Biography and autobiography have a long tradition of using photographs to impart a sense of objective authority, to reinforce written statements by introducing an optical truth to complement the written references to objective fact. Both Orlando and Running in the Family fit, somewhat uncomfortably, within the genres of biography and autobiography, yet both act as critiques and satires of the ability of these genres to impart a sense of objective authority. Within both novels photographs are manipulated to undermine the authority of the text and challenge the power of photographic evidence in an effort to demonstrate how supposed pictorial objectivity is a constructed truth. Critics such as Marie-Christine Leps and Leslie Higgins have noted that Viriginia Woolf, Michael Ondaatje and Michael Foucault’s texts are transgredient in that all three author’s texts “marshal theoretical, critical, and narrative elements which are foreign yet necessary to the completion of the other” (Free To Govern). All three author’s texts trace the effects of governmentality on the individual and all three authors document strategies of resistance.
Woolf and Ondaatje use photography in their works as a way to undermine the authority of photography in the biographical form and, as such, they are engaged in a project that initiates practices of freedom by undermining the “unitary body of theory” that filters, hierarchizes and orders “in the name of some true knowledge and some arbitrary idea of what constitutes a science and its objects” (Foucault “Two Lectures” 73). This essay seeks to analyze both Woolf and Odaatje’s use of photographs, for while both texts employ photographs, the photographic strategies they employ to demonstrate the constructed nature of photographic authority are disparate and yet complementary, for they are transgredient.
Orlando: A Biography, as the book’s full title implies, is a four-century biography of the eponymous protagonist who, over the course of the novel, ages only thirty-six years, and changes gender from a man to a woman. As the novel proceeds it becomes evident that Orlando is a caricature of the biographical genre. The narrator, Orlando’s biographer, ultimately capitulates the failures of biographic discourse when she/he states
To give a truthful account...is beyond the powers of the biographer or the historian. Only those who have little need of the truth, and no respect for it—the poets and the novelists—can be trusted to do it, for this is one of the cases where the truth does not exist. The whole thing is a miasma—a mirage. (184).
The idea that there is not a single authoritative truth, however, was planted as early as the Orlando’s cover page, for the novel is a biography, rather than the biography of Orlando implying that truth is not definite, it is polyphonic and multifold. Running in the Family, an autobiographic memoir that is “a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts,” is similarly polyphonic (188). Ondaatje’s memoir is not the simple narrativization of his attempts to piece his fragmented relationship with his Sri Lankan father back together. Despite being framed as a memoir, the reader is presented with a text that reveals little about Ondaatje, the author and protagonist. Instead of a self-reflexive narrative, Running in the Family is brimming with stories about Ondaatje’s relatives. The novel, which Ondaatje admits is “not a history”, is rife with isolated stories about these relatives— Mervyn, Lalla and Doris—which the narrator could not logically know so many intimate details about (188). Most of the stories that comprise the memoir are filtered through the memories of Ondaatje’s siblings, aunts, and friends of his parents. Ondaatje thus resists the conventions of life writing in an effort to illustrate the constructed quality of narrative authority. As Ondaatje writes in In The Skin of a Lion, “No story is ever told just once...We will return to it an hour later and re-tell the story with additions and this time a few judgments thrown in. In this way history is organized” (8). And while this may be the way written history is organized, with judgements that attempt to organize narratives into a top-down hierarchy, it is this seemingly natural hierarchy of knowledge and authority that Woolf, Ondaatje and Foucault endeavour to expose as something constructed and temporary rather than something innate and permanent.
