated and bemoaned in Camera Lucida is all-too-present in the intellectual, institutional, and critical challenges raised by the digitization of texts, an issue that receives a probing analysis in Jerome McGann’s A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2014). Do we get closer to, or further from, the putative work that may be inferentially immanent in the digitized image of a manuscript or other text, an image that can be manipulated in ways, some explicatory and beneficial, others opaque or interventionist, that would have seemed almost unholy to earlier practitioners of palaeography and codicology?

A particularly provocative (if playful) example of such intervention may be through the editorial process of “digital morphing,” an electronic representation of Barthes’s distinction, derived from Mallarmé, between the “Album” and the “Book: “Album” is defined by Barthes as “the inventory of circumstances . . . a thread. . . or an anthological dispersion of pieces” (Preparation 186); “Book” is “architectural and premeditated,” “persuaded when all’s said and done there is only one” (182). Digital morphing involves an electronic “intervention” that can create intermediate states in the history of texts/images, states that may never have existed as documents but can show concatenations and shifts in intention and performance, not only in a given author or text but also between serial groups of texts, perhaps illustrating Foucault’s concept (“What Is an Author?) of the “transdiscursive” text/author, in which the edges of composition are blurred. Figure 7 shows such a morph, in which the “interventions” move among the opening frame of Goya’s Majas on a Balcony, Manet’s Le balcon and Magritte’s Perspective (Le balcon de Manet), so that any security in “original” text, variant, or parody is lost in the swirl of the “album.” In the morph, these “books” are not just “architectural and premeditated,” but, through parody, influence and recomposition, provide “albums,” in which the morphist may “play” any moment in the intervention by manipulating a digital slider.

One final puzzle: in a textual apparatus (which may be thought of as an “album,” a “morph” between separate documentary states) we have to recognize that the “rejected” variants to the right of the bar of difference (lemma) can so be designated because at some precedent, historicized, point in the reading of the text they were regarded as authentic and would have appeared to the left of the bar; thus the unstable condition of signifier is even more contingent than a temporary spatial mapping might suggest: as readings move across the lemma’s bar of difference from right to left and back again it is only this difference that remains constant, not the terms themselves. In this screen capture [Fig. 9] of the first and second quartos and the first folio of Hamlet, one may ask is Hamlet’s flesh “solid” (folio, lower right) or “sallied” i.e., “sullied” (first quarto, left, and second quarto, upper right)? The answer to this question will vary: either reading can be deeply embedded in the contextual polysemy that is the multiple play of Hamlet (the flesh is too “solid” as representing the gross physicality from which Hamlet wants to escape, or “sullied” in its reflection of the “rotten” state of Denmark). So both answers are “correct,” depending on whether they are “S” or “Z”. And I like to think that Barthes would have enjoyed this textual crux. Perhaps he might even have wanted to “text/txt” about it.

Whether or not Barthes would have been pleased with this particular ambiguity, I do think that the “textual” conundrum and what it represents could be seen to illuminate a number of his basic concerns: the lisible versus the scriptible, the role of the  lexia in literary (de)construction, the dichotomy of text and work, even the “death” of the historical author and the “proliferation” of meaning that attends this death. From my perspective, it will be instructive to see whether the “renaissance” of Roland Barthes produces a similar, if complementary, “renaissance” of textual criticism.

End Notes

1) See J. Shirley, 1639. Maides Revenge III. sig. Ev, “Would . . . every Character [had] Beene tex’d with blood.” OED text (v)

2) See 2000 Guardian 3 June (Weekend Suppl.) 26/1  “One private school in Berkshire has just instituted a fine system for anyone caught texting in teaching-time.” OED Draft Additions March 2004.

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McGann, Jerome. 1991. The Textual Condition. Princeton University Press.

—. 2001. Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web. New York:
Palgrave / St. Martins.

—. 2006. “From Text to Work: Digital Tools and the Emergence of the Social
Text. Text: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Textual Studies. 16: 49-62.

—. 2014. A New Republic of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of
Digital Reproduction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McKenzie, D. F. 1986. Bibliography and the Sociology of Text. The Panizzi
Lectures. London: British Library.

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Encompassed. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

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McDonald and Michael Suarez, S. J. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

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David Greetham is Distinguished Professor in the Ph.D. program in English and the Certificate programs in Medieval Studies and in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy at the CUNY Graduate Center. He was the founder of the interdisciplinary Society for Textual Scholarship, has edited John Trevisa and Thomas Hoccleve, and is author of, for example, Textual Scholarship: An Introduction, Textual Transgressions, Theories of the Text, and The Pleasures of Contamination. He is now working on studies of the “incomplete” text and on theories of adaptation.

Margot Note: Site/Sight as Text, Barthes and Zero Degree Architecture

Margot Note BDZ photoPhotographs are artifacts of moments past and forever lost. They provide a “fugitive testimony” to history (Camera Lucida 93). Throughout his work, Roland Barthes examines photography’s mnemonic features that testify to the absence of the subject depicted while simultaneously giving evidence that it existed. Barthes regards architecture as a visible index to the past and explains that ancient societies built structures to immortalize themselves. He writes, “memory, the substitute for life, was eternal and that at least the thing which spoke Death should itself be immortal: this was the Monument” (93). Photographs as “natural witness[es] of ‘what has been’” have replaced monuments (93). As handmaidens of memory, they stand in place for structures that no longer remain. Barthes notes that historical photographs have a “defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die” (96). Thus, images articulate an anterior future tense as they conjure the past, present, and future concurrently. Susan Sontag observed that photographs, akin to monuments, become more desirable through the passage of time. Both acquire an aged look and a detachment from the prosaic that enhances their aesthetic value (79-80). Photography forges a symbiotic relationship with architecture. Through one artistic medium, another is better understood.

In addition to Barthes’s fascination with photography, the motif of the empty sign, the neutral, and the degree zero appear throughout his work. He describes degree zero as “a still center, an erotic or lacerating value” (Camera Lucida 18). The empty sign and the neutral, too, are areas irreducible to positive or negative terms and not yet appropriated by myth. In his first book, Writing Degree Zero, Barthes lauds authors who “create a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a preordained state of language” (79). As an example, Barthes recognizes Albert Camus’s The Stranger for its “transparent form of speech” (82). He describes its style as “neutral,” “inert,” and “degree zero.” He states that the writing “remains wholly responsible, without being overlaid by a secondary commitment of form to a History not its own” (The Rustle of Language 64). In other words, zero-degree writing is free from signification. Similarly, the empty sign is defined in Empire of Signs as “the interstice without specific edges” (26). The form the sign takes vacates meaning. This theme continues in Barthes’s writing until the end of his career, during the preparation for his lecture course The Neutral. Barthes defines the neutral as “every inflection that, dodging or baffling the paradigmatic, oppositional structure of meaning, aims at the suspension of the conflictual basis of discourse” (211). Rosalind Krauss and Denis Hollier assert that the neutral was not a new idea for Barthes, but “held steady . . . over the trajectory that took him from Writing Degree Zero, with the zero degree an early version of ‘le neutre,’ through all the rest of his books” (xiii).

The lack of significance offered by the empty sign is especially apt when applied to buildings and the urban environment. Although Barthes is not as well known for scrutinizing architecture as systematically as literature or fashion, he recognizes signs wherever they are. He challenges the “naturalness” of cultural texts that are capable of producing all sorts of supplementary connotations. Barthes recognizes architecture as an intellectual activity that utilizes history, theory, and criticism. He explores the history of cities; the social, political, and economic interactions within built environments; and the cities’ relationship to their regions. He perceives the city as a repository of signs through its streets, monuments, and edifices. The urban space becomes a signifying vehicle itself. Architecture and its images provoke a degree zero, an empty sign, and the neutral within Barthes.

Scholarship on Barthes’s writing has not fully recognized his contribution to the field of architecture, which this essay explores. In what follows, I shall situate Barthes’s shifting ideas of place as degree zero relative to three phases: structuralism in “The Eiffel Tower,” poststructuralism in Empire of Signs, and phenomenology in Camera Lucida. “Shifting” is the key word here, as Barthes’s work covers a diverse range of fields, and his theoretical development evolved over time and lacked boundaries between phases. In the course of his career, his intellectual stance transitioned from a structuralist outlook to a more overtly poststructuralist perspective. In his later work, while not abandoning his viewpoints entirely, Barthes embraces phenomenology, a position in which he considers semiological experience in light of poststructuralist realizations.

Throughout his oeuvre, whether examining Paris, Tokyo, Granada, or Jerusalem, Barthes regards sites as texts eternally open to interpretation. Viewers read the urban environment that lies in front of them or is experienced through the photographic medium. Oscillating between dream and function, architecture and its simulacra have the potential for limitless meaning as they reflect the fugitive nature of real experience, the communicative power of photographs, and the magnitude of humankind’s monumental endeavors.

 I.                   Deciphering the Panorama

“The Eiffel Tower,” published in the United States in 1979 in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, was first written in the mid-1950s. It is part of Barthes’s structuralist period, in which he advocates for a systematic, scientific approach to cultural phenomena. Structuralism, for Barthes, evolved from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. The Swiss linguist and semiotician offered a dyadic model of the sign, consisting of the signifier, the form that the sign takes, and the signified, the concept it recalls. The sign results from the association of the signifier with the signified, and the relationship between the two is signification. As a critical approach, structuralism focuses on the rules and codes of systems and studies the structure out of which texts emerge, not the texts themselves. Barthes applies structuralism’s scientific approach to demystify traditional notions of meaning. He uses structuralism to critique society through the demonstration of its often concealed reliance on artificial sign systems.

The Eiffel Tower was built as photography became technologically advanced and affordable. The tower appealed to photographers because of its combination of materiality and immateriality. Rather than being constructed by traditional methods, its erection was an achievement of modern engineering. In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin states of its creation, “one hears no chisel-blow liberating form from stone; here thought reigns over muscle power, which it transmits via cranes and secure scaffolding” (161). Today, the tower is one of the most recognizable monuments in the world and the most photographed (see fig. 1). It evolved as a symbol of Paris and metropolises in general, due in part from its role as the entrance to the 1889 World Fair. In The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (1989), Susan Buck-Morss notes that world fairs promoted progress, nationalism, and utopian goals through technology. By extension, the tower also manifested these attributes as a universally recognized urban icon. Barthes writes in his diary about presenting a gift to a hustler he met in his travels: “What sort of pleasant trifle can you give someone who is totally indigent? . . . I opt for a coded . . . excessively useless souvenir: a brass Eiffel Tower” (Incidents 24).

Note Figure 1

Fig. 1. A view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champ de Mars. CC BY 2.0 by Terrazzo.

The tower represents a modern Paris, transformed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann during Emperor Napoléon III’s reign with efforts ending in 1927. His public works program annexed suburbs; removed medieval neighborhoods; built boulevards, parks, and squares; and constructed new sewers and aqueducts. Paris’s street plan and distinctive center resulted from Haussmann’s renovation campaign. Barthes notes ironically that as modernity decimated buildings, a modern process—photography—allowed them to be recorded for posterity.

