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Sunday, February 10, 2019

What about Punctum, Then?

I occasionally rail against the philosopher and critic Roland Barthes, who wrote an oft cited but curiously uninfluential book called Camera Lucida. As noted wisely over on Leicaphilia, this is a book which everyone mentions, but nobody has actually read. It's not an easy book to read, being repetitive and boring, and yet somehow also dense. I had to look up at least a dozen words in my recent reading of it, which is a practically unprecedented amount of dictionary work. Further, he uses terms of art that are rather harder to pin down - I suspect that "field" means something to Barthes which I am unable to completely sort out.

Anyways, it's not the worst philosophical blather, but it's not a walk in the park either.

In it, Barthes introduces the ideas of studium and punctum as, somehow, properties of photographs. These are the concepts everyone wants to cite, although they never have much idea what they mean and generally get it wrong. This is, by the way, how you know they have not read the book. Wikipedia has the more or less standard, wrong, definition up right now. If they say something about "wounding detail" you know they've not really read the book.

So, let's see what punctum actually is. Studium by the way, is just the normal stuff in a photograph. In fact, we will learn that it's everything in a photograph. Shhh, don't tell.

To get anywhere, it turns out, you have to understand the "blind field" idea discussed in Chapter 23, because this is used in the only thing I can detect as a useful, operational, definition of punctum. Barthes lifts this idea from cinema, (he says as much) and it is essentially the idea of "trame" which I have written about. It means the life or existence of things in the picture outside of the frame of the picture, before and after the photograph was taken. It is the extension of the photographed into the world outside the photograph, broadly.

Barthes says in Chapter 23 that the punctum creates the blind field. A photograph without punctum has no blind field, with it, it does. Now, Barthes is not an idiot. He knows intellectually that the sitter lived before and after the portrait. He is speaking here through his framework of phenomenolgy and furthermore his personal experience of photographs. What he means, as nearly as I can determine, is that he feels this reality of life and existence in a different and more potent way. He is able to believe in it, in a more-than-intellectual way. He refers to it as a "doubling of vision." Without punctum he sees only the things in the picture, and can only grasp their reality intellectually. In the presence of punctum, he grasps, ectatically, emotionally, that reality, that fully realized existence.

So, that is the effect of punctum, an essentially ecstatic reaction, which makes real the things in the photograph. Note that Barthes divides his reactions to pictures into two very distinct kinds, apparently instantly recognizable. The first is the "normal" reaction, of seeing the photo, recognizing the things in it, and intellectually deducing things, thinking about them, and so on (cf. studium.) The second reaction is pure, and apparently powerful, emotion and ecstasy, a completely non-intellectual spasm incapable of being rendered in to words (cf. punctum.)

Ok, so what is punctum, beyond "whatever produces this effect?" The answer is, actually, not much. Or conversely, a lot of things. It is not a little cute surprise tucked into the corner of the frame (Chapter 14). It is not intentional (or at least Barthes feels that it probably cannot be intentional), it is something that the photographer could not avoid rather than something the photographer actively intended to place in the picture (Chapter 20). The punctum is not "coded" (Chapter 22), you cannot name it. It is not "the pathos of her blouse" although it may be located in her blouse. "Very often the punctum is a detail" (Chapter 19) -- which implies that it is not always a detail. When it is a detail, Barthes sometimes finds that it moves to some other detail, and he also gives us examples in which he cannot locate the punctum he feels. (Remember that shit about "the wounding detail"- um, nope, but thank you for playing.)

Punctum may or may not reside in some detail, but it is not some detail you stick into a picture. You probably can't "stick it in" to a picture at all. It is not something the photographer adds, it is not nameable. It has, sometimes, a locus, but it is not really that locus. It is simply a property of the picture.

Put this together. Whatever punctum is, it is that which makes the picture real for Barthes. It might be a detail, it might be an overall effect. It is elusive, although apparently the effect is not. The fact that it is, in Barthes eyes, unintentional, something the photographer could not avoid, is useful here. Because it was something unavoidable, it speaks to the reality of the photograph. Wherever punctum resides, it is distinctly not artifice, nor within artifice. It functions to reify the picture, by its own reality, by its lack of artifice. Barthes has, by the way, a somewhat touching naivete about what is and is not artifice.

Having established as best we can what punctum means, and what it is, let's revisit the way Barthes reacts to photographs.

Barthes presents this as a personal investigation. He's starting from himself, and developing a theory of Photography based on what he finds inside his own mind (this is explicit in the first chapters of the book.) What he finds is two radically different reactions, in himself. While everyone talks about studium and punctum they never seem to admit that their reactions fall into these two distinct categories. Nobody ever seems to say "ah, yes, I react ecstatically to the doubling of vision" they either just mumble the words before moving on, or if you're lucky, they point to something that definitely isn't punctum ("the excitement on the cyclist's face, placed carefully by the photographer at the edge of the frame, is the punctum, for me" or similar).

