Barthesian adagio: reading and looking

--- Georges Dambier
Among academics, it has now become common to use the term “read” when speaking of pictures.

How did "to read" become the go-to term wheneven the scholar approaches the picture (drawing, painting, photo, film, etc.) ? I imagine part of the answer was the great busting of the White Mythology that happened in the sixties and seventies. The White Mythology put, on one side, cultures with writing, against cultures without writing. This opposition, however, seemed oddly oblivious to the wholly different writing systems we know about and the evidence – from pictographs to tattoos – that the line was always blurry everywhere; and that it was politically charged with all the acids of colonialism, sexism, racism, and other of the devil's helpers. At the same time, the busters of the White Mythology were busting ‘presence’. In the domain of visual culture, this meant junking the idea that one sees a picture in one glance. Just as the printed page might not, itself, move, but is constructed with the idea that the eye ‘moves’ over it, so, too, the picture encodes a mobility that the eye follows, if it sees anything at all. And in that relationship of the immobile that is coded for mobility to a mobility – the act of reading – that is hooked up to an immobility – the reader, whose ideal reading posture is immobile – we get the idea that visual culture is meant to be read. Doctors read x rays, moviegoers read the expressions on actors’ faces, and we all read pictures. Although one could ask, here, whether the busting up of presence is not reinstating an old Aristotelian idea of motion and time that reintroduces presence on another level. But I'm too old to ask that question.

The upshot is, I’m happy with all this, up to a point. But I also like to listen to the ordinary angel of language, and that angel persists in speaking of “looking”: I looked at a picture, I watched a movie. This is what makes me think that more is going on, here, than the afteraffects of the busting of the White Mythology – which is otherwise unbruised in our geopolitics and economics, in our newspapers and Sunday supplements. In other words, when “looking” is systematically displaced by “reading”, I suspect that some nuance, some ‘difference’, has become roadkill.

What is that difference? The ordinary angel of language has an ally, here, in Roland Barthes. Barthes was one of the great busters of the White Mythology, but he was also an escape artist – he spent the first part of his career, on his own account, devising beautiful semiological tricks and interpretive traps, and the second part escaping from them. The m.o. of the second career of Barthes was the discovery of desire. Or, perhaps, the discovery of perversion. In On Reading (1976), Barthes claims that the moment of pertinence, the moment in which a domain of knowledge is organized according to certain purposive principles (which are not veridical, but implicative – that is, they organize the field according to a structuring relevance), is lacking when we come to the discipline of reading. Reading is im-pertinent – it operates in a structure as the structure's perversion, following a subtle, masochistic routine.

And this puts its finger on what I suspect is being run over in the substitution of reading for looking, for this use of reading is anything but impertinent. It is identifying and registering. It represses its im-pertinence – it represses the voyeurism of the look, and the masochist in the structure. It lacks the final courage of its own surrenders, and in this way is easily recuperated by the White Mythology – which is the grandest of all recuperators in history, Mr. Three Card Monte florishing Hegel's Logic.

I’ll end this by quoting Barthes from this essay, which has been slightly misrepresented, in Richard Howard’s translation, by substituting “non-pertinence” for Barthes’s im-pertinence. I like Howard, but a translator should not step on the jokes of his subject, if he can help it.

“This difficulty in finding a pertinence, from which to found a coherent Analysis of reading, we can think that we are responsible for it, by our lack of genius. But we can also suppose that im-pertinence is in some way congenital to reading: something statutorily comes to confuse the objects and the levels of reading, and in this way puts in check not only all research on a pertinence in the Analysis of reading, but even, perhaps, of the very concept of pertinence (for the same adventure seems currently to be happening to linguistics and narratology). This something, I believe I can name it (in a manner that is otherwise rather banal): it is Desire. It is because every reading is penetrated with Desire (or Disgust) that Anagnosology [a general theory of reading, from the Greek, anagnôsco – R.] is difficult, perhaps impossible – and in any case may just accomplish itself there where we least expect it, or at least there were we don’t exactly expect it: by a (recent) tradition, we expect it on the side of structure; and we are no doubt partly right: every reading occurs in the interior of a structure (be it a multiple or open one), and not in the supposedly free space of a supposed spontaneity: there is no “natural”, “savage” reading: reading does not exceed the structure; it submits to it: it has need of it, it respects it; but it perverts it. Reading will be the gesture of a body (for, understand well, one reads with one’s body) that in the same movement poses and perverts its order: an interior supplement of perversion.”