Despite Gustav Eiffel’s efforts to justify his structure in terms of utility, the tower was built without any use, but with an edifice that appeals to the imagination. Barthes writes:

Wherever you are, whatever the landscape of roofs, domes, or branches separating you from it, the Tower is there; incorporated into daily life until you can no longer grant it any specific attribute, determined merely to persist, like a rock or the river, it is as literal as a phenomenon of nature whose meaning can be questioned to infinity but whose existence is incontestable (“The Eiffel Tower” 3).

As a signifier free of any fixed referent, writes Barthes, “this pure—virtually empty—sign—is ineluctable, because it means everything” (4). The “zero degree” tower attracts meaning like “a lightning rod attracts thunderbolts” (7, 5). Barthes attempts to explain how something can be itself and the medium through which ideology propagates itself at the same time. How felicitous it must have seemed to him when in 1964, the year the essay was first published, France’s Ministry of Culture declared the Eiffel Tower a historical monument.

Barthes finds that the tower provides a vantage point from which architecture can be read. The tower is the iconic axis of a reciprocal system, at once a receptacle of all gazes in the city and a universal point of view overlooking Paris. The only way to negate the monument is to be inside it. Studied by all, it is also an object for observation. The tower, thus, “transgresses this habitual divorce of seeing and being seen” (“The Eiffel Tower” 5). While the tower symbolizes many concepts, such as travel, modernity, and communication, Barthes notes that it holds a “major symbolic function . . . which is its final meaning:” the gaze that deciphers Paris (8). Functioning as a balcony, it offers a panoramic vision:

The Tower makes the city into a kind of nature; it constitutes the swarming of men into a landscape . . . To visit the Tower, then, is to enter into contact not with a historical Sacred, as is the case for the majority of monuments, but rather with a new nature, that of human space (8).

Barthes notes that the tower gives one a breathtaking vista of Paris, but that belvederes look out upon nature. The tower transforms the city into a landscape, providing an aerial view that allows visitors to read the text of Paris (see fig. 2). The structure of the urban space now becomes visible through the panorama that Barthes defines as:

An image we attempt to decipher, in which we try to recognize known sites, to identify landmarks. Take some view of Paris taken from the Eiffel Tower; here you make out the hill sloping down from Chaillot, there the Bois de Boulogne; but where is the Arc de Triomphe? You don’t see it, and this absence compels you to inspect the panorama once again, to look for this point which is missing in your structure (10).

Note Figure 2

Fig. 2. A panoramic view of Paris from the northwest as seen from the Eiffel Tower. CC BY 2.0 by Alexander Kachkaev.

Barthes continues, “the bird’s eye view . . . gives us the world to read” (9). The tower observer becomes an interpreter of the urban landscape. It is laid out as a text to be examined “in their structure,” which he notes as “geographical, historical, and social” (9, 13). Therefore, “Every visitor to the Tower makes structuralism without knowing it” (9). Paris, as a city so familiar to Barthes, can be read and deciphered through its scenic tableau or its many photographic representations. He argues that among the multiplicity of meanings that the cityscape and its architecture can hold, a hierarchy of signification exists: its panoramic function. One meaning, above all others, is more prominent.

II.                Circling the City Center

When visiting Tokyo, however, Barthes’s beliefs on the stratification of the meaning of the neutral changes significantly. In Empire of Signs, Barthes interprets Japanese culture as a utopia of signifiers, finding freedom from the occidental obsession with meaning. In Barthes’s poststructuralist phase, which emerged in the late 1960s during his trip to Japan and became fully apparent in the book’s publication in 1970, his need to explain signs is surpassed by “a desire to disrupt and decenter their authority” (Trifonas 3). Poststructuralism rejects many of the assertions of structuralism, chiefly its claims of the fixity of the relationships between signifiers and signifieds. Signifiers remain stable, but signifieds—in this case, the built environment of the urban space—are transient. Barthes demonstrates how a culture outside of the system of the Western world dismantles preconceptions about signs and meaning. In this work, Barthes seeks out and celebrates the instability and emptiness of signs.

Tokyo inverts the conventional reading of metropolitan areas. The city provides an antipode to the development of European capitals, which have a set of symbolic relationships to landmarks that provide meaning. Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, for example, was a radical reorganization of the urban space to bring greater meaning and use to it. In contrast, Tokyo seems incomprehensible to Western sensibilities because its structure is different. The city’s organization dates from the Edo period (1600 to 1868) when the royal palace was an axis from which districts of lessening importance radiated. The palimpsest of modern Tokyo confounds fixed categories and exempts itself from the Western compulsion to categorize.

The othering of the East relates to the ethical and political problems of Orientalism. When examining Barthes’s writing on cultures tied to the dominating authority of the West over the East, Diana Knight questions how self-aware Barthes is of his own Orientalist tendencies. In Empire of Signs, she argues that Japan is “self-consciously and explicitly presented as a utopia” and a “fantasized utopian civilization” (Knight 625). Barthes does not wish to produce a cultural analysis of Japan. To do so would merely repeat the myth of the Orient, from which no Westerner is exempt. Instead, Barthes locates himself within the ethnocentrism that the concept of Japan stimulates in the occidental reader.

The country Barthes writes about is less the subject of the account of his trip abroad than a point of departure. For him, Japan is a fictive nation and a semiotic system where artifice reigns and meaning abandons forms. Barthes writes:

the public place is a series of instantaneous events which accede to the notable in a flash so vivid, so tenuous that the sign does away with itself before any particular signified has had time to “take.” One might say that an age-old technique permits the landscape or the spectacle to produce itself, to occur in a pure significance, abrupt, empty, like a fracture. Empire of Signs? Yes, if it is understood that these signs are empty, and that the ritual is without a god (Empire of Signs 108).

Barthes’s version of Japan serves as an occasion to play with signification through writing, a liberation from the structuralist limits of meaning. Tokyo, unlike Paris and its tower, resists the image. Barthes writes, “The author has never, in any sense, photographed Japan” (4). Instead, he describes his experiences of discovering Japan as identical to the practice of reading a text:

Japan has afforded him a situation of writing. This situation is the very one in which a certain disturbance of the person occurs, a subversion of earlier readings, a shock of meaning lacerated, extenuated to the point of its irreplaceable void . . . Writing . . . creates an emptiness of language. And it is also an emptiness of language which constitutes writing (4).

Tokyo, occupied by the lacuna of the royal palace, has a vacant center. Its subway map shows routes orbiting around an empty node marked by emerald (see fig. 3). Urban activity rotates around this area, yet does not enter it. The outlook inside the palace grounds is a verdant vacuity surrounded by a cluster of high-rises (see fig. 4). The city is not organized around a guaranteeing truth, but a neutral area designated by arbitrary signs. Barthes writes:

The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen, which is to say, literally, by no one knows who. Daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-like trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred “nothing” (30).

Barthes finds that this emptiness holds true for many cities, which are necessary voids encapsulated by the urban landscape.

Note Figure 3

Fig. 3. Subway map of Tokyo, with the Imperial Palace area marked by green.CC BY-NC 2.0 by Stuart Rankin.

Note Figure 4

Fig. 4. View of the skyscrapers of Tokyo from the grounds of the Imperial Palace. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Alex Masters.

In “Semiology and the Urban” (1971), an essay that was written at the same time as Empire of Signs and mentions Tokyo, Barthes emphasizes the indeterminacy of urban landmarks, noting the necessity for absent centers and empty signifiers. Urban life offers an eroticism where different types of people interact. Barthes argues that the city is “the site of our encounter with the other,” and “it is for this reason that the center is the gathering point of any city,” especially for the young (“Semiology and the Urban” 170). Urban dwellers walk through the streets, creating their own erotic language. Barthes notes, “The city is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it” (165). Tokyo mystifies Barthes because it lacks a structure he recognizes. Its discourse stymies him, and its language is incomprehensible. As a cultural outsider, he discovers that the meaning of the city is nil.

Barthes’s trip to Japan is a turning point for his understanding of architecture and the empty sign. In Tokyo, signs exist for their own merit, retaining only the significance instilled by signifiers. Conversely, the Parisian culture Barthes dissects in “The Eiffel Tower” priorities specific levels of meaning—the panorama—over others. How each perspective positions signs defines the difference between structuralism and poststructuralism: one stance sees meaning as stratified and hierarchical, while the other resists meaning entirely.

III. Memorializing the Landscape

In Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes further refines his thoughts about the empty sign, degree zero, and the neutral in the context of photography. The book departs from his previous work without eschewing it. Instead, he retreats from semiotic and structuralist analysis and examines the visceral effect of photographs. He finds that some images touch him emotionally while others have no effect. Images “animate” him, and engagement with them becomes an “adventure” of photography (Camera Lucida 19). Barthes declares himself the “mediator for all Photography” who is “determined to be guided by the consciousness of my feelings” (8, 10). In previous works, S/Z (1970) most notably, Barthes argues that interpretations of texts are not based on personal experience, but the articulation of coded systems. Camera Lucida, however, unites the self and social codes and reaffirms the centrality of the individual in constructing meaning. He sees experience as primarily beyond conventions and cultural codes.

Camera Lucida offers a phenomenology of the photographic picture. Originating from German philosopher Edmund Husserl, phenomenology examines the ways that the construction of consciousness permits it to reference objects beyond itself. It studies consciousness as experienced from a subjective point of view. According to its dedication, Camera Lucida was written in homage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (1940), which introduced phenomenology to France during Barthes’s youth. Barthes “borrowed something from phenomenology’s project and something from its language” (Camera Lucida 20). He bases the phenomenological character of his investigation on his own understanding of the medium and studies the photograph as an experienced object. He describes his approach to photography as “a vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology” (20). His phenomenology is one that, unlike classical phenomenology, emphasizes physicality, desire, and mourning. He writes, “The anticipated essence of the Photograph could not, in my mind, be separated from the ‘pathos’ of which, from the first glance, it consists” (21). Barthes’s phenomenological study considers architecture and its visual simulacra as carriers of temporality and death. To him, photographs are opportunities to meditate on time, memory, and loss.

Camera Lucida takes its title from an optical device for looking through a prism at a subject while drawing it. By viewing the scene and drawing surface simultaneously, the user can render an image with an accurate perspective. Before the invention of photography, the apparatus was used to sketch buildings and landscapes. The image the instrument conjures can be seen only in the mind’s eye. Photographs act as a camera lucida in reverse. Viewers read from the two-dimensional image the three-dimensional reality that lies in the past.

The camera lucida evokes the Winter Garden photograph of Barthes’s mother as a child, discussed at length in the book, but unpublished. He discovers the snapshot as he browses through family pictures, “gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved” (Camera Lucida 67). Barthes describes the image as faded and sepia-toned with blunted corners from when it was in an album. The photograph, taken in 1898, depicts his mother, aged five, standing next to her seven-year-old brother. She shyly holds one of her fingers with her other hand. They pose on a small wooden bridge in a conservatory dedicated to the cultivation of winter-blooming plants at their childhood home in Chennevières-sur-Marne, France.

