What it Means to See: Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes
Fascinated by its uncanny power and difference, both Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag dealt continuously with the nature and meaning of photography throughout their writing lives. Their engagement culminated in two works, published just a few years apart, which continue to tower over contemporary photographic theory: Sontag’s On Photography and Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Beyond their immersion in post-war French theory, both writers shared a view of photography that is informed by experiences of loss, grief and acute social sensibility, while also being deeply concerned with the act of writing in and of itself. “His sense of ideas was dramaturgical,” Sontag wrote after Barthes’ untimely death in 1980, “an idea was always in competition with another idea.” The same might be said of Sontag, whose writing about culture, art, media, and, specifically, photography, came to define how we still think today about capturing and collecting images. What can their words tell us about our contemporary engagement with photography and its problematic relationships with the “real”? How can Barthes and Sontag shed light on the elusive possibility of democratizing the field of vision? What would it mean to have an ethics of seeing?
In this course we will read from their seminal works around photography, suggesting meeting points between their analytical and personal projects. We will examine Barthes and Sontag’s analyses of photography’s relationships with its viewers, issues of memory and remembrance, representation, the ever-changing media landscape, and the complicated relationships of the photographic image to the truth. Throughout the seminar, we will also observe their influence, by exploring writings by scholars and artists, including Judith Butler, Ariella Azoulay, John Berger, and Benjamin Moser, among others.
Course ScheduleWednesday, 7:00-10:00pm ET (4:00-7:00pm PT)
July 12 — August 02, 2023