A Wasteland?

So this week for one of my English courses, we’re required to submit a short summary of a poem by T. S. Eliot (The Wasteland if you’re interested) detailing one particular line in the poem that you think is either striking or goes some way to summarising the poem, on the forum for the module. Literally within about five minutes someone had posted on the forum. The tutors had asked us to highlight ONE LINE from the poem and submit a SHORT SUMMARY of why you thought this line was of particular interest; this one guy decides to post the whole poem (434 lines to be exact) and then say underneath in his “summary” that he doesn’t feel as a student of English Literature that we should attempt or can even summarise such a poem in one line. At this point I wanted to smash my face into the keyboard. I thought, what the fuck is this guy doing, you pretentious t***. But then, once I’d calmed down, I thought OK, fair does to this guy. He might have been saying it to be as I like to say “indie” or “alternative”, but he actually made me think: “can you actually say anything in one line?”

This led me to thinking about how I’m finding it difficult to find a picture that actually says something/say something other than what I’ve already blogged about. I keep looking on photo blogs/newspapers/attempting to take a “good” photo myself, and going “oh that’s a lovely photo. Oooh that’s powerful, that’s striking”, but there’s so many I do this with. And then this guy goes and posts this pretentious shit, and then it hits me, that there’s nothing out there that unless I force myself to write a really awkward blog pieceon, that is actually going to be worth writing about. Then I think oh, I’m obviously with this guy in thinking it’s impossible/unjust to summarise/analyse works of art/photography in such a concise manner (a concise manner such as this blog). You’re all going to hate me. But when I said last week when I was being a t***, that language fails to communicate what a photo is or is saying, I think I genuinely mean it.

I’ve been reading review after review (trying to figure out what even Barthes is saying) commenting on how great a piece of ‘canonical’ work Camera Lucida is in its exploration of photography,[1]  but more importantly and strikingly, the reviews I’ve been reading lament to how the book was so ‘frankly personal, even sentimental: an essay in 48 fragments that deliberately frustrated readers looking for the semiotics of photography they imagined Barthes would (or should) write.’[2] Even Barthes couldn’t really say anything about photography, other than how destructive and damaging his mother’s death was for him. He ‘shrinks from being comprehensive; he has no interest in the techniques of photography, in arguments over its status as art, nor really in its role in contemporary media or culture.’[3] He notes the Studium, in its necessary contextual denotations, and the “special” aspect of a photo that holds the beholders gaze, but without having any meaning as to why it holds our gaze (punctum). But then he doesn’t really say much else. And again I come back to thinking about what the English guy said, and I think there is no simple or concise way of describing/analysing a photo.

So this leaves me at an almost stand-still. I’m obviously not going to make this blog redundant, because it’s compulsory, and I enjoy reading other people’s submissions, and every so often an idea strikes me, but I think it’s an interesting (even if it’s also massively pretentious and frustrating) issue/idea that is brought up in the exploration of Barthes and the almost semiotics of photography, and being able to describe a photo with language.


[1] Brian Dillon, Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, The Guardian, 26 March 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/26/roland-barthes-camera-lucida-rereading

[2] Brian Dillon, Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, The Guardian, 26 March 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/26/roland-barthes-camera-lucida-rereading

[3] Brian Dillon, Rereading: Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, The Guardian, 26 March 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/26/roland-barthes-camera-lucida-rereading

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One Response to “A Wasteland?”

  1. I thought I’d comment on this post, I can’t top it but I like theory, and semiotics, so I thought I’d add some more.

    The phrase ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ is in some sense true, but also very limiting.

    Images can never be converted to language, and if they are the language is arbitrary to the image and its real meaning. What we say is not really what we mean, or it’s shaped by the language which we have to use; we are all limited by language and discourse (Theorised in Semiotics and Orientalism).

    Barthes also looks at phenomenology (the study of subjective experience and cosciousness, feelings are usually considered) and photography: What you personally feel and experience when confronted by a photograph. His punctum is something which pricks us, bruises us, it is something which we feel strongly about. But how can we write about something as personal and subjective as our own feelings, nobody else can really understand what we mean unless we use arbitrary clichés. For instance, what does the word love actually mean, is it just a word? Surely it’s different for everyone but we’re given a generic term and a standard definition which limits itself. This cliché has created a discourse for discussing it, which limits what it can be, or what it actually is: (Sorry for picking such a clichéd example, make of it what you will…)

    Language is an unsuitable medium for talking about images or feelings, but we have nothing else. We can only try and avoid cliché and come up with something new. However, is anything truly new if everything exists within language? This could be one of the reasons why Barthes talks about the exchange of photographs. Is this is the only real way to respond to photography?

    I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with your rant, I just understand the difficulty of writing about photographs. I like a photograph, there is a discernible punctum, but I can’t write down exactly why. Maybe that’s not my fault, but the medium in which we are trying to respond.

    Coming back to the phrase at the beginning of this comment. Any number of words won’t be enough to describe a photograph, but a photograph also can’t communicate in the same manner as words. They are two different languages, they speak in different ways we just have to understand how is best to translate between the two: In translation we can’t be too generic or too precise, or we might lose the true essence of what is there.

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