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The Art of Witness in the Wartime Public Sphere

texto referente à palestra de Rosalyn Deutsche na Arco 2008

<p>The Art of Witness in the Wartime Public Sphere<br />Rosalyn Deutsche<br /><br />In 1958, Hannah Arendt defined the public sphere, or democratic political community, as “the space of appearance,” of, that is, what phenomenology calls “coming into view.” In stressing appearance, Arendt connected the public sphere—which she modeled on the ancient Greek polis—to vision and so, without knowing it, opened up the possibility that visual art might play a role in deepening and extending democracy, a role that some contemporary artists are, thankfully, eager to perform. Arendt famously wrote:<br />The polis…is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be….It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me, where men…make their appearance explicitly.  [my emphasis]<br />Later political philosophers have also connected public space to appearance. Most recently, Jacques Ranciere has defined both democratic practice and radical aesthetics as the disruption of the system of divisions and boundaries that determines which social groups are visible and which invisible. Much earlier, however, in the early 1980s, the French political philosopher Claude Lefort, who was influenced by Arendt, tied the ability to appear to the declaration of rights, introducing ideas that have become key concepts in the discourse of radical democracy. For Lefort, the hallmark of democracy is uncertainty about the foundations of social life. With the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century, says Lefort, and with the French and American declarations of rights, the location of power shifts. The power of the state is no longer attributed to a transcendent source, such as God, natural law, or self-evident truth. Now power derives from “the people.” Yet with the disappearance of references to a transcendent source of power, an unconditional source of social unity—of the meaning of the people—vanishes as well. The people are now the source of power, but they have no fixed identity. “Democracy,” says Lefort, “is instituted and sustained by the dissolution of the markers of certainty. It inaugurates a history in which people experience a fundamental indeterminacy as to the basis of power, law and knowledge, and as to the basis of relations between self and other.”  The meaning of society becomes a question. It is decided within the social but is not immanent there. Rather, democracy gives rise to public space, a realm of political interaction, which appears, when, in the absence of a proper ground, the meaning and unity of the social order is at once constituted and put at risk. Precisely because the social order is uncertain, it is open to contestation, so what is recognized in public space is the legitimacy of debate about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate. Debate is initiated with the declaration of rights, but the democratic invention deprives rights, just as it has the people, of a solid foundation. Rights, too, become an enigma. Their source is not nature but the human utterance of right and the social interaction implicit in the act of declaring. Through the interaction, those who hold no position in the political community make an appearance. In the act of declaring new, specific rights, they repeat the original democratic demand for freedom and equality. Thus they also declare what Etienne Balibar calls “a universal right to politics,”  which, following Lefort, can be regarded as a right to appear as a speaking subject in the public sphere. The space of appearance—the public sphere—appears, then, when social groups declare the right to appear.<br />Latent in Arendt’s and Lefort’s notions of the public sphere as the space of appearance is the question not only of how we appear but of how we respond to the appearance of others, the question, that is, of the ethics and politics of living together in a heterogeneous space. To be public is to be exposed to alterity. Consequently, artists who want to deepen and extend the public sphere have a twofold task: creating works that, one, help those who have been rendered invisible to “make their appearance” and, two, developing the viewer’s capacity for public life by asking her to respond to, rather than react against, that appearance. <br />At this point, however, a problem arises, for important strands of contemporary art—in particular, feminist critiques of representation—have analyzed vision as precisely the sense that, instead of welcoming others, tends to meet them in relations of conquest and, in one way or another, make them disappear as other. Transforming the other into a distanced image or bounded entity set before the self, vision, it has long been argued is a vehicle of the human subject’s desire for mastery and self-possession. Oriented toward triumphalism rather than response, vision can, for example, take the form of a negative hallucination, in which we fail to see something that is present but unknowable, something whose presence we don’t want to know about. If, then, exposure to others lies at the heart of democratic public life, the question of how art can develop the capacity  for being in public calls for still others: With what kind of vision shall we meet the appearance of others? Can art help establish ways of seeing that do not seek to reduce the impact of exposure? What kind of vision might overcome apathy and respond to the suffering of others? In short, what is public vision? <br />The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, in his radical re-evaluation of ethics, offers some answers, a way of thinking about vision and about the space of appearances that challenges triumphalist vision. Levinas is concerned with the way that the self or “I” calls itself into question when exposed to the appearance of the other. He conceives of the other not as an object of comprehension but as an enigma. He calls the other person who appears to me “the