The Representational Limits of Images of Trauma
‘If they cut and wound, do they enable memory, mourning, and working through?’ Marianne Hirsche, ‘Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory’ in Yale Journal of Criticism, vol.14, no.1 (2001) 5 – 37.
‘Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America’ is an exhibition documenting the history of lynching in the USA and is ranged over a period from 1870 to 1965. The photographs depict naked and mutilated corpses hanging from trees or burning on fires – and were taken at the scenes of the crimes, committed by lynching mobs from white communities. The crime of lynching took place in forty-six states, though mostly in the southern states of the USA, and victims included men and women, indigenous Americans and whites but were mostly African-American men. The photographs in this exhibition are, to say the least, difficult to look at – they are painful to behold. One constantly wants to avert one’s gaze.
What do these horrific images of lynchings from the past bring to bear on the lives, memories and hauntings of those living with that history today? Marianne Hirsche describes the transgenerational transmission of trauma, as ‘Post memory’ trauma, which permeates across generations creating interpersonal defence structures. What are the implications for African Americans and how are they affected in the face of collective and secondary trauma? Susan Sontag suggests that “harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else; they haunt us.” I would like to explore how these photographs affect a contemporary audience and whether they have the power to interject their own narrative, which indeed may be of a ‘haunting’.
Whilst I do not want to suggest a direct comparison with the holocaust of the second world war, it would seem that there are parallels to be drawn in relation to issues of race and genocide, trauma and the work of mourning. I will refer to the literature written about trauma and the holocaust, such as Saul Friedlander’s ‘Trauma, Transference and “Working Through” ‘ together with theories of psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ and how this exhibition may lead us toward mourning and working through.
The purpose of the exhibition, ‘Without Sanctuary’, (it has toured the US and been exhibited in the UK) is to bring to public awareness the degree of victimization and terrorism inflicted upon black people and how this genocide has, largely, been denied or disavowed, especially within the USA. After the holocaust of world war two, there was for many years and on many levels, clear repression together with massive denial, as to the nature of events. This avoidance of reference to ‘Auschwitz’ can also be likened to the avoidance in the USA of the atrocities committed towards African-Americans and may explain the defence mechanisms put into place since that time in order to avoid the facts, which although reported in the media on a national level, were denied by many. Repression or dissociation according to Freud tends to occur during the traumatic event itself – as if the event is being experienced by someone else. Thus memory and identity comes to be accounted for on either side of the traumatic event – before and after. We can think of repression as a mode of survival – a necessary defence mechanism, which keeps at bay the unthinkable or the unbearable nature of the painful experience.
The traumatic event, though real, takes place outside of the parameters of ‘normal’ reality, such as causality, sequence, place and time. The psychoanalyst, Dori Laub describes trauma as “an event that has no beginning, no ending, no before, no during and no after. This absence of categories that define it lends it a quality of “otherness”, a salience, a timelessness, a ubiquity that puts it outside the range of comprehension, of recounting and of mastery. ” To see (or hear of) another’s trauma can also be a reminder of one’s own. It need not be the same traumatic experience, but can act as a trigger to that haunted past which is forever flashing through the present. Freud suggests that some people “think that the traumatic experience is constantly forcing itself upon the patient …perhaps they are more concerned with not thinking of it.” The lived experience of trauma uncannily recurs and yet the registration of the event is forever deferred, its reality continues to elude the subject “who lives in its grip and unwittingly undergoes its ceaseless repetitions and re-enactments.”
Caruth explains that “Traumatic experience, beyond the psychological dimension of suffering it involves, suggests a certain paradox: that the most direct seeing of a violent event may occur as an absolute inability to know it; that immediacy, paradoxically, may take the form of belatedness. The repetitions of the traumatic event – which remain unavailable to consciousness but intrude repeatedly on sight – thus suggest a larger relation to the event that extends beyond what can simply be seen or what can be known, and is inextricably tied up with the belatedness and incomprehensibility that remain at the heart of this repetitive seeing.” This splitting off process, Friedlander suggests, leads to further fragmentation in the representation of events. Freud explains this as a split in the ego, which may account for the way in which one can know and not know at the same time. In other words, the ego can be defensively divided so as to operate on the basis of different types of understanding of reality.
We participate in acts of memory from multiple positions depending upon our own subjective experiences. Friedlander suggests that there are different ‘forms of memory’ and that from the perspective of the historian, he or she is subject to their own projections, transferences and ‘unconscious shapings and reshapings of events. As Dominick LaCapra says, “Whether the historian or analyst is a survivor, a relative of survivors, a former nazi, a former collaborator, a relative of former Nazis or collaborators, a younger Jew or German distanced from more immediate contact with survival, participation, or collaboration, or a relative ‘outsider’ to these problems will make a difference even in the meaning of statements that may be formally identical.” Friedlander states that these ‘internal conflicts’ can also be difficult and confusing not only for the victims but also for the next generation. The victims cope with a fundamentally traumatic situation, whereas many of the next generation have to cope with what he describes as a ‘widening stain’ with potential guilt and shame.
