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Title: Social and aesthetic totality within contemporary photography
Author: Constantine, George Simon
ISNI:       0000 0004 5370 4626
Awarding Body: University of Leeds
Current Institution: University of Leeds
Date of Award: 2015
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This thesis examines how the concepts of social and aesthetic totality are addressed within contemporary photographic practice. More specifically, it uses a historical materialist methodology to consider the types of social totality and aesthetic 'totalization' which underpin four photographic projects: Zoe Leonard's Analogue, Edward Burtynsky's Container Ports, Allan Sekula's Fish Story and David Goldblatt's South African Intersections. I argue that, in different ways, each of these works critically reinvestigate certain aesthetic debates and intellectual problems which surround the (once-derided) Marxian claim that art can 'represent' or 'think' 'capitalism as a whole'. However, rather than suggesting that they revive classical Marxist tropes, measuring them against a 'model' of totalization or claiming that they adopt a Marxist 'stance', I treat them as differentially articulated contributions to the aforementioned debates; that is, as works which 'speak back' to Marxist conceptions of totality by bringing their stakes and aporias to the fore. In short, this thesis considers how Leonard, Burtynsky, Sekula and Goldblatt might help us to re-think the concepts of social and aesthetic totality in the present social, artistic and theoretical conjuncture. To this end, a dialogue is staged between the aforementioned photographic practices and three contested aspects of Marx's understanding of totality. The first chapter discusses Leonard's images of consumer goods and Burtynsky's photographs of shipping containers in relation to Marx's claim that the commodity is the economic 'cell form' of capitalist society. It considers how – through the relationship between photographer and photographed 'object' – they (indirectly) interrogate the aesthetic undercurrents of Marx's argument, its ambivalent materialism, the forms of totalizing (or de-totalizing) subjectivity which it suggests and its claim to extrapolate from the commodity to the whole. The second chapter addresses Sekula's Fish Story, a work directly informed by Marx's Capital and the Grundrisse, in relation to Marx's suggestion that the totality can be known through 'the force of abstraction'. Sekula's understanding of the relationship between photography and abstraction is addressed, as is the work's interrogation of Marx's various theories of abstraction and its account of the capital cycle. The third chapter argues that David Goldblatt's South African intersections calls Marx's topographical (or base-superstructure) understanding of totality into question. I show how – in contrast to various other forms of contemporary 'political' art, yet through a mode of political-photographic engagement – it re-thinks a concept which remained under-developed in Marx's work (yet became crucial to subsequent debates): 'political superstructure'.
Supervisor: Day, Gail Sponsor: AHRC
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available