“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.