Harry Penhaul and the Subject of the Real: Photographing post-war Cornish community through a Lacanian lens

Lunt, Matthew (2020) Harry Penhaul and the Subject of the Real: Photographing post-war Cornish community through a Lacanian lens. Doctoral thesis, University of the Arts London, Falmouth University.

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Abstract / Summary

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.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: History > Cornwall
Arts > Photography
Courses by Department: The Falmouth School of Art > Fine Art
Depositing User: Ailsa Poll
Date Deposited: 23 Jan 2023 11:37
Last Modified: 22 Aug 2023 13:47
URI: https://repository.falmouth.ac.uk/id/eprint/4797


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