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Thinking Images: More Barthes, More Jouissance

By Leonid Bilmes.


Roland Barthes, Signs and Images: Writings on Art, Cinema and Photography
Translated by Chris Turner (Seagull Books; University of Chicago Press 2016)


I will open with two images. The first shows a man some readers might recognise:

John Sassall

When I first came across this photograph – I no longer recall where I first saw it – I did not know the identity of this man. I have since learnt that this is John Sassall, the country doctor that was immortalised by the combined efforts of John Berger and photographer Jean Mohr, in their classical study, A Fortunate Man (1967). At the time, however, the immediate meaning of this image for me, what it actually signified in my mind, was another image (Susan Sontag has said: ‘photographs echo photographs’). I immediately thought of this photograph of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, playing his piano:


There are the obvious similarities: both are men; both are bespectacled and wearing jackets; both are seated. Yet the reason the one image conjures up the other – at least for me – is that both men’s posture signifies mastery. They are ‘leaning into’ their activity with resolute poise. The eye begins by registering the rapt concentration in the face, and is then led down to contemplate those hands. Look at Shostakovich’s: it’s as though he is massaging the keys to resolve their atonic tension into the sounds he has ringing in his head. He is translating the musical notation in his mind – I imagine his own – and his hands realise its existence in the world. Now consider the doctor’s: they are reading the patient’s body for its sickness; he is quite literally ‘playing out’ his diagnosis, according to the ‘notation’ provided by his medical training. Roland Barthes has famously described what he labels the punctum affect of photography: when an unexpected detail strikes – and arrests – the viewer’s attention. The punctum is always unpredictable and undecided; it’s an entirely subjective response to a stray detail. Look at the doctor’s slightly blurred right hand: it suggests a ‘tapping’ movement (for me: the photograph’s punctum). The patient could be replaced with a keyboard and that hand imagined to be tapping its staccato way through a toccata by Bach.

My reading of these images is intended as an illustration of the plenitude of (often unintended) meaning of the image – of what Barthes calls its ‘polysemy’: the image always potentially exceeds its denotation. Barthes has said that a photograph is a message without a code, but he also said that the meaning conveyed by the photograph is never neutral, for a photograph always connotes something in surplus, and such connotative polysemy may be both visual and verbal. In one of the essays from the present collection, ‘The Civilisation of the Image’, he argues:

The very acute sense we have now of a ‘rise’ of images leads us to forget that, in this civilisation of the image, the image is never, as it were, wordless … This prompts the thought that the study of this modern world of images – which hasn’t really been undertaken yet – is in danger of being distorted in advance if we do not work directly on an original object that is neither just image or language but image coupled with language in a form we might term logo-iconic communication.

Since Barthes, the study of the modern world of images has certainly taken some significant steps. One work worth mentioning here is W.J.T. Mitchell’s Picture Theory (1994), a canonical text for the study of visual culture, wherein Mitchell suggests that we should speak of visual phenomena – such as painting, photography and film (and even memory) – not as image versus text, but as the composite imagetext. Yet Barthes already anticipates Mitchell’s concept with his own ‘logo-iconic communication.’

Barthes anticipates: how often one is compelled to write this, when discussing anything that he wrote about! And he wrote about much. A new collection of Barthes’s essays, Signs and Images, published by Seagull Books and translated by Christ Turner, forms volume four of a total of five slim volumes of previously unpublished essays and interviews in English, from Barthes’ writing collected in the French Oeuvres Completes. The essay titles themselves whet the edge of curiosity: ‘Dandyism and Fashion’, ‘Colouring, Degree Zero’, ‘Visualization and Language’, ‘Cinema, Right and Left.’ The reader will revisit Barthes’s previously covered territory here: fashion, photography, painting; but also, importantly, cinema, a medium that he was on the whole less enthusiastic about (a recent volume, Roland Barthes’ Cinema, by Philip Watts, addresses his reticence).

