The Contemporary Condition

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Too Hard to Keep

Alexander Keller Hirsch is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He can be reached at

Since 2010, the artist Jason Lazarus has been collecting and curating photographs deemed “too hard to keep” by their owners. The growing archive of images contributes to what he calls a “repository of photographs, photo-objects, and digital files” that are, for whatever reason, considered “too painful to live with any longer.” This is a public receptacle for excessive affect, a place where we can deposit material objects charged with the aura of a feeling that is, as Lazarus writes, “too difficult to hold on to, but too meaningful to destroy.”

A brilliant project. But this phrase“too hard to keep, but too meaningful to destroy”may be misleading. The “but” is too quick. It might be that some of these pictures are too meaningful to destroy because they are too hard to keep. One must jettison the relic of a memory if it betokens a grief that is overwhelming enough. But, precisely because that grief is so overwhelming, one must take care not to obliterate its artifact, for doing so would threaten a source of meaning and intensified aliveness.

As Kaja Silverman puts it, “A photograph is the umbilical cord connecting us to what we have loved and lost, to what is gone because we failed to save it, or to what might have been, but now will never be.” The Too Hard to Keep archive is flush with photographs that index such a loss. But it also calls attention to the impasses faced by those who inhabit an afterness where it is not only loss that is at stake, but also the loss of loss itself. Lazarus requires that the owners of photographs “truly part” with the images they donate to his project. He accepts digital copies only on condition that other digital copies be deleted: “If you’re going to part with it—part with it, then what you’re seeing hastraction… It is the remnant of the decision to relinquish the image from theirarchive into a public archive.”

Lazarus’ exhibitions are, in this sense, intensely political. Though most of the images depict subjects and themes that are sometimes considered too intimate, or perhaps too quotidian, to be political—the most common motifs include people, open landscapes, pets, death beds, sun sets, erotic connections, empty rooms—indeed, with Too Hard to Keep, it is precisely this ordinary intimacy that becomes a patent source of political experience. The exhibitions summon into a public domain the pain of those who have suffered private loss by inviting witness-spectators to the gallery. By doing so, they reflect a mise-en-scène of grief that builds a felicitous connection between strangers. A demos is assembled at the site of an aesthetic object that beams forth what is too hard to keep, and too meaningful to destroy.

One of the photographs, a black and white taken in what must be the early 1970s, pictures a crowd of a dozen or so friends posing for a group shot. Everyone is smiling and joking around. One man is sitting on another man’s shoulders, dragging on a cigarette. Beneath them a dog is climbing into a woman’s lap.

Everything appears normal, but for the lower right hand corner, where one of the persons originally pictured has had their shape cut out. They have been deleted, and replaced with the trace of a blank white empty space. The effect is disquieting. In an effort to censor a portion of the photograph, the owner has attempted to purge the image of someone, presumably the source of some wounding or loss. But, tragically, as with all cases of censorship, the eye is drawn to what is repressed. Hardly spirited away, the entire photograph becomes about the cut out and, by extension, the person who is no longer there but whose spectral remainder continues to haunt the image as the presence of an absence.

Another picture in the collection appears to be self-conscious about this. The photograph features a woman who is raising her hand to shield herself from being photographed. The corner of her face is glimpsed, as is a curtain of hair clinging to her jaw line, but her face is otherwise obscured. The backdrop, a shock of over exposed green flora, brightens the image, as it shapes and lends dimension to the aegis of her hand.  The owner of the photograph need not edit the image, the woman is already censoring herself. And yet, one wonders whether this attempt to self-erase is itself a part of why the photograph is too hard to keep and too meaningful to destroy.

Lazarus’ submissions are received anonymously, and without explanation, and the images, when exhibited, are displayed without reference or description. The effect is powerful. The viewer cannot help but imagine what makes this empty landscape too hard to keep, or what renders that person’s image too painful to live with. The result is that the art nearly becomes the story we tell ourselves about what happened.

We recognize, of course, that the story we tell cannot possibly encompass the reality behind the images, even if some pictures invite more or less accurate educated guesses. Whatever the distance between fiction and reality, the story we tell reflects the irrepressible desire to craft narrative around an unsettling and furtive object. Great art, Theodor Adorno once wrote, depicts something that we do not and cannot know. He might have added that, in part, what makes such art resonant is that its audience must try, and then generatively fail, to come to terms with it through storytelling.

In this way, Too Hard to Keep suggests an interesting avenue for reckoning with afterness. Instead of placing the emphasis on punishing perpetrators, or capacitating victims through forgiveness, Too Hard to Keep hones in on the role of the witness. In the standard literature, witnessing is often described as a mode of observation, whereby a bystander sees an event unfold, and then later bears testimony to this experience. But with Lazarus’ project witnesses cannot see the event. The photographs offer evidence of something beyond our ken.

