noeme, n.

A meaning or concept as an aspect of a unit of speech.

a1866 J. GROTE in Jrnl. Philol. (1872) 4 55 It will be necessary for me to make use of one or two new-coined words, which I will begin by defining as accurately as I can… When I mean words as thought I shall use the term noem. a1866 J. GROTE in Jrnl. Philol. (1872) 4 56 Logically, a noem may be called a concept, a notion, or what we will; but I would have the term bear simply a relation to language, and mean the thought-word, that, whatever it is, which the sound stands for.

The literal translation of the Greek root of noeme is thought. However, readers of Camera Lucida tend to translate it as “essence.” This is a frightening error. I’m pretty sure Barthes (the linguist) meant to use the term quite specifically rather than the more nebulous senses of geist or essence.

This has been bothering me for some time. Tracing it back to its original coinage, it is productive to consider his usage as substitute for photographs as thoughts. In other words, a marked departure from his initial phenomenological perspective— photographs are not simply an apparatus that provokes thought, but self contained thoughts rendered in a transmissible packages:

The noeme of Photography is simple, banal; no depth: “that has been.” I know our critics: What! a whole book (even a short one) to discover something I know at first glance? Yes, but such evidence can be a sibling of madness. The Photograph is extended, loaded evidence– as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence. (Camera Lucida 115)

Barthes continues to draw an analogy between photographs and “mediums” that put us in touch with people/things that no longer exist, reinforcing to some degree the reading of an “essentially” [sic] spiritual nature for photography. But Barthes’ core interest in the ability of photographs to communicate (not simply operate as phenomenological talismans) is obscured by too facile a reading of his terminology.

The madness of photography described by Barthes is not simply a private or mass hallucination, but a deeply rooted inability to deal with the thought-images that photographs provide.