Posts Tagged ‘Roland Barthes’

Punctum

June 16, 2013

The Spring 2013 Critical Inquiry offers an interesting extension of Barthes’ punctum. In an article entitled Another Punctum: Animation, Affect, and Ideology, Eric S. Jenkins (re)interprets Barthes’ insights with what is definitely not photography (but may employ it in the process) – animation. Barthes punctum is felt. That contributes more to understanding it than anything else. It is affective, much as the Proustian cookie. Something in the photograph “connects” with the viewer, touches the viewer, wounds or breaks the surface. This “something” is not necessarily the same thing for each viewer. It may be a trivial detail of clothing, or setting, or physical feature, gesture. But it is enough to make the viewer stop and reconsider their assessment and response to the image based on how the image now exists in the world as they (the viewer) know and experience it. Barthes also considers a second degree or level of the punctum, that of how the “traditional” photographic image connects with the viewer through the aspect of time, along the channel of finality – death. THAT, which I am looking at, was but is no more. Call it poignancy if you like, it is as affective as the initial connection with some individual element within the make-up of the image. Barthes dwells on the specific characteristic of mortality found with traditional photographs. Traditional must be stressed as so much could not be said for “photo-shopped”, manipulated images or moving “pictures” – film. Contemporary with the development of film was the development of animation, another type of moving picture. Jenkins realizes that folks respond affectively to animation, so there must be a punctum at play there somewhere. The classical Chinese ink painting theorists would describe this as the image needs a doorway, an entry into the painting. We would call it the point where there is a suspension of disbelief. Animation, animated subjects do not exist, have never been, share our world and experience only through the image, nothing more.

“The punctum of animation, although likewise a punctum of “Time,” is about life rather than death. Gertie [Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur, 1914] never lived, so her coming death is unlikely to incur a wounding melancholy. Instead, in animation’s punctum, the viewer senses as alive that which does not live. This sense of life is so potent, this prick so sharp, that even knowing otherwise sometimes cannot prevent the feeling that these characters live. For instance, in an oft-repeated anecdote, famed Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones mentions to a child that he created Bugs Bunny. The child stubbornly denies his assertion, insisting, “’he draws pictures of Bugs Bunny,’” Jones might depict the character moving and expressing, but Bugs lives beyond the drawings. This child expresses animation’s punctum, sensing as alive that which exists only as image.” (Critical Inquiry Vol. 39 No. 3 pg. 585)

After the end of art (the post modern), what makes for art is greatly in flux. No fixed criteria exist to make this art or not. Everything can be art. Everything is not art. Classical aesthetic theory falls short when one considers popular culture as a fountainhead of art. It is squished flat when one considers the current inter relationship of the market and art. Because some “thing” (concrete or conceptual) has had its five minutes of fame, does that make it art? If some “thing” sells, does that make it art? The higher the price, the better the art? What makes for quality with art if we know that it is art to begin with? On pg. 583 Jenkins writes, “If the punctum is like the passage through a black hole, perhaps animation’s punctum can be envisioned as going through another hole, a rabbit’s hole, like Alice transported to a realm where cats talk, caterpillars smoke hookahs, and the Queen of Hearts barks orders for decapitation.”
Inadvertently, Jenkins himself opens a passage that helps answer some of these questions regarding what makes for art, what makes for quality. Allowing for such a bivalent interpretation of the punctum makes an aesthetic utilization possible. Without doubt or controversy, one of the most beloved manifestations of western art would be that produced by the “category” called the Impressionists. Yet what do we find here? We find individual artists who insisted on always “representing” something that already was (much as traditional photography). At the same time, we find a palette and style that belongs more with that of the Disney studios than the contemporary academic painters of the time. The affective response to Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party or Monet’s Haystack at Sunset near Giverny could be equally described by either Barthes’ or Jenkins’ punctum. The house barely appearing in the summer’s pre twilight haze, the woman holding the dog up, these are trivialities that draw me in. They are not Gertie, in that they never have been. They once were. And yet there is also the aspect of the colors and forms, so much in keeping with Jenkins description of animation. Were I to ever encounter life forms like Renoir’s or a landscape like Monet’s, it would be as Jenkins describes, “Temporal hallucination.” (pg. 584) The contribution to considerations of quality or existence (is it art?) that such an expanded interpretation of punctum provides would be along the lines that it once was (something experienced, shared, coexistent with actual experience) AND the acute sense “as alive that which does not live”. Much as the pre Socratics (and the pre Robert Redford’s) described life (philosophized about life) as a river, one that you cannot step into the same river twice. No! Not even once. Yet we all admit we do step into the river. So considerations of art, its being and quality, have to include what definitely was, as well as what we can never enter into, “sensing as alive that which exists only as image.”