Signs of the Times

For Henriette’s Tomb: Barthes, Mourning, Mallarmé

Neil Badmington, Thursday 12 Nov 2015, CEIR Seminar Series


Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes, who would have been one hundred years old last Thursday 12th November, once described the photograph as ‘a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead’. Today, a photograph has emerged of the moment before three gunmen burst into the Bataclan Theatre in Paris last Friday 13th, killing eighty-nine people who were enjoying a gig by the Californian band, Eagles of Death Metal.

Barthes’s ideas about photography stem directly from the death of his mother, Henriette, and are published in Camera Lucida, from 1980. In that remarkable text, Barthes outlines his concepts about the ‘studium’ of a photograph—that which is ‘always coded’, and the ‘punctum’—that which is not; it is that small detail in a photograph that speaks of its ‘truth’, it is what ‘pierces’. Looking at the photograph taken at the Bacalan last Friday evening we can see that the studium—the culturally coded content of the photograph—is apparent in the hair styles of the members of the audience, the clothes they are wearing, their hands aloft in the air making the ‘devil horns’ sign (signifying that they are watching a rock band) and even the way the angle the photograph is taken from. The punctum, for me (and, as Barthes tells us, the punctum is often a very personal reaction), is a man standing alone, to the right of the image—just in shot, near the edge of the photograph itself—who reminds me of one of my friends. I could go into more detail, here, regarding the punctum and my reaction to it, but I won’t out of respect for the people who were there. (more…)

VCoT Local Customs Still

Rob Walker, Victorian Cut-out Theatre: Stranger in a strange land

This is the third in a series of occasional posts by writer and filmmaker, Rob Walker, whose YouTube series, ‘Victorian Cut-out Theatre’, celebrates the esoteric, strange and downright weird Victorians by animating contemporary illustrations in the tradition of Monty Python.

‘It is the eve of St George’s Day. Do you not know that to-night, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?’ She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally she went down on her knees and implored me not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting. It was all very ridiculous but I did not feel comfortable. However, there was business to be done, and I could allow nothing to interfere with it. I therefore tried to raise her up, and said, as gravely as I could, that I thanked her, but my duty was imperative, and that I must go. She then rose and dried her eyes, and taking a crucifix from her neck offered it to me. I did not know what to do, for, as an English Churchman, I have been taught to regard such things as in some measure idolatrous, and yet it seemed so ungracious to refuse an old lady meaning so well and in such a state of mind. She saw, I suppose, the doubt in my face, for she put the rosary round my neck, and said, ‘For your mother’s sake,’ and went out of the room.’—Dracula, Chapter 1

This scene from Bram Stoker’s novel, lays the groundwork for terror as Jonathan Harker enters the Carpathian Mountains, hoping to locate the man who hired him. First, however, Harker is introduced to strange food, strange landmarks and even stranger people. The opening of ‘Dracula’ plays a little like a travelogue, as Harker tries his best to reconcile his new surroundings with his ‘modern’ Victorian upbringing. This scene would proliferate hundreds of copycats in horror literature and cinema. We see it adapted in the film Nosferatu (1922), the first screen adaptation of Stoker’s novel. The German solicitor, Hutter, plans to find the castle of Graf Orlok after a short meal at an inn, only to be told by the proprietor that ‘You can’t go any further tonight. A werewolf is roaming the forest.’ It doesn’t matter what language you speak, or culture you’re from, there is always a place where the food tastes funny and the people are strange. We even have a version of this scenario in the American West, where I grew up. It always begins with ‘You ain’t from ’round here, are ya?’ (more…)

Close-up from 'A Touch of Murder'

Rob Walker, Victorian Cut-out Theatre: Robot butlers and the art of detection

This is the second in a series of occasional posts by writer and filmmaker, Rob Walker, whose YouTube series, ‘Victorian Cut-out Theatre’, celebrates the esoteric, strange and downright weird Victorians by animating contemporary illustrations in the tradition of Monty Python.

My first foray into the world of the mystery story began in the fourth grade when I read ‘The Adventure of The Speckled Band’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I fell in love with Sherlock Holmes from that day forward, and the hawkish detective led me by the hand to Agatha Christie and my countryman, inventor of the mystery story, Mr E. A. Poe. It wasn’t long before I began reading the entirety of the Holmes canon, and was thrilled to finally run across a collection which featured the original illustrations by Sidney Paget. Paget would create the definitive Sherlock Holmes in his work for The Strand Magazine, and this would be the look by which all future portrayals would be judged. Paget’s illustrations led me to seek out other Victorian illustrators, and I soon found my way to Tenniel, Rackham and Caldecott. If I am to trace the roots of Victorian Cut-out Theatre, or at the very least episode #11, ‘A Touch of Murder’, I would discover the partnership of Doyle and Paget. These artists both led me to explore their own inspirations and contemporaries, allowing me to draw my own connections. It would be decades later, almost out of necessity, when I would put these twin inspirations together in the first episode of VCoT. (more…)

Victorian Cut-Out Theatre, 19: Still from 'A Peculiar Soiree'

Rob Walker, Victorian Cut-out Theatre: Parties, corpses and comical hedonism

This is the first in a series of occasional posts by writer and filmmaker, Rob Walker, whose YouTube series, ‘Victorian Cut-out Theatre’, celebrates the esoteric, strange and downright weird Victorians by animating contemporary illustrations in the tradition of Monty Python.

We used to unwrap mummies at parties. No, really.

This happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as archaeologists were unearthing treasures in Egypt, and a mummy mania swept across England. For some private collectors and academics willing to pay, mummies were shipped back to the hub of the empire to satisfy the curiosity of those who may never brave the hot sands of Africa. These public and private exhibitions gave exotic thrills under the title of scientific discovery and historical importance. This isn’t to say that these discoveries were neither scientific nor historical. There were in fact physicians who wished to discover the secret of mummification and held public autopsies of mummies for the sake of real knowledge. However, along with those who sought scientific or historical edification, there were those who … well, just wanted to see dead bodies. For good or ill, the damage done to Egyptian burial sites during this time period can still be felt in the field of Egyptology today. Like many early discoveries, what was considered science then might be considered a sideshow by our modern sensibilities. (more…)


Esther McConnell, The Graphic Novel: Interview with Dr Lisa El Refaie, Part 2

 This blog post is the fourth in a series by Esther McConnell, exploring graphic fiction and publishing. These posts are being written as part of Esther’s second project on the Project Management and Research undergraduate module at Cardiff University. 

Interview with Dr Lisa El Refaie, Part 2: WhizzKids United

Dr Lisa El Refaie is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University. Her main research interests are in visual and multimodal communication, with a particular focus on newspaper cartoons, autobiographical comics (or “graphic memoirs”), and the use of visual storytelling in health campaigns. Much of her work has explored the differences between verbal and visual/multimodal forms of metaphor, irony, and humour. She is currently giving a third year module on the Graphic Memoir at Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy.  (more…)