Presenting the Unpresentable. On Trauma and Visual Art

  • Antoon Van den Braembussche
Part of the Einstein Meets Margritte: An Interdisciplinary Reflection on Science, Nature, Art, Human Action and Society book series (EMMA, volume 9)

In our present culture we are confronted with an excessive proliferation of and overexposure to violent images and information. Every day we are flooded with footage about war and terror, not only in the newsreels but also in every aspect of our culture. Images of a violent past, such as the Holocaust and colonial rule, are accumulated with a daily and rapid succession of images of mass killings, genocides and terrorist attacks, extreme poverty and famine. Moreover, violence has proved to be extremely productive of culture. Fiction films and computer games featuring violence are extremely popular. We seem to be seduced and fascinated by the horror and by the sheer energy released in scenes of destruction. Violence thus becomes an esthetical category, producing a pleasure, which transcends the human suffering behind the scenes.

In a very specific sense, there seems to be hardly a distinction between fact and fiction: Also the violent images we see in the newsreels seem to be part of a giant spectacle and simulacrum of violence. They follow one another in such a rapid succession that the viewer is allowed hardly any time to digest the images. The overwhelming accumulation does not leave room for any empathy with the victims. Or, as one of the participants at a recent telesymposium on representations of violence puts it: “The quantity and frequency of these representations have stripped them of the effect that they once had – the capacity to communicate an affective charge.”5 Have the representations of violence lost every power to move us deeply? Have they become part and parcel of a consumer culture in which violence has become a commonplace, an excellent commodity product in which sensation and spectacle have pride of place? Or should one speak of a massive way of numbing, in which the proliferation of violent images are not digested at all, but linger on in the collective unconscious on a subliminal level, a point of view which probably inspired Soshana Felman to postulate that the twentieth century is “a posttraumatic century.”6 Or have we to do with what Derrida in his Memoires for Paul de Man called an impossible mourning?7


