The Visual Rhetoric of Traumatic Histories Daniel F. Schowalter Dept. of Communication and Culture Indiana University
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 contingency of meaning in an image, and its own status as an image. Of course, some images are more suited to this than others. When one speaks of "the rhetoric of the image" there is an implied focus on the image itself just as when one speaks of "polysemy" the focus is on the consumer/reader. The self-reflexive image, however, can imply a "dialogue" that focuses on the exchange between and among viewers and images (a rhetorical economy). That is, when one looks at a Ken Burns still, for example, one takes in certain attributes unique to that image, one "brings to" the act of consumption a certain set of discourses which help to make sense of the image and, most importantly, one can begin to ponder this exchange and read/consume the linkages it points up including "history," "power," "guilt," "genocide," "contingency," "arbitrariness," "contextualization," "interpretation," "ways of looking/consuming," and the like. Such a notion of self-reflexivity, then, becomes crucial to a conception of visual rhetorics as it seeks to problematize this "dialogue," foreground its contingency of meaning and artifice, and discourse about its status as image, one that transgresses the narrative boundaries of time and space. It is this sort of transgression that begins to foreground the "ideology of the image."
When Barthes suggested that the visual operates from a paradigm appealing to that which goes without saying, he points up the ideological privileging of the visual. Like all things ideological, the image is hard to "break out of," hard to "crack" or "rupture." That is, it's difficult to interrogate (or even think about) the visual without using visual metaphors. If we think of ideology as a set of (often common-sensical) ideas connected up with power, then we again see power as an animating force in visual rhetorics. Thus, such meaning bestowed at a "single stroke" is a powerful sort of meaning, indeed. It is this singularity and transparency of meaning that ought to be one of visual rhetorics' primary foes. Stereotyped images from history -- this is "trauma," this is "tragedy," this is "victimization," this is "genocide" -- at once, to use Stuart Hall's phrase, serve to shut down the flow of meaning at the same time that they attempt to fix it (make it transparent, singular). The visual-rhetorical critic must seek to "open up" the flow of meaning contained/constrained by such fixed images and help to craft a discourse that goes beyond the image itself.
The recent trend in studies of collective memory, combined with an ever growing visual turn in rhetorical studies and practices, have helped to form a framework of inquiry which begins to move toward visual rhetorics, particularly the renaissance in film that delves into the nether-realms of histories characterized by tragedy, trauma and violence. Visual rhetorics ought to both challenge the notions of unrepresentability, self-reflexivity, and ideological privileging as well as to let them become a guiding problematic. The visual-rhetorical critic must ask how these notions function rhetorically with each other and what sort of visual-rhetorical economy makes itself available for critique.
Important questions include How do viewers potentially recontextualize or reinscribe nationalism in images from traumatic histories? How does a culture come to terms with, or fail to come to terms with such traumatic histories? To explore the dynamics of such representations is to participate in a shift in our thinking from the notion of "visual cultures" to one of "visual rhetorics" that looks specifically at the "rhetorical economy" crafted between verbal and visual images in popular culture. At the heart of this project is the link between image and ideology, a link so overdetermined that it becomes elusive. Visual rhetorics will focus on the "unlinking" and "re-linking" of ideologies to images. Films delving into the realm of history, power, and image gain their very meaning from such linkages and offer an opportunity to explore visual rhetorics.