face,” but the face—or as he also names it, the neighbor—is more than the other person in the world: it is a manifestation of the Other in the sense of that which cannot be made fully visible or knowable. The Other approaches but cannot be reduced to a content; the Other appears but cannot be fully seen. More, when the other appears, it is accompanied by something else, something Levinas calls “the third party.” The approach of the third party is not, like that of the face, an empirical event. It is the emergence of an awareness that, as Colin Davis puts it, “the Other is never simply my other.” Rather, “the Other implies the possibility of others, for whom I am myself an Other….I am made to realize that the Other does not exist merely for my sake, that my neighbor is also a neighbor to the third party, and indeed that to them it is I who am the third party.” <br />With the notion of the third party, Levinas enters the discourse of the public sphere, for the third party lifts the encounter with the other beyond the space of a dyadic face-to-face encounter and sets it down in public space. The third party is “the whole of humanity that looks at me,”  and the relation with the face, insofar as it is also always a relation with the third party, “places itself in the full light of the public order.”  The other’s approach, or appearance, bespeaks the social world but tells me that I cannot meet that world from a position of full understanding, which would make the world “mine.” The world does not belong to me. Levinas writes: “the presence of the other is equivalent to this calling into question of my joyous possession of the world.” <br />    Levinas dispossesses the subject of knowledge, and this dispossession recalls the dissolution of certainty that in Lefort gives rise to public space. Lefort and Levinas are philosophers of the enigma—of that which escapes comprehension and dismantles self-possession, if we understand self-possession as a sense of being undisturbed by the presence of anything one does not know and cannot control. The inhabitant of the Lefortian or Levinsian public sphere [, unlike the inhabitant of a Habermasiam public sphere,] does not aspire to total knowledge of the social world, for such knowledge eliminates otherness.  By contrast, the disappearance of certainty that in Lefort’s and Levinas’s accounts calls us into public space obliges us to be what Levinas calls “non-indifferent” to the appearance of the other. “Non-indifference” designates an ability to respond to the other, a “response-ability” that Levinas considers the essence of the reasonable being in man. Levinas’s responsibility is part of an ethico-political discourse that differs from traditional meditations on morality. Instead of beginning with the universality of some rational moral law, Levinas “takes off from the idea that ethics arises in the relation to the other.”  While morality is a discourse of certainty, ethics is incompatible with moral certainty, for responsiveness to the face of the other disrupts narcissism, interferes with idealizations of the self as comprehending the whole. Levinas links responsiveness to vision but also, and more important, to a critique of vision. He puts scare quotes around the word “vision,” placing it under contest and indicating that it harbors dangers: “Ethics is an optics,” writes Levinas. “But,” he continues, “it is a ‘vision’ without image, bereft of the synoptic and totalizing, objectifying virtues of vision, a relation…of a wholly different type.”  Appearing, on this account, which creates public space, may not be a visual event at all—or it may call for a new kind of vision. <br />To encourage the appearance of the public sphere of appearances is, then, to promote “vision without image” or non-indifferent ways of seeing. And since non-indifferent vision obliges us to call ourselves into question, artists who explore its possibilities take part in the psychic, subjective transformation, which, like material transformation, is an essential component—and no mere epiphenomenon—of social change. Furthering non-indifference, however, is not simply a matter of making visible those social groups that have been rendered invisible in the existing public spheres or of making true images of others to counteract false ones. For, as we have seen, Levinas’s face of the Other is precisely that which is lost when caught as an image. Images, Levinas warns, transform faces into “figures which are visible but de-faced.”  <br />We have arrived at a final question: How can art aid the appearance of others while at the same time making visible the limits the face places on our representations, limits that are, in a sense, the message of the face? There is, of course, no single answer, but one is found in a work by the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko: Public Projection, Hiroshima of 1999.<br />Images of Hiroshima Projection<br />Wodiczko’s Hiroshima Projection was a kind of multi-media performance put on in the city of Hiroshima on the nights of August 7th and 8th, the two days following the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb by the U.S. military on August 6, 1945. The performance is documented in a film made by the artist. Hiroshima Projection has acquired new timeliness during the Iraq War, whose cost in human suffering so clearly echoes that of the Hiroshima bombing. In preparation for the projection, Wodiczko interviewed and recorded testimonies given by a variety of the city’s residents: survivors of the bombing and the radiation, descendants of survivors, young people, and Koreans. As people spoke, the artist videotaped their hands, and during the projection loudspeakers played audiotapes of the testimonies as enlarged images of the speakers’ moving, gesturing hands appeared on the embankment of the portion of the river flowing beneath the city’s Atomic Dome. Reflections of the projected hands materialized on the surface of the water. When the bomb exploded over the Dome, thousands of badly burned residents threw themselves into the river to ease their pain, but the water was irradiated and soon filled with corpses. The Dome, however, survived and, regarded as a witness to the trauma, has since been left in its ruined state, as a memorial. At night it is bathed in light. Wodiczko’s program, which played three times on each night, consisted of fifteen testimonies and lasted for thirty-nine minutes. An audience of more than 4,000 gathered on the opposite side of the river. The projection anthropomorphized the Dome, transformed the building into a “body,” which seemed to be the source of the speakers’ voices.