Jorg Meurkes (5908884) Objects of Cultural Analysis Final Paper 29 January 2013

Thinking the Punctum: Gillian Wearing, Self-Portrait at Three Years Old
Let me begin with a personal experience. One day, quite some time ago, in a well known New York museum, I happened on a photograph. The portrait of a young girl – head slightly tilted, blank expression– a pretty straightforward school picture with a slight touch of awkwardness not uncommon to this category. I wondered why these kinds of portraits often look a bit peculiar. Especially this one. So I scanned the picture to try and find some details, some clues for a possible answer. Was it the old fashioned white blouse with the bow tie? Or the doll-like features, particularly the combination of the blouse and the black hair? Maybe it was what caught my eye in the first place: the indifference of the face staring at me? Perhaps. I was not quite sure. So I continued my investigation. The card next to it gave me some additional information. I think it said: “.. Self portrait. By looking through the holes of the little child’s mask, the artist asks questions about time, identity .. ” (I am sure there was more, but this is all I remember). When I looked back at the image, I realized it was not a simple straightforward portrait, but a photograph of the artist wearing a mask based on a picture from her childhood. I was looking at a photograph of a mask of a photograph. Knowing it was more than just an old portrait, my perception of the picture had shifted. But at the same time, it had not made that big a difference. After all I was looking at the same picture, only now with some additional interestingly sounding text to think about in relation with the photo. A bit disappointed, I walked away. I liked the concept, but the work had not sparked anything in me, nothing aesthetically thrilling. Just some light intellectual wonder. This was soon to change. After observing some other artifacts in the exhibition, I returned to the photograph. At first, alternating between the whole of the picture and the eyes of the girl, I still was not too much impressed. Then I noticed the eyes were sunken abnormally low in the sockets. I noticed a thin grey line on the left side of the left eye: a small shadow marking the difference between the mask and the artist own eyes beneath. Suddenly it hit me. I realized that the eyes of the little girl, were actually the eyes of the artist. This all happened, like a bee’s sting, very quickly. As if the artist was staring right at me, exposing me. A feeling of being caught. I was fixed on the eyes of the artist, staring back at me through the mask. Of course I had read this in the description, but only now I felt a “real” impact: for a moment it was as if the artist was there in person. An angry look, but scared at the same time – as if she was trapped. For a


A detail can only be a punctum if it was shot without the photographer being aware of it. that what breaks or punctuates this field. “that what generates an average effect”– and the punctum. According to Fried. Barthes’s example is the photograph 1 Bildung (German for "education") refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation. At the same time. We should. Barthes distinguishes between what he calls the studium – that what the subject or spectator perceives as the general theme of the photograph. be interestingly talked about. I was subjectively “stung” and. simultaneously. conditioned by social norms and values can be liked. “wounds” or “bruises” the particular viewers subjectivity . this memory immediately came back to my mind. “culture”. my bildung. Barthes observed that:“the detail that strikes him as a punctum could not do so had it been intended as such by the photographer”. became more real than the photograph itself. If Barthes talks about the punctum as a “certain detail”. In this sense. It is possible to view the eyes as a detail that constitutes my particular punctum. for whom it does not exist” (546). as Micheal Fried has shown. information and knowledge. intended details are from the start included in the studium. about a month ago. rather than making me run away. which Barthes denotes with terms like “knowledge and civility”. When. she or it. or whatever it was. we can be sure that the artist did not intend to captured it: “The punctum. whenever a photograph is taken. I dwelled in the order of the studium. Something drawing me closer. But one detail disrupted my cultural undertaking. Barthes precludes intended details as constitutive of a punctum. as well as “pricks”.1 The moment I noticed the thin grey line. but at the same time there was a strong fascination. be careful with such a quick equation. something that he wants to convey to his audience (what could be called culture or knowledge). I learned a bit and this made me like the photograph.moment. certain details will be captured which the artist was not aware of. however. 2 . Details that make up this intended image will have a meaning: the photographer means something with them. I read Roland Barthes’s CAMERA LUCIDA for the first time. But I was not really scared or frightened by it. “politeness”. can even be an object of politicoethical shock and indignation. be the object of more or less pleasure. This is important because. “the body of information”. Maybe there was some anxiety. the punctum is that which distorts both the (signifiers constituting the) studium as well as the subjectivity engaged with the photograph (Barthes 26). Therefore. What I took to be my punctum (the thin red line and eventually the pair of eyes) was a detail intended by the artist. My heart rate had sped up. we might say. I (re)searched for intelligible details. my perception as spectator of the studium radically changed. Barthes’s description of his encounter with the photograph comes close to the my own experience. in the way Barthes has theorized it. Whereas the studium. is seen by Barthes but not because it has been shown to him by the photographer. A photographer in some way always stages a scene that he wants the spectator to see. Until the eyes of the artist became “real” to me.