Both Running in the Family and Orlando seek to expose supposedly authoritative discourses—be they biographical, autobiographical or photographical—as products of dynamic power relations. By demonstrating that the ever-unobtainable objective truth is not captured through a camera lens both Ondaatje and Woolf make visible the networks of institutional forces that have thus far failed to “entertain the claims to attention of local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory” (Foucault “Two Lectures” 73). In “Two Lectures” Foucault argues for a genealogical approach to research that unites “erudite knowledge and local memories”; a union that will allow “us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of this knowledge tactically today” (73). Genealogy disrupts the hierarchy of history, for it is “history in the form of a concerted carnival” that unveils the supposed truth of historical infrastructure to be artificial, rather than genuine and innate (“Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” 66). The purpose of genealogy is antithetical to traditional forms of history, for its telos is not “to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation” (66). By resisting the conventions of life writing Orlando and Running in the Family both exemplify Foucaldian genealogies, which question and dissect in an effort to excavate the history of struggles that has been masked by objects of ‘fact’ such as the photograph.
The concept of power prior to Foucault was often equated to domination. The powerful are those that dominate, whereas the powerless are those that are dominated. Domination is, however, only one of the possibilities of power. Hans Sluga explains that “we should not think of these relationships as hierarchical although they sometimes may be, but it may very well be that in one respect I succeed in a social interaction to exercise power over you, but in another respect at the same moment you exercise power over me” (“Michel Foucault”). Power, thus, in a Foucauldian sense, is a web of relations, and not a hierarchical top-down domination of the powerful dominating the powerless. Despite the dynamic nature of power, Foucault has noted that although relations of power are not in themselves forms of repression they can manifest as such. In an interview at Berkley in 1980 Foucault explains that what happens is that, in society, in most societies, organizations are created to freeze the relations of power, hold those relations in a state of asymmetry, so that a certain number of persons get an advantage,
socially, economically, politically, institutionally, etc. And this totally freezes the situation. That’s what one calls power in the strict sense of the term: it’s a specific type of power relation that has been institutionalized, frozen, immobilized, to the profit of some and to the detriment of others. (“An Interview with Michel Foucault by Michael Bess”)
A photograph is thus a miniature version of this power paralysis, for it gives the illusion of authentic optical truth and can, when manipulated, grant authority to a text such as a biography. If Foucault’s genealogies are anti-histories, or anti-sciences, then through analogy one could frame Ondaatje and Woolf’s satirical uses of photographs in their respective novels as anti-photographs. These anti-photographs are employed by the authors to “emancipate historical knowledges from that subjection, to render them, that is, capable of opposition and of struggle against the coercion of a theoretical, unitary, formal and scientific discourse” (74). Foucault argues that our supposedly objective sciences are no more than the crystallization of the constellation of power relations. Ultimately, there is a whole network of power relations that subtends and goes beyond that supposed objectivity and it is that vast web of power that defines and redefines what counts as true.
In an interview the Foucauldian scholar Hans Sluga states that Foucault has never given a concrete definition of what power is, despite the nature of power being central to his theories. In Foucault’s examinations of the history of penal right, psychiatric power and the control of infantile sexuality, he says that his project has tried to “demonstrate the extent to which the mechanisms that were brought into operation in these power formations were something quite other, or in any case, something much more, than repression”(Foucault, “Two Lectures” 78). Power is not merely the agencies of control, nor is it anything as ephemeral as an attitude or a will to control: it “is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society” (History of Sexuality 93). Power, then, is a systemic organization of interrelated discursive practices that comprise a complex network that is not shaped or dominated by agents within said network. An integral part of this systemic power is the concepts of knowledge and truth, and a control over knowledge is a key element of the kind of power relations that Foucault discusses. The liberation of knowledge, then, is important for exposing these power relations, which once exposed can be resisted. In The History of Sexuality Foucault articulates that resistance is integrally linked to power but, consequently, “this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (93). Resistance cannot exist without power and as such it is dependent on the very power relations that it opposes for its own existence. Since resistance is dependent on power in this way, while points of resistance can be said to be present everywhere within a power relation, “there is no single locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary” and resistance remains existentially a posteriori (95-96). Examining a particular form of resistance—discourse—we can see that this element can be both an instrument of the exercise of power while also providing the opportunity for resistance to this power. In this way, “discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it”(100- 101). Discourse, then, can both strengthen a power relation and make it vulnerable to resistance; it can serve as the propaganda of the regime or the voice of the underground opposition. Nineteenth-century psychiatric literature on homosexuality posited this orientation as a disease and a ‘perversity’, for example, yet allowed for the reverse discourse by making homosexuality a topic that could be discussed, debated and ultimately reconsidered in social mores (101). In this way, we can see that it is precisely because resistance is interior to power that it can oppose the relations of power, from within rather than from its own exterior form of power.
