Site/Sight as Text: Barthes and Zero Degree Architecture

A version of this paper was originally presented at The Renaissance of Roland Barthes conference, presented by the Center for the Humanities, The Graduate Center, CUNY on April 25, 2013. The paper was later published in The Conversant

Barthes is so versatile. Camera Lucida is, of course, how most people are introduced to him (as I was through my work with photographs). Yet, his oeuvre--novel/essay, literary/cultural texts, and critical theory--can be used as a lens for so many topics of scholarship. 

Photographs are artifacts of moments past and forever lost. They provide a “fugitive testimony” to history (Camera Lucida 93). Throughout his work, Roland Barthes examines photography’s mnemonic features that testify to the absence of the subject depicted while simultaneously giving evidence that it existed. Barthes regards architecture as a visible index to the past and explains that ancient societies built structures to immortalize themselves. He writes, “memory, the substitute for life, was eternal and that at least the thing which spoke Death should itself be immortal: this was the Monument” (93). Photographs as “natural witness[es] of ‘what has been’” have replaced monuments (93). As handmaidens of memory, they stand in place for structures that no longer remain. Barthes notes that historical photographs have a “defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die” (96). Thus, images articulate an anterior future tense as they conjure the past, present, and future concurrently. Susan Sontag observed that photographs, akin to monuments, become more desirable through the passage of time. Both acquire an aged look and a detachment from the prosaic that enhances their aesthetic value (Sontag 79-80). Photography forges a symbiotic relationship with architecture. Through one artistic medium, another is better understood.  

In addition to Barthes’s fascination with photography, the motif of the empty sign, the neutral, and the degree zero appear throughout his work. He describes degree zero as “a still center, an erotic or lacerating value” (Camera Lucida 18). The empty sign and the neutral, too, are areas irreducible to positive or negative terms and not yet appropriated by myth. In his first book, Writing Degree Zero, Barthes lauds authors who “create a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a preordained state of language” (79). As an example, Barthes recognizes Albert Camus’s The Stranger for its “transparent form of speech” (82). He describes its style as “neutral,” “inert,” and “degree zero.” He states that the writing “remains wholly responsible, without being overlaid by a secondary commitment of form to a History not its own” (The Rustle of Language 64). In other words, zero-degree writing is free from signification. Similarly, the empty sign is defined in Empire of Signs as “the interstice without specific edges” (26). The form the sign takes vacates meaning. This theme continues in Barthes’s writing until the end of his career, during the preparation for his lecture course The Neutral. Barthes defines the neutral as “every inflection that, dodging or baffling the paradigmatic, oppositional structure of meaning, aims at the suspension of the conflictual basis of discourse” (211). Rosalind Krauss and Denis Hollier assert that the neutral was not a new idea for Barthes, but “held steady . . . over the trajectory that took him from Writing Degree Zero, with the zero degree an early version of ‘le neutre,’ through all the rest of his books” (xiii).

The lack of significance offered by the empty sign is especially apt when applied to buildings and the urban environment. Although Barthes is not as well known for scrutinizing architecture as systematically as literature or fashion, he recognizes signs wherever they are. He challenges the “naturalness” of cultural texts that are capable of producing all sorts of supplementary connotations. Barthes recognizes architecture as an intellectual activity that utilizes history, theory, and criticism. He explores the history of cities; the social, political, and economic interactions within built environments; and the cities’ relationship to their regions. He perceives the city as a repository of signs through its streets, monuments, and edifices. The urban space becomes a signifying vehicle itself. Architecture and its images provoke a degree zero, an empty sign, and the neutral within Barthes.

