Who will write

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Who will write the history of Tears?

-Roland Barthes

 

Someone trying to put and hold together not just too much with too little but all [s]he knows with what [s]he has.

– Roland Barthes

 

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Unlocking the Book

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Wrapped Book by Deborah Cullen

 

Barthes Myopia was born from a simple question. Why is it so hard to let go of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida? Why can’t I (we) move on – place it on the bottom shelf with so many other books of its time. Why do we (I) constantly grab it when we find ourselves wavering – not just about photography – but wavering about anything that demands a clear vision.

It’s certainly not that it holds any universal truths – my copy of the book is littered with marginalia from friends and foes alike, including early versions of myself, who disagree with Barthes and the critiques his words have garnered over the decades. Nor is it the photographs that punctuate this, his last book. They have become dated if they were ever au courant, well at least those photos the author inserted in the text with a visual form (would I say the same thing about the portrait of “Andy Warhol; a provocative portrait, since Warhol hides his face behind both hands” by Duane Michaels as Barthes describes it, an image he shows us through his words but then turns away from us, keeping it out of the book?). And even though we once embraced them, Camera Lucida‘s heralded offspring — studium and punctum  — feel more like a curse today, like some unsavory relative we can’t disavow because her likeness is etched into each family member’s face.

While the thought of “book as curse” would certainly be a provocative avenue to explore, it was (yet another!) ‘aside’ that recently sparked my waning enthusiasm about our unfolding Barthes’ project. I read an article about visual research tools by Ashley Whamond (“Light Reading: Theoretical Perspectives on Photography as Research,” 2011) in which he hinted that the lasting power of Camera Lucida lies not in Barthes revelation about his own, personal punctums (as read against a photo’s more staid culturally agreed-upon studium) but rather his unspoken but repeatedly demonstrated hunch that photography can have a punctum-producing effect on those who come in contact with it.

And so here it was—a small turn of the phrase, a slip of the eye, a slight shift of the lens—I turned to my Camera Lucida (suddenly mine once again). I ravenously devoured its pages (is it the 50th or the 100th time? does it matter?). I was on the hunt…had Barthes, in fact, left us this provocative clue? And then the startling revelation, that the pull of this book lay not in the discovery of yet one more heretofore undiscovered ‘truth’ but in my absolute belief that even if I had painstakingly copied each word of Barthes’ book (and I have) or memorized each line (don’t we all feel that we have), that even then I would not summarily dismiss Whamond’s revelation, that I could still believe a clue like this might be discovered in its pages, that almost anything might be lying there in wait. Suddenly Barthes looked less like the aging professor with a provincial taste in photographs and more like the contemporary provocateur in step with today’s most tantalizing theories.

For over 20 years I have tried to bind Camera Lucida closed, to relegate it to the bottom shelf, to disavow its text and cut out its pictures. But I never could and now I know I never will. I suppose, in this way, Camera Lucida is a kind of curse.

But as my grandmother used to say, ‘curses, like chickens, come home to roost.’

It’s time to begin Barthes’ Myopia.

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