In Discipline and Punish Michael Foucault notes several aspects of traditional societies that cause an increase in the individualization of the members of these societies, including “the performance of deeds that demonstrate superior strength and which are immortalized in literary accounts... [and] the multiple, intersecting links of allegiance and suzerainty” (193). The very concepts at the root of biography and autobiography, the elements that encompass the importance of the individual and establish his or her claim to literary treatment, are a function of the power relations, rather than an escape from them. A disciplinary regime such as that of a totalitarian state or a penal society will also feature a form of individualization, but it is one directed towards the more specific surveillance of a particular member of society. Individualization in such a society is characterized “by surveillance rather than ceremonies, by observation rather than commemorative accounts, by comparative measures that have the ‘norm’ as reference rather than genealogies giving ancestors as points of reference”(193). Importantly, individualization in either form of society is a reinforcement of power relations: either by revering some of its members as an heroic legendary class or reviling others as a criminal element, the function of these social institutions is to foster and normalize a power imbalance between two or more groups.
Both photography and biography are arts that encompass these issues of power and resistance. Both position themselves as truth or knowledge or authority, and both find their resistance, among other places, in the reverse discourses represented by Woolf’s Orlando and Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. The arcane concept of biography is that the story being told is a non-fictional account, the true story of a person’s life and the accomplishments thereof (Hamilton 82). In a sense, the biography is identical to the life that it represents; it is the full or nearly full account of that person’s life. The act of writing, however, necessarily has the effect of creating a narrative and thus is the transformation of a human life into literary form. Narrativization has been considered “a form of human comprehension, a way to impose meaning and form on the chaos of historical events” and, as such, is something quite distinct from lived human experience (Hutcheon 302). In creating biographical truth the work has the effect of individualization in a way comparable to the oral sagas of traditional societies discussed by Foucault in Discipline and Punish. Photography, similarly, has often been considered to be objective optic truth and, hence, privileged, erudite knowledge. When the technology first developed in the nineteenth century, it was thought that “photographic documentation constituted an unassailable and objective truth” and this belief persists in some circles to this day (Gillespie 114). The power of biography and photography raises the potential of resistance to this power and, indeed, opposition to the authority of these media can take the form of ‘reverse discourses’ of these forms, namely parody and satire.
Foucault comments specifically on the subjects of biography and photography. Foucault uses the term genealogy to represent the “union of erudite knowledge and local memories which allows us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles and to make use of this knowledge tactically today,” which we can understand in terms similar to those of the effect of biography on determining the individualization of members of society (“Two Lectures” 73). The knowledge of this genealogy, it should be noted, is dependent on the existence of globalizing power relations that allow for such concepts as knowledge and history to be put into use. Foucault has said that “power is the ruse of history,” and from this the kind of historical knowledge that genealogy and biography are categorized as dependent upon these relations of power (History of Sexuality, 95). Foucault’s theory of power and knowledge argues that the fault lines that divide the ‘scopic regimes’ of modernity are based along the differentiation of the discursive and the visible, the sayable and the seeable, and this means that the technological developments that constitute modern society determine knowledge and truth through alternating discursive and visual means (Mitchell 12). Photographs and video are an essential tool for establishing truth in modern society, in the court of public opinion as much as in the courts of law. Yet despite this, it must be said that, “we still do not know exactly what pictures are, what their relation to language is, how they operate on observers and on the world, how their history is to be understood, and what is to be done with or about them” in any sort of broadly accepted sense (Mitchell 13). Photography occupies a central position in modern society, yet photographs are illusory objects, thought to convey a definite bit of knowledge when they are a highly problematic authority.
