The Image and the Survivor

Marc Nichanian

I.

From November 2010 to January 2011, the Pratt Museum in New York hosted Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire. The curators of the exhibit were Defne Ayas and Neery Melkonian, who described their project in the following terms: “The Blind Dates Project departs from the premise that the Empire’s abrupt rupture and its violent reformulation into nation-states have their lingering effects on life to this day.” At stake, it seems, was an exploration of “what remains” in the aftermath of a traumatic event; understood here as a breakup that leaves behind nothing but dispersed and ill-fitting fragments. The modus operandi of this exploration consisted in the construction of “pairs,” to initiate or provoke improbable encounters, and to inscribe the “remains” by way of collective work. All this involved a considerable risk, namely, to see the expectations of the project reinterpreted by the couples thus formed, each pulling hither and thither, with ultimately no unity visible; no decipherable image for an informed audience. That is in fact what happened. We live in the time of nations after all. And the time of nations is the philological time of cultures, the worth of which is measured exclusively from within, according to the claims of an always fantasmatic and immemorial past. It is the time of the aftermath, with no “beforehand” available in the form of a memory. Any reconstruction of a “before” is aleatory or requires a work of interpretation. Was the Empire claimed by the exhibit’s title a unique and unitary space of civilization? Was it transformed with the advent of the new time; the time of autarkic cultures, or the time of civilization’s decline? This is what seems to have been presupposed by at least one of the contributions to the Blind Dates encounters, which produced and exposed a text in the (dead) language of the Empire, as if it were alive, translated from an original written in English. A superb but ambiguous idea. One suspects it of having overturned a Spenglerian paradigm, which had obsessed the conservative right of Germany and of Europe (and some high-flying Armenian intellectuals as well) for a large part of the twentieth century. Today, national cultures embody the decline of the great civilization (the civilization of Empire). And if it is not the decline of the West, it will be that of the East. If we have long suffered from the colonizer’s melancholia, today we shall experience a different melancholia—one appropriate to those who identify with the fallen Empire. Yet, to translate into a dead language as if it were alive: that was a very beautiful idea.

II.

In order to avoid these ambiguities and these approximations (and the usual trickery that risk motivating or accompanying them), we need a phenomenology of the survivor. We must invent a new language for it, which would be the opposite of the grammar of public exposition that contemporary art is. “What remains,” therefore, is what we will be told by those who returned as ghosts [les “revenants”], and by them only, these living-dead that are sometimes called survivors, outside of a Spenglerian paradigm and with no reconciliation in the offing. Such a “phenomenology of the survivor” is a very paradoxical affair, and this for a number of reasons. First of all, there is no phenomenology but of a subject. The survivor is, of course, the reverse of a subject. (The modern subject was invented in the eighteenth century. A fabulous invention. The subject is always and again the one who obeys, as the word subject indicates. One knows, however, that what he henceforth obeys is the law that he himself instituted. What is less known is that the modern subject is also he who produces himself as an image, who produces the truth in image. At the core of the subject is now the imagination. This first revolution, the revolution of the subject, belongs to the modern era and it is at the origin of the time of nations, our time, which has yet to exhaust all its resources. It brought about the next, secondary revolutions, the political revolutions, when the good news spread that the subject had turned sovereign, and when the nations learned to provide themselves a past fantasized and imagined for them by philology. The subject, whether individual or national, thus became the witness par excellence, his own witness, before the law and by means of the image.)

Why is the survivor the reverse of any subject? Because he denies himself as a survivor. More simply: because the survivor is nothing but the dead witness; she whose life is no more “than the return,” as Maurice Blanchot would say, she who has returned dead. The second reason for the extraordinary paradox that is the phenomenology of the survivor is that it has in fact already been formulated.

It took the form of a novel in the narratives written by Blanchot in the late 1940s, not least Death Sentence (1948) and this narrative entitled “Un récit ?” from 1949, published as a book by Blanchot in 1973, with a changed title, now The Madness of the Day. Jacques Derrida once proposed a remarkable reading of these narratives, in one of his early great texts translated into English (in Deconstruction and Criticism [1979]). The French title of the essay that Derrida devotes to Blanchot was “Survivre.” The English title: “Living On.” One must read with caution the English translations of Derrida’s essays and books. Here, for instance, the translator never renders “survivre” with “survival,” and forbids himself the thought that the survival in question could have anything to do with the figure of the post-catastrophe survivor. One shall therefore never read, from Derrida’s English pen, this simple sentence: Survival is denial.

