Note 2: Fragments, Night, and Barthes

 Habit of reading in cinema: (Top to Bottom) Charulata (1964), 
La Collectionneuse (1967) and Arising from the Surface (1980)

"Reading a book: happiness...going down an endless flight of stairs with no sense of hurry, finding a place to sit, lying down on the grass, resting your gaze on the sky, seeing the clouds move, closing your eyes, losing it, recovering, finally losing it."  
- Richard Bolisay[link]

  Continuities of darkness in cinema: (Top to Bottom) White Epilepsy (2012), 
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2009),  
Kinatay (2009), Los (2001), and On the Job (2013)

What is darkness?

An absence of light, a depth of a shadow. In cinema, darkness accentuates light from a movie projector. When light pierces through its continuous body, we see light's imminent trace, a emerging source of hope. We see light only in darkness. The stars wouldn't be stars without the wide emptiness of space. It remains, however, a mystery why objects in the dark are indistinguishable. When shrouded by darkness, objects become formless, nonexistent (or absent), and immutable; they lose their solidity. (Yet the human eye trains the body to adapt to this continuous, immeasurable blanket. A body must grasp objects, move in space, or find one's path, hence, the eye must adapt.)

In the city of desolation, darkness creeps evenly in structured spaces. It hides, reaches, and envelops movement permeating in every unguarded corner. Yet it remains shallow, often having a measurable depth, engulfing only small spaces, but light is its enemy. City lights purges this dissenting atmosphere darkness invades. Streetlights, exploding textual displays on bars and restaurants, colorful disco lights emanating from party places, and lights from high-rise buildings all punctuate the darkness. In the city at night, one can strongly feel the solidity of objects: the buildings, the avenues, the crevices... Darkness seems to function economically entombing aberrant human activities and crimes within its basking blackness. It becomes a distinguishable space.

In shadows of building, within dark rooms, in empty spaces at night, crime thrives like an underground vegetation, restricted in small spaces, unexposed, hidden, and destructive creeping sporadically at various entrances and exits of city life. Darkness has a thriving economy of consumption: one man stabbed to death on the dark aisle of the underpass, forgotten; the act of killing: quick and methodical; killer's emotional response: empty, mundane, 'this too shall pass'; killer's motive: money (poverty at its root), a procedural job, a disaffected life. 

Travelling for almost two to three times a year from Manila to my province Sorsogon, I wonder if there is a difference between the the darkness I feel in the city and the darkness I feel in the provinces. In twelve-hour bus trips at night, one can experience the vast difference of these two worlds. Leaving the city at eight in the evening, a bus travels south of Manila along the boulevards of the city. EDSA remains alive at night. People walk along the sidewalks at their usual pace, only quicker as they would walk in daylight. As the bus enters the South Luzon Expressway, light from the streets began to dim slowly. Darkness creeps within the halls of the moving bus. Within three hours, as the bus reach the outskirts of Batangas province, darkness becomes unbearably deep, deeper than the darkness I feel in the city. Three hours more, deep within the Quezon province, darkness asphyxiates any man awake. There is no escape. The light that one can only see comes from the bus headlights. Witnessing this descent in almost every province-bound bus travel I had in my life makes me wonder further how deep this provincial darkness can be.

Darkness in the provinces is phenomenally expansive and deep. Unlike in the city invaded by light, night in the provinces engulfs light. Even the brightest lighting equipment cannot measure its depth. Provincial darkness stretches out in open fields, in jungles, in neighboring houses keeping almost everyone inside their houses. Even crime finds its place to hide. Night in the province starts as early as six in the evening. Jeepneys seize their operations at seven-thirty, but tricycles never sleep. They brave the twelve-hour darkness in service to wandering ghouls and lost travelers. At night in the province, the streets are almost empty, deserted. Night feels like an act of waiting, time's long passage.

Night and its arching darkness seems to puncture the hearts of men and women in the provinces. Its passage in time lengthens their patience as each awaits for sunrise. It deepens their scars, their delusions, their doubts.

Crimes in the provinces are, to me, committed with so much intensity and force, surfacing from very deep scars, very deep guilt. These crimes are not governed by some economic of consumption as they would play in the city. They surge within this pantheon of provincial darkness, seeping most of their power from this incomprehensible, limitless, and devouring negative space. For a crime, no matter how simple, committed within the premises of this provincial darkness involves so much passion, so much complexity, a crime beyond what one can commit in a city. 