I will not be overstating the matter if I say that images fascinated – read possessed, enraptured, compelled – Barthes’s critical imagination. He was obsessed with the image in all its multiform expressions of self and world. The essay ‘Visual Information’ opens with these remarks: ‘We live surrounded by images, steeped in them, and yet we still know hardly anything about the image: What is it? What does it signify? How does it act?’ Barthes wrote these words in 1961, so these are pressing questions to pose in a time when life has become even more imbued (infested) by image culture, especially in its more intimate Facebook-Instagram-YouTube manifestations (images, like bacteria, thrive in suitably prepared media). On-going advances in visual media may be conceived as ever-vaster Petri dishes for the greater multiplication of images – teeming cultures of pictures wherein we find ourselves immersed. Images – like bacteria in relation to an organism – are often said to be either malign or beneficial to the psyche wherein they lodge. Barthes, however, does not view the image as either harmful or beneficial. On reflection, harm-or-benefit is a binary too simplistic to capture the process whereby things mean something. Instead, Barthes seeks to understand how and why the very idea of semantic proliferation is constitutive of the formation and growth of human understanding. ‘The image can transform the psyche,’ he notes, ‘but it can also signify it.’ All the essays in this volume are attempts to pose, rather than solve, these necessary questions.

A special treat in this collection is Barthes’s first published essay for a professional publication. ‘Gromaire, Lurcat and Calder’, on the exhibition of these artists’ work in Paris, was published in January 1947, when Barthes was thirty-two years old. Prior to this he had spent nearly eight years in treatment for tuberculosis, so this article was his big break as a journalist and critic. This review is interesting in that it already contains in utero Barthes’s signature critical method: locating binary oppositions, playing with shifting categories of evaluation, his penchant for aphorism and structure. Sontag has said Barthes had a ‘formalist temperament’, noting that ‘Barthes’s strengths as an aphorist suggest a sensibility gifted, before any intervention of theory, for the perception of structure. A method of condensed assertion by means of symmetrically counterposed terms, the aphorism displays the symmetries and complementarities of situations or ideas— their design, their shape.’ This talent for thinking symmetrically is already on show in the first sentence of his essay: ‘Works of art are potential battlegrounds between richness and sparseness of style … There is the tradition of plenitude and passion and there is another of stripping and pairing down.’ Aside from his typically brilliantly charged dictum on Alexander Calder, which I will withhold here as incentive, Barthes draws attention to Marcel Gromaire’s emphasis on line, verticality, upward extension – but who else could have written the following passage (with the comic smack-downs in parentheses):

Perhaps, in this extolling of line, there is a nostalgia for the fibre as the first and last vegetal element, and perhaps the reduction of the world to an essential element runs through Gromaire’s art as it ran through Berkeley’s philosophy (tar-water) or Schelling’s (oxygenism) and, in general, the imagination of all who were, to one degree or another, followers of Hermeticism.

‘Like That: On Some Photographs by R. Avedon’ is another great review, and one which will remind readers of Camera Lucida – still the most penetrating and memorable book on photography to date. This essay looks at Avedon’s photographs of Andy Warhol and various members of Warhol’s ‘Factory’, and it is interesting both for what it says about photography and for how it discloses Barthes’s own self – for his is one of the most personal of criticisms, so that the autobiographical self is read with the same unforgiving scrutiny as the objects of its gaze. Barthes writes that Avedon’s photographs ‘are the very figures of a dialectic: there is the greatest intensity of meaning in them and ultimately the very lack of meaning – something of a bliss unfulfilled.’ And then comes the personal disclosure (again, that parenthetical humour stained by sadness): ‘It seems to me that if I were photographed by Avedon, I would (at last!) no longer want to judge my own body (like everyone else, I have uneasy relations with my body image).’ He concludes: ‘In short, I would be like that, and in this ‘like that’ of my body, I would perhaps experience something of the serenity of the great Eastern sages.’

Barthes himself, however, is a very Occidental kind of sage. His mind is too playful, too ludic, much too absorbed by fascination with this world to renounce its pleasures in favour of Buddhist peace. A sage is partial to epigrams, and Barthes’s precise phrasing is often so good it protests paraphrase. Some examples from the present volume:

‘God and painters always have long arms.’

‘There is no innocent story…’

‘The felt-tip pen that comes to us from Japan develops out of a whole practice that couldn’t have given rise to the ballpoint.’

‘The most serious word in cinema is “Cut!”’

‘[A] desire, we may say, doesn’t have to be total to be entire.’

‘A photographer’s photography of any worth is a continual allegory.’

Profundity leaks from these sentences – they compel the reader to think through them, even if we’re not always quite sure of the full implications. These are small textual puddles of immense depth.