I also tend to agree with the second point: when I recognized the studium (when I undertook my investigation. which could be counted as ordinary (intended) detail of the studium. In this way Frieds argues that Barthes can be placed in the tradition of antitheatrical critical thought. it must be possible for an intended detail to cause a punctum. The first one is as follows. Barthes is “pricked” by two details that seem to be contingently captured: the small bandage round the finger of one of the children. intended. both about intentionality. In Frieds reading. never staged. “Certain details may “prick” me. and the ones of the artist behind. meant or intended by the photographer. not specifically intended by the photographer. because the difference between mask and the artist eyes behind it was exactly the point of the work: it was explicitly mentioned in the description next to it. it give us a chance to think of the punctum in a different way. It is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally” (Barthes 47) and “to recognize the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions" (27). It challenges Fried’s argument. This photographic work of art thus poses a problem. These details “just happen to be there”. To take a more empirical view. Fried’s argument ultimately rests upon the assumption that a detail that causes a punctum cannot be intended by the photographer. On the one hand it forces us to reevaluate Fried’s line of thought. They did not “happen to be there”. the punctum is precisely that which guarantees the anti theatrically of the photograph: “In short for a photograph to be truly antitheatrical for Barthes it must somehow carry within it a kind of ontological guarantee that it was not intended to be so by the photographer” “The punctum. we must conclude that my experience of what I thought was a punctum. it were precisely the eyes that pricked me. This does not violate my own experience: every detail that did not prick me (the bow tie. which would be the “punctual detail”. and puts forward the possibility to think the punctum without unintentionality as its necessary condition. Fried therefore concludes that intended details can never constitute a punctum. because. It was as if I saw two pairs of eyes: the ones of the child. for it is all too obviously staged. in fact. I am suggesting. and on the other. If they do not. could not be one. Fried bases his argument for a great part on two related passages in Camera Lucida. there are only one pair of eyes present (which were clearly intended). it is doubtless put there intentionally. I agree that if a detail does not “prick” the subject. We could say that this second detail was not directly placed by the artist. and the Danton collar of the other (Barthes). The eyes were obviously intended by the artist. this detail could never be legitimately called a detail. I read the card and I found that it was a 3 . But this is not what interests him. But this would be hard to argue. Nonetheless.of two disfigured children.” If we accept Frieds reading. functions as that guarantee. the hair) was intentionally staged by the artist. for the detail that constituted it was clearly intended. If we take the artwork and its effect (my experience) seriously. and therefore can be thought as the unintentionality that is necessary for a detail to be a punctum.

it would not invalidate this experience. it would not invalidate Barthes description of these details as a punctum. The difference consists in the point of departure. To make this clear. if we are not pricked. we will necessarily trace it back to an unintended detail. it would constitute a punctum. it does not invalidate the point that details that do prick us. We can only be sure that if we are not pricked. it does not necessarily attest to the 2 We might object that some detail that did not prick us. Starting from the recognition of the studium. we cannot be taught to experience a punctum. the detail must have been unintended. it becomes clear that Barthes never denies that intended details can cause an experience of the punctum . In any case. and probably must not be so. intentional. We cannot claim that if we are pricked.2 However. If it was finally revealed that the details that constituted Barthes punctum (the bandage. But f it was later revealed to be an intended detail after all. we recognize the studium. let me rephrase Barthes: “certain details may prick me. it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful. because the studium is defined as the field of culture and knowledge. the collar) were after all intended by the artist. it does not follow that if we start with an experience of a punctum. It is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally. they were doubtlessly intended. From this Fried concludes that. this detail is of the studium. and if we recognize the studium. However. The detail is probably unintentionally shot. because a pricking would constitute a punctum.photograph of a mask) I inevitably encountered the photographer’s intentions. If we are not pricked by a detail. could be capture without the photographer being aware of it. In short. If they do. In the following passage. If a punctum hits. They probably were not intended. Barthes claims that details-that-are-no-punctum are always intentional. we must necessarily encounter the intentions of the photographer. a punctum hits: we cannot choose to be hit by one. we necessarily encounter intentional details. we encounter the artist intentions. If we recognize the studium (if we wander about through the details that make up the studium) .” If a detail pricks a subject. we cannot be sure if the photographer has put them there intentionally. only that it is “at least not strictly” intentional and that it “probably” must not be intentional: “Hence the detail which interests me is not. for Barthes. Thus. He does not claim that the punctual detail must necessarily be unintentional. we recognize the artist’s intentions. this does not follow from both passages. If they do not. and this includes what the artist tried to show in his picture. 4 . or at least is not strictly. a "detail that strikes him as a punctum could not do so had it been intended as such by the photographer" (Fried 546). But it is Barthes argument that if a detail did not prick us. But he does not claim the opposite: it is not true that details-that-are-intended cannot bring about a punctum. could still be intended.

