Camera Lucida is Roland Barthes’ attempt to come to terms with the transparency of the photograph that seems to “annihilate itself as medium, to be no longer a sign but the thing itself.” (45) This transparency is not so much a content but a mechanism for the ‘de-realization’ (118) of the world. The photo stands as an absolute. Barthes ties the photograph explicitly, and ad nauseum, to death. Dropping in references to de Sade (14) and BDSM porn (41-42, 57-59), there’s something very theatrical about this death (31). Even more explicitly, he links the photo to an ancient Etruscan torture (5) which had served as an ontological model to Aristotle.1 Barthes’ description of the phenomenological experience of photography is compared to this torture which, by virtue of the effects of putrefaction, bound the two bodies together thanks to the vermicular culture that grew between them and dissolved their boundaries. He provides an Oedipal image for this experience: “A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze…a carnal medium…” (81) What results, in regards to experience, is a continuation of the putrefying remainder, or in his preferred grammatical register, aphaeresis. This subtraction forms one of the essential poles in Barthes’ thinking. The excess which is cut away from it is what he attempts to redeem via a libidinization.
The primary tension in Barthes arises around this rebarbative scheme which the photo introduces. The vibration that allows him to salvage the moment of libidinal exasperation is what he calls the punctum (27). This is a kind of wound inflicted by the photo but not, he insists, like that of the porn image with its studium (41). Instead, the punctum is a violence given by time. It is the eroticization of a particular relationship to time (both as duration and as absence) rather than to an object (96). It is precisely for this reason that what results is an erotics of the photo which is essentially pederastic, inhabiting an adolescent Neverland which is “…without future” (90).2 The punctum provides the testing ground to carve out this time-relation. The photograph provides the means for this frozen experience of time, which can only differentiate itself from the ‘disincarnation’ (105) of death by transforming itself via the automaton (Fellini’s automaton in Casanova provides a clue, 115). This figurative model, much like the spiritual automaton of Artaud, becomes central. “…cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing… “(15), which is to say that they provided an automaton’s view with their “micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter” as they view the body or face of the beloved. While this allows for the extraction of aesthetic pleasure from frozen putrefaction, the problem of what a vision of non-domesticated and anhedonic photographic perception of the process of de-realization could lead to remains to be investigated.
1 For an examination of the philosophical implications of this metaphor, see Reza Negarestani’s “The Corpse Bride: Thinking with Nigredo” in Collapse IV (2008).
2 For a further discussion of this, see Carol Mavor’s “Love-Love. Ni-Ni: Roland Barthes and Bernard Faucon, A Butterfly Effect” in Photography & Culture Vol. 4, Issue 1 (March 2011). It is notable, however, that Mavor almost completely suppresses the morbid pole that is basic to Barthes’ thought.