La Mort du Naturisme / The Death of Naturism

“We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.”

Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” 1967

In his oft-cited essay, “La mort de l’auteur” (“The Death of the Author” in English), French theorist Roland Barthes presents the bold theory that our understanding of literature and writing should not be limited by the text’s author, its author’s backstory, or even its author’s intentions. This idea is generally understood in terms of stripping a work from its author and appreciating the text on its own merit, which feels at a glance like a convenient solution to beloved texts with problematic authors, but that isn’t exactly the point. Instead, we are challenged to relieve a text of any expectation of objective meaning, to view the text not as the voice of the author but as a collection of ideas and thoughts and culture that predate anything the author could have invented. Whatever the author intended for us to understand through the text is irrelevant, because any meaning we find therein never belonged to the author at all but relies entirely on the experience that we bring with us as the reader. Any meaning at all is found within the reader, via the text. More or less.

The implications of “The Death of the Author” don’t stop at texts and their authors, so let’s expand this theory beyond literature, beyond novels and poems, beyond writers and artists. I want you to think of this theory, at least for just a moment, in the context of how we find meaning all around us, in things that carry no objective meaning but in which we find meaning nonetheless. In poetry, yes, and in films and paintings, of course. But also in experiences as simple as the feelings of hope or sadness amplified by a rainy day, the nostalgic warmth or grief brought about by the taste of a familiar meal, or the fear or liberation brought about by our own nudity.

Let’s use that example. Let’s talk about nudity. Because that’s what I do.

For years I have called myself a naturist and nudist interchangeably. I claim those titles. I subscribe, generally, to a larger philosophy of naturism that encompasses social and philosophical values of equality of gender, race, and sexuality, a connection with nature and with others, and a deeper understanding of the self, all through the practice of social nudity. This is my definition of naturism. While that definition may be shared by a generous swath of other nudists and naturists, however, it could be seen as limiting to those whose definition of naturism might be narrower or wider or focused on an entirely different set of meanings. According to “The Death of the Author,” maybe I should not have even revealed my own skin in this game. Maybe I should not have shared my personal values and definition of naturism, because doing so limits your interpretation of naturism.

So let’s kill me and let’s kill naturism… just for a moment… so that we can think about these concepts the other way around.

Just as clinging to an author’s background and intentions when we seek to understand a piece of literature can limit our own understanding of the work, so can any pre-determined definition applied to naturism limit our understanding of the text–in this case, our experience of nudity. Nudity which, in itself, has no objective meaning. Nudity which does not have an agenda or motive. Nudity which can be experienced in any number or ways, settings, or circumstances. Nudity which, when experienced by any of us, can be terrifying or traumatic, liberating or healing, or a combination of any number of meanings and emotions, depending on all kinds of factors. None of those emotional responses, none of that meaning that we might find when we experience nudity, be we nudists or puritans, is shaped by any one person’s opinions, any dictionary definition of “naturism” or “nudism.” None of that is determined by Lee Baxandall or Maurice Parmelee or any other celebrated naturist thinker. Our experience of nudity and the meaning that we find therein is predicated on nothing but the experiences and cultural values that we already carry with us.

When experiences of nudity are framed from the start within the existing and restrictive context of naturism or nudism, it immediately limits what the experience of nudity can mean for the person experiencing it, but when we set aside every preconceived notion and definition of what naturism should be, we are free to find our own meaning. Rather than any pre-determined idea of naturism or naturist philosophy determining our understanding, we allow our relationship with nudity to be defined by our experiences elsewhere in life. What nudity means to you–if it means anything at all–is determined, then, either by your culturally shaped understanding of it or by what you need it to mean in that moment.