Scholarship on Barthes’s writing has not fully recognized his contribution to the field of architecture, which this essay explores. In what follows, I shall situate Barthes’s shifting ideas of place as degree zero relative to three phases: structuralism in “The Eiffel Tower,” poststructuralism in Empire of Signs, and phenomenology in Camera Lucida. “Shifting” is the key word here, as Barthes’s work covers a diverse range of fields, and his theoretical development evolved over time and lacked boundaries between phases. In the course of his career, his intellectual stance transitioned from a structuralist outlook to a more overtly poststructuralist perspective. In his later work, while not abandoning his viewpoints entirely, Barthes embraces phenomenology, a position in which he considers semiological experience in light of poststructuralist realizations. 

Throughout his oeuvre, whether examining Paris, Tokyo, Granada, or Jerusalem, Barthes regards sites as texts eternally open to interpretation. Viewers read the urban environment that lies in front of them or is experienced through the photographic medium. Oscillating between dream and function, architecture and its simulacra have the potential for limitless meaning as they reflect the fugitive nature of real experience, the communicative power of photographs, and the magnitude of humankind’s monumental endeavors.

I. Deciphering the Panorama

“The Eiffel Tower,” published in the United States in 1979 in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, was first written in the mid-1950s. It is part of Barthes’s structuralist period, in which he advocates for a systematic, scientific approach to cultural phenomena. Structuralism, for Barthes, evolved from the work of Ferdinand de Saussure. The Swiss linguist and semiotician offered a dyadic model of the sign, consisting of the signifier, the form that the sign takes, and the signified, the concept it recalls. The sign results from the association of the signifier with the signified, and the relationship between the two is signification. As a critical approach, structuralism focuses on the rules and codes of systems and studies the structure out of which texts emerge, not the texts themselves. Barthes applies structuralism’s scientific approach to demystify traditional notions of meaning. He uses structuralism to critique society through the demonstration of its often concealed reliance on artificial sign systems.

The Eiffel Tower was built as photography became technologically advanced and affordable. The tower appealed to photographers because of its combination of materiality and immateriality. Rather than being constructed by traditional methods, its erection was an achievement of modern engineering. In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin states of its creation, “one hears no chisel-blow liberating form from stone; here thought reigns over muscle power, which it transmits via cranes and secure scaffolding” (161). Today, the tower is one of the most recognizable monuments in the world and the most photographed (see fig. 1). It evolved as a symbol of Paris and metropolises in general, due in part from its role as the entrance to the 1889 World Fair. In The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (1989), Susan Buck-Morss notes that world fairs promoted progress, nationalism, and utopian goals through technology. By extension, the tower also manifested these attributes as a universally recognized urban icon. Barthes writes in his diary about presenting a gift to a hustler he met in his travels: “What sort of pleasant trifle can you give someone who is totally indigent? . . . I opt for a coded . . . excessively useless souvenir: a brass Eiffel Tower” (Incidents 24).  

Fig. 1. A view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champ de Mars. CC BY 2.0 by Terrazzo.

Fig. 1. A view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champ de Mars. CC BY 2.0 by Terrazzo.

The tower represents a modern Paris, transformed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann during Emperor Napoléon III’s reign with efforts ending in 1927. His public works program annexed suburbs; removed medieval neighborhoods; built boulevards, parks, and squares; and constructed new sewers and aqueducts. Paris’s street plan and distinctive center resulted from Haussmann’s renovation campaign. Barthes notes ironically that as modernity decimated buildings, a modern process—photography—allowed them to be recorded for posterity.

Despite Gustav Eiffel’s efforts to justify his structure in terms of utility, the tower was built without any use, but with an edifice that appeals to the imagination. Barthes writes:

Wherever you are, whatever the landscape of roofs, domes, or branches separating you from it, the Tower is there; incorporated into daily life until you can no longer grant it any specific attribute, determined merely to persist, like a rock or the river, it is as literal as a phenomenon of nature whose meaning can be questioned to infinity but whose existence is incontestable (“The Eiffel Tower” 3).

