This is an essay I originally wrote for an English class in college. It discusses the philosophical value of images, with a focus on photography. All of the images used except “Afghan Girl” are public domain, which should be usable under Fair Use laws.

A Post-Structuralist Interpretation of the Image

“From the moment that there is meaning there are nothing but signs. We think only in signs” (Palmer 141). This declaration by Jacques Derrida in his seminal work Of Grammatology exemplifies the interpretation of reality espoused by the most influential of the structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers, including Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Derrida himself. In his book Camera Lucida, Barthes attempts to find the essence of photography (what he calls the eidos, a term borrowed from Plato) by uncovering the underlying structure of the human image interpretation experience. Susan Sontag and John Berger, two other prominent thinkers in the field of photographic theory, also attempt to touch on some underlying structure to explain the experience of the image. However, Derrida’s process of deconstruction, a post-structuralist rejection of the Western academic milieu, reveals that these instinctual categorizations may be nothing more than wishful thinking. Instead what is important is what lies in between the opposite poles described by the structuralists, the free play that arrives from the constant shift in meaning caused by the intermingling of rivaling forces. Indeed, what makes images, and especially photographs, so compelling is that they lie right in the middle of so many of these structured binary oppositions.

The ethos of structuralism is based essentially on a single idea, Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of the sign. According to Saussure, language is made up of signs, which are in turn made up of both what he called the signifier and the signified. In the context of linguistics, the signifier is simply the sounds or letters that represent the signified, which is the concept that is represented by its written or spoken symbol. The important departure from other systems of thought is that signs are not defined by their essence, but as negative relations to things—since there is no underlying essence, signifieds are simply defined by everything they are not. Another important concept in Saussure’s linguistics is the distinction between la langue (the whole linguistic system) and parole (actual speech). Saussure uses the example of a chess game to illustrate this concept: “… an individual move in a chess game… can only be understood in terms of the underlying system of rules which is chess. Yet at the primary level the rules govern only differences. The pawn is not the queen, the queen is not the bishop, the bishop is not…, etc. Furthernore, the queen is not defined by ‘her’ material construction (ivory, wood, plastic) nor by her shape” (Palmer 22). In this metaphor, chess represents la langue, the specific chess game being played represent parole, and the pieces represent individual signs.

Claude Levi-Strauss took Saussure’s linguistic concepts and abstracted them so he could apply them to cultural anthropology. He rejected the prevailing empirical “functionalist” interpretation that all cultural practices have an underlying utilitarian function (Palmer 29). Levi-Strauss argued that some forms of behavior have no literal utility at all; their significance is revealed only when they are related negatively to other social phenomena in the same cultural system—just like Saussure’s signifiers (Palmer 29). Levi-Strauss dubbed this abstraction of Saussure’s ideas “structuralism.” This philosophy greatly influenced thinkers such as Barthes and Lacan, and eventually led to the post-structural deconstructionism of Derrida.

Jacques Lacan was a structuralist in the sense that he applied Saussure’s system of signs to the field of psychotherapy. However, he was a post-structuralist in that “he uses Freud to read Saussure” (Palmer 66) Lacan did not believe the individual was in control over parole, as he says, “The subject is spoken rather than speaking” (Palmer 67). By this Lacan explains that the self, the subject, is really just a projection of the unconscious mind—Freud’s ego projecting the unconscious biases of the superego and id.

Starting with Lacan, “post-structuralism” is “the radicalization of Saussure’s linguistics to challenge the notion of structural stability” itself (Palmer 66). Derrida takes this radicalization to the next level, with his concept of deconstruction, with which he demonstrates that every dichotomy is inherently imbalanced, and completely structurally instable. Although in Derrida’s philosophy it is not possible to extract coherent meaning out of structural dichotomies, this does not mean they are useless. Instead, Derrida emphasizes what he calls free play. In a binary system, each present structural configuration has emerged out of a prior configuration and is already dissolving into a future configuration. “There is no central configuration that attempts to freeze the play of the system, no marginal one, no privileged one, no repressed one” (Powell 29) When deconstructed, all systems of language are like this. Human thought, as Barthes, Lacan, and Derrida all allude to, counts as one of these systems, “our only access to reality is a semiological one—that is, once language has been acquired, we are in contact with signs, not things” (Palmer 141).