For many, if not most, nudity is so tightly culturally linked with both shame and desire that most individuals’ understanding of it is colored entirely by anxiety, fear, and sex. Nudity can, though, elicit meaning drawn from somewhere else, from a place not directly prescribed for us by cultural influences but perhaps as a reaction to them. What I mean is that nudity can mean freedom to those who have felt less free. It can mean equality to those who have experienced inequality. It can mean connection to those who have felt disconnected. It can mean a return to nature for those who have felt trapped by modern life and concrete landscapes. It can mean radical social change to those who have experienced or witnessed systemic oppression. It can mean affirmation for those who have felt denied their true identity. It can mean joy to those who need levity in their life. And, much to the dismay of nudists and naturists who hold nudity as a primarily non-sexual experience, nudity can also mean sexual liberation for those who have experienced sexual repression. All of those meanings–any combination of them–or even other meanings entirely, are perfectly valid interpretations of the experience of nudity. The meaning that any of us discover in nudity, in shedding our clothing either alone or in the company of others, is shaped by our experiences elsewhere in life, not by any dictionary or website or organization promoting nude recreation. None of this meaning is objectively “real,” but it is no less real to those who experience it.

This entanglement of distinct and intersectional meanings, all determined by our own experiences, cultural conditioning, needs, and understanding of the world around us must then be what we refer to as “nudism” and “naturism.” Perhaps this is why nudists and naturists have such a difficult time agreeing on a definition of nudism and naturism that suits everyone: Because nudism and naturism are deeply personal verbal representations of what nudity means to each individual. Perhaps these words are too small to hold all of the meaning that are ascribed to them. Or perhaps being a nudist or naturist means that one finds positive and affirming meaning in nudity, not that one subscribes to any particular predetermined philosophy laid before them. Perhaps. And if that’s the case, our nudity does not have meaning because we read about naturism or because we call it such, rather the opposite is true: Naturism and nudism exist because we find meaning in nudity.

This is why I asked that you kill naturism just for a moment: to set aside the limitations of what others have decided that naturism is, what nudity means to them, and instead discover what nudity means to you and then define naturism accordingly.

None of this is to say that others’ experiences with nudity and their definition of naturism or nudism cannot enlighten us in our own interpretations, or that we should discredit the meaning that others find in nudity. None of this is to say that the thoughts and philosophies shared by such naturist thinkers as Lee Baxandall and Maurice Parmelee are irrelevant and cannot guide us. Quite the contrary. I believe that our personal naturisms are equally valid, that we can learn a great deal about each other in understanding the meaning we each find in nudity, and that we grow personally when we consider and appreciate these various perspectives. In sharing those personal meanings, we might very well expand our own definitions of naturism and find greater meaning to our experience of nudity.

While I have spent the better part of this essay seemingly arguing against the use of terms like “naturism” and “nudism,” I don’t actually believe we should kill those terms. Can they be limiting? Sure. For ease and efficiency of communication, though, it makes sense to start the discussion with words like naturism and nudism, sharing the meaning that we have found in nudity, hopefully encouraging others to dissect their experiences as well, and then empowering them to define their naturism around the meaning they find in nudity.

We can let naturism stand for more than our own definition, and that’s really the point of this exercise of stripping away the objective meaning of our experiences and accepting the idea that the meaning we find is personally and culturally defined. Rather than pushing a set definition of naturism, I hope we can view naturism as something larger than one thing, that can be both fluid and personal, that belongs to no one and everyone. I hope that we can reframe naturism not as a restrictive set of core values and philosophies but as a space where we connect over the positive, affirming meanings we find in the experience of nudity. That doesn’t mean naturism cannot be those core values and philosophies, but that it can be more. That doesn’t mean that we stop defining naturism, but that we keep defining it. And keep defining it, and learning from others, and then defining it again.

Naturism is not really dead, of course, and it is not the author of our experiences with nudity. It is our experiences with nudity and the meaning we find therein that continue to shape and redefine naturism.

27 thoughts on “La Mort du Naturisme / The Death of Naturism”

  1. How would you engage the argument that the literature/author – naturism/nudity analogy is limited because naturism itself starts as experience not as literature and nudity is a condition not an experience or do those definition not work in the thesis?


    1. I grapples with this myself because it is not a direct analogy. But I don’t think it needs to be a direct analogy, rather it takes the core idea of “The Death of the Author” that there is no objective meaning in anything, only recycled cultural references and knowledge, and applies it to other experiences that we struggle to define.


