Hits: From Trauma and the Sublime to Radical Critique

in (02.04.2009)
I welcome the thematic conjunction of this conference.1  I certainly count myself among those who see the link between trauma and the sublime as inescapable - so much so that I can only think of it as a knot, one in which the ropes of history and power are bound as well.  

    My remarks today fall into three parts.  In the first, I discuss some aspects of a dialectical approach to the contemporary sublime - that is, one that tries to think this traditional aesthetic category as a process open to history and change.  Even if our understanding of the sublime bears the marks of its theorizations by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, the sublime cannot be today what it was for these thinkers two or two and a half centuries ago.  There are precise reasons for this, reasons that also illuminate what in the sublime now lends itself to a reorientation toward the psychoanalytic category of trauma.  

    In the second part of my talk, I explore some problems of trauma and representation - ones with which I'm still struggling.  If the sublime remains a relevant category for thinking about the art of the last half-century, then it's necessary to clarify the relation between the aesthetic category and trauma in a way that doesn't just conflate the two.  Trauma is real damage.  This suggests that the sublime pertains to artistic and cultural representations of traumatic damage.  Certain artworks seem to bring us to the borders of traumatic encounter in ways that are disturbing and provoking, even painfully so, but also at the same time aesthetically enjoyable.  This enjoyment is made possible by the element of semblance or illusion in artistic representations.  Directly or indirectly, then, we are dealing with a form of mimesis.  Artworks of this kind somehow seem to mimic compellingly the trauma that is their referent.  The sublime work, it seems, is not the wound itself, but is the effective mimesis of the wound.  But this problem remains tricky to think through, very slippery - even vertiginous.  For the mimesis of the wound turns out to be a new wound, a kind of second-order trauma that does not simply leave things as they were, safe and intact.  Sublime artistic experience, if that's what it is and if such a thing is possible, dissolves the separation put into play by the mediation of aesthetic semblance in the first place - or at least always threatens to do so.  I try to unfold this problem with reference to an historical relic and a small number of artworks.  

    In the last part of my talk, I draw some political conclusions from these reflections.  I want to suggest that the sublime carries with it a demand, something like an objective social imperative to radically politicize the notion of mourning.  Even in traditional psychoanalysis, the mourning of trauma is a critical process of enlightenment and disenchantment.  Taking this idea seriously leads necessarily to the critique of the social conditions of violence and historical trauma.  To set free the truth in the category of the sublime would be to actualize in thinking that which, in the force of the sublime encounter, is latently a force of radical social critique.

The Sublime as a Category in Motion

My understanding of the sublime is grounded in Pseudo-Longinus, Kant and Burke, but I can only read these classic formulations through the post-1945 reflections of Theodor Adorno, Jacques Lacan and Jean-François Lyotard.  Above all, the "Meditations on Metaphysics" that end Adorno's Negative Dialectics have opened up the category for me, suggesting how the very notion of the sublime has been transformed by traumatic history - and how it continues to change today.  To speak of trauma is first of all to acknowledge the damage suffered by individuals - damage caused above all by exposure to violence.  In the twentieth century, however, actualized powers of organized violence damaged so many people, with such far-reaching consequences, that it doesn't suffice to speak only of private trauma.  Since no one is unaffected today by the violence of the last century, it is necessary to speak of collective trauma and social damage.  Such terms reflect the fact that organized violence is always socially produced - is always generated by the whole nexus of social relations and processes.  Indeed the old problem of social violence, or structural barbarism, unavoidably reopens here.  The test of any dialectical approach to the sublime lies in this:  can it take into account the effects of the major traumatic events of the last century in their fully social character.  This means confronting Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the two qualitative events of genocidal violence.  It also means confronting the defeat of the revolutionary aspirations and movements that for a time burned with urgent plausibility, as the debacle of the First World War revealed the twilight of traditional bourgeois culture.      

    Humanity failed then to make its leap to freedom; this historical opening was missed.  Arguably, the global revolutionary impulses set loose by the Russian Revolution of 1917 only reached exhaustion with the defeat of the social struggles of the 1960s and 70s across the capitalist core and the channeling of emancipatory processes into bureaucratic one-party states in China, Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam.  The defeat of revolutionary desire, as it was put into practice in the struggles of the twentieth century, was accomplished by massive applications of violence and coercions of all kinds, from dirty wars and interventions to the counter-revolutionary terror of Stalinism.  Although this long and contradictory process was destructive and traumatic - tragic, in truth - it is still categorically distinct from Auschwitz and Hiroshima.  All three collective traumas belong to the same globalized social context, and as such are deeply imbricated.  But the shadows cast over the future by Auschwitz and Hiroshima are longer and different in kind.  As qualitative events of violence that actualize and demonstrate new genocidal potentials, the processes condensed in these two place-names immediately expose as fraudulent the myth of automatic progress and thereby directly affect the very meaning of humanity.  The evident defeat of historical reaches for a classless society beyond capitalism and the obvious persistence of domination, exploitation and episodic terror under the old party-states of "really existing socialism" deepen the disenchantment with mythical progress and inherited optimism but strictly speaking do not entail it.

    In the wake of all three traumas, we seem to have entered a phase of objective historical impasse, in which all known and tried pathways beyond capitalism as a globalized social totality are evidently blocked and in which everyday life reproduces itself under the normalized but still unceasing threat of the genocidal powers wielded by nation-states.  This is not to grant that history has ended or that struggle has ceased; it is only to acknowledge that the processes of social progress or human emancipation are at present blocked.  As an aesthetic category traditionally associated with feelings of enjoyable terror triggered by mediated encounters with excessive power, the sublime must now bear and reflect this historical predicament - these new social facts and conditions grounded in the logics of capitalist modernity.  And this must be all the more true for our own moment, characterized not just by new wars and the politics of fear but by a new militarization of everyday life and what will probably prove to be a qualitative expansion of official surveillance.  

