Presenting the Unpresentable. On Trauma and Visual Art

  • Antoon Van den Braembussche

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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© Springer Science + Business Media B.V 2009

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  • Antoon Van den Braembussche

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