Pictures after all

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By VLADIMIR SAFATLE*

Presentation of the newly published book by Georges Didi-Huberman

The book Pictures after all revolves around four photos. They are the only photos taken of the Auschwitz concentration camp by members of the Sonderkommando: group of Jews responsible for taking prisoners to the gas chamber and handling the bodies until they too were murdered and replaced by another group.

These four photos came down to us as a kind of image of what appears to be unimaginable, as a trace of what had been conceived to leave no trace. Because the oblivion of extermination was part of extermination, this was the fundamental piece of the experimental machine of generalized disappearance that were the Nazi camps. Industrial death, organized with mercantile production logistics, was not enough. Final dehumanization was not enough. The total disappearance of bodies was necessary – the death of death.

Against the decision to show the photos, those who saw the greatest obscenity in this act rose up. Much of this book is the story of that debate. As if wanting images of what happened in the death camps was the unforgivable act of submitting the unspeakable to the regime of the sayable. In this case, a sayable composed of images that would assimilate everything from the similar regime.

In this sense, the merit of Didi-Huberman's work consists in leading us to a discussion that takes place, at the same time, in the ethical and aesthetic field. Georges Bataille would say, shortly after the end of the Second World War: “from now on, the image of man is inseparable from a gas chamber”. The challenge assumed by the philosopher is found in the consequent decision to think about the meaning of this “from now on”.

These photos were taken to be seen. Those who knew they would be the next dead bodies risked the days they still had left of their lives for such images to exist and circulate. As if it were a last gesture of appeal to what was left of humanity's possibility. As if it were an ethical requirement to feel the catastrophe, to make the intolerable a bodily disposition. For the body thinks and judges. What some call “radical evil” has never been the absolute Other, and this is what needs to be thought about.

Together with this discussion, the reader will find an emphatic refusal to disqualify the image. This disqualification is expressed through the “aesthetic unimaginable” with its dogma of the impossible as a limit, of the unrepresentable. This refusal, defended by the author, in a way of “negative aesthetics” aims to remind us that horror is a source of impotence and that the way to prevent us from being subjugated by horror is to break the impotence it imposes on us.

In any case, there are significant aesthetic reasons why the word about Auschwitz produced less negative reactions than the image of Auschwitz. Why this belief in the natural obscenity of the image? Why this belief that there is only one regime of images, which tends to subject everything to similarity? It is towards questions of this nature that Images despite everything takes us.

*Vladimir Safari He is a professor of philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Ways of transforming worlds – Lacan, politics and emancipation (Authentic).

 

Reference


Georges Didi-Huberman. Pictures after all. Translation: Vanessa Brito and João Pedro Cachopo. São Paulo, Publisher 34, 2020.

 

 

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