Academic journal article Framework

Women, Trauma, and Late Modernity: Sontag, Duras, and Silence in Cinema, 1960-1980

Academic journal article Framework

Women, Trauma, and Late Modernity: Sontag, Duras, and Silence in Cinema, 1960-1980

Article excerpt

Absolute Subjectivity is achieved only in a state, an effort of silence (Shutting your eyes is to make the image speak in silence).

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

My interest in late modernism has to do with it being the end of an era that, especially in post-World War II Europe, spawned a generation of artists reflecting a new sensibility touched by trauma-as experienced through devastating events such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and colonialism. The deaths of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman in 2007 and that of Alain Robbe-Grillet in February 2008 ( Jacques Rivette marked his eightieth birthday at the same time) underscore the passing of a late modernist generation that greatly influenced Susan Sontag and to which Marguerite Duras belonged. Since her death, Sontag has gained a focus and attention from leading women critics and academics hitherto lacking (and I include myself here). If Sontag was not a particularly easy person, she did not deserve the memoir (touched by envy) that Terry Castle wrote in 2005, nor did she deserve the well-known critique by Susan Wiseman that was, I argue, mistaken.1 In general there is now a renewed interest in understanding Sontag's life and work-this especially in light of her last years when she lived with Annie Leibovitz, and of Leibovitz's extraordinary photos of Sontag dying. I want to bring attention to Sontag's little-known 1970s films, and to situate her in her sociocultural context as a case study along with Duras. The two women, now dead, represent a particular historical 1970s feminist moment in regard to women in film and to a particular set of differing interests relating to silence and its aesthetics (still relevant today), both of which warrant study. Both women were writers and filmmakers and both share Sontag's notion (as illuminated, among other ideas, in her long essay, "The Aesthetics of Silence") that "modern art . . . transmits in full the alienation produced by historical consciousness." Where traditional art, Sontag notes, invites a look, "art that is silent engenders a stare."2 My focus here is this very silence, used as a strategy by these two artists (Duras from France, Sontag from the United States, and each aware of the other), to achieve specific ends and specific responses relevant to late modernism.

Their confluence and their juxtaposition in this period reveal provocative aspects of their work not necessarily otherwise visible. The contrast also reminds us of what we too readily forget, namely that on the cusp of the woman's movement, different theorizations of woman in patriarchy prevailed on each side of the Atlantic due to the contrasting intellectual traditions and methods of analysis in the United States and France. I choose the issues relating to an aesthetics of silence because silence, along with anti-narrative strategies, was a pervasive trope in late modernism, as can be seen in artists like Samuel Beckett, Antonioni, and Bergman, to name only the most obvious. However, both Duras and Sontag utilize this aesthetic in ways different from their male peers-ways that reveal their concerns specifically as women in patriarchal society. If my glance back to the 1970s has a nostalgic tinge to it, so be it. In a sense this essay is dedicated to remembering what we have lost in the deaths of two female pioneers. It also aims to resituate aspects of their art through the contemporary lens of "affect" and trauma theory.

Duras used silence as an element of darkness and saw darkness as an inevitable metaphor for women. Her conception of the darkness from which women wrote was related to a position that saw signs of society's death everywhere. Women's way of writing, she argued, exploded the terrifying emptiness and illusion of bourgeois consciousness and male language. As Xavière Gauthier puts it, Duras's books "do the work of mining; they mine from below."3 For the Duras of this period (she later abandoned her somewhat utopian position), silence and passivity were the only ways in which women could be themselves. …

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