Photography's courtly desires: Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, and the photographic beloved Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Howie, Elizabeth
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Art and Art History
  • The medieval poetic genre and performance practice of courtly love elaborates the delirious enjoyment and exquisite pain of unquenched desire and celebrates its textual performance; photography visualizes this highly fraught system of desire. Photography is imbued with courtly love because of its relation to desire, distance, and idealization. The photograph’s referent appears to be present but is always lost, a paradox which keeps the viewer’s desire inflamed; I read the unavailability of the referent, and the desires it arouses, in terms of the desires aroused by the beautiful and idealized but unavailable courtly lady. What photography gives, what it denies, and the desires it arouses are courtly. I adopt courtly love’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century theorizations, particularly the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and semiotician Roland Barthes, as a strategy for reading photography. Both Barthes and Lacan write of a desire that is idealizing, unrequited, and related to the primordial experience of the mother. Lacan specifically addresses courtly love as the epitome of the non-rapport between the sexes and the ultimate example of sublimation. Lacanian psychoanalysis revolves around the issue of the subject’s desire; he sees courtly love as the embodiment of desire in the life of the subject. Lacan’s discussion of the sublimation of the courtly lady provides a way to theorize the sublimation operative in photography, and the resulting impact on photographic ethics. If subjectivity is based on lack/desire, the photograph is the perfect object to operate on both: it always represents lack and absence, but simultaneously offers possession, images of wholeness, and illusions of closeness. A close comparative reading of Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1980) with his A Lover’s Discourse (1977) demonstrates significant affinities between the two and links Barthes’s work on photography and desire. The photographs I address include Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Interior Theaters, photographs commissioned by painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti of Pre-Raphaelite icon Jane Burden Morris, and the recently-identified genre of nineteenth-century portraiture of men commemorating their loving friendships.
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  • Mavor, Carol
  • Open access

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