That which we call the detail could be intended by the photographer. the eyes. This “more” occurred in the field of the photographed thing “like a supplement. something that sticks to the image that cannot be cut loose. What we should focus on is that the eyes emanate something through the photograph. piercing through it and pricking me. we can say that the intended detail creates the impression of something more than only the detail which is (strictly) intended. For it created the effect that the artists eyes were present at the same time as the eyes of the mask. might also attest to the photographer’s art. which might be intended. we are dealing with a photograph of the artist wearing a mask based on a picture from her childhood. every detail is not strictly intentional. If the punctum is not limited to the unintentional quality of the detail. It is something else. In other words. The eyes that pierce through the eyes of the mask. function as a reminder that something was 5 . or else. and “that what guarantees antitheatricallity” as Fried puts it. The detail. not the unintended detail that is the punctum. First. for Barthes. while it may not often be the case. But the effect of the eyes was intended this way. trapped. There is something that is more than the pictorial representation alone. In an empirical sense there is only one detail. What is interesting is that Barthes also speaks about the photographers art. theatrical in every sense. and this detail is intended. intended photographic work of art. because it could be intentionally put there.” The artist could not not photograph the eyes that belong to the mask at the same time as her own eyes piercing through the mask. it is. and change it to an affirmative statement: the achievement of this work of art is the ability of the artist to photograph the eyes that belong to the mask at the same time as her own eyes piercing trough the mask. at the same time of the mask and of the artist behind the mask. it says only that the photographer was there. It is also something more. it is ultimately what the work is about and therefore we must call this detail intended. at the very least. It is possible. But what then is the punctum? The artwork under consideration offers a rethinking. that he could not not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object”(232). but suddenly breaks through.photographer’s art. If we take this effect seriously. But it is therefore not a completely unintended detail. It is a photograph of a mask of a photograph. Something that was always there. still more simply. But in my experience this detail was not limited strictly to its intention. it seems that it is ultimately not about the unintentionality of the photographic detail. If we read Barthes closely. The point is only that it does not necessarily attest to the photographers art. for an intended detail to cause an experience of a punctum. a punctum that pierces trough the studium. This gives the effect of the double eyes. to cause an experience of the punctum. For it is always possible for a fully staged. caught behind a mask. But we must also say that. so we can take out the double negation.

this photograph. This is what makes a photograph essentially different from a painting. a referent that necessarily “has been”. stands for its necessary relation of the photographic representation to a real referent. that there must have been more than its representation alone. They remind the spectator that photograph necessarily presupposes a real referent. so that the image can deny the existence of its referent. and therefore if possible express properly (even if it is a simple thing) how Photography's Referent is not the same as the referent of other systems of representation”(76). thereby increasing the likelihood of a punctum. but these referents can be and are most often ‘chimeras. All images in some way represent something. in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. does not point a really existing referent. An abstract painting for example. There is a superimposition here: of reality. There is no necessary link: “The painting can feign reality without having seen it. without which there would be no photograph” (76). but this referent is always cut from its representation.there. the latter cannot be equated with the unintentionality of a detail. What is represented in a photograph always necessarily points to a referent that once was a real thing: “I call ‘photographic referent’ not the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens. as the very essence. most importantly the painting (76). why does the punctum only occurs with a photograph. Every photograph has this essence. the essence of photography. and of the past. is staged in such a way that it.” or the “Intractable: . so the photograph of the masked artist here discussed as well. Discourse combines signs which have referents. we will discover that it is not the unintended detail that matters. This “That-has-been”. “behind the mask of representation”. The question is in what way the photograph is unique in relation to the painting. The latter also points to a referent. “Contrary to these imitations. And in fact. of course. in a way. by reduction. “pushes the essence to the surface”. Barthes compares the photograph against other forms of image representation. the relation between representation and referent is different for each one of the image forms. For Barthes the essence of photograph is thus: “That-has-been. of course. never with a painting? According to Barthes the difference lies in the relation of the image to it referent: “First of all I had to conceive.’” There is as it were a gap between the representation and referent. In his search for essence of photography. if we follow Barthes’s central quest for the eidos.” What is essential for the photograph is thus the relation between representation and referent. which is the founding order of Photography” (76). in other words “death” (as it is no longer). The referent is that what the image represents. the noeme of Photography. “And since this constraint exists only for Photography. However. However. we must consider it. but exactly the relation between the photograph and its referent. In other words. In this sense the work “thinks” the punctum: If 6 . If this realization caused in me the experience of the punctum. It is Reference.