    These preliminary remarks perhaps make it easier to see why the rewriting of the sublime has been driven by critical reflection on the trauma of the Second World War, a conflagration that killed between 50 and 70 million people, roughly two-thirds of them civilians.  Adorno's Minima Moralia, written between 1944 and 47 and first published in 1951, is a key early work in this collective reflection, which by the mid-1960s had begun to clarify the qualitative character and implications of Auschwitz and to reassert the centrality of the psychoanalytic category of trauma.  Lacan's 1964 seminars, published in 1973 under the title The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, form another key text in this regard.  But it is in Adorno's Negative Dialectics of 1966 that one can find a concise account of the transformation of the category of the sublime, and it is significant in this regard that the "Mediations on Metaphysics" are not at all psychoanalytically naïve, but like the aphorisms of Minima Moralia are reflected through the categories of psychoanalysis.

    As I read it, Adorno's dialectical approach to the sublime reaches back to the passage in Kant's Critique of Judgment in which he links the category to the notion of negative Darstellung - negative presentation or exhibition.2  But Adorno thinks this notion through the reflected collective experience of Auschwitz and the blockage of revolutionary desire.  For Adorno, reflection on the categories of traditional aesthetics must grasp and think these categories not as frozen, reified entities, but as "categories in transition" - in fact as categories already dissolving following the shattering of traditional bourgeois culture by the First World War.3  After 1945, Adorno advocated an art in the sublime mode of negative presentation, exemplified for him above all in the works of Samuel Beckett.  His much trivialized proposition about poetry after Auschwitz points to the socially objective "impossibility," not to say the empirical impossibility, of restoring traditional culture and its forms after this definitive demonstration of culture's failure to transform humanity and raise it out of barbarism.4

    Often missed is that for Adorno the catastrophe is not Auschwitz itself, but the whole social context of capitalist modernity, with its mutually reinforcing tendencies toward totalizing "administration" and "absolute integration."  In this dialectic of enlightenment the impulses of emancipation and critical reason have been overwhelmed by the logic of generalized exchange-value and instrumental reason in the service of established social power.  As a result, non-identity - Adorno's shorthand for the very conditions of autonomous subjectivity - is marked for systematic elimination.  Global processes of administered integration and culture industry steadily reduce the social spaces and possibilities for spontaneity and non-conformist experience.  In this context, repressed rage at subjective powerlessness finds outlets in phantasmal investments and mobilizations - or in the extreme in organized genocidal eruptions.5  Auschwitz was only the "first test-piece" of the leap made possible when genocidal ends are linked to the means of bureaucratic and techno-industrial rationality.6  The defeat of Nazi Germany can be no reassurance because the objective social conditions that made fascism and Auschwitz possible "continue to exist."7  Art, if it is not to fall silent in despair or take refuge in cynicism, must reflect this social catastrophe and the impotence of traditional culture.  For Adorno, this means an art of negative presentation that evokes the catastrophe indirectly, obliquely, without pronouncing its name.  "Only in silence," writes Adorno in his essay on Endgame, "is the name of the catastrophe to be spoken."8  This negative evocation can be realized through formal means and an unflinching but tactful handling of contents.  What makes poetry and traditional expressive art objectively impossible, then, is the violent process of structural adjustment being inflicted on the dominated, administered subject.  The subjectivity still capable of spontaneity and authentic experience - taken for granted by poetry and art - is vanishing under the pressure of material historical forces.  Although this social tendency predates Auschwitz, the Nazi killing centers demonstrate its genocidal moment.  However, Beckett and Paul Celan show Adorno that resistance through artistic negativity is still possible and therefore that the quasi-prohibition on poetry does not hold absolutely.9  

    It may seem surprising to read Adorno in this way, as an advocate of the sublime.  He is far more often associated with criticism of the category for its element of domination and its unresisting valorization of power and extremity.  But Adorno's critique is dialectical.  Aesthetic categories no less than unique artworks share the contradictory character of all culture under capitalism:  all productions of spirit in class society are entanglements of truth and untruth, freedom and unfreedom, promise of happiness and marker of barbarism.  Critique confronts the social untruth embedded in cultural artifacts in order to set free the potential truth that is also latent in them.  Negative presentation, Adorno implies, is a moment of truth in a category freighted with untruth.  After Auschwitz, culture's social functions in support of power and domination can no longer be denied or avoided.  After this exposure of art's share of social guilt - after this unanswerable demonstration that traditional culture, whatever else it may be, is also "garbage," as he puts it - negative presentation as a sublime artistic means offers a way for art to bear its predicament and perhaps its shame, reflecting the social catastrophe without cynically exploiting the victims or surrendering to barbarism full stop.10  If this formal strategy of "standing firm" (Standhalten) in the refusal of false-reconciliation lends a voice to suffering and helps it to speak, thereby pointing to the global social catastrophe and at the same time rescuing a space for the desire to supersede it, then the sublime will have realized its shard of truth and artworks will have done all that it is possible for art to do at this time.