Roland Barthes is unique in the structuralist movement in that he devotes an entire volume of his work to the photograph interpretation experience. In his quest to define the structure of the human interpretation of images, Barthes defines two important terms. He appropriates the Latin word punctum to designate the indefinable quality of each photograph that touches him on this personal level. In his book Camera Lucida, Barthes defines punctum in conjunction with another term, studium:

What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect,
almost from a certain training… this word exists in Latin: it is studium,
which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, “study,” but application to a
thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of
course, but without special acuity… The second element will break (or
punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out…, it is this
element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and
pierces me… This second element which will disturb the studium I shall
therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole…
A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me… (26-27)

Though these concepts are complex and multifaceted, they can be simplified for ease of discussion. Studium can be thought of as one’s cultural interest in an image, that which a person has been conditioned by society or the people around him to respond to, or as Barthes says, the “docile cultural subject” (43). Punctum is very personal; often it is a certain detail that the person viewing the image (who Barthes dubs “the Spectator”) reacts to based on his own unique history. Barthes elaborates, “Certain details may ‘prick’ me. If they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally” (47). In short, punctum is not something that can be intentionally injected into a photograph, it must come from deep within the spectator; so deep that it cannot be described, “What I can name cannot really prick me,” Barthes explains (51). At first, this statement may seem somewhat paradoxical because of his viewpoint that language constructs all thought. However, this is resolved when Barthes declares that any instance of punctum he can define is surely not punctum—that is, punctum is something that exists outside of language, and therefore outside of thought. While Barthes expounds the necessity of punctum by definition, Sontag and Berger touch upon the concept in their attempts to explain images and photography.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag discusses war and how people interpret the pain and suffering of other human beings, especially concerning the medium of the photograph. Unlike its participants, modern man experiences war almost exclusively through images. To someone living in a modern, affluent nation, war is horrifying, terrible, and as far from the ideal of peace as possible. Sontag discusses how war is now seen as a departure from the norm, yet in the past this was not the case. Plato lectured about how in art war should be pitiless, how gore should be portrayed as beautiful. This stands in stark contrast to how war is portrayed in photographs. Sontag explains this by stating how photographs have two purposes: beauty (art) and documentation. In the context of war, people want photographs to document, but not to be beautiful. Describing the apparent dichotomy in beauty and documentation, Sontag clarifies her position:

The dual powers of photography—to generate documents and to create
works of visual art— have produced some remarkable exaggerations about what photographers ought or > ought not to do. Lately, the most common
exaggeration is one that regards these powers as opposites. Photographs
that depict suffering shouldn’t be beautiful, as captions shouldn’t
moralize. In this view, a beautiful photograph drains attention from the
sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby
compromising the picture’s status as a document. The photograph gives
mixed signals. Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!

In this revelation Sontag espouses Barthes’ concepts of studium and punctum, the documentation being studium and the beauty the punctum that pierces it. Studium, the docile cultural interest in an image, is nothing more than documentation, in that it exists solely to signify the intentions of the author or photographer. Punctum, on the other hand, by transcending Saussure’s dichotomy of signifier and signified is able to stir the subject on very personal level.

Indeed, studium and punctum are not opposites, but intermingling forces. To Barthes, a photograph’s “existence derived from the co-presence of two discontinuous elements, heterogeneous in that they did not belong to the same world” (23). Punctum cannot exist without studium; beauty cannot exist without documentation. While an image can purely exist to document (Barthes calls this “the unary image”), it will not connect with the viewer on a personal level. This is a throwback to Derrida’s deconstruction. A unary image is centered around studium, so by definition it is lacking the free play that is so essential for any meaning to be found in anything, especially images. While Barthes touched upon many post-structuralist ideas in his writings, Derrida would have viewed Barthes’s concepts of studium and punctum to be exactly the same as the structuralist ideas he so enjoyed deconstructing: logocentric. In Camera Lucida, Barthes decides that punctum is the essence of photography. Barthes attempts to deconstruct the imbalance he sees in these two methods of experience by emphasizing punctum as a way of “decentering” studium. This phase of reversal is needed in order to subvert the original. Barthes falls short of true deconstruction, however, because he has now centered his interpretation on punctum. Derrida claimed that one must realize eventually that this new hierarchy is equally unstable, and surrender to the complete free play of the binary opposites in a nonhierarchical way—i.e. focus on what lies in between these intermingling forces (Powell 28).

John Berger, like Sontag, also stumbles upon the ideas of studium and punctum in his book Ways of Seeing, in which the final chapter illustrates the importance of punctum through the context of advertising. After commenting on the ubiquity of photographs in modern society, Berger says, “We are now so accustomed to being addressed by these images that we scarcely notice their total impact. A person may notice a particular image… because it corresponds to some particular interest he has. But we accept the total system of publicity images as we accept an element of climate” (130). Here Berger has defined the exact ideas of studium and punctum while simultaneously expressing the importance of the personal impact of an image. Although publicity is “the culture of the consumer society,” it can “never really afford to be about the product or opportunity it is proposing to the buyer who is not yet enjoying it” (Berger 132,139).

In his philosophy, Derrida likes to purposefully create terms that lie in between the binary opposites embraced by structuralists. One such term is parergon, or frame, the border between a work of art and what lies outside it (Powell 130). By deconstructing the concept of frame, Derrida shows that “the frame is what ‘produces’ the object of art, is what sets if off as an object of art—an aesthetic object. Thus the frame is essential to a work of art…” (Powell 131). This is exactly what Berger talks about when he describes how a photograph’s caption or setting can change its meaning. Specifically, he shows a reproduction of Wheatfield with Crows, by Van Gogh:


Berger shows this image once without a caption and again with a caption explaining that this image was the last Van Gogh created before killing himself. As Berger says, “It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they have. The image now illustrates the sentence” (28). Berger, in a sense, has stumbled into poststructuralism.

