Sunday, February 28, 2010

She is the wound, the scene of the accident

eye-witnesses and victims: widowhood and spectacle in contemporary India by Nandita
The figure of the widow inhabits variously and simultaneously the figure of the witness, of the mourner, the symbol of trauma – of the wound in a “wound culture” that defines our “pathological public sphere”[2].

Mark Seltzer identifies what he calls a “wound culture” that operates in society today: “a public fascination with torn and opened bodies and torn and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound.”[16] He goes on to define the public sphere that is defined by this wound culture as a “pathological public sphere”, one in which “notions of sociality is bound to the excitations of a torn and opened body, the torn and exposed individual, as public spectacle.” While Seltzer put forward his formulations in the context of his work on serial killers and the attraction of the “shock of contact” between “bodies and machines” (road accidents, airplane crashes and the like), I wish to extend this formulation of ‘wound culture’ to my purposes here. The imagery of people milling around the scene of the accident is not so very far removed from the media frenzy that produces the post-violence images that flood our television channels and newspapers after the incident: we eagerly flip through the newspaper for more information; we stay glued to our television screens, watching the gory images as they unfold. The production of collective subjectivity through the act of simultaneously watching the same images, is what makes this situation akin to the one Seltzer describes in terms of milling over the scene of an accident – evidence of a new ‘notion of sociality’, of collective public fascination with “torn bodies” – a term I use metaphorically here.  One of these images is invariably of the grieving widow, often in the midst of a violent expression of mourning, but also in calmer moments appearing more forlorn and dejected at her desperate situation.
The images of the scene of violence may endure through photographic and video images, as well as stories of witnesses, and maybe revisited over and over in the days following the actual act. Ann Kaplan identifies society’s constant desire to return to the scene of the event, over and over and in different forms – from television specials to movies, to more literary forms of reliving – as betraying a ‘traumatic cultural symptom’[17]. She problematises the representability of trauma, of images produced during such an experience: for her, “trauma is narration without narrativity – that is, without the ordered sequence we associate with narratives. Images are repeated… but without clear beginning, middle and end.” In my understanding, it is precisely this inherent ‘non-representability’ of a traumatic event that makes repetition and circularity or return the only way for society to attempt to come to terms with trauma. Yet, in a sense this ‘non-representability’ can be dealt with, traces can be recovered, by a ‘different kind of hermeneutics.’[18]
Through the trope, the widow – as witness, as victim, as mourner – gets constituted as a sceneof violence herself. Photographs are clicked, she appears on television news channels, in the ‘human interest’ sections of newspapers[19] – she becomes, to use Seltzer’s term in a slightly modified context, not just a public spectacle, but a “reproducible spectacle of pathological public violence” (emphasis added). Her new identity is established, recorded, preserved, and after a while, filed away, until a future moment when society wishes to return and revisit the moment of trauma once more. Unlike a photographic or video image, which captures a moment in suspended animation for eternity, the widow continues with her existence, away from the media glare once the frenzy has died down. But she is constituted and reconstituted in the everyday, through the practices that mark her out as a widow in her family, or in society as a whole. Every social injunction upon her: the conditions of her remarriage, her dress, her role in the household, her reduced social standing and economic circumstances – mark her out as a ‘wound’ – a wound that is renewed everyday, which we collectively ensure is renewed so that we are able to return and revisit it when we wish. Hence her place in ‘wound culture’ or the culture of trauma – not merely is she wounded, sometimes physically, always psychically, through the violence that has resulted in the death of her husband, she is the wound, the scene of the accident long after the stains of blood have been wiped of the sidewalk, she continues to be a spectacle that people can mill over and crowd around, continuously constituted and reconstituted as such.
Violence now comes to mark every aspect of this reconstituted identity.  She is constituted anew by an act of violence; the daily reproduction of her identity, as has been shown, serves to constantly renew her as a scene of violence, and in so doing, is a violent exercise as well. Beyond this, her new social role as a living representation of trauma is an inherently violent one: here I speak of the violence intrinsic to the act of representation itself. She is implicit in the process of representation of violence in our lives, what Seltzer phrases as the “violence intrinsic to the penetration of representation into real life.” He locates in such representation a danger that we may not be able to keep sufficient distance with respect to these representations, which at once represent (“penetrate” our “real life”), as well as draw us in to theirs. The danger is that one “might be devoured by representations”, that is to say, one is here referring to the “traumatic yielding to representation”. The widow, constituted by violence, reproduced as violence through violence, cannot escape her implication in the process that, in a sense, replicates and reproduces this violence, through a domino effect inherent in the act of the representation that she is mobilised into as victim/witness/mourner of violence. In addition to being enclosed within the trope, she too is subjected to these representations that she is a part of.
As viewers, we (the spectators) view the widow (the spectacle) positioned as a voyeur, we may even be “vicariously traumatised”[20] in the process.

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