Reading the Olympics 2: the Discobolos Redivivus (1896)

Robert Garrett 1896 Olympics
Robert Garrett 1896 Olympics

After the set up in the first part of this talk, here, surprise surprise, is a photograph of a discus thrower of the 1896 Olympics. It is the celebrity victory photo of Robert Garrett, who won the discus event on the evening of the 1st day of the first modern Olympics , 6 April 1896. An American athlete, Garrett – so goes the founding myth – had originally not intended to enter the competition at all. Indeed, the American contingent – all from Boston Athletics Association and Princeton University – had almost not been able to go. Senior students from their University – who would have been of the appropriate age – could not attend because they had finals to sit, and the expense of travelling to Greece was high. But Garrett’s father coughed up the funds and in March Princeton University Track Athletics Association sent 4 men, including Robert.

Now discus throwing  was not internationally practised at this time – it was pretty much a reinvented sport by the modern Greeks in imitation of the discobolos statue that Curtius had unearthed. It was a sport that they had designed so that they could win. But Professor Sloane of Princeton, a future IOC member and friend of the driving force behind the 1896 Olympics, the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, suggested to Garrett that he enter the discus competition anyway. Not short of funds, Garrett commissioned a Princeton blacksmith to replicate the discus of the Discobolus – it weighed 9 kilos, and was just too heavy to throw in a discus-like way, so Garrett decided that he wouldn’t go ahead and enter.

But, so the story continues, Garrett picked up a  discarded discus used by Greek competitors that he found on the track the morning of 6 April – the very day of the first modern Olympic Games. It was much lighter than the discus he had had made back in Princeton, and there and then he decided to enter after all. Clearly, things were much simpler back then! The Games hadn’t become the highly mediated and orchestrated event it has today – Gale NewsVault for example gives only 145 mentions of the Olympics in its corpus of British newspapers throughout April and May 1896, many of them, as was usual for the time, duplicates of London newspaper commentary on the idea of the games themselves.

But to return to the story of Garrett.

Discus throwing was the last event of the day. After the King of Greece had formally opened the Olympic Games at 2.15pm, there had followed the 100m heats followed  by the long jump  and the first medal of the games – won by a Bostonian – and then there were the 800m heats. Now the sun was going down and the air was cooling. It was time for the discus. The Greeks, unsurprisingly, were considered elegant: they were being measured by Myron’s discobolos and in turn had used it as their measure. It was, as so often, a self-confirming evaluation. The English entrants were apparently nothing short of ludicrous. Nonetheless, in true heroic style, Garrett won the discus event after a couple of false starts. Later in the Games, he came second in the long jump to the Harvard athlete Ellery Clark, and went on to win the shot put. Garrett went on to become a very successful  investment banker – and collector of Egyptian manuscripts (which he donated to Princeton in 1942). He is the very type of ancient Greek athletic aristeia, perfect in body and mind, on the field and in society, who wins and offers a sacrifice (his manuscripts) to the organisation that nurtured him. He is indeed the discobolos redivivus, the Winkelmanian mortal embodiment of the divine, a wonderful extension into sport of the Paterian ideal of the artistic god descended to earth that is explored in Pater’s essay on Pico della Mirandola. Even more, Garrett is the perfect student, the product of University-as-Pygmalion+Inspiration. As a student he is a statue moulded and brought to life and inspired by his institution.

Yet pause for a moment – look at this photograph again. The US flag is the wrong way round. The American hero was left-handed!

Garrett did not therefore accord with the classical precedent of the right-handed discobolos. In ways quite typical of late nineteenth-century celebrity photography, trickery was involved to make the reality conform to an idea. The photograph was turned round so that in this case  the celebrity could be attributed more easily an illustrious classical ancestry. I don’t think we can say this is just an American trick, a US claim on the authority of the classical, a simple usurpation of the ancient Greek ideal or effacement of modern Greek claims to it. It’s not just national propaganda so much as conformity to media propriety. Of course the discobolus redivivus had to come to life from the ancient pattern, and therefore he had to be right handed. This was one of the rules of what was by now the dominant pop-classical discourse about aesthetics that classically derived sport incorporated. We can see its roots in Winkelmann and Pater extended by 1896 to become demotic and general, a notion spread far and wide by an ever more intense celebrity culture: by this stage it’s tacitly accepted that celebrities have something divine about them, as Barthes, 60 years later, was to explore when discussing Greta Garbo.

