Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: a Study Guide Annotations 1

The following notes are intended to help the reader understand Barthes’ references, technical terms, themes. The previous post provides very briefly the context for this text.

The page numbers below refer to the translation of La chambre claire by Richard Howard, Jonathan Cape (now Macmillan), 1982.

page 4

Barthes needs a “corpus” or collection of texts in order to classify them, which is the basis of scientific understanding. NB. Word-play corpus/ corpse/ [dead] body. The term “body” and all cognates are one of the main strands that weave in and out of this text.

Tuché – the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan borrows this term from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, for whom it means “chance” or “accident”: the point is that reality is accidental and has no “meaning” or narrative – it just “is”. The following references to Buddhism and to the English mystical commentator Alan Watts are all connected to this idea.

5

antiphon – the first of the many musical references that Barthes uses in this text: look out for others. What may be the function of such references?

8

mathesis – mental discipline, knowledge or science

9

eidolon – Greek word for “image”, “likeness”, but also “spectre” or “ghost”. Note the large number of words with the same root eid– that appear in this text. “Idol” (which is etymologically connected to eidolon) with its erotic and religious connotations does not appear, but seems to be hovering just out of sight like a ghost…

terms you need to remember the meanings of in this work:

What is the Operator? __________________________________________________

What is the Spectator?__________________________________________________

What is the Spectrum?__________________________________________________

NB the word-play spectacle/ spectre throughout

10

camera obscura – an arrangements of lenses and mirrors in a darkened room or box invented in the sixteenth century. Artists used it to project images onto canvas on which they would base their pictures. Note how Barthes introduces the idea of the camera lucida by means of a kind of a binary opposite, the camera obscura.

12

zero degree – a reference to Barthes’ own first published volume Writing Degree Zero (orig. 1953 as Le degré zéro de l’écriture) – “degree zero” here means “without meaning”, “purely for and in itself”.

14

parenthesis – see note to page 20 below

15

eidos – According to Plato the “eidos” is the real image of something (usually translated in English as “Idea”). It exists in the realm of the eternal and so is not perceptible by the senses. In Husserl (see note to p. 20) it means the same as “essence”, which can be arrived at by pure consciousness. I’m not sure which sense is uppermost in Camera Lucida.

16

Rue St. Rustique, Montmartre


Atget, (Jean) Eugène Auguste (1856-1927), French photographer, now recognised as one of the major figures in the history of photography. In about 1898 Atget began his photographic career; within a decade he had produced some of his most impressive documentary series on Parisian life—tradespeople, architecture, shop windows, parks, cafés, and markets. He’s most famous for his pictures of empty Paris streets.

Rue St. Rustique by Atget,  March 1922

20

The task of phenomenology is to study essences, such as the essence of emotions. Although Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, never gave up his early interest in essences, he later held that only the essences of certain special conscious structures should be studied by phenomenology. As formulated by Husserl after 1910, phenomenology is the study of the structures of consciousness that enable consciousness to refer to objects outside itself. This study requires reflection on the contents of the mind to the exclusion of everything else. Because the mind can be directed towards non-existent as well as real objects, Husserl noted that phenomenological reflection does not presuppose that anything exists, but rather amounts to a “bracketing of existence” (compare the “parenthesis” Barthes refers to on page 14), that is, it sets aside the question of the real existence of the contemplated object.

What Husserl discovered when he contemplated the contents of his mind were such acts as remembering, desiring, and perceiving and the abstract content of these acts, which Husserl called meanings. These meanings, he claimed, enabled an act to be directed towards an object under a certain aspect; and such directedness, called intentionality, he held to be the essence of consciousness. Transcendental phenomenology, according to Husserl, was the study of the basic components of the meanings that make intentionality possible. Later, in Cartesian Meditations (1931; trans. 1960), he introduced genetic phenomenology, which he defined as the study of how these meanings are built up in the course of experience.

NB the author of the book that Camera Lucida is in homage to (Sartre) was key in the introduction of phenomenology to France during Barthes’ youth.

25

Greuze, Jean-Baptiste (1725-1805), French painter. He studied art in Lyon and in Paris, where he became a leading genre painter who concentrated on sentimental moralistic scenes and portraits.

The Village Betrothal by Greuze

26 – 7 and many pages following  concern two of the most cited terms from Camera Lucida

  • The studium of a photograph comprises those aspects that we learn to appreciate through enculturation. We ourselves bring “studium” to a photograph. It is part of our consciousness.
  • The punctum of a photograph comprises those aspects that wound or puncture us like Cupid’s arrow. Beyond our conscious control, the “punctum” seems to leap out of the photograph into us. The same points don’t always continue to wound us.

33

What is surprising about the connections made with photography on this page? Can you relate it to film?

36

“noise” (“in cybernetics”) here = interference or static that surrounds a radio signal and makes it less clear

What does Barthes mean when he writes, “Is not the very capacity to perceive the political and moral meaning of a face a class deviation?” (it should become clearer if you read the few sentences following that one). Do you think what he says is true? Why?

40

fantasmatic – producing fantasies

NB the recurring theme of the “Mother” – is it related here to the studium or the punctum?

What is a “unary photograph”?

40-41

Do you find Barthes’ refusal to regard Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs as merely pornographic and unary convincing? Why (not)?

45

metonymy – substitution of attribute or associated object for the thing itself. In Lacan such substitution of one object for another marks the movement of desire along a chain (we desire one thing, then another, then another…). Metonymy is a structure that enables the psychoanalyst to follow the chain of the analysand’s desire and thereby to understand his/her unconscious. The punctum as metonymic is thus clearly marked as beyond the conscious control of either the Spectator or the Operator. (cf. Derrida’s supplement – this is referred to on p. 47).

47

myth of Orpheus –  Orpheus was the mythical musician who tried to bring his beloved back from the dead. The gods of the underworld permitted this so long as he did not look behind him towards his beloved who was following him.

49

satori – a Japanese term that means “enlightenment” and “nothingness”. Barthes had written a book on Japan: The Empire of Signs. (see also later the reference to the haiku, a very strict Japanese verse form of 17 syllables)

pages 55-6

What are the differences, according to Barthes, between cinema and photography?

58-9

….and the pornographic and erotic?

60

Palinode = recantation or “a singing over again”. It also means a retraction of a thesis. But it also recalls Palinurus, a character who, right at the end of Vergil’s Aeneid Book V, falls overboard just before the hero Aeneas lands his fleet in Italy (his destination) and descends into the underworld to meet his dead father. Palinurus is commonly interpreted as the necessary human sacrifice for a journey to the land of the dead. Aeneas meets him in the underworld and promises him a magnificent monument even though his body is lost for ever: a tomb without a corpse = a sign without a meaning. NB cf. also Socrates’ recantation in Plato’s Phaedrus.

Now move on to the next post for the rest of the notes.

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Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at http://www2.gre.ac.uk/about/schools/humanities/about/departments/cca/staff/andrew-king.

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