Writing the Image after Roland Barthes

Writing the Image after Roland Barthes

Writing the Image after Roland Barthes

Writing the Image after Roland Barthes

Synopsis

Contributors examine the import of Barthes's shifting positions on photography and visual representation and the impact of his work on current developments in cultural studies and theories of the media and popular culture.

Excerpt

Roland Barthes died in 1980: seventeen years should provide enough time to assess his lingering and pervasive influence on critical theory and move beyond the mere anecdote to witness how his figure has taken on the more momentous contours provided by fate. Barthes’s “fate” can appear to have been determined in part by the fact that his last published work was a treatise devoted to photography. The photographic image achieves exactly the effect I have described when mentioning “fate”: it freezes a development, eternalizes what is an essentially mobile object under a figure. Although one ought to be wary of the retrospective illusion that automatically metamorphoses a last book into a testament, this last word forced on him by death is not attributable to mere contingency. Barthes always wished to understand History—a term he systematically capitalized—as a series of snapshots, of immobile yet unstable exposures. From his earlier investigations into the works of the French historian Michelet, who endowed universal history with the mythological elements needed to transform his nineteenth-century bourgeois ideology into an epic, to his later encounter with an Eastern otherness so fascinated by the click of a camera, Barthes’s trajectory exhibits a constant and deep concern for the image.

Initially, Barthes’s position in the face of images seems to be a very suspicious or critical one: he stated his reluctance or hostility to “analogical” forms of thought and art many times, always preferring the ethical cleanliness of discursive—therefore, discrete, digital, articulated, and codified—formations. Language can demystify because it never adheres to reality; its arbitrary nature introduces a differential space in which one can really think. The almost Sartrian terms I have just used still account for Barthes’s convergence with Lacan’s early condemnation of the “Imaginary” realm as that of the ego’s subjective illusions. For both Sartre and Lacan, the stickiness of the subject’s identification pro-

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