The Evolution of Speaking the Unspeakable: The Ways that Genocides, War-Traumas, and Mass-Killings are Recounted
The question that is on my brain tonight was inspired by a Comparative Literature Seminar I attended at King's College London. Delivered by Caroline Laurent and entitled "Remembering Through Imagination and Connections: The Case of Sequential Art on the Cambodian Genocide" her presentation dealt with how the 1.5 generation (that being the children who were too young to remember or process the trauma they endured) reconstruct memories of genocide and mass killings. In the discussion that followed in the Q&A's she used the word "evolution" to describe how the ways in which it is contemporarily accepted to express, speak of, or write about the particular trauma of genocide and mass killings. My curiosity lies within this discussion.
(**Keep in mind this is just an informal thought experiment and not meant to be comprehensive. It is most assuredly lacking.**)
To restructure a phrase -- as well as the sentiments and theoretically postulations that give weight to it -- from Stéphane Tison; I asked myself:
There is no direct translation of this phrase; though Google, WordReference, and TranslateBabylon will give you many variations the closest approximation to the meaning which I -- and Tison as well -- ask this question lies in the translation of sortir as recover instead of exit. As for "le deuil" well that is a multifaceted term which roughly encapsulates grief, mourning, and bereavement; the entire process and all the connotations associated with each three of those english terms is contained within le deuil. If pressed, I think I mean something along the lines of: How do we recover from trauma and exit out of a period of bereavement; and to what extent is finding a 'closure' reliant on expressing the internal experience of rarified trauma within an external outlet? Additionally, who's "external" voice has the authority to justifiably validate that "internal" trauma satisfactorily? What gives authority to that voice and in what ways does this need to find validation and/or acknowledgement of the autocracy from an external force mangle the individual's duty to express instances of genocide they are personally linked to?
The central question when investigated, as you can see from the above devolution of enquires, often gives way to several underlying questions all which manage to somehow exist within a contiguous space. The space, if conceptualized photographically appears in my head as something similar to how I envision the realm of Plato's Forms; blobulous and superfluid the amenable thoughts mold to and meld with one another interacting with each other. To what extent do humans have a duty to express, speak of, record, recall the experience and memory of the particular trauma that accompanies genocide and mass killings. In what ways can we see evidence of all forms of expression as failures to encapsulate the veritable emotional and physical suffering of the survivors. How often do we rely on a figure of the 'unreal' when recalling periods of trauma? How can this 'unreal' -- a figure that which can see, bare witness to, and report back on things that which 'we', members of reality, cannot comprehend properly -- within 'the real' reconcile our duty to express or speak on the unspeakable or unrepresentable; that is the genocide? Traces of the 'unreal' are almost overwhelmingly found within the majority of dialogues, speaking of these unspeakable acts. These moments where the 'unreal' is glimpsed occur when a distance of time elapses between when a survivor exits the initial experience of genocide, enters the immediate post-genocide life, consolidates the experiences into a memory, and then is able to reconstruct the memory of the experience by telling the story of it. I am suggesting here is that there seems to be a moment during the memory building process that filters experiences of trauma through a figure of the 'unreal'. Sometimes this figure is a ghost, a house, an object, a place, an animal; a something. The 'unreal' figure is able to contain that which seems impossible for the survivor to contain without aide of something that is an equally as unreachable as their experience is unspeakable.
And yet, there is a duty to recall, to commemorate, to rarify in the minds of those who study history the actions of those who sought to systematically -- and often with the aide of governmental resources --exterminate an entire socio-cultural group of peoples. Pressing even further there seems to be unspoken and contextually contingent rules attached to how one goes about fulfilling this duty to give voice the this silence.
