Camera Lucida Essay - Critical Context

Roland Barthes

Critical Context

Roland Barthes is known primarily as a literary critic and theorist, a structuralist, and a semiotician—and he certainly was all those things in his long career. During the 1950’s and 1960’s especially he influenced many with his inventive and productive approaches to analysis and theory.

In the 1970’s, however, his focus began to change. With works such as S/Z (1970; English translation, 1974), Le Plaisir du texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text, 1975), and especially Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975; Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, 1977), he moved away from formalist thinking and became what one must call simply a writer; a more precise term for his role is not possible. Subjectivity entered his work; he was interested in thought that was neither violent nor reductive, yet he retained the acuteness he had developed in his earlier work. This analytical focus on his own subjectivity—thinking about how things seemed to him, how he felt—has precedent in the earliest days of philosophy but has been seen little since.

Camera Lucida is very much an example of these two strains in Barthes’s work (and occasionally, of the strain between them). The spirit of the work is subjective, but the many brilliant insights into what constitutes photography, efforts to find objective sources for his emotion, stem from his clear theorist’s mind.

Critical reception of the book was obscured by the fact that it was his last; his abrupt and shocking death (crossing a street, he was struck by a van) followed it closely. The work itself is very much concerned with death. This combination of circumstances meant that many early reviews of the work doubled as obituaries and eulogies of Barthes. The book may have seemed rather eerie to its first readers.

Later estimates of it should correct the inadequacies of early responses. The work is difficult to address critically for those who like their categories neat, but it has helped to establish Barthes’s original, passionate, personal style of thought as a viable path for others.