Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Part Toe-Zewo

Chris Von Steiner

Monday, June 08, 2009

Part Won-Nain

A critical look at American ideology regarding war photography.

Photographs objectify.

They turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed. Often something looks, or is felt to look, 'better' in a photograph. Indeed, it is one of the functions of photography to improve the normal appearance of things. (Hence, one is always disappointed by a photograph that is not flattering.) Beautifying is one classic operation of the camera and it tends to bleach out a moral response to what is shown. Uglifying, showing something at its worst, is a more modern function: didactic, it invites an active response. For photographs to accuse, and possibly to alter conduct, they must shock.

Pictures of horribly disfigured First World War veterans who survived the inferno of the trenches, faces melted and thickened with scar tissue of survivors of the American atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima, faces cleft by machete blows of Tutsi survivors of the genocidal rampage launched by the Hutus in Rwanda - they will always testify to a great iniquity survived.

The familiarity of certain photographs builds our sense of the present and the immediate past. Photographs lay down routes of reference, and serve as totems of causes: sentiment is more likely to crystallize around a photograph than around a verbal slogan. And photographs help construct - and revise - our sense of a more distant past, with the posthumous shocks engineered by the circulation of hitherto unknown photographs. Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about. It calls these ideas 'memories', and that is, over the long run, a fiction.

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory - part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction.

All memory is individual, unreproducible - it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds. Ideologies create substantiating archives of representative images, which encapsulate common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings. Poster-ready photographs - the mushroom cloud of an A-bomb test, Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at the Lincoln Memorial, the astronaut walking on the moon - are the visual equivalent of sound bites. They commemorate, in no less blunt fashion than postage stamps, Important Historical Moments: indeed, the triumphalist ones (the picture of the A-bomb excepted) become postage-stamps. Fortunately, there is no one signature picture of the Nazi death camps.

As art has been redefined during a century of modernism as 'whatever is destined to be enshrined in some kind of museum', so it is now the destiny of many photographic troves to be exhibited and preserved in museum-like institutions. Among such archives of horror, the photographs of the Holocaust have undergone the greatest institutional development. The point of creating public repositories for these and other relics is to ensure that the crimes they depict will continue to figure in people's consciousness. This is called remembering, but in fact it is a good deal more than that. The memory museum in its current proliferation is a product of a way of thinking about, and mourning, the destruction of European Jewry in the 1930s and 1940s, which for the United States of America came to institutional fruition in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Photographs and other memorabilia of the Shoah have been committed to a perpetual recirculation, to ensure that what they show will be remembered. Photographs of the suffering and martyrdom of a people are more than reminders of death, of failure, of victimization. They invoke the miracle of survival. To aim at the perpetuation of memories means, inevitably, that one has undertaken the task of continually renewing, of creating, memories - aided, above all, by the impress of iconic photographs.

Even in the era of cybermodels, what the mind feels like is still, as the ancients imagined it, an inner space - like a theatre - in which we picture, and it is these pictures that allow us to remember. The problem is not that people remember through photographs, but that they remember only the photographs. This remembering through photographs eclipses other forms of understanding, and remembering.

Probably, if you are American, you would think that it would be morbid to go out of your way to look at pictures of burnt victims of atomic bombing or the napalmed flesh of the civilian victims of the American war on Vietnam, but that you have a duty to look at the Holocaust pictures. Yet, the Holocaust Memorial Museum is about what didn't happen in America, so all that memory work doesn't risk arousing an embittered domestic population against authority. Americans prefer to picture the evil was there, and from which the United States - an unique nation, one without any certifiably wicked leaders throughout its entire history - is exempt. That the United States of America, like any other country, has its tragic past does not sit well with the founding, and still all-powerful, belief in American exceptionalism. The acknowledgment of the American use of disproportionate firepower in war is very much not a national project. A museum devoted to the history of America's wars that included the vicious war the United States fought against guerillas in the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, and that fairly presented the arguments for and against using the atomic bomb in 1945 on Hiroshima, with photographic evidence that showed what those weapons did, would be regarded as a most unpatriotic endeavor.

However, now there exists a vast repository of images that make it harder to maintain this kind of American moral defectiveness. None of us can afford it anymore. The images say: "This is what human beings are capable of doing - may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don't forget." Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. But history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering in the much longer span of a collective history. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited. That is it only a photograph.

If the goal is having some space in which to live one's own life, then it is desirable that the account of specific injustices dissolve into a more general understanding; that human beings everywhere do terrible things to one another.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Part Won-Eyth

Ah Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.