Barthes has always been a great definer. Can one coin a better definition of haut couture than: ‘Fashion is actually the collective imitation of a regular novelty’? This comes from ‘Dandyism and Fashion’, where Barthes argues that the dandy is no longer a viable male identity, because the more restricted male fashion, against which the dandy could assert himself by his unconventionality in attire, no longer exists. Yes but the dandy has made a comeback in the present: his identity is merely articulated differently. There is now a certain way of dressing and personal grooming strongly evocative of the dandyesque impulse Barthes defines: consider, for example, the kind of image of male hipness embodied by sixty-year old model Philippe Dumas:

Dumas dandy

Barthes’s argument about the disappearance of the dandy – the particular dandy who expired in the 1950s – is historically accurate, but he doesn’t stretch it to its full implications. The very idea of the dandy embodies the very logic of the fashion industry: whatever is distinguished and distinctive eventually becomes popular; but the moment that it becomes popular it becomes, necessarily, out of fashion. The best-dressed man in the world is already prosaic. The curse of the dandy is perennial preening: ceaseless self-renovation (Lady Gaga syndrome). We can amend Barthes’s conclusion that fashion killed the dandy, and instead say that the dandy is continually resurrected by fashion: condemned to await his obsolescence and demise at the moment that his look becomes common.

‘He is troubled by any image of himself’, and ‘incapable of making himself convincing to himself’: so Barthes laments of himself in his quixotic autobiography. Not unlike a dandy, in fact. So what compelled him to act in film? Perhaps only the staunchest of cinephiles will have seen this one, but Barthes did indeed act, in director Andre Techine’s The Brontë Sisters (1979). Barthes was cast as William Makepeace Thackeray, irony of all ironies, his only role in a feature. In his review of Techine’s film, Barthes, sadly, does not record his perception of himself as an actor on the big screen; although one can surmise that it would have left him uncomfortable. Yet Barthes’s praise of the film is bound to arouse interest: ‘Andre Techine’s film remains in my head like a song. The austere beauty of its landscapes and the individuality of its faces keeps it singing for a long time.’

Other writings on film here are ‘The Problem of Signification in Cinema’ (if only Barthes had written a whole book on this subject); a review of Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958); ‘Cinemascope’ and Barthes’s reflections on Japanese cinema in the interview ‘Japan: the Art of Living, the Art of Signs.’ Asked about the distinctive visual style of the great director Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), Barthes replies:

I’d be tempted to relate this to residential architecture, and to the domestic space in Japan … The Japanese house is low-rise, has little or no furniture and seems designed to see oneself from quite low down and in one’s full breadth. It implies a kind of extension where the body is concerned. It excludes verticality. Space is much worked on but on the horizontal level, with very fine views of corridors and covered wooden galleries.

It’s typical of Barthes to explain the provenance of aesthetic style in terms of the tangible (as he does with Balzac in S/Z). Thus Ozu’s trademark low-angle shots and banal domesticity are an artistic response to the everyday reality that only an artist can read against the grain of stale familiarity. Hence, we could topple over Barthes’s formulation, and say instead that it is Ozu’s films that enable us to perceive Japanese domesticity in these terms (in a way that all great art, like Van Gogh’s cypresses, enables us to see anew). Ozu is in this sense Japan’s Chekhov.

I would like to cite another quotation, one that speaks to our current political anxieties. Barthes is here defining the reasoning of right-wing art

which is always concerned with the discontinuities of human troubles, never the connections between them. The peasants drink. Why do they drink? Because they are very poor, because they have nothing to do. Why this misery, this forlornness? At that point the investigation comes to a halt, or shifts to a higher level – no doubt they are stupid in essence; that is their nature.

Substitute ‘immigrant’ for ‘peasant’ and you have the perfect formula of the kind of unreason used to justify insularity from the other. Who is the immigrant, in essence? How might a Donald Trump answer this question?

‘I spread myself around: my whole little universe in crumbs; at the centre, what?’ I think we can say with some confidence: pleasure. Barthes’s criticism, the entirety of his work, is a pursuit after jouissance. His writing all testifies to an eroticism of the intellect – his best essays are indeed ‘a lover’s discourse’: missives without an addressee. The critic Edmund Wilson has said that to get editors to pay you for writing about the things that give you the most pleasure is ‘a feat that may require some pretty close calculation and a good deal of ingenuity.’ Barthes certainly had both. More: he gave us, and with this volume continues to give us, in his own words, ‘access to the very technics of meaning, which is nothing less than the way human beings think the world.’


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Leonid Bilmes lives in London and is at present working on a thesis concerning memory writing after Proust. He writes about contemporary literature, film, and cultural criticism.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 25th, 2016.