Part (1) <—
In The Bright Chamber, Roland Barthes defined photography by the having-been-there of the referent. Strangely anachronistic at the time of its publication, when manipulating photographic images was already an established practice (and a work like Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void had demonstrated how the photo’s [time]frame creates a relation between the shown and the not-shown capable of inducing a powerful, almost irresistible fiction), this insistence on a referent-real must appear hopelessly outdated in our digital age. In another sense, though, Barthes’ concept seems to have waited for the twenty-first century to be fully validated.
Except for the true photo of his mother, which structures the entire book—searching for it, after she has died and left her son in despair, sets the theoretical investigation in motion, and finding it leads him to the definition—the author discusses examples of artistic photography. He does so, however, mainly for explaining the difference between studium and punctum, the competently organized, meaningful depiction of the photo’s subject and the irritating detail, which continues to fascinate. With the stress on their punctum, Barthes chooses to view the images by famous artists as though they were amateur snapshots encountered while browsing some album passed around during a party whose host is a loose acquaintance or the friend of a friend: pictures that have somehow escaped privacy, yet are not being presented to a public; pictures alienated, in a positive way, from the circle of family life, looking unfamiliar, yet without turning the viewer into a spectator, a deputy of humankind, the anybody-me of aesthetic experience and reflection.
Barthes’ approach to photography does not focus on the single image. However copious, the attention every image receives acknowledges neither the work (the unique creation of an artist-I, which virtually assembles an infinite number of beholders around its absence-presence) nor the product of an industrial media technology (the visual commodity, which exists to be distributed and convey the message of its own reproducibility to a huge number of people). The photo, as Barthes sees it, has been, is, and will continue to be, an element of living together. It has a relational and, in respect to time, an inter-generational reality.
Death matters, obviously. But where occidental art affords encounters with death as an existential dissolution at once singular and universal, photography for Barthes is concerned with the death of someone—someone I did or did not know. Whether a character be invented or resemble (even represent) a known person, the aesthetic reality of an artwork suspends the personal; and since aesthetics distinguishes art from other things by virtue of an exceptional mode of perception, not rules of production, it is always possible to appreciate a photo in this fashion (twentieth century aesthetics welcomed amateur photography, on condition that it had not intended to be art and its artistic value remained close to that of an objet trouvé). Barthes’ gaze, in contrast, moves within the sphere of personal relations. What he calls the referent, far from arresting the signification process, has an effect of liberating the personal, loosening its social ties without erasing them. The photographic referent is the person-that-just-reflected-light, the personal as some surface.
Photography enables me to transfer the attentive affection, which bourgeois family values are telling me to reserve for a few loved ones, upon a longer series of beings. Of humans in the book’s examples, but no physical law or aesthetic principle limits this transfer to the human species. The referent may be anything a camera can catch.
More than the family, but less than society. In his lecture on How To Live Together, in 1976/77, Barthes explicitly asks for a reality whose emotional and organizational dynamics are being ignored by both the psychological or psychoanalytical focus on the nested individual and the sociological focus on an all-encompassing generality of laws, rules, morals and customs. By together, he understands connections that derive, largely, from actual interactions between people.
This actuality does not exclude imagination (Barthes lets the entire exploration be guided by the “phantasm” of idiorrythm, a form of collectivity that needs almost no schedules and was practiced in monasteries on the Greek Athos mountain until shortly before the time of the lecture). But the point would be attaching the imagination to series of material occurrences, thus allowing for a distributed imagining. Similar to the movement of going through photos, living together, as Barthes wants to investigate it, consists in traversing a peopled and thinged time-space where the actual movement—its kinesthetic tempus, as it were—has a hand in the encounter’s imaginary impact.
Imagination, thus, does not foster a connection between a self-related I and a symbolic whole. It does not create an imagined community. It doesn’t create at all; its productivity becomes supportive, and what it supports might be described as a mutual me-tagging activity: Subjectivity, even narcissism, yes; but entrusted to its material consequences, with a cruisy move into the world that sees the bodily reality not as the sphere of an objective resistance against narcissistic ego-multiplication but as its vehicle, its travel agency.
The more or less random dispersion of moments when I bump into a neighbor and have a chat, exchange glances from afar, see myself reflected walking by a window with silhouettes floating behind the glass, hear steps on the stairs or voices through the wall, eat leftovers of food cooked by others, smell their pets, or suddenly feel someone’s breath in my neck, gets to make my day in an idiorrhythmic world. Barthes permits the house (he sketches a residential complex in a Mediterranean landscape) to let in a certain distance, a foreignness normally associated with urban public space. In turn, the public becomes less of an outside; it enters the rooms, the little everyday rituals, and the body’s habits of letting go.
This crossing over of a public that defamiliarizes the private and a private whose candid tenderness deregulates the public, exchanges the strained ‘to all’ and ‘to only you’ poses for a casual ‘to whom it may concern’ appeal. Leaving the doors open like windows, Oedipus might as well be a guest. Mixing the bright light of the agora with some darkroom intimacy (speaking of the gay club darkroom, not the photographer’s), there will be no need for a shared secret—for the thing that must be equally suppressed by everyone, whose disavowal provides the strong bond that turns the family into a community and subjects every community to the family law.