Woolf and Ondaatje use photography in a way that channels this authenticity but do so in fundamentally inauthentic ways. In Orlando, photography serves as documentation of the fantastic life of the protagonist, capturing this character at different points in his/her life and creating a continuity of being. Virginia Woolf had much experience with photography through her family, and the Woolfs kept albums of all photographs of themselves, whether amateur or professional, flattering or unflattering (Gillespie 132). A result of this experience is that Woolf fills her novel with highly composed, semi-professional photographs. This is apparent in the photograph entitled “The Russian Princess as a Child,” (see fig. 1 in the appendix) which depicts Sasha in a “slice of space and time from outside the written narrative,” showing her as a young girl in Russia rather than the grown woman visiting England with whom the reading audience is familiar (Aleksiuk 139). The photograph of this ‘Russian princess’ is in fact Woolf’s niece, Angelica Bell, who would have been familiar to readers with knowledge of Woolf’s social circle, which means that the caption is a false caption that undermines the authenticity of the photographic evidence (Aleksiuk 139). Virginia’s sister Vanessa took at least ten different pictures of her daughter in different poses and wearing different headdresses and robes as part of this project (Gillespie 136). Woolf had considered Angelica to be a paragon of femininity, describing her as “so mature and composed: all grey and silver: such an epitome of all womanliness, such an unopened bud of sense and sensibility”(Trautmann 101). In using her to represent the highly feminine Sasha as a young girl, then, Woolf is not representing the truth of historical biography but depicting a much more prosaic truth: the play-time of a young child. The nature of Orlando’s satire is entirely in this spirit. Woolf takes the serious subject of historical biography and creates a carnivalesque parody of it. She has said that “Orlando was the outcome of a perfectly definite, indeed overmastering impulse. I want fun. I want fantasy. I want (this was serious) to give things their caricature value... The vein is deep in me—at least sparkling, urgent” (quoted in Minow-Pinkney 117). In dressing Angelica up as Sasha, Woolf engaged in this sense of childhood fun while engaging in exposing the failure of supposed objective authoritative optic truth. Russia is contrasted with England as a place of fantasy and adventure, a place where men “shoot the reindeer instead of the rabbit; drink vodka instead of canary” and Sasha is a representation of this exotica, having “no English blood in her but was from Russia where the sunsets are longer, the dawns less sudden, and sentences often left unfinished from doubt as to how best to end them” (Woolf 44-48). The truth of “The Russian Princess,” then, is not one of historical biography. The truth is instead but of the sense of fantasy inspired by the youthfulness of Angelica and perceived by Woolf. Considering the (somewhat reductive) analysis that Orlando is a fictionalized biography of Vita Sackville-West this photograph can be read as representing the truth of their relationship, with Sackville-West in the Orlando role and Woolf herself as the playful and fantastic Sasha (Trautmann 99). Photography in Orlando, then, serves the purpose of extending the metaphoric truth of the work and not the optical truth that it would in traditional biography.
Ondaatje differs from Woolf in the kinds of photographs that he uses, but his use of photography in the context of biography (or, in this case, autobiography) has a similar function to Woolf. Running in the Family challenges the genre of autobiography by not offering up the kind of content that would typically form such a work. Rather, it takes the form of a “fragmented collection of memories, research, poems, and photographs [that] works to reconstruct a more immediate and personal history—the writer’s own” (Hutcheon 302). Typical autobiography creates a ‘true’ narrative (even if this narrative is true only from the point of view of the author) out of the memories and research conducted by the writer. What this fails to recognize, and what Ondaatje explicitly recognizes in his polyphonic autobiography, is that memory itself is a form of fiction, a creation of the human mind that can capture a truth of an historical event but rarely if ever captures the truth. Ondaatje’s autobiography considers history to be a living entity, a subject that is continually reimagined and reinterpreted until assessing its value in terms of truth seems foolhardy. What this form of autobiography does reconstruct, however, which traditional autobiography cannot, is the individualism of the author as he is at the time of writing and how he is imagined to be in the time of incidence.