I conclude that this bifurcation of reactions is exclusive to Barthes. In fact, it is clear from the text that Barthes is working himself up into a somewhat fraught emotional state. His mother has just died, and he's trying to figure out something. Jedi-like, he reaches out with his feelings, he digs deep into his phenomenological heart seeking his own intense experience, looking for something that will explain photography. Like a child brooding on some trivial injustice, he eventually reaches a state of hysteria and finds his intense reaction.

This reaction, alas, is entirely manufactured.

The brutal reality is that there is no such thing as punctum, it is a figment of Barthes investigation into his own, supremely weird, interior consciousness, coupled to mourning his recently deceased mother (and he is maybe the ultimate expression of a Mama's boy), and his own need to explain photography to himself (and, tediously, to the rest of us).

This is not to say that there is no emotional reaction to photographs. Of course there is. Much of what Barthes has to say is not wrong. It is the notion that there are two radically distinct possible ways to react that is simply silly, and it is in this radical distinction that the definition of punctum lies. No radical distinction, no punctum.

This, furthermore, explains why the theory of studium and punctum have led to nowhere. Well, there are at least two reasons. The first one, though, is that nobody can be bothered to work out what punctum actually is, and when they do, it makes no sense. You cannot extend or build upon an idea that you cannot first make some kind of sense of.

The second reason is political. Barthes says at one point (Chapter 36) "the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation" which means, from Barthes' viewpoint, the power of the photograph to reify, to show us what was really there is more important than the power of the photograph to communicate about what was there. This is anathema to the very people who like to cite Barthes. The only thing they want a photograph to do is to communicate, to reveal the flaws of the photographer, the plight of the subject, and so on. The only thing a photograph does is represent.

The only part of the photograph that matters, to the modern theorist, is the studium, that cluster of nameable, mentionable, reducible, discussable things. The idea that there is anything in a photograph that is ecstatic, unnameable, is anathema. The idea that the simple testimony of that-has-been which a photograph brings - which Barthes argues successfully is the only thing a photograph brings, is anathema. From our position here in 2019, we can readily view Barthes' book as a polemic against the very idea that "the politics of representation" is an important idea for understanding photography.

Here I find myself surprised to be aligned with Barthes. While his punctum is a stupid fantasy, the idea of the photograph as primarily, most importantly, an index which may "create the blind field" is pretty much exactly my position.

Given that literally the entire point of Camera Lucida is a set of ideas that are absolute anathema to the Academy, to the likes of Jörg Colberg, to Daniel Blight, to the editors of 1000words.com, and all their little friends in various art schools, it becomes something of a mystery as to why they're constantly citing the book.

Well, not really much of a mystery, they have no idea what the book says.


  1. Good. Now I don’t have to read it. Good.

    Perhaps punctum is simply that which causes you to linger a little longer on a photo, before turning the page or walking onward.

    1. I can assure you that that's not what punctum means.

  2. A brave attempt. I think most people get as far as 10 in part 1, where a seemingly usable (i.e. self-evident) definition of the two terms is offered.

    I spent a long time grappling with Barthes around 1976/78, ("Writing Degree Zero","Mythologies", "S/Z", "Pleasure of the Text", etc.) and eventually concluded (in typical Anglophone fashion, I suppose) that what he had to say was nothing of any great significance or practical analytical value, and was, in the main, convolution masquerading as profundity. It does read better in French.

    It is annoying, though, when ignorant bastards deck themselves out with unearned philosophical feathers, isn't it? Next up: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Bakhtin, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin... Such people should stick to "nice capture!"


    1. I rather think all these modern theorists tend to latch on to one facet - "wow, look, that's kind of a social construct, innit?" - and then dash off applying their trivial insight to everything indiscriminately, assuming it as a universal, and deriving all manner of stupid conclusions. "Why, everything is a social construct, it must be, so nothing is real it's all just our thoughts, wot? wot?"

      They frequently confuse an argument that *sounds* kind of strong with a real argument. There's a lot of "well, because it is ROUND (circular, spherical) it cannot be GELATINOUS (jelly-like, sticky, semifluid)" which if you're not paying attention sounds reasonable. But it's just stupid.

      (Barthes' habit of repeating himself in parenthetical asides annoys the crap out of me, and is simply bad writing.)

      The whole postmodern/structuralist/post-post-modern experiment is maddening because the premises aren't wrong. They're just incomplete. The conclusions vary from irrelevant to completely out to lunch.

