Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On the "Deaths of Roland Barthes" and Camera Lucida

Blanchot and Barthes

Last class, we discussed Derrida's seemingly banal conclusion from his reading of Blanchot; namely, that Derrida's point ends up sounding like reader-response theory where it is a question of a (partial) identification with the character. Derrida speaks of the idea of the "singular in general" (93). For me, this is the passage that comes closest to yielding this conclusion: 

But this attestation both secret and public, fictional and real, literary and non-literary--we only judge it to be readable, if it is, insofar as a reader can understand it, even if no such thing has ever 'really' happened to him, to the reader. We can speak, we can read this because this experience, in the singularity of its secret, as 'experience of the unexperienced' beyond the distinction between the real and the phantasmatic, remains [demeure] universal and exemplary. (93)

On one hand, Derrida is right that the situation of an always impending death is an exemplary condition. He writes before this passage on the 'lightness' in Blanchot's story as a "confirmation of finitude" (90). But this seems to appeal to an unproblematic humanist notion of the subject. As we pointed out in class, does Derrida really need Blanchot's story to get to this point? If this is his point (or one of them), I think we answered no. 

However, he returns to Blanchot as a relay for Barthes in his essay, "The Deaths of Roland Barthes." Here, Derrida argues that Blanchot’s writing on Bataille’s friendship is absolutely unique: “And yet the metonymic force of the most poignant writing allows us to read these pages” (Derrida 290). When he discusses Barthes’ mother, he argues for a similar metonymic force. Derrida’s language here is hard to parse out. He asks (I assume rhetorically) how the text about Barthes mother could be poignant if that metonymic force was not there. However, in this essay, he seems to think less in terms of ‘understanding’ the text while reading and more about being affected by the text—the possibility of a punctum. The metonymic force is “not to be mistaken for something that facilitates the movement of identification” (Derrida 289). 

I am perplexed at the next few lines where Derrida writes, “I do not put myself in his place. I do not tend to replace his mother with mine” (Derrida 289). So if he does not “tend” to replace his mother with his own and he maintains that Barthes is right in distinguishing his mother and the Figure of the Mother (see Camera Lucida pg 75) perhaps Derrida is thinking here of “a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable” (75). Perhaps the reader associates qualities of the mother. Or, rather, we understand Barthes mother through the adjectives that force into our minds—this is our way of feeling Barthes loss. But in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, the narrator writes, “a relationship which adjectivizes is on the side of the image, on the side of domination, of death” (Barthes 43). So can the soul—that which animates the body (the air) be grasped through adjectives, if adjectives are on the side of death?

Barthes describes the air not as an ‘image’ (and thus, embodied in adjectives) but as “ultimately something moral, mysteriously contributing to the face the reflection of a life value” (110). The ‘air’ is not my identity, so we should agree with Derrida that this metonymic force cannot be a move of identification. Rather it is an “intractable supplement of identity, what is given as an act of grace” (109). So perhaps (and I use perhaps intentionally, following Derrida’s hypothetical, “as if” style) what Derrida would argue we “read” in Blanchot is that irreplaceable value—or maybe it’s a “feeling.”

I feel as though I may not be getting where I need to go (or returning to what I need to return to). Furthermore, I think these texts, as fragmentary, preliminary, and scattered, authorize my own response text to be in pieces, pieces that try and grasp without grasping too hard, so as to contain what the text say within a concept.

The Referent

Derrida reads Barthes generously. When I think of Barthes thoughts on the referent, the “this has been,” I think it in the naïve way of saying that the photograph offers a certainty that this person indeed has been in the sense that the photograph cannot lie as to its truth. Barthes writes, “because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there” (85). For Barthes, writing cannot give this kind of certainty because it is not able to “authenticate itself” (85). In the age of digital image manipulation, it is hard to think that this is a structural necessity of the image, even though we persist in calling digital photography, photography. Perhaps we can save Barthes from the accusation of being before his time in a few ways.

