Year of Publication

2011

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Dissertation

College

Arts and Sciences

Department

English

First Advisor

Dr. Jonathan Allison

Abstract

Seeing Subjects plots a literary history of modern Britain that begins with Dorian Gray obsessively inspecting his portrait’s changes and ends in Virginia Woolf’s visit to the cinema where she found audiences to be “savages watching the pictures.” Focusing on how literature in the late-19th and 20th centuries regarded images as possessing a shaping force over how identities are understood and performed, I argue that modernists in Britain felt mediated images were altering, rather than merely representing, British identity. As Britain’s economy expanded to unprecedented imperial reach and global influence, new visual technologies also made it possible to render images culled from across the British world—from its furthest colonies to darkest London—to the small island nation, deeply and irrevocably complicating British identity. In response, Oscar Wilde, Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot, and others sought to better understand how identity was recognized, particularly visually. By exploring how painting, photography, colonial exhibitions, and cinema sought to manage visual representations of identity, these modernists found that recognition began by acknowledging the familiar but also went further to acknowledge what was strange and new as well. Reading recognition and misrecognition as crucial features of modernist texts, Seeing Subjects argues for a new understanding of how modernism’s formal experimentation came to be and for how it calls for responses from readers today.

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