The Generalized Essence

According to Barthes, “when generalized, [the image] completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it,” (118). He asserts that the image’s power lies in its ability to capture the particular essence of a person just as his Winter Garden photograph revealed his mother’s truest being in the moment that “the mask vanished: there remained a soul,” (109). I searched my phone for images that might convey the essence of someone close to me, and this photograph of shadows was what stood out the most to me. This is me and my brother hiking together, mid-step. He is tossing a rock into the air, and I am photographing us. I find it fascinating that this picture has a punctum for me, as it is just our shadows (the rock in the air is the punctum, because my brother’s tossing game was such a whimsical activity for a nineteen-year-old boy to take part in). However, all the photo reveals are our outlines, the most generalized representation possible of a person. For this reason, I thought of the quotation about the generalized as the enemy of the immediate. Barthes says at the end of his paragraph beginning with the “generalized [image]” “let us save immediate Desire (desire without mediation)” (119). My question, therefore, is – do we think it is possible for a generalized image such as this shadow picture to convey soul and essence in the way that Barthes discusses? I tend to believe, especially as a film and English major and a lover of stories, that making the particular into something general (an outline or shadow) can actually work to encompass more people’s stories and particularities and convey an even larger essence–a universal human essence, an essence bigger than ourselves. As much as the picture of me and my brother is specific to our personalities and essences, it is also a generalized brother-sister picture that perhaps may connect with more people than just myself.


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