As a signifier free of any fixed referent, writes Barthes, “this pure—virtually empty—sign—is ineluctable, because it means everything” (4). The “zero degree” tower attracts meaning like “a lightning rod attracts thunderbolts” (7, 5). Barthes attempts to explain how something can be itself and the medium through which ideology propagates itself at the same time. How felicitous it must have seemed to him when in 1964, the year the essay was first published, France’s Ministry of Culture declared the Eiffel Tower a historical monument.

Barthes finds that the tower provides a vantage point from which architecture can be read. The tower is the iconic axis of a reciprocal system, at once a receptacle of all gazes in the city and a universal point of view overlooking Paris. The only way to negate the monument is to be inside it. Studied by all, it is also an object for observation. The tower, thus, “transgresses this habitual divorce of seeing and being seen” (“The Eiffel Tower” 5). While the tower symbolizes many concepts, such as travel, modernity, and communication, Barthes notes that it holds a “major symbolic function . . . which is its final meaning:” the gaze that deciphers Paris (8). Functioning as a balcony, it offers a panoramic vision:

The Tower makes the city into a kind of nature; it constitutes the swarming of men into a landscape . . . To visit the Tower, then, is to enter into contact not with a historical Sacred, as is the case for the majority of monuments, but rather with a new nature, that of human space (8).

Barthes notes that the tower gives one a breathtaking vista of Paris, but that belvederes look out upon nature. The tower transforms the city into a landscape, providing an aerial view that allows visitors to read the text of Paris (see fig. 2). The structure of the urban space now becomes visible through the panorama that Barthes defines as:

An image we attempt to decipher, in which we try to recognize known sites, to identify landmarks. Take some view of Paris taken from the Eiffel Tower; here you make out the hill sloping down from Chaillot, there the Bois de Boulogne; but where is the Arc de Triomphe? You don’t see it, and this absence compels you to inspect the panorama once again, to look for this point which is missing in your structure (10).

Fig. 2. A panoramic view of Paris from the northwest as seen from the Eiffel Tower. CC BY 2.0 by Alexander Kachkaev.

Fig. 2. A panoramic view of Paris from the northwest as seen from the Eiffel Tower. CC BY 2.0 by Alexander Kachkaev.

Barthes continues, “the bird’s eye view . . . gives us the world to read” (9). The tower observer becomes an interpreter of the urban landscape. It is laid out as a text to be examined “in their structure,” which he notes as “geographical, historical, and social” (9, 13). Therefore, “Every visitor to the Tower makes structuralism without knowing it” (9). Paris, as a city so familiar to Barthes, can be read and deciphered through its scenic tableau or its many photographic representations. He argues that among the multiplicity of meanings that the cityscape and its architecture can hold, a hierarchy of signification exists: its panoramic function. One meaning, above all others, is more prominent.

II. Circling the City Center

When visiting Tokyo, however, Barthes’s beliefs on the stratification of the meaning of the neutral changes significantly. In Empire of Signs, Barthes interprets Japanese culture as a utopia of signifiers, finding freedom from the occidental obsession with meaning. In Barthes’s poststructuralist phase, which emerged in the late 1960s during his trip to Japan and became fully apparent in the book’s publication in 1970, his need to explain signs is surpassed by “a desire to disrupt and decenter their authority” (Trifonas 3). Poststructuralism rejects many of the assertions of structuralism, chiefly its claims of the fixity of the relationships between signifiers and signifieds. Signifiers remain stable, but signifieds—in this case, the built environment of the urban space—are transient. Barthes demonstrates how a culture outside of the system of the Western world dismantles preconceptions about signs and meaning. In this work, Barthes seeks out and celebrates the instability and emptiness of signs.

Tokyo inverts the conventional reading of metropolitan areas. The city provides an antipode to the development of European capitals, which have a set of symbolic relationships to landmarks that provide meaning. Haussmann’s renovation of Paris, for example, was a radical reorganization of the urban space to bring greater meaning and use to it. In contrast, Tokyo seems incomprehensible to Western sensibilities because its structure is different. The city’s organization dates from the Edo period (1600 to 1868) when the royal palace was an axis from which districts of lessening importance radiated. The palimpsest of modern Tokyo confounds fixed categories and exempts itself from the Western compulsion to categorize.