Only Barthes can see his mother in the chambre claire of a glass conservatory. Readers project their own images into the photographic void. While some scholars do not believe that the photograph exists, Barthes’s excuse for withholding it is telling (Knight 244-69; Olin 81). Barthes explains that the image is so mundane it is unpublishable: “For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’” (Camera Lucida 73).

For Barthes, the “essence” of photography lives in his mother’s image (Camera Lucida 73). He decides to “‘derive’ all Photography (its ‘nature’) from the only photograph which assuredly existed for me, and to take it somehow as a guide for my last investigation” (73). The Winter Garden image, written about, but unseen, functions as an empty sign. The conservatory depicted within the photograph, and from which the picture derives its name, is a building degree zero. The image at the heart of Camera Lucida—and at the center of Barthes’s writing—is an aperture and an absence. This architectural photograph is the emptiest of signs.

According to Barthes, photography represents the juncture of sign and body, meaning and materiality. Barthes dwells upon the relationship between photographs and the body because corporeal sensations are a way to experience built and natural environments. His bodily responses to photographs act as a measure of photographic information. He describes what a photograph looks like, but also how it feels. Barthes develops dual photographic concepts: studium and punctum. Studium denotes the photograph’s cultural, linguistic, and political impressions. The punctum refers to the emotional detail that creates a relationship between the subject and the observer. The punctum is often body-based, such as Warhol’s nails, a boy’s teeth, or the feel of a dirt road that a violinist plays on that Barthes “recognize[s] with my whole body” (Camera Lucida 45). He writes that photography reaches across time and space: an “umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze,” a transmission of the past (81). He continues, “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me . . .  a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed” (81). With images, the universal meets the personal at the locus of the body.

The corporeality of architecture can be applied to Charles Clifford’s image of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, the only photograph of a building reproduced in Camera Lucida (see fig. 5). Published in a book primarily composed of portraits and group shots, the image stands out as the lone representation of architecture. Barthes inhabits the Alhambra through Clifford’s photograph, an image that depicts otherness much like his musings on Japan in Empire of Signs.
Note Figure 5

Fig. 5. Clifford, Charles. [The Alhambra, Granada. The Wine Tower]. 1862. Photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Clifford, a Welsh photographer who spent his professional career in Spain, opened his first photographic salon there in 1850. He photographed all over the country, specializing in landscapes, architecture, and public works. Recognition of his efforts resulted in civic commissions such as improvement projects in Madrid and the construction of an aqueduct system to bring water into the country’s capital. He exhibited his work in Britain and France, where over 400 of his photographs were shown at the 1856 Paris Photographic Salon. Clifford later worked in the service of Queen Isabella II from 1858 onwards and accompanied her on royal visits.

The Alhambra, first built in 889, has a long record of falling into ruin and being rebuilt over the centuries. A majority of the work was commissioned by Ibn al-Ahmar, founder of the Nasrid dynasty, in the thirteenth century. A palace-citadel with official and residential chambers, a bath, and a mosque, its most renowned features are its courtyards with elegant arcades, fountains, and light-reflecting pools. Celebrated for its exceptional expression of Moorish and Andalusian culture, the Alhambra conveys the history of the religious and cultural changes to the region through its architecture. When Clifford photographed it, Victorian scholars and travelers had rediscovered it as a muse for art and literature.

Barthes describes Clifford’s photograph as “an old house, a shadowy porch, tiles, a crumbling Arab decoration, a man sitting against the wall, a deserted street, a Mediterranean tree” (Camera Lucida 38). Examining the photograph closer, one sees a gated cemetery with three white crosses in the background. The image literally represents death. Whether Barthes recognized this is unknown, but the image certainly evokes Orientalism in himself similarly to his experiences in Japan. He questions why the photograph induces desire: “warmth of the climate? Mediterranean myth? Apollinism?” (38). While nineteenth-century photographers like Clifford were drawn to remote locales because of their strong light and promise of shorter exposure times, the imperialist and Orientalist aspects of their portfolios cannot be lost to their audience. Working in a region that lacked indigenous photographers, Clifford, as a photographic colonist and ethnographer, made his living by documenting the Oriental wonders of Spain and presenting them to British and French audiences.

Of this image, Barthes writes, “it is quite simply there that I should like to live” (Camera Lucida 38). He continues, “Photographs of landscape (urban or country) must be habitable, not visitable” (38). The building captures his imagination and invokes a sense of adventure and passion, a feeling of “having been there or of going there” (40). Since Freud said that the maternal body is the only place one can claim to have been for certain, Barthes’s interest in the image indicates how he yearns for his recently deceased mother. The photograph symbolizes home, a gateway, a womb, a tomb, or the dark chamber of the camera obscura: an empty sign.

Reflecting on one of Auguste Salzmann’s photographs, taken near Jerusalem in 1854, Barthes again discovers the tangible aspects of the built environment (see fig. 6). The French Ministry of Public Instruction supported Salzmann’s trip to the Holy Land to confirm controversial dating of monuments by documenting architectural styles in the region (Berg 4). Although his journey was cut short by illness, he created 150 calotypes of historical monuments in Egypt and Jerusalem. Despite his pioneering accomplishments as an artist, by 1857, Salzmann preferred to be known as an archaeologist, rather than a photographer (Heilbrun 121).

Note Figure 6

Fig. 6. Salzmann, Auguste. Jérusalem, Chemin de Beit-Lehem. 1854. Photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Salzmann’s photograph of a road to Bethlehem is, according to Barthes, “nothing but stony ground, olive trees,” an empty sign ready for inhabitation (Camera Lucida 97). Given that the Second Empire was a period of increased French colonial expansion, Abigail Solomon-Godeau notes, “showing so much of the world to be empty was unconsciously assimilated to the justifications for an expanding empire” (159). Emmie Donadio notes that early photographers accompanied archaeologists to photograph objects too large to bring back to Europe. Salzmann’s photograph is not an objective record, but a claim to the area. A Western audience reads the glories of past civilizations, the drama of ruined architecture, and the spiritualism of biblical associations into the image and others in Salzmann’s portfolio.

Through the imperialist lens, observers can easily project themselves into the landscape. The photograph leads Barthes to question how photography influences the perception of time as it marks the present of the viewer looking at the image, the moment when the photograph was taken, and the historical past of the subject pictured. As Barthes explains, Salzmann’s photograph represents both 1854 and the era of Christ. The image is a “certificate of presence,” yet it looks backwards, a “prophecy in reverse” (Camera Lucida 87). It brings the past to the present.

While photographs speak to temporality, they ultimately refer to death. Photography’s threnodic nature runs throughout Camera Lucida. Barthes wrote the book as he mourned his mother, and as the final book published in his lifetime, it is his last word on photography. While examining the Winter Garden photograph, Barthes realizes his mother’s life is still to be lived:

In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder . . . over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe (Camera Lucida 96).

Photographs are “the return of the dead” and “flat Death” (9, 96). They represent the passing of time and signal the mortality of the viewer, which Barthes calls the “imperious sign of my own death” (97). At the time of the book’s publication, digital images were beginning to displace analog’s fundamental properties as tangible imprints of reality. Photography’s “demise” was predicted by its own success and the introduction of digital technologies that aided in the manipulation of images. Barthes states in Camera Lucida that photography “has already disappeared. I am . . . one of its last witnesses . . . and this book is its archaic trace” (94). Photography’s relationship to time and its capture of fleeting moments correlate to the desire to overcome death, be it photography’s, Barthes’s mother’s, Barthes’s, or our own.

The phenomenological effect of images captivates Barthes, especially images that evoke desire or mourning. Photographs of the Winter Garden, the Alhambra, and the road to Bethlehem become vehicles of meaning. They contain a despair and a corporeality that move Barthes to respond to them emotionally. In “The Eiffel Tower” and Empire of Signs, Barthes interprets urban space as a whole. In Camera Lucida, however, he specifies photographs of the built environment that provide structures of phenomenological meaning. Readers follow the evolution of his position towards architecture first through structuralism, then through poststructuralism, and finally to a phenomenological approach that integrates facets of his preceding perspectives.

IV. Signifying the Built Environment

Architecture is a testament to humanity’s creativity in adapting the world for its own use. As cultural texts, photographs construct and disseminate knowledge and appreciation of the world’s cultural heritage, spanning time from the earliest civilizations to the recent past. They raise awareness of architectural patrimony from the ancient to the modern, urban to remote, grand to vernacular. Photographs, as representations of architecture, enter into a circulation of mass reproduction and become the principal means by which most people encounter structures around the world. A global audience reads architecture through the text of photographs. Experiencing buildings through their photographic synecdoches allows for a plurality of meaning. Understanding architecture’s proportions, its forms and volumes, meanings and materials, elucidates the built environment.

Architectonic photography’s satori resides in the viewers’ agency to construct connotations, be it through the lens of structuralism, poststructuralism, or phenomenology. Barthes’s views of meaning develop in each phase, offering a new perspective of the urban environment. Signification, for Barthes, may be hierarchical, equally meaningless, or corporeal. Paris, Tokyo, Granada, and Jerusalem become the texts whose structure he investigates with the characteristic vigor he affords his analysis of literary texts. Through his writing, Barthes scrutinizes the ambiguity of signs and the problematic relationship of signs to the reality they represent. He is intrigued by the potency of the photographic image. He examines the ways in which photography collapses space and time, where significance accumulates through the emptiness of representation. He explores photography’s ontological nature and unique features: its replication of reality and its simultaneous expressions of past, present, and future. He writes:

Perhaps we have an invincible resistance to believing in the past, in History, except in the form of myth. The Photograph, for the first time, puts an end to this resistance: henceforth the past is as certain as the present, what we see on paper is as certain as what we touch (Camera Lucida 88).

Photographs, as indexical representations of the real, allow viewers to enter a history to which no written documents could give them access. For Barthes, history is political. If myth makes present conditions seem natural, the examination of history through its architecture reveals the social construction of signs. Photography acts as a means for history to be studied in contradiction to myth, and for us to understand ourselves better through structuralist, poststructuralist, and phenomenological approaches to less mythified images of the past. Within the signifying functions of architecture and the metonymic aspects of photography, Barthes finds the zero degree, the empty sign, and the neutral.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

—. “Eiffel Tower.” The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 3-17.

—. Empire of Signs. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

—. Incidents. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

—. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.

—. “Semiology and the Urban.” In Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, edited by Neil Leach, 163-72. New York: Routledge, 1997.

—. Writing Degree Zero. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. London: Jonathan Cape, 1967.

Barthes, Roland, Thomas Clerc, and Éric Marty. The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Berg, Keri A. “The Imperialist Lens: Du Camp, Salzmann and Early French Photography.” Early Popular Visual Culture 6.1 (2008): 1-18.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Clifford, Charles. [The Alhambra, Granada. The Wine Tower]. 1862. Photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Donadio, Emmie. “Seeing in Believing: Auguste Salzmann and the Photographic Representation of Jerusalem.” In Jerusalem: Idea and Reality, edited by Tamar Mayer and Suleiman A. Mourad, 140-54. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Heilbrun, Françoise. “Auguste Salzmann Photographe Malgré Lui.” In Félix de Saulcy et la Terre Sainte, 114-82. Paris: Ministère de la Culture Éditions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1982.

