Theory in Studio: Ode to Roland Barthes—Already Dead Not Yet Dead

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Alex Robins, Collage of Roland Barthes, 2012.

Roland Barthes (1915–1980) is a figure from the history of philosophy whom I’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t been sure how to approach. It seems inadequate to refer to him simply as another of Paris’s post–World War II intellectuals. Unlike most members of that scene Barthes was not swept along by the dominant trends of phenomenology and existentialism but instead carved out his own idiomatic corner in semiotics—the study of signs. Nor would it seem fitting to merely explicate his technical concepts (which are many). What seems amiss about these two approaches is how incongruous they are with the way Barthes himself wrote. He did not belabor any great historical narrative, nor did he fuss over philosophical distinctions. In his writings, Barthes gave careful consideration to the mundane, and he respected his own first-person perspective. Anyone who writes about Barthes must meet him on his own terms, with a personal delight in the world of everyday objects.
I enjoy the chapters in Barthes’s 1970 book Empire of Signs, in which he teases out the symbolic importance of chopsticks. Barthes sees the Japanese—unlike European cultures, which cut, pierce, and tear food with utensils—using chopsticks to caress their food and gently move it to the mouth. This quirk of material culture speaks to a deeper Japanese sensibility for quietude that has followed me to every dinner table since I read about it. Barthes’s oeuvre is full of these compelling observations on items overlooked by philosophic canon. He spins out the significance of soap, milk, and underwear (all can be found in Mythologies of 1972).
In thinking about an essay that would do justice to Barthes, or at least no harm, I became less concerned with repeating the particulars of his writing and more interested in employing the ethos of his writing. It is an ethos propelled by two beliefs: first is a commitment to the quotidian without recourse to irony; second is a fearlessness with personal pronouns. I read Barthes’s many uses of “I” and “my” with great admiration. He loses no authority (except in “The Death of the Author”) by invoking his own perspective. Together, these aspects of his writing ethos form a strong stylistic shield against the pretensions of philosophic language. His is a rare accomplishment in intellectual history. Therefore the only fitting way to begin an essay in honor of Roland Barthes would be to express his powerful style (perhaps even his abundant use of parentheses and colons) and to begin anew:
I recently reread Barthes’s book Camera Lucida, a short but captivating work about photography. In it Barthes insists that photography is irreducibly connected to death. He relates the story of cleaning out his mother’s apartment shortly after she died and finding there a photograph from her childhood. The little girl who looks back at him from the photo is the same person who has just died of old age. Barthes wonders how he could know this to be his mother, a woman who no longer exists, in an image from a time when Barthes didn’t exist. The photograph stands in an uncomfortable relationship to death.
Alex Robins, Barthes Toon, 2012.

Although the episode of Barthes’s mother’s photo is one of the most memorable in the book, I was struck by one of its lesser passages. Barthes remarks that the only thing he finds soothing about having a photo taken of him is the sound of the shutter clicking. Barthes stresses that his relationship to photography is not that of the professional photographer but only that of an observer or occasional posed figure in photographs. He dwells briefly on the experience of posing. In general he finds it to be an alienating and strange experience in which he is dissected into small visual emanations. Barthes reminds us that early photographs required their models to be held in place under harsh light for long periods of time, similar to the distressing position of a patient in surgery. Yet in this otherwise distressing experience of posing he still delights in the sound of the shutter.
The click of the mechanical iris. The auditory snap in the snap-shot. For him it speaks to the history of the machine itself—to the fact that, during the nineteenth century, cameras were made by carpenters who were trained to make cabinets and clocks. For Barthes the camera is just a “clock for the eye.” What he hears every time the trigger is pushed is not a distressing metal click but the comforting, “living sound of wood.” Obviously Barthes is free-associating, but it is a charming idea to sense a technological continuum in the moment that the camera clicks. It pleases the imagination not to hear a hollow metal clap but the warm thud of wood.
Today this experience is somewhat lost. In the age of cell phone cameras and the like, perhaps one of the most unpleasant aspects of posing for a photograph is the shutter click. Things have radically changed from the SLRs of the 1970s, though even the most basic digital camera still makes a clicking sound. This click is superfluous, however; it is unconnected to any mechanical process. Instead it is connected to the comfort of tradition (i.e., that we expect there to be a sound). Or to the obligation to society (i.e., we should not take secret photos of others without making a sound). All these reasons are far removed from the mechanical processes in which photography originated. We hear in the digital click not the history of the machine but the anxieties of the present.
The disconcerting nature of the digital shutter click is heightened by the fact that the noise is always timed slightly wrong. There often is a slight delay between the moment a finger hits the trigger and when the shutter makes a sound. This duration may be nearly incalculable, but is still perfectly perceptible. This temporal disconnect furthers our suspicion that the click is an impostor. For anyone who has used i-Photo, the delay can be horrifying. The worst of all is when my cell phone takes an inadvertent picture in my pocket. The raspy, simulated sound emerges from nowhere, untethered to time or machine, and startles me like some ghost of a bygone era.
Barthes in a later passage remarks that the sound of the shutter marks the instant that separates life from death. With contemporary digital photos we don’t get that clean distinction. The sound tells us nothing about when the image was actually taken. There is no crisp sound to delineate the living from the dead. There is no satisfaction of knowing that one has been captured on film and has become the dead not yet dead. The mortal significance of photography, as Barthes would have it, has been confused by digital cameras. This is evident even at the minute level of the shutter sound.
We should confront the morose truth that Barthes’s writing does not elucidate our new digital age; he did not know about i-Phones or megapixels. We turn to his book to gain insight into the living medium, but there is no living voice behind the text of his book. The author is already dead. The book, read today, calls on us to remember an earlier time when we could perhaps have had Barthes pose for our cameras and hear the satisfying sound of the shutter. As a remembrance of that era, in homage to Barthes’s sagacity, and in acknowledgement of his passing: I have created an mp3 that you can load into your i-Phone to replace its current shutter sound. No longer will you just hear a click. Instead, your camera will say, “the living sound of wood,” so the device may again be connected to a history Barthes wrote so eloquently about.

Click the player above to listen to an alternative to your typical mechanical shutter sound, or click here to download the MP3.
Here are a couple web links on how to change your camera’s shutter sound:
Daily Mobile Forum, Why Digital Cameras Have Mechanical Shutters, and How to Change the Shutter Sound.


Alex Robins is a PhD student in philosophy at Emory University. His research examines the history of aesthetics with a focus on American theories of art.
Theory in Studio is a series dedicated to highlighting philosophic terms, trends, and figures and showing their relevance to contemporary art. By providing context, the series seeks to demystify theory and introduce ideas that might help inspire future studio practice.