Historicising Documents (1929-1931): a Parisian avant-garde journal and the visual culture of interwar France

Persson, Disa (2024) Historicising Documents (1929-1931): a Parisian avant-garde journal and the visual culture of interwar France. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The avant-garde journal Documents (Paris, 1929-1931) was an interdisciplinary endeavour, involving ethnographers, archaeologists, art collectors, and art historians. Among the regular contributors were a number of former adherents to André Breton’s Surrealist group. In the role of secrétaire général was Georges Bataille, a notoriously slippery character in the avant-garde scene. The resulting magazine was sprawling, subversively mixing the mainstream and the marginal. In art historical discourse, following Rosalind Krauss’ formative interpretation of the journal, Documents’ criticality tends to be identified in deconstructionist terms: as a text that enacts a radical displacement of meaning by sabotaging the very processes of meaning-production. The radical heterogeneity championed across its pages is thus decontextualised, abstracted to a purely linguistic domain far removed from the materiality of lived experience. Seeking to instead establish a historicised understanding of the journal’s critical work and to explore how it positioned itself as an avant-garde text by critically negotiating, in image and text, various ideologically charged themes in discourse, this thesis re-inserts Documents into the visual culture of interwar France and re-interprets it through the pragmatist semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce – a theory that locates the process of semiosis in the social use of signs.

Focussing on the journal’s critical treatment of three areas where French fragilities were felt to be particularly prominent in the interwar period – the perceived feeble health and strength of the nation (Chapter 1), America’s increasing dominance and the influx of Hollywood films (Chapter 2), as well as the seemingly fragile built space of Paris (Chapter 3) – this thesis resituates various signs mobilised in Documents within their socio-cultural contexts, excavates the currency they carried in culture through extensive examination of primary materials e.g., contemporary press, advertisements, political debate, official campaigns, etc. Subsequently, it will be argued that the journal actively intervened into infected debates only to disruptively redeploy the anguished signs and motifs they encompassed to dissident ends. Indeed, once reinterpreted through a different theoretical and methodological framework, once recontextualised and rehistoricised, a critical strategy very different from that identified in the prevailing deconstructionist identification emerges. This is one that did not work to sabotage meaning-production but to subversively participate in such cultural processes. This is a strategy whose criticality stemmed not from an unveiling of the undecidability of signs or a reduction of meaning but, on the contrary, from radical re-dissemination of the heightened meaning those signs carried in culture. Diffusing motifs that troubled topical Third Republican anxieties – tuberculosis microbes, monstruous children, Hollywood talkies, and American skyscrapers; defunct sewage systems, slaughterhouses, statuary programmes, and Parisian slums - Documents, however, not only prodded and pressurised French wounds. It enacted a critical recalibration of reality too. The transgressive heterogeneity promoted by the journal, a critical philosophy developed by Bataille during the Documents-years, operated not on the level of language but on the level of experience, within the fabric of life. Signs, wrapped up in and charged by their use in anguished discourses, were strategically re-circulated to expose a counter-portrayal of humanity, decidedly deglorified and incongruously heterogenous.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DC France
N Fine Arts > NE Print media
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0441 Literary History
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Culture and Creative Arts > History of Art
Supervisor's Name: Lewer, Dr. Deborah, Hopkins, Professor David and Salazar-Ferrer, Dr. Olivier
Date of Award: 2024
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2024-84269
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 26 Apr 2024 14:28
Last Modified: 26 Apr 2024 15:30
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.84269
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/84269

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