More often than not, nearly every expression of the experience of the Holocaust as told from a survivor is intentional. Nothing perhaps demonstrates this greater than the architectural design of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust which was created to make the experience of the Holocaust as real for the visitors as possible. To the point where as you move through the collections the tale of anti-semitism is told from the beginning of Jewish history building up to the Holocaust and as you walk through the museum you descend physically into the earth. The museum gets colder and the lights lower as you enter into the 'darkest' period in history and then reemerge to the digital tree of life which shows the recordings of the Shoah Foundation's oral interviews with Holocaust survivors. There is little to no fictionalization of recounting the story of a survivors experience of the Holocaust, meaning the genre of fiction was not, between the 1960-1990s, generally accepted as a form that which can contain a veritable expression of the experience of the Holocaust. Dramatizations via cinema and theatre are allowed, as is the use of poetic symbolism; however all of which falls under the category of nonfiction.
The overwhelming mode that which the Holocaust was talked about in the 1960-1990s was through memoirs. Following the immediate end of the Second World War there was a general acceptance of the 'failure of language'. The premise proclaimed that language could not express the horrors of Auschwitz nor that of Hiroshima. The effort to give words to the silence of the Holocaust came in earnest during the height of the Holocaust deniers of the '70-90s. To name a few occurrences: Arthur R. Butz published The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry in '76, the Institute of Historical Review promised $50,000 to anyone who could produce evidence that Jewish people were gassed in Auschwitz in 1980, eight years later the Leutcher Report is published, so on and so forth, there were numerous instances where people suggested that the Holocaust either was a "myth" or the horrors of it had been "exaggerated". In response the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, which was the first survivor-founded museum (1961) held Survivor talks, Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and others published their memoirs, other survivors began attending college courses dedicated to getting a PhD in Holocaust studies, David Irving was tried and convicted for denying the Holocaust's historicity, etc. It was because of these tumultuous years of fighting against the dissemination of Holocaust denier materials that talking about the Holocaust in any way from the position of expressing the experience of the trauma of it was often confined to the genre of nonfiction.
This is not the case for other genocides. There are now historical-fictional novels that recount periods of mass-killing and other war-traumas. "L'année du lièvre" a series by Tian tells the story of how his parents fled the Cambodian Genocide with him still as a child. Additionally, "cent mille journées de prières" by Loo Hui Phang tells the tale of how a boy learns that his father was killed during the Cambodian Genocide and processes this with the help of a dead canary. Both stories have instances where fiction or imagination is used to express the inexpressible or unknown. That notion that the imaginary, an 'unreal' could be used to express an instance of genocide lead me to wonder if the way we can talk about the experience of horrific traumas like genocide and/or mass-killings has evolved, and if so, what stage are we at now?
Islamic State Forces Attack on Kobanî 2015 and "WONDERLAND":
Contemporarily, the immediacy of the internet seems have evolved the way we discuss the trauma of mass killings. While there remains a duty to speak of trauma, a skepticism of language's adequacy to capture it, and desire to have time to process; there are now instances of immediate narration given to mass killings. It should be noted that mass killings generate a completely different type of trauma and I am in no way suggesting that a genocide is a mass killing because it is not.
What I am curious of is what this example of a universal nonverbal language of trauma being conveyed without an elapse of time, without using the inadequate symbiotic-s of language or art, means for the future. What happens to our understanding of the horrors of war/mass-killing/genocide trauma when we see an immediate recounting of it? An example of where we are currently in the evolution of trauma expression can be found in "Wonderland".
Muhammad is thirteen years old, he was born in Kobanî, a Syrian town that in 2015 was attacked by Islamic State forces. He and his family fled Kobanî to Derik, a town situated in the South-East of Turkey. In Derik, he met Erkan who asked Muhammad if he could recall the experience of witnessing the war. Muhammad is deaf and mute, unable to even begin to speak the unspeakable he uses his body to convey the experience of the fleeing from Kobanî to Derik with his family and the atrocities he witnessed along the way. In the picture above he acts out the throwing of a grenade.
In this picture Muhammad is telling up that there was no water anywhere. Just before this still was captured he clutched and shook the water bottle -- still visible in the lower right-hand corner of the photograph. He then looked at the camera and in frustration threw the water bottle against the wall and motioned with hands 'nothing' or 'nowhere' or 'none'. Whichever word you'd like to subscribe to the action.