The fictionality of memory in Running in the Family is essential to the use of photography in the novel. Just as with Woolf, Ondaatje’s photographs are essentially fictional constructs that strive for the subversive truth. Unlike Woolf, however, Ondaatje’s photographs are not meticulously composed. They are not the deliberate fiction of a circle of friends posing and modelling, creating forged history, but actual family photographs that are nevertheless fictive. The photograph captioned “What We Think of Married Life,” described as the “only photograph of the two of them [Ondaatje’s mother and father] together,” is presaged by a lengthy textual description of the photograph that renders the photograph itself redundant to the novel (see fig. 2 in the appendix) (144). The image becomes a reiteration of the words and the text is formatted so that the reader will come to the written description first and get to the photograph second. By ordering text and photograph in this manner, Ondaatje suggests that the “power of language is manifest to the extent that we ‘read’ it in terms of that description” (Barbour 155). The immediate description of the photograph that precedes it ensures that we will interpret the photograph in a particular way, and this also shows how context will necessarily fictionalize our interaction with any photograph. Be it a description, caption or the text in which it appears, context will inevitably frame a photograph in such a way that we are guided into following a particular truth. Ondaatje has told us that this is a theatrical wedding photograph and that it is the only picture he possesses of his parents together. This information necessitates that we will interpret the photograph as a very particular artefact of this marriage: as a prank on an institution that otherwise went undocumented. This also suggests a voice for the subjects of this photograph, and this is a voice that is not the author’s but that is mediated through the author. Running in the Family thus becomes a work of the plurality of memories, which creates a number of voices that are all of: equal value, including [Ondaatje’s] own, and in their juxtaposition he creates a deeply dialogic text in which every voice—his own; those of his family, friends, and relations; those inscribed on a tombstone, in a church ledger, and in ancient or new graffiti; and those he invents—emerges into fragmentary foreground to contribute to the bio- or historiographic metafictional process that writer and reader share (Barbour 136). Ondaatje’s text requires that its audience engage in the process of history that he describes, in which a story is remembered, embellished and retold in a living process that belies an easy definition of textual truth. Knowledge is not something that we are told by the authority of the writer, but something that we discover through an interactive experience that values fiction and feeling more than historic truth. If Ondaatje’s project is to liberate the reader from the power of the author, it must be noted that Woolf engages in this project with definite proscriptive ends. Woolf often “used her own art for propagandistic purposes” and sought both to undermine existing power relations and replace these structures with a philosophy rooted in socialism, pacifism and feminism (Trautmann 99). For all of its flights of fancy and sense of play, Orlando comments on the role of gender in English society and the literary and social history of that society. The various photographs of Orlando that appear throughout this book either depict Vita Sackville-West ‘playing’ the part of the title character or else are photographed paintings of her ancestors (Gillespie 136). The photograph captioned “Orlando on her return to England” is even a more widely known photograph of Sackville-West, taken when she was awarded the Hawthornden Prize in 1927 (see fig. 4 in the appendix) (Wussow 2-3). These depictions of Orlando run opposite to the prevailing gender attitudes of the various English societies in which Orlando lives. Orlando the male is only depicted as a painting (or, rather, a photograph of a painting) while Orlando the female is always a photograph of Sackville-West (see fig. 5 in the appendix). In both cases, the subject is mediated through the interpretive art of the medium, but with Orlando the male this unreality is compounded. Orlando the male is doubly mediated, as a photograph of a painting, and yet Orlando’s experience in English society as a female is that she is less socially real than she had been when she was a man. The patriarchal society of Victorian England considers males to be the only real members of society, yet the text presents Orlando in a more “real” depiction only after her transformation is complete.
