Engaging with photography through an academic lens soon brought me up against a question – what is critical theory? As I read the various recommended readings I became more and more confused. Here were writers reviewing the images of others from a wide range of different perspectives. Marxist, post-modern, Frankfurt School to name but three, but all with a single purpose: to impose meaning upon the work of others unfettered by concern with the author’s or the photographer’s intention.   But what was the legitimising theory supporting this process of appropriating intellectual meaning? The sources were not hard to find.

Within Kant and explicitly within Husserl were the ideas that certain knowledge only exists within the individual’s experience of the world and so the focus of our enquiry is not the subject of our experience but our experience of the subject. This focuses the philosophical nexus within the individual and contrary to the established epistemologies and ontologies of the time opens the door for a radical subjectivism that swept continental philosophy during the twentieth century.

In 1967 this radicalism was captured in a single and highly influential essay by the French philosopher and social theorist Roland Barthes: Death of the Author.

‘Death of the Author’ or Morte d’Auteur was a play on the title of the famous lyrical poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson: Morte d’Arthur. The importance and context of his essay is brilliantly explained by Andrew Gallix in his Guardian blog:


In his essay Barthes made two assertions: (i) there is nothing original in literature and (ii) once the text is written the author’s intent is irrelevant to the meaning.   The only meaning that matters is that of the reader.   This idea ushered in a break with the structuralism of Saussure, by both Derrida and Foucault, whose post-structuralism became hugely influential across both the French and North American campuses in the latter part of the 20th century.

Once we recognise that only the reader or the viewer matters, this creates an intellectual milieu where, to use Fayerabend’s pithy phrase: ‘anything goes’. Thus, meaning is not socially constructed in any meaningful sense – that entails a process of emergence which I referred to in Week 5 of this blog – but is individually constructed by a process of narrative building or, if you prefer, intellectual story-telling inspired by the text or the image as the case may be. Once one accepts this idea then any field of social theory can be used to develop a critical narrative.

My point here is that Critical Theory did not begin with Barthes, nor is it the sole intellectual property of the post-structuralists. Rather, my argument is that this radical subjectivism legitimised the commandeering of any perspective in social theory from Marx to gender by critical theorists to the cause by establishing a regressive process whereby the critical theorist’s intent – as author – could be discounted and their words reinterpreted ad infinitum.

At one level reading critical theory is an enjoyable process. Story-telling and narrative building is, as Scott (2018) points out, fundamental to the way we assemble our perceptions of reality. Commenting on the writing of Iris Murdoch he says:

“Iris Murdoch, whose writing life involved chasing truth in both fiction and philosophy, believed that ‘we are all literary artists’. By this she meant that we all transform the stuff of our lives into stories, telling them to ourselves and to one another. This ‘deep motive’ to tell stories, she argues, ‘is the desire to defeat the formlessness of the world and cheer oneself up by constructing forms out of what might otherwise seem a mass of senseless rubble’. The story is a defence against incoherence and chaos. She admits that there are dangers to this solace, since the act of storytelling is, by necessity, an act of distortion. There remains the perpetual issue of resemblance, of how the story matches the reality of what actually happened.” (Kindle Locations 366-372)

However, does Critical Theory as story-telling penetrate further than the closed self-referential circles of academic discourse and publishing? This for me is an open question. For me the intention of the photographer is fundamentally important and without that biographical dimension we lose so much in the appreciation of the image. I also believe that in the world of the banal we also need to call out the ridiculous in order to expose the sublime.


Barthes, R, (1967 ), Death of the Author



Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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