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Title: Harry Penhaul and the subject of the real : photographing post-war Cornish community through a Lacanian lens
Author: Lunt, Matthew
ISNI:       0000 0004 9353 1379
Awarding Body: University of the Arts London and Falmouth University
Current Institution: University of the Arts London
Date of Award: 2020
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Harry Penhaul was photographer for The Cornishman newspaper in the decade following the second World War. His images narrate the history of a West Penwith Cornish community negotiating the social, cultural and economic upheavals of 1950s post-war modernity. In this study I argue that the discourse of Lacanian psychoanalysis provides a conceptual prism with which to encounter a less familiar narrative in Penhaul’s images, one which foregrounds an account of the subject figured as estranged and fragile. Lacan figures the image as the linchpin of key psychoanalytic processes and in particular the constitution of subjectivity and of the ego. In his Seminar XI of 1964 Lacan insists that visuality, the scopic field, is one of the main discursive modes by which the subject is disciplined and identity positioned. Lacan describes the ego of ‘imaginary capture’ in terms of being an illusory palimpsest of identifications, the imaginary register as fraught with rivalry and aggression, as conflictual, paranoid and relentlessly negative. Indeed, ten years previously during his second seminar series in 1954, Lacan had bemoaned the vulnerability of an increasing societal tendency to be ‘spellbound by our egos’. Lacan’s stance has been said to inform ‘an austere cultural politics’ (Iversen 2007: 9). It is a description of the interest of self-interest, of subjection to ‘the defiles of the signifier’1 and the misrecognitions of interpellation, as Margaret Iversen comments: ‘the sacrifice of ... being, a sort of suicide in the manner of Narcissus’ (Iversen 2007: 130). However, this study argues that such an iconoclastic portrayal can in turn inform what Geoffrey Batchen calls the ‘ontological project of photography’ (Batchen 2002: 18), that is, that Lacanian psychoanalysis opens up new discursive spaces with which to discuss and engage photographic representation. Lacan refuses the ideological closure of a unified, harmonious subject or society. Despite the insistence on a pessimistic dialectic from illusory mastery to the chaos of the subjective abyss, Lacan’s ‘tragedy of the subject’, such an account, this study argues, also gives rise to a redemptive ethics. In the seminar of 1957 Lacan maintained that the great insight of psychoanalysis was that if we take our bleak subjective fate into account, face up to who we are and how we constitute ourselves and others, then perhaps our relations in the social field can be different. Perhaps we can learn to resist the subversions of ideological interpellation, to challenge the illusory satisfactions of the imaginary, and to take a subjective position which figures that our perceptions and understandings can be other than they are; in short, one that allows us to see the familiar in new ways. This study argues that the Lacanian conceptual landscape suggested here facilitates just such a re-assessment of the familiar and enables normative photographic tropes such as in evidence throughout Penhaul’s photographic practice, to be also seen anew. Each week in the pages of The Cornishman Harry Penhaul illustrated the cultural practices of the West Penwith community amongst whom he lived. He took photographs of what people knew, he photographed their daily routines, their habits and rituals - he photographed their culture. While Lacanian concepts provide a ready-made framework with which to discuss the ontology and epistemology of the subject they also enable a discussion concerning that which is outside of culture, outside of what we know and recognise. The Saussurean linguistics that underpin Lacan’s rereading of Freud’s notion of the unconscious states that because language refuses the exactitude of direct correspondence, as speaking subjects we can never be sure of what we know; indeed, uncertainty is read as constitutive of the subject. Furthermore, as signifying subjects, we risk encounters that exceed what culture permits us to define and recognise. This study draws on Lacan’s notion of the real in order to interrogate such (missed) encounters that, I argue, permeate and persist in Penhaul’s photographic record of West Penwith community. Just as the present absence of the real marks the subject with a loss that forever constitutes the subject throughout all its subsequent interrelations, so too the Lacanian real, through both its eruption and exile, is argued to mark the photographic image. Lacan provides a vocabulary with which incursions, displacements, missed encounters and markers of uncertainty can not only be conceptualized as characteristic of the real but also as able to be glimpsed and alluded to within photographic representation. Penhaul’s practice is read as mediating the absent real and, following Iversen (2007), photography is figured as the privileged site for the return of the real. A Lacanian conceptual landscape therefore facilitates an engagement with photography that is not about uncovering lost or secret meaning but rather looks to articulate the intelligibility of photographs from the past for our own time. This study’s Lacanian methodology posits an engagement with the photograph that forwards an interrogation of uncertainty and begins the recognition of the terrain of unmapped alterity, the realm Lacan named the real.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Photography