So what can this tell us about the punctum? The punctum is that which both disturbs the studium of. and the spectator engaged in the photograph (26).It is “this is what makes the photograph unique compared to the other “systems of representations” (76). because it is not connected with it. The “fantasy” is broken. at the same time as an experience. politeness. This. this realization necessarily manifest itself as a detail: as a sign in the order of representation. which gives rise to a sudden uncertainty. It is a negative category. that is. While in the case of the painting. normally we are. The photograph does not safeguard the negating power of the punctum. The punctum is nothing other than the spectators sudden realization of the “that-has-been”. as Barthes says. Because of the nature of the relation between what the photograph represents and its implicit referent (which is the ”that-has-been”). the consistency of the symbolic order. . otherwise there would not be a photograph. the “studium” and the subject remain safe and intact. It is simply not there. because it is felt only through the disturbance of the positive categories of the subject and the studium (it does not consist in the positivity of a detail. precisely because of its essence: the sticking of the referent. in other words: in the studium. it can always strike. with the photograph they are always at risk. the essence of the photograph. a gap between representation and (possible) referent. of the “that-has-been” to the representation. However. As Barthes puts it. is most likely to be an unintended detail(not intended to be staged or captured by the photographer): the details that are intentionally shot are much more 7 . The specific relation between a photograph and its referent is why the punctum can only come about within a photograph.we take the mask of the child (including its eyes) as the photograph. the eyes of the artist that pierce through the mask are the intractable. There is no “that-has-been” that emanates through a painting. and often this comes about by a “detail”. the studium. There is a cut. but the very essence of photography: the necessary connected referent. This event always lurks behind the photograph. is disturbed. But it is always possible that this seemingly closed structure is disturbed. “the photograph is literally an emanation of the referent”. we would never have to care about it necessary “having been”. and a detail (as immanent to the representation or studium). stubborn remainder of the referent that has been. as Barthes recognizes. indifferent to this essence (77) Normally we are immersed in our culture. which is the “that-has-been”. Coming back to our initial question. The punctum is not present by itself: it is only a necessary implication of every photograph). The eyes of the artist piercing through the mask make this connection undeniable. Therefore the punctum is actually the same as the essence: the “that-has-been”. It cannot cause a disturbance. knowledge. the punctum is not the unintended detail. However. If this relation did not exist. When a punctum hits. because of its essence. it always manifests itself as. The punctum is thus the same as the implicit referent. There is a necessary relationship . “A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze” (80-81).

which we experience as the punctum. we are awakened of our normal indifference.invested with the studium and therefore do not remind us of the essence of photography: the “that-has-been”. When the punctum hits. Rather. They shattered the studium. emanates. However. The eyes of the artist piercing through the mask exemplify the way this referent is implicated in every photograph. The punctum brings about. when we experience a punctum. the essence of photography. The eyes that had pricked me. trapped behind the mask. This was my experience of the punctum. The photographic artwork I encountered allowed us to challenge the view that the punctum is caused by an unintended detail. the “that-has-been”. but the realization of “that-has-been”. were clearly intended by the artist. “It is this indifference which the Photograph had just roused me from”(77). of which the unintended detail is one. The realization of this essence is caused in different ways. it is not the only way. we encounter the very essence of photography: the necessary relation of the representation to its referent. 8 . It is thus not the detail that disturbs us. Nonetheless they gave rise to a sudden realization of a real thing.

2004. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography.Fig. Cambridge. Gillian. 9 . Print. "Barthes’s Punctum. edition 5/6. Micheal. 1981. Ed. Chromogenic print. New York. 1. Fried. Geoffrey Batchen." Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida. Solomon R. Roland. 71 5/8 x 48 1/16 inches (182 x 122 cm). Self-Portrait at Three Years Old. 2009. New York: Hill and Wang. Wearing. Print. Guggenheim Museum. Works cited Barthes. 141-167. MA: MIT.

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