    2. Also wondering about the de facto notion that experiences of naturism = experiences of nudity is that any different from the notion that nudity = sex. There are so many things that one can do while Nude that have nothing to with naturism. It feels kind of manipulated.


      1. I considered that as well. But I also didn’t want to put myself in a position of saying “these experiences can contribute to the larger umbrella of naturism but these ones cannot.” I think it’s holistic, which is why I wanted to emphasize that it’s an entanglement of interconnected meanings. There’s nothing to say that a person’s understanding of naturism cannot be equality and connection with nature and healthy attitudes about sex. Also, we do not assign meaning to everything, so all sorts of nude activity that isn’t meaningful to us (like showering or sleeping) isn’t contributing to that larger definition.


      2. Not sure I agree with the assertion that “we do not assign meaning to everything” I would say we do assign meaning to everything it’s just a matter of whether the meaning is explicit or implicit showering naked for instance has the implicit meaning of getting more clean more whole or “holy” (cleanliness next to godliness etc ) than showering with clothes – that’s why early christian baptism was nude. But when that symbolic meaning was overridden by a different moral code baptism took on a different meaning. Less explicit in body and soul and more implicit internally. Do you get my meaning? 😉

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      3. Definitely get your meaning! I guess it’s a matter of personal importance and how *much* meaning is attached. And also, for the case of nudity, is it the aspect of nudity while showering that gives it meaning or is it the act of cleaning? Or both?


  2. That question of act and meaning is a good one. Do we consciously separate the act from the meaning – not sure. Your post has me thinking about this on so many levels. For example can the static form of literature or art be equated to the dynamic experience of naturism and the never the same condition twice state of nudity? Also is this different in the real world than it is in the virtual world of social media?. No firm answers but lots of questions raised.


    1. Much of my engagement around this issue is informed by the work of Marc Alain Descamps a philosopher writer and naturist leader

      I think part of the issue is a characteristic of post modernism and it’s value of individual experience above all else. Through post modern eyes any effort to stipulate objective meaning implies coercive or moralistic obedience. For modernist my individual interests counts above all else so not interested in your definition apart form how it interests me. The postmodernist takes that one step future to say if the experience doesn’t work for you go make your own but don’t mess with mine. For Descamps this can only lead to nihilistic worldview towards naturism something I think we can see emerging online.

      Here is how he describes the issue.
      “The nihilist position declares that naturism “is nothing”, “especially not a philosophy”, “everyone lives their naturism as they see fit”. Which means “we have nothing in common, let me do whatever I want, I pretend, not seen not taken”. There are always men (and women) to repeat it over and over and to write it down without embarrassment. And we have to understand what they mean by that. If everyone lived as they saw fit participating in an orchestra or driving a car, it would be a catastrophic failure. ”

      Descamps suggests a different approach
      In contrast to these nihilists we will not tire of explaining that naturism is at least an art of living and that it can become a philosophy and even for some a wisdom.

      His baseline is built around that which is life giving not just experience creating. That may not be valid in post modern eyes

      The more I think about your thesis the more I think it is correct but only it part. There is a a death of naturism yes but it is because we are living through the death of meaning. In a world of alternative facts where individual experience rules nothing has meaning not naturism and not anything else. Some maybe all we are seeing in this from a naturist perspective is the reality of the world the society we live writ large .
      Thank you for a stimulating thoughtful opportunity to dialogue on this. A question that comes to mind is do critical theory and postmodern theory intersect?


      1. Really appreciate these additional thoughts, and I do agree on the whole. While I’m making this sort of vast case for undoing the shared meaning behind naturism, I want to be careful to not actually advocate for throwing away shared meaning, but understanding that there is nuance in the ways that we all interact with meaning. I agree, also, that this focus on personal meaning OVER shared meaning is harmful in all of the ways you’ve laid out. I think undermining shared meaning or objective truth is an excellent thought exercise but can be damaging and irresponsible if used to dismantle shared meaning or the experiences of others.


