The Visual Rhetoric of Traumatic Histories
Among the problematics that guide my understanding of the possibility of visual rhetorics are three. Each might be considered to exists within/bring together the nexus of history, images, and power. This nexus helps to form a framework for an economy of verbal and visual images that, in turn, might become the fabric of a visual rhetorics. The first is what I want to call the "enigma of unrepresentability." The second is that images become especially important for us when they can be read as "self-reflexive." Finally, the third, is the "ideological privileging" of the visual that renders its apparatus, quite literally, hard to "see." Let me briefly elaborate on each.
Images "from history," as it happens, often engage some sort of trauma. This is not a trauma "inherent" within, say, the photograph (a la Barthes), but a trauma that is part and parcel of what the photo ostensibly represents. In the instance of recent documentary films engaging the European and American Holocausts, these representations potentially exist in a context of guilt, power, and postmodern doubt. What I'm calling the "enigma of unrepresentability" is a tension that functions on at least two distinct levels within this context. On one level, in a very literal sense, there is a simple void of such "historical" images. Filmmakers like Ken Burns (The West) negotiate this tension by continually recirculating images, reinventing the same image or image fragment with each new narrative context. On another, albeit less material, level the very subject matter of such films has been deemed by many as simply unrepresentable. That is, each Holocaust is viewed as so utterly horrendous, so irrecoverably Other, so outside the bounds of history and morality as to defy the very ontological-moral capabilities of representation. Filmmakers like Claude Lanzmann (Shoah) negotiate this tension by flatly rejecting the use of "historical images." So, by juxtaposing the visual/critical/rhetorical practices found in these films we can begin to define some of the practical parameters of what a visual-rhetorical critic might investigate.
Power becomes inseparably bound in this dynamic as both claims, that is to represent and to claim unrepresentable, are "power claims" one claiming the power to do something and the other claiming to know something. Thus, a visual rhetorics (of power) must negotiate this context, this finitude of ìhistoryî images, and the reputed failure of these images to represent. This last task may be better thought of as an imperative because failure to negotiate it suggests that the only way to represent Holocausts would be to literally re-present them. One way for a visual rhetoric to begin negotiating these tensions is to engage the notion of self-reflexivity.
When an image becomes self-reflexive it points up its own artifice, its own rhetoric as it "discourses about" the relationship between viewer and image, the...