The Afterlife of Lynching: Exhibitions and the Re-Composition of Human Suffering

By Carbonell, Bettina M. | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Afterlife of Lynching: Exhibitions and the Re-Composition of Human Suffering


Carbonell, Bettina M., The Mississippi Quarterly


THE IDEAS I WILL PRESENT HERE ADDRESS THE ETHICS AND AESTHETICS OF representation and reception. When museums and other exhibition venues arrange, contextualize, and gloss the extant evidence of inhuman brutality and human suffering, audience members ate called upon to be both witnesses after the fact and parties responsible for the present and the future. Museum professionals and museum visitors are thus accountable for the immediate and long-term consequences of their contact with volatile representations. Under these circumstances urgent questions arise: What happens to the "facts" pertaining to victims and perpetrators when they ate subjected to the aegis and decorum of a well-composed and carefully formulated history? What is the current status of acts of violence when they ate represented in exhibitions? What ate the immediate and long-term, possibly traumatic effects of our exposure to such representations? These questions require us to confront the morality of human actions and yet, while the answers have practical consequences, our attempts to respond--to find answers--will often lead to the abstractions of theory. I will also take this turn, but in examining actions before turning to theory I hope to mitigate the more comfortable realms of abstraction. In this case the actions, and my experiences as witness and theorist, took place in a tangible zone of contact where images, people, and events coexisted in less-than-hospitable but perhaps morally effective environments.

My practica1 examples are two exhibitions with a common historical subject and shared object base but quite different "poetics" of visual display. As objects of study these two exhibitions, which I will place under the intentionally troubling rubric "the afterlife of lynching," ate important ends in themselves. At the same time, they bring into focus a broader field of inquiry: the institutional re-presentation of human suffering. I use the term "institutional" here to locate national and local governments and competing special interest groups; buildings which house exhibitions; habits, customs, conventions of visual display; and, last but not least, rituals of academic and critical reception, including journals, reviews, symposia and conferences. (1)

Early in the year 2000 two exhibitions of lynching photographs were presented in New York City. The first, entitled Witness: Photographs of Lynchings from the Collection of fames Allen and John Littlefield, was mounted at the Roth Horowitz Gallery (January 13-February 12, 2000); the second, entitled Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, brought the Allen and Littlefield collection and other objects together at the New-York Historical Society (March 14-October 1, 2000). Each exhibition title underscored the self-reflexive nature of being a party to such displays, and by this I mean a party to acts of collection, exhibition, viewing, reception, and analysis. In each case the composition of the exhibit entailed the re-presentation of human suffering but the photographs of the original events naturally took on new meaning as a result of the context in which they were presented. Because the exhibits offered viewers two radically different approaches to the re-composition of this history, they have given us a valuable opportunity to analyze the ethics and aesthetics of our encounters with the afterlife of lynching.

When we attempt to recompose human suffering we may encounter defiance and disturbance in various forms. Consequently, as I go on to describe and compare these exhibitions, several ethical/aesthetic concerns will hover in the background:

* the stark contrast between the disorder of a traumatic experience, an event which causes a separation from coherent/continuous / linear time in the individual and/or collective consciousness, and the more deliberate, generally lucid patterns of history

* the audacity of violence when it is first experienced by individuals and communities, and later when it is re-composed within the narrative field of an exhibition

* the active versus passive gaze

* the collective versus individual gaze

* the disagreements which arise when individual, collective, and institutional memories find themselves occupying a single ground and must negotiate the distinctions between "memory, mythos, and history" (Ruffins 509)

These concerns emerge in debates about the mission, design, and location of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, about how to prevent a scene of violence from being trivialized as a tourist destination, and about the proprieties (decorum) and conflicting demands of commerce, public memory, and personal memory at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City.

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