Elkins, James. ‘Writing’ What Photography Is (Oxon: Routledge, 2011) 1-14


No, what bothers me, at least at first, is that the uncomfortable intimacy of the voice, and its discomfiting affections, are supported by a certainty I cannot understand: a certainty, almost a conviction, that the author’s frame of mind is not an impediment to his project of finding the “nature” of photography. Why doesn’t he think his wounded imagination might be a problem?

[CL] causes me to rethink what any writer’s control might amount to, or what any theory can be when it is so entangled with desires that it hardly appears as a theory.


And all that humid emotion, that fierce carelessness about theory, that apparent willingness to let words drown their own sense, adds to my annoyance: is this photography?

Barthes’s melancholy insinuates itself into the fabric of his argument, and even, insidiously, into my own responses, my own writing.

I am aware of a cloying pull from the lulling authority of his prose.


My first refusal, then, is the refusal to treat Barthes’s melancholy as a symptom, and my second is to refuse to treat it as a theory – as Serge Tisserson does when he argues that photographs are not only backward-looking, infused with nostalgia and trauma, but also forward-looking and prospectively healthy.


With theory neatly divided from writing, Camera Lucida would become usable for thinking about photography in the way it has often been taken to be by readers who prefer to ignore the glasshouse atmosphere that nourishes Barthes’s strange thoughts.


[Discussion on the differing treatments of CL by Rosalind Krauss and Michael Fried]


[…] they show how difficult Barthes book has been to use, or even to read. One tries to emulate Barthes’s living hybrid of theory and writing, and ends up producing a clanging encounter of sharp-edged theory and foundering experimental writing. The other professes no particular interest in Barthes’s hybrid project, and, like a surgeon probing for a bullet in a soldier’s body, extracts one line of hard theory from the entire dubious book.

Academics in the humanities don’t yet know what to do with writing: real writing, dangerous, unpredictable, living writing, which can quickly turn on the arguments it is supposed to nourish and devour them.


Affect is as tightly bound to his book’s message as nerve sheaths to nerves. With a book like Barthes’s, reading for the writing or for the argument is like tearing the book apart one nerve fiber at a time.

Any academic essay that locates Barthes’s arguments and sees the writing as a symptom of mourning is not serious enough about the book’s form, just as any reader who prefers the book as a meditation is not serious enough about its intention to argue.

[Elkins describes “the turn”, in writings on CL]


For Barthes, “writing degree zero” – the title of his first book – was the impossible dream of writing, where form did not matter and matter filtered transparently through form.

But Photography Degree Zero [Batchen’s book] doesn’t participate in Barthes’s theme, because its authors mainly attempt to write “colorlessly,” as Barthes would have said. The essays in the book are written with minimal affects and maximum scholarly control, keeping near the impossible “colorless” temperature of absolute zero, nowhere near the incandescent pulse of the text they study.

In that realm of orderly cold, the authors mostly treat Camera Lucida as if its form could be sequestered from its argument, as if no matter how heartbreakingly beautiful the writing may be, no matter how supersaturated and dripping with affect, Camera Lucida can still be read as history, as theory, as criticism.


It is clear to me that a full answer to Camera Lucida cannot be an academic essay: three decades of scholarship have not yet produced such an answer. And it is clear that an answer cannot be a work of fiction, a memoir, or anything proposed as creative or experimental writing. The only way to reply to a book as strange as Barthes’s is to write another one even stranger.

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