To my knowledge, Derrida himself did not intervene in the decisions of his translators. He abandoned his texts to their discretion. He himself theorized this in the lower section of “Living On,” in the form of a challenge to the translator. Finally, there is a third reason; equally crucial. A phenomenology of survival truly requires a phenomenology of the image, which never fails to present itself under the form of an analysis of the “mortuary resemblance,” the resemblance of cadavers.

Mortuary resemblance, then. We shall see what it is about immediately. I believe it was analyzed for the very first time in the extraordinary pages Maurice Blanchot devoted to “two versions of the imaginary;” two versions of the image, therefore, at the end of The Space of Literature in 1955. It was not exactly unknown beforehand, though. The matter was exploited over the course of centuries in Western Christianity, in the unexpected form of the acheiropoietic image. The exploitation was equivalent to a denial. The survivor was already denying himself in the image, all the way to his terrible and majestic entry onto the horizon of our own gaze, in the aftermath of the holocaustic events of the twentieth century. On the other hand, in a much more modest manner, albeit equally surprising and no less decisive, the radical phenomenon of the “mortuary resemblance” was inscribed—and served therefore as the object of an implicit experimentation—in the work of photographers and artists, our very contemporaries, of which I shall give two examples. Aram Jibilian is the first, who contributed to the Blind Dates project in 2010; Carole Fékété is the second. That same year, she published in France a magnificent book of photographs, with a preface by Philippe-Alain Michaud, entitled Ce qui reste (“What Remains” (published by éditions Biffures).

III.

Aram Jibilan was interested in the ghost of Arshile Gorky. Back in 2003, he had read an article in the New York Times, “which revolves around Gorky’s history at the Glass House, his home in Sherman, Connecticut… The current owner and resident of the home, Martha Clarke, discussed how the ghost of Gorky continues to live with her.” Gorky took his own life close to this house on July 21, 1948. Here is what Jibilian had to say about it: “When I, my collaborator, Aaron Mattocks, and the curators of this project met Ms. Clarke, she again recounted numerous stories of when she and [her] guests were visited by his ghost. These stories serve as the point of departure for my proposed series of photographs for Blind Dates. Playing with the idea of Gorky having lived his life in an in-between state of exile, I seek to capture what his current in-between state might be.” Jibilian thus made use of a self-portrait of Gorky as a teenager (itself painted from an old photograph that the artist had kept). He made a mask and staged Gorky or his ghost. What I draw from this is that a ghost cannot come to inscribe itself directly onto a photographic plate. It cannot print or impress itself chemically. Why not? Why is it that the ghost can circulate freely in every corner of the house, make noise in the bedrooms, even appear to the eyes of some, but cannot be photographed? I draw something else from this as well: thanks to the artist, the ghost can now show itself in image. Without mask, no image. It is as if the ontological status of the ghost were the same as that of the mask. No more, nor less. A presence-absence suspended between two worlds, covering no more than the absence of what is supposed to be covered.

Aram Jibilian, Gorky and the Glass House, 2010, Installation view of the exhibition Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire, Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York City, Photograph courtesy of the artist

We are lost. We are now incapable of distinguishing between the ghost, the mask, and the image. Our astonishment knows however no bounds when we perceive that this figure, this self-portrait painted by Gorky on the basis of his own photographic image, was in fact a death mask. Aram Jibilian has done nothing else, therefore, than to render this fact obvious to whomever wishes to see. The self-portrait was a death mask. Which also signifies that Gorky gifted posterity (and himself too) his own death mask while he was still alive. Or perhaps he was already dead? Was he dead already? That is the question. But if “dead”, then as what? As a subject? As a man? As an exile? A survivor? An artist? A witness? And if as a witness, then in what sense? Was it as someone who had lived through atrocities and who fervently wished for the world to know? Or was it as someone to testify of his own death as witness? Can a dead witness testify of his own death as witness?

