“… the new visual era, opened by the photograph, is still seen through the enchanted screen of the ‘graphosphere’. The exposition, however positivist, guards the aura that fiction and classical culture gives unmistakeably to the object to which they apply themselves. The cultural doubleness is not only characteristic of the 19th century; it extends its influence well beyond and continues to haunt, like a fantome, the most recent discourse, in saturating La Chambre clair with latin and greek terms (the punctum, the studium, the spectrum, the noeme, etc.) Roland Barthes himself has recourse to this screen, as if the abandonment of the concept ‘of writing’, up to then central in his work, to the benefit of the imprint and the Referent, can only be done in maintaining,in extremis,a lexicon issue from the classical and rhetorical culture with which photography, and more generally, visual industries, strongly break.” [Philippe Ortel, 1999]
The ruptures are always followed, it seems, with fantoms, and the more modern the new break is, the more it changes everything, the more ghosts there seem to be who don’t get it, who haven’t received the word that they should think themselves into extinction.
I would put Ortel’s critique of Barthes’ terminology in Camera Lucida on the opposite pole from my own ‘enchantment’ with these terms, which seem, contra Ortel, to express well the state of the rupture – for far from being in the visual era, we are in, unmistakeably in, sunk up to our necks in, the era of the mashup, the era of the caption, the era of blogging, commenting, uploading, vids and texting.
A week ago I wrote an earlier post about my dissatisfaction with the phrase, “reading a picture”, “reading an image”, “reading a film”, etc. Like the rather dirty dog I am, I don’t want to remove that bone from my mouth quite yet. I want to drool on it some more, make it slick.
In Camera Lucida, Barthes proposes a dynamic of the photograph – or of the experience of the photograph – that employs two terms, studium and punctum, which are not exactly opposites and aren’t exactly in tandem. Barthes disgards, here, the operator’s point of view – he is writing as the spectator. “What I feel for these photos [which he has been commenting on] arises from a mid-range [moyen] effect, almost a training. I don’t see, in French, the word that expresses simply this sort of human interest. But in Latin, I believe, this word exists; it is studium”, Barthes writes, “which does not mean, at least right off, ‘the study’, but the application to a thing, the taste for someone, a sort of general investment, eager, certain, but without any particular acuity.”
That word, study, does exist in just this sense in English – but not in any English. In American English, and especially American English in the South. One of Flannery O’Connor’s greatest and most mysterious stories, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, is keyed to the verb “study”. In it, a retarded young woman is married to a traveling man named (unbelievably, and all too believably) Shiflet. The young woman is the “baby girl” of an old woman who happens to own an out of order car, which is what Mr. Shiflet really wants. The first time we see Shiflet, he is spotted by the old woman, who lives in a desolate spot, coming down her road with a box, which he sets down just outside her fence. His face is described in that devastatingly cartoonish way that O’Connor uses to conjure the countryfried tribes of the South, ending with this sentence: “He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.” This young man comes up on the porch and introduces himself to the old woman and the daughter, who introduces herself in turn ("I'm pleased to meet you," the old woman said. "Name Lucynell Crater and daughter Lucynell Crater. What you doing around here, Mr. Shiftlet?"), and then the young man tells her a thing that introduces the verb study into the story for the first time:
"Lady," he said, and turned and gave her his full attention, "lemme tell you something. There's one of these doctors in Atlanta that's taken a knife and cut the human heart—the human heart," he repeated, leaning forward, "out of a man's chest and held it in his hand," and he held his hand out, palm up, as if it were slightly weighted with the human heart, "and studied it like it was a day-old chicken, and lady," he said, allowing a long significant pause in which his head slid forward and his clay-colored eyes brightened, "he don't know no more about it than you or me."
This version of study, which is connected to “the study of”, or what Barthes calls “l’etude”, falls short of the power and glory of God and the devil. But Mr.Shiflet, who ranges between the latter two, is a man who also studies – in this second sense:
“He reached into his pocket and brought out a sack of tobacco and a package of cigarette papers and rolled himself a cigarette, expertly with one hand, and attached it in a hanging position to his upper lip. Then he took a box of wooden matches from his pocket and struck one on his shoe. He held the burning match as if he were studying the mystery of flame while it traveled dangerously toward his skin. The daughter began to make loud noises and to point to his hand and shake her finger at him, but when the flame was just before touching him, he leaned down with his hand cupped over it as if he were going to set fire to his nose and lit the cigarette.”
“Studying’, here, possesses that blunt approach to the object, that near acuity, that is the twin of studium as Barthes uses it. Barthes, reaching into the inexhaustible magician’s hat of rhetoric – the tricks of which served him right well, better than Ortel gives them credit for – has found a word that does more than describe a cognitive attitude towards the photograph: it also describes a cognitive attitude towards the newspaper, and towards much of the internet as well.
