Barthes and Eastern Philosophy

In his book “Camera Lucida”, Roland Barthes explores the nature of photography. He references many subjects and draws a little from eastern philosophy.

In chapter 2 of the book, he writes that “In order to designate reality, Buddha says sunya, the void; but better still: tathata, as Alan Watts has it, the fact of being this, of being thus, of being so; tat means that in Sanskrit and suggests the gesture of the child pointing his finger at something and saying: that, there it is, lo!

Anyone with an understanding of these concepts might question their significance in relation to the superficiality of the photograph; is it not a bit far fetched to cite the profundity of Buddha to demonstrate possible readings of the photograph?

Barthes is aware of this contradiction and that this pointing out of reality by the photograph is a limited one and can not be justly considered as being the same as that of a Buddha; Barthes writes …
“a photograph can not be transformed (spoken) philosophically, it is wholly ballasted by the contingency of which it is the weightless transparent envelope.”

So Barthes reference to eastern philosophy is conceptual rather than actual, he is just drawing on the symbolism of the Buddhist teaching rather than claiming the photograph has the potency of the Buddha. This is a quite common usage in modern English; for instance, the term “stockbroker guru” does not use the philosphical term guru with it’s true meaning of spiritual guide rather it is an ironic usage of the word guru.

Barthes again uses an eastern term Satori as the title for chapter 21 of Camera Lucida. Satori is a word that implies a sudden yet profound spiritual insight; a photograph can also have a dramatic effect on one (Barthes calls this the punctum), it may well be worth a thousand words possibly even more, yet it can not be equated with the term satori which is a deeper understanding of enlightenment not the acquisition of information supplied by a photograph.

In Chapter 21, Barthes also compares the photograph to a Haiku which comes from the tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism, being a short formal poem describing a moment of profound insight. Although, the photograph has a largely visual effect and the Haiku uses words, arguably both can be said to be potentially a cause for what Barthes calls the punctum to act.

In Western literature, eastern philosophical terms are often used superficially or simply ironically; Barthes appears to be using Eastern concepts of potentially limitless meaning to imply the limitations of the photograph as well as it’s universality.