The Avisuality of Destruction and Embodied Mediation of Trauma
Even though Western media, education, and culture are heavy with representations of war and destruction, reactions to them appear rather passive. Some privileged Western viewers may find it hard to relate to those who have experienced destruction as well as to work against the continuation of violence. A different form of representation that enables a connection to the victims of war and violence in a more engaging way might thus be useful to explore. In the following essay I am going to analyse two visual poems by Syrian born Palestinian poet Ghayath Almadhoun and Swedish poet Marie Silkeberg, who combine poetry with visual material of events of destruction. The theory of trauma and disorientation conceptualised by Martin and Rosello (2016) will reveal the avisuality (Lippit 2005) of destruction, and not its hyper-visibility in Western culture, as the core issue problematised by the visual poems.
Avisuality is something that leaves traces but nevertheless stays predominantly invisible to the eye. It presents an “absence, the materiality of a visual form or body” and it “determines an experience of seeing, a sense of the visual, without ever offering an image”(Lippit 30, 32). An avisuality that mirrors the highly political absence of the experiences of war in nationalist media representations reinforces the exclusion of those who have suffered from the realm of the human. I argue that these poems provide an example of how artworks can re-situate the subject in their conception of the experience of destruction through embodied modes of representation that challenge the problematised avisuality. In doing so, they allow for connection on the shared grounds of vulnerability and towards an ethics of non-violence (Butler 2006; XVII).
In the first visual poem, "The Celebration", video material of the destruction of Berlin after WW2 is combined with Almadhoun reading out his poem in Arabic, subtitled with English translation. The poem comes from Almadhoun’s poetry collection Adrenaline, which focuses on his experience as an asylum seeker and the destruction of Damascus. However, Almadhoun refuses to explicitly visualise the destruction of Damascus, suggesting a broader argument around the topic as opposed to an individual or particular story. Instead, the footage of Berlin’s destruction, kept secret from the public until Almadhoun used it, is played over and over again.The poem itself refers to many different historical events of destruction and violence, though, not connected to Berlin nor Damascus:
Throw away theRenaissance and bring on the inquisition,
Throwaway European civilization and bring on the Kristallnacht,
Throwaway socialism and bring on Joseph Stalin,
Throwaway Rimbaud's poems and bring on the slave trade, […]
Throwaway Hemingway's sun that also rises and bring on the bullet
in the head,
Throwaway Van Gogh's starry sky and bring on the severed ear,
Throwaway Picasso's Guernica and bring on the real Guernica with
its smell of fresh blood,
We need these things now, we need them to begin the celebration
(Almadhounand Silkeberg 2014; 6:57)
The last part of the poem calls for the abundance of celebrated historical events and people, and for an engagement with traumatic personal or cultural events of violence. The rewinding of the video material of Berlin’s destruction implies a sense of reliving history in a way that challenges the conventional linear narration and generalising representations of historical artefacts about destruction that present history as closed-off events of the past from a certain historical viewpoint (Almadhoun and Silkberg 2014;5:00). Moreover, it invites us to go back to history, making it more accessible and less fixed to one static factuality of the past. Connecting these traumatic historical facts with the footage of Berlin’s destruction and the topic of Damascus’ destruction is overwhelming for the viewer. The juxtaposing of different historical references suggests that this is not only about the destruction of Damascus. Instead, the poem outlines a larger problem of repressed cultural and historical memory and confronts the viewer with an urgency to highlight various stories of violence. The absence of any clear storyline or focus on history or persona in the poem except its continuous reference to events of destruction and violence allows for another, more fundamental concern to arise: something is missing in the representation of destruction with mere artefacts and historical data. Naming different historically important times and the rather ironic call to “celebrate” stories of violence, in combination with the video material rewinding, argues for a different approach to representing historical topics by revisiting and highlighting experiences of violence.
Central to the poem is a feeling of lack and the absence of a manifesting story. What remains constant, though, are references to events of destruction or violence. This issue can be conceptualised as the avisuality of destruction in the stories the West tells about the world. Elaborated by Akira Lippit, the term “avisuality”refers to what Derrida calls the second order of invisibility in his conceptualisation of excessive visualities, a form of secret visibility that “is seen in the other senses”, that extends “beyond the visible”; something that can leave visible traces but stays nonetheless invisible itself (Lippit 30, 32). Almadhoun’s visual poems extend this notion of avisuality by suggesting it is a general trait inherent to how we represent destruction. The visible artifacts of destruction record only the shadows of a secret, of a traumatic history, event or experience. There is an absence in the conventional portrayal of war and destruction—it is through the lived, bodily experience of individuals that these experiences remain in the present in the form of trauma. This embodied reality of human experience is thus the avisual part in media that keeps the traumatised caught up in a middle space. In this middle space, past and present meet in the body, psyche and experiences of the now, and this avisuality in media keeps the outside viewer from empathically and ethically understanding, responding and connecting.