This photographic evidence provides the key for understanding the social commentary that lies beneath the surface of the novel. When Orlando is first transformed, we read that, aside from this change in gender, “in every other respect, Orlando remained precisely as he had been. The change of sex, though it altered their future, did nothing whatever to alter their identity. Their faces remained, as their portraits prove, practically the same” (133). Orlando’s two defining characteristics are apparent opposites, yet the photographs present a way to resolve this contradiction. Orlando is simultaneously immutable—ageless and unchanging in time—yet also mutable because of the gender transformation. Later, when Orlando rejects the values of the Victorian period but still finds herself subsumed by them, it might appear that the novel is confirming a “structuralist speculation that it is clothes that wear us rather than we who wear them” (Minow-Pinkney 135). When we look at the photographs of the different eras, however, it is confirmed that Orlando has remained the same despite this change in personal values using the same evidence that suggested Orlando was the same before and after the gender transformation. Orlando, then, is history, in the sense that Ondaatje uses the term, a seemingly immutable truth that nevertheless varies through the interpretation of time, that represents the subversion of knowledge to reach for the interpretive truth: Orlando is a photograph. Susan Sontag has written that “all photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s... mortality, vulnerability, mutability” (quoted in Gillespie 119). Orlando, too, exposes readers to their mortality and mutability through their immortality and immutability, yet we are liberated from this terror through the recognition that this permanence is essentially false.
For Woolf, then, the photograph is an important tool in the liberation of knowledge, not because it represents an objective optical truth as it might be thought, but because it does precisely the opposite. Photography takes an image of reality and transforms it into an art object that we can engage with on the interpretive level. When Ondaatje describes his half-blind Aunt Dolly’s reaction to an old photograph of a Sri Lankan party attended by her and his grandmother, he notes that:
She has looked at it for years and has in this way memorized everyone’s place in the picture. She reels off names and laughs at the facial expressions she can no longer see. It has moved tangible, palpable, into her brain, the way memory invades the present in those who are old, the way gardens invade houses here the way her tiny body steps into mine as intimate as anything I have witnessed and I have to force myself to be gentle with this frailty in the midst of my embrace (94).
The photograph is a cue for and an extension of memory, and it shares in the strengths and limitations of memory. It is not an objective truth, it is a fiction of history that can nevertheless bring history alive if we are willing to embrace the fictionalization of the past. With active participation, it is possible to create a knowledge of the past that is liberated from the tyranny of history, that conjures up the human experience that has been lost. In the acknowledgements to his book, Ondaatje concludes that while the (extensive) list of names of people who have contributed to his project may “give an air of authenticity, I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture’. And if those listed above disapprove of the fictional air I apologize and can only say that in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts” (188). Ondaatje’s project is not to create dogmatic history but to create an inclusive sense of place and time.
Woolf and Ondaatje use photography in ways that complement their projects to liberate knowledge from biography, which has been associated with erudite knowledge, and establish a more inclusive counter-history by exposing erudite knowledge as not inherently more valuable or truthful. Foucault had argued genealogy can only exist as the “combined product of an erudite knowledge and a popular knowledge, [that] were not possible and could not even have been attempted except on one condition, namely that the tyranny of globalizing discourses with their hierarchy” (“Two Lectures” 83). Knowledge is subjugated under a system of truth that disqualifies the illegitimate knowledges such as local discursivities that Woolf and Ondaatje capture in their counter discourses. The personal histories of Woolf and Ondaatje are knowledges that are “disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naïve knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity” (83). Genealogy, his term for counter-historical discourses, allows us to talk about this kind of history in a way that recognizes and appreciates its value. Genealogies combine “erudite knowledge and local memories which allows us to establish a historical knowledge of struggles,” such as those between truth and fiction, and the history of the subjugated and their dominators (83). They reject the positivistic values of science and celebrate the anecdotal and the human. In doing so, Woolf and Ondaatje are participating in the kind of liberation of knowledge that Foucault describes.