      2. @timothycsargent I think the problem that comes up is that of individual interpretation. You can see that in some of the comments. With the the death of meaning comes the loss of an agreed upon hermeneutic. We each have and use our own interpretation. That is why I asked is there any space for dialogue between the critical theory and postmodern theory. It would seem that the critical inquiry and examination that undergirds critical theory is antithetical to postmodern theory’s skepticism of reason and critical thinking. Maybe I am not understanding your use of critical theory and interpreting it through my own lens.


      3. I don’t think they are contradictory ways to approach these interpretations, because regardless of whether we take a modernist critical theory lens or a postmodern theoretical lens, these are valuable discussions. They may take different approaches, but no one theoretical lens is right or wrong. I wouldn’t claim that the best way to view naturism and experiences of nudity is through a postmodernist lens, only that we might learn something different about these experiences by approaching it from that angle. But the same could be said of looking at it through any other lens.


      4. Honestly I would love to see naturism and nudity approached from other critical theory lenses!


      5. Not sure why but I can’t respond to your comments specifically. A question in response rot this
        “I don’t think they are contradictory ways to approach these interpretations, because regardless of whether we take a modernist critical theory lens or a postmodern theoretical lens, these are valuable discussions”
        How does this dialogue/discussion happen? These theories are more than just interpretive frameworks they are world views. Given that how do we bring them into dialogue with each other? Trying to find some hopefulness here.


      6. Maybe this helps: I come to this kind of conversation with a background in studying languages, etymology, literature… and I hold the understanding that words, all words, are made up. We created them to describe things, and the meanings generally change over time no matter how hard we try to make one word retain the same meaning forever. Language is always in flux. But that doesn’t mean that words don’t mean anything and that doesn’t hinder us from being able to communicate effectively. I think it’s the fact that words and meanings can flex and contract depending on our needs that makes communication more efficient. We know what words mean based on context. Even basic words we use everyday exist in people’s individual minds as slightly different from what the person next to them imagines when they think of the same thing. That will always be true. So that’s one part of it.

        The other part of it is that we can acknowledge that meaning is not fixed and that things do not have objective meaning, that the meaning we see in them is subjective, while also seeking to agree on what those shared meanings are that we’ve created, and how those meanings interact with other concepts and experiences. Even postmodern theory recognizes that we find meaning based on our cultural conditioning… so the meaning does exist, it’s simply based on what culture has guided us to see. I guess what I’m saying is that I see postmodern theory as compatible with the basic understanding that things have no meaning in themselves except what we give them, but that’s true whether or not we call it postmodernism, and so far that hasn’t stopped us from understanding and discussing what things mean within the context of our culture, history, social movements, etc. I think we can hold that the meaning we find in nudity and the meaning we ascribe to a concept like naturism are just as real as any other concept, even if they’re made up.

        I think we do have to decide on meanings of things, even if they may change over time, even if they’re made up… and we can still analyze those meanings that are informed by culture. I’m not sure if that’s really incompatible with other theoretical lenses or world views.


      7. I also would say that, while I enjoy picking all of these ideas apart in theory, I don’t generally go through life reminding myself “that’s not real, I’m just applying meaning to it based on my cultural upbringing.” In a practical sense, I think it’s valuable to recognize that the meaning I find in the world around me is influenced by my culture, but things in the world are still *real* and have meanings that I don’t get to completely change to suit my taste.


  3. I’m not sure I get the point here. Is the proposition that the terms “nudism” and “naturism” can have no “objective meaning”, so can each mean different things to different people at the same or different points in time? If everyone is using the terms with different meanings, then how is communication even possible? Most of the general public isn’t even familiar with the term “naturism” or confuses it with “naturalism”. How is it possible, then, to communicate about one’s personal concept of “naturism” with others who consider themselves naturists, let alone some member of the general public?

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    1. More than anything, this is an exercise in critical theory that encourages us to understand that the idea of naturism already is something different to each naturist, that we are all already finding different meaning in nudity. It’s not an attempt to throw out the terminology, but a reminder that those different interpretations of personal meaning are valid. To your point about “how is communication even possible?” Well, isn’t everything always in flux already? Even the most basic words change meaning over time, yet we find ways to communicate nonetheless.