  3. I've never read any Barthes or most of the others cited except perhaps in passing quotes that failed to stick in my memory, like so much else.

    Going by your interpretation, it seems Barthes is describing one aspect of photography, an aspect that is (probably) only important to an incestuous claque of students, curators and critics given to spewing tedious verbiage in order to prove something nobody in their right mind could give a damn about.

    1. Sure, you can ignore these guys. But they are teaching and informing the next generation of Gurskys and Shermans. Their students will, in 20 years, be getting retrospectives at the Tate, at the MOMA, at the Getty. They'll be written up in the newspaper.

      Ignoring them, ultimately, will end up ignoring a large swathe of culture.

      I choose to fight.

    2. Lots to think about in this post and the one that follows. My comment here though is on your larger project.

      You write "I choose to fight", and I'm glad you are fighting because it makes interesting and thoughtful reading. Unfortunately -- as I think you probably know – you’re not really fighting anyone because the people you think you’re swinging at are either unaware that you’re trying to fight them, or know that there’s no gain to them to fighting you because you don’t matter (so you can be ignored).

      Now I’m not saying you don’t matter (as a human being, as a thinker, etc.). This is simply about power. As you correctly note just above your “I choose to fight line”, the place where the fights that matter on this topic happen is in Academia with a capital A. Universities have pulled a fast one on society and convinced many (perhaps most) people that they provide the only legitimate arenas for these fights, and that the only players who can compete are properly certified academics. Of course this is a huge departure from how we used to do our thinking. There was a time not that long ago where all manner of “freelance” intellectuals were swinging away and had to be recognized and addressed by the establishment intellectuals. But with some rare exceptions, those days are over. Academia is like the silver smith’s guild of old: sure, you can quietly and secretly make silver candle sticks in your basement, but you have to be a guild member to sell them in your city.

      In the arena that is Academic Art, the licensed fighters don’t have to pay attention to outsiders. What’s the point? Nobody is going to get tenure by engaging with you. If you try to publish your ideas in their journals or attend their conferences – the actual arenas where the fights that matter to academics take place – you’re not going to get anywhere. They won’t let you in the door.

      This is an indictment of Academia by the way. It results in the kind of in-bred, narrow-minded, conservative group thinking that you’re railing against.

    3. I do know for certain that if we cede the ground unfought, we are certain to lose.

      While I do not see a strategic path from my little blog to victory, I am unwilling to be silent on that account. Perhaps someone in authority will stumble across some little argument that originates here, or was at any rate amplified here particularly well.

      That I do not see how to win does not mean that I do not choose to fight. Or, at least, argue from my safe spot behind this keyboard which is maybe less dramatic than "I choose to fight"

    4. "a large swath of culture."

      Seriously? How large?

    5. All of mainstream art? I mean, I know you think these guys are irrelevant, but it IS clear that in 20 years their students will be, unless some fairly dramatic change occurs, the dominant artists in all museums showing contemporary art, in all competition between artists, they will be the subjects of all media discussion of contemporary artists. Their earlier students are already beginning to dominate.

      So, I guess by "a large swathe" I mean "all of it"?

      I mean, I suppose if you ignore all of contemporary art, sure. You can stick to growing potatoes or whatever. Sure. Or you can resolutely ignore all art made after 1900, although this will involve a certain amount of effort to close your eyes at the right times, feeling your way through galleries and asking a friend to turn the pages of the newspaper until it's safe again.

    6. "all of contemporary art"

      I think you mean the stuff that gets actively promoted as suitable for investing.

      Human culture is hella bigger, TFFT.

  4. It took me almost a year to finish Camera Lucida. Not that it's such a long read, but I needed several weeks between doses of Barthes' convoluted thinking!

    For what it's worth, I think you make a good summary of what 'studium' and 'punctum' appear to mean. It's quite clear that many web commentators have no idea. The one image that Barthes included in his book that I thought illustrated the idea was the one of the two nuns walking along a street somewhere in South America (Paraguay, Uruguay?) with the two armed soldiers crossing behind them. On the other hand, I might just be mistaking the contrast between the two as something more meaningful than it actually is.

    Barthes put me off reading philosophical treatises on photography somewhat, which is a shame as I had planned to read Susan Sontag's 'On Photography' next. I ought to get on and read it. I'd be interested to know what you think of her writing. John Berger's 'Ways of Seeing' is another one on my list of planned reads.


    1. There's a great interview with Sontag on ASX:

    2. Thank you David, I will check that out.

    3. Both Sontag and Berger are infinitely more readable than Barthes, but the latter is much more interesting.