Fabian's bloodshed in Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte, End of History, Lav Diaz, 2013), Hamin's cry of desolation in Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Florentina's cry for help in Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), and Heremias' descent into darkness in Heremias Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess (2006), all these acts and gestures perpetuate the emanating darkness from the provinces, a darkness that engulfs light, pierces the heart, and transforms them into phantoms of the night: lost, indistinguishable, and immutable. In this darkness, their limiting figures arise: shaped by light but continuously dissolved by shadows. Each of them are entrenched within this void, society's ultimate space of nothingness --- the Black hole. Maybe this is why Lav Diaz gravitates towards the outskirts of provinces. He wanted to reach this Black hole history, politics, and natural space created. Darkness has always been a socio-political condition, aside from being a spatial experience. Each dark space emanates from both the restrictions of control societies and soul's tempestuous agony. It appears now that in places where progress lags, where progress creep slowly, darkness expands intensely it penetrates even the most strong-willed, the most brave, the meekest one. No one is spared; everyone is engulfed. No light, not even the strongest light, can gauge its depth. Only cinema can capture its depth. 


Two Proun paintings by El Lissitzky: (Top to Bottom) 
A Proun (1925) and Proun in 19D (1922)

"Proun (from Russian “Proekt utverzhdenia novoga” or “Design for the confirmation of the new”)... explored the existent relation between the formal concerns of the bidimensional paintings and the architectural construction."  
"The PROUN opens up the creation of the future, encompassing in all directions the new creative collective: starting from the plane, it then crosses over into spatial modeling and further to the construction of every form of life in itself....
[...]The future life — this is the reinforced concrete slab for the communist foundation of the nations of the entire world. With the aid of the PROUN one can build a unified city-commune on that foundation, intended for the life of all mankind." 
- from Theses on the PROUN: From painting to architecture [link]

|||| Playlist #1: Night||||

from Werckmeister Harmonies (2000): "Deep emotion pierces everyone. 
They have escaped the weight of darkness." - Valuska

  1. Cico Buff by Cocteau Twins [link]
  2. Late Night by This Mortal Coil [link]
  3. In Dreams by Roy Orbinson [link]
  4. Rhythm of the Night by Corona [link]
  5. Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes [link]
  6. Snowstorm by Galaxie 500 [link]
  7. Nature Trips by Eyedress [link]
  8. Nightcall by Kavinsky [link]
  9. Ghost of Love by David Lynch [link]
  10. Providence by Godspeed You Black Emperor [link] Epoy's suggestion
  11. Valuska by Mihály Víg [link]
  12. Unification of Europe by Zbigniew Preisner [link]
  13. Kosmogonia by Krzysztof Penderecki [link]
  14. Bonehead and Hellraiser by Naked City [link]
  15. Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki [link]


Reflections on Roland Barthes' 
The Photographic Message (1961)

Why even bother about Barthes?

I saw the book Image Music Text by Barthes lying on a bookshelf at home sandwiched between two novels by Michael Cunningham. I was drawn to its exterior mold. It has a thinness unusual for a book on critical theory with a cover page exhuming the image of Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. Eisenstein's image, his films, and the many Soviet Montage films flashed back in my mind. I was invaded once again by memories of my early years in cinephilia.

I first approached it that way, through the act of looking, an act of remembering, a visual encounter, which seizes me to approach it almost without hesitation, as if I have encountered it in the past and now an artifact. This act of looking, this seizing moment came first before the act of thinking. This is a fundamental encounter, a productive one that urges me to produce some form of writing: a reflection, a series of notes, an anti-reflection, anything goes really. My desire for encounters, in this case a textual encounter with Roland Barthes' essay The Photographic Message (1961), stems from Gilles Deleuze's C for Culture response in L'Abecedaire de Gilles Deleuze (1988-1989)...

...where he admonishes the idea of culture by moving towards the power of encounters. Encounters more than culture, and, in the words of Deleuze, to be always 'on the lookout' --- these were my initial thoughts when I first approached the surface of Barthes' essay collection. 

I wonder why most people look after his works. In many bookshops I visit these days (2010 - present), from Bookay-Ukay at Maginhawa St., UP Diliman to online bookstores like Roel's Bookshop, Roland Barthes' presence is overwhelming. His books are almost omnipresent, at least in Manila, sprawling within the local cultural domain. Have his theories amalgamated within the local discourse on arts, culture, or cinema? One could think of a possible marriage - transnational, if I may say - French-Filipino thinking, in search of ways to 'understand' the assemblage of life in the Philippines. Barthes' entry to local bookstores is symptomatic of the bustling presence of European critical theory in the Philippines, amplified entirely by the thriving (anti)intellectual discourse in social media nowadays (though I haven't seen a Barthes meme frolicking over my Facebook newsfeed for the past few years. This is a good one though). This is why I wanted to read Barthes: out of curiosity. What is it with him that seems to be so elusive, so seductive for a 'theorist'?