Knight, Diana. “Barthes and Orientalism.” New Literary History 24 (1993): 617-633.

Knight, Diana. Barthes and Utopia: Space, Travel, Writing. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Krauss, Rosalind E. and Denis Hollier. Translators’ Preface to The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France, 1977-1978., by Roland Barthes, Thomas Clerc, and Éric Marty, xiii-xvii. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Olin, Margaret. “Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’ ‘Mistaken’ Identity.” In Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, edited by Geoffrey Batchen, 75-90. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

Salzmann, Auguste. Jérusalem, Chemin de Beit-Lehem. 1854. Photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

Trifonas, Peter Pericles. Barthes and the Empire of Signs. Cambridge: Icon, 2001.

Margot Note works in the cultural heritage sector, including colleges, libraries, and archives. Her research interests include photographic history and image collections, as well as managing the delivery of digital information and improving access to primary sources. An international speaker and writer on art history and photography, she authored Managing Image Collections: A Practical Guide (Chandos/Neal-Schuman, 2011). She holds a Master’s in History from Sarah Lawrence College, a Master’s in Library and Information Science, and a Post-Master’s Certificate in Archives and Records Management, both from Drexel University.

Claire Raymond: Roland Barthes, Ana Mendieta, and the Orphaned Image


Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.

-Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

With thanks to the estate of Ana Mendieta for their kind permission to show the images in this essay.

The photograph, Roland Barthes reminds us, is invisible: all that we see in it depends upon an image that reminds us of a displaced plenitude (material, pastoral, maternal). Where is the Winter Garden Photograph? Look for the Winter Garden Photograph, in Camera Lucida, and one finds an elision that keeps it elsewhere, never seen (Camera Lucida 73). The unseen core of Barthes’ Camera Lucida is this photograph never shown. Around this not-shown garden Camera Lucida spins a compelling theory, analytical and ontological, of the photograph. In the Winter Garden Photograph, Barthes seeks his dead mother, and this configuration of a connection that cannot be severed and also cannot be fulfilled governs the book, Camera Lucida. The photograph’s connection to its referent, as Barthes argues, makes it a signifier of a singular kind, a signifier that is “never distinguished from its referent” even as it may convey, along with other information, a “message without a code” (Camera Lucida 76; Rhetoric of the Image 120) A photograph records a physical space or object at a point in time: that is its referent, from which it cannot be divorced (Camera Lucida 80). Yet the image’s lamination onto its referent both causes and elides that aspect of the photograph which Barthes calls “the melancholy of Photography,” this quality of bearing meaning that exceeds code, showing the very ground that is gone in the presence of the image (Camera Lucida 79). It remains ambiguous, in Camera Lucida, whether the Winter Garden Photograph consoles or only obsesses.

“Where is Ana Mendieta?” the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) protested outside the Guggenheim Museum in 1992, looking for her work and finding it absent from museum collections, with the work of Mendieta’s accused killer, Carl Andre, installed in the museum.1 Yet as Jane Blocker points out, Mendieta’s work already conceptualizes her absence (Blocker 10). Long before her premature death, Mendieta’s ephemeral projects already engaged a paradoxical performance of vanishing: performance art/earth work and the photographs documenting it. My purpose in this paper is to trace, in the arcs of two careers (Barthes’s and Mendieta’s), the conceptualization of the photograph’s invisibility, looking at how the inscribed trauma of what we do not see maps the bounds of theory: as in Barthes’s trajectory of thinking about images (from the third meaning to the neutral to the punctum) and in our understanding of Mendieta’s moving from a relatively unviewed performance artist to a well curated artist whose body of work now is largely known through photographs and films.

But what kind of artist was Ana Mendieta? The Guggenheim, which subsequently displayed Mendieta’s work, limns an ambiguity by stating of Mendieta’s art: “The photographs of Ana Mendieta document private sculptural performances enacted in the landscape to invoke and represent the spirit of renewal inspired by nature and the power of the feminine.”2 Here, Mendieta’s work is recognized as photographic but she, the artist, is read as engaging in “private sculptural performances enacted in the landscape,” rather than in producing photographs. It is as if the photographs were beyond her intent. And yet Mendieta kept her camera with her and took these photographs that propelled her to posthumous recognition, fame that in a literal sense can be said to have occurred in response to her photographs. My task in this paper is to show how Barthes’ multiple articulations of the signifying force of the photographic image open important paths for interpretation of Mendieta’s work. The hermeneutics by which Barthes approaches the photograph, the multiple paths of his interpretive approach that uncovers the “genius” of photography, allow us to see that Mendieta’s work is a radical photography, mapping the way that loss stands as the unseen-seen of the photograph (Camera Lucida 3). Pressing the photograph into the service of a generative mourning, both Barthes and Mendieta connect the photograph with the maternal: photographs not only stand for but also stand as orphanhood’s site and remedy in Barthes’ commentary on the Winter Garden photograph and in Mendieta’s Silueta Series. For Barthes as for Mendieta the photograph is a double turn that marks and relieves the unbearable state of orphanhood.

My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy, which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to specter, from specter to plant from plant to galaxy. My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid. Through them ascend the ancestral sap                                                                                  Ana Mendieta3

Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) is typically described as a performance and earthworks artist, a designation that rubs against the less noted fact that her work now is known primarily through photographs and films documenting her performances and earthworks. Since she frequently worked with a very small audience, or without audience, few people have seen a Mendieta performance. Mendieta often photographed and filmed her work, recording her performances and earthwork installations in remote locations in rural Mexico, rural Iowa, and, toward the end of her life, in Cuba.4 These photographic images catapulted Ana Mendieta, after her violent death in 1985, to the kind of reputation and fame that generates posthumous retrospectives at the Hirshhorn and the Southbank Centre. Posthumous representations are also presented at Galerie Lelong, and at the Alison Jacques Gallery, as well as in books and essays discussing Mendieta from the likes of Olga Viso, Jane Blocker, and Julia Bryan-Wilson et al. Her photographs are 35 mm slides and sometimes prints; Mendieta also created some eighty films of her performances. Mendieta’s best-known work is her Silueta Series, a series that began in 1973, but that she described as having no ending.5

The Siluetas are almost exclusively known to us through photographs, and in that sense they are known to us as photographs [figures 1, 2, 3, 4, 5].6Mendieta, however, conceived of this work as performance, body and earthworks, so critical appraisal of her work aptly has followed this designation. Critics such as Olga Viso, Jane Blocker, Julia Bryan-Wilson et al., Susan Best, and Kaira Cabanas create powerful and important commentaries on Mendieta’s work and describe the work in connection with 1970s practices of performance art, body and earthworks.7 And yet, as Blocker quietly states in midst of her book-length study Where Is Ana Mendieta, she has never seen Mendieta’s earthwork and body performances, never “witnessed a single performance” by Mendieta (Blocker 96). Few people have, cedes Blocker. Indeed, almost every critic who writes about Mendieta since 1985 writes in response to filmic and photographic representations of her performances: slides, prints and films. Yet in the commentary on her work, the fact of the photograph, or what one may call the photographicity of Mendieta’s work, is given short shrift.

In the reception history of Mendieta’s work the photograph disappears into the image; the photograph’s facticity becomes the unread, the unseen. Hence in foundational critical works on Mendieta the photograph disappears into discussions of Mendieta as an earthworks and body artist. This disappearance of the photograph is made all the more striking by the fact that, as Coco Fusco points out, in Better Yet When Dead, Mendieta’s reputation as an artist has soared since her death. In this paper, I read the Silueta images by drawing from Barthes’s work, in “The Third Meaning,” Camera Lucida, and The Neutral, leveraging his critical practice to locate Mendieta’s photographs in their suspension between paradigms, that is, between the genres of earthwork, body work, and documentary photography. Hers is a different kind of photography, one that documents invisibility and, uncannily, has often been invisible as photography. Mendieta’s act of photographing her work vanishes in interpretation of the very photographic images that constitute much of her posthumously celebrated oeuvre.

The power of the photographic images she produced, it may be argued, is central to any aesthetic analysis of Mendieta’s strength as an artist.8 The Silueta Series is a photographic exploration of different kinds of invisibility. And yet, if Mendieta’s photographs of her earth and body works have garnered greater critical attention and acclaim than did the live artist when she was producing earthworks and performances, Mendieta’s experience of invisibility preceded her photographing of the Siluetas. Born into a wealthy and politically powerful family in Cuba, she and her sister, as part of Operacion Pedro Pan, were shipped to the U.S. when Fidel Castro came into power. Mendieta and her sister, their parents decided, would be safer away from Cuba where their father ultimately was imprisoned for political reasons (Blocker52). From the age of 12, then, Mendieta was raised as a ward in what turned out to feel like enemy territory. Iowa, where she was called “the little whore” because of her dark skin, introduced Mendieta to American racism and misogyny (Blocker 53).  Here, Mendieta learned of the invisibility of the subject, learned how it is to be the subject who is erased by virtue of being seen only through the false lens of racism. Mendieta’s violent and untimely death extends this biographical thread of disappearance (Blocker 2).

Mendieta’s photographs carry this thread of invisibility in ways that I will map by drawing on tactics of analysis offered by Barthes in his later work Camera Lucida as well as his earlier work in “The Third Meaning” (collected in Image, Music, Text)and the more porous text of The Neutral. Not to elide the changes in Barthes’s thinking over time, I suggest that Barthes’s understanding of the photograph as an uncanny apparatus of signification develops from the early to late work: Barthes’s terminologies of punctum and studium, obtuse and obvious, myth and code, need not be read as entirely conflicting with each other but as developing resonances with each other especially in places of apparent or stated conflict. Points of attraction (though never identity) between Barthes’s theory of the third meaning and his later development of the concept of the neutral are of significance to interpretation of Mendieta’s photographs. Even as Barthes suggests that the “neutral” as “Adamic language” is not the same as the “third meaning” both concepts operate in an interstitial zone of signification (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes 132). This interstitial space of meaning that is not paradigmatic and therefore stands as a problematic Eden, if not “Adamic,” is also the domain of Mendieta’s photographs: images that resist their own visibility.

Barthes tells us, in Camera Lucida, that “whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see” (6; italics my own). Here is a claim that would seem to be exceptionally true in relation to the reception of Mendieta’s oeuvre: the things of which her oeuvre is predominantly composed— photographs, filmic representations—are often elided in critical appraisal of the Siluetas. Of the photograph that is the medium comprising the Siluetas, we may say “it is not it that we see” (Barthes, Camera Lucida 6). The Siluetas indeed only manifest as a series through these photographs, the juxtaposition of which imparts a serial aspect to the works. Seen individually, each Silueta performance would have been experienced by the audience as a singular performance, since Mendieta created the Siluetas over the course of years and in different countries. A chthonic (in earth) real for which Mendieta seemed to long: the earth, or rather the cavity of the body’s impression in earth, that Mendieta photographed and commented on as indices of the maternal real seemed to draw her longing in ways that emerge with the force of myth from the photographs. We read her photographs as if they were chthonic, in earth, when in fact they are photographs.

