‘Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography‘ is unlike any other book written by Roland Barthes. It is neither philosophy not is it literature. It occupies a space between the two – literary philosophy. Like poetry, a slow reading of ‘his little book’, as Barthes liked to call it, is essential.

This post is the first in a series of short readings of Camera Lucida. My aim is to travel slowly through the book to see what thoughts are sparked off, for that is the promise intimated by Barthes literary style. The style of the book is perfect for dwelling in any found interludes.

We start at the very beginning. Barthes’ project is to discover “what Photography is ‘in itself’“. He says:

“I wasn’t sure that Photography existed, that it had a ‘genius’ of its own. … From the first step”, that of classifications … Photography evades us. The various distributions we impose upon it are in fact empirical (Professionals/Amateurs), or rhetorical (Landscapes / Objects / Portraits / Nudes), or else aesthetic (Realism / Pictorialism), in any case external to the object, without relation to its essence.”

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida – Page 4 – my italics

So my first interlude. Barthes is interested in the ontological nature of photographs. Classifications are external to an object, he insists. Objects have essences and things ‘in themselves’ can be known about, or so it seems for Barthes.

A very big topic. I wonder how he will proceed? One might expect Barthes to be true to his ‘structuralist’ roots by arguing that a photograph’s structural relations explains how a photograph can give rise to meaning – his brand of pictorial semiotics for which he is well known. Or he might remind us of his well-worn mantra: that ‘a photograph is a message without a code’ 1 and thereby strike at the ontological heart of the Photograph by denying a role for any intermediary between object, subject and viewer. We shall see how he proceeds later in this series.

But I want to delay my journey right at the outset because I immediately get stuck understanding the distinction he makes (with many others) between immanent and transcendent things. 2 Barthes’ position (rejecting distributions that are external to the object) implies that an understanding of the Photograph requires classifications that are internal to the object – a form of immanence. Is such a thing even possible?

The question on my mind: ‘Do we need to be committed to making sense of the world through either transcendent things or immanent things?’ Or, with Hegel, should we be impatient with such questions?

Well it depends on what we mean by ‘making sense’! It strikes me that in the realm of aesthetics, for that is the realm that Camera Lucida inhabits, making sense of things is a different thing to making sense in other realms of experience such as rational discourse.

In aesthetic experience distinctions between transcendent and immanent, exterior and interior, object and subject may be misplaced. At least that is my contention. Such distinctions point to spatial categories by which we navigate the world through a process of conceptualisation. But aesthetic experience does not necessarily hinge on the spatial. The way we share things temporally, as Bersgon was at pains to point out, are constitutive of an aesthetic encounter. Indeed any encounter as all encounters, by my lights, are initially aesthetic.

Barthes recognises this, pointing to the ‘essence’ of things and his rejection of distributions. Distributions are the product of inferential thought and in order for inferential thought to have the capacity to discriminate, some separation of the knower from the known, some conceptual shapings through classification, some otherness are required. Otherwise how would there be a figure and ground for such discriminations? Some friction between object and subject is a precondition for ‘knowing’ in the sense that Barthes means.

But in the realm of aesthetics might not things be different? When I look at something deeply I don’t feel a separation suggested by such distinctions.

I am sitting on a bench and looking at a statue. At first I am not aware of the statue as a separate thing. I feel the statue. The seeing and feeling are inchoate, as seeing-feeling if you will. I may be thinking, it’s hard to know, but not in a self-reflective way. Language has not yet created a schism between the statue and me, between object and subject.

Berlin, Tuaillon’s Amazon. Ilford XP2 Super; Printed by Andrew Sanderson from a paper negative

A certain mood appertains (much as discussed by Heidegger) which directs my feelings. I am enveloped by a stillness and quietness.

Here is an important point: the statue is not inert. It has shaped my feelings. It is not the case that I see the statue and then I think ‘I am feeling such and such because …’ The relation between me and the statue is real – not just a thought. It is a level between perception and thought and is determinate in its own right. It helps to secure any reflective thought I may have, if I do.

‘But’, you may say, ‘the statue is bound to shape your feelings. This is what Tuaillon intended. The statue is quite still, (of course – it is a statue) but in a particularly still way. The horse and rider are stationary. The rider’s legs are relaxed, ungripping, for there is no need of grip. The horse stands balanced between all four legs. And thereby so are you, balanced and still!’

No, this is not what I mean at all!

It is not as if my awareness is a thought ‘outside’ of the statue or above it is some sense. I am just reflecting the statue as a felt relationship, as William James reminds us. In my experience the statue is not an inert substance and I a cognitive mind. It’s not like that. We interpenetrate, entangled within our mood. Perhaps we are both cognitive in a temporal sense.

It is a knowing that is more basic than reasoning or language-based symbols. Perhaps I should not call it ‘knowing’ as this word carries a lot of baggage. ‘Intuition’ may be better. I actually live the statue. It is not ‘represented’ in my mind. I directly ‘intuit’ the statue through seeing-feeling. Separation and objectification from it only comes when I start to employ language in a process of inference and classification, a process of friction and grip, a process of abstraction.

Barthes says that ‘Photography evades us’ – because of the distributions we impose on it. But is this right? We visually navigate the world through seeings-feelings. Each encounter is entered through a process of seeing-feeling (or tasting-feeling, hearing-feeling etc). We exit each encounter with thinking and possibly, from time to time, self-reflection. Photographs can take us back to that initial seeing-feeling that the photographer felt when he pressed the camera shutter. It does not evade us. Far from it, we live it again. Literally. That’s what makes photography special.

Perhaps this is Barthes’ point, it’s not yet clear at this stage of my reading. But a search for ‘essence’ is likely to take him up a cul-de-sac, for to posit an essence is to create the very difference he seems to be trying to expunge. An essence is just another ‘otherness’.

So let’s see in a continuing post whether Barthes clarifies his position …

  1. See his ‘Rhetoric of the Image’
  2. On the immanent side of the divide I count Spinoza and Deleuze. On the transcendental side, Descartes and Kant.
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