Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 14, 2010
Geoffrey Batchen, ed. Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes's "Camera Lucida" Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. 320 pp.; 5 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (97802620135253)

Photography, Roland Barthes argued, is most potent when considered through the lens of death. Or as Geoffrey Batchen’s new edited collection suggests, photography is most potent when considered through the lens of Roland Barthes’s death. As this elegant volume makes evident, contemporary photography studies is simultaneously enervated by Barthes’s continuing, towering presence and yet not ready to let him go. Such is the interminable work of mourning.

As the title implies, Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s “Camera Lucida” gathers together writing that is specifically focused on Barthes’s last book to be published during his lifetime. If Camera Lucida is the most quoted book in the photographic canon, Batchen’s new volume implies that its significance has yet to be fully unfolded. Devoted to this task, the edition contains fourteen essays, including the introduction, all by established photography scholars. Almost all of the chapters have been previously published, some as early as 1982—not long, therefore, after Barthes’s premature death. In this respect, Photography Degree Zero could be read as a belated eulogy. Indeed, even a cursory glance through its pages suggests the book is less about photography than about discourses of mourning, evidenced by the fact that with the exception of one chapter the volume bears no illustrations. This follows in Barthes’s own image: as his singular meditation on the infamous, unpublished Winter Garden Photograph emphasized, photography operates in some peculiar relation to the complexities of death, although this is not a kind of study one does with eyes wide open.

What is perhaps most significant about this new collection of essays is its subtle shift of emphasis; here photography is not so much dominated by the haunting, morbid promise of death, as Barthes himself insisted, as by elegiac vocabularies of loss, by all the violence and irresolution, all the guilt and ambivalence that comes with mourning. Barthes proposed: “whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” (Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1980, 96). Batchen and his colleagues implicitly respond: this makes photography studies burdened by the work of mourning. Perhaps this explains something of the belatedness of the collective grappling with Barthes’s legacy. This is not a task that can be accomplished immediately. As Freud famously pointed out, mourning is an extraordinarily difficult labor carried out piece by piece, at great expenditure of time and energy.

Batchen’s lucid introduction explicates Barthes’s early writing on photography and emphasizes that Camera Lucida, and specifically part 2 of this text, should be read as a palinode—that is, as a poetic retraction of earlier views. To paraphrase, Batchen argues that Barthes offered two distinct theories of photography. In his earlier essays on photography (in particular in Mythologies [Trans. Annette Lavers, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972] and Image-Music-Text [Trans. Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977]), Barthes developed a complex method for the interpretation and contestation of photographic meaning. In this early work, Barthes analyzed photography with the tools of linguistic science, adapting concepts and vocabulary from his close reading of Saussure’s theory of semiotics. Here photographic meaning is thought to be structured like a language and can be analyzed as such. Many of the concepts Barthes developed—concepts that have become ubiquitous in photography scholarship—reappear in the opening sections of Camera Lucida. But as Batchen points out, “Despite having constructed this complex theoretical armature, Part One of La chambre claire concludes with a striking confession: ‘I have perhaps learned how my desire worked, but I had not discovered the nature (the eidos) of Photography.’ To do so, he says, he will have to both ‘descend deeper into myself’ and ‘make my recantation, my palinode’” (13). Part 2 of Camera Lucida is marked by a decisive shift in method, a move from an investigation of the medium’s functioning writ large to an intense analysis of a single image: the Winter Garden Photograph, which Barthes’s discovered in 1977, shortly after his mother’s death. As no reader of Camera Lucida needs to be told, Barthes does not reproduce this photograph in his text—a point which several of the essays dwell upon—but he describes it as showing his mother in 1898, at the age of five, standing with her older brother in a glassed-in conservatory. For Barthes, this image captures her essence. His palinode, therefore, not only retracts his early structuralist views but offers a new thesis: photography is about loss and our all-too-human desire to deny it. Indeed, the medium serves as an exemplary site to think through the ways our subjectivity crumbles in relation to this experience; or, as Barthes himself put it in Camera Lucida: photography “bears the effigy to that crazy point where affect (love, compassion, grief, enthusiasm, desire) is the guarantee of Being. . . . It then approaches to all intents, madness” (113).

