Lovers’ Discourse: A Visual, Feminist Re-Interpretation of Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse

The necessity for this book is to be found in the following consideration: that the lovers’ discourse is today of a lingering patriarchy. This discourse is experienced, perhaps, by thousands of subjects (who knows?), but warranted by no one; it is reproduced and naturalized in Hollywood films, in romance novels, in magazines, in self-help books. Once a discourse is thus driven from its own momentum into the backwater of the static and unchanging, it has no recourse but to become the site, however exiguous, of a reconstruction. That reconstruction is, in short, the subject of the book which begins here . . .1

How this book is constructed

Everything follows from this principle: that love is not to be reduced to a one-sided action, but rather a relationship constituted by the actions of two people—two lovers. The description of the lovers’ discourse has been replaced by its visual simulation, and to that discourse has been restored to the fundamental unit, the we, in order to stage a scene, not an analysis. What is proposed, then, is a portrait—but not a psychological portrait; instead, a structural one which offers the reader a discursive site: the sight of two lovers interacting equally.2

1. Gender

The fragments of discourse offered here, unlike in Barthes’ text, are primarily visual. The book uses, edits, adapts, and adds to Barthes’ terms while defining them in a new way: both through visual media and as an interaction between two lovers, not a lover and a lovee. The “lovee,” rather than the poetic beloved, is just the receiver of the lover’s thoughts and actions. Like Wendy Ewald’s American Alphabets, which uses images to define different languages within an American context3, this project uses images to redefine the discourse of love.

Barthes suggests that, “A figure [a piece of discourse] is established if at least someone can say: ‘That’s so true! I recognize that scene of language.’”4 However, within Barthes’ text, there is only the lone lover, based primarily on the sorrowful Werther, who can recognize himself. It is the project of this book to create a template for a reciprocal and equal love—Werther’s wish for himself and Charlotte if not their reality. The use, then, of images is not insignificant to this point: in a photograph, the “we” depicted can be situated in a way that they can be equal, even if not the same. The intention is that the viewer is free to identify with either party—active or passive, if the lovers are both or either of those things—whereas Barthes’ language only leaves room to identify with the active, masculinized lover. Lawrence D. Kritzman’s essay “Roland Barthes: The Discourse of Desire and the Question of Gender” may suggest that Barthes searches for a “neuter” subject by constantly switching between the masculine and the feminine, but it is the reproduction of the binary—active and passive— that locks him into a man/woman dichotomy.5 As John Berger so succinctly sums up the active and passive roles of men and women in visual culture: “men act and women appear.”6

Although Luce Irigaray declares that the word is somehow more appropriate than music or painting “because it would escape the objectality of a thing,” the image escapes the problem of the implied male subject (Ihe or the erasure of ils, the French masculine plural equivalent to theyhe).7 The phrase “I love you,” which she transforms to “I love to you” (“J’aime à toi”) changing the passive, feminine you from an object into another subject8, is transformed into a chorus of “I love you,” “I love to you,” “We love each other,” “We are in love,” and so on—both parties are implicated in the act of loving; both, either, or neither can be the “I” for different people, at different moments of viewing, in different contexts.

It is Barthes’ own suggestion that the figures of love can be articulated as moments where readers, or in this case viewers, see themselves that points out the constructiveness of love—made up of figures as one might imagine the components in paint-by-numbers—and opens up the possibility of reconstructing love. In her book All About Love, bell hooks discusses the way that love is depicted as something that just happens, typified by the expression “falling in love,” and how, automatically, “even in non-heterosexual relationships, the paradigms of leader and follower often prevail, with one person assuming the role deemed feminine and another the designated masculine role.”9 hooks, like Irigaray, suggests we change our language10, yet the book itself fails to create that new language and is steeped in old romantic notions of true love. With these images, I would like to dismantle the active-passive paradigm present in romantic relationships and instead suggest a space where lovers act reciprocally.

2. Media

“Vision is as important as language in mediating social relations, and it is not reducible to language, to the ‘sign,’ or to discourse. Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language. They want neither to be leveled into a ‘history of images’ nor elevated into a ‘history of art,’ but to be seen as complex individuals occupying multiple subject positions and identities.”11

The visual not only gives a presence to the “lovee,” but also acts as an investigation into Barthes’ other work about the photographic image and text. When Barthes discusses the news photograph, he suggests that text, in the guise of captions, “quicken” the text or make meaning appear more readily within the photograph12. This project does the opposite: it uses Barthes’ terms and explains them with the accompanying image. The image serves as an elaboration or elucidation of the abstracted word. The term, however, does not close down the meaning of the image in the way that a caption might; it evokes from the image, but does not simplify it. The single word cannot function as an explanation or an encapsulation of the image; instead, a space for the on-going interplay between the word and the image is opened.