In his book The Savage Mind, Claude Levi-Strauss relates Saussure’s system of linguistics to the interpretation of images:

For signs can always be defined in the way introduced by Saussure… that
is, as a link between images and concepts. In the union thus brought about,
images and concepts play the part of the signifying and signified
respectively… Signs resemble images in being concrete entities but they resemble concepts in their > powers of reference. Neither concepts nor signs
relate exclusively to themselves; either may be substituted for something
else. Concepts, however, have an unlimited capacity in this respect, while
signs do not. (18)

Here, Levi-Strauss is defining images as signifiers of some signified meaning. This meaning of course can be cultural (studium) or individual (punctum) and is probably a combination of both. The latter part of his explanation places him squarely in the structuralist camp, as he is centering his discussion on concepts. Like Levi-Strauss, “when looking at the meaning of sign, Saussure inspected the relationship between signifier (the sound image) and the signified (concept)” (Palmer 70). The poststructuralism of Lacan, however, “seeks the meaning of signifiers in the relation to other signifiers” (Palmer 70). By viewing signifiers this way, they also have “an unlimited capacity” to be substituted metonymically just like signifieds.

Levi-Strauss contends that “art lies half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought” (18). This assertion is a perfect example of the free play between what Sontag would call beauty and documentation. Levi-Strauss defines science as the process that creates events from pre-existing structure, while myth produces structures from pre-existing events. Art lies in between these binary opposites; as LeviStrauss says, “the painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists of uniting internal and external knowledge, a ‘being’ and a ‘becoming’, in producing with his brush an object which does not exist as such and which he is nevertheless able to create on the canvass” (25). According to Levi-Strauss, an artist’s genius comes entirely from his aptitude to engage in free play. Levi-Strauss analyzes Francois Clouet’s Portrait of Elizabeth of Austria to provide a concrete example of his ideas:


Levi-Strauss focuses specifically on the detail of the lace collar for the “very profound aesthetic emotion which is, apparently inexplicably, aroused by the highly realistic, thread by thread, representation” (22). He is, of course, referring to the clash and resolution of punctum (beauty; the aesthetic emotion) and studium (documentation; the highly realistic representation). In this case, punctum arises from the studium. LeviStrauss attempts to explain this by explaining how Clouet’s image is a miniature representation of his subject, and in fact, all aesthetically pleasing art is miniature—“the paintings of the Sistine Chapel are a small-scale model in spite of their imposing dimensions, since the theme which they depict is the End of Time” (23). What LeviStrauss does not realize is that the miniature is compelling simply because it lies in between two opposing categories—complete fabrication and unadulterated reality.

This free play between what is real, and what is imaginary is precisely what makes the photograph so special. As Barthes notes, the photograph is caught in the middle between several dichotomies: the chemical and the physical, the past and the present, the cultural and the personal, and finally, the imagined and the real. By refusing to make any one of these extremes its focus, a photograph bypasses the human defense system of categorization and is then able to be interpreted based on its own unique merit. Consider the photograph of the “Afghan Girl” by Steve McCurry:


Although most of us realize that the photograph we are looking at is merely a chemical representation of a physical structure (the girl), as Barthes remarked, the light that made the photograph had to have touched the girl at one point, so in a sense we are connected. This free play between the physical, real world and the reproduction of it sends us reeling. We are momentarily grounded by imaging that this photograph is anchored in the past, but this feeling is soon destabilized by our curiosity of the girl’s current circumstances. On a more abstract level, the photograph sends us constantly searching for an anchor and unable to find one. This search is exactly what causes us to find the photograph so interesting.

While it took many great thinkers from many diverse fields of study to form the basis of his ideas, Derrida was able to look beyond the bias of binary opposition and construct a truer vision of reality through his deconstruction. Berger, Sontag, and especially Barthes elaborate on the necessity of the interactions between opposing forces in the interpretation of images, especially photography. While most philosophers are content in describing a system of categorization and picking the best category to fit their ideas into, Derrida emphasizes the free play of seemingly irreconcilable ideas. Indeed, through this very instability we become engrossed with the subject matter of the image. The photograph, being especially unstable, is perhaps the ultimate symbol of human interpretation. It is when free play ceases that interpretations become stagnant and imbalanced.


“All in the world recognize the beautiful as beautiful. Herein lies ugliness.”— Lao Tzu

Works Cited

  • Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
  • Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972.
  • Eco, Umberto. History of Beauty. New York: Rizzoli, 2004.
  • Eco, Umberto. On Ugliness. New York: Rizzoli, 2007.
  • Johnson, Christopher. Derrida. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  • Kahn, Michael. Basic Freud. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  • Palmer, Donald. Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners. City: For Beginners, 2007.
  • Powell, Jim and Van Howell. Derrida for Beginners. City: For Beginners, 2007.
  • Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
  • Velde, Christiaan. The Mind: Its Nature and Origin. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 2004.

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