Thus far, this essay has outlined how Woolf, Foucault and Ondaatje are engaged in parallel projects (positing strategies of resistance to ossified networks of power relations via transgressive uses of language, and photography in particular in the case of Woolf and Ondaatje). The relationship between this triplet of authors extends beyond that, for it is possible to read each author as filling in a complementary perspective with each other in a kind of meta-dialogue. For, not only do Woolf, Focault and Ondaatje’s works provide a multiplicity of perspectives onto the social, cultural, and political forces at work in the civilization periods in which they are embedded in and engaged with, they also provide complementary perspectives which themselves act as polyphonic voices against each other. The three authors are thus polyphonic within their own works, but they can also be read as though they are engaged in a dialogue with each other, providing complementary perspectives with each other. Ondaatje, Foucault and Woolf’s texts are transgredient because, when read together, they demonstrate the evolution of a point of resistance within a changing power relation. Even though they use the same angle (the frozen moment of time, the photograph) to confront the frozen power relation they do so in different ways that demonstrate the fundamental differences between the Victorian and contemporary épistemes.
We must employ a Foucauldian genealogical analysis to extrapolate backwards in an effort to unveil the implications of Ondaatje and Woolf’s different, yet complementary tactics, which both aim to resist the power of the photograph. The manner in which Woolf goes about illustrating how photographs are not synonymous with optical truth is slightly, but importantly, different to Ondaatje’s approach. Woolf uses fantasy, playful replacement of one reality for another, whereas Ondaatje makes much subtler point by prefacing his images with narratives. There is a significant difference in the fact that Woolf uses these fabricated captions during the Victorian era, and Ondaatje uses real, but over-elaborated captions in the contemporary era. Running in the Family demonstrates that within the post-modern épisteme it is possible to use a lengthy caption to illustrate the problematic nature of captions, stories and the privileging of stories. Ondaatje’s technique comes across as a contradiction, for it seems that a fake caption should be more illustrative of problematic nature of captions than the subtly prefaced images, which Ondaatje opts to employ. The irony of the extended discussion prior to the photograph is different today than in Woolf’s time, for there has evidently been a change in the épisteme which has made it possible to use a literal caption as a critique of literality; if Woolf, or anyone in her era, had done this people would have just read it is as stated: a literal discussion, taken at face value. However, due to the different historical contexts, each technique has a different interpretation. I posit that it is actually Foucault’s theories of knowledge and power that have made it, in part, possible for Ondaatje to whisper what Woolf must shout. For Foucault’s theories, which highlight a history of struggles, have been critical loci of resistance against the notion of a single authoritative truth. It is the notion of multiple, equally valid and equally invalid truths that Ondaatje’s plays off of when he shares a truth of the Ondaatje clan, rather than the truth of the Ondaatjes.
For Woolf and Ondaatje the photograph provides a subject for parody, a seeming source of authenticity that is inherently problematic and can be exposed as the false guarantor of truth that it really is. A photograph is not reality, it is not history, nor is it truth, but we are often deceived as to the nature of its artifice. What the photograph is, though, is an interpretive object that we can use to augment our memory and our fictionalization of history. Fictionalization should not be understood in its propagandistic sense, but rather as the way that we organize memory and thought along fictive lines to get to the deeper truth of a situation. We create meaning when we fictionalize and this meaning can enrich our understanding of our past and of ourselves. Ondaatje and Woolf are, however, not simply resisting power. These two different specific techniques, which both illustrate the short-comings of the photograph as an authenticator of truth shine light on the two eras, their épistemes, the ways in which they have changed, and even the way in which Foucault’s own way of thinking has infiltrated post-modern era.