Critical studies

Critical Studies

Gene Ray

Images of Civil War or the Civil Wars in the Image?
Debating Visuality, Monumentality, Coloniality

Alongside and around the “real” violence and terror that saturates late modernist everyday life, are the all-pervasive images of violence and terror. The image is “the basic unit of memory” (Sontag). There is no remembering and so no thinking, without the image and imagination (Aristotle). And yet some images are a “strike against understanding” (Kracauer). Flooded by images and the networked screens that produce and circulate them in new orders of magnitude, can we even be sure today that we know what an image is? The making and reproduction of images have become key technics of social control, as well as focal points of critique, resistance and uprising. The ethics and politics of the image, long debated, remain open problems: where does witnessing end and the violence of images begin? There is no image “that is not haunted by history” (Cadava). As the “tenacious function of making visible,” the image is “the eye of history” that sometimes “looks back” (Didi-Huberman), or speaks in the low-frequencies of “felt sound” (Campt). “The image of man,” Bataille wrote in 1947, “is inseparable, henceforth, to a gas chamber.” “There is no image of the gas chamber” (Lanzmann). “The idea of a universal right to see is a fraud” (Azoulay). This year, the critical studies seminar dwells in the debates that span the distance in time, poetics and memory politics between the film Shoa, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 “fiction of the real,” and Raoul Peck’s 2021 documentary television series Exterminate All the Brutes: the first insists on the singularity of the Nazi Judeocide, underlined by a refusal of archival images; the second constructs new images of the contemporary from the archival fragments and absences of early modern genocide and continuing settler colonialism and racial capitalism. To open up the ethical and political problems, the main reading will be Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), supplemented by excerpts from Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Eduardo Cadava, Tina M. Campt and Paul Gilroy.