Notes from the Monument

Almost a year ago, I wrote a piece that appeared in the LA Review of Books about the Israeli artist Shahak Shapira’s project “YOLOCAUST,” in which he appropriated selfies made at Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and remade them with the figures transplanted into historical photographs of the Holocaust.   In the essay I was appreciative of Shahak’s perception of the discrepancy between the self-preoccupation and self-incomprehension of the selfie takers, but critical of what I saw as the facile mockery in the work.  The piece raised several questions that I only partially answered.  What contribution does the monument itself make to this behavior?  What to make of Jews who exhibit similar behaviors at the monument or indeed, at places of the genocide itself, like Auschwitz?  Is play and playfulness with cameras necessarily appropriate at sites of Holocaust remembrance?

This month I returned to Berlin for the first time in seven years, and––not taking Shapira’s word for it––spent some time hanging around the monument, watching how people acted, talking to them, making pictures.  And if I were to create a taxonomy of the monument’s visitors, it would be something like this:  there were those who came in large groups of ten or more, those who came in small groups of four or five, those who came in pairs, and those who came alone.  Most of the large groups were guided, and almost everyone else was there without a guide, save some couples and individuals who were self-guiding using smartphones or books.  Patterns of behavior became apparent rather quickly.  People there with a guide would approach the site collectively, with a focus on the guide herself or himself:  to “see” the monument was to behold it by means of performative storytelling, a hybrid visual-auditory experience.  Those without a guide mostly approached the site apart from mediating information or narrative, rather by means of touristic behavior––principally acts of photography.  Why photography?  The simplest answer is not a bad one:  the monument is visually arresting.  And its location in the very center of the city––between the Brandenburg Gate and the resurgent Potsdamer Platz, an easy walk to either one––is enough to guarantee that what is visually attractive becomes a tourist attraction.  Photography at the monument is ubiquitous and, it would seem, almost compulsory.

However, it is not clear––at least to me––how to understand this ubiquity, this compulsion.  On one hand, it appears that taking pictures at the monument, as at other tourist destinations, is a repetitive, mindless act that colonizes and precludes more meaningful, considered experience.  On the other hand, it could be argued that taking pictures is a form of paying attention, a way of participating in the monument, a means of personalizing the experience of it.  I see truth in both of these perspectives, which only confirms my reticence to pass judgment on why other people photograph.  The surfaces of their behavior are not enough to grasp it, and neither are short conversations.  I hold to my reluctance admitting that most people that afternoon were frank in telling me they knew little about the Holocaust.  It was obvious enough that their experience with the monument was providing them with knowledge about the Holocaust about as much as gazing at the Washington Monument tells a person something about George Washington.

What does seem apparent is that the dominant form of touristic photography––made with a smartphone and quickly uploaded––is only partially about the traditional mnemonic value of photography.  Photography, in the classical understanding, is a technology of memory and a techné of memory, a practice and a rhetoric of coming to know what is deemed "remembered."  Photographs putatively have the capacity to hold on to what they show, and to store it away––a fusion of the traditional function of writing in a literate society (a means of forgetting about something without losing it) and a bourgeois conception of the camera-made image as exerting a proprietary claim over its contents.  

Touristic photography at the Berlin monument and elsewhere points to a different, in some sense emergent conception of photography, namely photography as a form of what can be called oral visual culture as much as written visual culture.  Photographs as visual upload contain most of the hallmarks of orality, as delineated famously by Walter J. Ong:  they are additive and aggregative, redundant and copious, formulaic and formally conservative, empathic and participatory, and closely integrated into the human lifeworld.  In contrast to photography under the sign of literacy, the kind of truth that “photographic orality” describes has little to do with the conditions of objectivity.  It does not trade on an imputed conceptual distance between the knower and the known, or the discourse of verifiable/falsifiable.  Instead, like other forms of oral culture, photographs made under the sign of orality trade on a relational experience of knowing, an experience of sharing and circulating which is self-sustaining.  How exactly to name this phenomenon is not clear to me––“photographic orality” and “visual orality” are not altogether adequate, or perhaps they are adequate as placeholders for terms that do not yet exist.  After all, the screen (computer screen, smartphone screen) belongs as much or more to the domain of writing as it does to speaking.  Or more to the point, the screen does not obey the distinction between written and oral communication, presenting writing and speech equally, plus writing that enters circulation and so behaves like speech, and speech that can enter the digital archive, behaving like writing.

In the LA Review of Books piece, I argued that the Berlin monument itself must be held significantly responsible for the lack of seriousness with which visitors take it.  Its commitment to wordless abstraction is severe––so severe that it disables its own memorial function, at least in my view.  Its main conceptual flaw, what it fundamentally misunderstands, is that if a work of art wants to transcend representation, it should begin with rather than avoid what it would leave behind.  (And the limits of representation are, of course, a major concern with regard to remembrance of genocide, inasmuch as all representations are in some sense guilty of simultaneously saying too much and too little).  The monument does stand to succeed, however, as a second stage to the small but excellent Holocaust exhibition beneath it––for which there was a long line of people who were different than the visitors I saw and spoke with.  My taxonomy is admittedly brittle.

What preoccupies me is the ways that photography––especially in its oral modality––contributes to the monument’s disappearance, i.e. its paradoxically self-renewing obsolescence.  To photograph the monument (or self-with-monument, in a gesture that could be called a selfification of the monument, also monumentification of the self), and specifically to photograph the monument for the sake of immediately uploading and sharing, is not just to dematerialize the site and the object.  Rather it is to remake the monument in a strikingly equivocal form.  The virtualized monument is both near and distant, singular and de-singularized, neither collectively experienced nor merely privately experienced––and perhaps not even privately experienced, if the photographic act turns out to be thoughtless.  The act of photographing changes how the monument is perceived, and so changes what the monument is, emptying it of a totemic value associated with its status as contemporary art, while augmenting its auratic reach, in relation to its status as civic spectacle.  

It seems to me an open question whether this condition of vacant plenitude––the monument in the condition of tourist photography––reaches back to touch or perhaps even to express the memory of genocide, the monument’s ostensible reason for being.  Is the monument seen or unseen to the extent that it is photographed?  On this question a lot hangs about the possibility or futility of Holocaust remembrance in that place.

Kraków, January 2018