In this still Muhammad recounts having to run. He moves his arms violently back and forth in a rapid piercing movement. His eyes dart from making eye contact with the camera-operator to somewhere off in the distance. In this photograph the viewer is able to see his eyes, looking off somewhere in the distance. The haunted, frightened look potentially marking it as Muhammad remembering the feeling of running from Kobanî.
Muhammad here mimes the presence of soldiers and gunfire. His small body ricochets back and forth simulating a machine gun or a rapid firing automated rifle. Muhammad in this instance is embodying the Islamic State forces, recalling the memory of the invasion from the point-of-view (POV) of the invaders. He switches POVs like this often within the documentary.
These two images side-by-side reveal that Muhammad is once again himself, he is prostrate, his hands before him in surrender. Then in the next photograph, his head is bowed in defeat and his hands are now tied behind his back. Kneeling, Muhammad, like all those he witnessed is captured. These actions directly followed the gun-fire retelling. together they demonstrate the violence that is done to both the victim and the perpetrator of the violence as in both instances Muhammads body accrues impact from the event. He goes directly from firing the machine gun to holding up is hands, to mimicking a bullet going through the back of his head, to again holding up his hands, to bowing down, to holding his hands behind his back.
The existence of "Wonderland" adds tension to how we record, recall, and remember war-inflicted trauma. It suggests the retention of the trauma can be held within both the body and the mind. It demonstrates that written or spoke language is not necessary to properly convey the event(s). It questions whether language is even effective, as watching the video of Muhammad struggle to contort his small frame into positions and movements that would accurately convey a lived experience is unmediated by the edits of written words, translations, or other medians of recall we are more familiar with.
While there is documentary footage of liberated prisoners at Auschwitz and countless hours of oral interviews where one can bear witness to the inflictions of trauma on the body. There are dancers who contort their lithe forms into an expression of mass killing and war-grief as well. However, I cannot recall a moment before "Wonderland" where the an eyewitness to a mass-killing who was unable to speak, gave an account of an unspeakable act of trauma. I'm sure exactly what that means for the future of trauma studies and how we retell war-related traumas, mass killings, and genocides. But, I'm sure that it is changing something.
Eminem released Kamikaze a couple days ago, without promos, just out of nowhere. I'm a large fan of lyricism and Em's one of the TOP. The way he bends words and their sounds is impressive. He's not the only one in the rap game, Kendrick, Cole, Montana of 300, Joyner, YBN Cordae of the new gen and Tupac, NWA, Jay-Z, Dre, Wu-Tang, The Game of the old gen twist words and craft narratives in the most spectacular ways and I'm all about it. Further, what is particularly interesting about the genre of Rap is the way that it refracts Ancient modes of narration, oration, and story telling. With its roots tracing back to the Griots of West Africa, the form and content of Rap has also taken from the Rhapsodes of Ancient Greece, the Orators of Ancient Rome, the Storytellers of Native American tribes (perhaps most similar are the Cahuilla Bird Singers), and even aspects of Medieval Theatre.
Essentially, Rap speaks, conveys, relates; stories. That is a very defining characteristic that sets Rap apart from other forms of communicating stories. Historians and Writers recount or relay a story, which presupposes a distance from the story itself. Rap is interpersonal dialogues being performed through spoken word that flows to match the pace of music. Founded in the tradition of West African Griots who traveled and told tales of their history, they have counterparts in probably every world culture we have, the Greek rhapsodes, the court musicians of the 1700s, the medieval jesters, the Roman orators, Native American storytellers, the Japanese Rakugo and countless other I could list. The Griots differ most notably by their world counterparts because they were considered to be a social memory of his/her community.
Rap has always been a fascination to be because it has this capacity to pull influences from every single one of these things. Like the rhapsodes of Ancient Greece rap artists today, relate a story to a group of people assembled to listen. When Cicero spoke to the Roman Senate against Catiline the entire floor was enraptured. When Aeneas is charged by Dido in Book 2-3 of the Aeneid to sing the melancholy of the Trojan War all who were assembled wept.
