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The Visual Rhetoric of Traumatic Histories Essay

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The Visual Rhetoric of Traumatic Histories

Among the problematics that guide my understanding of the possibility of visual rhetorics are three. Each might be considered to exists within/bring together the nexus of history, images, and power. This nexus helps to form a framework for an economy of verbal and visual images that, in turn, might become the fabric of a visual rhetorics. The first is what I want to call the "enigma of unrepresentability." The second is that images become especially important for us when they can be read as "self-reflexive." Finally, the third, is the "ideological privileging" of the visual that renders its apparatus, quite literally, hard to "see." Let me briefly elaborate on each.

Images "from history,"
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Filmmakers like Claude Lanzmann (Shoah) negotiate this tension by flatly rejecting the use of "historical images." So, by juxtaposing the visual/critical/rhetorical practices found in these films we can begin to define some of the practical parameters of what a visual-rhetorical critic might investigate.

Power becomes inseparably bound in this dynamic as both claims, that is to represent and to claim unrepresentable, are "power claims" one claiming the power to do something and the other claiming to know something. Thus, a visual rhetorics (of power) must negotiate this context, this finitude of ìhistoryî images, and the reputed failure of these images to represent. This last task may be better thought of as an imperative because failure to negotiate it suggests that the only way to represent Holocausts would be to literally re-present them. One way for a visual rhetoric to begin negotiating these tensions is to engage the notion of self-reflexivity.

When an image becomes self-reflexive it points up its own artifice, its own rhetoric as it "discourses about" the relationship between viewer and image, the contingency of meaning in an image, and its own status as an image. Of course, some images are more suited to this than others. When one speaks of "the rhetoric of the image" there is an implied focus on the image itself just as when one speaks of "polysemy" the focus is on the consumer/reader. The self-reflexive image, however, can imply a "dialogue" that focuses
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