The othering of the East relates to the ethical and political problems of Orientalism. When examining Barthes’s writing on cultures tied to the dominating authority of the West over the East, Diana Knight questions how self-aware Barthes is of his own Orientalist tendencies. In Empire of Signs, she argues that Japan is “self-consciously and explicitly presented as a utopia” and a “fantasized utopian civilization” (Knight 625). Barthes does not wish to produce a cultural analysis of Japan. To do so would merely repeat the myth of the Orient, from which no Westerner is exempt. Instead, Barthes locates himself within the ethnocentrism that the concept of Japan stimulates in the occidental reader.

The country Barthes writes about is less the subject of the account of his trip abroad than a point of departure. For him, Japan is a fictive nation and a semiotic system where artifice reigns and meaning abandons forms. Barthes writes:

the public place is a series of instantaneous events which accede to the notable in a flash so vivid, so tenuous that the sign does away with itself before any particular signified has had time to “take.” One might say that an age-old technique permits the landscape or the spectacle to produce itself, to occur in a pure significance, abrupt, empty, like a fracture. Empire of Signs? Yes, if it is understood that these signs are empty, and that the ritual is without a god (Empire of Signs 108).

Barthes’s version of Japan serves as an occasion to play with signification through writing, a liberation from the structuralist limits of meaning. Tokyo, unlike Paris and its tower, resists the image. Barthes writes, “The author has never, in any sense, photographed Japan” (4). Instead, he describes his experiences of discovering Japan as identical to the practice of reading a text:

Japan has afforded him a situation of writing. This situation is the very one in which a certain disturbance of the person occurs, a subversion of earlier readings, a shock of meaning lacerated, extenuated to the point of its irreplaceable void . . . Writing . . . creates an emptiness of language. And it is also an emptiness of language which constitutes writing (4).

Tokyo, occupied by the lacuna of the royal palace, has a vacant center. Its subway map shows routes orbiting around an empty node marked by emerald (see fig. 3). Urban activity rotates around this area, yet does not enter it. The outlook inside the palace grounds is a verdant vacuity surrounded by a cluster of high-rises (see fig. 4). The city is not organized around a guaranteeing truth, but a neutral area designated by arbitrary signs. Barthes writes:

The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen, which is to say, literally, by no one knows who. Daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-like trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred “nothing” (30).

Barthes finds that this emptiness holds true for many cities, which are necessary voids encapsulated by the urban landscape.

Fig. 3. Subway map of Tokyo, with the Imperial Palace area marked by green.CC BY-NC 2.0 by Stuart Rankin.

Fig. 3. Subway map of Tokyo, with the Imperial Palace area marked by green.CC BY-NC 2.0 by Stuart Rankin.

Fig. 4. View of the skyscrapers of Tokyo from the grounds of the Imperial Palace. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Alex Masters.

Fig. 4. View of the skyscrapers of Tokyo from the grounds of the Imperial Palace. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Alex Masters.

In “Semiology and the Urban” (1971), an essay that was written at the same time as Empire of Signs and mentions Tokyo, Barthes emphasizes the indeterminacy of urban landmarks, noting the necessity for absent centers and empty signifiers. Urban life offers an eroticism where different types of people interact. Barthes argues that the city is “the site of our encounter with the other,” and “it is for this reason that the center is the gathering point of any city,” especially for the young (“Semiology and the Urban” 170). Urban dwellers walk through the streets, creating their own erotic language. Barthes notes, “The city is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it” (165). Tokyo mystifies Barthes because it lacks a structure he recognizes. Its discourse stymies him, and its language is incomprehensible. As a cultural outsider, he discovers that the meaning of the city is nil. 

