Taken as pure artifact, the photograph may be seen as that singular instrumentality of desire by which we seek perpetually to recover or recuperate the past -- be it our immediate past, or the past of previous generations. Always, the photograph acts as the medium that would obliterate all trace of itself in the performance of its delivery of the Other -- other time, other culture, even other self. My self, as composed only yesterday in the failing garden of autumn, undergoes, through the agency of the photograph, a sea-change: the absent made present once again, the vanished self returned as revenant.
To see ourselves in the photograph is to gaze into a mirror with the power to eternize the past, to fix and stabilize identity, to stop the slippage of time. In its role as recording angel, as talismanic preserver of the real, the photograph provides the unimpeachable evidence by which we build a sense of continuity with the past, even as it subtly undermines that continuity, or rather, renders it fictive, replacing the idea of the past as immutable and somehow sacrosanct with a highly contextualized version it has manufactured on its own.
The photograph, seemingly innocent of history, is maculate with its desire to puncture and despoil history, to become its sole totem and fetish. The speculum of the photograph, which we clutch and display as we might some charm to ward off death, is steeped and stained in our mortality.
Perhaps this explains the deep and utter fascination it holds for us: through its impossible project of effacing the inevitability of death it appears to afford us with the opportunity to enlarge our personal being, to supplement our sense of loss and decay with the image; yet at the same time, it mordantly impresses on us that death is the end of all plots. At bottom, the photograph is metaphysical -- it expresses the longing of human beings to transcend space and time and the limitations of personal condition, to displace the acute anxiety we feel at the disappearance of the past through the replication of the past in an image. And yet, the ideality of the light, its power to illumine and clarify, is in the photograph transformed to something murkier, almost opaque.
To write with light, literally, in the photograph, is to inscribe on the psyche another kind of darkness or obscurity; “the real” is presented in all its crystalline and incontrovertible quiddity, only to be subsumed beneath the desire to possess what cannot be possessed; to restore by means of a technological apparition that which is already irretrievably lost, and by doing so assuage the unbearable melancholy that we read into the daily diminution of our being.
This theology of light embodied by the photograph represents for Roland Barthes both the triumph of a pellucid realism and the apotheosis of the romantic yearning to immemorialize the past. Barthes is openly and joyously lyrical about this self-described utopian project: for him, paradoxically, the photograph makes possible the ancient dream of a pure and wholly unmediated perception. In the photograph, proclaims Barthes in Camera Lucida, “the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation” (89).
Barthes fetishizes the documentarian power of the camera. His is a peculiar realism -- it extols and valorizes the image of the thing above the thing itself. This attitude extends even so far as to encompass the individual himself. The act of being photographed induces the subject to transform himself ”in advance into an image” (10). “I feel,” writes Barthes, “that the Photograph creates my body...” (11). It is very much as if Barthes feels himself to be undergoing the primal dehiscence which for Lacan characterizes the creation of the specular-I, that projection of one’s infant body in a mirror that presents an image of the self perfected, whole and complete.
Lacan writes, in “The Mirror Stage,” that the infant (or to substitute Barthes’ term, “the spectator”) gazing into a mirror is caught up in a drama whose origins are prompted by a sense of deficiency that eventually passes into the re-figuration of the self “through the lure of spatial identification” to arrive, via “a succession of phantasies” at a new a form of totality (4). “What I want,” says Barthes, “is that my (mobile) image, buffeted among a thousand shifting photographs ... should always coincide with my (profound) self” (12). Although a few sentences later he laments that this desire is doomed, that he can never attain a “zero degree” of embodiedness, the entirety of Camera Lucida is nevertheless underwritten by this wild and unfulfillable longing to authenticate the self as Other, to re-assemble the fragmentary aspects of being through the seemingly automatic, autonomous and anonymous aperture of the camera’s lens.
The key for this, for Barthes, is held in what he calls “the punctum” of the photograph, a term he initially characterizes as “that accident that pricks me” (27). The punctum precipitates a frisson; through the representation of some arbitrary detail it evokes a sharp emotional response. By its completely contingent nature, it speaks both to the wound and the mystery of being. It is the mark of the human, that is, it has the power to surprise us by touching us in a profoundly intimate way. For Barthes, the punctum provides a gateway to the Absolute, to the purely unmediated vision of the real. Charged with a “power of expansion” (45), the punctum is liberating: it bears the signal quality of what in an openly theological discourse would be called “grace.”
“What I can name cannot really prick me,” says Barthes (51). The punctum acquires its virtue through its resistance to classification; its opacity ennobles it, and deepens the sense of mystery it carries to the eye. The punctum behaves as a kind of Derridean supplement, making available a surplus of meaning that does not so much confirm the “studium” of the photograph (by which Barthes means its field of interpretation, the precise historical moment it presents to us) as it subverts and lays it open to another and deeper kind of seeing. The punctum is what restores being to its most intimate disclosure by way of violating the field of the studium. It is essentially a-historical. This is what enables Barthes to assert his claim for the photograph as the mechanism that rescues desire from mediation. It is a claim that refuses to recognize that desire is always already shaped by intention, that vision is always vision of something, and therefore necessarily delimited from its inception.
There remains, nevertheless, something appealing in Barthes’ impossible project. Merleau-Ponty sums it up in his essay, “The Specter of a Pure Language,” thusly: “We all secretly venerate the ideal of a language which would ... deliver us from language by delivering us to things” (4). For Barthes, photography is such a language. It “reverses the course of the thing” photographed and opens the way to a “photographic ecstasy” (119), a moment of perception that is outside time, yet drenched in the erotics of the mortal, the absent.