The photographs in the exhibition ‘Without Sanctuary’ depict acts of torture, of humiliation and degradation. They have been used in two quite different contexts. Firstly, in their historical setting, as a means of inflicting fear and control in the black population; and, secondly, in their contemporary representation in major galleries, as a subversive tool to re- present the racism, trauma and genocide, suffered by African American communities, and to bring about awareness of the racism and hatred perpetrated upon the African American population, since slavery to the present day.
It was no accident that these events were photographed. The photographer with his heavy equipment large format camera, and tripod had to be transported to the isolated spot where the lynchings took place. Many of these lynchings therefore were premeditated or planned and took place on a regular basis. Images are used as a form of control and power and, as Sontag suggests, through the act of photography “something becomes part of a system of information.” The recording of events was, therefore, an important aspect of these lynchings. The images were circulated widely, both within the community and in the media, instilling terror and dread in the black population in order to keep them ‘in their place’, and thereby maintaining power relations. As bell hooks states, “From slavery on white supremacists have recognized that control over images is central to the maintenance of any system of racial domination.”
Many of the photographs in this exhibition were made into postcards and sold, often the next day, to people from surrounding neighbourhoods who came to have their photographs taken with the victims, as if it were a circus, and to take away a souvenir of the ‘event’. They were used as trophies – as a record for the perpetrators of the extent of their cruelty – for their own clandestine gaze. Photographs are considered as fetish objects in themselves, likened to Marx’s ideas of commodity fetishism where the object is inscribed with excessive value in relation to its actual value.
Although individual spectators may not have participated in the actual torture of victims, such as – cutting off of limbs (fingers et cetera for souvenirs); gouging out a penis and making the victim eat it, and then make him admit he enjoyed it; or burning; – or most probably all of these – it seems they were an essential part of the proceedings. Through the fetishistic nature of both the crime and the resultant photograph – the photograph as index – the onlookers attained a ‘mastery over the object’. We may also consider that the object of the gaze within these photographs – and the victims of the lynchings – the black man, also takes the form of a fetish as described by Freud, in which the object becomes a substitute for that which is deemed lacking. Through the use of ‘condensation’ the fetish object stands in for the imagined object of phantasy, which is defensively split off, and creates a ‘double think’ of knowing and not knowing. Such was the fear, for the white man, of the nature of a black man’s desire that, as Frantz Fanon says, “white phobic anxiety … takes the form of a fetishistic investment in their sexuality” .
The identity and subject position of the black person, post slavery, has a history based in hatred – projected into them by the hate filled gaze of whites. Projective identification is a term used by Melanie Klein to describe how a split-off and hated part of the internal object is ejected and deposited in the recipient in an unconscious and controlling way. Stuart Hall points out “Not only, in Said’s “orientalist” sense, were we constructed as different and other within categories of knowledge of the west by those regimes. They had the power to make us see and experience ourselves as “other”… It is one thing to position a subject or set of peoples as the other of a dominant discourse. It is quite another thing to subject them to that “knowledge”, not only as a matter of imposed will and domination but by the power of inner compulsion and subjective conformation to the norm.” If we take into account the traumatic nature of colonial experience and the representation and normalization of a black subject positioning within the dominant regime, the filmmaker, Pratibha Parmer corroborates this when she says, “images play a crucial role in defining and controlling the political and social power to which both individuals and marginalized groups have access. The deeply ideological nature of imagery determines not only how other people think about us but how we think about ourselves”.
Camera images, Hirsch suggests, can mediate private and public memory and, can “generate a memorial aesthetic for the second and even subsequent generations” . Photographs can illustrate how the knowledge of trauma may be constituted in its transmission from one person to another where memories are formulated in various ways, and, as Andreas Huyssen suggests “…social and collective memory is constructed through a variety of discourses and layers of representation. Holocaust historiography, archives, witness testimony, documentary footage – all have collaborated to establish a hard core of facts, and these facts need to be transmitted to the post-Holocaust generations. Without facts, there is no real memory.“ It seems that photographs may be used as evidence, and that the exhibition ‘Without Sanctuary’ is a way of testifying that such a thing did in fact happen, transforming the act of bearing witness into an act of testimony.
There is no such thing as ‘collective memory’ Susan Sontag says, it is “part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt” She suggests that collective memory is not a remembering – that it is through pictures and archives which ‘stipulate’ and “lock the story in our minds” that create the commonality of a lived event. People do not remember through photographs, says Susan Sontag, and, she suggests, they are not an ‘aide memoire’ they “remember only the photographs”. In suggesting that photographs are in fact themselves the point of memory, she says “To remember is, more and more, not to recall a story but to be able to call up a picture.” Although this may be true of some photographs it seems to me a very limited perspective and does not credit the audience with their own memories or critical faculties. Whilst Sontag agrees that the illustration of atrocities may corroborate and substantiate information or misinformation, she does not seem willing to concede that there are many thousands of people, who are also able to identify with and corroborate such information, attained not only from photographs et cetera, and who themselves can bear witness to a particular event – who have their own internal memories of sound, vision, texture and smell.