Barthes’s trip to Japan is a turning point for his understanding of architecture and the empty sign. In Tokyo, signs exist for their own merit, retaining only the significance instilled by signifiers. Conversely, the Parisian culture Barthes dissects in “The Eiffel Tower” priorities specific levels of meaning—the panorama—over others. How each perspective positions signs defines the difference between structuralism and poststructuralism: one stance sees meaning as stratified and hierarchical, while the other resists meaning entirely.

III.  Memorializing the Landscape

In Camera Lucida (1980), Barthes further refines his thoughts about the empty sign, degree zero, and the neutral in the context of photography. The book departs from his previous work without eschewing it. Instead, he retreats from semiotic and structuralist analysis and examines the visceral effect of photographs. He finds that some images touch him emotionally while others have no effect. Images “animate” him, and engagement with them becomes an “adventure” of photography (Camera Lucida 19). Barthes declares himself the “mediator for all Photography” who is “determined to be guided by the consciousness of my feelings” (8, 10). In previous works, S/Z (1970) most notably, Barthes argues that interpretations of texts are not based on personal experience, but the articulation of coded systems. Camera Lucida, however, unites the self and social codes and reaffirms the centrality of the individual in constructing meaning. He sees experience as primarily beyond conventions and cultural codes.

Camera Lucida offers a phenomenology of the photographic picture. Originating from German philosopher Edmund Husserl, phenomenology examines the ways that the construction of consciousness permits it to reference objects beyond itself. It studies consciousness as experienced from a subjective point of view. According to its dedication, Camera Lucida was written in homage to Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (1940), which introduced phenomenology to France during Barthes’s youth. Barthes “borrowed something from phenomenology’s project and something from its language” (Camera Lucida 20). He bases the phenomenological character of his investigation on his own understanding of the medium and studies the photograph as an experienced object. He describes his approach to photography as “a vague, casual, even cynical phenomenology” (20). His phenomenology is one that, unlike classical phenomenology, emphasizes physicality, desire, and mourning. He writes, “The anticipated essence of the Photograph could not, in my mind, be separated from the ‘pathos’ of which, from the first glance, it consists” (21). Barthes’s phenomenological study considers architecture and its visual simulacra as carriers of temporality and death. To him, photographs are opportunities to meditate on time, memory, and loss.

Camera Lucida takes its title from an optical device for looking through a prism at a subject while drawing it. By viewing the scene and drawing surface simultaneously, the user can render an image with an accurate perspective. Before the invention of photography, the apparatus was used to sketch buildings and landscapes. The image the instrument conjures can be seen only in the mind’s eye. Photographs act as a camera lucida in reverse. Viewers read from the two-dimensional image the three-dimensional reality that lies in the past.

The camera lucida evokes the Winter Garden photograph of Barthes’s mother as a child, discussed at length in the book, but unpublished. He discovers the snapshot as he browses through family pictures, “gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the truth of the face I had loved” (Camera Lucida 67). Barthes describes the image as faded and sepia-toned with blunted corners from when it was in an album. The photograph, taken in 1898, depicts his mother, aged five, standing next to her seven-year-old brother. She shyly holds one of her fingers with her other hand. They pose on a small wooden bridge in a conservatory dedicated to the cultivation of winter-blooming plants at their childhood home in Chennevières-sur-Marne, France.

Only Barthes can see his mother in the chambre claire of a glass conservatory. Readers project their own images into the photographic void. While some scholars do not believe that the photograph exists, Barthes’s excuse for withholding it is telling (Knight 244-69; Olin 81). Barthes explains that the image is so mundane it is unpublishable: “For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’” (Camera Lucida 73).

For Barthes, the “essence” of photography lives in his mother’s image (Camera Lucida 73). He decides to “‘derive’ all Photography (its ‘nature’) from the only photograph which assuredly existed for me, and to take it somehow as a guide for my last investigation” (73). The Winter Garden image, written about, but unseen, functions as an empty sign. The conservatory depicted within the photograph, and from which the picture derives its name, is a building degree zero. The image at the heart of Camera Lucida—and at the center of Barthes’s writing—is an aperture and an absence. This architectural photograph is the emptiest of signs.