But clearly, Garrett’s photographer was not entirely in change of the technology: it was in change of him. Unlike so many better celebrity photographers (such as Queen Victoria’s as explored by John Plunkett), he forgot about the details, reminding us all too clearly that the divine is moulded from the same flesh and clay as us. 40 years later, another visual artist will not allow such slips, with more sinister results.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: a Study Guide. Annotations 2

A continuation of notes on Camera Lucida to help elucidate the text. Part 1 of the notes can be found here, while the general introduction giving brief contextual notes can be found here.

Part II: Section 25 (page 63)

Carefully compare the opening of section 1. What more do you learn about the purpose of this book here?


Barthes’s conception of “hysteria” is very Lacanian. A hysterical symptom (e.g. fantasy pains in a limb which has been amputated) is a mark of mourning for the lost state of plenitude and bodily integrity. It relates to the form of the body as it is imagined (imaged – seen – by the mind) not the body as it is or seen by others.

67: beginning of section 28

Note: the position of this section corresponds closely to the “Golden Mean” (media aurea). Find out what the “Golden Mean” is. Why might it be important here?


Another of the several references to Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. (1913-1927). Note the many similarities with Camera lucida.

»  The Proust is written as an interior monologue in the first person and is in many respects autobiographical, tracing the gradual self-awareness of the narrator.

»  The novel is concerned with seeking the buried memory released by everyday incidents (the famous madeleines – a kind of biscuit – that start the whole story off). Time is a key concept, both as a destroyer and as producer of memory. The sequence of time is perceived in the light of the theories of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whom Proust admired, (and which are also heavily influential on psychoanalysis). Time is not psychologically measurable by the clock or calendar: sometimes it goes fast or slow, and maybe not in a straight line (since moments from the past can suddenly emerge and have a huge effect many years later without ever having emerged before). Moments of the past and the present have equal reality.

»  Proust also explored subconscious motivations, and the irrationality of human behaviour, particularly in relation to love.


Labyrinth – The princess of Crete, Ariadne, is in love with the hero Theseus, sent to the island as part of the annual human sacrifice to the monstrous Minotaur who lives in a labyrinth deep underground. Ariadne helps Theseus kill the Minotaur by supplying him with a thread by means of which he can find his way out of the labyrinth.


What does Barthes resist in the definitions of the “Family” he refers to here?

What connection (again!) is made here with the “image”?

76 – under cover of method

What terms you have read about before (at length) do the binary opposites “banality” and “singularity” recall?


noeme – Greek philosophical term for “concept” or “mental image” that is derived from sensory experience and so is not “pure thought”: Barthes is probably thinking of Aristotle.


What is the difference between cinema and the photograph here?


note how the language of resurrection, which has already appeared earlier, begins to become more common – how stressed is it?

Albertian perspective – Alberti, Leon Battista (1404-1472), Italian architect and writer, who was the first important art theorist of the Renaissance. Developing the work on mathematical laws of linear perspective which the architect Brunelleschi had studied, he wrote a treatise called Della Pittura (On painting; 1436) which set down the laws of perspective for the painters of his own and succeeding generations until the late nineteenth century.

Sontag, Susan – famous American critic of film, photography and cultural theory and an expert on Barthes (she actually edited The Barthes Reader in 1987, a selection of texts by Roland Barthes, from which Camera Lucida is interestingly omitted). She is most famous for her 1964 essay on “camp” which propelled her to international fame. And which already showed the traces of Barthes’ influence.


Bouvard and Péchuchet – 2 comic characters in a novel by Flaubert that Barthes has mentioned in many of his works as types of the stupid and pedestrian bourgeois (they are one of the leitmotifs that artfully characterise Barthes’ oeuvre as an oeuvre). What is his attitude to wards them in Camera Lucida?


How is language different from the Photograph?


thesis – a statement concerning reality

physis – nature in pure form, reality itself – important term in Greek philosophy and tragedy.

How does Barthes define “realism” here?


What is the distinction Barthes is making between cinema and photography here?


