Roland Barthes on Photographing the Unconscious

Roland Barthes on Photographing the Unconscious ๐Ÿ“ท

“We shall probably get nearest to the truth if we think of the conscious and personal psyche as resting upon the broad basis of an inherited and universal psychic disposition which is as such unconscious, and that our personal psyche bears the same relation to the collective psyche as the individual to society.”

~Carl G. Jung


In her 1973 work, Camera Obscura of Ideology, Sarah Kofman explains how Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud use the metaphor of the camera obscura to illustrate their theories.

“Before it was the metaphor for objective knowledge, as with Rousseau, or of perspectivist knowledge, as in Marx and Nietzsche, or of the unconscious, as in Freud, the camera obscura was a technical apparatus which served as a model for vision. At the very moment that Marx employs it as a metaphor for ideological inversion, science begins to think that the problem of inversion is a false one.”

Freud uses the camera obscura to describe the unconscious. Marx uses it to illustrate the false consciousness of ideology, and Nietzsche suggests it illustrates forgetting.

She writes,

“Freud’s use of the model of the photographic apparatus is intended to show that all psychic phenomena necessarily pass first through an unconscious phase, through darkness and the negative, before acceding to consciousness, before developing with the clarity of the positive.”

In a striking and compelling short book written shortly after the death of his mother, Roland Barthes suggests the exact opposite of these three thinkers: camera lucida serves as a better metaphor for describing the unconscious, reality, and memory.

Meanwhile, he offers a new way of seeing and understanding photographs.

Roland Barthes invites readers to consider the power of the photograph to ratify the memory that it represents which has everything to do with the relationship between the signifier and the signified that he attempts to complicate:  

“In front of a photograph, our consciousness does not necessarily take the nostalgic path of memory (how many photographs are outside of individual time), but for every photograph existing in the world, the path of certainty: the Photograph’s essence is to ratify what it represents.”  

In Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes speaks of the copresence of two elements in every photograph: the studium and the punctum.

The studium accounts for the desire to study and understand the photograph. This is the socially accepted interpretation of the meaning.

The punctum, which translates from Latin as “point” resonates with the Greek word for trauma, pointing to the point of the wound or damage.

“The power of the punctum comes from its attempt to annihilate itself as medium — to be no longer a sign but the thing itself.”

If the punctum points to the trauma, then it brings the unconscious to the surface — instead of hiding in obscurity; trauma becomes clear.

Kasia Houlihan talks about the complexity of this idea:

“It is as if the photograph brings out the unconscious; it also represents the unconscious, while at the same time, it denies all of these relations of meaning. The photograph allows for the sight of self, not as a mirror but as an access point into a definition of identity—identity associated with consciousness, thus housing a whole; for it is in the photograph ‘where being coincides with self,’ a, ‘true being, not resemblance.’”

In other words, the photograph captures a kairotic moment of the real and preserves it for as long as the medium survives. The photograph captures what Walter Benjamin defines as aura, anticipating Henri Bergson’s cinematographic mechanism of thought

When we start to treat the product of the unconscious as real, then we can hold it in our hands, turning it over to feel the emotional quality of that image of thought. And in our contemporary moment, what is felt, is paramount.

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Roland Barthes on Photographing the Unconscious ๐Ÿ“ท