Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 31, 2009
Georges Didi-Huberman Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz Trans. Shane B. Lillis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 248 pp.; 30 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780226148168)
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Images in Spite of All is devoted to four images, specifically, the only four of the one-and-a-half million surviving photographs of the Nazi camps to depict the actual process of mass killing. Shot within and immediately outside the gas chambers at Auschwitz’s crematorium V, the images show naked women prisoners herded into the gas chambers and the mass cremation of corpses. Smuggled out of Auschwitz by the Polish resistance, the photographs were taken under the most extreme conditions of prohibition by members of the Sonderkommando, the special squad of prisoners compelled in the face of their own impending death to undertake the manual labor of extermination.

The first section of the book—a powerfully ethical polemic against iconophobia and the rhetoric of the unimaginable—comprises Georges Didi-Huberman’s catalogue essay for the 2000 Paris exhibition of these photographs (Clément Chéroux, ed., Memoire des camps: Photographies des camps de concentration et d’extermination Nazis (1933–1999), Paris: Marval, 2001, 219–241). The larger and more unusual second section is devoted to a refutation of criticism of that essay, advanced by Elisabeth Pagnoux and Gérard Wajcman in the journal Les temps modernes (Gérard Wajcman, “De la croyance photographique,” Les temps modernes 56, no. 613 (2001): 47–83; Elisabeth Pagnoux, “Reporter photographique a Auschwitz,” Les temps modernes 56, no. 613 (2001): 84–108). Conceding no points to these opponents, the rejoinder’s purpose is to ensure the essay’s correct reading rather than to extend debate. Readers must therefore go to the critical texts themselves to unravel their true motivations. But if this volume represents only half of an unfolding story, it is nevertheless one of the most significant works on the ethics of the documentary image yet published.

Grounded in a commanding phenomenology, Didi-Huberman’s thesis is an affirmation of the power of images and their encounter: of “photography’s particular ability to transmit in spite of all” (v), to bear witness, stimulate imagination, and generate awareness of a debt to those whose lives were sacrificed. The ethical dimensions of the latter process are unpacked with subtlety by Didi-Huberman, who refuses simple models of emotional identification. He invokes instead Proust’s disappropriating approach, much as Kaja Silverman has revived Max Scheler’s concept of heteropathic identification, to define the encounter with a radically unassimilable “other.” Yet his avowed “faith” in the image’s capacity to make present (to connect us experientially to something absent), along with the obligation (to sustain and even venerate the image) that this implies, has proved a point of contention with far more anthropological valence than the original essay or its rejoinder allows.

To invoke the “unimaginable,” to say “we cannot imagine,” is, for Didi-Huberman, a trope of avoidance that fails to acknowledge the “debt” to those who made and appear in the images. Imagining is not easy—these four images are “more precious and less comforting than all possible works of art” (3)—but it is, for the author, a necessary exercise of empathy: “How much harder was it for the prisoners to rip from the camps those few shreds of which we are now trustees, charged with sustaining them simply by looking at then?” (3) On this account, the “debt” to the photographer, incurred in the immediacy of viewing, transfers in perpetuity to the image itself. The debate over the essay has thus become much more than a question of competing interpretations or readings; it concerns the status and cultural value of the image.

The four blurry images, as both Didi-Huberman and his critics concur, add little to our knowledge of the camps except at the level of imagination. We know the facts concerning the round-up of prisoners and cremation; there is nothing depicted that is not already amply described in testimony. For Didi-Huberman this is not an issue given the injunction that we must imagine for ourselves (s’imaginer), and the sense that a debt remains to be honored. One either looks or disavows. The issue is not how good the image or its information is. Indeed, Didi-Huberman is critical of a tendency toward hypertrophy, characterized by an insistence on reading everything into an image. Such a tendency, he argues, leads to the overproduction of images—the touch-ups that remove their phenomenology, turning them into “icons of horror” (34). For Didi-Huberman the value of these excruciating documents lies precisely in the imperfections that reveal the risks taken by the clandestine photographer. The photograph as pure gesture is the trace of—and connection to—a particular photographer operating under appalling levels of constraint.

For Pagnoux and Wajcman, however, attending to such insufficient images implies that proof of the Holocaust is still required. By setting too much store in the relevance of visual images, Didi-Huberman is, they suggest, guilty of a form of Holocaust denial—the logic being that energy invested in a continuing search for evidence is misplaced and undermining. Didi-Huberman counters that Pagnoux and Wajcman’s “resistance to the image” (64) is derelict in its inattentiveness: a failure of imagination and acknowledgment. This he recognizes as a cultural problem: a generalized failure of vision. Hence, following Hannah Arendt, he argues that if the Holocaust appears unimaginable it is incumbent on us to engage imagination (s’imaginer). To do so, we must rethink the basis of our anthropology and human science—in other words, find methods for describing that which is seen, if not hitherto imagined (25).

