Semiotics of Photography and Exile

  • Hong Zeng
Part of the Semiotics and Popular Culture book series (SEMPC)


Photography, according to Luigi Pirandello, is linked with the motif of exile—first and foremost, it is the estrangement between self and image under the spotlight, then the daily enlarged disparity between the perennial life preserved by the photograph and the reality of the corporeal being subject to the erosion of time. In Lu Xun’s essay “On Photography,” the author taunted country people’s superstitious belief. These country people took photography as a form of witchcraft that robs one of “vital breath” and thus causes one’s death or leaves one physically maimed.1 The equation of photography and death, however, may not be so far-fetched, as it finds an echo in a Western postmodern theorist’s writing as well. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes expounds at great length on the semiotic link between photography and death and mourning.2 According to him, the spectacle of photography is tied to the “specter,” the theater of the dead. In its insistence on the living reality of what has been dead, photography flouts the division of reality and illusion, death and living, and thus, in my view, emblemizes the wedding of Eros and mourning in the works of nostalgia. The semiotics of photography has its characteristic tropes of exile, mourning, cultural nostalgia, and loss of reality.


Lyrical Tone Beauty Contest Adolescent Friendship Female Beauty Country People 
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    Lu Xun, “On Photography,” from Complete Selection of Lu Xun’s Works (Lu Xun Quan Ji) (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 2005), 287–288.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981). All of the following quotations inserted parenthetically in the text are taken from the same book, the same edition, and will be cited as CL.Google Scholar
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    Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. and intro. by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1996), 229.Google Scholar
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    David Wang, Fictional Realism in Twentieth Century China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 247–281.Google Scholar
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    Lu Xun, “On Photography,” from Complete Selection of Lu Xun’s Works (Lu Xun Quan Ji) (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 2005), 287–288.Google Scholar
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    Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), vol. 14.Google Scholar
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    See Zhang Yingjin “The Glocal City of the Transnational Imagery: Plotting Disappearance and Reinscription in Chinese Urban Cinema,” in Screening China: Critical Intervention, Cinematic Reconfigurations, and the Transnational Imagery in Contemporary Chinese Cinema (Ann Harbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan Press, 2002), 253–313.Google Scholar

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© Hong Zeng 2012

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  • Hong Zeng

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