<br />The hands of one speaker displayed an old lock” “I will keep this lock this way to show to our offspring, just like a treasure,” he explained. “Our father used this lock with the bicycle he always rode. We took this lock from the wreckage of the bicycle found with his bones at the inn where my father died.” A twenty-seven-year-old woman testified to the persistence of symptoms of trauma over three generations, describing how her grandfather cheered the bombing of Iraq on television during the Persian Gulf War and how she cannot stop hurting herself: “I often stab myself with my pen.” A survivor recalled the scene fifty-four years earlier, when people jumped into the river: “They yelled ‘Help me!’ and they moved their hands like this. But they never returned from the river. They sank. But the sound of the water…flowed with the corpses to the sea. The Dome is watching for eternity.” Two speakers remembered the denial of aid to injured Koreans. “Those frightening heat-rays burnt iron and rocks,” said one, “and when the whole city was burnt and burnt to ashes, one thing did not burn—discrimination.” A woman named Kwak Bok Soon recounted a visit she made as part of a delegation of survivors to present a petition against nuclear testing to the United States State Department.<br />I’ll play this portion of the Hiroshima Projection <br />The Hiroshima Projection facilitates the appearance of the face of the other, though it may seem odd to mention the face in connection with a work that shows no faces and, what is more, draws attention to its failure to do so. Yet the lack of faces is precisely the point, for, as we have seen, Levinas’s face is not the literal face but precisely that which eludes the grasp of knowledge and vision. In appearing, the face surpasses what can be “seen.” Rather, says Levinas, “the face speaks,”  as do the invisible faces in the Hiroshima Projection.  The face exceeds vision insofar as vision is, again in Levinas’s words, a “search for adequation,” a search, that is, to fully know and master the object of knowledge.”  Indeed, the face cries out for inadequate vision, which is to say, response. <br />Insisting on inadequate vision, the Hiroshima Projection belongs within a practice of contemporary art that produces critical images, images that undo the viewing subject’s narcissistic or what I would call masculinist fantasies. Such fantasies blind us to otherness, either rejecting it or assimilating it to the knowing ego or the Same.  Critical images interrupt self-absorption, promoting answerability to the other, establishing non-indifferent modes of seeing, and developing the experience of being in public. In doing so, they also work against the ways of seeing promoted by the American mass media. <br />Judith Butler, writing about media representations of the war on terror, says something similar: If “cultural criticism has a task at the present moment,” writes Butler, “it is no doubt to return us to the human where we do not expect to find it…We would have to interrogate the emergence and vanishing of the human at the limits of what we can know, what we can hear, what we can see, what we can sense.”  The limits of what we can know, what we can hear, what we can see, what we can sense”—Butler is describing Levinas’s face, understood as both the limit of knowledge and as the cry of human suffering, which demands response. Butler contrasts Levinas’s conception of the face with the dominant media’s use of literal Arab faces. The media presents these faces in both humanizing and dehumanizing ways. The dehumanized faces of Osama bin Laden, Yasser Arafat, and Saddam Hussein, says Butler, have been deployed to encourage dis-identification with the Arab world. At the same time, the unveiled faces of young Afghan women liberated from the burka humanize the war but do so in a manner that symbolizes the successful importation of American culture. Presented as either “the spoils of war or… the targets of war,” faces like these, marshaled in the service of war, silence the suffering over war.  Butler calls them “triumphalist images,” not just because American triumph is their thematic content or subtext, but because they disavow what she calls the failure—the inadequacy—of representation. As a consequence, triumphalist images blot out the appearance of the face.<br />By contrast, critical images trouble our visual field, promoting non-indifferent vision and contributing to the transformation not only of the blind eye but also of the deaf ear. Wodiczko’s Hiroshima Projection builds on this transformative potential by engaging viewers in a kind of seeing—and listening—known as witnessing, an activity that is crucial in our time of collective, human-inflicted, traumas, such as war and torture, that call out for witnesses. Giorgio Agamben has theorized the position of the witness as the basis of ethico-political subjectivity because the witness answers to the suffering of others without taking the place of the other.  Agamben is indebted to Primo Levi, who, writing about himself as a survivor of Auschwitz, defined witnessing as a form of what Levinas calls “being-for-the-other.” A friend once told Levi that he (Levi) was saved for a reason—to bear witness. Levi was horrified because this idea denigrates those who weren’t saved, those who, as Levi puts it, “drowned.” In response, Levi insisted that the survivor of the Nazi concentration camp isn’t a true or complete witness, since he or she didn’t undergo the full experience of the camps, which was an experience of death. Levi says, “We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses” because survivors didn’t “touch bottom”: “The destruction brought to an end, the job completed, was not told by anyone.”  