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Flesh for Fantasy

Roland Barthes and Lewis Carroll on Photography

"Words are powerless, nothing but a Talbotype could do it"
(Lewis Carroll)

1. Introduction

I would like to start my talk by exposing a current and illuminating metaphor: the verdancy. This "green stuff", dreams are made of, figures here as well as a sort of compromise for what I intend to say in general terms just before getting involved with the concrete object of my investigation, namely photographs of young girls, in other words photography as matter of sexual fantasy. The problem I thus meet with is a difficulty of translation, a translation which concerns literally the gap between different languages. So before getting close to the so called material basis of photographic inscription or reproduction of the so called real, here is my very first confrontation with a linguistic problem: how to translate, how to name, how to express the general intention of the look that dominates and ensures this kind of mediatic and technical look. Speaking in general terms we follow a linguistic structure called metaphor. "Green stuff" should be thus understood as a metaphorical way of referring to the whole range of associations, the word "green" might evoke: If anyway we think first of natural qualities as the greenery in the spring, the green-grocery as vegetable, of the biogenetic power of growing, blooming etc., but also of immature states when we speak of green-horns, of greenness as unripeness, which is the very opposite of development and maturity. So there is a kind of contradiction or contradictory meaning in the metaphorical field of verdancy or "green stuff": at the same time the idea of spring time (evolution) and of close-up (revolution), fixing the movement of maturity to its very moment of revelation or announcement.

Going back to the biological base of these associations and especially to the dominating vegetable sense we can find a lot of alimentary metaphors, concerning mainly female maturity. Young girls are compared with green vegetables – and here we meet with my problem of translation, because in German we have an expression like: young vegetable, , greenery as emblem for the freshness and innocence of young people and especially young girls. [Dia 1] But what is really amazing is the relationship of this vegetable metaphor with its oral, consuming, not to say consumptive meaning – in a double sense. Before the American term of teenager was introduced, there was the current expression of "Backfisch" which means small fried fish but derives as well from baccalaureus, the immature undergraduate student, used as a general metaphor for the state of immaturity, underdevelopment, of innocence in the sense of childhood – or, concerning wild natur, of hoyden.

This idea of purity is very often linked with a special quality (to use the language of the market: for instance baby beans). Just think of the whole culture of virginity developed in Italy around the production of olive oil, qualified as "extra vergine", but also in other cultures like the Japanese, concerning as well the oil for the so called "tempura" (see Barthes' analysis). And you have also hints of the oral or rather dental quality of things in general (for example: al dente). To this context also belongs the expression very often used to call up sensual attraction: sweet. (in french: mignon, like in filet mignon).

All these metaphors are related to the idea of oral incorparation, even if the interest of the devouring subject is only visual, as it were in the context of a devouring eye. The best example is the photographer Lewis Carroll himself, who adored ardently and exclusively young girls in front of and behind the lens of his apparatus, and who posed in one of his letters the important and decisive question: "What are little maidens made of?" Only to give the answer: "Sugar and spice and all that's nice!" And when refusing to take photographs of young boys, he wrote to a friend: "He thought I doted on all children, but I'm not omnivorous like a pig. I pick and choose." So the quality of vegetable is given as aspect to the representation of young girls by the way of a shift from the alimentary to the visual realm. It is, using the distinction made by Barthes, not a denotation of the object but a connotation, which follows the gastronomic code of culture. Barthe himself described what this cultural code means to him in an interview given in 1978:

"As a cultural fact, food signifies at least three things for me. First, the prestige of the taste of the maternal model, a mother's food in the way that she conceives it and makes it: this is the food which I love. Secondly from there I appreciate excursions, disgressions towards the new, the unique: I never resist the attraction of a dish which is presented to me as new. And then thirdly … as soon as it grows to excess, the meal boares me and I don't like to eat any more …"

So we have here a regressive tendency of cathexis, reaffirming the early relationsship with the mother, but linked, on the other hand, with a certain kind of curiosity. This curiosity, menaced at the same time by excess, is stimulated by what comes from beyond the connotational aspect of the object (or abject): from what provides an unattended experience, a new impression, a surprise. I would like to discuss this opposition of – in other words – culture and transgression in the context of photography which gives us, besides illustrating and affirming cultural standards, always something new: the simple fact that there had been something real as ontological support for the coded representation.