    This in any case is the argument legible between the lines.  Adorno does not thematize the sublime as such in his discussions of Beckett and art after Auschwitz.  Rather he performs the sublime textually, demonstrably enacting the argument for negative presentation indirectly, without announcing it as a theory of the contemporary sublime, just as Beckett dissects the last stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism without ever needing to install the place-name Auschwitz.  However, there are clues confirming that the sublime is indeed at stake.  Adorno summarizes the historical transformation of the category - again without naming it - in one condensed sentence in "After Auschwitz," the first of the meditations that end Negative Dialectics.  He writes:

The Lisbon earthquake reached far enough to cure Voltaire of Leibniz's theodicy, and the visibly comprehensible catastrophe of first nature was insignificant compared to that of the second, social one, which defies human imagination by readying real hell from human evil.11

"Lisbon," "the visibly comprehensible catastrophe of first nature," and "human imagination" are all specific echoes of the tradition of the sublime.  They signal that the movement of the passage - from first to second nature and from visible comprehensibility to an irreparable crisis of the imagination - is to be read as the transformation worked by history on the meaning of the category itself.  In traditional bourgeois aesthetics, codified by Burke and Kant, the sublime is the mixed feeling of terror and enjoyment - the "negative pleasure," Kant calls it - associated with encounters with the size or power of raw nature.12  In the eighteenth century, the Lisbon earthquake was perhaps the best-known eruption of sublime nature.  But in the twentieth century, the traumatic power and violence of social forces displace nature as the site and trigger of the sublime, and this shift from first to second nature shakes the category in its very core.  For the old sublime depended on forms of distancing mediation that gave experiencing subjects enough security to enjoy their terror and to recuperate it as a marker of freedom and a spur to self-admiring reflection on a human dignity transcending mere nature.  But in the social catastrophe of second nature, all such mediating safety is overwhelmed.  After 1945, the security that would ground human dignity and hopes for a progressive future is shown to be illusion - and it is this condition of exposure that turns all attempts to restore traditional culture and the old reassurances into exercises in cynicism or reaction.13

    One note here on the traumatic legacy of the Second World War.  For Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Auschwitz and the transformation of revolutionary movements into new regimes of domination were the two historical experiences that compelled a new critical reflection on capitalist modernity and the shrinking possibilities for enlightenment and emancipation.  Auschwitz for them demonstrated irrefutably that the genocidal destruction of whole categories of people by industrial-administrative means is from now on one possible form that the social tendencies toward enforced integration can take.  This argument is depressingly sound.  Not depressing enough, however, for a weakness of Frankfurt theory here is that it fails to think through adequately the implications of Hiroshima, the other truly qualitative event of twentieth century violence.  Standing synecdochically both for the destruction of a city and its civilian inhabitants - on this day, in fact, 63 years ago - and the genocidal potential of weapons of mass destruction, the place-name Hiroshima orbits mostly unspoken and unanalyzed around Adorno's writings, only emerging into partial legibility at various moments in some of the essays collected in Critical Models and Notes to Literature.14  Adorno did, to be sure, recognize that the development of the nuclear weapon of mass destruction "belongs in the same historical context as genocide."15  But he chose not to draw out all the conclusions, in the way he resolutely thought through the objective social and historical meanings of Auschwitz.  

    I've argued elsewhere that the linkage between Auschwitz and Hiroshima, still controversial for many, is not to be avoided.16  For it is not Auschwitz alone that demonstrates what the categories of humanity and the future now must bear and reflect.  Unhappily, the potential for violence actualized in Hiroshima is every bit as qualitative and momentous.  Auschwitz realized a human potential for administrative genocide inherent in the combination of bureaucratic imperatives and the relentless rationalization of production exemplified by the innovations of Taylorism and Fordism.  Hiroshima actualized a different potential for genocidal violence, one latent in the direct merger of organized science with the war machine; not just the doomsday weapon itself, but the permanent nexus of terror, profit and secrecy that is at the core of the post-1945 national security state and that reverberates continuously through everyday life is arguably a direct legacy of Hiroshima.  In any case, the camps and killing centers on the one hand and the demonstrated weapon of mass destruction on the other are the double trauma of quantity passing irrevocably into quality that now haunts the figure of humanity and the possibilities for emancipation and progress.  In both, the moment of appalling coldness and inhuman indifference within the ratio of capitalist modernity is starkly revealed.  Both of these traumas must be at the center of any dialectical grasp of the contemporary sublime.

Trauma and Artistic Representation

How to make the passage from these massively traumatic events of historical violence that kill off the myth of automatic progress and put human dignity and the future radically in doubt to an understanding of the sublime in art after 1945?  How to handle the mediations between real violence and trauma and their aesthetic representations?   In his theorization of the sublime, Kant emphasizes that a necessary condition of the feeling of negative pleasure is the element of safety that protects the subject's encounter with the terrifying power or size of nature.  "It is impossible," he writes, "to like terror that we take seriously."17  Two distinct moments or levels of mediation are in play in the Kantian sublime.  The first is the actual distance, physical or temporal, between a spectator and dangerous first nature.  The second is the culture that the spectator as a formed subject brings to the encounter, a culture that prepares the encounter itself and predisposes the spectator to respond to imagination's crisis with reasoned reflections on the supersensible character of human freedom, destiny and dignity.  Not wanting this culture to be reducible to mere convention, Kant insists on its basis in human nature, in a predisposition to freedom and the moral law shared by all people, even if developed and cultivated to differing degrees in each.  The starry heavens above us, the moral law within us, as it were.      

    In the transforming shift from first to second nature within the sublime, both Kantian mediations are undone.  Under the new powers of violence possessed by nation-states under globalizing administration, no place or position of physical safety remains.  If the figure held responsible for the attacks of 11 September 2001 is in fact still at large, this should distract no one.  There is no place on earth the annihilating power of the state cannot find those who have become its target, and as readers of Kafka know, the paths by which one becomes a target can be arbitrary and inscrutable, often enough merely the bad luck of being in the wrong place and time.  Think of those mistakenly added to no-fly lists or even wrongly pounced on by the terrifying apparatus of "extraordinary rendition" and torture by proxy.  Indeed, remember the tall Afghani man who with his companions was destroyed by a CIA drone in 2002 merely because his height convinced someone that he might have been America's "most wanted."18  In this morning's paper, I read that the British government plans to make similar drones, or unmanned aircraft, available to its police forces for the secret surveillance of its own citizens.19  And as for the cultural mediation, Adorno shows that culture exposed in its failure and complicity by Auschwitz can no longer sustain fictions of humanity's essential dignity and transcendent destiny.  As products of second nature that remain utterly dependent on the total social context, human dignity and freedom are vulnerable to the very last shred.  And as all who are even mildly informed today know, in the new situation of normalized emergency, no one can be certain of escaping the fate of a degradation and misery worse than death.  Kant's effort to ground the sublime in a transcendent or supersensible human nature fails when confronted with the social catastrophe of actual human history, and this failure is the end of the old sublime.

