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The active presence of absent things: a study in social documentary photography and the philosophical hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005).

Brown., Roger Grahame (2014) The active presence of absent things: a study in social documentary photography and the philosophical hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005). Doctoral thesis, Staffordshire University.

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Abstract or description

“Phenomenology is the place where hermeneutics originates,
phenomenology is also the place it has left behind.”(Ricoeur )1
In this thesis I shall examine possibilities for bringing into dialogue the practice of social
documentary photography and the conceptual resources of the post-Structural and critical
philosophical hermeneutics of text and action developed by Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005)
from the 1970’s onwards. Ricoeur called this an ‘amplifying’ hermeneutics of language,
defined as ‘the art of deciphering indirect meaning’ (ibid).
Social documentary photography is an intentional activity concerned with the visual
interpretation, ethics and representation of life, the otherness of others, and through them
something about ourselves. The narratives form social histories of encounters with others.
They raise challenging questions of meaning and interpretation in understanding the
relations of their subjective agency to an objective reality. Traditionally the meaning of
such work is propositional. It consists in the truth conditions of bearing witness to the
direct experience of the world and the verifiability of what the photography says, or
appears to say about it. To understand the meaning of the photography is to know what
would make it true or false. This theory has proven useful and durable, although it has not
gone unchallenged. The power it has is remarkable and new documentary narratives
continue to be formed in this perspective, adapting to changing technologies, and
reverberate with us today.
A more subtle way of thinking about this is given by a pragmatic theory of meaning. This
is what I am proposing. The focus here is upon use and what documentary photography
does and says. A praxis that I refer to by the act of photographing: a discourse of
locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary utterances in whose thoughtful and informed
making are unified theories of visual texts within the theories of action and history. The
key is the capacity to produce visual narratives made with intention and purpose that in
their performative poetics and their semantic innovations attest to the realities of
1 Ricoeur, P. 1991: From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II. trans. Kathleen Blamey and
John B. Thompson. 2nd Edition 2007: with new Forward by Richard Kearney. Evanston.
NorthWestern University Press.
experience and sedimented historical conditions witnessed, and communicate those to
others within a dialectic of historical consciousness and understanding.
The narrative visualisations disclose a world, a context in which the drama of our own life
and the lives of others makes sense. In their interpretations of an empiric reality can be
found ethical concerns and extensions of meaning beyond the original reference that
survive the absence of the original subject matter and the original author of the
photography whose inferences our imaginations and later acquired knowledge can
meditate upon and re-interpret. Thus in the hermeneutic view, the documentary
photographic narrative is a form of text that comes to occupy an autonomy from, a) the
author’s original intentions, b) the reference of the original photographic context, and
c) their reception, assimilation and understanding by unknown readers-viewers.
Ricoeur argues that hermeneutic interpretation discloses the reader as ‘a second order
reference standing in front of the text’, whose necessary presence solicits a series of
multiple and often conflicting readings and interpretations. Consequently Ricoeur’s
critical, philosophical hermeneutics brings us from epistemology to a kind of ‘truncated’
ontology that is only provisional, a place where interpretation is always something begun
but never completed. Interpretation according to Ricoeur engages us within a hermeneutic
circle of explanation and understanding whose dialectic is mediated in history and time.
For Ricoeur this implies that to be able to interpret meaning and make sense of the world
beyond us is to arrive in a conversation that has already begun. His hermeneutic wager is,
moreover, that our self-understandings will be enriched by the encounter. In short, the
more we understand others and what is meaningful for them the better we will be able to
understand ourselves and our sense of inner meaning. The central thesis of his
hermeneutics is that interpretation is an ongoing process that is never completed,
belonging to meaning in and through distance, that can make actively present to the
imagination what is objectively absent and whose discourse is undertood as the act of
“someone saying something about something to someone” (Ricoeur 1995: Intellectual

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty: Previous Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies > Journalism, Humanities and Social Sciences
Depositing User: Jeffrey HENSON
Date Deposited: 29 Feb 2016 14:04
Last Modified: 06 Jun 2018 15:36

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