But if Mendieta’s written explanations of her work offer depictions of the earth as maternal and nourishing, her photographs of these very same earthworks depict anything but maternal plenitude. In the images’ presence as photographs, Mendieta’s art transcends the 1970s body-centered feminism from which it sprang. Indeed, if Blocker connects Mendieta with the goddess movement via the “goddess pose” that Mendieta’s Silueta figures assumed in the middle of the series, Blocker also moves to disconnect Mendieta from the goddess movement by showing that it was primarily a movement of white feminists, from whom Mendieta felt estranged (Blocker 19). Blocker asserts that Mendieta’s Siluetas stage disappearance in the guise of the goddess pose, as if the pull of vanishing set in motion by the Siluetas’ status as silhouettes erased the images’ feminine contours (Blocker 59- 61). Instead, one may well see that it is the images’ contours, as traces, that persist in Mendieta’s photographs; what persists is the goddess motif. In attempting to distinguish Mendieta from the now disparaged goddess movement in women’s art, Blocker almost essentializes Mendieta’s race, sealing Mendieta in an identity of racial other. But Mendieta used the goddess pose in the Silueta images,working in connection with the 1970s goddess movement, not because she felt left out of the goddess movement—a movement, reaching beyond the fine arts, by which second wave feminists sought a path to a society in which the female body could be celebrated—but because she wanted to express, at least iconographically, a profound connection to the goals of this avowedly feminist movement. Mendieta’s Siluetas as photographs, however, diverge from the celebratory impetus of the goddess movement. In the context of Mendieta’s spare and haunting Silueta photographs, the pose with upraised arms presents a posture of defense, self-protection, pleading, or mourning. The legible meaning of the goddess pose changes in Mendieta’s photographs, and not her race but her camera alters the connotations of the pose that she without question invoked.

Ana Mendieta 1

Figure 1. Untitled (Silueta Series), 1976, Earth/Body work Mexico, 35 mm color slide. Copyright The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, L.L.C Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Mendieta’s work is interpreted, correctly, as earthworks and body performances, insofar as her Silueta were performed and inscribed in earthy spaces—by the ocean, by the swamp, on sand, and on dirt. And yet while Mendieta did create some lasting earthwork sculptures, her work that remains is predominantly composed of photographs, slides, and films taken in the 1970s, and 1980s, images marked with the materiality of the photographic and filmic equipment of that time, but very thin in the materiality of earth. Mendieta’s photographs of her earthworks contain not one grain of sand, not one seed or flower petal, no mud, no animal blood, and, paradigmatically, no real geologic depth, only depth of field. The photographs are pictures of these earthy materials, but the images themselves only signify and do not contain these materials. Her photographs are not natural artifacts.9

Mendieta’s Silueta series, as it has survived Mendieta, raises questions about whether the artist’s intentions ought to override interpretation of the work. Mendieta considered herself an earthworks artist. But she kept her camera with her during many performances of Siluetas and recorded many earthworks with it. Indeed, as Susan Best indicates of the Siluetas “There are a number of uncertainties about the limits of this series… They include…the relationship of the films to the photographs…and whether the series should only include lifetime prints (photographs printed during her lifetime), be extended to include estate prints (prints made after her death), or whether it should encompass all the slides – while she made over 100 silhouettes, according to Mary Sabbatino, there are thousands of slides in Mendieta’s archive” (Best, “Serial Spaces of Ana Mendieta” 58). What is the photograph, in Mendieta’s oeuvre? What does Mendieta’s Silueta series, its reception history, and its persistence, tell us about the photographicity of the work? What does Mendieta’s work tell us about the photograph, as such? Barthes’s idea of the third meaning, his development of the concept of the neutral, along with his notice of the invisibility of the photograph as object, chart ways to unpack the enigmatic force of Mendieta’s photographic art. If the photograph, as Barthes argues, is “not it that we see,” what do we see in Mendieta’s oeuvre that so compels us to keep looking (Camera Lucida 6)?

Ana Mendieta 2

Figure 2. Untitled (Silueta Series), 1976, Earth/Body work Mexico, 35 mm color slide, Copyright The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, L.L.C Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Siluetas and the Third Meaning

For it is another nature that speaks to the camera than to the eye.

-Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography”

The photograph and its referent are laminated together, argues Barthes in Camera Lucida (4). But in earlier work, such as “The Third Meaning” and “The Rhetoric of the Image,” Barthes suggests that the photograph’s power inheres in its capacity to comment on its yoked subjectivity. With its banal capacity to reproduce what was there inheres also the capacity of a given photograph to prick us with powerful details that belie this banality. In Camera Lucida, Barthes most fully develops this nuanced understanding of the photograph through the concept of the punctum, prick, puncture, or the wound caused by the photograph, but the ground was laid for this understanding of the punctum already in Barthes’ earlier work on what he called the third meaning (Camera Lucida 51, 96).

The third meaning exceeds signification, participating instead in significance, a term that Barthes uses to describe a mode of communication that does not settle into a fixed meaning (“The Third Meaning” 54-55).10 The message without a code, as Barthes defines one of the photograph’s signifying modes, captures a force both enigmatic and iconic in Mendieta’s photographs, a self-placement in conceptual aporia. According to Barthes, a photograph can contain a “message without a code;” and Mendieta uses this capacity of the photograph when she produces the haunting photographic images that now stand as the Silueta series. This liminal momentum of the privative photographic act, as Mendieta practiced it, coheres with Barthes’s practice of cultural and aesthetic criticism, his practice of locating his writings between genres, his capacity to theorize the photograph’s liminality, contending with boundaries between presence and absence, sight and blindness, life and death. Camera Lucida, for example, could be read as an elegy. In Camera Lucida, Barthes shows that the photograph’s message of unfixed and unfixable meaning contains the proper elements of elegy: grief, melancholy, anguish, and a dispassionate capacity to translate grief into cognitive and aesthetic structures.

But before the elegiac aspect of the photograph came into focus for Barthes, he developed the concept of “the third meaning” in the filmic image. The “third meaning” for Barthes is what an image conveys that is not informational and not directly and clearly symbolic. Instead the third meaning is “evident, erratic, obstinate” (“The Third Meaning” 53). The third meaning, Barthes argues, works through “significance” as Julia Kristeva developed the term in Desire in Language (“The Third Meaning” 54). Signifiance, in this context, conveys meaning that is obtuse: because the third meaning, Barthes argues, extends “outside culture, knowledge, information” (“The Third Meaning54-55). It “opens to the infinity of language” and also is “on the side of the carnival” being “indifferent to moral and aesthetic categories” (“The Third Meaning” 55). Mendieta’s Silueta series photographs act like film stills of her performances and in this way partake of the third meaning—that is, the Silueta photographs move outside easily apprehended categories of “culture, knowledge, information” even as the Silueta photographs can be understood to echo or resonate somewhat enigmatically through these categories. And surely here is part of the explanation for their uncanny persistence: for the ongoing interest in Mendieta, evinced by Bryan-Wilson et al. and the retrospective at the Southbank Centre, is prodigious.

Why do we still care so much about the earthworks and performances of Ana Mendieta? We care because of her photographs. We are compelled by the Silueta photographs’ power of being sublimely “indifferent to moral and aesthetic categories” (“The Third Meaning” 55).11 As Barthes argues, the written text suffers from a dearth of the image, and the photograph suffers from a surplus of the image. What Barthes means when he writes, in “The Third Meaning,” that the photograph suffers from surplus of the image is that the photograph gives us too much detail (61). It silences us with its overabundance of visual information, precisely because, as Barthes argues in Camera Lucida, the photograph fills the frame by force, incapable of leaving out details. The photograph, as Walter Benjamin argues, operates by an optical unconscious; that is, it shows us visual details we routinely edit away in quotidian vision (Walter Benjamin A Short History of Photography).12

Mendieta’s spare Siluetas work by resisting the surplus of photography, encoding a connection to the tracing of shadows.13 As Barthes argues, the photograph functions as trace and plenitude, the signifier of presence and the signifier of the impossibility of sustained presence. Mendieta articulates and dramatizes this betwixt and between aspect of the photograph’s modality, its liminal function, with her Silueta photographs, that function as lacunae in the photographic mode. Mendieta’s practice is of a kind of skiagraphy. Mendieta shapes her Silueta series around a feint by which the signified—the body of the woman—is proleptically removed before the photograph is shot. Of course, this approach does not alter Barthes’s claim that the signifier and the signified are ineluctably tied in the photograph. Instead, Mendieta’s approach to the photograph speaks to Barthes’s conceptualization of the photograph’s uncanniness, its capacity to present aporia, to capture vanishing in the space of the image, and to show this vanishing precisely because the photograph fills the sight “by force” with details. Mendieta chooses the medium of over-signification and strips it.

Of Mendieta’s Silueta photographs one might say that the images are hauntingly elegiac, suggestive of a human presence that has been erased from the landscape but has left its trace. And yet for all their elegiac force, they are daylight photographs. Barthes’s Camera Lucida also performs the trajectory of elegy, moving into daylight after loss. The Winter Garden Photograph performs in Camera Lucida in somewhat analogous fashion to Mendieta’s Silueta series images: both the Winter Garden Photograph and the Silueta images are bucolically set, photographic markers of doubled absence—not simply the photograph as that which encodes the noeme “that has been” the Winter Garden Photograph and the Silueta images are doubly removed from presence (Camera Lucida 67, 76). The arc of Camera Lucida that moves from winter into light—after the Winter Garden, the spring-like light of the photograph is invoked, after the meditation on the eidos of death, the partial resurrection of the body is invoked through the photograph—traces the contour of the traditional elegy that moves from burial to rebirth (Camera Lucida 88, 73). And yet the book is not an elegy but a treatise on the properties of the photograph. Barthes states that his goal in writing Camera Lucida is to discern the genius, the unique governing spirit of photography (Camera Lucida 3). Camera Lucida yokes mournful images of a former slave, a man on death row, a child murdered in Nicaragua, together with Barthes’s never-shown photograph of his deeply mourned mother, the photograph as the genius that might retrieve the lost mother whose face is eerily supplanted and effaced by Nadar’s photograph (68). The disappeared woman, sui generis, haunts the book as Barthes meditates on his love for his gone mother. The disappeared woman also haunts Ana Mendieta’s photographs of her Siluetas, elegiac images that resist the contours of renewal promised by traditional elegy.

Ana Mendieta 3

Figure 3. Untitled (Silueta Series), 1976, Earth/Body work Mexico, 35 mm color slide, Copyright The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, L.L.C Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York.

I alone am limited like a savage. I alone, I differ from the others in that I respect the Nourishing Mother.


