Geographies of the body and the histories of photography

McGrath, Roberta (2003) Geographies of the body and the histories of photography. PhD thesis, Middlesex University.

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Abstract

Informed by feminist epistemologies, cultural theory and social history, the thesis takes as its primary focus discourses of gender and sexuality in the field of photographic
culture. The accompanying contextualisation reflects the shifting theoretical and methodological terrain of visual cultural studies over the historical period in question (1983 - 2003). Earlier articles cover the project's initial development and subsequent essays navigate the work into a more historical context culminating in Seeing her Sex: Medical Archives and the Female Body (2002).

This book draws forms the main body of the submission. It draws upon theories of feminism and sexual difference, the histories of mass-reproducible visual technologies and the philosophy of science in order to understand how human generation became female reproduction. Thus it places photography within a longer historical framework of
visual technologies (engraving, lithography, stereoscopy, radiography and microscopy) that amalgamated to produce new kinds of objects and observers. It offers vertical 'deep'
studies of particular historical images, and also more lateral, horizontal connections across disciplines. Its approach is therefore interdisciplinary and engages in an argument
about the historical and geographical boundaries of knowledge, about what comes before and after and about what gets to lie inside and outside the discursive field of photography.

This work examines and develops arguments that are always located in, but also move beyond, the archive. The essays included here re-think questions of visual representation and discursive formations in order to foreground the inter-connected relationships between institutional, cultural and embodied aspects of scholarship.

Within the field of visual cultural studies the question of agency and the relationship between theories, histories and politics became urgent in the political climate of the 1980s and 1990s. Increasingly questions of the subject's participation, cultural location and perspective in constructing any 'field' or 'terrain' became important and the relationship between experience and theory has consequently been re-thought. In the later publications the body is therefore discussed as both subject and object of visual knowledge. The work argues against an essentialist understanding of what any 'body' is, and for an understanding of the body in its material and historical corporeality, rather than its biological specificity.

Understood as subjective and embodied, situated and partial, this more phenomenological, intersubjective approach to visual cultural studies acknowledges the sensory, emotional and imaginative dimensions of looking. Knowledge here is conceptualised not as possession, but as empathy. What we see as observers depends not only on where we stand but also on how we position ourselves within any given historical field. Moreover, this is a political question; not all perspectives are equal.

This work has grown out of an antipathy to the disembodied approach of the humanities within which the human body had become alienated, suspect, denigrated. In its drive for fixed standards, the human sciences subordinated body to mind, emotion to reason thus foreclosing crucial sensory aspects of knowledge and creating an incapacity to acknowledge the wide diversity of our different modes of knowing.

Historically, photography certainly does have an ignoble history as a technology of ethnographic domination and control (imperial, colonial, racial or sexual), but it is also,
equally, a form of counter-memory. Images are a question of human rights and here visual cultural studies has a key role to play.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Research Areas: B. > Doctorates by Public Works
Item ID: 13481
Depositing User: Adam Miller
Date Deposited: 20 Jan 2015 10:30
Last Modified: 31 May 2019 21:29
URI: https://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/id/eprint/13481

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