Aram Jibilian, Gorky and the Glass House, 2010, Installation view of the exhibition Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire, Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York City, Photograph courtesy of the artist

Aram Jibilian, Gorky and the Glass House, 2010, Installation view of the exhibition Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire, Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York City, Photograph courtesy of the artist

IV.

I shall say only one word about the acheiropoietic image. This is the image “made without human hand” theorized by Byzantine theologians at the time of the civil war between the partisans of the image and its adversaries. The story was used of the envoy of King Abgar, who was also a painter, so goes the rumor (but perhaps he was already a photographer). This envoy brought to Edessa a portrait of Christ, according to the most ancient tradition found in Syriac narratives taken up very early by Armenian translators (who seized the opportunity to make Abgar into an Armenian!). The Byzantine made the story into a philosophical tale.

The envoy did not succeed in fixing the traits of Christ on the canvas, upon which the Son had called him closer, asked for a cloth and wiped his face with it. His face was impressed upon the cloth. This is the famous kandilyon, the Byzantine version of the Veronica, the true icon, the Image par excellence. In his preface to Carole Fékété’s book, Philippe-Alain Michaud recounts the tale in the version attributed to Constantine Porphyrogenitus. The image was hidden in a niche in Edessa, with a lit lamp in front of it. It was discovered again a few centuries later. The lamp was still burning and, an effect of the light, the figure was carried over onto the brick that closed the niche. This new rendering of the image made without human hand, the Byzantine called the keramion. In it, Michaud finds the conceptual origin of photography.

Aram Jibilian, Gorky and the Glass House, 2010, Installation view of the exhibition Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire, Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York City, Photograph courtesy of the artist

As to Maurice Blanchot’s reflections on the image, they appear first at the opening of The Space of Literature in the following passage:

In literature, doesn’t language itself become entirely image, the image of language... or an imaginary language, a language that no one speaks—that is to say, spoken from its own absence—in the same way that the image appears on the absence of the thing, a language that is also addressed to the shadow of events... ?1

Thus, in this tongue that “no one speaks,” language is its own image. It is spoken on the ground of absence, and located beyond its use value. It survives itself, in short, as a living language, or as already dead. As “its own image,” language, in literature, is a survivor. From the beginning, therefore, and without firing a shot, Blanchot establishes
a faultless relation between image and survival, between the image and the survivor, the image and translation in a living language as if it were dead (which constitutes therefore the exact opposite of the example we encountered earlier). Yet something is obviously missing here for this relation to be fully comprehensible. That is why Blanchot returns to this question at the end of his book, in an Appendix where he immediately proposes the following parallel between the image and the “cadaver” (or “the remains”). “At first sight, the image does not resemble a cadaver, but it could be that the strangeness of a cadaver is also the strangeness of the image…” (419). And why is this the case? The explanation comes slowly. When the remains is withdrawn from us, Blanchot says, “at this moment, when the presence of the cadaver before us is the presence of the unknown, it is also now that the lamented dead begins to resemble himself” (420). There, that is the mortuary resemblance, which Blanchot calls here “the resemblance of cadavers.” Further on, one can also read these extraordinary lines with regard to the remains. “If we look at him again, this splendid being who radiates beauty: he is, I can see, perfectly like himself; he resembles himself. The cadaver is its own image” (421).

Aram Jibilian, Gorky and the Glass House, detail, 2010, Installation view of the exhibition Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a Former Empire, Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York City, Photograph courtesy of the artist

In actuality, Blanchot transposes, in the form of a phenomenological description, a reality that he had explored a few years earlier in his novel Death Sentence. This novel presents itself as a double narrative. The first narrative tells the story of a woman who wakes up from death only to die again. She thus finds herself for a few hours in the uncertain
and undefined space between life and death, neither dead nor alive. She is a survivor. In the same part of the tale, the narrator, at the office of the doctor who must pronounce death, sees a photograph in which two faces are superimposed, that of Christ and that of a young woman, whom we suppose is, to Blanchot’s eyes, “the unknown woman of the Seine,” the young woman who had thrown herself into the Seine and whose death mask had been preserved. “On the wall of his office there was an excellent photograph of the Turin Sudario, a photograph in which he saw two images superimposed on one another: one of Christ and one of Veronica; and as a matter of fact I distinctly saw, behind the figure of Christ, the features of a woman’s face extremely beautiful, even magnificent in its strangely proud expression” (136–137). The interpreters have never known what to make of this superimposition between the Veronica and the death mask. It in fact offers a very simple equation: the acheiropoietic image and the death mask are fused to the point of constituting one and the same thing. The divine image of the face is just another form of the mask. It is the dead face, already, that impressed itself on the cloth or on the shroud, during the life of the Son on this earth. Christ produced his own death mask.

This idea of the dead face from which a cast is made while the person is alive appears again at the end of the second narrative. In order to remind the narrator of the contract sealing their union beyond death; to remind him
that he bound himself to her as a survivor, as someone “with no life but the return”; to remind him that their marriage contract was written in a living language as if it were a dead language, and to punish him, after a fashion, for breaking the contract—Natalie arranges for a cast to be made of her own face. She has her death mask made for her. When he understands what has transpired, the narrator finds himself beyond fright. He himself had described the procedure, “a process which is strange when it is carried out on living people, sometimes dangerous, surprising, a process which… ” (183). The sentence interrupts itself, however. Evil was done. She represented and she has seen her own dead face. Dead while living. It was the face of the survivor.

Christ, 1992–2000, triptych (after Philippe de Champaigne, Christ, 1654, Louvre), © Carole Fékété


V.

Then there is Carole Fékété’s book of photographs, What Remains. The work of this artist is remarkable in that it is resolutely opposed to the image-testimony to which we are accustomed. She produces stagings. She exposes series. She does away with any allegedly natural frame. She revisits and parodies the origins of photography. She devotes herself to an archaeology of testimony through the image. This is so when she looks backward into the stream of time. But when looking forward, she also speaks of what remains after death, I mean, after the death of the witness. There is a qualitative leap here. On one side, the visual critique (a kind of deconstruction by way of the image) of the image-testimony. While on the other side: the death of the witness. What remains after the death of the witness is the survivor. Each time, in these images, a scene, a stage, a ground, a background, a wall, an envelope, a perfectly artificial intervention. Each time, the context is absent. No more circumference, no more environment, no more place, no more world. This is how the images of this photographer are so powerfully different from what our eyes are habituated to. They are different from all the photographic works that arrest the instant, show the world, tell a story in a tableau, and offer up faces. If there is no contextual dimension at all, no world, no hint of testimony, then there is no time either. No chronicle. The images of this artist do not bring the human landscape onto the scene. Furthermore, when there are human bodies in the shape of statues, she proceeds to cover them, to hide them. She shows their absence, their becoming-absent, their removal. Here are images without context, without frame, without margin, without world, without human presence; images that strive to erase the third dimension instead of producing an illusion of it, to the point of confusing the surface of the image and the surface of the object.

One must admit that this is already quite impressive. But even before the series presented in this book, one of the early works of Fékété was a series of faces of Christ, based on Philippe de Champaigne’s famous Deposition and enlarged many times thereafter. I will conclude with this. The artist goes back to the Baroque era, so obsessed with the cadaver in the form of relics, mummies, skulls and bones of all sorts. By choosing to photographically reiterate a fragment of the cadaver, she magnifies it and signals toward its image character. The cadaver is its own image. Through photography, she aims at the resemblance of cadavers. She keeps only the face of the cadaver, as if on a cloth, between the acheiropoietic image and the death mask, with no possibility henceforth of distinguishing one from the other. With this superimposition, she secretly signals the Christian, and therefore Western, exploitation of the mortuary resemblance, as Blanchot did in his time. This exploitation is also the negation of the survivor, of “what remains” after the death of the witness. It is proper to the West, and at the very root of its Orientalism.

Mummy (Roman legionary, third century), 2007, © Carole Fékété
  • 1. The English version cited here is from the Station Hill Blanchot Reader, with translations by Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, and Robert Lamberton, who must be granted, I think, collective credit (M. Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays [Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1999], 415).