I fairly do not have warm feelings for theory nowadays - film theory, for that matter. Some critics have announced its eminent death. This made me suspicious of its stability as a field. After discovering D.N. Rodowick and Gilles Deleuze last year, I bade goodbye to theory and move towards a more multiple region in critical inquiry: the cusp between cinema and philosophy, cine-philosophy, where one is forced to be nomadic. A nomad, who has no mother or father - an orphan, must learn how to squat, stare, and observe momentarily at books, texts, films, short stories, paintings, alleys, objects, subjects, benches, and/or open fields. A nomadic life is an active movement of one's body towards the world, an opening, a journey away from the traditions of home life - a journey of becoming. This is opposed to intellectualism, which forces one to sit, think, and contemplate of singular aspects of life typically displayed by the Thinking Man, a figure of contemplation. A nomad walks on the streets. He is out looking for encounters, not with people, but with objects, ideas, and forms. The street - its intersections, cul-de-sacs, and U-turns - is his home and his guide through life.

My engagement with critical theory came from a nomadic walk away from film theory. I was drawn to its uncanny body, its perturbations, and its transformations. This massive field opened itself to me and, in various entry points, I tried to wrestle with it in fragments. What attracts me perhaps is its massive effort to decentralize traditions. A large part of its task is to revolt against traditional thinking: common sense, common beliefs, common life. Critical theory is one of the pervasive mode of thinking in sociology, arts, and the humanities, created by Europeans to rethink their lives - the society and the culture they belong. Critical theory is a mid-20th century amalgamation of Marxism, psychoanalysis, and linguistics. Multitudinous transformations have occurred within and outside its domain symptomatic of its tempestuous relationship with history, and to some point, technology. I won't be discussing in detail the immanence of Critical theory or its transformations from the beginning. I would instead dwell on a microlevel: an encounter with critical texts, as excruciating as it might be. This is a self-inflicted torture - to confront each polemical text headlong. 

Confronting the text headlong may leave some terminologies and concepts unclear. But like I said in a previous post, incomplete or unclear ideas can create new pathways of thinking. Hence, I won't be troubling myself with terminologies or their definitions because I might encounter them in the future in a different light.

The goal is to withstand the thrust of the text, to experience it, to read through it like I would read a novel or a short story, and allow the formation of feelings, affects, sensations, intensities. Emotions, affects, and feelings are usually set aside when reading such texts. I wanted to explore this region in critical inquiry: how does one respond emotionally, along with critical response, to academic texts? How does one deal with a strange jargon? What makes the the text inviting?

Each essay has a way of putting words into sentences. Each has its own system of organizing its ideas, and maybe eliciting some sensations: visual or experiential. Almost each one has its own of putting forward a stance, a world, a new concept. I shall approach each text aesthetically along with a crude critical assessment of some of its ideas. Screw me if you think I misconstrue and/or misjudge some elements and concepts from the text as I am not an expert in this area. The key phrase here is experience through encounter.

The Essay [link]

Roland Barthes' essay The Photographic Message opens with its object (a press photograph) followed by its guiding structure, an 'assemblage' in Barthes' words. He arranged it in a succession: a point of emission (the one who takes the photo), a channel of transmission (the newspaper), and a point of reception (the readers of the newspaper). This is the first image that one has to confront in the opening part of the essay. Barthes presents a pathway with a room in each stop.

Barthes' use of language is dry and cold. Semioticians write their theories formally with a sleight of hand. A semiotician's essay has this certain straightforwardness that makes a College Math book look more interesting. Yet Barthe's essay is few of the most lucid, most crystal-clear writing I've  read in my life. In this crystal-clear text, there is, at times, no room for breathing. As Barthes elucidates the nuance of the photographic message, one feels an utter discomfort. One enters a tortuous structured pathway punctuated by large blocks of ideas to confront. At some point, the semiotic jargon seems too alienating for an everyman. Small parts builds on bigger parts. This is a typical touch of a structuralist text: order and control.

Semiotics runs together with the Structuralist movement. It sees the world as an amalgam of signs. While linguistics studies words, semiotics studies the non-words: images, sounds, three-dimensional objects (do they even study cross-linked artifacts like audiovisual displays?), and how they produce meanings. Semioticians also deal with their objects as if they have inherent structures in them. This is the world that one approaches when reading Barthes' The Photographic Message. A press photograph, his object of analysis, is wedged within this preordained world, examined at its limits. 

One can find a press photograph in areas where communities thrive, in societies centered on information. For Barthes, this is the simplest visual object that one can encounter in such societies of control, apart from magazine advertisements, which he scrutinized intently in his essay Rhetoric of the Image. The Photographic Message is the critique of the press photograph.

It is interesting to note that Barthes version of the press photograph isn't only a photograph by itself. It is a photograph with a text like this...