    The ruination of the traditional category - the breakage of the link between the sublime and freedom - does not however undo the strategy of negative presentation.  Kant's brief, almost passing discussion in the third Critique is the textual link that constellates Adorno's "after Auschwitz" reflections and his analysis of Beckett's Endgame into a transformed, contemporary sublime.  Kant holds that the senses cannot register the idea of freedom, which therefore "precludes all positive exhibition whatever."20  Freedom and the moral law can only be represented negatively, by which he means abstractly rather than sensuously.  Negative exhibitions of the infinite "still expand the soul" since they remove the barriers constraining the imagination and set up the crisis that is resolved through the self-admiring fallback to and rescue by the power of reason.  "Perhaps," Kant famously writes, "the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth, etc."21  

    After 1945, negative presentation remains an effective mode of the sublime, but now the category has been emptied of all the Kantian elements of self-admiration.  In Adorno's account, the truth content reached in this way - through the negative avowal of social misery - may rescue the sublime from affirmation after the collapse of its Kantian basis in morality.22  The key is that negative presentation offers a means for reflecting the social catastrophe without falling into the traps of positive presentation.  Like freedom, the catastrophe is not visually comprehensible, in the way that the Lisbon earthquake still was.  Attempts to exhibit the social catastrophe through positive images or representations can only be falsifying.  Such exhibitions encourage the illusion that the social totality as a dense nexus of historical processes and relations can be mastered as easily as the eye apprehends a discrete visual image.  Viewing the infamous photographs of the trains and camps, emaciated prisoners and heaped corpses clearly does not suffice to understand Auschwitz.  If anything, positive presentations deflect rather than spur on the arduous process of critical reflection that alone can reach the level of social truth.  The difference here is evident, if dramatized Hollywood versions of the Holocaust, inevitably accompanied by strings and final notes of solace, are compared to Claude Lanzmann's Shoa, a devastating nine-and-a-half-hour filmic reflection driven by a rigorous refusal of easy positive presentations.23  The negative way, then, is the mode of the contemporary sublime appropriate for representing the traumatic power and violence of social forces and the helplessness of the individual subject before them.  On this point Adorno's sublime is in agreement with Lyotard's later readings of Kant.  Here, however, things become difficult, because the categorical differences between trauma and the representation of trauma turn out to be more fluid and dissolvable than at first appears.

    And we can easily test these propositions.  Before turning to artistic representations, let's consider the relic - a less mediated, structurally simpler form of negative presentation.  In the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima is a wristwatch pulled from the rubble left by the blast of 1945.  The watch is a relic of extreme violence.  Its very existence is physical evidence of the destructive event; its presence and condition, the marks it bears as an object, testify negatively to the excessive power of the first atomic bombing of civilians, whatever the social meaning of that deed may be.  In post-1945 visual culture, photographs of the watch became markers for the contested legacy of Hiroshima.24  Seiji Fukusawa's photograph shows the watch in vivid detail, dramatically exposed against a black ground; it appeared on the cover of the January-February 1995 issue of Civilization, the magazine of the U.S. Library of Congress, in the midst of the public scandal surrounding the official censorship and suppression of the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.  For those who have not had the chance to inspect the watch in person, the medium of photography guarantees the evidentiary status of the relic.25  

    Unlike positive images of mushroom clouds that apprehend the awesome detonation through a long, God's-eye perspective, this image of a blasted watch does not present itself as the record of a visibly comprehensible event.  It shows itself, rather, as a clue to something else that lies beyond it and remains invisible.  To reach that something else, a labor of reflection is needed.  As a negative presentation, the watch comes with no pre-given, pre-digested narrative.  Interpretation is left to the beholder, who must construct the narrative and meaning.  Structurally, this may always be the case, but positive presentations rig the game in advance to a far greater degree.  In Freud's idiom, to say that the viewer has to construct a narrative and supply its meaning in order retrospectively to reach the traumatic referent of the watch is to say that the temporality of the relic is nachträglich - belated or after-affective.

    Trauma is the incurrence of damage.  It occurs when reality breaks through the barriers protecting the integrity of the individual qua psychic organization, and this break-in from the outside is a disruption that threatens any attained stability and self-identity of the subject involved.  Generally, the element of surprise - or in other words bad luck - is key.  Trauma can overwhelm a subject by main force, as happens in exposure to events of extreme violence.  And certainly there are encounters no one can be ready for.  But in less extreme situations, if the subject is prepared or has time to throw up psychic defenses, then trauma might be avoided.  Generally, it is the absence of needed time and readiness that shapes the predisposition to trauma.  By the time it happens, it's too late.

    Lacan emphasizes precisely this element in his discussion, in the "Tyche and Automaton" seminar, of trauma and Freud's "Father can't you see I'm burning?" dream.  He uses the Greek word tyche to name the traumatic "encounter with the real."26  The terms tyche and automaton come from Book Two of Aristotle's Physics.  There, he distinguishes between tyche or luck, which he argues can only happen to autonomous moral agents, and automaton, or chance, which can befall lower animals and lifeless things.27  Lacan famously reinterprets these categories into a theory of trauma.  Tyche becomes the "missed encounter with the real," "an appointment to which we are called with a real that always eludes us."28  The real is what lies behind automaton, or the network of signifiers:  the negative ground of indeterminacy out of which subjectivity emerges and back into which it is threatened to be sucked.  Eluding symbolization and narrative capture, the real remains beyond representation as such and therefore also escapes experience.  Processing trauma involves retrospectively drawing the encounter back into the symbolic network of representation, where, narrativized, it can finally become quasi-experience.  This is the sense in which Freud calls trauma nachträglich:  its irreducible belatedness.  But this deferred traumatic experience remains quasi or pseudo.  For, although retrospective narrative capture may be therapeutic for the traumatized subject, it necessarily leaves the real out again, as an inassimilable remainder.  For Lacan, trauma is an appointment that remains missed, and this missing points to the real limits of the nexus of subjectivity and more generally the limits of representation.  