The above photo is a screen shot of a Youtube video which inspired a 3 part documentary called "Why We Fight" which offers one of the most incredible looks into the anatomy of war. I warn, it is a long documentary with each video approximately 1-2 hours, but absolutely one of the best I've seen. If you want to watch just the Youtube video, it is available at the bottom of this blog post.
This post is an informal thought experiment which seeks to unpack the words "War has its own laws." Uttered by a German WWII Veteran who had served with the Wehrmacht, this was his response to a woman who questioned the ethics of Germany's involvement in WWII. Often separated from the S.S. forces, the Wehrmacht in German history were the old fashioned army which somehow managed to remain relatively unscathed by the taint of Hitler's S.S. troops. In essence, the Wehrmacht fought the spread of communism. The S.S. troops murdered the Jewish people The clip ends with the woman's stunned silence.
I often get asked why I study war. How someone with such a bleeding heart can hold such a fascination for one of the most horrifying aspects of humanity. It is because the phrase "War has its own laws." is somehow so TRUE. My brain doesn't understand how it is possible that killing during war is acceptable but punishable by death in peace time. A truly great example of this is the french novel Captain Conan. Written after the First World War it follows the life of veteran who, unable to separate killing during war from killing in peace time, is convicted of murder and imprisoned. The novel asks this fundamental question: Why is killing O.K. during war but prohibited in peacetime? My brain needs to know.
Why do humans have to rationalize war. Why do we feel the need to valorize it? While in the 1970s the U.S. saw a shift in the valorization of war with the anti-war movement against the Vietnam War. The actions of those who had called the returning Vietnam veterans "baby killers" are today seen as dishonorable. Thus, suggesting a reversal back to a valorous soldier who is at the same time somehow morally flawed. The anti-solder or soldat sans gloire, finds it first origins in the aftermath of the First World War, but when prodded the figure of a morally flawed soldier is present in even the most iconic soldier the world has known: Achilles.
So, this was me today, sitting at my local Starbucks frantically flipping through my severely abused copy of Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker's "14-18: Retrouver la Guerre" looking like an over-caffeinated-mildly-psychotic-grad-student attempting to find a particular idea (which likened small village commemoration sculptures [see above image: Kathe Kollowitz's "The Mourning Parents"] to a 'middle ground' area where the individual and national coexisted). An idea that I SWORE I remember reading last year in 14-18. Of course, because well: I'm Anna, it turned out that this idea was actually in Stéphane Tison's book "Comment Sortir de la Guerre *insert gif of woman smacking head repeatedly on desk here*. In my defense though, THEY have the very same first name and THEIR ideas parallel each other, so like, ugh, who is really to blame here?! ... Probably my less than spectacular text organization skills *stares at mounds of paper and books derisively*. But, alas, I digress.
Out of this terrible hour long frenzy came an idea for pop-up exhibit commemorating the Great War. As we slowly approach the centenary of the Great War's close, contemporary commemoration practices move towards looking at the War's aftermath and lasting legacy (*cough* my research area *cough*). In doing so I find myself wondering how nation's will approach this. Looking back on the NUMEROUS, and I do mean NUMEROUS, commemoratory spectales, events, and momuments, that were held in August 2014; I do not doubt November 2018 will see an equal blossoming of commemoratory events marking the end of the War. Where from 2014-Present commemoratory events have centered on the actions of those who participated in the Great War, I begin to think that the commemorations of 2018 will feature how Europe pulled themselves back together through the cultural advents made in the 1920s.
The question I kept mulling over was: how will organizations address the need to commemorate the historical players of the Great War as well as their public duty to present factual information about the War in the most immersive way possible.
Reflecting on the idea of the Great War as a severed point in history. Yet, remembering that no period is devoid of the societal era that surrounds it, I conceived of a circular room to match the continual flow of history through time (s/o to Graham Smith's Waterland).
I blame academia for this post. It is, unequivocally, the fault of scholars who taught me to always think critically. I warn you youngin's, the appropriation of this value will ruin your ability to passively watch even Christmas Adverts. #yourewelcome