The second visual poem, "Your Memory is my Freedom", is a response to the first video in its attempt to work through and “celebrate” the avisuality of destruction in ways that differ from the portrayal of visual artifacts. The video instead offers an overload of sensorial and embodied experiences of the events of destruction (Almadhoun and Silkeberg 2013). It works across the causes of its avisuality: the discrepancy between the visible traces and the invisible parts of the traumatic and embodied experience of destruction. The video consists of the cutting between visuals of the Syrian revolution and a person running through what looks like a Western European city. This imagery is accompanied by the reading of the poem by Marie Silkeberg in Swedish, referring to the misery and destruction occurring in different places in the world. The video is inherently disorienting because the focalizer is not visible. Instead, the video forces the viewer to take the place of the focalizing subject. An additional voice-over of the non-visible focalizer’s heavy breathing allows the viewer to experience the traumatic memories haunting the protagonist. The viewer is invited to step into the sensorial experience of disembodiment and dissociation. Disorientation, as illustrated by Mireille Rosello and Niall Martin, is a two-sided concept. On the one hand, it reveals the dramatic impacts on the psyche of a person that has experienced destruction. On the other hand, the concept of disorientation also allows for the re-situation and re-evaluation of subjectivity that has the potential to lead to new orientation.
Moreover, "Your Memory is My Freedom" disorients the viewer by using the materialities of sensorial experience to situate the subject differently and to consider the repressed traumatic memory of destruction. The absence of a visible focalizer and persona problematises the war victim’s absence and invisibility as a suffering human to the eye of the Western spectator. Through this embodied portrayal of the underrepresented victim of war, a more intimate connection is established. The artworks are thus not interested in discursive clarity but in the re-situation of the subject through multiple sensorial experiences. It is often suggested that daily confrontation with traumatising images has numbed people as a result of a traumatic defense mechanism, evoking a disengagement. According to Hübl the trauma mechanism is a “defense pattern of our bodies and psyches” that “attempts to keep us in a form, to protect the information flow and keep our development going” when confronted with overwhelm or chaos (43:29). But without working through the chaos and the feelings attached, there is no chance for healing nor engagement—on a personal, collective, and cultural level.
The visual poems break through this wall of traumatic defense mechanisms with their modes of representation and confront the viewer, through the chaotic and disorienting modes of narrative, with a sense of the overwhelming traumatic effect of destruction. As Almadhoun reads in "The Celebration": “Throw away European civilisation and bring on the Kristallnacht […] We need these things now, we need them to begin the celebration” (Almadhoun and Silkeberg 2014; 6:57). He references one of the most painful memories from WW2 and also recounts other historical events and representations of pain and violence that we should “celebrate” rather than the heroic or “factual” parts of history that tend to dominate the narrative. This dominant narrative functions to uphold hierarchical power structures working on the legitimisation and continuation of violence by suppressing the lived experiences and stories of those who have suffered. The word “celebrate” here seems ironic, highlighting the discomfort arising from the idea to celebrate violence, the awareness of the suppression of painful stories from the history we tell and the avoidance of ethical responsibility attached to them. The irony points out the tendency of Western cultures to deny that which feels like too much to digest, as the trauma mechanism does, or that which would question the existing narratives and identity upholding the supremacy and privilege of distance from realities of violence in favour of a “good life” of a white, Western culture. What the videos call for with chaotic and disorienting visual cuts is the need to focus on the way these events haunt us through bodily experience, challenging the habit of avoidance. They expose the avisual, embodied experience of the victims of war that normally stays invisible to the Western perception.
While "The Celebration" problematises the need to engage with the stories of violence and turn toward embodied storytelling and reconnecting Western (hi-)stories and cultural memory to the painful parts of history, "Your Memory is My Freedom" offers an alternative to conventional media representations by representing the embodied experiences of the traumatised victim of war. Which lives are being mourned is a political choice, a further extension of this representational discrimination. Although these videos problematise the invisibility of the migrant and sufferers of war, also manifesting in the literal invisibility of the focalizer running in "Your Memory is My Freedom", the poetic voice and the way focalization is used here manipulate the viewer into feeling a common connection or sense of proximity between the poetic voice and the viewer based on the mediated embodied experience transmitting a sense of disorientation, maybe even anxiety, through the visual cut mentioned before. There is thus an opening of an affective space from where victims of war and their experiences can be made somehow visible. Including their experience in representations allows the sufferers of destruction to be represented as humans whose lives deserve protection and whose losses are worth mourning. The embodied mediation supports a more intimate connecting between the privileged Western viewer and the victim of war and with that allows for a more than abstract mediation of their reality to the Western viewer.
