Saturday, February 5, 2011

Barthes--Terminology and Trauma


1. Signifiance/obtuse meaning--

--"in short, what the obtuse meaning disturbs, sterilizes, is metalanguage criticism [. . .] obtuse meaning is discontinous, indifferent to the story and to the obvious meaning" (61).

--"obtuse meaning appears necessarily as a luxury, an expenditure with no exchange" (62)

--"the obtuse meaning is the epitome of a counter-narrative; disseminated; reversible, set to its own temporality" (63).

--"in other words, the third meaning structures the film differently without--at least in SME--subverting the story" (64).

--two types of criticism 1) signifiosis and 2) signifiance: "the choice (the voice?) of  pun, anagram, semantic metathesis, spoonerism: there is a sliding within codes--meaning remains but pluralized, cheated, without law of content, message, truth" (206-207).

--"the grain is that: the materiality of the boy speaking its mother tongue; perhaps the letter, almost certainly signifiance" (182).

2. social gest--"a gesture or set of gestures (but never a gesticulation) in which a whole social situation can be read" (74).

3. tableaux--"Does the tableux have a subject (a topic)? No wise; it has a social meaning, not a subject. The meaning begins with the scoial gest" (75).

--"the tableux is intellectual; it has something to say (something moral, social) but it also says that it knows how this must be done; it is simultaneously significant and propadeutical, impressive and reflexive, moving and conscious of the channels of emotion" (70).

--"Is the tableaux then [. . .] a fetish object? Yes, at the level of the ideal meaning; no, at that of its composition" (71).

4. Connotation--"photographic connotation, like every well-structured signification, is an institutional activity; in relation to society overall, its function is to integrate man, to reassure him" (31, italics mine)

 5. rhetoric-- ". . .rhetoric thus appearing as the signifying aspect of ideology. Rhetorics inevitably vary by their substance (her articulated sound, there image, gesture, or whatever) but not necessarily by their form, common for instance to dream, literature, and image. Thus, the rhetoric of the image (that is to say, the classification of its connotators) is specific to the extent that it is subject to physical constraints of vision [. . .] but general to the extent that the 'figures' are never more than formal relations of the elements" (49).

6. writing (ecriture)--"There is in writing the beginnings of a mass gesture: against all discourses (modes of speech, instrumental writings, rituals, protocols, social symbolics), writing alone today, even if still in the form of luxury, makes of language something atopical, without place. It is this dispersion, this unsituation, which is materialist" (213).

Denotation/trauma: "The trauma is the suspension of language, a blocking of meaning [. . .] the photograph about which there is nothing to say" (31).

"Truly traumatic photographs are rare, for in photography the trauma is wholly dependent on the certainty that the scene 'really' happened, the photographer had to be there (the mythical definition of denotation)" (31).

"the mythological effect of a photograph is inversely proportional to its traumatic effect" (31).

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:  

Which one of these photos is explicable? Which one is able to be "said" in Barthes sense. I ask you this because of Barthes definition and elaboration on "trauma." almost 10 years after 9/11, 9/11 has come to 'signify' in our cultural code several things and pictures like the 'breaking news' one framed the event as a terrorist attack. Can we escape the connotations of "9/11"--can we escape our immediate associations with George Bush, Iraq, and, Osama Bin Laden, and terrorism?

What is the second picture a picture of?

Remains. . . .



But what is it? What is it representing? Paul Virilio gives the caption: "September 11th, 2001, United States."

Does it look like 9/11 to you? Not to me. There are no planes and. . .where is the terrorist discourse? What can we really "say" in terms of the "meaning" of this photograph? Does it achieve "denotation" status--and thus 'traumatic'? Does it elicit emotional responses in us, or are we estranged from the event (Brecht)?

Does this photograph take us out of the "narrative" (diegesis) of 9/11 and throw us into the realm of signifiance? Is signifiance another meaning for "denotation"? For. . .perhaps. . .materiality??

But wait! For Barthes, the "trauma is wholly dependent on the certainty that the scene 'really' happened; the photgrapher had to be there" (30). But is this what makes the picture traumatic? Or is it the opposition of traumatic?

As Sid said in class the other day, I think we need to throw out this idea of "being there" (in the phenomenological sense). I think Barthes himself tries to get beyond this idea when speaks of "writing" as that which is "atopical, without place" (213). This is obviously different from the invention of alphabetical writing, moving on to the Text. Alphabetical writing made the "topics" of Aristotle possible, but here Barthes is inaugurating a new sort of writing, in the name of "materialism" (following Brecht's revolutionary impulses).

The dissonance I see in Barthes writing is that he speaks in the "photographic image" about denotation and trauma---something that disrupts meaning, then he speaks of signifiance which disrupts narrative (but does it disrupt discourse completely?) and then he speaks of writing, which disrupts discourse. But is this "writing" that he speaks of--which he defines as a "mass gesture," the kind of "ideal meaning" he had reserved for the tableaux/social gest? He speaks of a "generalization of the subject" and he does seem to want to get past what he calls "mythologies."

In the first essay, he says that it is 'denotation' that gets past mythologies--so the question becomes--is "signifance" another name for this meaning? I would like to think so, but I cannot help thinking that Barthes still believes signifiance to be, in a sense, readable not as a narrative, but as a signifier: "For written texts, unless they are very conventional, totally committed to logico-temporal order, reading time is free; for film, this is not so, since the image cannot go faster or slower without losing its perceptual figure. The still, by instituting a reading that is at once instantaneous and vertical scorns logical time" (68). But, he adds, this filmic aspect is an "indescribable meaning" (68).

But, upon closer inspection, it does not seem as though the meaning is indescribable because it is the ideal All or Form (or "Real) that we can only approach but not touch, but rather because of the specific "sliding" relationship between the still and the narrative of the film. This is why Barthes claims that the obtuse meaning that "neither the simple photograph nor figurative painting can assume since they lack the diegetic horizon" (66). This caveat saves Barthes "signifiance" from falling into a post-structuralist term for "depth" (However, my other post on Merleau-Ponty explores how his concept of depth may be similar to Barthes "signifiance").

 Traumatic Photographs: Re-visited

So, after carefully making distinctions, we can return to my question (though far from provide answers) to the photographs above.

If we take Barthes distinctions seriously, then the "still" of the news report would contain more "signifiance" than the photograph. The news report is caught up within the "narrative" of 9/11. Now, Barthes may argue that a "news report" is not a "film" in the sense that he is using it, but my reading hinges on assuming that it is a 'film'. But the news report--because of the repetition and circulation of that perspective on 9/11--has lost any "signifiance' that it may have had because it is swallowed up in the narrative. Allow me to rephrase, the 9/11 still does not allow for any "excess"--it is all contained in a convenient frame.

In contrast, the second photograph, I think, contains this excess expenditure, as one cannot discern the pictures location of narrative. In Barthes terms, this photograph is successfully a "mass gesture" "against all discourse" and "atopical"--it is more like "writing" than simple narrative.

Ultimately, I would argue, that the photograph retains a sense of "inhumanness." I mean this in the sense that the photograph does not concern any "human" subject--symbolic or literal. Instead, the photograph reveals the fragments of a building--an anonymous building, escaping the tyranny of the symbolic and the imaginary order--daring us to confront the other side of the Real.

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