Константин Родик
Analyst of the literary and book market
Liberal Arts
6 minutes for reading


Share material
Roland Barthes — French philosopher, critic, and theorist of semiotics, the science of signs and symbols. One of the French «new critics», representative of structuralism and poststructuralism / tumblr.com


No serious conversation on «What is photography?» goes without bringing up three names: Benjamin, Sontag, Barthes. Barely every new theoretical study begins with a pushback against them. For example, the last of the works translated into Ukrainian — «100 Ideas that Changed Photography» by Mary Warner Marien, professor of history and theory of photography, which testifies that the mentioned authors «remain relevant and influential».

And five lines down she has a strange phrase: «Photography is the medium about which almost everyone has something to say». Yes, it’s more than the general «understanding» of soccer and politics, which is confidently judged mainly by broadcasts — literally everyone has an opinion about photography now since everyone has smartphones equipped with cameras much more powerful than the «Leica» that revolutionized mass consciousness more than a hundred years ago.

In such a context, Marien’s statement about the relevance/influence of older grades might even be perceived as a graceful mockery of authority. But our trio took care to protect themselves from devaluation, and in a very ingenious way: they actually classified photography as a transcendent, fundamentally unrecognizable phenomenon.

Walter Benjamin, in the late 1920s, developed a «theory» of flâneur-voyeurism: the knowledge of the world through irresponsible (in the perfect sense: freedom without obligation) wandering contemplation of it. Benjamin was a collector of sensual experiences — both in his lifestyle and in his works of essays.

Volodymyr Yermolenko, a researcher of his work, writes: «Benjamin did not become an actor from philosophy; he rather took over the role of a detective from philosophy» (Storyteller and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and His Time. — K.: Krytyka, 2011).

Photography for detective Benjamin was like a vine for water searchers. Is it possible to talk about those twigs as an instrument of evidentiary forensics? He doesn’t say it is — he just believes it is.

Yermolenko goes on to excavate Benjamin’s worldview: «Only silent things: architecture, photography, empty streets, collections of antiques — can lead to an alternative comprehension; only they are the real carriers of a hidden language… Collecting is not only pragmatic; it is platonic because it removes things from life’s surroundings, putting them into an ideal circle of meaning».

And — you won’t believe this — it refers to the ideal sense circle of photography as «the presumption of mystery».


Обложки книг Мэри Уорнер Мариен «100 идей, изменивших фотографию» и Владимира Ермоленко «Рассказчик и философ. Вальтер Беньямин и его время»
The covers of Mary Warner Marien’s «100 Ideas that Changed Photography» and Volodymyr Yermolenko’s «Storyteller and Philosopher. Walter Benjamin and His Time».


Forty years after the publication of Walter Benjamin’s «A Brief History of Photography» (1931), it was first analyzed in detail by the American literary scholar (who is also titled a philosopher with good reason) Susan Sontag: «The camera in his hands turns a person into someone active, a voyeur: only he owns the situation… Photography has established a chronic voyeuristic relationship with the world, which levels the significance of all events» (About Photography. — K.: Osnovy, 2002).

At first glance, Sontag denies Benjamin’s «presumption of mystery» of photography. First of all, she emphasizes its aggressiveness: «The camera is the ideal hand of consciousness, striving to take possession of everything… To photograph means to appropriate the thing photographed. This action is to enter into a definite relationship with the world…

Technology has made possible the increasing prevalence of attitudes that treat the world as a series of potential photographs… Industrial societies turn their citizens into image addicts, and this is the worst form of mental pollution» (much will be written about the influence of photography on political practices later, but that is for another time).

Sontag even drew a diagram of photography trying to «kill» painting: «The photographer was imagined as an attentive but impartial observer scribe, not a poet. But once people realized that no one photographs the same thing in the same way, the assumption that cameras give an impartial, objective image gave way to the realization that photographs are evidence not only of what they depict but also of what the individual sees; they are not a registration but an evaluation of the world… Painting has never had such imperial ambitions… to democratize all sensations by translating them into images». The conclusion: «A patricide in relation to painting and an aggressiveness towards the human being».

