An aesthetic of witness : the interaction of photographs and nonfiction prose in George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, James Agee and Walker Evans's Let us now praise famous men, and Virginia Woolf's Three guineas / by Diane Burton
This dissertation explores the relations between photographs and writing in George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas. Of the wealth of material from the 1930s that combines text and photographs, these books come from writers who were deliberate stylists, experimenting with what writing can be made to do, and who were concerned with social justice. Orwell, Agee and Evans, and Woolf are discussed here in an attempt to describe what I call, after Terrence Des Pres, “an aesthetic of witness” (5). The introduction provides a brief historical view of photography and the 1930s, and sets out a theoretical grounding for the dissertation in American pragmatism, as exemplified in the philosophical writings of William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, and in the pragmatist criticism of W. J. T. Mitchell and Joli Jensen. Chapter I, on Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, considers the devices of Orwell's distinctive photographic style, including a strong and complex persona, a genre that combines techniques of fiction and nonfiction, and a reliance on metonymic over metaphoric detail. Chapter II, on Agee and Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, explores the tension between photographs and text, especially when neither is subordinated to the other, and begins to address the potential ethical problems in displaying, artfully, the suffering of others. Chapter IV, on Three Guineas, exhibits Woolf's questioning of the grounds of representation itself, especially in mourning the dead. The conclusion briefly treats some of the issues of representation and ethics that have arisen post-Holocaust and returns to a fuller definition of an aesthetic of witness.
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