Buddha Barthes: What Barthes Saw in Photography (That He Didn’t in Literature)


Prosser, Jay. “Buddha Barthes: What Barthes Saw in Photography ( That He Didn’t in Literature)” pp.91-103 in Photography Degree Zero ed. by Geoffrey Batchen (London: The MIT Press, 2009)


Roland Barthes’s last book is on photography and it is about the limit of words. Beginning with the dropped out words of one Buddhist lama recalled by another Buddhist lama allows us to ruminate on the importance of Buddhism for Barthes. At the end of his life Buddhism leads him to a reality in photography that had eluded him in his life in literature. Almost at the point of death, Barthes finds in photopraphy a reality beyond words: a revelation of death.


[Prosser discusses Barthes Empire of Signs, visits to Japan and changing the East into discourse]

[In Empire of Signs] Barthes compares the satori, the sudden awakening or enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, to a photograph, to a “flash, a slash of light: When[Barthes quotes Shakespeare] the light of sense goes out, but with a flash that has revealed the invisible world; … it is the flash of a photograph one takes very carefully… but having neglected to load the camera with film.”[Empire of Signs, p.84] In Camera Lucida Barthes loads the film onto the camera and works the analogy the other way round. Now the photograph is like the haiku in an “immense immobility.”[Camera Lucida, p.49]


Photograpy’s focus concentrates the mind, like the one-pointedness of meditation, or samadhi. As the most instantaneous medium it draws attention to the present moment. It literalises observation while putting in the background the mediating powers of the artist-ego. Above all photography is not language and as such, lends itself to the ineffable that has been the object of mystics in every world religion.


[Prosser cites Wittgenstein]

But looking at the Winter Garden Photograph Barthes does not get over his loss. He has “nothing to say”, exactly lke Zen according to Watts and corresponding to melancholia in Freud’s famous distinction between mourning and melancholia. “The horror is this: nothing to say about the death of one who I love most, nothing to say about her photograph … no other recourse but this irony: to speak of the ‘nothing to say’ [Camera Lucida

p. 93

What photography’s flash, its slash of light, illuminates is time. The punctum is wounding because it points at lost time, not that can be recovered in Proustian writerly memory […]
Light and time are photography’s elements, as indeed enlightenment and attention to the present moment might be thought of a Buddhism’s.


Buddhism is not a theory (modernism) but a practice and the end of systems. Barthes in Camera Lucida pleads “resistance to any reductive system” and questions prior discourses, expressing “the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical” [CL 8] His return to the imaginary this side of language comes to rest in the image, photography.

[…] Barthes spoke of having been involved in “dismembering language” and called for a return to the imaginary: “I think we may see a return to what I would call a writing of the imaginary.” The return takes place not only in language but in reality; the death of his mother and death in photography collided with his own.

His return to the imaginary in photography is a wish to return to – to return – his mother.

[…] Barthes’s mother is outside discourse. He has not lost “the mother” he insists, but his mother. [Camera Lucida p.75]


[But] in other photographs Barthes realise loss is generic as well as personal, that a generational and progressive loss is not the point.


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