Believing Critics? Roland Barthes looks at photographs

Jeffrey Kosky
Washington & Lee University

Could the language and disposition of “belief” be a resource for a Humanities that laments the present constitution of the objects of its study? What would be different—about our encounter, about our critical response, about our writing—if we scholars and critics were to believe the phenomena we confront?

This essay considers the possibilities of “belief” as a resource for those who are looking for alternatives to the pervasive spirit of critical disenchantment that has characterized and justified the Humanities’ engagement with cultural phenomena for decades, probably longer. As provocative example, I will revisit a case some might consider too dated to be relevant to the present state of the Humanities and others might consider too everyday and ordinary to be relevant to the question of belief: that of Roland Barthes writing the book Camera Lucida while looking at photographs. Barthes believes the photographs, and believing them, they reveal something. I want to follow Barthes as he tries in writing to remain faithful to the amazing event that befalls him when he gives himself over to what the photographs reveal. Along the way we might let Barthes teach us a thing or two about what the disposition of belief could mean.