Academic journal article Nebula

Holocaust as the Visual Subject: The Problematics of Memory Making through Visual Culture

Academic journal article Nebula

Holocaust as the Visual Subject: The Problematics of Memory Making through Visual Culture

Article excerpt

Introduction

This paper explores the role of visual culture particularly in enabling Holocaust memories where the need to remember and forget and the urge to integrate history without it becoming a debilitating device encapsulates three fundamental themes: the spiritual struggle for a positive German national identity (post-1945), the need for European Jewry to renounce the label of victimhood and above all to repudiate the charge of evil which had besieged modernity after Holocaust. In interrogating visual culture and trauma this paper explores how trauma is often reliant on material formats to translate both its occurrence and its burden on the human condition. The dialectical strands of universalisation versus particularization of the Holocaust makes it a difficult project to articulate both discursively and visually and often Holocaust memorials whether in Germany or other parts of the West have only materialized after long periods of deliberation as to their role, function and message to societies. A miscarriage of any commemoration objective through art or artefact is often perceived as transgressing the sacred realms associated with the Holocaust.

Our contemporary visual economy produces a materialization of culture where it is manifested not only through 'displays but structuring a modern way of seeing and comprehending' (Macdonald 1996:7). This paper positions visual culture as both the social construction of the visual as well as the visual construction of the social. Both processes are iterative where neither is reductive or subsumed by any one element whether it is social, ideological or historical. In discussing visual culture in reference to the Holocaust I want to draw on Mitchell's (2006) notion of vision. Mitchell premises vision as a cultural construction that is learned and cultivated, and not simply given by nature. It is connected to the history of arts, technologies, media and social practices of display and spectatorship and is deeply involved with human societies with the ethics and politics, aesthetics and epistemology of seeing and being seen (Mitchell 2002:166).

Visual culture evolves through a complex interplay of discursive and ideological debates mediating the ways in which we see, believe and make meaning. These processes do not thwart individual agency but they provide material and symbolic spaces for collective identification. The increasing use of screens, visuals and simulation technologies to experience or re-live trauma in museums no longer privileges the eye or the gaze alone but combines it with emotive elements to evoke sympathy. A case in point is the Beits Hashoah Museum of Tolerance in the Simon Wisenthal Centre in Los Angeles where emotions and images and not objects alone become the driving force (cf. Hoskins 2003:14). Ironically, in direct contradiction to the rule of rationality in the project of Enlightenment and modernity, comprehending trauma privileges the 'irrational'. Visual culture then alludes to not just the material formats or technologies. It also encompasses the ways in which we gaze, the ontological status of the visual in representing reality, the problematics of representation and aesthetics, the political economy of visual production and the incestuous relationship between political thought, contemporary consciousness and visual culture.

Lennon and Foley (1999: 47) point out that visual media are often central to the recreation of memory and spaces of commemoration with the emphasis on simulations, replications and virtual experiences. The screen culture and experience is also a vital part of the reproduction and renewal of memory. 'Television is so widely and easily disdained as a trivializing or corrupting force that it is seen as a vehicle that cannot help but produce unsatisfactory representations of the Holocaust' (Shandler 1999: 259). But ironically, it was precisely the medium of television which universalized Holocaust to audiences making horror and the 'inconceivable' accessible. …

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