Academic journal article PSYART

The Trauma of the Flashback: Memory and Its Suffering (Negotiated through Gerhard Richter's Painting 'September.')

Academic journal article PSYART

The Trauma of the Flashback: Memory and Its Suffering (Negotiated through Gerhard Richter's Painting 'September.')

Article excerpt

A Version of this paper was delivered at:

Journeys Across Media 2014

Memory and Imagination

Friday 25th April 2014 at Reading University, UK.

So here, it seems, is what came about - what happened to them, then came down to us.

And this was an event, perhaps an interminable event. (Derrida, 71)

Flashbacks are noisy, dangerous, painful intrusions from the past that arise from the tension between the desire to forget and the necessity of remembering. Time, 'homogenous time'-as prescribed by Bergson (2004, p. 129), the linearity of which naturally erodes memory, is interrupted by the traumatic event, disturbing the integration of the past into a narrative, its assimilation into memory systems. Out of this conflict, of the body's re-ordering of time, the past returns repeatedly and intrusively through flashbacks in the form of auditory, visual and sensory hallucinations or dreams, sometimes precise, intensely clear and lifelike accompanied by a full spectrum of sensory and emotional associations, at other times fragmented and cloudy. Trauma defies understanding and breaches our comprehension of normalcy, time stills, a space opens up, a rupture, where the body moves into an uncertain future dramatically marked by the unknown.

The resistance of trauma to being placed within a narrative leaves an open-ended and unresolved relationship with a past that is constantly in motion through its insistent interjection into the present, repeatedly returning the traumatised individual to the original site of the trauma. Flashbacks are not new creations but repetitive replays of the past, displaced memories that fracture the present, reproducing traumatic events in an attempt to master and integrate the past into 'a psychic economy, a symbolic order' (Foster, 1996, p. 131). This creates many complex contradictions: the somatic desire to release the past trauma through remembering, defending against the trauma by not remembering, and reproducing traumatic affect through the inevitable return of the past through flashbacks. The trauma is singular event with a double wounding, it is never just one event that is experienced, for trauma splits time: '(being neither a 'then' nor a 'now') and meaning (being neither significant nor nonsensical); it is neither pure fact nor pure fantasy, it comes both from within the subject (the endogenous fantasy) and from without (the original scene of seduction, and the second, possibly quite banal event that recalls it)' (Brown, p. 239). Cathy Caruth wrote that 'the impact of the traumatic event lies precisely in its belatedness, in its refusal to be simply located' (1996, p. 7). Such a body would live on as an unbearable interconnection of matter and potentiality, of organic aesthetic sensitivity and inorganic mechanical reproduction, a body steeped in conflict carrying within itself an impossible history, where the traumatised themselves become 'the symptom of a history they cannot entirely possess' (Caruth p.1).

'September' painted by Gerhard Richter in 2005, 4-years after the traumatic events of September 11th 2001, is a means of negotiating the traumatic past an opportunity to track that which has existed outside and has moved inside without mediation or assimilation. It would be difficult to locate an individual over the age of 25-years old that does not have a story or relationship with the events that took place on September 11th 2001, who does not remember exactly where they were when the Twin Towers were hit. On 9/11/2001 at 8.45am when the first plane crashed into the north tower, Richter was on a plane from Cologne heading to New York for an exhibition. At 10.24am FAA closed the air space over the US and diverted all incoming transatlantic flights to Canada where the artist watched the remainder of the day unfold before him on a TV screen. Two days later he returned home to Cologne. Like the majority of the rest of the world Richter was exposed to the media's deluge of imagery of the attack on the Towers an event so ceaselessly photographed that almost instantaneously the world was awash with hundreds and thousands of images telling and retelling the collapse and destruction of that day. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.