But all these fascinating reflections are disputed by a quote from the photographer Diane Arbus, who at the time of writing her book «An Aperture Monograph» (1973) had already received the status of a photographic classic: «Photography is a mystery about a mystery. The more it tells you, the less you know».

In Benjamin Moser’s very useful book «Sontag. Life and Work» (L.: Publishing house Anetti Antonenko, 2023), we read: «Susan Sontag offered a cheerfully eclectic view». This view is better known to us in the interpretation that «everything that is not forbidden is allowed». In classical literary studies, it is known under the definition of «new sensibility,» which labels essayism from Nietzsche to Barthes.

So, Roland Barthes, with whom Susan Sontag was intellectually close, even dedicated some of her essays to him. Barthes was sparingly translated into Ukrainian, and his last book, «Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography» (1980), has reached us only now thanks to the publication of the Museum of the Kharkiv School of Photography (2022).

But who was Barthes? The impassioned Wikipedia uses «philosopher» as his first definition, although by education, practice, and places of work, he has always been a literary scholar. Of course, the deeper a literary scholar goes, the closer he is to the philosophical frontier because he or she must «categorize, identify patterns in order to compile a corpus». Especially when he goes into the maze of structuralism, of which Barthes is considered to be the completion. And this structuralism is like a minefield, where every uncertain step can cause an explosion of intellectual dissent.


By joining the Huxleў friends club, you support philosophy, science and art


However, in «Camera Lucida…» Barthes doesn’t even try to drag us into the usually losing terminological discussion; he disarms us completely: «The photograph cannot be transformed (spoken) philosophically». And he also ruthlessly presses his really high authority: «I renounce all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to imitate someone else’s view».

And, of course, what is not allowed to the bull is allowed to Jupiter: Barthes theorizes on the mechanism of photography’s influence on man and even coined a «term» that has been floating around in all ambitious photoreflexions ever since. It is punctum, the imperceptible moment when the viewer’s memory is pierced by some detail-detonator of the photograph, the «pervasive accident». Punctum as recollection: «I recognize with my whole body».

Moreover, it happens «in the indistinct zone of my consciousness». Which means that «to discover punctum, I don’t need any analysis». And the final nail in the coffin of our hopes for logical explanations: punctum «exists only for me». It’s not even the artist’s favorite «I see it this way», but a bit cooler: «This is how I feel it».

So, it’s not so much reflection as conspiracy. Instead of philosophy — faith. Barthes only smiles indulgently: yes, this is «the religious substance from which I am molded; nothing can be done about it». And adds: «Photography appears to me as a bizarre medium, as the newest form of hallucination». After all, it is not surprising if we remember what this French philosopher is actually «molded» from.

In her time, the Ukrainian philosopher Maria Zubrytska compiled a very interesting «Anthology of World Literary-Critical Thought of the XX Century» (L.: Litopis, 1996), where we read: «Barthes made no secret of the fact that the sources of his worldview as a scholar were the four directions of the «new criticism»: existentialism, psychoanalysis, marxism, and structuralism». This is such a rattling mixture, something like a philosophical «Molotov cocktail», where each factor resists evidentiary verification and claims the status of quasi-faith. No wonder the researcher has this association: «Photography has something in common with resurrection». Or even so: «I seemed to realize that there was a connection between Photography, Madness, and something that I had not yet found a name for».

Actually, that very scholarly adrenaline — «had not yet found a name» — is completely devalued in Barthes’s latest book. It seems as if the university professor has «floated» under the influence of the sweet and ever-active vapors of agnosticism: «What I can find words for does not penetrate me. Inability to find words is the best symptom of embarrassment». This is where Barthes suddenly recalls Kafka’s statement: «We photograph things in order to put them out of our minds. My stories are a way of closing our eyes».

Here, it is worth reminding of another statement by Kafka, who, in one of his letters, tried to define the essence of his writing: «To tell about something that is in my nature, and that can only be experienced in this nature». In this light, one might well categorize «Camera Lucida…» as a Kafkaesque debauch in Barthes’s philosophical cage.

