Latent Voice—The Thread Between Civilization and Barbarism
There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it his task to brush history against the grain.1
Despite this seemingly hackneyed quote from writer Walter Benjamin about the presence of barbarity within every document of civilization, within the proper position and moment, it still manages to present an opening into a stereoscopic mode of perception.
The dialog with the past is a necessary and incessant one, in his thesis “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin issues an illuminating dictum, which allows one to, in the least, sympathize with the “historicist’s” losers, by disassociating themselves from the process of historicist transmission and narrative reproduction. Following Benjamin, the historicist sympathizes with the “victor,” they perceive history from that vantage point with an empathy that “invariably benefits the current rulers.” The nomenclature used for the victors is settler vs. raider, liberator vs. terrorist civilization vs. barbarism.
When encountering the image containing this (morality/pentimento) content, one might ask, how do I orient myself to it, what am I to do with these stereoscopic images? The impulse to hold the content heavy image at a distance to engage with it, often disallows an intimacy with the images and work. It’s a kind of personal protection of the psyche and self-warning: “Ok, _____, you’re about to look at some difficult images about your country.” Already the guards are up and a psychological prophylactic is present. That subtle moment to remind oneself, not to think certain thoughts, censors and thus perverts a true intimate engagement. But don’t despair, the work is still present, awaiting engagement.
One thing that may help is recognizing the literal consumption of these types of images in daily life. In the purview of the victor, one tacitly consumes the civilized document along with its muted barbaric ingredients, yet there are instances wherein there is graphic awareness of what is consumed, where the “barbaric” components are an integral part of that which is literally consumed. We can see this in the realm of food, specifically delicacies and offal. Take the French dish foie gras, defined as the liver of a duck or goose fattened by gavage—force feeding.
Many gourmands (foodies) would consider this dish exquisitely delicious, along with some not so familiar others such as ortolans, which were eaten with a large towel or napkin covering the face, and balut, which is the fertilized duck egg embryo boiled and eaten from the shell. These three dishes, in the order they are listed, could be said to increase in degree of viscera or barbarity present, with balut inhabiting the position of the more visceral as well as the more common. Outside of south-east and east Asia, balut might be considered barbaric because of its appearance, while an omelet may not; nevertheless, both of these dishes have the presence of the fowl if one is willing to look stereoscopically.
In art and life stereoscopic or critical images/vision is not new. It is active in the contemporary American meme, and even in traditional Chinese paintings containing image and text that interestingly work together creating altogether different meanings. It is also present in humor, particularly dark humor born of some of the worst social and political situations. For example, in the essay, “Humor of the Palestinian ‘Intifada,’” anthropologist and folklorist, Sharif Kanaana, shares a joke from Palestine about
Arafat going with several heads of state to meet God. Each leader makes a request for his people and God says, “This is not going to happen in your lifetime,” but when Arafat makes his request God answers, “This is not going to happen in my lifetime.”2
Or another more recent joke about the 45th American president,
Melania Trump is teaching her son Barron how to say grace before dinner. She says “ok Barron, we clasp our hands, bow our heads, and first we thank God, then we thank Trump.” Barron replies, “ok, but mom, but dad is getting kind of old, what happens if he dies,” she replies, “then we just thank God.”3
Anthropologist and folklorist, Sharif Kanaana writes, “There is an agonistic element, that is, an element of contest, competition, or aggression in all humor. The main mechanism of humor is contrast between two realities, one expected and one unexpected but appearing in the joke.… Jokes and humorous anecdotes react to local and international events faster, perhaps than do any other forms of folklore [theory or criticism].”4 Humor, in its contagion, reproduces another reality, concerning these two jokes, a contrary reality, hope or narrative temporally fractures the existing and imposed or historicist one, the result of which can elicit laughter from even the most downtrodden beings, and perhaps this laughter might be the existence of, at least, the potential for repair.
Another example of this type of aesthetic in the visual arts is the Stolperstein art memorial project by Gunter Demnig. A stolperstein—stumble stone, is a cobblestone-size concrete cube with a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi persecution. These cobblestones are similar to the uneven pavement in the Raul Ruiz film, Time Regained. In the film the cobblestones are a jump-cut to another scene in the film, a critical image. After stumbling on the uneven pavement, the character in the film is unsettled and moves awkwardly through space. The stone was the critical cut into him changing his gait and leaving him unsettled and unable to traverse the ground smoothly. These stones bring about the malfunction of the public pedestrian space as glitches.