    There is another clue in the fact that in Greek mythology Tyche is an obscure daughter of Zeus meant to personify the incalculable element of life - the counterpart of the Latin Fortuna.  Paul Harvey notes that the name comes from the noun tychanein, "that which happens."29  And in the French and English texts of Lacan's seminar, the transliteration and accenting of tyche as tuché creates a visual echo and near-pun of touché, the past participle of the verb toucher, to touch or strike, and the fencing term for a successful contact with the tip of a foil or épée.  Intentional or not, the near pun is illuminating:  the traumatic event, the unexpected, incalculable and inassimilable "thing that happens" is a quick, sudden touch, slash or hit by the real.  Sudden, but deep and damaging.  The hit, as I'll now call it, can be belatedly represented, but not without an elided remainder.  Structurally, then, every representation of trauma testifies negatively to what must remain missed and outside the representation itself:  the real as an irreducible force of disruption strictly beyond experience.  In their very positivity, positive presentations cover up this omission.  Positive images give the impression of being complete, adequate, sufficient to the referent, whether that referent is a traumatic event or anything else.  Negative presentations, by contrast, are honest about the elision; they at least show clearly that what needs to be shown cannot be, and lies beyond the presentation.  And because they present themselves in this way, as ciphers that must be decoded, negative presentations invite and indeed demand a more active process of spectation - one involving close scrutiny and reflection.

    Let's return to the wristwatch, to see how this works.  Visual inspection of the relic or its photograph first reveals the material damage inflicted on the object by what evidently was a blast of great force.  From the hands - stopped at 8:15 and 38 seconds - one can infer that this was the atomic detonation above Hiroshima precisely at that time on 6 August 1945.  The way is open, through this clue, to the construction of narrative and meaning.  But there is a second moment of negative presentation that comes when, after the initial association of the watch with Hiroshima, the viewer realizes that the object also evokes the destruction of one life in particular - that of the individual who was wearing the watch and whose living flesh was in contact with it on that morning.  Exposed to the same sudden, flashing gush of annihilating energy, the individual was simply blown away.  Only his watch, stopped forever at the instant of death, remains as the marker of his absence.  This second moment, which suddenly reveals the watch as a haunted object, is for me something like a new traumatic hit.  Putting me in contact with more than I was ready for, even as someone who is not uninformed about Hiroshima, the negative presentation of the singular destroyed life makes more real for me the massive trauma inflicted on the inhabitants of Hiroshima and more exigent the whole social catastrophe of which it is a part.  Whether or not everyone responds to the watch precisely in this way is not the issue.  The point is that the relic, as a negative cipher of trauma that yields meaning only through a labor of decoding, sets up some such response.

    The watch evokes, then, but only through the deferred temporality of nachträglichkeit - with belatedness and a traumatic remainder.  The recapture by representation is a necessary moment in the processing of trauma - in this case social trauma.  But this moment does not give the beholder direct access to experience of the event.  It does not bring to experience the pain inflicted and suffered in Hiroshima or the trauma and misery of those who survived the blast and fire storm only to succumb, sometimes years later, to radiation poisoning, other injuries, or just despair.  All that belongs to the remainder and stays, strictly speaking, outside all possible experience.  Nor can it be said that the watch delivers the social truth or meaning of the event.  The truth of Hiroshima is that in social terms Hiroshima is emphatically untrue:  triumphant official accounts notwithstanding, the first use of this unprecedented WMD was an unnecessary crime that, irrevocable and irredeemable, recoils toxically on humanity and its possible futures.      

    Ultimately, what hits in the hit is, in Adorno's terms, nothing less than "the total social process."30  And that meaning can only be reached through critical reflection.  But whoever embarks on such a reflection will not be unchanged by the passage from a sensuous piece of trauma to the grasping of the social conclusions, for these conclusions are themselves traumatic wounds to human dignity.  The experience of thinking trauma itself threatens to become traumatic, for it brings experience up to the limit beyond which the social real abides as a seething force of violence which at any time can pull the thinker into an encounter for which no one can be fully prepared.  To be sure, the hits one may still incur in the course of such reflections are minor, second order traumas compared the major, primary trauma that these representations refer to.  But already the borders between trauma and its representation are beginning to slip.

    Now let's consider the case of artistic representations.  Insofar as it goes beyond strictly formal experiments, the history of negative presentation in post-1945 visual art, and especially in sculpture, can be seen as a collective investigation of the character of relics as markers of trauma.31  The conscious phase of this history probably begins around 1959, with Arman's poubelles and accumulations, some of which seem to be visual echoes of sequences from Alain Resnais's 1955 documentary Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog).32  These sequences show the so-called Canada warehouses at Auschwitz, where the plundered personal property of the murdered victims was sorted and stored.  Accumulations of dentures and eyeglasses are very probably evocations of the pulling of gold teeth and plunder of property practiced systematically in the Vernichtungslager or killing centers.  A 1961 accumulation of insecticide pumps - note the prominent "Fly-Tox" brand-name - is possibly a bitter allusion to Zyclon-B, the toxin used in the gas chambers.33  The title of the work, Tuez-les tous, Dieu reconnaîtra les Siens, is a line imputed to the Church official who commanded the massacre of the inhabitants of Beziers, in the south of France, during the Albigensian Crusade of the early thirteenth century.  It expresses the moment in the escalation of organized violence when the jump is made to whole categories of people, all the members of which are to be targeted and destroyed indiscriminately - the very core of genocidal logic.  A contemporary translation popular among US soldiers during the Vietnam era renders the line "Kill them all, let God sort them out."  Village of the Damned, a vitrine stuffed with standing dolls or puppets of children from 1962, and Birth Control, an accumulation of similar dolls packed tightly into a tin box from 1963 almost certainly evoke the deportation and murder of Jewish children under the Vichy regime.  Other artists contributing to this line of negative exhibition as a strategy for representing Auschwitz are Wolf Vostell and Joseph Beuys, and, later, Anselm Kiefer, Christian Boltanski, Jochen Gerz and Rachel Whiteread, among others.

