Forgetting Lot's Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship

Forgetting Lot's Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship

Forgetting Lot's Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship

Forgetting Lot's Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship

Synopsis

Can looking at disaster and mass death destroy us? Forgetting Lot's Wife provides a theory and a fragmentary history of destructive spectatorship in the twentieth century. Its subject is the notion that the sight of historical catastrophe can destroy the spectator. The fragments of this history all lead back to the story of Lot's wife: looking back at the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, she turns into a pillar of salt. This biblical story of punishment and transformation, a nexus of sexuality, sight, and cities, becomes the template for the modern fear that looking back at disaster might petrify the spectator. Although rarely articulated directly,
this idea remains powerful in our culture. This book traces some of its aesthetic, theoretical, and ethical consequences.

Harries traces the figure of Lot's wife across media. In extended engagements with examples from twentieth-century theater, film, and painting, he focuses on the theatrical theory of Antonin Artaud, a series of American films, and paintings by Anselm Kiefer. These examples all return to the story of Lot's wife as a way to think about modern predicaments of the spectator. On the one hand, the sometimes veiled figure of Lot's wife allows these artists to picture the desire to destroy the spectator; on the other, she stands as a sign of the potential danger to the spectator. These works, that is, enact critiques of the very desire that inspires them.
The book closes with an extended meditation on September 11, criticizing the notion that we should have been destroyed by witnessing the events of that day.

Excerpt

As Lot’s wife glanced back, she turned into a pillar of salt.

—Genesis 19:26

Forgetting Lot’s Wife offers a theory and a fragmentary history of destructive spectatorship in the twentieth century. Its subject is the notion that the sight of historical catastrophe can destroy the spectator. the fragments of the history I trace here all lead back to a biblical story, however: Lot’s wife, looking back at the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, turns into a pillar of salt. This biblical story of punishment and transformation—the nexus of a story about sexuality, sight, and cities—becomes the template for modern engagements with the idea that looking back at disaster can petrify the spectator.

Many remember the episode of Lot’s wife looking back, but most do not know the circumstances that surround it. Therefore, this preface at once rehearses and rereads the story. the crucial elements for this book: Abraham has bargained with the Lord, and gotten him to agree that the city of Sodom will be saved if ten righteous men can be found there. Angels arrive in Sodom, presumably to canvass the city for righteous men, and take shelter with Lot; all the men of Sodom surround Lot’s dwelling and threaten to rape the foreign angels; Lot offers his two daughters instead; the men refuse Lot’s offer, threaten to break down Lot’s door, and are blinded. the angels tell Lot and his family to flee Sodom, and neither to look back as they flee nor to stop anywhere on the Plain. His sons-in-law stay behind. Unable to escape to the mountains beyond the Plain, Lot pleads with the angels and they agree to save . . .

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