An exercise in devil’s advocacy, or: on the violence of representation

November 23, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am currently preparing a paper that goes against the grain of idealism that has up to now characterised my work on memory and trauma – sometimes cleverly concealed behind a show of academic scepticism, but always there, as it has been since my childhood (I always insisted, at school and university, on ending my essays on an optimistic, positive note, on finding the dim ray of hope for a better future for the characters in the books I was studying, the readers, the world in general). Now I find myself playing devil’s advocate, the cynic and detractor, and there is more pleasure in it that I imagined. The topic of the paper is violence and representation or, better said, the violence of representation. I have argued in the past, following Susan Sontag and many others, that the representation of violence and suffering has the potential to inflict further violence upon victims of atrocity who, being ‘represented’ in museums, images, films, and texts, also all too often become victims to objectification and appropriation, displayed for voyeuristic pleasures. The notion of ‘concentration camp pornography’ (Karen Goertz 2001: 179) is not new, and certainly the possibility for representation to symbolically (and sometimes literally) repeat the harm and humiliation inflicted upon victims is a real one. Nonetheless, I have frequently argued that the representation of suffering also allows for the possibility of an ethical response to the victim’s plight by the spectator, a response based in empathy, care and a sense of social (in)justice inspired by the encounter with the representation of the other’s suffering. In this way, I have repeatedly suggested that representation – in the form of memorials, art, and literature in particular, but also (although often more problematically) photography, film and media images – can have a positive social and ethical impact by encouraging or eliciting a culture of cosmopolitan response-ability (to use Kelly Oliver’s term) and secondary witnessing. But the focus does not lie merely with the representation; of equal importance is its spectator, receiver or interlocutor – the potential ‘secondary witnesses’ themselves. A visitor to a memorial or the spectator of an image of atrocity also contributes something to the representational moment. He or she not only brings personal experiences, fears, perspectives and prejudices but also a conscious or unconscious willingness or unwillingness to engage ethically with what is being encountered. ‘Ethical secondary witnessing’ is thus a two-way process.

Representations of violence and in particular our ways of encountering them, I have suggested, run the risk of inflicting a second violence upon the victims of atrocity. The perceived ‘victim’ of the violence of representation here is almost invariably its object, that is, the victim of the original event; the spectator, on the contrary, is positioned as a purveyor of or accomplice to violence. My proposal for the paper I’ve been writing is work against this instinctual analysis in order to examine the ways in which representations of violence and suffering can and do exert violence upon their spectators. Is it also possible to speak of a violence inflicted upon those asked to encounter representations of suffering an atrocity? If violence can be identified as part of spectator experience, then the question that remains to be asked is whether and in what circumstances this violence of representation can ever be productive. Is the violence of representation ever ethically justifiable, and if so, is this one occasion where the exception applies?

So far I have identified three instances of violence as being potentially present in spectator experiences of representations of atrocity:

1. The violence of Emotional and Moral Unsettlement (sometimes known as ‘Vicarious trauma’, though this is problematic, I will come back to this concept in another post)
2. Accusation and Manipulation
3. Disempowerment and disenfranchisement of the spectator as moral agent

It is of course crucial to be as specific as possible about the forms of atrocity representation we are dealing with; the potential for and the nature of violence exerted by representations will vary greatly according to this and other variables. Nonetheless, reflecting on my own experience, as well as that of some of the respondees to my survey on visitor responses to memorials in Berlin, has made me think it is time to take spectators’ experiences of violence more seriously, whatever representational form the source of these experiences may take.

The paper is still a work in progress, so for now I am still asking questions: is the encounter with representations of suffering – in the many and varied forms they take, on the news, in museums, in films, photographs, memorials, literature and art – an encounter marked by violence? What are the effects of the proliferation of atrocity images on the internet and in the media (I am thinking, for example, of the image of a dead and dying Gadaffi that made it on to the front page of most major British media websites, including the BBC and the Guardian)? Does our exposure to representations of the suffering of others empower us by giving us knowledge, or does it rid us of our moral agency, by ‘numbing’ us to the reality of injustice and our role in combating it?

Marilene has recently moved to Angola, and is, I know, being moved on a daily basis by the realities that she sees there firsthand. Can representation ever move us in the same way? Doesn’t it always also manipulate us, framing our knowledge and understanding of events in a way that exercises power over our politics as well as our perception?


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