Towards Redemption: Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes on Photography
This thesis compares and contrasts the multiple discourses on photography found in the critical and theoretical writings of Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. It seeks to demonstrate that despite the different historical, philosophical, cultural, and linguistic contexts of their work, Benjamin and Barthes engage with a similar constellation of questions and problems that photography uniquely poses. It argues that each author moves towards a practice of redemptive criticism as foregrounded in relation to one privileged photograph in each case (the childhood portrait of Franz Kafka, for Benjamin, and the photograph of the mother-as-child for Barthes). Dedicated to a close reading of relevant texts by each author, the study is divided into three parts, with each corresponding to a different set of themes to which the photographic is related. The first part focuses on the historical and evolutionary development of Benjamin’s and Barthes’s view of photography in the context of wider shifts in their critical practice and methodology, and then in comparison with each other. The second part investigates the complex historical and philosophical influence of Proustian aesthetics on their writing on photography. Suggesting that Proust’s philosophy of memory provides an apt point of departure for Benjamin’s and Barthes’s discussion of photography in relation to memory, it traces how each thinker then moves beyond the Proustian conceptual framework towards similar ends. The third and final part is devoted to Benjamin’s and Barthes’s conceptualisation of photography in relation to singularity. Specifically, it centres on how certain photographs convey singularity as a function of the relation between the photograph, its referent, and its beholder. In total, this study argues that Benjamin and Barthes rightly deserve their often acknowledged places as pioneering figures in the theory of photography. However, while both theorists provide numerous important insights into the historical, cultural, and phenomenological nature and function of the medium, their writing on photography is also marked (perhaps necessarily, in some cases) by ambiguities, contradictions, and problematic evaluative judgements (with respect to both the medium and to particular photographs) which must be acknowledged in order to gain a proper appreciation of their work in this area.