According to Barthes, photography represents the juncture of sign and body, meaning and materiality. Barthes dwells upon the relationship between photographs and the body because corporeal sensations are a way to experience built and natural environments. His bodily responses to photographs act as a measure of photographic information. He describes what a photograph looks like, but also how it feels. Barthes develops dual photographic concepts: studium and punctum. Studium denotes the photograph’s cultural, linguistic, and political impressions. The punctum refers to the emotional detail that creates a relationship between the subject and the observer. The punctum is often body-based, such as Warhol’s nails, a boy’s teeth, or the feel of a dirt road that a violinist plays on that Barthes “recognize[s] with my whole body” (Camera Lucida 45). He writes that photography reaches across time and space: an “umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze,” a transmission of the past (81). He continues, “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me . . .  a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed” (81). With images, the universal meets the personal at the locus of the body.

The corporeality of architecture can be applied to Charles Clifford’s image of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, the only photograph of a building reproduced in Camera Lucida (see fig. 5). Published in a book primarily composed of portraits and group shots, the image stands out as the lone representation of architecture. Barthes inhabits the Alhambra through Clifford’s photograph, an image that depicts otherness much like his musings on Japan in Empire of Signs.

Fig. 5. Clifford, Charles. [The Alhambra, Granada. The Wine Tower]. 1862. Photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Fig. 5. Clifford, Charles. [The Alhambra, Granada. The Wine Tower]. 1862. Photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Clifford, a Welsh photographer who spent his professional career in Spain, opened his first photographic salon there in 1850. He photographed all over the country, specializing in landscapes, architecture, and public works. Recognition of his efforts resulted in civic commissions such as improvement projects in Madrid and the construction of an aqueduct system to bring water into the country’s capital. He exhibited his work in Britain and France, where over 400 of his photographs were shown at the 1856 Paris Photographic Salon. Clifford later worked in the service of Queen Isabella II from 1858 onwards and accompanied her on royal visits.

The Alhambra, first built in 889, has a long record of falling into ruin and being rebuilt over the centuries. A majority of the work was commissioned by Ibn al-Ahmar, founder of the Nasrid dynasty, in the thirteenth century. A palace-citadel with official and residential chambers, a bath, and a mosque, its most renowned features are its courtyards with elegant arcades, fountains, and light-reflecting pools. Celebrated for its exceptional expression of Moorish and Andalusian culture, the Alhambra conveys the history of the religious and cultural changes to the region through its architecture. When Clifford photographed it, Victorian scholars and travelers had rediscovered it as a muse for art and literature.

Barthes describes Clifford’s photograph as “an old house, a shadowy porch, tiles, a crumbling Arab decoration, a man sitting against the wall, a deserted street, a Mediterranean tree” (Camera Lucida 38). Examining the photograph closer, one sees a gated cemetery with three white crosses in the background. The image literally represents death. Whether Barthes recognized this is unknown, but the image certainly evokes Orientalism in himself similarly to his experiences in Japan. He questions why the photograph induces desire: “warmth of the climate? Mediterranean myth? Apollinism?” (38). While nineteenth-century photographers like Clifford were drawn to remote locales because of their strong light and promise of shorter exposure times, the imperialist and Orientalist aspects of their portfolios cannot be lost to their audience. Working in a region that lacked indigenous photographers, Clifford, as a photographic colonist and ethnographer, made his living by documenting the Oriental wonders of Spain and presenting them to British and French audiences.

