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Nothing to Say: Fragments on the Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction1 Elissa Marder Comme si l'horreur de la Mort n'était pas précisément sa platitude! L'horreur, c'est ceci: rien à dire de la mort de qui j'aime le plus, rien à dire de sa photo, que je contemple sans jamais pouvoir l'approfondir, la transformer. La seule "pensée" queje puisse avoir, c'est qu'au bout de cette première mort, ma propre mort est inscrite; entre les deux, plus rien, qu'attendre; je n'ai d'autre ressource que cette ironie: parler du "rien à dire." —Roland Barthes, La Chambre claire This before is not known, obviously, because it is there before we are. It is something like birth or infancy (Latin, in-fans)—there before we are. The there in question is called the body. It is not "I" who am born, who is given birth to. "I" will be bom afterwards, with language, precisely upon leaving infancy... Aesthetics has to do with this first touch: the one that touched me when I was not there. —Jean-François Lyotard, "Prescription" IRONICALLY, the author of "The Death of the Author" did not, in fact, touch the question of his own death in that influential essay. But in his last work—published after the death of his mother and during the short span of time during which he "awaits" his own imminent death by writing about his mother's death and photography—when he claims that he has nothing more to say, nothing to say except that he has nothing to say, Roland Barthes provides us a powerful commentary on the relationship between modernity and death. For Barthes, photography is lethal because through this uncanny medium death is removed from the realm of language and becomes inscribed directly upon the body. After the advent of photography, it would seem, death is set loose from its moorings in language: when death can no longer be "written ," writing itself begins to lose its cultural and historical force. Instead, like Kafka's depiction of the "machine" in "In the Penal Colony," photography inscribes a death sentence directly upon the body of the subject. In so doing, photography destroys what Jean-François Lyotard has called "the aesthetic": the body before it is touched by language and the law.2 Because photography operates on the body before language (in place of language), it both recalls and effaces our primordial ties to the maternal body. Thus, as we shall see, in writing about having "nothing to say" about the death of his mother, Roland Barthes writes to us about the death of the language of death in the age of mechanical reproduction. In the following pages, by respecting Barthes's Vol. XL, No. 1 25 L'Esprit Créateur adamant declarations of photography's "folle vérité," we shall attempt to trace the language of death that comes to be inscribed on and through the photographic body in La Chambre claire.3 As any reader of La Chambre claire knows, Barthes's reflections on the ontology of photography ultimately take the form of an autobiographical elegy to his dead mother. The author's public expression of private mourning almost appears as a contingent pretext or convenient afterthought that accompanies a quasi-philosophical meditation on the medium of photography. Thus the book can (and has) been read either as an example of an autobiography that happens to speak about photography or as a book about photography that happens to speak about the author's relationship to his dead mother.4 But neither of these two approaches fully captures the unthinkable link that Barthes stages between photography and the mother in La Chambre claire. As we shall see, the uncanny link between photography and the mother exceeds his explicit invocations to his mother: not only does he structure his text around a photograph of his deceased mother that he refuses to "reproduce," but, more radically, his text conceives of photography as a mechanical mother that mimes, distorts and disrupts the maternal function. The relationship between photography and the maternal function permeates all aspects of his discussions on photography. Barthes's...


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