The survivor witness, then, is a “witness by proxy,” a witness for the other. Since the complete witness cannot speak, Levi makes himself a secondary rather than primary witness, ceding his place to the other. In the Hiroshima Projection, as you saw, Kwak Bok Soon does the same: “I hated talking,” she says, “I absolutely didn’t want to talk….but now I think this way—People who died, died without speaking [a word]. I survived and am alive, on their behalf, so I must dare to talk without feeling embarrassed about hating it.”<br />Witnessing is a way of seeing and listening that requires an acceptance of inadequacy, a renunciation of the will to mastery, for, as trauma theorist Cathy Caruth argues, to bear witness to the truth of suffering over a traumatic event is to bear witness to that event’s incomprehensibility.  Starting from Freud’s observation that trauma victims are compelled to repeat the event that caused the trauma, Caruth adds that repetition is not only the victim’s attempt to retroactively prepare oneself for the event. It is also a cry for the suffering to be witnessed. “The history of a trauma can only take place through the listening of another,” writes Caruth.  But since by definition the event that caused the trauma was so overwhelming that it could not be fully known or experienced at the time it occurred, the victim suffers from incomprehension, and if the witness claims to understand the experience, he claims to understand too much and so betrays the victim. This poses a problem for aesthetic representations that want to respond to the suffering of others. While traumatic suffering calls out for the event to be witnessed, it creates a need for a new kind of witnessing—what Caruth calls the witnessing of an impossibility, the impossibility of comprehending the trauma.   Witnessing in the ethical sense of responding necessitates a critique of images based on notions of representational adequacy.  <br />The Hiroshima Projection mounts such a critique. Wodiczko calls it a work of “memorial therapy.” The term has at least two possible meanings: It refers to therapy for troubled societies conducted through memorials. And it refers to therapy for memorials, such as Hiroshima’s Atomic Dome, which in its silent, ruined condition resembles a person silenced by historical trauma and by indifference, a person like Kwak Bok Soon, who was unable to speak when confronted with the coldness of the US State Department official, who refused to bear witness. Transforming the Atomic Dome into a living body, Wodiczko’s projection gave the traumatized building the status of a speaking subject, summoning it out of its mute condition by talking with it, like a psychotherapist. The projection also helped the human victims speak by highlighting the supplemental language of their gesturing hands—the language of the unconscious mind—while withdrawing their faces. This withdrawal protected the speakers from the grasp of vision with image, vision that knows too much. In this way, the projection facilitated the appearance of the face and asked—even obligated—viewers to take up the position of witnesses, whose inadequate vision permits them to respond to suffering. Showing how representation fails in the presence of the face-of-the-other, the Hiroshima Projection facilitated the emergence of a public sphere in which the appearance of others is prized because, questioning the social order, it keeps democracy from disappearing. This activity is crucial at the moment, when the rhetoric of security is threatening to engulf us.<br /> <br />Kwak Bok Soon’s testimony—71 years old<br />Mr. Hasegawa, I, and an English speaking staff, visited the US State Department, bringing signatures showing our strong stance against nuclear testing and appeal from the then mayor of Hiroshima, as I recall. <br /><br />An official of the Department, who was very young and handsome, came out. As one of the victims of the bomb, Mr. Hasegawa appealed to him with all his heart to stop the tests. Otherwise, the Earth would be ruined and all humanity would be destroyed. <br /><br />Then the official started discussing the theory of nuclear deterrence. I could tolerate his theory up to a certain point. But he said something at the end. He said that dropping the bomb was absolutely not wrong. He said that it was thanks to that the war could be ended earlier and at least the lives of 200,000 soldiers were saved. …When I heard the official’s voice saying 200,000 lives, my hair bristled with anger, and I remembered that the bomb took 200,000 lives in a single moment when Hiroshima was bombed.<br /><br />….“Excuse me? Who do you think you’re saying this to?....People who suffered because of the bomb have come to talk to you eagerly about wanting to save the Earth, when they could instead be blaming you for the lives you impaired.” I felt that way, at that time. And I didn’t have the words to protest to him then. In fact, I didn’t say a single word. All I did there was cry my heart out. I couldn’t do anything other cry. <br /><br />….I tried to say something. In my mind I was shouting, “How dare you throw such things out at people who are victims!” I truly wished I could have yelled, “What the devil are you thinking?” But I wasn’t able to put it in words, and I left the Department sobbing.<br />    <br />When I returned to Japan, I joined the meeting in which we reported our experiences and actions as victims, and I spoke of my experiences for the first time.<br /><br />Really, I hated talking. I absolutely didn’t want to talk….but now I think this way: People who died, died without speaking [a word]. I survived and am alive, on their behalf, so I must dare to talk without feeling embarrassed about hating it. I am talking about it now, knowing that it is my mission.”<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /></p>