Theses Doctoral

Double Exposure: Picturing the Self in Russian Emigre Culture

Jensen, Robyn

Double exposure has often been used as a metaphor for the condition of emigration: of being between two places simultaneously, of layering the memory of one place onto another. To extend the metaphor of double exposure, this study turns to the medium of photography itself to explore how it functions within Russian émigré narratives of the self. I examine how Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky, Gary Shteyngart, and the visual artist Ilya Kabakov use photographs in their autobiographical works—from literary memoirs to art installations—as a device for representing the divided self in emigration. “Double exposure” works as a flexible concept in this dissertation: as a metaphor for exilic double consciousness; for the autobiographical tension between multiple selves; and as a model for the composite structure of these texts that join together word and image.
Bringing together photography and autobiography in this study, I explore how the “objective” medium of photography offers these authors a version of the self as visual object to be used creatively within their own self-representations. Self-representation, after all, involves the transformation of one’s own subjectivity into an object of investigation. And the objectivity of the photograph cannot be divorced from the subjective experience of looking at and interpreting the sense data that the image supplies. The photograph’s uneasy relationship between objectivity and subjectivity makes it a rich source for autobiographical practices of self-creation and self-investigation. The photographs and their textual mediation work as visual metonyms that stand in for the larger project of self-representation; they picture the act of picturing the self.
This dissertation charts the critical ambivalence to family photographs in these works, how they stage a back-and-forth between an affective or nostalgic attitude to images and a sharp awareness of the limits or dangers of such an attitude. The subjects of this dissertation reveal a divided attitude to the visual medium, both attracted and repelled by the promise of photographs. The divided attitude to photographs in these works, I argue, stems in part from a crisis in vision. From the semiotic appraisal of photographs to the disciplinary and propagandistic abuses of photography, to see the photograph as an uncomplicated restoration of the past is no longer possible by the second half of the twentieth century (if, indeed, it ever was). And yet, it is the very losses of the twentieth century that make urgent the need to collect and preserve the fragments that remain. These authors exhibit an ambivalence about how photographs preserve the past and what kind of information they provide us with, about how these images represent the self (and the family), and finally about how this form of representation compares with the written word. Each of my four chapters examines a different modality of this ambivalent approach to photographs as they intersect with narrating the self: Nabokov’s agonistic contest between photography and his visual memory; Brodsky’s resignation to the modern photographic condition that ruptures the continuity of memory and experience; Shteyngart’s divided reading of the self from a hyphenated Russian-American perspective; and Kabakov’s ironically sincere recuperation of an affective response after postmodernism.
Considering photos as both indexical documents that provide evidence but also as indeterminate images that demand interpretation, I read the photographs as an integral component of self-construction in these works, rather than as transparent illustrations of the self. These photographs offer a productive site for representing the divided self in emigration, the experience of trauma, and the convergence of personal and social history.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Knapp, Liza
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2019