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Notes and References

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    See Morrison, Tony, Unspeakable things unspoken. Michigan Quarterly Review, 28(1) (winter 1989), p. 11Google Scholar
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    “A Prayer From the Living,” in: Jaar, Alfredo (Ed.), Let There Be More Light, Barcelona, San Sebastián, 1998, p. 2Google Scholar
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    the Dharma teaching of “What is it that thus comes?,” a question supposed to have been made in a conversation that took place at the first meeting between the sixth patriarch, Hui-neng (J. Enō, 638–713), and Nan-yüeh Huai-jang (J. Nangaku Ejo, 677–744); See: Abe, Masao, “Dōgen on Bhudda-nature,” in: A Study of Dōgen. His Philosophy and Religion, State University of New York Press, New York, 1992, pp. 35–76Google Scholar
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    Telesymposia 3. Representations of Violence. Violence of Representations,̃trans/Telesymposia3/Telesym[posia3introeng.html, p. 1Google Scholar
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    Felman, Soshana, “Education and Crisis, Or the Vicissitudes of Teaching,” in: Felman, Soshana and Dori Laub (Eds.), Testimony. Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Routledge, New York, 1992, p.1; This article, which launched recent trauma studies onto the American scene, appeared in a first modified version in “Psychoanalysis, Culture and Trauma,” a special issue of American Imago, 48.1, Spring 1991; Caruth, Cathy (Ed.), Explorations of Memory, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1995Google Scholar
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    Derrida, Jacques, Memoires for Paul de Man, Columbia University Press New York, 1989, p. 6Google Scholar
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    the books by Felman & Laub and Cathy Caruth referred to in note 6. See also Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience. Trauma, Narrative, and History, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1996, a classic in the field; The path-breaking book by Lewis Hermann, Judith, Trauma and Recovery. From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Basic Books, New York, 1992, is less embedded in literary theory than the others and more oriented toward a ground-breaking recovery program, based on 20 years of research and clinical work; The literary tradition is continued by Boheemen-Saaf, Christine van, Joyce, Lacan, and the Trauma of History. Reading, Narrative, and Postcolonialism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999. The list could be extended at lengthGoogle Scholar
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    Ramadanovic, Petar, Introduction: Trauma and Crisis, htpp://, p. 1. See for a similar point, Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, op. cit., pp. 3–5
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    “ ‘The Silenced Past. On the nature of historical taboos’,” in: Wrzoska, W. (Ed.), Swiat historii. Festschrift for Jerzy Topolski, Poznan, Historical Institute, 1998, pp. 97–112; “History: Historical Taboos,” in: Jones, Derek (Ed.), Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, London, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, London, 2001, vol. 2, pp. 1060–1062; “The Silence of Belgium: Taboo and Trauma in Belgian Memory,” in: Labio, C. (Ed.), Belgian Memories, Yale French Studies, Number 102, 2002, pp. 35–52Google Scholar
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    See Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, W.W. Norton&Company New York and London, 1989; See also his: Moses and Monotheism, Vintage Books, New York, 1939Google Scholar
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    See Herman Lewis, Judith, op. cit., p. 37. See also: Kardiner, A. and H. Spiegel, War, Stress, and Neurotic Illness, Hoeber, New York, 1947Google Scholar
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    Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, op. cit., pp. 19–20Google Scholar
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    Primo Levi's most important book is If This is a Man (Se questo é uomo, 1958). In the USA it is published under the title: Survival in Auschwitz (New York, 1996)Google Scholar
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    See the first 30 pages, compiled by Tottner, Nadja in: Documenta XI, Ostflildern- Ruit, Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2002. These photographs and stills really show a blueprint from the news-reels from 1998 until 2002, ranging from the Valley of Tears to 09–11, from Milosevic to Osama bin Laden, from Albanian refugees in Brindisi, Italy, to Guantanamo BayGoogle Scholar
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    Inconvenient Evidence was presented jointly at the International Center of Photography in New York and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The exhibition displayed 17 of the published pictures from the notorious prison. The exhibition was met with mixed feelings. Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times wrote: “As for surviving detainees, how might they feel about being exhibited like this? Elsewhere, their images have become tools of political resistance, but here the detainees are in a sense twice violated, first as objects of the photographers' derision, then as objects of the audience's detached contemplation.” For another attitude toward photographic evidence, compare my discussion of Alfredo JaarGoogle Scholar
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    Raw footage, exhibited for the first time in Basis voor Actuele Kunst, Utrecht, The Netherlands, consists of two juxtaposed projection screens simultaneously showing images from the war in former Yugoslavia. The images, from the media archives of Reuters and Independent Television News, were never used and are projected without the usual comments or screams. Raw footage is not unmediated, because the choice and sequencing of the images is edited by Aernout Mik. The deliberate choice for silence results in a more estranged and at the same time more committed spectatorship. In a very specific way Mik anticipates the second intrusion-type of deep memory and representationGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    The literature on Celan is vast. A very recent book comparing the visual work of Anselm Kiefer with Paul Celan's poetic oeuvre is: Lauterwein, Andrea, Anselm Kiefer – Paul Celan, Myth, Mourning and Memory, Thames and Hudson, London, 2007Google Scholar
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    This a very fine and early example of indirect representation, representation of the intrusion kind. See for a subtle and deeply committed discussion: “Duras, Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour,” in: Caruth, Cathy (Ed.), Unclaimed Experience, op. cit., pp. 25–56Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Claude Lanzman's Shoah is generally seen as a groundbreaking work, especially in terms of deep memory type of representation. See, for instance, Felman, Soshana, “The Return of the Voice: Claude Lanzmann's Shoah,” in: Felman, Soshana and Dori Laub (Eds.), Testimony, op. cit., pp. 204–283Google Scholar