Barthes also quotes Nietzsche, Kafka’s forerunner: «The man of the labyrinth does not seek the truth, but only his Ariadne» (the similarity to Nietzsche’s aphorism about the abyss in this, for example, statement by Barthes is surprising: «If I can bypass this picture with my glance or try not to let it contemplate me»).

All three — Nietzsche, Kafka, Barthes — were men of the labyrinth. Each has his own ghostly Ariadne that helps him come to terms with hopelessness. In that sense, yes, they are depressing texts.

But Barthes also had a purely realistic reason to be depressed. «Camera Lucida…» was written as a «response» to the death of his mother, with whom he had lived together all his life. «The only «thought» I can contemplate is that, at the end of this first death, my own death is already delineated; nothing remains between the two but waiting; I have no other resource than this irony: to talk about the “impossibility of saying something else”».

Actually, the subject of photography arose from looking through a family album in an attempt to reconstruct as fully as possible the image of the mother, which used to be obscured by ordinariness. Each time, I stumbled upon only a fragmentary resemblance — «I was floundering in images that were only partially true, and therefore total falsity».

Ms. Zubrytska’s anthology, mentioned above, contains one of Barthes’s seminal essays, where he writes about the modern «civilization of the Sign». Mr. Roland rightly regarded himself as something like the chief priest of this civilization. It was in his article «From Work to Text» that he deprived authors of their copyrights because once a work is released into the social space, each reader-viewer himself assigns a price to it «without taking into account the will of his father» who in his own creation «is already only a guest».


Обложки книг Сьюзен Зонтаг «Про фотография» и Марии Зубрицкой «Антология мировой литературно-критической мысли XX в»
The covers of Susan Sontag’s «An Aperture Monograph» and Maria Zubrytska’s «Anthology of World Literary Criticism in the XX century».


The theory is valid but not comprehensive. It was photography, which actively resisted this theory, that prevented him from reaching complete satori. Because of this intransigence, the maestro took offense at photography. To such an extent that he labeled it with a bunch of unfair labels. «Photography is an accident».

In «Camera Lucida…» Barthes behaves quite in accordance with his own «theory of the score»: «Nowadays only the critic performs the work, as the executioner performs the sentence». The insult to the stubbornness of photography was so unbearable that he compromised even the most scientific principles and agreed to «cross out the strictness of the Law in favor of the sphere of the Imaginary».

Any advocacy and opposition is rejected not because of insufficient argumentation but because of weak faith. Two paragraphs before the end of the book, he sighs, «This is what characterizes so-called developed societies — the fact that they consume images rather than beliefs».

Olena Chervonik, the book’s translator and research editor, who specializes in the theory of photography, has written a justly complimentary yet courageous article about Barthes, where she notes: «He feels that he has analyzed the nature of his desire rather than the nature of photography». Hence the «fluidness of Barthes’s manner». (Krytyka. 2022. no. 5–6).

There, she quotes an even more relaxed assessment by a scholar from the University of Florida: «Nancy Shawcross notes that the book can be categorized into three genres: adventure novel, autobiography, and quasi-didactic treatise».

After all, why not? The Nobel Prize was once awarded to philosopher Henri Bergson for «literature».

It’s also worth hearing this interpretation from Jennifer Friedlander of New York University: «Barthes believes that photography is capable of pointing to phenomena that lie beyond the human ability to conceptualize them linguistically or visually». Yes, it flows through Barthes’ short remark: «The tension of the unspoken, the tearing to speak out». All the latent despair of his last book is the inability to access the world directly, except through words and pictures.

Half a century ago, when «Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography» bookmarked the then limit of penetration into the phenomenon. But now we know more about the brain than even the science fiction writers of the time could have dreamed of — and who knows what our abilities will be tomorrow. It’s no coincidence that Barthes applied this comparison to photography: «The Enchanted Princess from “Sleeping Beauty”». If he had known Gogol’s «Viy», he probably would have resorted to this more radical comparison. Because — one cannot but agree with the French philosopher: «Photography is dangerous».

As a «living image of a dead thing»? As an unsolved mystery? As life itself?


When copying materials, please place an active link to www.huxley.media
By joining the Huxleў friends club, you support philosophy, science and art
Share material

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: