Whether you dutifully study or are generally interested in philosophy, the pain of reading the dry words of old and seemingly irrelevant theorists can get tedious. As such, it can also be difficult to connect theories developed centuries ago to modern-day, especially to the lives of current college students. That’s why it is especially exciting to find a specific philosophical mode of thought that changes the way you interpret or engage with the world around you. Although there are many jarring existentialist and moralist theories that have the ability to stay with you (and freak you out) long after you walk away from your philosophy class, it is still notable when an idea resonates in a way that others don’t. I experienced this after learning about philosopher Roland Barthes’ discussion of “studium” and “punctum” in his famous book on photography, “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography.”
Amidst a bunch of other (semi) interesting philosophical jargon on photography, Barthes introduces his assessment of how the likes and dislikes of a viewer operate. Although the theory can apply to many mediums, he chooses to focus on the photograph.
Barthes starts with what he calls a photograph’s “studium.” He describes this element as someone’s “general, enthusiastic commitment [to a thing], but without special acuity.” A photograph’s “studium” is its overall appeal, such as color combination or intentional subject, which allows the viewer to enjoy a large variety of photographs. Barthes believes it is a nearly objective essence of a photograph, one that on average appeals to most people.
Following his discussion of the “studium,” Barthes describes the “punctum.” This, for me, is where things get interesting. Barthes explains that the “‘punctum’ will break (or punctuate) the ‘studium’” and is the “element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces [the viewer].” He gives examples of something as small as the texture of a road or the unconscious hand gesture of a child as a photograph’s “punctum.” It is the random and mostly unintentional features of a photograph that strikes the viewer and makes certain pictures more appealing to an individual than others.
The most interesting part of the “punctum” of a photograph is the fact that the part that pierces is inevitably different for everyone. While one person might be “pierced” by the subject’s unruly hair, another might latch onto the fall colors of the leaves in the background. The “punctum” differs from the “studium” in that it is an individualized, random feature that a viewer is struck by; the “studium” is a milder and more generic element that has the ability to appeal to the masses.
After considering Barthes’ words, I immediately logged into my Spotify and pulled up my playlist titled “Gripped.” Although I like a lot of genres and am not necessarily picky about music, this playlist groups together the songs that stand out to me, or “grip” me in a way that others don’t. I couldn’t believe how perfectly the idea of the “studium” and “punctum” fit into this inexplicable sensation that specific songs give to me that they may not give to others.
Particularly in the age of Spotify and other music platforms with features such as “Daily Mixes” and “Recommended Songs,” there is a near oversaturation of sounds that makes it easy to feel overwhelmed by a constant stream of new music. I often fear my ear has become desensitized to songs that I may have previously downloaded solely because the never-ending stream has muddled my taste and let me delegate songs to background noise. Luckily, some songs still have an unexplainable grip that shakes me out of my content music daze.
In applying Barthes’ theory to music, the “studium” plays into the previously stated music daze. In these terms, it is the element that allows someone to enjoy a large variety of songs. For a person to experience the “studium” in a song, there needn’t be anything especially remarkable about it; it can just be a catchy or pleasant song that they like for its general sound. This is why some songs (aka all country music for me) are impossible to listen to, while others, although not my favorite, are at the very least palatable enough.
Just as it is in photography, the “studium” is interrupted by the “punctum.” The pricking or piercing ability that the “punctum” has is essentially the same as the “gripping” ability that certain songs have for me and others. It is that nearly inexplicable piece or moment of a song that makes you feel different while listening. It stays in your mind after it ends and reminds you that contentment isn’t enough.
For me, the common “punctum” in the songs that grip me seems to be an unusual or surprising melody line or riff that is borderline unappealing. However, the “punctum” of a song will be different for everyone and describing the reason behind its gripping ability is pretty much impossible. Other people may be struck by a specific phrase in the lyrics or the timing of a background instrument. Whatever the exact feature is, the “punctum” will always be individualized.
Why does this all matter? Not only is Barthes’ theory of the “studium” and the “punctum” an interesting idea to explore, but it also helps consumers of any media appreciate art in a more thorough way, as well as give insight into the elements that make up individual taste. It provides a way to get to know ourselves better and understand what makes us unique. And lastly, it proves that, much like the piercing of a photograph or the grip of a song, philosophy has the undeniable ability to give our brains the occasional poke amidst the daze of our daily lives.