The photo as index, trace or fetish, offers a line of communication, an interaction between image and audience. The viewer can be affected in many different ways – for instance, they may experience sadness or anger and, as Jill Bennett the art historian suggests, images do not just represent places or past experiences, they can in fact call up a memory on both an emotional and physical plane. Memory therefore can be constituted through image and narrative and become “its very medium, extending well into subsequent generations.”
In the book, which accompanies the exhibition ‘Without Sanctuary’ Hilton Als refers to his own life – and what it means to be and to use the term “nigger” – as a “metaphorical lynching”. The inability to escape the ‘look’ of fear and that ‘look’ is that of a death sentence he says, and “that’s the slow death I feel all the time now, as a coloured man.”
The photographs from ‘Without Sanctuary’ have aroused a traumatic response such as to make Hilton Als feel connected with the past deaths of those victims – and to cause such an affect of feeling it is as though he too is still endangered by the white ‘look’ of fear. Marriott points out that ‘you don’t have to see a lynching to live with its effects’ and quotes Richard Wright as saying “I had never in my life been abused by whites, but I had already become as conditioned to their existence as though I had been the victim of a thousand lynchings ”
Knowledge and experience of traumatic events can be transmitted between generations. They may come to be understood in various ways, such as hearing about the experiences of others, or learning that it is forbidden to discuss certain things. The silence that ensues may generate a dynamic of transference and countertransference, through the unconscious exchange of collective or cultural memories on transgenerational levels. Hirsch describes this as ‘postmemory’, a form of memory not mediated through a personal recollection – but through the experience and narratives of those of a previous generation. She distinguishes postmemory from memory, “…by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection.” The past has become the present and the trauma of such atrocities still haunts black people and some are unable, it seems, not to identify. In the words of Hilton Als “That is their right of coloured male passage: having to drag all those lynchings around with them, around their necks, those are their ancestors. Too bad when violent deaths define who you are.”
The act of looking at such barbaric images in Without Sanctuary conjures up the haunting rumours we strove to repress – the rumours of dreaded atrocities, hidden away in different collectivities of cultural pasts. Caruth describes this as “…the way in which one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another, the way in which trauma may lead, therefore to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wounds.”
The photographs and cartoon drawings in Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ are a representation of his father’s experiences in Auschwitz and, Hirsch suggests, these portrayals connect “the past and the present, the story of the father and the story of the son, because these family photographs are documents both of memory (the survivors) and of “post-memory” (that of the child of survivors).” and that as such, “the photographs included in the text of Maus, and through them, Maus itself, become sites of remembrance…” We might consider the exhibition ‘Without Sanctuary’ as a site of remembrance and, as such, Pierre Nora describes these sites of remembrance as ‘lieux de memoire’, which are “Created by a play of memory and history” they are “mixed, hybrid, mutant, bound intimately with life and death, with time and eternity enveloped in a Mobius strip of the collective and the individual, the sacred and the profane, the immutable and the mobile.” And, furthermore, as a “symbolic aura” lieux de memoire serves to “block the work of forgetting.”
‘The worst thing we can do would be to forget’ said a member of the audience of ‘Without Sanctuary’. It has become clear that there were many more crimes of lynching (and other forms of genocide such as immolation, shooting and drowning) committed than were reported. Through poverty and fear many black communities were fractured and dispersed and the traumatic nature of atrocities committed against them unspoken or repressed. We may liken the growing fragmentation of the history of the Nazi period with that of the era of the lynchings, cited by Friedlander, as a form of defence mechanism, or a paralysis on the part of the victims; a lack of cohesiveness on the part of historians and victims to bring together the factual and intellectual commentary with that of the narratives of victims. Hence we need not see the totalising effect of the horrors which occurred and as Leon Litwack puts it “Obviously, it is easier to choose the path of collective amnesia, to erase such memories, to sanitize our past.” Throughout the years of ‘amnesia’ it seems that survivors and subsequent generations of these crimes may have succumbed to Freud’s notion of melancholia which “is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness” thereby causing an inability to accept the reality of the repressed or lost object. This Freud says is in “contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.” It may be that, by witnessing the photographs in the exhibition ‘Without Sanctuary’, a ‘reality-testing’ can occur and mourning will be possible. It seems to me that, in being able to look, perhaps we can bring about retrieval, of a body, of an ability to mourn – not only for the person who suffered, but also for the relatives and the communities who suffered with them.
It is through trauma’s repetitions and re-enactments – of forgetting – through the safety of the gaps in memory, that we may heal enough to be able to remember. Caruth suggests “This notion of trauma also acknowledges that perhaps it is not possible for the witnessing of the trauma to occur within the individual at all, that it may only be in future generations that “cure” or at least witnessing can take place.”
The act of looking is not an impassive, powerless, objectless, subject-less gaze. It is important to ask ourselves how we see; what we see; what we want to avoid seeing; and why is it difficult to look? Perhaps we can answer some of these questions by understanding our own subject position. In relation to ‘Without Sanctuary’ the act of looking becomes an act of defiance, a way of speaking out and of breaking the silence of so many generations – it becomes an act of memory and as such there can be no more disavowal as to the nature of these crimes.