The Foreignness of Self

In reading two of my peers’ posts on Barthes, a new theme surfaced in my understanding of Barthes. I realized that Barthes does not claim objectivity in his relationship to photographs but rather foreignness. He desires photographic images, whether of strangers or kin, to feel foreign to him. “I am a primitive, a child—or a maniac,” he writes, hoping to escape not only his cultural lens but himself (51). “What I can name cannot really prick me,” he writes (51). Barthes touches on the idea that language obscures true understanding—one’s perceived ability to name something allows one to indulge in the illusion that one can understand it. Barthes desires the details that he cannot name, the details that wound and communicate more than the obvious. He seeks the fragment of truth that breaks through the mask of the photograph and electrifies the finiteness of his own knowledge. This sense of finiteness and foreignness undermines the spectator’s relationship to reality and destabilizes one’s sense of identity and relationship to family and the world. Herein lies the power of photography.

This power shines through in both family photographs and in photographs of oneself. Barthes says, “there is a kind of stupefaction in seeing a familiar being dressed differently” (64). This stupefaction and sense of estrangement from one’s family appears both in Barthes and in other students’ posts. For example, alexlouisealonso in her post, “Mystery to Me” writes, “Just as Barthes finds himself distracted by the accessories and dated objects within his personal picture of his mother, I find myself similarly distracted by considering the issues my family faced while living under these political conditions and analyzing their seriousness in this photo to the context of that time.” Alexlouisealonso describes this photograph of her father’s baptism in Cuba as an event that evokes a sense of Otherness to her—it is from a time and place that she cannot decipher. Although the people in the photograph may be her kin, the photograph’s meaning and context eludes her. This itself is the punctum, the foreignness that conveys a universal human relationship to the world represented through our relationship to photography.

Even in photographs of oneself, the possibility for foreignness exists. In my “The Real and the Reel” post on Barthes, I discuss a photo of myself that depicts a moment I do not remember. Although my inability to remember this moment complicates my experience of the photograph, this particularity only highlights the strangeness of seeing oneself replicated in any photograph. Any photograph of oneself conveys a sense of foreignness because it captures a version of oneself that one can no longer access. When I look at any photograph of myself, I feel “Other” and foreign to myself because I can no longer fully understand that time and that version of my being. The photograph embalms this moment as a fragmented and cheapened reproduction of the experience itself, a souvenir object of reality that hovers outside one’s grasp forever. Whatever face I put on in that moment masked the reality of the moment itself, a disguise hiding any possibility of understanding. Regardless even of posing or not posing, the photograph, through its very nature of freeze-framing a small moment within an experience and within persons, works to obscure understanding, to make the spectator feel estranged from themselves and from the world at large.

In Randriaj’s “Subjective Interpretations” she cites Barthes’ description of photography as, “like a Haiku, a photograph is ‘undevelopable: everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of a rhetorical expansion.’ (p. 49) Especially with a family photograph, objectivity when looking at photography is virtually impossible.” I disagree with her interpretation that Barthes imagines any real sense of objectivity; rather, I think Barthes articulates a feeling of foreignness from the world and from himself that arises when experiencing a photograph. I also find Barthes’ comparison of a photograph to a Haiku particularly striking because he acknowledges both the endless vault of information that does exist within a photograph, but he also recognizes and mourns our inability to access that vault of information in full.

Photographs inevitably elude us—they are either of a moment that we were not privy to, or they represent oneself in a time and place that one can no longer access. These images of “that-has-been” exclude the spectator in a way that wounds and punctures his or her illusions of understanding of self and the world. Their false objectivity deceives and severs one’s sense of power and agency, reminds one of one’s limits. They are that-has-been-and-you-may-not-return-to-or-understand-it-or-relive-it. They tease the viewer with information and experience that he or she cannot ever access. And that is the punctum—whatever it is in the photograph that makes a spectator think they understand or might somehow grasp some truth about the image only serves to reinforce the inevitability that one cannot ever understand or fully know the necklace in the photograph, the expression of a family member, the exact thought or full complexity of a moment, even one so limited, so framed. The punctum communicates the fragility of human understanding, the inability to ever truly understand and know ourselves or one another despite our desire, even obsession to do so by capturing and re-capturing ourselves and our experiences.

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