And the exhibitions are hardly Truth and Reconciliation hearings. The TRC in South Africa, for instance, invited victims, perpetrators, and witnesses alike to enter into a public sphere and share stories about past suffering such that, A) The truth of atrocity could become official record, and B) Rituals of mass forgiveness could set restorative justice in motion. But with Too Hard to Keep, the goal is manifestly not to be released from resentment through forgiveness. Indeed, the very premise of the collection is that these images represent a source of pain that is too meaningful to neutralize through reconciliation. And rather than focus on delivering an accurate portrayal of what we have observed, witness-spectators are instead acutely aware that their testimony will largely be fantasy.  

“God,” writes Samuel Beckett in Watt, “is a witness who cannot be sworn.” In part, God cannot be sworn as a witness because in vowing to bear truthful testimony He swears an oath to Himself—He promises to tell the “whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” An exercise in tautology. With Too Hard to Keep we are also cast as witnesses who cannot be sworn, though not because the authority of our testimony is rooted in a redundant promise to ourselves. Rather, our inability to be sworn is due to the fact that we cannot offer testimony to an event that remains crucially hidden from us.

Remarkably, in the case of Too Hard to Keep, this invisibility of the event, and the accompanying lack of an ability to tell the truth about it, is precisely what gives witnessing its power. In part, this power is located in the affinity that is struck between witness-spectators and owner-victims in the political space of the gallery.

But unlike most other genres of affinity, this one is not quite grounded in empathy. If empathy is like sharing in and responding to another person’s pain because one knows it and has experienced it before, then the feeling nurtures a shared horizon of understanding anchored in memory. With Too Hard to Keep, however, witnesses cannot develop empathy for the photograph owners, because it is unclear what the loss is, and as such it is uncertain whether one too has taken part in it. Instead, the affinity that connects witnesses and owners stems from what I call inverse empathy: a tenderness toward the suffering of the other that is rooted in a creative imagining of what may have been. This inverse case foregrounds conviviality not in a collective public memory, but rather in a shared imaginable.  The emphasis lies not with the truth of what clearly happened, but rather with the fantasy of what might have taken place, and with the stories witnesses tell about this imaginable past.  

A photograph is “in no way a presence,” Roland Barthes tells us; rather, “its reality is that of the having-been-there.” But with Too Hard to Keep, we bear explicit witness to our own having not been there. Peering into these images, it feels as though we have been transformed into a tragic chorus -- the witnessing body par excellence -- but one that has arrived too late to the scene of loss. This is an analogue to Franz Kafka’s parable about the tardy messiah who arrives too late to tender redemption, except that in this case our belatedness turns out to be helpful, actually. Indeed, it provides the precondition for inverse empathy. Only late witnesses need imagine.

But what kind of demos does inverse empathy convene? Not exactly one embedded in a sustained fidelity to the event. Nor is this a demos adhered to melancholia, since the event and its attendant loss are both clandestine for witnesses. Rather, this demos is attuned to the world of possibilities opened up by imagining what others’ pain might entail. As with other forms of democratic relation, this one convokes a public object -- in this case a photograph -- but that object is not like a social contract or a birth right, concepts both that name what is, or ought to be, guaranteed for members of the group. Instead, this becoming-in-relation takes shape around what is ultimately uncertain, and it is exercised through an invitation to envision who the other is, and what has happened to them. Like a will to chance in reverse, Too Hard to Keep signals a supple and precarious world held in common by citizens who enter together into a life without guarantees, except that the focus is trained on the enigmatic past, rather than the unpredictable future.

What can this do for photograph owners? Perhaps not much. Redemption may be limited for those who possess photographs that symbolize a loss that is too hard to keep and too meaningful to destroy. Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that we ought to forget our painful past, accept life on life’s terms, embrace amor fati and move on (“I wish to be only a Yes-sayer”), such that we can be free to occupy an unfettered present. By contrast, the philosopher and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry called for a “revolt against reality,” arguing that victims ought to embrace their resentments, such that the “criminal is nailed to his deed.”

But Lazarus offers a third way: not sublime forgetfulness, but not infinite despair either. Too Hard to Keep invites photograph owners to forsake, but not erase, what cannot be kept and cannot be destroyed. And it opens an avenue for victims to invoke unwitting witnesses who can only imagine what they are seeing. Crucially, the photo has been capitulated to a demos – a tardy tragic chorus – that may not be able to fix what has been broken, but can bear witness to the trace of what remains.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

24 Hours in America’s Gulag

Lori Marso
Union College

I can understand why Toya Graham, Baltimore mom, smacked down her only son to keep him from becoming “the next Freddie Gray,” desperate and violent as it was. After her actions were caught on video and went viral, the nation congratulated her for “keeping order” in her family. She later clarified, however, that her motivation was not to discipline her son, but to keep him out of jail. Her Facebook post said: “Really, do u know what they will do to u?” “They” are the police in America’s gulag. And all parents should be afraid.