We don’t exactly read a photograph, and we don’t exactly look at one. We don’t have, for photographs, some limited range of symbols and components – something equivalent to letters or signs or ideograms – that we have for a text, and that we even have, for most of Western history, for painting – or for tattoos. And we don’t exactly look either – or at least, what we look at (even if we looked, as operators, to take the photograph) is what has been looked at. Our look is always a second look. Studium, or study, covers this ground well, since it doesn’t exclude reading or looking, but points to an attitude, to a sort of preliminary intentness, that fills our head when in relation with the photo or texts like a newspaper, which is designed to be like a book or encyclopedia but, also, unlike – from the headlines to the placement of the photos to the continuation of columns in the paper.
When we study the paper, we don’t study it with the sense that we will keep it. Like Shiftlet’s match, the newspaper is ultimately, classically, in the days of paper, for tossing away. The physical fate of the newspaper always hung over it, and was often brought up in popular culture – such as in films about journalists, who were almost always rather seedy and amoral men. Sometimes,however, things were cut out of the paper to be saved – or a paper itself was saved for some reason. When man landed on the moon, my parents saved the Atlanta Journal that headlined the event. Years later, when my Mom died, I was going through her things and found a yellowed copy of that paper. It seemed extremely sad, and to my too literary mind, too much like a detail out of some story Joyce might have written – a Dubliners detail, an unbearable punctum – to use Barthes term. Indeed, the punctum leads Barthes to the death of his own mother, which is the subtending story in Camera Lucida – the story of finding photographs of his mother in her house, after she died.
The association between the newspaper and the photograph upon which I am insisting, here, is helpful in understanding the newspaper effect, in modernity. The great critics of the newspaper – Kraus, Tucholsky, Bloy, Orwell – all understood its “black magic”, to use Kraus’ term, as an enfeeblement of language that served to replace reading by what I am calling, following Barthes, study. Karl Kraus, who wrote that the real freedom of the press is freedom from the press – our natural and best freedom – gave this criticism a monstrous obsessiveness over forty years by ‘cutting’ out quotations from Viennese papers and applying to them the acid of his Sprach-kritik with such effect that that they always yielded, in the end, the same result: an untenable bêtise, an underlying stupidity that was like some chemical ingredient which surreptitiously cretinized the consumer. The consumers in this case were Austrians who happily engaged, in those forty years, in one frenzy of mass murder – World War I – and were preparing themselves for another one – World War II – when Kraus died, in 1937.
Kraus’ underlying premise, his critical vocabulary, his rage against the cruelty and unintelligence of the dominance of study over reading or looking, was, in its broad outlines, predicted by Baudelaire’s reaction to photography in the Salon of 1859 – which I’ll end with. Baudelaire, in spite of being on good terms with one of the greatest of photographers, Nadar, diagnoses the rage for daguerreotypes as the introduction of industry into art – and, in consequence, the end of art. He grasped the fact that the industrial experience was becoming the norm, not the exception. Nature, as he saw it, was being replaced by precision. Of course, the natural philosophers, since Boyle, had dismissed nature as a hopelessly misbegotten patch of a concept that had no causal power in science – and once it lost that causal power, it could only decay into myth. But Baudelaire understood that poetry lived in that uneasy marginal space. The photograph, symptomatically, satisfied both the mythical (the likeness to “nature”) and the scientific/industrial (“precision”) in a way that no art could compete with. It was Mickey Mouse from here on out, so to speak.
These are, of course, reactionary positions – that is, they are positions with nowhere to go – instead of revolutionary ones. But they contain, in all their disgust and self-undermining industry – their appalled and compulsive study of study – moments that any revolutionary – any upsetter of our present order – must understand. I’m tempted to end here, to splurge, with a long quote from the end of The Life You Save May Be Your Own, however hokey the convergence of my theme and example may be. Shiflet, as those who know this story, does finally get the old woman’s car running – his whole intent, apparently – after ‘studying’ the engine, and he negotiates with the old woman over his marriage to her retarded girl until he gets to take off in the car for a honeymoon, and some dollars to spend.
“Occasionally he stopped his thoughts long enough to look at Lucynell in the seat beside him. She had eaten the lunch as soon as they were out of the yard and now she was pulling the cherries off the hat one by one and throwing them out the window. He became depressed in spite of the car. He had driven about a hundred miles when he decided that she must be hungry again and at the next small town they came to, he stopped in front of an aluminum-painted eating place called The Hot Spot and took her in and ordered her a plate of ham and grits. The ride had made her sleepy and as soon as she got up on the stool, she rested her head on the counter and shut her eyes. There was no one in The Hot Spot but Mr. Shiftlet and the boy behind the counter, a pale youth with a greasy rag hung over his shoulder. Before he could dish up the food, she was snoring gently.
"Give it to her when she wakes up," Mr. Shiftlet said. "I'll pay for it now."
The boy bent over her and stared at the long pink-gold hair and the half-shut sleeping eyes. Then he looked up and stared at Mr. Shiftlet. "She looks like an angel of Gawd," he murmured.
"Hitch-hiker," Mr. Shiftlet explained. "I can't wait. I got to make Tuscaloosa."
The boy bent over again and very carefully touched his finger to a strand of the golden hair and Mr. Shiftlet left.”