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.
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