  4. “Even the most basic words change meaning over time, yet we find ways to communicate nonetheless.”
    Well, we can have conversations (written or spoken), but if parties to the conversation attach different meanings to the words, is it really communication? Doesn’t communication break down if the meanings are too different? In politics, for instance, “socialism” means quite different things to different people. This would seem to be the problem with the term “nudism”. Most people in the general public have a rather different idea of the meaning than what “real” nudists or naturists do. Because of that many nudists/naturists are reluctant to “come out” about their interest, at least with many people.

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    1. You raise an important question that may be at the root of the issue. Correct me if I am wrong but I hear you saying that if there is no common thread of meaning then communication becomes impossible – therefore if there is no objective meaning how can we even communicate anything about naturism – Am i understanding correctly.


      1. I’d prefer not to get into all the philosopher BS about “objective meaning”, etc. My view is that in the realm of animal behavior, and human behavior in particular, then what counts as “truth” is fuzzy to some degree or other. Because it’s made by decisions that can vary over time.

        Example: the game of football (as understood in the U. S.). I don’t really know much about it. But I do know that it has a set of rules that are expected to be followed, and there are special individuals who try to ensure that. However, the rules may change over time. And there are different varieties of the game with sets of rules that vary to some extent. (Maybe between professional and high school football?) And even the individuals who monitor the rules may not always agree with each other. Nevertheless, it’s quite possible to make assertions about the game that for most practical purposes are “true”, even if knowledgeable people who consider the assertions might not agree 100%.

        So that is the fuzziness inherent in any assertions about human behavior. Now, just apply that to the “game” of naturism. It’s a different type of game. Football needs rigid (though arbitrary) rules in order to determine a “winner”. That’s not the case with naturism, but there are still rules so that participants can enjoy the game.

        I am very much not saying that “if there is no objective meaning how can we even communicate anything about naturism”. With naturism the rules are fuzzier than in football, but there is a substantial community of people who would agree (say) 90% of the time on assertions about the game. When experienced naturists try to explain naturism to people who know little or nothing about it, they should do the best they can. (Note the necessary fuzzy terms like “experienced”, “substantial”, etc.)

        That’s the approach I take when blogging about the subject. The broader agreement should be emphasized, but the fuzziness should be acknowledged. Fuzziness is just something that has to be lived with.


      2. Definitely, I agree with all of that! Like you already stated, naturism isn’t nearly as rigid of an idea as football, but still there is a central idea that we all mostly agree upon. And surrounding that idea, there are bound to be all kinds of people with their own way of incorporating naturism into their lives, their own ways of viewing nudity, their own motivations for practicing it, their own values that they see in it. All of those people won’t have the same overall idea of naturism, but they’re all basically referring to the same central topic. That doesn’t necessarily change the definition of naturism, though it could over time, but we can learn a lot about each other (which is something I see as a goal of naturism) by understanding those nuances of what exactly we see in naturism in individuals. I’ve seen people who view naturism and nudism as nothing but a recreational lifestyle focused on only fun and relaxation. That’s fine. Others see naturism as encompassing ecology, gender and social equality, etc., and that’s also fine. The central definition of naturism can accommodate both and many other perspectives. I think that’s still consistent with what you’re saying here.


  5. Thank you for this. The idea that we all have our own definition of ‘naturist/nudist’ is so important. And to realize that everyone, on the outside or the inside of the community, have their own definition. The important part is that we always stay open to learning from others and we don’t cement our definition to the point of exclusion.


