(Palazzo Braschi, Mussolini’s Fascist Party Federation headquarters, Rome, 1934.)
. . .
“Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised – partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror. One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany.”
Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977.
. . .
The boundless contains an essential note of terror — a confrontation with that which reaches so far beyond the perceived boundaries of self and material environment, the incalculable vastness that is beyond the imaginable possibilities of individual affect. The absurd event, or a moment with the ‘uncanny’, destabilizes and temporarily disarms. But when the absurd is rationalized and enters into the ‘realm of the known’, it loses its volatility, becoming ordinary and explicable — a demarcated limit, within control. The improbable becomes part of an anticipated possibility.
An institutionalized grotesque intends “to obliterate life in a functional way”, its representations and expressions becoming an integral part of our institutions and, through their adaptation into the normative, enabling their viral self-replication. The entrenched representations of the grotesque and the integration of violence within social institutions — as in the domestic militarization of police — accumulate into an iconography that informs our languages and identities, and are further systematized in their consumption as part of social exchange. Iskandar spoke of social media is a mode of disseminating and consuming images of extreme violence, indicating towards the conflicting relationship that is formed out of having these images become a part of the everyday. The volume and accessibility through social identity platforms of — often stylized — images of mutilated people equalizes the images and threatens to assimilate them into the banal. Images either lose their impact through desensitization, become invisible through a willful ignorance, or – sometimes all at once – become an accumulated and performative form of cultural capital by which to demonstrate particular alliances and ideas that are intended to represent a public identity.
When violence is perceived through image, its significance is almost entirely at the mercy of its aesthetic communication. Languages of form, composition and harmonic arrangement translate chaos into exceptional lucidity. The negative epiphany is that which recognizes the profanity of a beauty that is contained within immense despair, the fragility of stillness in the midst of war, the guilty recognition of cruelty and its contextual origins as an after-thought. The assimilation of the grotesque into the popular consciousness shrouds principle with form, provoking a dangerous sympathy towards surface. The boundless carnival moves timelessly,
“…the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning
T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages, 1944.
When Iskandar spoke about the absurd being made known through “juxtapositions of the familiar with the unfamiliar“, he showed an image of U.S. soldiers on a military transport plane departing for Afghanistan. In this photograph, he indicated to the symmetry in the arrangement of the soldiers, and the possible significance of the photographer’s intention of expressing precisely this order. Following the image of the U.S. soldiers, Iskandar brought up an example of how ISIL videos are more “watchable” than the precedents of terrorist documentations of executions or calls for recruitment. The higher rendering, greater complexity and stylization of the image — in effect — grant the image and the ideas it represents a greater legitimacy. Extreme violence is made more aesthetically palatable, resulting in a greater distribution across social networks that prioritize the exceptional.
Distractions of complexity conceal the triggers and conditions that accumulate and integrate the grotesque, giving it permission and creating the conditions for its justification to be, however momentarily, perceived as reasonable. The militaristic use of design to imbue genocidal ideology with compelling aesthetics was especially realized from the 1920s through 1940s, when Fascism institutionalized an aesthetics of intimidation and order. The strategic sublimation of violence through a cultural iconography makes it possible for creating ideological sympathy or recruitment that justifies violence through an appeal to the transcendental, or the aspiration towards the ‘greater whole’ — especially effective at times of great instability, when the instinct towards self-preservation through conformity to the mass are amplified. The Rationalist architecture of Italian modernism and the Neoclassicism favoured by the Third Reich mimicked the artifice of sublime harmony in Classical Roman architecture. The systematic application of aesthetics that parodied the transcendental made it possible for the ideological assimilation of fascism into the ordinary, in the stealthy way that reflects Albert Speer’s words, “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting a hand on your shoulder”.
Impressionable — impress — impressment: “forcing individuals into military service”.
Moonlight: “To whom do I speak? To the intellectuals? They are already jumping like monkeys on the war-drums—poor, puny, little turncoat hypocrites, beating their breasts in horror at the Hitler menace, and hugging away for dear life to the hideous monster of jingoism—fondling the gangrenous ass of our own 100 per cent nascent Fascism.”
Kenneth Patchen, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, 1941.
(U.S. soldiers en route to Afghanistan. via Daily Mail, 28 March 2012, AFP © Getty Images. Image presented in lecture.)
(Gymnastics training in Zeppelinfield, designed by Hitler’s chief architect, Albert Speer. Nuremberg, Germany. September 8, 1938, AP.
(Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. Designed in 1937, construction completed in 1943.)
. . .
“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.”
T. S. Eliot, East Coker, 1944.
. . .
This is part of a series of reflections on the first lecture given at the VISR free lecture series, “On Civil War and Resistance“. They are open to everyone, Monday nights at 7 pm, at Or Gallery, 555 Hamilton Street, Vancouver.