If Barthes’s book was written at the edge of this madness, Batchen’s collection reflects on these painful lessons about the work of mourning from a distance. It is less a reckoning with photography as a powerful site of loss than a reckoning with Barthes’s meditations about photography as such. This distinguishing layer makes the tone of this volume eminently less mad, but also less intoxicating than the one that inspired it.

The rest of the essays unfold in the order in which they were written; and as one moves through the book, the rich layering of this scholarship is evident. Later essays generously cite and build upon threads of earlier work. The first and oldest piece is Victor Burgin’s venerable essay, “Re-reading Camera Lucida,” originally published as a review in 1982. Like Batchen, Burgin parses the gradations and breaks in Barthes’s oeuvre and notes a significant shift in his work from 1975 onwards. La chambre claire, Burgin makes clear, departs from semiotics in favor of phenomenology, a method that favors subjective experience as the site of analysis. Burgin also highlights the poverty of the English edition of the book, suggesting that Barthes’s complex and subtle engagements with psychoanalysis and Buddhism have been lost in translation—two lines of inquiry that are productively pursued in Margaret Iverson’s “What is a Photograph?” and Jay Prosser’s “Buddha Barthes,” both of which are republished here. Burgin’s own essay demands to be “re-read” for, among other things, its remarkably fresh interpretation of Barthes’s punctum as means of displaying the process of signifiance at work (i.e., Barthes’s tenderness toward a woman in a James Van der Zee image is traced, via an identification with a part object—her necklace—to an unconscious attachment to an aunt). Re-encountering the Burgin essay makes one eager for the arrival of his latest collection of writings, Situational Aesthetics, due out any moment from Cornell.

The two other main lines of inquiry preoccupying this collection involve an extended grappling with Barthes’s concept of punctum and his troublesome discussions of race. The former grouping is perhaps led by Michael Fried’s reading of “Barthes’s punctum” as the guarantor of antitheatricality. For Fried, Barthes’s concept is a way to describe that which evades the photographer’s intentions, intentions that would otherwise prevent the image from wounding or “pricking” the spectator. James Elkins applauds Fried for offering a “strong reading” that avoids weaker theorizations of the punctum as merely a private experience. Rosalind Krauss’s short response highlights what both Fried and Elkins staunchly avoid, namely the psychoanalytic core of Barthes’s thinking (the punctum perhaps demands a sustained thinking on the unconscious). Gordon Hughes brings together both in his essay on this topic, which argues that Barthes’s punctum is a means to describe photography’s uncanny effects, effects that are carried in the subtlety of details necessarily blind to intention.

The more recent grouping of essays ‘“out’ Barthes’s racist tendencies,” as Carol Mavor puts it in her chapter. This line is led by Margaret Olin’s reading of Barthes’s “mistaken identification.” The mistake in question involves Barthes’s aforementioned attachment to the necklace pictured in Van der Zee’s image, further evidence that the punctum belongs to the realm of fantasy. But Olin also opens a whole new set of questions concerning Barthes’s troubling description of these images from Harlem. Shawn Michelle Smith extends this discussion to explore how Barthes’s very conception of photography is laden with anxieties about race and reproduction.

Each of the essays in the collection brings its author’s own concerns to bear on Barthes’s “little book” with varying degrees of force. And to this reviewer’s mind, this marks Photography Degree Zero with the ambivalence and irresolution of mourning. As Jacques Derrida asked in his own aching eulogy for his friend: How to reconcile all the deaths of Roland Barthes? Derrida suggests he learned one answer from reading his friend’s last book: to write. Indeed, if anything, Camera Lucida teaches that the work of mourning demands something more than writing of the dead. One must find a way to write to them. I am not sure if any of the essays in Batchen’s collection risk this difficult address, but the book is surely evidence of the profound labor of mourning Roland Barthes.

Sharon Sliwinski
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, The University of Western Ontario