Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: a Study Guide. Before Reading the text

Introductory Remarks

before reading Camera Lucida

What follows in this and the following 2 posts comprises material I’ve found helpful to students to whom I’ve taught this text. The posts consists of a brief introduction to remind students of the context within which Camera Lucida needs to be read, followed by two posts of annotations that explain the references and highlight terms important to remember. Were Camera Lucida out of copyright, it would be a wonderful project to generate a proper intertext with students along these lines.
Note that this is not at all a summary such as can be found on the relevant Wikipedia page or by Kasia Houlihan. It is rather a guide to reading what can seem an opaque text.
There are fewer images than usual in this and the following posts for the very reason that Camera Lucida concerns images and how we react to them.

Camera Lucida is Barthes’ last work and is in many ways a summa of poststructuralist theory. It is a summa of Barthes’s life and work too. It was written after the death of his mother and before he died (perhaps committed suicide) in a traffic accident. It is Barthes at his most stylistically virtuosic and moving, a marriage of extreme aesthetic sensibility and emotion. Much concerned with “image”, a key concept in analyses of postmodernism, it also combines theory and fiction, “science” with autobiography.

Here are a few of the tenets of post-structuralism relevant to Camera Lucida. What’s important is that Camera Lucida identifies them, plays along with them so as to make them seem like “rules” — and then breaks those rules and shows their inadequacy in the very act of applying them so as almost to come up the other side and return to what looks at times like a sentimental humanism.

Þ      Images, like symbols in general, always mark the absence of the object they refer to. This idea derives from Lacanian psychoanalysis (which has influenced a great deal of French post-structuralism). We only need a symbol or image for something when we don’t have it itself (why look at a photo of your beloved when s/he is standing before you?)

Þ The effect that the object is present when we see an image of it is therefore illusory. The effect is found not only in emotional thought (when we look with delight at the photograph of an absent beloved and imagine that he or she is here with us now or that we are there with them) but also in what is supposedly pure rationality, philosophy. This is the fallacious “metaphysics of presence” that according to Derrida has bedevilled Western thought since Plato.

Þ The “full meaning” of something is the effect that we really and completely know what symbols or words (or a series of words) mean. This is the verbal equivalent of imagining that our beloved is present when we see a photograph of him or her. Since this is an illusion, according to post-structuralism, we cannot know what anything means completely. For that reason we cannot talk of the “essences” of anything or anyone (“The essence of Man is to….” “The essence of Woman is to…” “The essence of Photography is….”) or talk in vast generalised statements without qualifying them very specifically.

Þ Assuming that full meaning always eludes us can also lead to a kind of giggly naughtiness with words that is supposed to make the reader aware that the same set of symbols can mean many different things simultaneously. Thus we find lots of puns, and other kinds of word play that are not representable in sound but only graphically.

You’ll soon find that Camera Lucida is no ordinary theoretical text. For a start the word “I” appears on the very first page. It tells a story indirectly like some kind of experimental novel. If you treat it as a fictional text, the following questions become relevant.

  • Who is the “hero”?
  • What is he trying to do?
  • What is his quest?
  • How self-aware is he?
  • What does “working through” mean (in psychoanalytic terms)? What is the hero “working through”? Does he succeed?

Camera Lucida refers to many other texts (as all texts do) but it seems to me that one of its most obvious palimpsests [1] is the classical Roman poet Vergil’s epic poem the Aeneid.

To judge the truth of this

  1. compare the number of books in the Aeneid with the number of sections in the Barthes
  2. consider the position and meaning of the word “palinode” in Camera Lucida (see the notes in the next posts for where this occurs)
  3. above all, compare the story-line of Camera Lucida with Book VI of the Aeneid

The Aeneid is both an epic and a poem. Try bringing the techniques you have learnt for reading poetry (extreme attention to detail, style and structure) to reading Camera Lucida.

NB another classical text you may like to read in conjunction with Camera Lucida is Plato’s Phaedrus – available online at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/phaedrus.html.

The comments and observations in the following posts are my own (though of course derived from a variety of sources). They do not claim in any way to be authoritative or complete. All I have done is to supply indications regarding some texts to which Camera Lucida refers more or less explicitly, together with suggestions about how the work may be read (drawing attention to word-plays, recurrent terms, themes, etc.).

There is no reason for there to be only one answer to any of the questions: many are there to help you by pointing out terms whose meaning readers of Camera Lucida will need to remember to read the rest fluently.

The next post will explain references, suggest certain terms be noted and remembered so as to help with following the argument, and offer questions to reflect on.


[1] A palimpsest was in medieval times a manuscript that had been cleaned of writing so that new writing could be placed upon it. In modern literary terminology it refers to a kind of sub-text that lies underneath a text and to which it makes reference, usually covert and indirect.

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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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