Paper for the 2015 meeting of the American Studies Association:
“Ornamenting the Unthinkable: Visualizing Survival Under Occupation”
ASA is in Toronto this year! So that’s fun, plus I’m thrilled to be on a panel with Thy Phu, Franny Nudelman, and Andrea Gustavson on “Ordinary Crises: Visual Rites of Survival and Resistance.” I’m presenting this paper with Wendy Kozol.
Relative to more spectacular scenes of violent dying or heroic living in images of military conflict, survival may look rather dull, if it appears at all; survival is repetitive, messy, and often hard to see. Looking for survival in images of war requires abandoning the quest for idealized visions of living and dying, departing from ideological absolutes (for sometimes the work of survival is ugly) and fantasies about resistance (for sometimes the work of survival is primarily utilitarian). Survival blurs the distinctions between life and death in precarious conditions, like the everydayness of violence that Lauren Berlant characterizes as “crisis ordinariness.” Shifting our gaze off crisis, we focus here on the livable forms of ordinariness that emerge within its fissures, to consider alternative critical possibilities opened up by such a visual departure.
In her 2013 series, “Occupied Pleasures,” Tanya Habjouqa photographs Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories as they encounter momentary abandon and quotidian pleasures. Deviating from visual stereotypes of the region, “Occupied Pleasures” visualizes the coexistence with catastrophe. Often set against backdrops of shelled concrete or confined by the ‘Separation Wall,’ these scenes are notable not just for the absence of spectacular injury, but also for the presence of subjectivities that exceed victimization. Critics like Judith Butler have drawn our attention to discursive elisions of others’ suffering, rendering them ungrievable. Yet rather than advocate for more visibility of suffering (a visibility that Asma Abbas has critiqued as benefiting the privileged), we look elsewhere to explore the ways that representations that depict no suffering might facilitate recognition of grievable lives. What are the complexities and potentialities of pleasure—for both its participants and its spectators—in what Ariella Azoulay has characterized as “regime-made disaster”?
Following another loop of misery and ordinariness, we then turn to the needlepoint work of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz. She spent her adolescence in German-occupied Poland, eventually emigrating to the United States after the war, where she began illustrating scenes from her childhood in elaborate needlepoint panels. Arresting both for their virtuosic level of detail and their frank rendition of historical and political trauma, Krinitz’s needlework ornaments the intersection of the incomprehensible and the quotidian. This jarring combination confronts viewers even as the aesthetic elegance of the needlepoint pulls towards the pleasures of looking. Following Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s insistence on the importance of practices that can ameliorate trauma, we consider how in both Krinitz’s needlepoint and “Occupied Pleasures,” the sensory lure of the scene grates against knowledge about the miseries of its origins.
The ethical challenge of spectatorship posed by Habjouqa and Krinitz is to resist drifting so far into the lovely relief of the scene that we forget the intractability of crisis and trauma. Our work takes up this challenge as a means of reframing American studies away from a preoccupation with suffering by exploring the variegated relationships between representation and militarized violence that arise at the otherwise unthinkable junction of survival and war.