In Mythologies, Roland Barthes takes up the challenge posed by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics: to elaborate “semiology” as what Saussure terms “a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life” (15). Or to put this another way: Barthes takes the world around him as a social text, which can be read more or less like any other and in which the elements that compose it are almost as arbitrary as any other.

But the social text is only almost as arbitrary as any other; for Barthes, we also need “to pass from semiology to ideology” (128), that is, to recognize that the myths that structure the text of everyday life are politically motivated. To adapt a line from Marx: the ruling myths of each age have ever been the myths of its ruling class. There is therefore often a rather complex play between arbitrariness on one level and necessity (or, at least, political motivation) on another.

Wine is a perfect instance of this combination of extreme malleability and narrow determination. As Barthes observes, in France wine “supports a varied mythology which does not trouble about contradictions” (58). For example, “in cold weather it is associated with all the myths of being warm, and at the height of summer, with all the images of shade, with all things cool and sparkling” (60). Indeed, Barthes notes that the fundamental characteristic of wine as a signifier is less any particular content or signified to which it is attached than that it seems to effect a function of conversion or reversal, “extracting from objects their opposites–for instance, making a weak man strong or a silent one talkative” (58). And yet however much Barthes makes hay of this chain of associations and contradictions, there is a point at which the arbitrary play of significations ends. For wine is still, fundamentally, a commodity; in fact, it is big business. The analysis therefore concludes with a sort of determination in the last instance by the economy:

There are thus very engaging myths which are however not innocent. And the characteristic of our current alienation is precisely that wine cannot be an unalloyedly blissful substance, except if we wrongfully forget that it is also the product of an expropriation. (61)

Hence for this reason, if no other, Barthes is far from suggesting some kind of interpretative free play: there is clearly a right way to read the myth of wine, and a wrong way; if we leave out the fact of expropriation, we have ultimately not understood the myth or its social function.

Elsewhere the moment at which interpretation comes to an end is rather more complex, and perhaps more interesting. Take the essay on “Toys.” This is basically a critique of realism. Let us be clear: the problem with conventional French toys, Barthes argues, is not so much that they are gender-stereotyped, that for instance girls are to play with dolls and boys are given toy soldiers. It is, rather, that toys are almost always loaded with meaning: “French toys >always mean something, and this something is almost always entirely socialized” (53).

Toys constitute, in other words, what Barthes elsewhere terms a “work” in contradistinction to a “text”; they limit the range of uses to which they can be put. Indeed, they limit children’s activity and expectation of the world to one predicated on use, rather than pleasure; on interpretation, rather than creation. And for Barthes use and meaning are both forms of tyranny, and they are both essentially dead. As he says of modern toys that are “chemical in substance and colour,” they “die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child” (55).

What’s curious, however, is the reading that Barthes provides, by contrast, of wooden blocks. Such toys are closer to a text than a work: they have no pre-set meaning; they are not premised upon representation, and so do not depend upon interpretation; the child who plays with them “creates life, not property” (54). So far, so good. But the strange moment comes when Barthes associates the open textuality facilitated by such open-ended play with wood. In a sort of poetic reverie, he praises the many characteristics of a substance that is “an ideal material because of its firmness and softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too sharp, the chemical coldness of metal” (54).

It’s not obvious, after all, that wood is any more “natural” (or indeed, any less “chemical”) than metal. Here, the point at which the play of signification stops depends less upon a political analysis of exploitation and expropriation, and rather more on a very familiar contrast between nature and industry, tradition and modernity. In short, here at least Barthes seems to be caught in a myth that he has merely made his own.


Roland Barthes’s analysis of photography, Camera Lucida, claims that photography is ultimately a question of affect, and famously delineates two forms of affect that photographs may provoke, or that provoke our interest–perhaps even our obsession–in photography.

First, the studium is “general interest” or “a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment” to photography as cultural or historical documentation (26). We may be curious or intrigued; our interest may “even [be] stirred sometimes,” but in the end our investment in photography for what it tells us (say) about the conditions of life fifty years ago–or about the scenery or customs of distant lands, or even about our friends’ children or summer vacations–derives from or constitutes no more (and, I’d add, no less) than an “average affect, almost from a certain training” (26).