Of this image, Barthes writes, “it is quite simply there that I should like to live” (Camera Lucida 38). He continues, “Photographs of landscape (urban or country) must be habitable, not visitable” (38). The building captures his imagination and invokes a sense of adventure and passion, a feeling of “having been there or of going there” (40). Since Freud said that the maternal body is the only place one can claim to have been for certain, Barthes’s interest in the image indicates how he yearns for his recently deceased mother. The photograph symbolizes home, a gateway, a womb, a tomb, or the dark chamber of the camera obscura: an empty sign.

Reflecting on one of Auguste Salzmann’s photographs, taken near Jerusalem in 1854, Barthes again discovers the tangible aspects of the built environment (see fig. 6). The French Ministry of Public Instruction supported Salzmann’s trip to the Holy Land to confirm controversial dating of monuments by documenting architectural styles in the region (Berg 4). Although his journey was cut short by illness, he created 150 calotypes of historical monuments in Egypt and Jerusalem. Despite his pioneering accomplishments as an artist, by 1857, Salzmann preferred to be known as an archaeologist, rather than a photographer (Heilbrun 121).

Fig. 6. Salzmann, Auguste. Jérusalem, Chemin de Beit-Lehem. 1854. Photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Fig. 6. Salzmann, Auguste. Jérusalem, Chemin de Beit-Lehem. 1854. Photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Salzmann’s photograph of a road to Bethlehem is, according to Barthes, “nothing but stony ground, olive trees,” an empty sign ready for inhabitation (Camera Lucida 97). Given that the Second Empire was a period of increased French colonial expansion, Abigail Solomon-Godeau notes, “showing so much of the world to be empty was unconsciously assimilated to the justifications for an expanding empire” (159). Emmie Donadio notes that early photographers accompanied archaeologists to photograph objects too large to bring back to Europe. Salzmann’s photograph is not an objective record, but a claim to the area. A Western audience reads the glories of past civilizations, the drama of ruined architecture, and the spiritualism of biblical associations into the image and others in Salzmann’s portfolio.

Through the imperialist lens, observers can easily project themselves into the landscape. The photograph leads Barthes to question how photography influences the perception of time as it marks the present of the viewer looking at the image, the moment when the photograph was taken, and the historical past of the subject pictured. As Barthes explains, Salzmann’s photograph represents both 1854 and the era of Christ. The image is a “certificate of presence,” yet it looks backwards, a “prophecy in reverse” (Camera Lucida 87). It brings the past to the present.

While photographs speak to temporality, they ultimately refer to death. Photography’s threnodic nature runs throughout Camera Lucida. Barthes wrote the book as he mourned his mother, and as the final book published in his lifetime, it is his last word on photography. While examining the Winter Garden photograph, Barthes realizes his mother’s life is still to be lived:

In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder . . . over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe (Camera Lucida 96).

Photographs are “the return of the dead” and “flat Death” (9, 96). They represent the passing of time and signal the mortality of the viewer, which Barthes calls the “imperious sign of my own death” (97). At the time of the book’s publication, digital images were beginning to displace analog’s fundamental properties as tangible imprints of reality. Photography’s “demise” was predicted by its own success and the introduction of digital technologies that aided in the manipulation of images. Barthes states in Camera Lucida that photography “has already disappeared. I am . . . one of its last witnesses . . . and this book is its archaic trace” (94). Photography’s relationship to time and its capture of fleeting moments correlate to the desire to overcome death, be it photography’s, Barthes’s mother’s, Barthes’s, or our own.

The phenomenological effect of images captivates Barthes, especially images that evoke desire or mourning. Photographs of the Winter Garden, the Alhambra, and the road to Bethlehem become vehicles of meaning. They contain a despair and a corporeality that move Barthes to respond to them emotionally. In “The Eiffel Tower” and Empire of Signs, Barthes interprets urban space as a whole. In Camera Lucida, however, he specifies photographs of the built environment that provide structures of phenomenological meaning. Readers follow the evolution of his position towards architecture first through structuralism, then through poststructuralism, and finally to a phenomenological approach that integrates facets of his preceding perspectives.