2. Double Bind of the Photographic Image

Barthes introduced the opposition between denotation and connotation about photography in two texts of the early sixties: The photographic Message and Rhetoric of the Image. The first example deals with press-photographs, while the second one takes the example of an advertisement of Panzani for spaghettis and tomato-sauce. In both examples Barthes accords to photographie a special paradoxical status of picture: beeing what he called "a message without code" (p. 11). We have two messages in every photograph, the connotation as totality of all culural codes (visual stereotypes, esthetics, morality, styles etc.), but these are developped from something real, an object in all sense, reproduced in an analogical way based on a material fact (p. 13): as the trace of the real object, of that what preexists in a chemical or physical way to all kinds of re-presentation. Speaking of photography as a primordial example, considering what Talbot called the "pencil of nature", of what is tracked down onto the sensible photo-plate, is the real challenge of the first order. Semiologically speaking one could say that the most important insight was, that the technically produced image must not be read as an icon but as an index: the performative reference and context are relevant, and not the symbolic order. So we have at least three dimensions of meaning: a first one of pure linguistic information, called by Peirce the symbol in its widest sense; a second, more imaginary one, described by Peirce as the icon and by Barthes as the "double" of the linguistic message, the "pure image": the example of Panzani, the italianity etc. (p. 26/27) And a third reference to the object itself without any code.

"The signified of this third message are constituded by the real objects in the scene, the signifiers by these same objects photographed, for, given that the relation between thing signified and image signifying in analogical representation is not arbitrary (as it is in language), it is no longer necessary to dose the relay with a third term in the guise of the psychic image of the object. … we have here a loss of the equivalence characteristic of true sign systems and a statement of quasi-identity. In other words, the sign of this message is not drawn from an institutional stock, is not coded, and we are brought up against the paradox (…) of a message without a code. (…) The literal message appears as the support of the `symbolic' message. Hence, knowing that a system which takes over the signs of another system in order to make them its signifiers in a system of connotation, we may say immediately that the literal image is denoted and the symbolic image connoted. Successively, then, we shall look at the linguistic message, the denoted image, and the connoted image."

Into the culturel code intervenes the significance of the denotation as an ontological code, of pure nature. But the problem is that if – to quote the famous sentence – the medium is the message we don't know about this referent but through the apparatus as disposition of representation as while the object itself has no representation. It is only given as withdrawal as what is disappearing behind the veil of the medium but what nevertheless is under cover, crossed over: off the records.  We have the same distinction in art-history concerning the difference between "to be naked" ("simply to be without clothes") and "nude" ("a form of art"): "What is true is that the nude is always conventionalized – and the authority for its conventions derives from a certain tradition of art" "To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others … To be naked is to be without disguise. … The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress. … Everything is adressed to him. Everything must appear to be the result of his being there. It is for him that the figures have assumed their nudity." [dress as a matter of indifference: Carroll !] And this problem could as well be found in the context of the psychoanalytical discourse where in the terms of Jacques Lacan the imaginary and the real are only discussed according to the universe of the symbolic. So what Barthes is really interested in, is not the real as a pure ontological entity – in a vulgar ontological sense – but the imaginary as the dimension of withdrawal:

"I have the impression that the imaginary is in a sense the poor relation of psychoanalysis. Stuck between the real and the symbolic, one could say that it loses its value, at least by the psychoanalytic vulgate."

That is why he refutes so decisivly in "Camera lucida" sex in pornographie but pays all his interest to eroticism (p. 93). It's the punctum as absence in the presence of the representation, the with-out as paradoxical message. In opposition to the antithesis "naked"/"clothed" as a "vertical axis we have a kind of "achorage" of the "connotations of the image by means of the written text": in a litteral sense, that is: the graphism of photography: the photographer as "a flasher, making an exposure – is here explicitly both voyeur and exhibitionist" As German Romanticism taught us: the only way to frame the message and to avoid a false objectivity is to represent the representation in the reprensented. But there still remains the main question: How could we regain an innocent look onto what is called the denotated message of the objective and non-codified information?

3. Force of Fantasy

With Carroll's girls we don't have ,,creatures to be used carnally … because he felt sexually safe with them“. Like predecessors and his successors, ,,Lewd Carroll“ (James Joyce) was a "seducer but more secret, more subtle, much less to be looked through, what is not to say that his price was only the imagination of seduction“. Lewis Carroll differs from all other representants of child-wife-lovers by a consideration of strict media-technique: before making his beloved Alice immortal, he discovered or revealed her through a camera-lens. His desire is mediated by the new technological emphasize, defined to what it concerns the visual aspect by Gernsheim:

"For photography there are new secrets to conquer, new difficulties to overcome, new Madonnas to invent, new ideals to imagine."

