ornamenting the unthinkable

“Ornamenting the Unthinkable: Visualizing Survival Under Occupation”

WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly is publishing a special issue on the survival next year, and Wendy Kozol and I are thrilled that our work will be included.

Repetitive, messy, and often hard to see: survival is rarely photogenic. Relative to spectacular scenes of violent dying or heroic living that comprise familiar images of military conflict, survival may look rather dull, if it appears at all. Militarized violence typically becomes visible in mortality, but survival blurs the distinctions between life and death in the precarious environments that war creates, thus eluding or confounding predominant visual modalities for representing war zones. Relatedly, survival is often illegible in politicized fantasies about life and death during wartime, an incomprehensibility rooted in its deviation from mythologized visions of living and dying. In part, mainstream news media may find it difficult to depict survival (and consequently, distant spectators may find survival difficult to envision) because it is ubiquitous and temporally expansive. Dramatic events lend themselves to capture in single-frame photographs or short clips of film, while the ongoing task of surviving war lasts as long, or longer, than the conflict itself, a duration inimical to the narrative constraints of news media and entertainment genres.

Wartime survival is the maintenance of life in an extreme form of what Lauren Berlant characterizes as “crisis ordinariness” (2011), a concept that encapsulates the everyday traumas and forms of precarity generated by the current global political economy. Structural violence nourishes crisis ordinariness, while circumscribing its visibility through corporate and state control of the media. Yet as generative as the idea of ‘crisis ordinariness’ is, the ‘crisis’ that modifies the ‘ordinariness’ in this evocative phrase also risks overshadowing it. Focusing too narrowly on abiding crisis (or interlocking crises) risks overlooking the active, inventive forms of everyday survival strategies that crisis elicits, and the ways that those innovations mitigate the crisis that begets them. Shifting our gaze off crisis, we look here to a visual document of the livable forms of ordinariness that emerge in fissures through the protracted crisis of militarized violence.

Confronting survival in visual cultures of war often requires 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). Instead, this visual departure opens up alternative critical, political, and spectatorial possibilities. Here, we consider the knotting of survival, catastrophe, and ordinariness in the needlepoint artwork of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz to illustrate this potential. Krinitz, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland, juxtaposes the luscious materiality and pastoral settings of 36 fabric collage and embroidered panels with an autobiography of surviving genocidal violence. Arresting both for their virtuosic level of detail and their frank rendition of the occupation and its attendant traumas, Krinitz’s needlework ornaments the intersection of the horrific and the quotidian. This jarring combination confronts viewers even as the haptic richness and sensory elegance of her craft pulls towards spectatorial pleasures.