Second, however, the punctum is what “break[s] (or punctuate[s]) the studium“; it is what “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me” (26). Often the punctum arises from a detail, perhaps at the margins of the image: Barthes’s own examples, taken from news photographs of the Nicaraguan revolution, include two nuns crossing a road, a “corpse’s one bare foot,” “the huge eyes of two little boys,” or the rag covering a guerrilla’s face (23-5). If the studium is “of the order of liking” (27), the punctum by contrast invests the experience of viewing a photograph with a certain shock or surprise, perhaps even disgust, that reveals something of the viewer’s desire.

Barthes is undoubtedly more drawn to the punctum than to the studium. If we can more or less equate the studium with habit–for what is habit but “average affect” or, perhaps better, affect that has been averaged out?–then Barthes is concerned with rediscovering the ways in which photographs break our sense of routinization, of the everyday. If “Society is concerned to tame the Photograph” (117), Barthes’s concern is to show that photography remains wild, untamed. And if the “two ways of the photograph” are to be “mad or tame,” then there is no question than that Barthes prefers madness, or what he also terms “the photographic ecstasy” (119).

(Pierre Bourdieu, on the other hand, might be someone who is more interested in photography as habit, as a regularized affect that coincides with a “certain training”; it would be worth returning to Bourdieu’s own book on the subject, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, with this distinction in mind. It would enable us to provide a more generous, let us say, or perhaps simply more complex understanding of photography and “general interest.”)

Barthes is interested in the punctum as what supplements the routinized, banalized practice of photography (“it is an addition” [55]) but is “nonetheless already there,” ready to prick or shock the unwary observer. Even, indeed, the most everyday snapshots, he suggests, have something “scandalous” about them in that, by “attest[ing] that what I see has indeed existed,” they have “something to do with resurrection” (82). Hence “the Photograph” (and note the capitalization, for this in Barthes’s view is the essence of photography) “astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly” (82).

This astonishment brings interpretation to a halt. Perhaps strangely for someone known as the founder of semiology, of the “science of signs,” who made his name in Mythologies with astute readings of the semantics of the image, Barthes is not here particularly interested in “reading” the photograph. Affect undoes or bypasses the mechanisms of signification and perhaps the symbolic order as a whole. If the studium allows for and indeed motivates interpretation, the punctum actively resists it: “the studium is ultimately always coded, the punctum is not” (51). Moreover, the punctum is somehow blinding, in that it opens up to what Barthes terms a “blind field” (57). Hence the paradox that “in order to see a photograph well, it is best to turn away or close your eyes” (53), for “to shut my eyes [is] to allow the detail to arise of its own accord into affective consciousness” (55).

(For this reason among others–the punctum as supplement, for instance–Barthes is especially close to Jacques Derrida in this book; see my comments on Memoirs of the Blind.)

We should not be surprised that for Barthes photography is essentially about the body (“What does my body know about Photography?” is his initial question [9]), and about “the return of the dead” (9) not simply as resurrection but as the return of death itself. The sense of astonishment or shock provided by the photographic detail is redoubled (or underwritten) by what Barthes calls “another punctum” (96); for if it is astonishing to realize that what I see has indeed existed, this shock owes to the simultaneous awareness that it no longer is. Death, and so time, is encoded in the photograph. Seeing a photograph of his mother as a young child (and much of this book is sparked by reflections on his mother, recently dead, as he scans through old photographs “looking for the truth of the face I had loved” [67]), Barthes realizes that “she is going to die: I shudder [. . .] over a catastrophe that has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” (96).

But photography does not merely register temporality and hence death. For Barthes, photographers are themselves “agents of Death.” The photograph “produces Death while trying to preserve life” (92; my emphasis). This is then the second way in which photography is comparable to religion–or even takes the place of religion in that it provides a new location for Death now that religion does not have same hold it once had:

Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final click. (92).

Photographs perform the scandalous miracle of resurrection, but at the price of reminding us of, or even imposing upon us, the catastrophic and uncompromisingly final death that makes that resurrection necessary–and agonizingly desired.