Demnig’s stumbling blocks interrupt the seamless smooth stroll of the streets of Europe. They are cultural objects, which interrupt pedestrian culture forcing citizens and guests to encounter the silenced lives of the dead within their life. Those silenced lives speak again, even if just for a brief moment, forcing pedestrians to encounter the barbarism inherent in civilization, the civilization which produced the Jewish holocaust, and the civilization which produces stumble stones as cultural objects which interrupt smooth movement through space. The precarity of this kind of work is that despite its deft creativity, it owes its thrust to the prior instances of barbarity, or as Theodore Adorno so aptly puts it “The cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent.”5
The material equivalent of Benjamin’s illumination is present in the discipline of the visual arts as pentimento. The word ‘pentimento,’ Italian for ‘repentance,’ from the verb pentirsi, meaning ‘to repent,’ denotes the material trace of a stage in the facture of the work of art. In other words, pentimenti are the visible traces of earlier paintings beneath the layers, or upon the surface of a painting (work of art).
Generally, pentimenti are often seen as sketches and changes in composition. At times these indices are perceptible in the finished work of art, and at other times they are not; however, in most works of art, pentimenti are only seen through the forensic work of x-ray scans and infrared photographs of paintings and drawings taken by conservationists and scholars. These marks don’t have the connotation of Benjamin’s barbarism, they are denotative of the artist’s process of material coercion taking place in the studio. The digital layering, color-correction, cutting, tearing and layering of materials, even the mixing of wet paint upon a surface causing a head, arm or leg to manifest within the plastic atmosphere with scumbling or glazing, are all steps which accrete to manifest the final perceptible object. These gestures are the material index of the artist’s work, the material work, and that work is in many ways distinct from the “document of civilization that is at the same time a document of barbarism.” Although many artists wouldn’t readily describe what they do in the studio as barbaric in comparison to their artwork, what is of import is the potential to identify the presence of the raw constitutive decisions within the refined object that may present a truer image of what is seen. This is what Benjamin gives us regarding documents of civilization and this is what the word pentimento describes regarding works of art.
In the context of the exhibition “Thread” at TCNJ, The College of New Jersey, a not so subtle call for “repentance” manifests as the thread through many of the works on display. The exhibition contains painting that arrives at stacked heads in high key colors, archival photographs illustrating the racial heterogeneity of families, to collage and digital media that locates gaps in the archive. These works explore and critique the necessary excess; excess by today’s standards, in that generally, because all societies have that which is socially acceptable, they of course also contain excess—that which is unacceptable, yet present. Both the society’s acceptable and its unacceptable excess have produced the current social fabric in the world and these United States of America which these artists interrogate.
In Maria Dumlao’s work, Scouting with a Kodak/Because They Were Born Ten Years Before, 2021, the ground for the bucolic hunting boys is made present through various colored lenses, each privileging a specific societal history as well as the excess which is often absent in the archive. These aesthetic gestures are eerily similar to the archival work of Writer and Scholar Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, who writes, “when we speak about conditions of systemic violence, we should not look for photographs of or about systemic violence, but should explore photographs taken in zones of systemic violence.”6 In making present the image of the execution of four prepubescent boys within a ‘benign’ scene of another group of boys sharply dressed as little English sportsmen, the formerly executed haunt the image of the hunting boys. Possibly these two events took place in the same zone and as phantasms, they are shown to be present amongst us, moving in and out of perceptibility depending literally on which of Dumlao’s color lenses we place before our eyes.
By evoking the term pentimenti, and Benjamin’s “dragging of history against the grain,” morality is also inherently present. Whereas pentimenti names aspects of the material facture, as previous decisions, as steps or miss-steps, Benjamin’s suggestion locates social and material steps or miss-steps as a method of orienting oneself to the study of history. Does the work intend to say these boys were executed to clear the ground for another group of boys to use it as a hunting parcel, does it diminish the deaths of the executed, or does it make clear a continuity between children hunting, and the execution of the people (children) of the land, with the connotation that the children of the land are mere life?
