Thursday, March 22, 2012

Seeing, memory and longing or 'a morning with Roland Barthes'

Image by Deborah Turbeville

When all else fails, there's Roland Barthes' lovely Camera Lucida. I really needed this book today- just like I always need Benjamin and Bachelard near at hand, to catch me up in expansive idea-worlds. The inexplicable relief of reading, the instantaneous whisking into other lives, the forgetting and remembering. And here, Barthes writes beautiful prose, elegant, thrumming with careful imagery. He lightly uses words I've never before encountered: fulguration (to flash or dart like lightning); advenience (coming from outward causes); hebetude (dullness). I like that, the deft use of obscure words, even when he's clearly showing off (come on, dude, recantation and palinode mean the same thing!) 
Here are some fragments, anyway, perhaps frustratingly anonymous out of their context, and yet... some particular cadence in and of themselves, too:

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

'I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing, but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality: what I am, apart from my effigy. What I want, in short, is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs, altering with situation and age, should always coincide with my (profound) "self"; but it is the contrary that must be said: "myself" never coincides with my image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn [...] and "myself" which is light, divided, dispersed.'

'the emphatic truth of gesture in the great circumstances of life'- Baudelaire.

'odd contradiction: a floating flash'

'History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it- and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it [...] That is what the time when my mother was alive before me is - History [...] No anamnesis could ever make me glimpse this time starting from myself [...] whereas, contemplating a photograph in which she is hugging me, a child against her, I can waken in myself the rumpled softness of her crêpe de Chine and the perfume of her rice powder.'


  1. Ah, Barthes! It's been ages since I touched that classic.

    Hm, when I think about the application of Barthes to style blogs—I admit I need to read more of your blog for context, though—I definitely get the sense "I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing". If I have my interpretation correct, I'd agree that person is not the image, though, because it's merely how the "molecules" appeared at that moment, on that day. We change. Our style changes. It's just a moment in time. But was first part of that quotation that really interested me the most.

    I (maybe obviously?) jumped to the often self-conscious gazes of fashionistas I follow on Instagram fall heavily into that category. I follow one such lady who takes several daily shots of herself playing with her hats, hair, etc. I don't know where I'm going with this but it is interesting how we put ourselves out there so vulnerably in the interests of art, fashion, or approval. It also reminds me somewhat of the 'male gaze' and this famous portrait by Mary Cassatt".

    That last quotation was lovely too. We can create 'believable' false memories from a photo based on previous memories or experiences and so, too, can we with people and things we want.

    Again, I'm entirely speculating on the application to your studies. Feel free to tell me I'm missing the point!

  2. You're not missing the point at all! I opened it up to speculation by being vague to begin with (!) but your thoughts are where my head is at too. At the moment I'm wrestling with what kind of a 'self' a digital selfhood is. A representation of a prior offline self? A self that comes into being at the moment of writing into view? A representation of a self that can only find this particular articulation on a blog? Maybe a mix of these, maybe something else entirely. But the Barthes quote draws into focus the labour behind the image, the thought that underpins what seems so straightforwardly representative. Like when he writes that when we look at a photograph we do not see the photo itself- we are looking at the person, not seeing the means by which they are visible to us or perhaps considering that the image is not them (just as, as you say, they are not the image.) It's fascinating to think about.

    I had never seen that Cassatt painting before, how wonderful! The idea of knowing you're being looked at and subverting that- especially with the gendered undercurrent of who is looked at and who does the looking- is so interesting. Definitely something to grapple with... What do you think?

  3. Oh dear... the air... too rarefied...

  4. Not at all, Anon. Roll up your sleeves and get into it!