The Neutral

As we seek to understand the way that Mendieta’s photographs are missed as photographic objects meriting critical attention, Barthes’s theory of “the neutral” provides an essential frame of interpretation. In his work on the neutral, Barthes claims that signification’s meaning often “rests on conflict,” but that signification that does not work by either/or is the neutral. Here is the gap into which Mendieta’s photographs fall. It is not that Mendieta’s photographs are not seen: since Blocker wrote her important 1999 book, Mendieta’s fame has only increased, and Mendieta now is by no means an artist ignored by the establishment. Instead, what is unseen is the photographicity of her project. This gap can be understood through Barthes’s concept of the neutral. The idea of the neutral emerges from Barthes’s work in semiotics: it is the place where he contends rigorously with the boundary of the unsayable. Barthes, here, attends to Eastern apophatic traditions, albeit from the perspective of the West.

The apophatic, in the Eastern church, reflects the belief in the impossibility of speaking directly of the divine, and a consequent need for significatory modes that approach but do not encroach this boundary. Mendieta’s photographs of the Silueta series engage what Barthes calls the neutral, the semiotic domain of the past that resists the teeming paradigms of the living. As the signifier that defuses the urge to signify by either/or, the neutral can be understood as a kind of summation of Barthes’s work, pulling close the late and early Barthes, insofar as the conceptualization of the neutral reflects his understanding of signification as troubled by desire. Indeed, as the neutral is described as a “third term” yet differing from the third meaning Barthes aligns the neutral with negative theology, the apophatic tradition (The Neutral 55, 59). In the neutral, against the grain of either/or systems of signification, Barthes develops from Saussure’s theory of la langue the notion of a “reservoir” of meaning upon which we draw, and which we never entirely reach.15 For Barthes, the neutral is the reservoir.

This neutral terrain is what Mendieta seeks in her performances recorded in photographs that hide themselves as such. As noted, Mendieta describes her work as irrigation veins of the ancestral sap, a reservoir of meaning. Mendieta’s haunting Siluetas tap the partly elided and the partly emerged reservoir. The Siluetas act as reservoir in the way that Barthes theorizes the neutral: the images form a kind of subterranean space of signification from which we pull the idea of exile, orphanage, death, and the lost mother.

As Carol Mavor notes, Barthes places the photograph in the realm of the mother, that is, Barthes seeks, in the space of Camera Lucida, to find the essential meaning, power, and worth of the photograph by putting it to the test: can it console the inestimable loss of the source of life, the loss of the mother (Camera Lucida 75)? Since it is by no means a given that the photograph should be connected with the mother,16 it is notable that Mendieta and Barthes share this idiosyncratic sense of the photographic image’s mothering capacity. Mendieta states that her art connects her to the “ancestral sap,” this mothering element, while Barthes demands of the photograph that its worth be measured in its capacity to undo his state of orphanhood—to show him his mother as she truly was, hence consoling him of the unbearable. The photograph shows Barthes that after his mother’s death he can only await his “undialectical death” but also it gives him his mother in the Winter Garden Photograph that may typify the neutral for its Adamic force, originary and unrepeatable.

As a Freudian reading might suggest, the realm of the mother is not distinct from the quiescent field of the death drive (Bronfen). But this quiescence, the dissolve into nothingness, is resisted by the fact of Barthes’s writing Camera Lucida, just as Mendieta’s spectral and haunting Siluetas, not unambiguously performances of disappearance, were piquantly described by the artist as a way for her to mark the earth, as she described it, “like a dog pissing” (Best, Visualizing Feeling 100). Barthes and Mendieta use the photographic image as a signifier of maternal plenitude lost, as well as resistance to loss, and both view, or use, the photographic image as a signifier that exceeds this statement of loss, a signifier that veers from traditional elegy into the realm of the neutral. Reading Mendieta through Barthes returns us to the haunting power of a meaning that cannot be fixed, a meaning that structures ambivalence, a house for ambiguity.

Full Frontal Invisibility

I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female                            body. I believe this has been the direct result of my having been torn from                          my homeland (Cuba) during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the                             feeling of having been cast from the womb.

-Ana Mendieta, Unseen Mendieta

Mendieta’s Silueta series not only exemplifies Barthes’s description of the photograph as the unseen seen—that which we do not see when we look at it—but as I have suggested also connects with Barthes’s neutral. For Barthes states that to write the neutral is to substitute metaphor for concept. One may likewise see that Mendieta photographs the metaphor of exile—the feminine Silueta in the earth—in substitution for, or moving to the side of, the concept of political exile. Mendieta’s Silueta series photographed in Mexico, established by the outline of a feminine body, are eroded progressively by the ocean’s waves as she photographs the image [figures 1, 2, 3]. Of these Siluetas we know the images record the ocean’s edge, the littoral zone, during the daytime. As well, they record the outline of a human, feminine body. Viewing the images, however, we have no idea of the social setting; the Siluetas are not unequivocally connected to any specific religious or philosophical system. If there was an audience for the performance, that audience is not recorded in the photographs that are the series as we now have it.

Moreover, metaphorically the series resonates with and looks towards notions of vanishing while yet leaving a trace, of moving into water in a dream of immersion and dispersal of the self, of rebirth through the feminine momentum of fluidity, not unlike the Kristevan semiotike.17 This momentum, Mendieta may have dreamed, would carry her fragmentarily back to Cuba, and to a time before Americans started calling her the “little whore” (Blocker 53). But none of these possible symbolic meanings is legible unambiguously in the work. In light of Barthes’s neutral one may interpret the way the Siluetas work: by ambiguity, a refusal of fixed terms. For each Silueta is conceived as “a signifier without a signified” insofar as the photographs are traces of traces of the dispersal of the feminine body (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes 187). Without the knowledge of Mendieta’s exile, the Siluetas are evacuated of obvious personal and symbolic content. The images convey loss without requiem, erosion of boundary without precursor, a feint of omission without telling what is elided. The “ancestral sap” that Mendieta argued runs through her Silueta images of orphanage and exile is echoed in Barthes’s renunciation of his ties to the universal after his mother’s death (Blocker 34; Camera Lucida 72). This erosion of the universal self, that is, the self that ties to others, centers Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Mendieta’s Silueta series.

Mendieta’s photographs and films, of the Silueta series, show the process of erasing images, often by capturing an outline as it is eroded. The Siluetas set beside water explicitly thematize erosion. In writing about her work, Mendieta describes her connections to earth, her use of earthworks, as a way to connect to the sap running through all living things (see Blocker 34). And yet she also paradoxically claims that her state of permanent and metaphysical orphanage is not eased or appeased by her art’s connection with earth, only articulated emphatically by that act of shaping earth with a form like and unlike her form (Blocker 34). This paradoxical incapacity of working with earth to create home is illuminated, reflected, by the camera’s role in Mendieta’s work. To photograph form’s erasure does not erase the act of taking the photograph; photographing form’s erasure is the photographic act. Mendieta’s camera, taking photos, shooting films, accompanies most of the Siluetas of which we retain a record. And so the camera and the photographs it produces become the testimony of Mendieta’s orphanhood; the photograph as uncanny object testifies to the impossibility of gaining home, gaining ground, through the very earthwork performances that Ana Mendieta’s camera records. In the photograph inheres this impossibility of return; the photograph is the space that we can view but never enter. In light of Barthes’ writing on photography and its applicability to Mendieta’s photographs, I want next to analyze one instance of the critical reception of her work, to exemplify my analysis of the ambiguous effect of her photographs.

Between (White) Women

What sort of political speech is this that transgresses the very                                                boundaries of the political?

Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim

In 2004 Eleanor Heartney published an article titled “Rediscovering Ana Mendieta,” indicating that Mendieta’s reputation was in ascendance some twenty years after her death. Posthumous fame for a performance body works artist is enigmatic to be sure. And yet, as I’ve noted, Mendieta’s persistence as an artist would ultimately seem to reside in the power of the many photographic images that survived the artist’s truncated life.18 Even so, Mendieta’s Silueta series photographs have been conscripted to perform feminine other-ness in a way that possibly goes against her intentions.

To be fair, Mendieta wrote about herself this way, as a woman who wanted to connect through earthworks to the feminine aspects of the earth (Blocker 34). And yet Mendieta functioned as an artist within and not outside the technological paradigm of the late twentieth century, making brilliant use of photography. And if we always read Mendieta as preternaturally connected to the earth, creating photographic images of great power without even knowing she was doing it, are we not reflecting something like a replication of her earlier consignment to the role of racial-other, a consignment that Blocker and Viso have worked so hard to undo? A double-sided question that I raise, then, is what is the uncanny position of the photograph within post-structuralist discourse, and how might Mendieta’s situation exemplify this problematic fit? For the photograph, if we follow Barthes, represents a kind of wound; a punctum must hurt the viewer if the photograph is to have power, according to Barthes (he says he cannot show us the Winter Garden Photograph because, for us, there would be no “wound” from this image) (Camera Lucida 73). The photograph is a wound in the sense that, while textual, it is also always graphic, a marker of the body, and of the body’s place in time. As Barthes argues, in the photograph’s alliance to trauma inheres its power: its eidos is death (Camera Lucida 73).Does Mendieta, as a woman possibly killed by domestic violence, a woman viewed as non-white, Cuban, an exile, also represent a site of trauma, an indigestible meal for post-structuralist feminism?

Judith Butler chose images from Mendieta’s Siluetas for the cover of Antigone’s Claim, a striking choice given Mendieta’s intense, Antigone-like, devotion to the country that imprisoned her father. Antigone’s Claim is not about Cuba, but Butler’s book does contend with questions of feminist change and political agency, topics in conversation with Ana Mendieta’s work. However, in Antigone’s Claim, Butler neglects to discuss her book’s cover—Mendieta’s art—signifying Butler’s erasure of Mendieta’s complex position of exile. Despite, and indeed also because of, Butler’s unwillingness to discuss her book’s cover photographs, these images surely provide what Barthes would call the punctum of Butler’s book.19 Only a line in Butler’s book’s acknowledgements, a line thanking Anne Wagner for introducing Butler to Mendieta’s work, and the fine print on the back of Antigone’s Claim, allow us to learn that the cover images are photographs taken by Ana Mendieta. Mendieta is placed by Butler’s acknowledgement of Wagner as a third term, a non-white woman used as an object of exchange between two powerful white women. The focus on feminism, sexual politics, and post-structuralist theory of Butler’s Antigone’s Claim makes this erasing of Mendieta especially problematic.