“History” as a discipline that depends on research in archives, evaluating different forms of evidence etc. is regarded as having an origin in the nineteenth century. Before that “histories” were chronicles, anecdotes (more or less fabricated) or genealogies used to prove the legitimacy of kings and princes. Barthes regards all history (irrespective of when or where it was written) as ideologically motivated. On p. 94 Michelet, a nineteenth-century historian and one of the founders of the historical method, will be mentioned. Barthes had written extensively about his ideological presuppositions in an earlier book.


Donald Winnicott: British paediatrician who analysed the effects of maternal deprivation in children: the catastrophe Barthes refers to is the absence or death of a mother figure in early childhood.


compares the religious meditation in solitude – devotio moderna – in the Middle Ages with the solitary perusal of photos today


What does Barthes mean when he says that only in private is his image “free to abolish itself”? (see above also pp. 10-15 on the pose)


compare p. 5. In fact the structure of this book can be compared to an elaborate musical form (cf. p. 27 which provides a clue). Part 2 has been recapitulating and developing part 1. Some recapitulations are more obvious than others.


Golaud & Mélisande. A reference to the Belgian Maeterlinck’s symbolist play (which the French composer Debussy turned to his only complete opera) Pelléas et Mélisande. Golaud finds Mélisande in a wood and marries her, in love with her beauty (her image). She never says where she comes from or who she is beyond her name, or whether or not she and Pelléas (Golaud’s half-brother) had an affair or not. At the end of the opera/play, she becomes pure image, a dead body, without ever saying anything to confirm or deny Golaud’s suspicions about her.


“no one is ever anything but a copy of a copy, real or mental” – where have you heard or read (something like) this before?


What is the Photograph able to reveal now?

How is this the corpus that Barthes has been trying to assemble?


The camera lucida was a more sophisticated later development than the camera obscura (see p. 10). It allowed the painter to see simultaneously the subject painted and the image projected onto the canvas. Barthes (of course) is correct historically in linking the camera lucida to the photogaphc camera: Henry Fox Talbot, an artist and one of the pioneers of Photograph, tried to use chemical means to fix the images projected by his camera lucida.

(how many pages before the end is this term introduced? How many after the beginning did you find camera obscura ?)


Strangely at this extremely late stage a new term is introduced. Which concept /term does it recall – and vaporize?

Masks – where have you read about masks in this book before?


another difference between film and photography?


Kristeva, Julia – Bulgarian who defected to France in the 1960s and has become one of the most notable psychoanalysts and literary critics of the century. La verité folle refers to her article “Le vréel” published first in 1979 – just before Camera Lucida was written (translated as “The True-Real” in The Kristeva Reader ed. Toril Moi 1986). The article concerns the idea that a sign can be linked simply to another sign without any reference to its referent (i.e. the thing it refers to). So “cow” would not refer to an animal but may simply be linked to another signifier, say, “wit” which might be connected to “time” which might be associated with “egg-cup” to produce the “sentence” “cow wit time egg-cup”. Obviously this is meaningless according to conventional logic since it refers to nothing at all. However, mysticism and madness might find a kind of truth in it. In terms of image, hallucinations work in the same way (p. 114). (Note that for Kristeva, Barthes, Derrida and Foucault madness is often a positive value since it is interpreted as a resistance to the violence of the patriarchal culture of the twentieth century. Following Lacan, these thinkers often consider madness as the result of an overwhelming confrontation with reality – against which most of us build elaborate and “rational” defence systems). You may like to compare it to Baudrillard’s notion of “simulation” too: how are they the same and different?


ecmnesic – “a form of partial amnesia, in which the memory of events prior to a particular period in the patient’s life is preserved in its entirety, whereas the memory of events subsequent to that period is completely abolished” (see footnote to p. 250 in the Penguin ed. of Freud’s Studies on Hysteria – though Freud took the term from a French psychiatrist, Pitres)


ecstasy – “exit from the self” – according to many religious traditions union with God. Of which concept is it a variant?

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.


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?


mathesis – mental discipline, knowledge or science


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


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.


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”.


parenthesis – see note to page 20 below


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.


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


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.


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.


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


“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?


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”?


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


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).


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.


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?


….and the pornographic and erotic?


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.

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

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.