    Beuys's felt environment Plight, installed in a London gallery in 1985, is a culminating work.  In two rooms connected in an "L"-shape, the artist has lined the walls with stacked columns of felt.  In the dead end of the second room, he arranged a thermometer and an empty chalkboard marked for musical notion on top of a closed piano.  Here, it is helpful to know that in the artist's own discourse, felt and fat are benign, redemptive sculptural materials.  This discourse was a kind of smoke screen camouflaging the fact that both materials are linked to the Nazi genocide.  Fat, a byproduct of reducing bodies by fire, was collected in the crematoria at Auschwitz.  Hair shorn from the victims was collected and shipped to factories, where it was processed into felt and used in the manufacture of slippers for U-boat crews, among other things.  When Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz, they found seven tons of human hair, packed and ready for shipment.  From the photograph of this depot, one can see clearly how Beuys has reworked these sacks into the felt columns of Plight, which evoke the murdered victims by negative presentation.  The thermometer now reads as a negative allusion to the crematoria, and the silenced piano and empty chalkboard that complete the work turn the installation into an allegory of art's predicament that responds precisely to Adorno's arguments, confirming them and demonstrating that in the medium of sculpture, too, there are analogues to Endgame and Celan's "Engführung."34

    Comparing these examples to the Hiroshima wristwatch throws into relief the element of aesthetic semblance or illusion.  The representations produced for the institutionalized context of art take for granted the framework and conventions of relative autonomy that differentiates artworks from the objects of everyday life.  The artworks attain effects similar to those I attributed to the watch qua relic.  In all the examples cited, the conditions for something like a second-order trauma are set up.  But in contrast to the case of the real relic, the artworks achieve such effects mimetically, through the process of artistic production.  In other words, the artists, intentionally or not, operate the conventions of aesthetic semblance or illusion in order to reproduce the structure of trauma as an artistic form.  This can be seen most clearly in the case of Plight.  There, the function of Beuys's camouflaging discourse is to enfold the work in an entirely different aura, one that deflects and disarms the viewer's expectations, so that the charged links to Auschwitz operate below the surface and, if discovered, strike the viewer as a sublime hit.

    The artworks, then, mimic the form of the traumatic wound in order to give force to negative evocations of historical trauma.  Holding open a space of semblance, of asserted difference from life, the institutional and conventional frame of art seems to offer a reassuring measure of safety and security in which these games of mimesis can be played and can lead, in the best case, to a collective critical reflection in the form of discursive reception.  This measure of safety - it's not the real thing, it's just art - makes it possible for the disturbing character of the work to be enjoyed in aesthetic terms.  However, as the watch already revealed, this mimesis of a prior wound or traumatic hit can itself become traumatic - can open a new wound in a spectator who suddenly and ill-prepared encounters the hidden referent.  And this, one gathers, would be the whole aim of the artistic strategy.  To the degree that this happens - and the possibility cannot be excluded - the element of semblance is undermined, and artwork and relic of trauma begin to merge in their effects.  What then threatens is a representational mise-en-abîme that destabilizes the ground of assimilable aesthetic experience and begins to do damage.

    If, aiming to jolt spectators out of their indifference and initiate a process of critical reflection, artists consciously strive for such effects, then ethical questions arise.  For whoever exploits the old element of domination in the sublime thereby reproduces it anew, provoking suspicions of manipulation or worse.  Aside from these kinds of dilemmas, there are structural limits to the mimesis of trauma as an artistic strategy.  Because the hit can only happen if the beholder is not waiting for it, everything in the end depends on the expectations and predispositions brought to the encounter.  As with Plight, the artist is tempted to intervene in advance, by preemptively influencing expectation.  Whatever the artist does, an iron law of diminishing returns comes into play.  To the degree works are successful in these terms, historical trauma is established as their hidden referent.  This however, shapes future expectation, readying the spectator and functioning as immunization from any possible hit.  Paradoxically, the sublime as an artistic strategy undoes and defeats itself with time.  This is exactly what happened with negative presentations of Auschwitz in sculpture between the mid-1980s and mid-90s.  Finally acknowledged and endorsed by the institutions, the negative way became the preferred - even official - mode of memorial art.  Almost immediately thereafter, it was degraded through overuse into convention and formula.  The proof of this fall can be seen in Daniel Liebeskind's rise to stardom as the keenly sought-after genius of negative architecture.  The selection of Liebeskind's design for the site of the destroyed World Trade Center complex in Manhattan marks an astonishing cooptation and neutralization of critical memory.  It confirms that the sublime remains a category in transition, and that negative presentation is closely bound to the total social context.  Some traumas may still be approachable in this way, but the moment of negative evocations of Auschwitz, in any case, is definitively over.