IV.  Signifying the Built Environment

Architecture is a testament to humanity’s creativity in adapting the world for its own use. As cultural texts, photographs construct and disseminate knowledge and appreciation of the world’s cultural heritage, spanning time from the earliest civilizations to the recent past. They raise awareness of architectural patrimony from the ancient to the modern, urban to remote, grand to vernacular. Photographs, as representations of architecture, enter into a circulation of mass reproduction and become the principal means by which most people encounter structures around the world. A global audience reads architecture through the text of photographs. Experiencing buildings through their photographic synecdoches allows for a plurality of meaning. Understanding architecture’s proportions, its forms and volumes, meanings and materials, elucidates the built environment.

Architectonic photography’s satori resides in the viewers’ agency to construct connotations, be it through the lens of structuralism, poststructuralism, or phenomenology. Barthes’s views of meaning develop in each phase, offering a new perspective of the urban environment. Signification, for Barthes, may be hierarchical, equally meaningless, or corporeal. Paris, Tokyo, Granada, and Jerusalem become the texts whose structure he investigates with the characteristic vigor he affords his analysis of literary texts. Through his writing, Barthes scrutinizes the ambiguity of signs and the problematic relationship of signs to the reality they represent. He is intrigued by the potency of the photographic image. He examines the ways in which photography collapses space and time, where significance accumulates through the emptiness of representation. He explores photography’s ontological nature and unique features: its replication of reality and its simultaneous expressions of past, present, and future. He writes:

Perhaps we have an invincible resistance to believing in the past, in History, except in the form of myth. The Photograph, for the first time, puts an end to this resistance: henceforth the past is as certain as the present, what we see on paper is as certain as what we touch (Camera Lucida 88).

Photographs, as indexical representations of the real, allow viewers to enter a history to which no written documents could give them access. For Barthes, history is political. If myth makes present conditions seem natural, the examination of history through its architecture reveals the social construction of signs. Photography acts as a means for history to be studied in contradiction to myth, and for us to understand ourselves better through structuralist, poststructuralist, and phenomenological approaches to less mythified images of the past. Within the signifying functions of architecture and the metonymic aspects of photography, Barthes finds the zero degree, the empty sign, and the neutral.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

—. “Eiffel Tower.” The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 3-17.

—. Empire of Signs. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

—. Incidents. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

—. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.

—. “Semiology and the Urban.” In Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, edited by Neil Leach, 163-72. New York: Routledge, 1997.

—. Writing Degree Zero. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. London: Jonathan Cape, 1967.

Barthes, Roland, Thomas Clerc, and Éric Marty. The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France, 1977-1978. Trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Berg, Keri A. “The Imperialist Lens: Du Camp, Salzmann and Early French Photography.” Early Popular Visual Culture 6.1 (2008): 1-18.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Donadio, Emmie. “Seeing in Believing: Auguste Salzmann and the Photographic Representation of Jerusalem.” In Jerusalem: Idea and Reality, edited by Tamar Mayer and Suleiman A. Mourad, 140-54. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Heilbrun, Françoise. “Auguste Salzmann Photographe Malgré Lui.” In Félix de Saulcy et la Terre Sainte, 114-82. Paris: Ministère de la Culture Éditions de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux1982.

Knight, Diana. “Barthes and Orientalism.” New Literary History 24 (1993): 617-633.

Knight, Diana. Barthes and Utopia: Space, Travel, Writing. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Krauss, Rosalind E. and Denis Hollier. Translators’ Preface to The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France, 1977-1978., by Roland Barthes, Thomas Clerc, and Éric Marty, xiii-xvii. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Olin, Margaret. “Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’ ‘Mistaken’ Identity.” In Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, edited by Geoffrey Batchen, 75-90. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011.

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

Trifonas, Peter Pericles. Barthes and the Empire of Signs. Cambridge: Icon, 2001.

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