Barthes proposes this as the basic structure of a press photograph: an image with a text. He says that each element, image and text, must be analyzed individually before analyzing their combined state.  

The Photograph, a Paradox

When one looks at the picture above, of men and women all joined together to skate, one observes that the picture is a reduced three-dimensional reality. Barthes says this is mathematical transformation (from 3D to 2D) where the image (the photograph) becomes the analogon of the object. This process of 'copying' reality is denotation. He also added that this image is the message without a code primarily because it is a continuous imitation of reality. Aside from imitating reality, it must also be accounted that a photograph is also captured in some specific cultural landscape, a certain time and space, and therefore connoted.

Barthes positioning of the photograph as both a mathematical (or mechanical) and cultural object proves important and influential. There were only few theorist before who were interested in studying photographs. Through this essay, Barthes gives the basic framework on how to deal with photographs. If you are semantics student, this will make you happy.

connotation procedure refers to the manner a photographer captures a photograph. For Barthes, this is the reason why a photograph has no objectivity. It is not created based on a 'universal symbolic order', but rather an object 'worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated with professional aesthetics'. It is therefore a message with a code. Barthes suggest that connotation allows the photograph to be read. It connects the photograph again to the world. There is once again noticeable bipolar relation between connotation-denotation, but their functions are far technical and must not be taken lightly. This conceptual tandem rift throughout the text exploring the nuances of the photograph message.

The presence of both messages, the analogon (message without a code) and the connoted message (message with a code), in one is the photographic paradox. Barthes continues his analysis by specifying the various ways connotation can be performed in a photograph. The reader enters an ossified field as Barthes provides a room for each. He identifies six ways: trick effects (i.e photoshop, faking a photograph), pose (i.e. stereotypical codes, a woman wears a skirt, a man wears pants), objects (i.e. artificial arrangement of objects, a old bookcase may signify an intellectual atmosphere of sorts), photogenia (i.e. embellishment of the photograph through lighting, exposure, and printing), aestheticism (i.e. photograph as a painting, painterly effects of landscapes, photography as art), syntax (i.e. putting two (un)related photographs side-by-side to produce a meaning).

This is perhaps what makes Barthes essay hard to grasp at first, at least for me. Each concept has its room: numbered paragraphs arranged from simplest to the most complex terms. The text forwards likes a process of enumeration, one element after the other, proceeding stately and carefully until reaching an end.

The Text

Barthes continues on. He focuses on the presence of the text, the caption, in a press photograph. Barthes says there are three functions of a text in a press photograph. One function of the text is to become a parasitic message to the photograph. The text quickens the connotation. This is, for Barthes, a historical reversal: 'the image no longer illustrates words, the words becomes a parasite to the image.' Text burdens the image with 'culture, moral, and imagination', Barthes continues. Second function would be duplication/non-duplication of the image. 'The closer the text to the image, the lesser its connotation'. And lastly, the text also amplifies (pro or anti-image) the connotations of the photograph.

One may find these procedural elucidation of the three functions difficult to understand, but Barthes sees to it that each of these categories returns back to reality by providing examples. In this way, the text has never left us. Examples jut out from various portions of the text surging towards us, connecting us to its difficult jargon. What is blocking us, of course, appreciating the text fully is the lack of connections with subject of semiotics and structuralism itself. As an outside of the field, I struggled through the essay for about a week and half, trying to somehow deal with it.

Is a Photograph of Pure Denotation possible?

Nevertheless, Barthes posed an intriguing question in the end, a staggering rift in the text: "Is...pure denotation...impossible?" He said that a photograph, through connotations, is always historical and cultural,  never natural nor artificial.  These historical and cultural connotations give the photograph a meaning. It allows us to read the photograph. The challenge is to find a way by which this meaning is blocked. In a way, Barthes is posing a question of limits by reaching a certain boundary: Is pure connotation possible? Is pure denotation possible? These inquiries lead us to think of an Outside, a certain Other apart the text.

To answer the question, Barthes says that pure denotation exist in absolutely traumatic images...

 Traumatic Photographs (Top to Bottom): Victims of Napalm bomb during the Vietnam War
Mass grave in Poland during the Holocaust, and the Mendiola Massacre 1987

"The trauma is a suspension of language, a blocking of meaning," he said. He added: "[...] the traumatic photograph is the photograph about which there is nothing to say; the shock-photo is by structure insignificant: no value, no knowledge, at the limit no verbal categorization can have a hold on the process instituting the signification." 

A limit has been reached, and perhaps this is what I've always been looking for in critical texts. A desire exists in the limits, a desire that seizes one to think. And by virtue of encounters, a certain limit must always be reached: an ending that never ends, a beginning that seizes to begin.