In the work of Jessica Wimbley, another operation is at play. Wimbley reuses cabinet cards, a style of portrait photograph mounted on cards used from 1860–1920, to explore complicated family lineage and the limits of image technology. In her work, Selection of Cabinet Cards, 2014–20, a series of assorted cabinet cards are arranged in a constellation resembling a family tree on the gallery wall. Many of them contain interventions like tearing, flocking, painting, drawing and adding of the artist’s hair, as well as other photos, which reveal altogether different portraits beneath. These interventions complicate the portrait, its meaning and function in the role of creating identity, lineage and history.
One aspect of this work is the presence of two disparate images, which both manufacture self image and identity. The cabinet card photo from the 19th century creates a private self image, and the magazine photo from the twentieth century creates a public image. The co-presence of these two images produces a cognitive phenomenon which speaks stereoscopically to the depth and complication of identity and the idea of realness. Another similar, yet altogether different aspect is present in stereographic images from 1850–1930, which consist of two photographs of an object taken from slightly different angles, when viewed together through a stereoscope they produce the illusion of a three-dimensional image. The connotations of the photograph have always been evidential, and the stereographic image upped the ante, by making the photograph even more real. The stereograph differs in that its realness is presented by using technology to create an optical phenomenon, and Wimbley’s works present realness through a cognitive phenomenon laden with aesthetic decisions.
In the series, They Sing Their Death Song, which depicts the Mankato 38 + 2, 38 Dakota men who were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862, where each oil painting is built upon the material experience before it, it’s only natural that some images continue to reveal themselves. The oil paintings exist in a register of high-key colors with a central anthropomorphic bust like portrait, with other heads of animal- human-spirit beings stacked atop it. From another perspectival orientation, the heads might be said to be receding into the ground of colored stars and spirit-like bodies. Each of the portraits chillingly have a noose tied around the neck of the base figure. Could these be spirit portraits of potential extinguished generations, one result of the mass hanging, as well as opportunities to explore color, luminance and the figure? In even the most honest pursuits, every now and then what exists in the historical and psychological abyss percolates from the deep subconscious, to the conscious surface, raising critical questions in the mind of the viewer, why or what does it mean to paint this subject matter? Receiving this criticism, the artist might offer the following rejoinder, what would it mean not to paint it?
The artists in this exhibition intentionally or unintentionally have practices which could be said to drag history against the grain, and if aesthetics be a pursuit of the most appropriate means of communication, that act described as pursuit, frays the fabric of history revealing its structure of composition while creating an altogether new composition that foregrounds what the previous civilized composition concealed. By pulling that mythic fabric of understanding against its often normative interpretations, images are created which elucidate the voices, labor and vantage points of the necessary other, furthering a critical discourse and potentially more accurate appraisal of our current society. This stereoscopic aesthetic attempts to simultaneously make present the indices of people taken as mere life as well as the refined within works of art—documents of civilization. To be clear, I don’t see this as an absolute condemnation of the past, because to do that would foreclose on its future—the present, yet what I do perceive in what these artists present, naturally has an unknown alternate and oscillating net result, which is becoming more legible as the once muted, or concealed operations of civilization are rapidly becoming indexed into the equation.
In a society inundated with self critique, and moralistic genuflection to desires of atonement, some of which border on revenge, the prerequisite—the omission or removal of images and objects, is both iconoclastic in nature and trajectory, whilst being reparative in intention. In this climate, Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History,” is extremely pertinent. Most of us would extol human rights as a good in the world, yet if we stay with the trouble Benjamin’s dictum illuminates and the material conditions of the creation of, for example: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at The General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, the “barbarity” begins to expose itself and we are again forced to remind ourselves “that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”7 To produce less hunger, we must rely on aesthetics, their nuance and the often polysemic qualities of art to help us navigate life in this world, because following German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, “even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”8 It was after the Philippines, the Americas, the Congo, after Vietnam, and Afghanistan et al, yet even the suffering and deceased deserve a voice.
1 Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4, 1938–40, ed. Howard Eiland, Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 391–92.
2 Sharif Kanaana, “Humor of the Palestinian ‘Intifada,’” Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Indiana University Press, September–December, 1990), p. 234.
3 Anonymous, as told to the author, 2017.
4 Kanaana, op. cit., p. 233.
5 Theodore Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967), p. 19.
6 Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, “The Natural History of Rape,” Journal of Visual Culture, Volume: 17 issue: 2, pp. 166–67.