Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Light Writing: Portraiture in a Post-Traumatic Age

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Light Writing: Portraiture in a Post-Traumatic Age

Article excerpt

This essay explores the portrait, not as memory of the disappeared, but as both a record and an appeal, both recognition and validation, of subjects who are themselves traumatized. It confronts figurative portraits with works that retain the trace as basis of meaningfulness.


The photograph has been approached from various cultural analysis perspectives that seek to overcome disciplinary boundaries without relinquishing the expert knowledge of specific disciplines. Such is demonstrated by the rich and varied program of the Photograph Conference, out of which this special issue emerged, an event that literally acted out the meaning of the word conference by bringing together people whose intellect has been sharpened by the experience of neither ignoring nor taking for granted the delimitations of what of the "humanities" has historically construed as its "fields." For example, at the Photograph Conference, and as exemplifying "after" (post-) or "beyond" (meta-) disciplinarity, several papers converged on a single author, W.G. Sebald, whose "novels" single-handedly raise multifarious issues involved in the cultural analysis of photography. This convergence led to a conference session entirely devoted to Sebald's work, a narrowing down that is at the same time an opening up. I see in the coming- or bringing-together ("con-ference") of this session an emblem of what the Photograph Conference attempted to do:

* consider the photograph as a form of writing, etymologically speaking "with light";

* hence, treat it as "beyond," as I have formerly phrased it, or "about," as in the promising prefix "meta-," the word-image opposition as it has been classically construed;

* consider the photograph as aesthetically ambiguous, both as belonging to the media of recording technologies and as shuttling back and forth between "art" and "found objects," household goods and different utilitarian uses;

* and, given Sebald's position in history as well as his historical preoccupations in his books, consider what such a conception of the photograph can mean for the historical moment in which the Photograph Conference took place: an era I will call, but not without the qualms I will turn to in a moment, a "post-traumatic" age.

I will now ask how these transitional features, so urgent in the contemporary cultural climate, can modify and then incorporate more conventional considerations. For I find it important to recall that the prefix "post-" cannot be taken in any simple sense to mean a "beyond" that disavows its complicity with what it rejects. Many have made arguments about this ongoing complicity in postmodernism (McHale), in postcoloniality (Spivak's effective reminder that "there is a good deal of neocolonialism in postcoloniality"), and in poststructuralism, where, as Jonathan Culler demonstrates, only a "deep knowledge" of structuralism can make the "post-" position powerful and effective. As Isabel Hoving explains in her study of Caribbean literature, "post-" does not point only to a temporal posteriority but also to the ongoing or renewed presence of the anterior it leaves behind, as well as carries along. Instead of disavowing our ambivalent situatedness in what we consider obsolete, it thus seems imperative to take into consideration the "going through" or even "working through" of our past.

In this respect, I must point out that, as we all know, the photograph--whether written in a discourse that recomposes narratives out of descriptions or presented graphically in frames, books, and shows--has traditionally been discussed in terms of four related issues that we can neither ignore nor uncritically endorse:

* its indelible connection to reality (Barthes's index);

* its affective potential and the responsibility this potential entails for the photographer, but also for the "expository agent" who calls on photographs, and allows them to waver between (indexical) evidence and (pornographic, or traumatizing) affect;

* its pervasive presence, in urban street culture, in the intimacy and alleged privacy of the home, and in art; in school text books and junk mail, to name but two of the ploys that rupture any private-public distinction we might still wish to maintain;

* its memorial power: this aspect has been studied particularly in relation to Holocaust remembrance, an area in which scholars such as Marianne Hirsch have contributed to the development of a sensitivity both to that catastrophe's uniqueness and to the necessity to look at other areas of the world and other moments of history, not least of which is the present. …

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