From Mourning to Social Struggle

In psychoanalytic terms, the critical processing of trauma falls under the sign of mourning.  As a process of subjective enlightenment and disenchantment, mourning is aligned with critical theory.  Why, then, are some radical thinkers so hostile to mourning and the category of trauma?  In The Politics of Aesthetics, a book much discussed at the moment, Jacques Rancière opens with an attack on Lyotard, whose work on the sublime is for Rancière a marker for the collapse of critical thinking into endless deliberations on mourning and exercises in nostalgia.35  Granted, concerns over the rise of a depoliticizing trauma industry are not entirely unjustified.  But I doubt the knot of power, history and trauma can be cut through so simply and summarily, by killing the messenger in this way.  If leftwing pessimism and melancholy are widespread dispositions today - maybe they are even still the default position - that is because they at least register the social catastrophe and historical impasse in which we live.  Wanting it to be otherwise doesn't make it so.

    I readily grant that today the culture of memory has been fully instrumentalized and is routinely exploited in the most cynical ways by the politics of fear and the global so-called war on terror.  No one can assume today that the deployment of remembrance and the refusal of forgetting will be politically radical or even critical at all.  I take it for undeniable that in the social dialectic of remembrance and forgetting, established power has successfully hijacked the public memory of Auschwitz.  Today the risks of nostalgia and fetishization are real, and the stakes are high.36

    What is called for is not a refusal or denigration of mourning, but a more rigorous commitment to the logic of its impulse.  In short this would mean radically politicizing the category.  For if, at the subjective level, mourning means working through what has been irreparably lost and is unalterable about incurred damage while at the same time embracing what, in the subject, is oriented toward change and the future, then mourning collective trauma can only mean working through the antagonism - the element of violence in social relations and processes.  Followed rigorously, mourning converges with radical social critique.  Rigorous mourning belongs to the revolutionary process and is on the side of those seeking a passage beyond the catastrophe - beyond capitalism as a dominant global system.  As unfortunately nothing at all suggests that such a passage could be other than one of struggle, problems of strategy, practice and organizational form remain urgent.  Reinventing an emancipatory practice of radical social struggle adequate to the times presumes a thorough critical processing of the defeats of revolution in the last century - and this too belongs to mourning.  What this processing already shows is that social progress will not be automatic and that a condition for moving forward is the containment of state terror - the power of genocidal violence that underwrites and globally enforces capitalist order.  And so the struggle continues.  All this is to say that demands for an end to mourning are very premature.  Mourning cannot end so long as this traumatic social context persists.

This essay is forthcoming in Third Text, vol. 23, no. 2 (2009).


1 This essay was delivered at the conference "Trauma and the Sublime" at Swansea University, Wales, on 6 August 2008.

2 Kant's discussion of negative Darstellung is in the "General Comment on the Exposition of Aesthetic Reflective Judgments" appended to §29 of Kritik der Urteilskraft [1790-3], Werkausgabe, vol. 10 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1974); in English as Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987).

3 "In the age of the irreconcilability of traditional aesthetics and contemporary art, the philosophical theory of art has no choice but, varying a maxim of Nietzsche's, by determinate negation to think the categories that are in decline as categories of transition. The elucidated and concrete dissolution of conventional aesthetic categories is the only remaining form that aesthetics can take; it at the same time sets free the transformed truth of these categories." Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1973), p. 507; Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997), p. 341.
4 The more total the society, so also the more reified the spirit [Geist] and more paradoxical its plan to wrest itself from reification on its own.  Even the utmost consciousness of disaster threatens to degrade into chatter.  Cultural critique finds itself facing the last stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism:  after Auschwitz, to write a poem [ein Gedicht] is barbaric, and this situation eats into even the process of knowing and speaking about why it has become impossible to write poetry [Gedichte] today." Adorno, "Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft" [1951] in Prismen (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1976), p. 31; "Cultural Criticism and Society" in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992), p. 34. Adorno would subsequently revisit and qualify this assertion, conceding that it does not hold absolutely while nevertheless maintaining its validity as a socially and aesthetically objective, rather than moral, taboo.

5 "Genocide is the absolute integration." Adorno, Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1997), p. 355; Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 362.

6 "Auschwitz confirmed the philosopheme of pure identity as death. The most exposed dictum of Beckett's Endgame - that there's nothing more than this left to fear - reacts to a praxis the first test-piece [erstes Probestück] of which was delivered in the camps and in whose once honorable concept the extermination of the non-identical is already teleologically lurking." Ibid., trans. modified. The term "praxis" here refers to both Nazi and Stalinist terror, while remembering that the tendency toward forced integration was always latent in the historical revolutionary movement.

7 "That fascism lives on, that the much-cited working-through of the past has to this day failed and has degraded into its own caricature, an empty and cold forgetting, is due to this, that the objective social preconditions that generated fascism continue to exist." Only a mangling misconstrual of Adorno's indictment of late capitalism could read this passage as a verdict restricted to postwar Germany. Adorno, "Was bedeutet: Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit" in Eingriffe: Neun kritische Modelle (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1963), p. 139; "The Meaning of Working Through the Past" in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998). P. 98, trans. modified.

8 Adorno, "Versuch, das Endspiel zu verstehen" [1961] in Noten zur Literatur (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1998), p. 290; "Trying to Understand Endgame" in Notes to Literature, vol 1, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 248, trans. modified.

9 "Art, which if not reflective is no longer possible at all, must swear itself off of lightheartedness. Compelling it to do so above all is what happened in the recent past. The proposition that after Auschwitz not one more poem can be written does not hold utterly [gilt nicht blank], but it is certain that after this event, because it was possible and remains possible into the unforeseeable future, lighthearted art is no longer tenable. Objectively, it degrades into cynicism, however much it would like to rely on the goodness of human understanding." Adorno, "Ist die Kunst heiter?" in Noten zur Literatur, pp. 603-4; "Is Art Lighthearted?" in Notes to Literature, vol. 2, p. 251, trans. modified.