Ana Mendieta 4

Figure 4. Untitled (Silueta Series), 1976, Earth/Body work Mexico, 35 mm color slide, Copyright The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, L.L.C Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Butler’s decision to show Mendieta’s art without discussing it may typify an erasure of the narrative of traumatic subjectivity, an erasure that may drift toward the erasure of historical trauma, in this case historical trauma inflicted on the body of the non-white woman. Implicitly trading on Mendieta’s outsider status, casting her as the alien other, a term of exchange between white women, Butler frames her study with cover images, Mendieta’s photographs, implying by her refusal to discuss Mendieta’s work that these images remain bound to nature, not compatible with critical theory.20

By contrast, Barthes’s theorization of the photograph as that which disappears into itself allows for an interpretation of Mendieta’s posthumous oeuvre as a photographic body of work—not the silenced alien other, but rather photographic images that should be interpreted as one interprets photography, in its inherent uncanniness. Mendieta’s medium, photography, functions as a gap or a wound, as Barthes argues the power of the photograph is to wound. The missed opportunity in Antigone’s Claim—where on her cover Butler has figures for Antigone, in the Mendieta photographs, and yet never discusses the photographs— is emblematic of deeper problems in Butler’s feminist theory. Even as Mendieta, whose Siluetas enigmatically figure late twentieth century problematics of citizenship and kinship, should have been discussed in Butler’s book, the decision to use Mendieta’s photographs without discussing Mendieta amounts to an erasure, placing Mendieta as a silenced conduit between two white women.21 This missed opportunity signifies the way the non-white woman is figured in Butler’s postmodern theory as a gap, a figure remaining resolutely feminine while the white woman is free to pursue resignifications of gender.

Universal Orphans

One of the strangest and most striking metaphors of Camera Lucida is Barthes’ comparison of the light that encompasses a photograph to an umbilical cord (Camera Lucida 81). Here, the photograph’s capacity to bind the viewing subject to lost maternal plenitude is given graphic template: light as umbilical cord.  Yoked by the umbilical cord of light, Mendieta’s earthworks and performance photographs are also orphaned, insofar as Mendieta’s identity as a photographer merges, in effect, with that of the unread. Just as her camera is the non-present (critically unread) apparatus in her Silueta earthworks and performances so also Mendieta’s acts of photography are suppressed in interpretation of her oeuvre. Mendieta as photographer and the photographic object merge in mutual elision. If one follows Barthes in reading the photograph as a semiotic orphan—by dint of that aspect of the photograph that cannot be coded—this ulterior affinity between Mendieta and the photograph can be seen to resonate in the status of orphanhood (Rhetoric of the Image 37).22 The state of being orphaned, exiled from Cuba, is not eased in Mendieta’s work but rather, because the camera is the arbiter of the scene, articulated in the work. In Camera Lucida, Barthes extends this concept of the photograph as a kind of semiotic orphan, chained to a referent but also unmoored from its referent, for the photograph cannot escape what Barthes calls its noeme: “The noeme of the photograph is simple, banal, ‘that has been’” (Camera Lucida 115). The noeme, or the essence, of the photograph is the way that it marks the passing of time. As Barthes memorably puts it, every photograph is a “catastrophe” (Camera Lucida 96), showing the fragility of the material world.

The photograph’s essence, then, is this capacity to show the “that-has-been”-ness of materiality. Mendieta’s camera is used to record the that-has-been-ness or, the thus-gone-ness, of an outline present as trace. In this double ambiguity, Mendieta engages the “genius” of photography: the camera is not circumstantial but integral to her art (Camera Lucida 3). For the camera that produces the photograph carries the noeme of thus-gone-ness. The noeme is tied to the mortal and also exiled from the mortal, unmoored from the haptic by which it also stakes its claim as photo- graph, writing in light, a shared “skin” of light that Barthes rightly argues merges the viewer with the image (Camera Lucida 81). As Barthes argues the photograph coheres with the realm of trauma, the real, what Lacan called the “tuché” (Camera Lucida 4). Mendieta’s Siluetas photographs’ power in adumbrating the traumatic real has fed into the invisibility of the images as photographs.

Ana Mendieta 5

Figure 5. Árbol de la Vida (Tree of Life), 1976, Earth/Body work Mexico, 35 mm color slide, Copyright The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, L.L.C Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York

Useless Expenditure

Invisibility and the maternal merge in the conceptualization of the photograph that draws together Barthes’s and Mendieta’s work. At its core, Barthes’s Camera Lucida enfolds the unseen image, the absent photograph whose presence in any case signifies absence: the Winter Garden Photograph. Even the way the photograph is described, Winter Garden, signifies sterility at the site of fecundity—the garden in winter. As Barthes states, this photograph for him is a “wound,” and he designates Camera Lucida as a text woven around a wound (73). The image that cannot be shown in an obvious sense comes to stand for the erasure of Barthes’s mother, Henriette. The Winter Garden Photograph, like all photographs, contains the “noeme” of identic presence and therefore absence, the that-has-been. As Barthes tells us, the photograph’s eidos is death, or vanishing: tracing the erosion of the body is the eidos of photographic technology, its genius. Like Barthes’s book about the never-shown Winter Garden Photograph, Mendieta’s Siluetas function to describe a lost maternal Eden: winter in Iowa juxtaposed with littoral zones in Mexico. Both Iowa and Mexico signify Mendieta’s lost Cuba by not showing it, instead allowing Cuba to be supplanted by the invisibility that is the photographic frame, the stilled film.

Mendieta, like Barthes, connects the photograph’s capacity to point to loss with actual orphanage—the removal of the child from the parent. For Mendieta this orphanage happens through exile, for Barthes it is effected by his mother’s death. At the center of both Camera Lucida and the Silueta series is the commonplace and the nodus of the orphan, the child from whom the mother, Henriette or Cuba, has been irrevocably taken. The return to the image to supplement this loss, for Barthes as for Mendieta, is a return to the wound. Not the image as plenitude, but rather the image as erosive, rough, jagged.

We can understand Mendieta’s Siluetas as pensive (that is, transcendent beyond fixed codes) and expensive (that is, like the third meaning, useless expenditure). Her Silueta images resist paradigm even as they play at the boundary of paradigm, outline. My suggestion in this paper has been to firstly point to the invisibility of the photograph in Mendieta’s oeuvre and then to argue that her photographs—and also the existence of her camera at the site of the performances—in some ways create the stage for their own critical erasure, because they carry a quality that Barthes ascribes to the “neutral,” that is the “neutral…[that] outplays the paradigm…baffles paradigm” (The Neutral 6). The photographicity of Mendieta’s Silueta series is paramount, and should not be dismissed in interpreting her work. And yet is also clear that part of the reason the work has not been interpreted as photographic is because of its truck with the neutral, an on-going bafflement of paradigm that typifies the Silueta photographs. The pensive quality of Mendieta’s work is both its power and its risk.

For Barthes, the third meaning “opens out into the infinity of language” it “belongs to the family of useless expenditure,” a description that evocatively opens up ways of interpreting Mendieta’s work in the Silueta series, a series that Mendieta claimed had no ending(Barthes, “The Third Meaning” 55; Viso, Ana Mendeita, Earth Body, 22). But how does Barthes’s approach to photography change from his early to his late work? In this essay, I have suggested that the view of the still photograph as an enigmatic and singular transmitter or translator of meaning resonates from early to late Barthes. Such a reading is in line with Michael Fried’s argument that Barthes’s concept of the obtuse and of the punctum are similar (“Barthes’s Punctum,” 144-145). And yet it is also true that Camera Lucida presents a deeply elegiac view of the photograph that pressures the third meaning. For if the third meaning inheres in an image’s unresolved gnomic force, it is also a force of plenitude—through enigma/undecidability the third meaning produces plenitude. By contrast, however, one notes that Camera Lucida comes close to solving the photographic image’s enigma. The solution to the puzzle is the opposite of plenitude, for the meaning of the photograph in Camera Lucida is death: death is the eidos of the photograph, the boundary that frames and gives constancy to the photograph’s tarrying with flesh and light. In this sense, Camera Lucida presents a frame of reading close to the spirit of Mendieta’s auto-elegiac Silueta series photographs. For her images enforce a pervading sense of loss and of absolute limit.

The creation of earthworks that will be destroyed by natural processes and indeed that Mendieta often recorded in the process of their destruction may be interpreted as “useless expenditure,” created to vanish (“The Third Meaning 55). Creating that which is intended to be erased is the essence of Mendieta’s Silueta series. And yet the camera’s presence at these performances articulates their claims to permanence, even as the infinity of the images resides in their liminal state, “outplaying meaning” (“The Third Meaning” 53). Barthes’s practice of reading signs as part of the signifying field regardless of medium is itself a kind of “luxury, an expenditure without exchange,” insofar as it implies endless text (“The Third Meaning” 55). Barthes argues that “writing can tell the truth on language, but not the truth on the real,” and to read a photograph that is not a photograph—that is only a document of a “real” work, an earthwork—one must apply this Barthesian understanding of the “real” that both eludes symbol and pulls symbol towards it (“Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers” 391). The real of which one might tell the truth poignantly exists for Barthes as erasure: as the photograph of Henriette in the Winter Garden, that which cannot be shown (Camera Lucida 73). Mendieta operates on a very similar notion of the dispossessed text of the pastoral and maternal real. Barthes’s orphanhood, in writing Camera Lucida, uncannily matches Mendieta’s visual assessment of orphanhood as the photographic truth whose contours one seeks to limn by a practice of useless and even extravagant expenditure, these spent images  that are photographs never read as photographs (“The Third Meaning” 53). The very resisting of paradigm that perhaps pushes her Silueta photographs into the space of the unseen-seen also makes the images cohere with that quality of the “Adamic” that Barthes ascribes to the neutral, a capacity to resist marking even as the images are original marks (Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes 132).

Erosion: The Subject of the Wound

The effect of what Barthes calls the punctum, that Barthes likens to an arrow that pierces the viewer, could be interpreted as trauma caused by looking. Trauma is contested territory for post-structuralist theory insofar as trauma theory complicates post-structuralism’s shattering of the subject by using the term shattering to stealthily bring back into critical discourse the possibility of the (damaged) subject, the (harmed) self. And yet, Barthes’s Camera Lucida hauntingly traces ways that the subject’s trauma, if only the vulnerability of temporality, is found out by photographic images. That is, Barthes’s strangely evocative claim, in Camera Lucida, that he writes about images because he has reached the end of language can be interpreted as a claim about the impossibility of inoculating the speaking/writing self against temporality, that is, trauma. In similar fashion, Mendieta’s Silueta series may serve as abject trace of traumatic subjectivity even as she strips away self from the Silueta images she creates. It is Barthes, who proclaimed the death of the author, who gives us the tools to read Mendieta, because Barthes theorizes the visual as the resistant domain of vulnerable subjectivity in the space of modernity and post-modernity. As noted, Barthes draws from Kristevan theory of the semiotike when he deploys the term “signifiance.” When I use the term “abject” in relation to Barthes’s or Mendieta’s work, I refer, then, to the term as Kristeva develops it in l’Abjecte, translated as The Powers of Horror (1-5).23 The Winter Garden, like Mendieta’s Silueta, locates both the mother and the orphan in a kind of damaged bucolic space, an abject space vulnerable to the erosive force of time.

Mendieta challenges post-structuralist assumptions of the vacuity of trauma. If the Siluetas are expressive of some mode of loss, their connection to exile is no more patent and apparent than, say, the Winter Garden Photograph’s connection to a mourning son. If Barthes mourns for the lost mother, he can only access her through an image of that which she no longer was at the instant of his birth, a girl unattached. The Winter Garden Photograph indexes not only death, as Barthes describes its eidos, but also a boundary of virginity, the loss of girlish identity and its elusive connection to maternity. Similarly, Mendieta seems to produce the naturalized effect of the non-white woman preternaturally connected to earth, but in fact her work profoundly subverts these very assumptions.

