The heart of Barthes’ philosophy of the image, and in turn the heart of Barthes’ essay, is the utopian pursuit of truth in photography – the attainment of what Barthes refers to as “the impossible science of the unique being”. Throughout this essay I will demonstrate the intimate relationship between the pursuit of this ideal and Barthes’ conception of the punctum. Firstly, I will set out the terms of engagement – what is Barthes referring to when he describes the studium and the punctum? What is “the impossible science of the unique being” ? Secondly, I will relate these concepts to Koen Wessing’s image of mourning in the Nicaraguan war.
In order to understand the relationship between the punctum and Barthes’ pursuit of “the impossible science of the unique being”, we must first understand what Barthes means when he describes the studium and the punctum. By Barthe’s account the studium is an affect “of the order of liking, not of loving“. It is that affect resulting from the rational apprehension of certain properties through cultural channels – a comprehension, a registration of authorial intent. Barthes describes the studium as “a kind of education which allows [him] to discover the Operator,” (Barthes 1990: 28) and it is through that education, that cultural knowledge of the signs and symbols present in the work of a photographer that we may perceive whatever meaning the author intended to convey. But the studium is by definition a bloodless thing – a “polite” awareness, something “vague [and] slippery”, lacking in the power to provoke “[their] delight or [their] pain”. Its truths are external – they are about the image. The studium is what the author, the culture, history and precedent have to say for the image.The punctum is what the image has to say for itself.
The punctum is that which “pierces” the Spectator, that feeling which is beyond their control, which penetrates their cultural conditioning and affects them on a more personal level. The nature of this punctum ranges from puzzlement and curiosity (“why this sheet?”) to a sudden revelation, an epiphany as to “the impossible science of the unique being”. Whatever the intensity, the punctum is something which strikes us, bruises us, leaves us tender – those focal points which we find so compelling. On some level, we find ourselves challenged and changed by the punctum – what separates a mere registration of the sheet from a fascination with the sheet – the punctum sticks out, rises above the rest of the image. And the punctum is inevitably incongruous – if it made sense, if it was old news, it would not affect us in the way it does. The punctum is that which we cannot account for. It is in all senses of the word a culmination – that thing towards which the image is working, the peak, the very point of the image. The punctum is that which speaks to us. It is an is an encounter with something beyond ourselves, something undeniable. It is in this way that the punctum is the truth of the image. What Barthes pursues in those pictures of his mother is the “truth of the face [he] had loved,“ that character which cannot be ignored or filtered through some cultural channel – a deeply moving, deeply personal experience.
But what does all this have to do with “the impossible science of unique being” ? The essence of the impossible science is the pursuit of truth in representation. The punctum pierces us, bypasses our cultural channels because it can not be likened to anything else. It can not be represented away or rendered down to an expression of authorial intent – it is a matter of unique being, irreducibly a truth in its own right. The process of each attainment is a science in itself, a pure, dialogic work tailored to its subject – the impossible science: that which can not be reproduced.
In order to illustrate these concepts, I will explore my relation to Koen Wessing’s image of mourning. In all honesty, I will only be able to illustrate a part of my argument – although this image has touched me, it has not provoked the revolutionary work of the impossible science. Firstly, I will describe the studium of the image – what I perceived through the medium of my cultural knowledge. Secondly, I will describe the punctum of the image – what struck me about it.
What is most clear about the image is that it is an image of mourning. This is the fact that struck me least – something so apparent as to be taken for granted. The two sheets are the centrepiece of the image, one the shroud of a deceased boy and the other held as surrogate by a woman who is presumably his mother. There is the tragedy of loss – the inability to accept what has happened. The people are arranged as if in a procession. The remains of the street are like islands. It’s an image of decay. The image tells a story – the war has passed through and we are confronted by the stark reality of death, the death of a loved one. The personal side of war. I can perceive all this, but I am not moved. I am aware that Wessing is providing an account of the horror of war, but the horror itself is encountered in an abstract sense – one step removed from passion, movement. The studium does not compel us to action – it is a “polite awareness”, a complacency. We are encountering a thing on familiar terms – the subject of the studium is neatly framed, caged in precedent. Above all the studium is that which can be resolved, which can be “finished with”.
Conversely, the punctum is that which can never be resolved. We do not resolve the punctum, we come to terms with it. The punctum is unprecedented, and so forms the basis of precedent – it is the unique being of the image. It is always the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the image, but it is never taken for granted. For me, the punctum in Koen Wessing’s image of mourning is the phrase on the door behind the mourners: “FSLN”. It produces the affect of a Tetragrammaton. The strange spots (bullet holes?) surrounding it, the fact that it’s just a few inches off the ground. The phrase is somehow foreboding – what does it mean? Was it left by the revolutionaries? Is it a ward, a warning, a claim to some territory? It intrudes on the scene, it distracts from the tragedy. The discovery of punctum reshapes the scene. What does this phrase have to do with the state of the street? It somehow surveils the image, imposes itself. It is the intrusion of language into the scene. Just now I discovered the letters stand for “the Sandinista National Liberation Front”. The object of the punctum may be grounded in history, it may be subject to studium, but there will always be some element which defies explanation, compels investigation. These are the mysteries posed by the punctum, this is the subject of the impossible science. It is in this way that we come to terms with the punctum – we inscribe it on the foundation of our being. We must become the punctum, transform ourselves into a vessel for the punctum. It compels us to do so. It is the nature of the mysteries that they never be solved, but this does not mean that we do not strive for them. From here I can see the beginnings of the impossible science, and I have discovered that the punctum is necessarily the subject of the impossible science. The punctum consumes the image – the tragedy is irrelevant. Not only does it reshape the scene, it reshapes the Spectator – the impossible science is as much a work on the image as it is on the self.
Barthes, Roland (1990), Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Glasgow: Flamingo, Excerpts pp. 23-28, 67-71