‘Shocking Representation’ notes

Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film‘ by Adam Lowenstein

Just finished this book yesterday (9 January 2010). It discusses through film examples how historical trauma is reflected in the allegorical moment in film narrative where the past collides with the present in the eyes of the spectator. It moves away from a modernist reading of trauma as being a proper way to work though and towards a more post-modern/realist reading previously thought to be unhealthy. It establishes a conflation between ‘art genre’ and ‘horror genre’ in regards to trauma representation in cinema (how even art films tend towards the spectacle, how can it not, when showing something horrific). The author ‘shifts cinema’s relation to history from compensation to confrontation.’

  • Cinemas considered ‘sites of conflict among different interest groups’ (p. 10)
  • Jetztzeit (Benjamin): time filled by the presence of the now, a momentary collision between past and present, when one can “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger”. (p. 13)
  • Bazin: “for each individual [filmmaker] the key [to representing the social world] will not be political or moral, while it should in fact be beyond politics and morality” (p. 35)
  • Punctum (Barthes): in photographs, the rare quality that breaks the studium (the general interest in the historical, political, and cultural implications of the photo). It wounds the viewer and allows “the detail to rise of its own accord into affected consciousness.” (p. 123)
  • Leo Bersani says: A crucial assumption in the culture of redemption is that a certain type of repetition of experience repairs inherently damaged or value-less experience. Experience may be overwhelming, practically impossible to absorb, but it is assumed…that the work of art has the authority to master the presumed raw material of experience in the manner that uniquely gives value to, perhaps even redeems, that material…such apparently acceptable views of art’s beneficently reconstructive function in culture depend of a devaluation of historical experience and art. The catastrophes of history matter much less if they are somehow  compensated for in art, and art itself gets reduced to a kind of superior patching function, is enslaved to those very materials to which it presumably imparts value. (p. )

ALLEGORY and the “allegorical moment”:

  • This paradoxical image of death in life, of neither death nor life, crystallizes the allegorical moment’s challenge to the binary oppositions that govern the study of trauma and its representation: melancholia/mourning, acting-out/working-through, historically irresponsible/historically responsible, and realism/modernism. (p. 3)
  • Allegory resists fantasies of strictly teleological history in favor of fleeting instants where “meaning” is forged between past and present, in “the depths that separate visual being from meaning’
  • Allegory disrupts the realism/modernism dichotomy by partaking of the real without adopting “naturalized” realism, and by partaking of the abstract without mandating a modernist aesthetic of absence and self-reflexivity.
  • Allegory honors representation’s promise that trauma can be communicated-its commitment to the image of death is simultaneously a commitment, however conflicted and provisional, to recognition, to the past’s value for the present. (p. 15-16)
  • The allegorical moment’s redemptive potential exists in the volatile participation with the very poisons it could work to dissipate. (p. 50)
  • Betweenness: …allegorical images present “meaning’ not as a fixed quantity, but precisely as an image, as an instant of occurring transformation. Benjamin’s images exist in the allegorical moment between being and appearance, between subject and object, between life and death. This allegorical (and dialetical) betweenness of the image is indicated by the “meaningful” corpse and crystallized by the death’s head-what Benjamin refers to as “the heart of the allegorical way of seeing.” The realm of the image, with its connotations of ruin, fragmentation, and death, is thus also, for Benjamin, the realm of history’s representation.” (p. 13)
  • ‘If film, spectator, and history collide during the allegorical moment, then authorship must be understood as a key variable in the allegorical equation’ (p. 165)

Georges Franju (Le Sang des betes/Blood of the Beasts, 1949 and Les Yeux san visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960):

  • Bataille (reaction to Blood of the Beasts): “How then can one not see to what extent horror becomes fascinating, and how it alone is brutal enough to break everything that stifles?” (p. 20)
  • he engenders a ‘fierce new way of seeing’ for his audience
  • “barge is more than a barge” (p. 21)
  • Franju quote: ‘There isn’t any cinema verite. It’s necessarily a lie, from the moment the director intervenes-or it isn’t cinema at all…You must re-create because reality runs away; reality denies reality. You must first interpret it, or re-create it.’ (p. 24)
  • …for Benjamin, “film is the art form that is keeping with the increased threat to [modern] life” represented by shock. He claims that “man’s need to expose himself to shock effects is his adjustment to the dangers threatening him…Shock for Benjamin, like violence for Franju, works ultimately to reclaim what is “tender in the reality” of modernity. The pain of Franju’s allegorical horror is the agony of awakening-to the body, and to history. (p. 27)
  • demands a “mode of perception based on the interdependence of ‘seeing’ and ‘looking’. (p. 35)

Audience/Peeping Tom

  • She (Quigly) responds to an unnerving sense of inclusion, of collapsed boundaries between herself and an imagined audience of pathologized others. Peeping Tom’s “realism” blurs distinctions of intended audiences…(p. 56)
  • the film’s refusal to distinguish the “right” people from the “wrong” people when addressing its audience. (p. 60)

Last House on the Left / It’s only a movie!/Vietnam

  • the Vietnam era depends on particularly strong manifestations of Michael Rogin calls “political demonology,” a “tradition at the heart of American politics” consisting of “the creation of monsters…by the inflation, stigmatization, and dehumanization of political foes.” (p. 113)
  • the film’s allegorical promise: that “only a movie” as extreme, confused, and courageous as Last House can confront the divisive historical trauma of the Vietnam era along the axes of political demonology that constitute it. (p. 113)
  • Last House stages an allegorical challenge to entrenched viewer affect underpinning such demonizing narratives and strives to fulfill the hype of its ad by pushing its viewers “too far” – shocking them into a recognition of their own private complicity in the violence they have projected onto the monstrous public other. (p. 123)
  • Viewer implicated in revenge violence: “the disturbing dimensions of viewer participation in the desire for vengeance are laid bare through their realization as sickening bloodshed.” (p. 127)
  • Last House’s insistence on the risky collision of public and private identifications as part of the audience’s allegorical engagement with historical trauma concurs with Benjamin’s claim that “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’…It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up, at a moment of danger.” (p. 127)
  • Space for audience, mimicking own horror genre: ‘Last House’s invocation of “the presumed real” of photography under the sign of exploitation cinema’s fantastic claims to “truth” obtains the space necessary to penetrate viewer defenses that tend to anesthetize historical trauma when it is presented as photographic news.’ (p. 128)

Romero/Night of the Living Dead and Cronenberg/Shivers

  • Wood says:’…apocalyptic horror films such as Night are “progressive in so far as their negativity is not recuperable into the dominant ideology, but constitutes (on the contrary) the recognition of that ideology’s disintegration, it’s untenability, as all it has repressed explored and blows it apart.’ (p. 155)
  • Wood says: ‘Romero’s ghouls are the embodiment of established values/dominant norms…they are linked specifically to the tensions and conflicts within the bourgeois patriarchal family. The problem for the survivors, then…is to extricate themselves from these values and create new ones, new forms of relating.’ (p. 155)
  • Audience: For Tom Gunning, “the author functions as ‘an invitation to reading…precisely poised on the threshold of the work, evident in the film itself, but also standing outside it, absent except in the imprint left behind.” What anchors Gunning’s study is the firm belief that reading this imprint constitutes a valuable act of interpretation, one that allows audiences to engage authorship as an encounter not with the biographical author, but with “the language of the cinema” as negotiated between viewer and director. (p. 165)
  • In relation to Crash, 1996: ‘the film’s crashes are horrifying in their violent destructiveness but somehow also affirming in their furious determination to connect with a sense of lived experience.’ (p. 169)