Carroll found a focus very soon after discovering his hobby when he started inventing new madonnas as little girls. The photographic apparatus was to him the most innocent way leading to his obscure objects of desire. As a photographer he found an easy access to his collegues' daughters; he could enter into contact with them, sheltered by the optical support and thanks to the established distance became a sort of peeping Tom. The neutral object and the separating and protecting screen of the photo-plate form the scene where subject and object of the desire come together. But a problem remains: Carrolls habit to denude, to undress or to undrape his objects before photographing them, following otherwise the implicit logic of this mediatized or mecanized look whose technical penetration lacks human shame. And at the end of this story of undraped latters we have again the fact of incinerated letters – love-letters of course which Carroll adressed to his Alice -, of broken photo-plates and of cut out, castrated or circumcised diary-pages speaking probably of the eternal enjoyment of child-wives in its mere state. [Dia 2] The contact with his little beloved is from the beginning marked by difficulties and breaks as a result of her mother's control. But there is no reason to suspect Carroll of having taken nude photographs of little Alice. The most risky shot is even that one of Alice as a beggar maid in which, however, basic elements of his photographic eroticism are given. To put it into the context of the Victorian moral order: the bare feet and shoulders indicate the visual incitement. The desire of the camera-eye is set on fire by those details constituting the so called fetishistic perception. Thus the passion of denuding affirms the menace of castration of the phallic dressed look by this fragmentation but negates it by the visual presence. Even Freud did choose an optical example as illustration for his theory of fetishism: the substitution of "Glanz" (shining) by "glance" and "glans".

Consequently the look of the girl must be interpreted in a fetishistic way: there is no neutral response to the objective lens. Carrolls embodies in the scene of photography what he couldn't expose in the drawings of his first Alice-book: the look of the photographed Alice is like a mirrow for the desire of the look adressed to her, while the girl in the drawings – also in the version of Tenniel – represents the childish innocence of a being that is not glanced at. But the photographic denuding of the look by Carroll goes farther: in the direction of the double sense of the objective genitive as a revealing the visual desire and the subjective genitive as an indicator of the optic seduction by the penetrating or peeping look. This act of undraping does not mean a wish to expose his objects in an obscene manner and to prolong the suppression as interdiction. His photographic `will for truth' expresses the search for another order of desire, for other and new intensities beyond the morally codified principle of lust and the procreatively determined principle of reality. His explicitely celibate eroticism touches the fetishistic apriori of the photographic glance and reaches its transcendantal condition of possibility but as a pladoyer for purity instead of purification. In a letter adressed to the mother of one of his models he formulates this demande as the indirect way of a determined negation:

"I hope my mention of my admiration of children's feet did not make you think I meant to propose taking Annie with bare feet. I shall propose no such thing, as I don't think she knows me well enough, and is also too nervous a child, to like it. So I hope she has heard nothing of it, as it might make her afraid to come.

With children who know me well , and who regard dress as a matter of indifference, I am very glad (when mothers permit) to take them in any amount of undress which is presentable, or even in none (which is more presentable than any forms of undress) but I don't think your Annie is all a child of that sort. If you ever meet with any such "children of Nature", I shall be glad to hear of them."

Of course no mother could resist to a refuse of such a kind and Carroll himself wonders about the willingness of Annie and of her sister to move even nude in his photostudio. Nevertheless he doesn't search in this "nature attitude" the nudity of the real body: the pure denuding of the glance is non-real for the naked eye, it is the imaginary presence of a real absence, the photographic visibility of the `without' in the expression "without dresses", of the withdrawal indicated by the `un-' in the expression "undraped". What Carroll wants to take off from the little girls is not the dress or the drape covering and hiding her bodies, but the invisible wrapping, the symbolic veil of social determinations, the prescription or order that they have to become wives and mothers. But following the same tragic ambiguity of the fetishistic negation of castration, the eroticism of Lewis Carrolls photographs of young girls is condammed to conjure an anticipation of genital sexuality of the "future Eves" and to cross it over as factual latency. In other words: to reach out for the denotated presence of the girls' pure and performative being by reaffirming or reinstalling the connotative, cultural coded appearence or representation as sexual objects. The question that remains is: how to gender the look. There is a deep difference of the sexes in representation concerning their presence as power. Berger writes about this difference between male virtuality and female glamour:

"A man's presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies … suggests what her is capable of doing … By contrast, a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – … Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura. … Bur this has been at the cost of a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image. … Man act and women appear …"