  6. Thanks for the helpful clarification Delaney. Based on th”With naturism the rules are fuzzier ” Wondering what you guys think about finding agreement if any kind of rules are considered moralistic coercion. Both of you mention language and communication as part of the puzzle which is why I ask because it feels to me that there is a rapid shift in language and communication that impacts meaning. To use the football metaphor while there are a set of rules those rules are subject to change and when those rules change very rapidly the players don’t always keep up and couldn’t play without the bounds of the new rules. That was very disruptive to the game and both for player and the enjoyment of it. I am thinking about a couple year ago when the rules changed on hits an the refs were calling penalties all over the place. Games got longer and less enjoyable and fans were frustrated with calls. Because the rules changed to rapidly to be understood by everyone. In the game of naturism has the change in how we communicate and the language used changed so rapidly that the rules are even fuzzier and there is less that we agree on?

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    1. I like the way you think, Earl. It seems like naturists have a decent understanding of what naturism is, albeit a fuzzy one. Naturism feels like a more personal philosophy to begin with, so it’s probably always going to be hard to pin it down exactly, and perhaps it’s shifting more rapidly in meaning now due to the internet and other events going on in the world that push us to think about what naturism could mean in addition to what it already means. It already is something different from what it was in the 1900’s in Germany, and something different from what it was in the 1930’s in the US.

      Naturism maybe more like feminism than football. Feminism was once mostly unconcerned with the struggles of women of color, immigrant women, or queer women. But as time goes on, we have come to appreciate those aspects of intersectional feminism as core to that movement and philosophy. I also think that many people find in feminism an interpretation and meaning that is relevant to their life struggle and guides them in their implementation of feminist ideologies in their own life. Those individual interpretations of feminisms in themselves don’t change the definition of feminism, but the definition does adapt over time to include more or clarify itself. In the case of feminism, certainly that definition is lost on some people who don’t get it and don’t want anything to do with it, and I don’t think that we should change the definition of feminism to accommodate people who don’t like or understand it, but those who do value feminism will continue to shape what it is. The same seems true with naturism. I’m curious what your thoughts are there. Feminism seems like a good analogy but I could be missing something.


      1. Tim I think the comparison to feminism is apropos. For ex because of the rapid shift in the language and meaning related to gender and gender identity some of the most transphobic people are ardent feminists. Think JK Rowling. So how does one create any dialog with that rapidly shifting ground of context language and meaning. That has been my great frustration related to naturism the resistance to contextualizing language and meaning precludes any effort at real reasoned dialog because acknowledged or not we are all coming to conversation with personal philosophies, subjective meaning and predetermined world views. Not being able to acknowledge the fuzziness of our own experience leaves us without with limited options for discourse. Or a least that is how it feels from my perspective. I am perfectly willing to entertain new ideas and those of others but unwilling to do so if the sole goal is to convert me to your side without ever engaging or acknowledging my perspective and experience. That is why I am grateful for this discussion.

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      2. Oh and one other thing I agree that the people who practice naturism should be the people who define it but that in itself is a challenge with the death of meaning because saying it has many meanings for different people something Descamps said btw isn’t about a big tent but rather it feels like narrowing or restricting view based on the views of forces external to naturism who don’t even consider themselves naturists. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around that.


  7. Thank you for this post. I’m rather new to naturism and have been reading, reflecting, learning. I acknowledge there is a lot that I don’t know and understand.

    This open invitation to bring my own experience and meanings to in addition to spending time learning means a lot because it says not only is there value in my contribution (regardless of life stage) but there is also life, movement and creativity within naturism. It is alive and that life means flexibility instead of rigidity.

    I mentioned I was rather new — yesterday was my first experience at a park in community with others. I experienced some of the meanings you wrote of in your article. I appreciate that these core philosophies are written as many of them help me articulate more clearly what I know intuitively.

    My most precious meaning, though, was experiencing safety. I survived many years of intimate partner violence, including sexual violence. Being nude meant being exposed to threat on many levels. It was very meaningful to experience safety with others.

    This doesn’t negate the other meanings, it’s an expansion based on experience. I don’t need anyone else to have experienced the same thing in order to understand, not as long as they can offer empathy.

    Personally, I also see more room for female voices regarding perception of clothing, etc. It feels like there is some mistaken appropriation of personal meaning being woven in with dogma that makes me uncomfortable enough to question it.

    Anyhow, thank you again for this invitation.

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