Meanwhile, whoever bumps into me, whose wandering eyes intersect with mine, who hastens upstairs, happens to be inside the room, cook the food, keep the pets, exhale behind my back, will experience a different day composed of a different list of encounters—a list that features me in at least one position, but that me will have nothing to do with my me. It will have nothing to do with mine, although the contact actually happened, for the contact was between bodies or material assemblages involving our bodies, not between me’s.
So how to conceive of the ‘together’ in living together as the reality of such coincidental contacts? How to avoid identifying it with an image of togetherness that pictures me here, you there, her there, him there, them in the background, and us in the geometry of this frameless but comprehensive-looking map of relations?
The metaphysical-social use of imagination would do everything in its power to produce such an image that aligns the me’s. And it would do so by creating the imagination of aligned imaginations, because that is all it can do: positing that we imagine the same world, while our bodies are doomed to experience it without the faintest chance of comparison. Imagination here compensates for the lack of comparability; it finds the source of its cosmic power in the absence of a common denominator.
Cornelius Castoriadis says, in this sense, that social institutions are essentially imaginative constructions. Beings endowed with self-awareness will need to pretend, reassert, and with time believe in an objective convergence of their imaginations. The institutions are that objective convergence. We are depending on institutionalizing ourselves, as we have no other way of making the world one. Or more precisely, the only other way would be letting it be whatever it is, and ‘one’ then would be the shortcut for ‘whatever.’ The metaphysical epoch lasts as long as that won’t do.
Much like an institution’s buildings, equipment and employees only corroborate the imagination’s objective status, the material picture in this metaphysical projection of the social is only a carrier, a token circulating among people who each respond to the visual trigger with affective consent to the idea of a shared image. Oh, their minds reply, I feel by what I see here that the image assembles us around it, as it were—‘us,’ that is to say, our me-experience and our it-experience, there, where they are indistinguishable because of this fascination.
In respect to death, a photo amounts to a relic then, converting every gaze into an act of reverence and adding these acts up in a place, there, that is simultaneously private, devoting the accrued attention to the family, and public, devoting it to humankind. The concept of the aesthetic work connives with the institutional in its economy of collecting gazes, appreciating the image as an archive of having-been-watched: every picture a file, a shelf, an entire library of institutionalized attention.
Barthes prefers the having-been-there of the referent to the being-watched of the image in how he values the photo, just as he prefers accessing living together through material contacts and the occasional synchronization they enable, to an imagined community. His theory of photography not only neglects the aesthetic in favor of the relational and inter-generational; it also discards the archival, the institutionalization of time in terms of memory. The library will be but a synax in the idiorrhythmic domicile: a flight of rooms for meeting people, or for being in their presence—reading, for example, or flipping through a photo album. Pictures will be scattered, some selected and assembled, others forgotten, stuffed away in boxes, passed on more or less randomly, based on whatever people’s practice is. You can search, you may find, but you might as well not.
Eventually, after a tiresome journey through resemblances and representations, Barthes discovers one photo he can tag “my mother.” A photo that shows his mother as a young woman, before he was born. She is not yet his mother in the captured moment, not even a mother. The evidence that the referent has been there, which the photo provides, does not serve to restore a past present. Something quite different takes place: Barthes writes my on the image like tumblr users write their me.
In a kind of desperately cunning narcissism, his subjectivity stretches, frisks, outstrips the biographical lifespan. Leaving alone his chronological position in the world, he realizes that the photographic image dissociates the having-been-there from representation, i.e. from a realistic, a familiar, familiarly social nexus between the past present when the photo was taken and the present present when the photo is being watched. This dissociation is the point of calling it the referent, even in the most uncritical, lovelorn moment of surrender to the evidence of the referent’s having-been-there.
What the mourning orphan longs for isn’t the person, whose irreversible loss he fully admits (“From now on, I will have to be my own mother”); the right photo must respect the person’s death. What the image is expected to make available is, rather, a there—a different there than the communal point of convergence marked off by the photo-as-work-of-art, the exhibit and archival item: a there that can be tagged my, in a structurally ironic (“crazy,” Barthes writes) but at the same time matter-of-fact kind of style that entrusts identification, the venture of claiming sameness, to a relational materialism.
Barthes gives no account of what he did with that photo. In a novel like those which he investigates in Comment vivre ensemble, without finding the faintest trace of the desired idiorrhythmic collectivity, the hero would have pressed it to his bosom and then perhaps hidden his treasure in a drawer, as the privileged identificatory gaze excludes the rest of the world. Alternatively, the author of La Chambre Claire could have exhibited it alongside the other photos, inviting the world to watch it in his absence. Neither the exclusive nor the inclusive gesture seems appropriate, however. Neither the family nor humankind can host this my. “I cannot show she photo,” Barthes excuses to his readers. “For you it would be nothing but a trivial photo […] it would not hurt you in the least.” He sounds polite there, but also regretful.
Would he have considered tumblr as an environment for images, were he alive today? And tagging? I imagine he might be relieved to place it on a dark, death-themed tumblr. Anonymously personal, at ease with reblogging. Someone with a depressive stretch to open up onto melancholy: Look, there, where I am forever too late to be in the picture. There, where I am just about to start being my own mother. There —> she is!