As Judith Butler writes in Precarious Life, there is a transformative aspect to loss and media plays a significant role in how loss and vulnerabilities are portrayed (21). Depending on how and what stories of vulnerability are told, they can either foster more violence or connection on the grounds of a shared vulnerability to the precariousness of life (Butler XVII).The necessity of working with different cultural modes, ways of storytelling, and forms of embodied experiencing—as in the cultural objects analyzed in this essay—lies in the potential of opening up new ways of representing people that need both refuge and to be understood and seen as humans. The embodied representation of destruction’s traumatic after effects opens up a communication of disaster, destruction, and suffering that does not allow atypical trauma reaction of repression, denial, or distancing with the effect of reinforcing the violence that lies at their origin. Rather, it represents the embodied reality of traumatic experiences of destruction, opening up space to mourn for and on some level empathically relate to the victims of war by connecting on the shared grounds of the “precariousness of life” (meaning we are all vulnerable human beings) through the embodied human experiencing that sensorial and engaging modes of storytelling invite as opposed to merely rational, artifactual, and disembodied representations of destruction (Butler 2006; 20, 32).
Artworks thus have the potential to work against the social invisibility of migrants as described by Esther Peeren as “living in the visible world as invisible” and pertaining “to subjects who are materially present and can be physiologically perceived but nevertheless remain unacknowledged” (Peeren 2014; 36). Looking back at the second visual poem, the title of "Your Memory is my Freedom" is put at the end of the video, where people in the war zone in Damascus can beseen. The “You” invites a reading that addresses the Western society (or theones belonging to the reality of the undestroyed streets the focalizer is running through) that is asked to establish a collective memory of the so far unrepresented pasts of suffering. That is, to get over the dilemma of the avisuality of these histories of violence that renders those histories as facts. A collective memory is important for the Western viewer to be able to ethically and compassionately connect on the basis of shared vulnerability to those suffering from traumatic experiences of destruction today. To become less ignorant of other people’s suffering, and to engage with those who have suffered, contests a wall of repressed trauma and othering. The embodied representation of destruction then opens up the possibility to challenge the conventional media representations of the West, in which “affect is regulated to support both the war effort and, more specifically, nationalist belonging” and instead navigate toward an ethics of non-violence (Butler 2015).
To conclude, an analysis of Ghayath Almadhoun’s and Marie Silkeberg’s visual poems in light of the concepts of avisuality, disorientation, and trauma theory reveals the avisuality of destruction as a core problem of conventional media representations excluding the experience of the victims of war. The analysis has further argued for this avisuality to be linked to the social reproduction of invisibility and exclusion of the victims of destruction. The poems propose a mode of representation that focuses on the avisual part of destruction that usually remains unseen, re-situating the viewer into embodied experiencing, too. And finally, they open up an idea of representing destruction in a way that integrates the lived experience of those who have been excluded from what counts as human lives deserving protection and compassion in the West by representing the avisual, embodied, and traumatising experience of destruction.
Almadhoun, Ghayath, and Catherine Cobham. Adrenalin. Action Books, 2017.
Almadhoun, Ghayath, and Marie Silkeberg. Your Memory Is My Freedom, YouTube, 14 August 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfOuJ-m5M14&t=150s.
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 Almadhoun, in an interview about the video, says: “The poem is written about Damascus. But it has in the beginning something about Berlin. And I feel that there is no difference between destruction and destruction” (2014). A statement supporting the impression that what the video’s modes of representation have been set to thematize is not an asylum seeker’s story perse.
 Lippit refers to Derrida’s conceptualization of excessive visualities. Derrida’s first form of invisibility is about the invisibility of something that is materially present and potentially visible but that is kept from sight. The second order of invisibility, much more interesting here, is what Derrida calls the “absolute invisibility” of something that is “entirely outside the ‘register of sight”’ and that is instead a form of secret visibility that “is seen in the other senses'', that extends “beyond thev isible” (Lippit 32). This avisuality can thus be seen as the conception of an event/experience that can be visual or which can leave visual traces or artifacts but which nonetheless stays invisible tothe eye in some parts that can only be experienced through other senses (Lippit30). Lippit connects Derrida’s theory of avisuality to radiation as something avisual that is “presented to vision, there to be seen” but which ‘in a profoundly irreducible manner, [remains] unseen’ (32). The photos of X-rays, as an example, make visible parts of the body but it stays a secret visuality, what you can see are only the shadows or traces of the inner body, the radiation itself stays invisible and manifests in traces as in the form of photos (32).
 Judith Butler relates to this problematic by referring to terrorist attacks as in 9-11 America, where some lives were portrayed as grievable and deserving protection as the victims of the terrorist attacks, and the lives that are not portrayed as victims or vulnerable by associating them with the threat to life – not as human lives themselves - , bye.g. generalising all lives from Islamic countries to potential threats to the safety of nations that encounter the Islam as a threat to nationalist safety and thus legitimizing the waging of war against them (Butler 2015).