I have been thinking about the desperate 24 hours I spent about a year ago in the Schermerhorn Courthouse in Brooklyn where my 22-year-old son was being held and I worried about his safety. Aside from police and court officers, my niece and I were the only white people present. We were the only whites among over one hundred family members of those jailed in the basement below, unseen and unheard, awaiting arraignment. I alternately waited on a bench, or stood in line, clutching my “prisoner’s” assigned number, the line slowly snaking to the small closed window, where there were white people, the bureaucrats assigned to looking up our cases. The man behind the window would inform us that there was no information, and that what we could do was simply wait, and get back in line. 

So I waited, fending off panic attacks by listening to and speaking with the family members around me. I had just taught Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, in my African American Political Thought class, that semester, and so I should not have been surprised by the stories of police harassment, police violence, surveillance, and the day to day experience of it being made known that your life simply does not matter. But the stories took on a new urgency, book learning turning into my own experience, as it was now me who was there, waiting to hear about my own son, and being told by family members, kindly but also in a warning tone, that as long as I did not find his number on the list moving to Rikers Island, that the worst may not happen.

The emotions closest to the surface for me were helplessness and rage. How could my son possibly be sent to Rikers? How could he have disappeared into a bureaucracy, worst yet, a basement, in confinement, and I had absolutely no right to speak to him or have access to a lawyer? I worried about the worst, and the families around me confirmed these nightmares. Yes, the conditions below were horrific—those jailed were in overcrowded and unsanitary quarters with scant food or water, completely beholden to the discretion of the jailers. No, we have no rights until after arraignment which could take up to 72 hours, and even then, our rights are a crapshoot, depending on which courtroom and which judge to whom one’s prisoner was assigned. Listening and sometimes holding hands with other mothers, I was told that the daily lives of the families I spoke with were full of constant abuse, dehumanization, and ever consuming fear for the safety and well being of their children. 

What was most amazing to me was the help I received in navigating the situation and the solidarity extended to me, an outsider to the system. It was obvious that I was out of my element and I turned immediately to others for consolation and commiseration, but also for advice. When I was advised to go out and retrieve bail money in anticipation of arraignment, a woman held my prisoner number and promised to watch the lists for me. She informed me that if there is not a family member present in the courtroom, it is highly unlikely for the prisoner to be brought up for arraignment and that my son should not miss his chance while I was out getting money. I was so discombobulated at the ATM, however, that I locked myself out of my account using all the wrong passwords and returned with nothing. A group of people promised to get bail money together, whatever my son and I needed, so that given the chance we could get out “before night court was over.” The level of organization and solidarity was striking to me, emerging as it did under such tense and difficult conditions. I was deeply grateful and also quite impressed. 

Unlike for so many of the protestors arraigned recently in Baltimore, in my son’s case, bail wasn’t needed. After 24 hours, we left the Courthouse, all charges (riding a bike on a sidewalk, petty drug possession, and violation of park curfew) dismissed for “time served.” We escaped, but families like the ones I met in the Schermerhorn Courthouse are treated every single day as less than citizens, made to realize, in a brutal and direct way, that they have diminished control over their future. Parents know all too well the anxiety of feeling they cannot even keep their children safe, much less hope for a decent education and good jobs. Just for a moment I shared their fate and had to bear the burden of this intense feeling of helplessness, but thankfully, my son and I were able to walk away. 

Most of what white Americans hear, see, and read is framed by the dominant media with its racist and classist assumptions about the sanctity of property and respect for the law, a position that disavows state violence while highlighting the violence of protestors and “rioters.” The media framing of Toya Graham’s actions are a case in point. How can we begin to understand the conditions of life in Black America without hearing from those directly affected and trying to understand their perspectives?

To ignore the daily conditions of life for non-white and poor Americans is a national crime. My experience with the police state in New York City has profoundly affected how I have understood events in Baltimore in response to the murder of Freddie Gray, and the many other black lives lost this year (and every year) to police violence. Because of my experience, the physical violence of incarceration and the emotional violence inflicted on families are now a little closer for me in my imagination. Having experienced police power more directly, even though only for a short moment, the irruption of the anger of those who live within this “other America” seems to me viscerally clear and compelling. These are the responses from the depths of America’s gulag.