One way is that he allows that if we can prove that an “image is not a photograph” then its having-been-there is not a necessity. In this sense, there is no more photography and Geoff Dyer’s introduction will have been right: “Far from invalidating Barthes’ arguments, however, the self-fueling, self-consuming present of the digital tense means that Camera Lucida has acquired the internal glow of its own preoccupation with photography as a technology in the process of becoming past, part of what has been” (Barthes xvii).

Another way may be to realize that the Referent that Barthes (and later Derrida) talks about has nothing to do with the truth of the object or person it portrays: “The important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time. From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation” (Barthes 89).

It is this possibility that Derrida holds onto. Rather than reading the Photograph as a specific and irreplaceable instance, Derrida takes Barthes logic of the “having been” to be characteristic of language as well: “this conjugation of death and the referent did not have to wait for the Photograph to have an essential relationship to reproductive technique, to technique in general” (Derrida 284).

Derrida initially distinguishes between the Referent, which is “noticeably absent, suspendable,” but the “reference to this referent” call it the “intentional movement of reference,” “implies just as irreducibly the having been of a unique and invariably referent” (Derrida 284). Even though Derrida says that this does not happen with any other image or discourse, it seems to me like he is implying that it does happen with other discourses—or at least autobiography. If not, how could he call the Winter Garden Photograph (which is never presented to the reader) the “punctum” of Barthes text? It seems to me that Derrida is saying that this supplementary, contrapuntal movement of the studium/punctum is not limited to what we consider (ontically) the Photograph. As he says earlier in the essay, “Ghosts the concept of the other in the same, the punctum in the studium, the completely other, dead, living in me.  This concept of the photograph photographs every conceptual opposition: it captures a relationship of haunting that is perhaps constitutive of every logic” (Final italics mine, Derrida 272).

Thus, this haunting logic of the photograph, this having-been is less a having been existing, but rather a having-been-unique, in the same way that the narrator’s (or, perhaps, Blanchot’s) experience cannot be “experienced” again by the one who testifies in his place. In the same way that we can never fully understand or grasp the “deaths” suffered by Roland Barthes, such as the death of his mother. The name “Roland Barthes” is an absent referent, haunting Derrida’s text without ever presenting itself. It is impossible to present him to the reader.

Derrida himself reads these two texts (the first and the last: Writing Degree Zero and Camera Lucida) as if

the negative of an idiom were finally going to appear and develop before my eyes, as if the place, step, style, timbre, tone, and gesture of Roland Barthes [. . .] were all of a sudden going to yield their secret to me. (Derrida 268)

Derrida’s Task

The question Derrida is asking (in different ways throughout the text) is how to speak on Roland Barthes on (near?) the occasion, at the instant? of his death. He initially promises himself that he would never speak near someone’s death because it would be “unbearable” (280). He then proceeds to list several different ways that someone speaks about the individual who has just died, laying out what he could have done. So to get around this, he decides to talk less about Barthes deaths, but the deaths he has endured.

So one of the questions Derrida is asking is what should we say on the occasion of someone’s death. He writes at the beginning that he is writing this for Barthes even though it may never get to him. Thus, Derrida seems to be writing less for the living than for the dead: “The interaction of the living must be interrupted, the veil must be torn toward the other, the other dead in us though the other still” (Derrida 282).

Thus, Derrida decides that he will talk about who Barthes was for him rather than in a particular context. He undergoes a passion for Barthes and the religious connotations of his language are not accidental. Derrida ends his essay on a quasi-religious note, using stigmata for wound and referring to anamnesis. While I am most familiar with the doctrine of anamnesis in Plato, where knowledge is framed as a process of remembering, it also refers to the Last Supper: “Do this in memory of me.”

Interestingly, these words are uttered, repeated, again and again at every Catholic mass as each communicant seeks to enter into the Mystery of Christ. In a religious sense then as well, Derrida is right that “anamnesis, even if it breaks off always too soon, promises itself each time to begin again: it remains to come” (Derrida 298). It remains “to come” because it is necessary to repeat it week after week. 

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