10 "Culture shudders at stench because it itself stinks; because its palace, as Brecht put it in a magnificent line, is built out of dogshit. Years after this line was written, Auschwitz demonstrated culture's failure irrefutably. That it could happen in the midst of all the traditions of philosophy, art, and the enlightening sciences says more than merely that these traditions - spirit - were unable to take hold of people and change them. In these branches themselves, in the emphatic claim of their autarky, untruth is squatting. After Auschwitz, all culture, including the urgent critique of culture itself, is garbage. In restoring itself after what took place without resistance in its own landscape, culture has become entirely the ideology it was potentially since the time when, opposing material existence, it presumed to inspire that existence with light - the same light refused it by the division of spirit [Geistes] from manual labor. Those who plead for the preservation of this radically guilty and shabby culture makes themselves its accomplices, while whoever spurns culture directly promotes the barbarism that culture revealed itself to be. Not even silence leads out of this circle; silence only rationalizes individual subjective incapacity with the status of objective truth, thereby once more degrading truth into lie." Adorno, Negative Dialektik, pp. 359-60; Negative Dialectics, pp. 356-7, trans. modified.

11 Adorno, Negative Dialektik, p. 356; Negative Dialectics, p. 361, trans. modified. See also Ästhetische Theorie, pp. 292-3 and 363-4; Aesthetic Theory, pp. 196-7 and 244-5.

12 Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, §23, p. 165; Critique of Judgment, p. 98.

13 For a fuller discussion of the cited passage from Negative Dialectics, see Gene Ray, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 19-32.
14 In a 1967 polemic against Rolf Hochhuth, Adorno disputes the playwright's strategy for representing history, but pointedly does not dispute what is represented: "You continue to imagine that one could make a fascinating scene out of Stalin and Truman in Potsdam, in which they devote only a few peripheral comments on the weapon of genocide, after the emperor has offered capitulation ten days before. The superfluous decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima is made in passing." Adorno, "Offener Brief an Rolf Hochhuth" in Noten zur Literatur, p. 593; "An Open letter to Rolf Hochhuth," Notes to Literature, vol 2, p. 242.
  Another example: "The relapse has already occurred. To still expect it in the future, even after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, is to take pitiable consolation in the thought that the worst is yet to come." Adorno, "Marginalien zu Theorie und Praxis" in Stichworte: Kritische Modelle 2 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1969), p. 179; ""Marginalia to Theory and Praxis" in Critical Models, p. 268.

15 "Furthermore, one cannot dismiss the thought that the invention of the atomic bomb, which can obliterate hundreds of thousands of people literally in one blow, belongs in the same historical context of genocide." Adorno, "Erziehung nach Auschwitz" [1966/7] in Stichworte, p. 86; "Education after Auschwitz" in Critical Models, p. 192.

16 See Ray, Terror and the Sublime, and "History, Sublime, Terror: Notes on the Politics of Fear," in Static 7 (Catastrophe), online at <http://static.londonconsortium/issue07>.

17 Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, §28, p. 185; Critique of Judgment, p. 120.

18 To avoid any possible confusion, I do not point to these "mistakes" in order to endorse "correctly" executed policies of secret abduction and torture and state assassination. As attacks on our remnant humanity, such measures are symptoms of barbarism that can only be rejected as indefensible.

19 "Unmanned spy planes to police Britain," The Independent, 6 August 2008, p. 4.

20 Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, §29, p. 202; Critique of Judgment, p. 135.

21 Ibid. §29, p. 201; Critique of Judgment, p. 135.

22 "Kant's doctrine of the feeling of the sublime all the more describes an art that shudders inwardly [in sich erzittert] by suspending itself in the name of an illusionless [scheinlosen] truth content, though without, as art, divesting itself of its character of semblance [Scheincharakter]." Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie, p. 292; Aesthetic Theory, p. 196.

23 I am not implying, by this well-marked comparison, that Lanzmann's film is flawless or escapes problematic moments of domination and violence in its use of the interview to approach and expose the point of traumatic inassimilability.

24 For an account and discussion of several of the watch's appearances in visual culture and public debate, see Ray, Terror and the Sublime, pp. 89-103.

25 In the digital age, this guarantee has become suspect as a matter of course. That set of problems is not at issue here, however. Let us simply posit a witness who has confirmed the existence of the actual watch in a museum in Hiroshima. I thank Christine Battersby for reminding me that these differences in status and context, between museum relic and photograph or image deployed in specific locations in visual culture, are enormously important, for they give to encounters a specificity that also mediates interpretation and the production of meaning.

26 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psych-Analysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller and trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1981), pp. 52-5.

27  Aristotle, Physics, trans. Richard Hope, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1961), pp. 33-4.

28 Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, p. 53.

29 Paul Harvey, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 441.

30 Adorno uses this phrase in a letter to Walter Bemjamin (10 November 1938). Adorno and Walter Benjamin, The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940, ed. Henri Lonitz and trans. Nicholas Walker (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 283.

31 See Ray, "Mourning and Cosmopolitics: With and Beyond Beuys," in Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes (University of Ulster, Belfast), ed., Beuysian Legacies: Art, Culture and Politics in Ireland, Europe and the US (Berlin: LIT, forthcoming), online at <http://www.linksnet.de/de/artikel/20797>

32 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh has also remarked the presence of Resnais's film in this context. See his "Plenty of Nothing: From Yves Klein's Le Vide to Arman's Le Plein," in Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000), p. 274. I engage critically with Buchloh's interpretation in "Mourning and Cosmopolitics."

33 Suggestively, Adorno in the same year remarked the prehistory of Zyclon-B in his essay on Beckett's Endgame: "Insecticide, which pointed toward the death camps from the very beginning, becomes the end-product of the domination of nature, which now abolishes itself." Adorno, Noten zur Literatur, p. 315; Notes to Literature, vol 1, p. 270.

34 For more on this context, see my essay on Beuys in Ray, ed., Joseph Beuys: Mapping the Legacy (Sarasota, Florida and New York: Ringling Museum and DAP, 2001), revised and with a postscript in Terror and the Sublime.

35 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 9.

36 I address these problems at length in Terror and the Sublime.