The Siluetas in Mexico and Iowa index not simply Ana Mendieta’s specific exile from Cuba, but rather, as Mendieta argued, the condition of exile as an encompassing human condition: “There is no original past to redeem; there is the void, the orphanhood” (Blocker 34; italics my own). The genre of the exile, like the genre of the mourning son, is located and also surpassed, transcended, by Mendieta and Barthes insofar as Barthes gives us ways to read Mendieta’s work even as Mendieta’s Siluetas exemplify just how haunted a landscape a garden from which the beloved—whether the mother or the self—has vanished can be. This wound, the photograph, destabilizes post-structuralist claims to the illusion of subjectivity not by returning us to a unified subject but, in photographs such as Ana Mendieta’s Siluetas, by showing how violence and mortality haunt the arrogance of subjectivity, even (or especially?) subjectivity eschewed. A Barthesian notion of textuality is necessary to read this wound. The disfigurement implicit in the photograph is both “not it that we see” and also that which we, sometimes, cannot bear to see. Its premise is disfiguration, disfiguration as erasure, the present absence that Mendieta shows in her Silueta photographs. Barthes, in what may be a lover’s discourse on the photograph, shows how to read the erotics of erosion, an approach that is needed for interpreting Ana Mendieta’s Silueta photographs. Mendieta’s Silueta series is, just as she once claimed, a series that has no ending, insofar as the images of which it is composed are texts that “suspend” their own meaning (Barthes, The Neutral 12).


1) The circumstances of Mendieta’s death are discussed in Jane Blocker’s monograph Where is Ana Mendieta. This description of the WAC protest is also drawn from Blocker’s book. See, Blocker, Where is Ana Mendieta, 2.

2) The Guggenheim Museum Arts Curriculum. Accessed February 24th, 2014.

3) Mendieta, Ana.  “Ana Mendieta: A Selection of Statements and Notes” (1988), quoted in Blocker, Where is Ana Mendieta, 34.

4) Only when the images are of her actual body rather than an outline, might it be that someone other than Mendieta may have operated the recording camera in the Siluetas. We know that “Mendieta began her career using a 35mm camera for still photographs.  The resulting 35mm slides projected on a large-scale, though not printed in a sufficiently large format.  In 1980 she purchased a 2 ¼ inch medium format Mamiya camera to enable her to print photos on a larger scale. Mendieta photographed her Silueta works herself, unless she was necessitated to do otherwise in the event that her own body was in the image” Joanna Harrison of Alison Jacques Gallery, personal communication, February 2014.

5) It is generally agreed that the Silueta series ends in 1980; even so there is no definitive close to this series. Perhaps we should take Mendieta’s claim seriously; there is no real end to the series other than that imposed by Mendieta’s death. See, Ana Mendieta, Earth Body, 22.

6) Choosing five images to represent the massive Silueta Series created by Mendieta may seem arbitrary. I do not mean to limit the scope of my discussion of Mendieta’s Silueta photographs to these images. However, they do provide striking examples of the photographic power of the works, and in that sense may stand as exemplary of my claims in this essay.

7) While in this paper I point out a gap or aporia in Mendieta studies, I hope it is also clear from my comments that Olga Viso and Jane Blocker have written brilliant, essential, and necessary work on Mendieta, and that no study of Mendieta could go forward without taking into account their works. It is important to note here as well that the Galerie Lelong has recently begun emphasizing Mendieta’s films (“Ana Mendieta: Selected Works”). Nevertheless, it remains the case that Mendieta’s most written-about and well-known works are photographs, slides, prints, films and film stills of the Siluetas, and yet the full implications of the photographicity of these works goes unvoiced in prominent discussions of the work.

8) In this paper, to follow my concern with the photographicity of Mendieta’s work, I am writing only on the Silueta Series. While some images that may arguably be part of the Silueta were accomplished on natural materials, for example the beautiful late Silueta on a leaf, my argument in this paper is rather simply that most of the Silueta Series are kept as photographs and films. For a discussion of the leaf Silueta, see Blocker 131-135.

9) John Berger argues that a photograph is “both…man-made cultural” and also “a trace naturally left by something that has passed,” yet even so this astute argument, emphasizing what Berger evocatively calls photography’s essential materials, light and time, does not capture the chemical and mechanical apparatus necessary to create and preserve the photograph. See, Understanding a Photograph, 59.

10) On connections between the obtuse and punctum see Michael Fried, “Barthe’s Punctum” in Batchen, ed.,Photography Degree Zero144-145.

11) While Mendieta’s art is surely not indifferent to ethics, it does forge new spaces linking ethics and aesthetics and in this way can be interpreted as “indifferent” as Barthes deploys the term, indifferent by dint of defusing the status quo.

12) Susan Buck Morss, in The Dialectics of Seeing (1989), limns connections between Barthes’ theorization of the photograph and Walter Benjamin’s much earlier work on theory of photography. Kathrin Yacavone, in Benjamin, Barthes, and the Singularity of Photography (2012), follows this thread.

13) At the end of her life, Mendieta was engaged in a project of photo-etchings (her Rupestrian Sculptures series.)

14) As quoted in Barthes, The Neutral, 6.

15) For an exploration of Saussure, please see Paul Thibault, Re-reading Sausurre: the Dynamics of Signs in Social Life. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

16) Carol Mavor makes an interesting argument connecting photography’s capacity to reproduce the image with woman’s capacity to reproduce the human being. “Black and Blue: The Shadows of Camera Lucida”  in Batchen, ed., Photography Degree Zero, 214. See also, on Clementina Hawarden’s photography, Mavor, Becoming.

17) As I’ve noted, Barthes develops his theory of signifiance drawing from Julia Kristeva’s work with the term.

18) For example, the title of Viso’s important book Ana Mendieta: Earth Body signifies unmistakably that when we look at the images contained in Viso’s meticulously researched book we should interpret them as earthy and bodily, tied to the earth and almost mystically to Ana Mendieta’s long since vanished body.

19) The concept of third meaning, punctum, and the neutral may be connected in Barthes’s writing through their apparent connection to the function of signifiance—signifiance that Barthes explicitly connects to the third meaning earlier in his writing, as Kristeva develops the term in Revolution in Poetic Language. I mean here that Mendieta’s photographs provide the punctum of Butler’s book in the specific sense that, as Barthes stipulates that the punctum must not be planned or planted by the photographer, Butler surely did not intend for Mendieta’s images to give the lie to the classist and even racist risks of post-structuralist feminism.

20) As Sherry Ortner pointed out long ago, the term nature is dense with ideology. See, “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” in Women, Culture, and Society. Stanford University Press, 1974: 67-87.

21) Of the Silueta image used on the cover of Butler’s book one may say that it crystallizes Mendieta’s themes of dispossession and longing with regards to her home country. Here, in this Silueta, Mexico is proxy for Cuba, the home where Mendieta could not re-enter for political reasons and to which Mendieta remained resolutely tied, stating “Pain of Cuba, body I am.” See Kaira Cabañas,“Ana Mendieta: Pain of Cuba, Body I Am,” Woman’s Art Journal 20.1 (1990): 12-17.). Mendieta’s faithfulness not to a government but to land and earth chimes with the mythological Antigone’s faithfulness to a higher law—not human law, as Hegel points out (see The Phenomenology of Spirit)— and even Antigone’s terrible fate of live burial is evoked in Mendieta’s photographs of her earthworks. Mendieta’s Silueta series, then, offers the ideal image for Butler’s book cover.

22) The given of the entire book, Camera Lucida, is Barthes’ orphaned status, his grappling with his mother’s death. Barthes father had been killed in battle when Barthes was an infant.

23) Please also see Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language.

Works Cited

“Ana Mendieta: Selected Works.” Galerie Lelong. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. <http://www>.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. Print.

—. “The Death of the Author.” in Image, Music, Text. 142-148. Print.

—. Image, Music, Text. Trans Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. Print.

—. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.

—. The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège De France, 1977-1978. Trans. Rosalind Kraus and Dennis Hollier. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. Print.

—. “Rhetoric of the Image.” in Image, Music, Text. 32-51. Print.

—. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. Print.

—. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974. Print.

—. “Teachers, Writers, Intellectuals.” A Barthes Reader. Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. Print.

—. “The Third Meaning.” in Image, Music, Text. 52-68. Print.

Batchen, Geoffrey. Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999. Print.

—. Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. A Short History of Photography. Trans. Stanley Mitchell. Print.

Berger, John. Understanding a Photograph. Ed. Geoff Dyer. New York: Aperture, 2013. Print.

Best, Susan. “The Serial Spaces of Ana Mendieta.” Art History. Volume 30, Issue 1. Pages 57-82, February 2007. Print.

—. Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-garde. New York: Palgrave, 2011. Print.

Blocker, Jane. Where Is Ana Mendieta?: Identity, Performativity, and Exile. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. Print.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. “Death Drive (Freud).” Elizabeth Wright (ed) Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary. Blackwell. 1992. 52-57. Print.

Bryan-Wilson, Julia, Adrian Heathfield, Ana Mendieta, and Ralph Rugoff. Ana Mendieta, Traces. New York: Hayward, 2014. Print.

Butler, Judith. Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death. New York: Columbia UP, 2000. Print.

Cabanas, Kaira. “Ana Mendieta: ‘Pain of Cuba, Body I Am’.” Woman’s Art Journal 20.1 (1999): 12-17. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House, 1977. Print.

Fried, Michael. “Barthes’s Punctum.” Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Ed. Geoffrey Batchen. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011. 141-171. Print.

Fusco, Coco. “Better Yet When Dead.” Museum of Modern Art. Web. 10 Feb. 2014. <>.

Harrison, Joanna. Message to author. February 27th, 2014. E-mail.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. New York: Columbia UP, 1980. Print.

—. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print.

—. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. Print.

Mavor, Carol. Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess Hawarden. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1999. Print.

—. “Black and Blue: The Shadows of Camera Lucida.” Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Ed. Geoffrey Batchen. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011. 211-243. Print.

Viso, Olga M. Ana Mendieta: Earth Body: Sculpture and Performance, 1972-1985. Washington, D.C.: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, 2004. Print.

Unseen Mendieta: The Unpublished Works of Ana Mendieta. Munich: Prestel, 2008. Print.

Claire Millikin Raymond holds a doctorate in English literature from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where she was awarded the Carolyn G. Heilbrun and Adrienne Auslander Munich dissertation prizes. She is the author of three books of scholarship including Francesca Woodman and the Kantian Sublime (Ashgate, 2010), and Witnessing Sadism in Texts of the American South: Women, Specularity, and the Poetics of Subjectivity (Ashgate, 2014), as well as the author of three books of poetry, and a chapbook of poetry, The Gleaners (Tiger’s Eye Press, 2013), Museum of Snow (2013), Motels Where We Lived (Unicorn Press, 2014), and After Houses: Poetry for the Homeless (2Leaf Press, 2014).She teaches for the program in Art History and the department of Sociology at the University of Virginia.

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).

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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

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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.