Images In Spite of All is groundbreaking in this methodological sense. Didi-Huberman models a way of seeing, of “being attentive” (34), and thereby makes possible an imaginative engagement with images that are ill served by conventional exhibition or evidentiary frameworks. Future scholars may well look back on this volume and wonder that we ever lacked the resources to find “life” in these fragments. But with the study of testimony and trauma still in its infancy, the question of how to interpret visual testimony is as new to art history as it is to the fields of trauma studies or Holocaust studies. In respect of the latter, Didi-Huberman’s ethical imperative cuts across an established testimonial politics, equally invested in respect and remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust. Notwithstanding its failures to read the visual image, that politics—as espoused by Pagnoux and Wajcman—is profoundly attached to a very different metaphorics of presence and absence.

There is a certain strategic direction to Pagnoux and Wajcman’s argument to which Didi-Huberman gives little credit. The fact that photography was prohibited in the camps is emblematic of the systematic erasure of images and evidence. Hence, Pagnoux and Wajcman take the view that it is more important to affirm that there are no images (that the prohibition was categorical and absolute) than to exaggerate the import of these four fragments (the exceptions, perhaps, that prove the rule). The hyperbole of their denial charge obscures the importance of the work of rhetoric in both the competing formulations and exaggerates a point of difference. Didi-Huberman’s qualification “in spite of all” could, ultimately, be understood to confirm rather than refute the generalized absence of images. Both sides would concur that these are not representational images that satisfy what Ariella Azoulay calls the “civil contract” of photography—the implicit agreement that secures the photograph’s status as evidence (Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008). They are authentic artefacts, but their conditions of production and quality fall outside the norms of documentary photography. Azoulay’s argument is that there must be an implicit “contract” in a context where we are asked to read images for their evidentiary value; in its absence, the work of recouping the image, of finding an alternative “reading,” is unavoidably anthropological. But if this amounts to a cultural project, it highlights a tension between the art-historical reading—which, at its best, opens onto a new way of seeing and imagining—and one that adheres on principle to cultural practice, attending to how cultures use, position, care for, and see images.

The circularity of Pagnoux and Wajcman’s reasoning (there are no images of the Holocaust; and if there were and we looked at them, it would constitute a denial of the Holocaust) is easily, perhaps too readily, debunked in Didi-Huberman’s withering characterization. Goaded by Wajcman’s vitriolic attack on his powers of reasoning and “disastrous logic” (51), Didi-Huberman responds in kind, attempting to close out this debate over the procedures of cultural memory according to rules of logic. But a more “anthropological” consideration is in order. No matter how good the phenomenology—and it is good—the point of contention concerns the use (both cultural and strategic) of language and images. Didi-Huberman raises the stakes in this regard by insisting on a certain regime of obligation and care for images. This is predicated less on what the image shows than on its status as a trace and hence on how we understand the image to function as a “point of contact” (75). As Wajcman implies, there is more than a little incarnational theology to this. For Wajcman, Didi-Huberman transforms the photograph in his account into a Holy Shroud, bearing the imprint of Auschwitz—a Christological reading that carries the overtones of sacrifice and redemption, and with it the valuation of the image as relic.

While Pagnoux and Wajcman’s reasoning lacks the art-historical context to nail this argument, presenting Didi-Huberman with something of an easy target, Bruno Chaouat has elsewhere done an impressive job linking Didi-Huberman’s theory of the documentary image to a Christian theophany running through his larger art-historical project (Bruno Chaouat, “In the Image of Auschwitz,” diacritics 36:1 (2006) 86–96). A seminal work for Chaouat is Didi-Huberman’s 1990 essay on the invention of photography, in which the photographic print is configured as a “proof,” akin to the divine proof that writes itself onto the body, and the martyr or witness as one who is engraved with light—literally photographed. Seen as an extension of this allegorical framework, the Auschwitz essay becomes for Chaouat symptomatic of a “French” grappling with the Holocaust, given to perpetuating apocalyptic and sublime readings of Auschwitz (Chaouat, 95). This challenge to the historiographical and cultural foundations of Didi-Huberman’s argument is not overcome with the dismissal directed at Pagnoux and Wajcman. But if art history is to participate in the larger project of “rethinking human science” (25) in response to Auschwitz, its own foundations and methods must be open to critical consideration.

The more one appreciates and understands the extension of the Didi-Huberman project, the more one encounters its anthropological determinations and limits. It is not that the arguments of this latest volume are flawed in any sense; on the contrary, the way in which the threads of a medieval theophany are pulled through into the contemporary, along with a complex model of empathy and the transmission of pathos in material form, provides an awe-inspiring framework: one that is capable of stirring the imagination and of extending an ethical remembering in a way that makes us aware of the capacities of images. That it does not touch equally many of those who imagine and reimagine the Holocaust from outside this broadly Christian heritage, that the way in which we care for and value traces of the dead is subject to immense cultural variance, does not diminish Didi-Huberman’s achievement. But it does cause us to pause at the injunction “we must imagine. . . .” Certainly, “we must not forget” (deny, disregard, disrespect) may be asserted as a general principle, a political imperative. But how we remember and imagine—how we use images and imbue them with the trace of lost lives—is not as easily subsumed under the universal prescription. There remains much work to be done in the emergent field devoted to the study of cultural memory—a field where art history and anthropology collide and transform. Images in Spite of All will no doubt stand as one of its formative polemics.

Jill Bennett
Professor and Director, National Institute for Experimental Arts and Centre for Contemporary Art and Politics, University of New South Wales

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