What Image for the Death of the Witness?: Marc Nichanian Lectures in NY

Marc Nichanian at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Literary critic Marc Nichanian, currently a visiting professor of cultural studies at Sabançi University in Istanbul, and formerly at Columbia University, gave a lecture titled “What Image for the Death of the Witness?” at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery here on February 3. This talk was presented in connection with the “Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire” exhibition on the same day.

To understand Nichanian’s talk, it is necessary to be familiar to a certain degree with European philosophy and in particular debates over the past few decades concerning the possibility and limits to “representation” in various forms of genocides, mass murders and similar catastrophic events. Nichanian in his previous works, in particular the volume La Perversion Historiographique (translated into English by Gil Anidjar as The Historiographic Perversion, 2008), came down emphatically on the side of those who do not believe that it is possible to portray genocides and similar such events in literature. He continued in this vein at this lecture, examining what an image is and its relationship to the catastrophe and survival.

After a warm introduction by Neery Melkonian, the director of the Blind Dates project, Nichanian gave the outline of his talk, stressing his view that a catastrophic event could not be accounted for through historiography because of its odd temporal structure — not everything has yet happened, so that it will only be an event in the future. Secondly, historiography is based on witnessing, but because the catastrophic event is the death of the witness, it cannot be written about historically.

Nichanian spoke in front of an artwork by Aram Jibilian and Aaron Mattocks using masks to present Arshile Gorky, or his “ghost,” at Gorky’s Connecticut home. The idea of a mask covering the absence of what it is supposed to be covering led Nichanian to the concept of the death mask as the image of the image.

Nichanian then quoted from Siegfried Kracauer, a German-Jewish theoretician of mass culture, who said that actual horrors, like the Gorgon Medusa, paralyze men with blinding fear, and so cannot be looked at directly. We can only look at images of them. The film screen (perhaps like the death mask) is thus Athena’s polished shield, allowing us to see, for example, events in Nazi concentration camps. Nichanian explained that the image has an apotropaic function but Krakuaer also gives it a redemptive component. It redeems the real, the horror, by making it bearable and thus accessible.

At this point, Nichanian turned to the recent volume by Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz. Didi-Huberman maintained that the four photographs taken by sonderkommandos at this camp refute the notion that genocide — in this case the Shoah, and Auschwitz in particular — are unimaginable. Instead, we need to manage the mechanism of images in order to know what to do with our memory. The image is indeed testimony, and, Nichanian felt he would probably add, all testimony is images. Didi-Huberman argued against those who felt that the catastrophe does not belong in history, and against the postmodernists in general.

Naturally, Nichanian was opposed to Didi- Huberman’s point of view and felt that there was incredible resistance to acceptance of the idea of the death or destruction of the witness. The nature of the catastrophe was the erasure of the factuality of the fact through this elimination of the witness. Nichanian expounded further: “The perpetrators knew that at the very core of humanity was the witness, and the possibility of bearing witness.” The survivors of such catastrophes have to deny the experience of the witness’s erasure or death (i.e. the witness within themselves is destroyed) in order to go on living. That means in essence that the survivors have to deny the very catastrophe they have lived through. Nichanian said, “This denial has nothing to do with the denial of the perpetrator. It is a self- denial. You know that the Armenians never use the word ‘Aghet’ but they use the word ‘genocide,’ as if it were enough to name the event itself as a fact for it to be what it is.”

Nichanian briefly noted that Armenians have a passion for the image, not only as photographers, but also as novelists (e.g. Shahnur, Vorpuni and Beledian). However, Nichanian avoided dealing with this issue during this lecture.

Finally, Nichanian turned to the work of Maurice Blanchot in the 1940s and 1950s. Blanchot was a writer and literary theorist whose work almost obsessed Jacques Derrida, the French-Jewish philosopher and founder of the theory called deconstruction. In 1955, in L’espace literaire [“The Literary Space”], Blanchot referred thrice to the image. He wrote that in literature, language was its own image. Secondly, the strangeness of the cadaver is that of image. When the person was alive he was always changing, but the cadaver no longer changes and so is the perfect image of the person. Thirdly, once a utensil is damaged it becomes its own image; no longer disappearing in its use, it remains pure appearance.

Nichanian felt that the temporal structure of the catastrophe is illustrated in Blanchot’s novel, Death Sentence. In the first part of the book, the woman Natalie’s death is interrupted, and she gets to live on one more day. Catastrophe is similarly living with us but has not yet happened. It will happen in the future as a past event. Denialists and historians obey the call of the perpetrator and of history by calling for the impossible — testimony and images. In those who survived the catastrophe, the aspect of them that is the witness died as a result of the catastrophe. This is reflected in Blanchot’s Madness of the Day, in which a character loses his sight but survives an accident. He is repeatedly examined about what happened, but recounting his story would not reveal anything since everything had long since been revealed. The character could not form a story out of the events.

The insistence of the doctors asking the survivor of the accident to give an account of the event that is similar to historians who ask Armenian survivors to give an accounting of their own catastrophe and this creates a “historiographical perversion.” The truth of the facts is an historical truth, but this is an impossibility in the case of what most of us call the Armenian Genocide. Nichanian feels that art and literature can find a creative way to turn the perfect, because “dead,” image of the event (i.e. the testimony about the catastrophe), into something live and worthwhile.