Speaking with Laura Mulveys famous study on visual plaesure: the absence of the male is constutive for the phallic substitution or the future of its illusion. But what is the phallus? That what functions only under cover, under the veil of shame. On the contrary of the penis, the real organ, the symbolic phantom called phallus owes its significance to an absence: the perceptive trauma of castration. Lack, withdrawal, absence are the transcendental conditions under which the stars of the phallic constellation are born.  So it is on the first hand reactive and on the second hand only given along a chain of substitutions or references. And thirdly it is linked to a paradoxical double bind of gazing and not seeing. The voyeuristic fetishism of exposed women shows this contradiction: the gaze seeks to denude the female sexe, but barely withstands the revelation of the phallic absence. This is why we are, at the same time, confronted with the whole investment of poses, costumes, attitudes, significant gestures and objects/details [Dia 3]: the screening of procedures, which may be called, in a classical sense, the investitures of the apotropaion, the shelter of symbolic arrangements, veiling the void of the other. Onto the exposure, the exhibition of the female body is projected the significance of an iconographic overdetermination, the connotation of emblematic scenes, situations, poses, and aspects. What constitutes the dominant meaning of the picture, is not the pure depiction of the innocent object, the mass of primordial datas, caught by the random access of the camera-lens, but the pre-processing of optical orientations, the in-forming of the visual by the pragmatic perspective of fantasy:

"And this is not to say that fantasy supplies its own thematic, but that the boundaries of the real against which it is determined are precisely what become problematized in fantasy. Fantasy suspends the ontological claim of that which passes as the real under the usual description."

With Carroll, this problem shows its disturbing power in the arrangements of the photographic themes. [Dia 4/5/6]  We meet up again with very known aspects of classical nymphets as sleeping beauties, the pictural tradition or conventional iconography of the odalisque as object of the voyeuristic male look. Even if we take the extraordinary example of the out-standing photograph of an real girl "sans habillement" [Dia 7] – the very strange item in the Philadelphia Rosenbach Museum (besides the other "nudes" which survided only as coloured versions), copied onto a glass-support, a plate formed like an ashtray, underlaid by a second plate, doubling the body's shape by a coloured haze, thus enabling a sort of slide-projection -, a kind of unmediated stand-in for the real, we remain in the regime of connotative iconographie:

"An adult male fantasy is projected upon her – that of the available, seductive and seducing, socially degraded, and powerless woman open for inspection and actively engaged in responding to the heterosexual male viewer's sollicitation."

In the words of George Dimock – and you allow me a short cinematographically accelerated deconstruction of the authenticity of this intimate intercourse of the eye and the look through the iconographic lens of this topic [Dia pp.]: We are touched by the tragic but necessary failure of this denotative expurgation of the photographic glance, assumed in the final arguments of Dimocks article:

"Does Carroll's photographing of little girls in erotic postures, both clothed and naked, constitute child sexual abuse, as the term is understood today? I think the answer is complexly and disturbingly `yes', in the sense that Carroll projected an incommensurable, adult male, sexuality onto the bodies of young girls without their knowledge, understanding, or permission." (ibd. 204 f)

A victimization of photography and its penetrating intervention at all?

4. Unmarked (neuter, traumatism, erratic boulder)

The denotation of fantasy only functions as withdrawal: talking of what had been there, but of what we have no other testimony but the substitute of its referent, track, mark, signifier on the verge of real absence and fantasmatic presence. This is why the notion of youth becomes extremely important for the imaginary representation:

"I have placed this youth in photographs because this is the appropriate age, the time of memory, of image. And in the following part, on the contrary, I say no more images, because I no longer have any, and everything passes through the writing."

Barthes never speaks of sexuality in this context: "I speak, rather, of sensuality" (ibd. 428), he says, just referring to his later valorization of the body and its pleasures. His insistence that one must write the body, that writing must render the very grain of the voice, that most intimate and most resistant feeling, closes up with the idea of the neuter. To my knowledge, Barthes never discussed feminism. The denied sexual differences shades into sexual indifference. And in the name if this indifference Barthes tries to transcend the borderline of the two sexes, following the line of a new androgynous sexuality:

"The neuter may be emancipatory but it is not free from eroticism. The neutre is reached through perversion and pleasure. … Neuter sexuality, outside the dichotomy necessary for reproduction. Neuter but not asexual, neither one sex nor the other, but not asexual."

Not man, not woman, nor a third sexe, but dancing on the borderline of sexual difference, the verge of being and having the phallus, dancing around the fetish, the hidden phallus, that marks the difference:

"In S/Z, Barthes seeks to debiologize difference by substituting the paradigm castrating/catrated for the paradigm male/female. This suggests that what is really at stake in S/Z is sexual difference, but a symbolic rather than an anatomical one."

This is the point where Barthes and Carroll meet. They are both interested in this attempt to overcome biological determinations of sex and to reveal the symbolic order of how to become man ore woman. They both go back to the point of splitting where the `young vegetable' is still neutre, fresh, not yet marked. And they both admire one medium's capacity to unveil the mask of biological determinations: photography.

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