When image and word are paired, like the way two lovers pair, the two do not function in the same way. The term was occasionally irreconcilable to an image, it was within a discourse divorced from the visual. The image, however, always seemed to lend itself to some kind of descriptor, but a term would never fully capture the image. As Mitchell suggests, “The picture wants equal rights with language, not to be turned into language”; like lovers, the word and the image work equally to create each figure (or, perhaps in the case of a word without an image, the impossibility of the figure), even if not in the same fashion. The relationships between the images and the words are not static. Like lovers, the way they combine differs in every coupling, but in each case both elements act.

The relationship forged by the image and the term is dynamic, the viewer is encouraged to work out the meaning of the figure through the interaction of both elements. Although Barthes suggests that each photograph is a death13 in Camera Lucida, the pages of this book are marked more by revitalization. He suggests it himself: “[The photograph] animates me: this is what creates every adventure.”14 If there is a death created in every photo, it is the act of viewing that brings it back to life (as well as, if successful, the photo bringing the viewer to life). This is the bridge between “there-then” and the “here-now”: the reanimation of the photograph. Perhaps this is what Barthes connects to the idea of the “third meaning” of the photograph that he cannot pin down: “Is that all? No, for I am still held by the image. I read, I receive (and probably even first and foremost) a third meaning—evident, erratic, obstinate.”15 The life of the photograph is what captures us, such as the power of Barthes’ Winter Garden photo. In Barthes’ search for a photograph that truly captures his mother, he finds the Winter Garden photo: a picture of her as a child. The “truth” of that photo and the power it has on Barthes is not the death of his mother, a reality of which he is painfully aware, but his ability to see her alive again within the moment of the photograph.

The photographs that compose this book, likewise, bring to life the moments of love. The viewer is invited to inhabit these scenes and allow the scenes to play out. The interaction of the lovers, of the image and the text, and the viewer and the page are all instances of life, not death.

3. Composition and Structure

Like Barthes’ book, the figures presented here are not in any particular order. As he describes, “The figures are non-syntagmatic, non-narrative; they are Erinyes; they stir, collide, subside, return, vanish with no more order than the flight of mosquitoes.” 16 Whereas the solution to a random order is for Barthes to alphabetize the terms, for this book it did not make sense to privilege the word in that fashion. Instead, the terms are unordered and unnumbered, not incautious of what Barthes calls “the wiles of pure chance,” but rather an attempt to give the ability to order, re-order, omit and include to the viewer17. The pages can be dissembled, re-arranged, taken out, and (if one were so inclined) added to. My reconstruction of lovers’ discourse is meant to open up the possibilities for redefining love, not to offer a picture of “true love.” Thus, viewers are encouraged to tweak this book to their own specifications.

The photographs that I created for this project were taken in collaboration with my boyfriend, Seth Watter, with the exception of the hand photographs, which were modeled by Liz Lewis and Terrance D’Ambrosio. (As well as my cat, Emerald, who insisted on participating and graciously allowed herself to be posed.) Like the work of Laurie Toby Edison18, whose projects include “unconventional” nude portraits of men and overweight women that give agency to the models who are active in setting up the shot, the process of photographing myself and Seth was negotiated between the two of us. Although Seth did not compose any of the shots, his input and self-styling are integral to each scene making each photograph an act of mutual creation.

Other resources used for this book are, also like Barthes’, taken from a wide range of sources including those Barthes used for the original, those peculiar to my own media consumption habits, my own personal experiences, and suggestions from friends and lovers. The images are drawn from, but not necessarily within the same context as, films I have seen within the past year or two, photographs I know or have come across in searching through Vassar library’s collection, postcards from my private collection, and personal photographs and objects that have been created with Seth, who gave generously to this project. Barthes constructs his image of love out of bits and pieces from his reading and life and I have used the same formula to create a different image.

So it is lovers who act thusly:


1 Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 2. This section, as well as the following section, draw heavily from Barthes’ original language to highlight the reconstruction of his original framework.

2 Ibid. 3.

3 Wendy Ewald, American Alphabets (Zurich: Scalo, 2005), 164.

4 Lover’s Discourse, 4.

5 Lawrence D. Kritzman, “Roland Barthes: The Discourse of Desire and the Question of Gender,” MLN Vol. 103 No. 4 (Sept. 1988), 848-864.

6 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC and Penguin Books, 1972), 47.

7 Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love (London: Continuum, 2002), 16.

8 Luce Irigaray, I Love To You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History (New York: Routledge, 1996), 69- 78.

9 bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: William Morrow and Co., 2000), 170-171. 10 Ibid. 177.

11 W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 47.

12 Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 25.

13 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 92-93.

14 Ibid. 20.

15 Image-Music-Text, 53.

16 A Lover’s Discourse, 7.

17 Image-Music-Text, 142-148.

18 Laurie Toby Edison, Debbie Notkin, and Richard F. Dutcher. Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes (San Francisco: Shifting Focus Press, 2003). Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin. Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes (San Francisco: Books in Focus, 1994).