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    The French artist Christian Boltanski makes use of archives to refer to the Holocaust, often in an indirect way. So in his Le Lycée Chases he photographed Jewish students of a French secondary school, who most probably did not survive the Holocaust. See for an elucidating interview: Renard, Delphine, “Entretien avec Christian Boltanski,” Exhibition Catalogue, Musée d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1984, pp. 72–85Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    11'09”01 – September 11 was the first cinematographic reaction to September eleven. The French filmmaker Alain Brigand asked 11 directors from 11 different countries to give their interpretation of the terrorist attack. They were all given 11 min, 9 s, and 1 frame. Alejandro González Iñárritu from Mexico presented a short film consisting mainly of a black screen and noisesGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Lewis Herman, op. cit,, p. 184Google Scholar
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    See Telesymposia 3. Representations of Violence, Violence of Representations, op. cit., 12.31; Trans 3/4, p. 57Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    See Strauss, David Levi, “A Sea of Griefs is Not a Proscenium. On the Rwanda Projects of Alfredo Jaar,” in: Jaar, Alfredo (Ed.), Let There Be Light. The Rwanda project 1994–1998, Astar, Barcelona, 1998. For pictures of the Rwanda Project, see
  30. 30.
    Telesymposia 3, Representations, 12.33Google Scholar
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    See Strauss, op. citGoogle Scholar
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    Telesymposia 3, Representations, 12.35Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience, op. cit., p. 2Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    For an original reflection on trauma and Lévinas, see: Elisabeth Weber, Verfolgung und Trauma. Zu Emmanuel Lévinas' Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence, Vienna, 1990Google Scholar
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    Lyotard, J.-F., Heidegger and “the Jews,” University of Minneapolis Press, Minneapolis, 1990, pp. 15–16Google Scholar
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    See Lyotard, J.-F., op. cit, p. 16: “The essence of the event: that there is ‘comes before’ what there is (Freud, I, 215).” And further: “This ‘before’ of the quod is also an ‘after’ of the quid. For whatever is now happening in the store (i.e., the terror and the flight) does not come forth; it comes back from the first blow, from the shock, from the ‘initial’ excess that remained outside the scene, even unconscious, deposited outside representation.”Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Bolter, J.D. and R. Grusin, Remediation. Understanding New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2001.See for this crucial distinction:Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    See for instance and, to name but a few websites famous for their disgusting images. Interesting are Kant's remarks on that which excites disgust. After admitting that there are things which are by nature ugly or displeasing, he observes: “There is only one kind of ugliness which cannot be represented in accordance with nature without destroying all esthetical satisfaction, and consequently artificial beauty, viz. that which excites disgust. For in this singular sensation, which rests on mere imagination, the object is represented as it were obtruding itself for our enjoyment, while we strive against it with all our might.” See his Critique of Judgment, The Haffner Library of Classics, New York and London, 1951, p. 155Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Already Roland Barthes warned us that it is not enough for the photographer to “signify the horrible for us to experience it.” Shock photos or pictures of real violence fail to have a political effect “(…) because, as we look at them, we are in each case dispossessed of our judgment: someone has shuddered for us, reflected for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothing – except a simple right of intellectual acquiescence….” We are thus not really concerned, or disorganized: “The perfect legibility of the scene, its formulation dispenses us from receiving the image in all its scandal; reduced to the state of pure language, the photograph does not disorganize us.” See Barthes, Roland, “Shock-Photos,” in his: The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, Hill and Wang, New York, 1979, pp. 71–72Google Scholar
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    See Lyotard, J.-F., The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Polity, Cambridge, 1991, p. 90Google Scholar
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    See ibid., p. 90Google Scholar
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    Kant makes a distinction between concepts and understanding, on the one hand, and ideas and Reason, on the other. Ideas, such as infinity and the absolute, the world and God, are not be confounded with concepts, e.g., the concept of causality. Ideas refer to the suprasensible or noumenal world, whereas concepts refer to the sensible or phenomenal world! Kant frequently compares the beautiful with understanding and the free play of the faculties of imagination and knowledge, whereas he often associates the sublime with Reason, the immense power of ideas which highlights all the more the inadequacy and dislocation of our facultiesGoogle Scholar
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    See Lyotard, J.-F., The Inhuman, p. 98Google Scholar
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    See Burke, Edmund, Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990Google Scholar
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    Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, op. cit., pp. 36–37Google Scholar
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    See Coomaraswamy, Rama P., The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Bloomington, Indiana, 2004, pp. 196–197Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 197Google Scholar
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    See for a “Recent Symposium on Kant's sensus communis in Intercultural Perspective,” in: Kimmerle, Heinz and Henk Oosterling (Eds.), Sensus communis in Multi- and Intercultural Perspective. On the Possibility of Common Judgments in Arts and Politics, Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg, 2000Google Scholar
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    For a broader reflection on rasa theory highlighting not only the similarities but also the differences with Kant's esthetics, see my: “Sensus Communis. Clarification of a Kantian Concept on the Way to an Intercultural Dialogue Between Western and Indian Thought,” in: Kimmerle, H. and H.Oosterling (Eds.), ibid., pp. 17–30. Rasa theory reached its classical and outstanding zenith in the work of Abhinavagupta (11th century)Google Scholar
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    See Honeywell, J.A., The poetic theory of Vivanatha, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XXIV(1), 1965, p. 169Google Scholar
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    See for instance “The Issue at Hand,” in: Shōbōgenzō, Zen Essays by Dōgen, Honolulu, 1986, p. 32: “In seeing forms with the whole body-mind, hearing sound with the whole body-mind, though one intimately understands, it is not like reflecting images in a mirror, it is not like water and the moon-when you witness one side, one side is obscure (own italics).” The translation is by Thomas ClearyGoogle Scholar
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  • Antoon Van den Braembussche

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