Week 6: Dancing in the Necropolis



Looking at this sentence affords you no information concerning the length or character of the silent pause that preceded its formulation.

How might this matter?







See above for “blank space” – the visual analog of silence.

A fair bit of our time today was spent on The Look of Silence and the silence of looks.

It is possible that I took a five-minute break between each word here recorded. The text does not show this.

And if you look away from the page for half an hour and stare out the window after reading this word, no trace of that attentional aporia will annotate this screen.

Saying nothing about all this, but in just the right way, may be the best we can do.


One might argue that my overture above represents a “performative” gesture. Some chunk of our seminar today was indeed on silence, but another significant chunk of our discussion dealt with the category of performance and what relevance it might have to the work of historians. Might we (do we?) activate classically “performative” practices (repetition, improvisation, use of a mediating “chorus,” etc.) as we do history?

Jamie launched us with a passage from the close of Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead:


It was a passage to which we would return at the close of the seminar as well. “Texts may obscure what performance tends to reveal.” And Roach parallels this proposition with the proposition that “memory challenges history.” It isn’t perfectly clear whether Roach wants the latter to be an amplification upon the former, or perhaps merely a kind of simple apposite. We are left with a sense that memory aligns itself with performance and history with text, but it isn’t obvious that Roach wants things sorted that cleanly. The watchword seems to be “co-creation.” At any rate, a reader of Roach’s book certainly feels, I think, by page 186 that “twice-behaved behavior” or “behavior behaved for the nth time” (under conditions of consciousness of the end sequence) opens access to the past in particular ways – and demands to be reckoned with as a powerful social (and individual) technology for mediating between past and present.

We don’t really have a separate week in this class on memory, and I’m starting to feel that that this is a potentially problematic omission. There is a very large literature on this subject, it is relevant, and I don’t think that any of us knows it as well as we might. But we found ourselves standing in this territory today as we contemplated the passage above in relation to Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence. I think a number of us felt that the film forces consideration of the extent to which “historical inquiry” is even possible under conditions of pervasively saturated social memory. We went so far as to test the proposition that can be read on the photo of the blackboard above: history begins in forgetting – i.e., where there is real memory history cannot happen.

There are definitely a number of senses where this proposition is false. But I was struck by a brief moment in which I sensed the perspective from which it could be felt to be true. History can stretch its legs on the open planes of oblivion; it has trouble catching its stride on the crowded streets of collective memory.

That said, there is obviously a way in which Roach’s book seeks to break down that very distinction. Does it succeed?


Conversation about Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip was spirited. We spent a good deal of time on this luminous passage in the close of his introduction:


I think we all agreed that there was something very beautiful indeed about this metaphor. In fact, I went so far as to say that I can not think of a more charged trope for the historian’s magical/mystical ambitions. I expressed that I was particularly affected by the way the figure détourn-es a very traditional optical trope for image making (lenses, focus, reflection) by invoking the combustion power implicit in the dioptrical/catoptrical concentration of light. The result invokes a kind of “catalytic virtue” in the historian’s work — a power that goes well beyond mere representation. Lesy’s effort to invoke the triple-point of the historical masterwork (it captures a breath in the past, a moment in the archive, a glimpse of the future by a reader – and does all three of these things at once) may feel to some of you like a romantic mystification. I lapped it up like a cat on a dish of cream.

And changing key on my gustatory similes, I’ll say that there was, for me, something chewy and toothsome in the sort of fractal-like density of “meaning” Lessy activates in this passage (where he “defends” — rather poetically — his free gestures of collage and excision):


It’s obviously kind of crazy to  assert that “it’s all in there – anywhere and everywhere you look, at no matter what scale, in no matter what clipped morsel or extracted fragment.” It cannot be right, but it is definitely so beautiful that a part of me feels that it cannot be wholly wrong either. Emboldened by this commitment, Lesy can wield tape and scissors with abandon, confident he can do no damage whatsoever. (NB: Hannah, for one, thought he did plenty of damage!).

It cannot be right, but it reminds me a little of Mill’s disorienting confidence that the best way to ensure that the “truth comes out” in a society is to submit every proposition to the most relentless barrage of animadversion and adversarial combat. Others thought the truth might be more fragile than that. But Mill’s position basically triumphed (across science, and politics, and essentially every domain of public life – at least in what we like to think of as the “free world”). Maybe something as odd as Lesy’s theory of historical meaning will eventually sweep the field and change our relationship with our sources. In an age of increasingly pervasive text/image “postproduction,” it does not feel impossible.


There were some other things that happened across our conversation. We wrestled more with The Look of Silence. Did this film force one into propinquity with the perpetrators in a new way? Did it do this by hinting, somehow, that the terrifying view expounded repeatedly by Adi’s interlocutors (“the past is past,” “let’s put it behind us,” “forget about it”) might actually make a lot of sense. I do not think I was the only person to cringe with a sense that Adi was a kind of figure for Oedipus – in the sense that Nietzsche invokes (i.e., a symbol of the self-destructive dynamics of the delusional “will to truth”). We also talked about the multiple layers of “surrogacy” (in Roach’s rich sense) that are live in the film: Adi for Ramli; Adi also for the documentarian, Joshua, in a real way.

[Here is the link to the interview with Adi which I read from in class, which provides an alternate perspective on who is controlling whom. -HL] 

Surrogacy itself affords us what I thought was a very original and interesting way of thinking about how the dead shape the topography of the living. I hope we will return to this idea.

[Came upon this in Nagel and Wood’s discussion of Botticelli’s Portrait of Youth Holding an Icon: “Botticelli, within his artwork presents an ‘image’ – or rather, his surrogate does, the portrait’s youthful subject” (118). The relationship between surrogate and image, Nagel and Wood argue, contains the tension between substitution and performance, a move that in this painting “makes us feel this icon’s objecthood” (122). So here surrogacy disenchants the “relic” through objectification, but it also “releases in it an uncanny quality of animation” (122). Perhaps reading Nagel and Wood’s substitution/performance back onto Roach offers a way of thinking through the different things ‘surrogation’ can both disenchant and conjure, both contain and release, in ways that map onto the blurring of life/death? ]


Towards the end of the seminar I took us to page 133 of Roach:


The language of surrogacy here, read through Bataille (by way of Girard), engages problems of sacrifice and communion. I suggested we think this passage in relation to the very disturbing revelation in The Look of Silence that many of the perpetrators of the massacres in Indonesia appear to have drunk the blood of their victims. Their given rationale is both fascinating and appalling: namely, that when one is obliged to do a lot of very horrible killing the only way to avoid going crazy is a kind of homeopathic inoculation transmitted through blood communion.

I asked us to linger on this image. Not because I had any sense of what was to be done with it, but because I found it so strange and troubling and at the same time also, somehow, possessed of a dark logic that seemed important to confront.

I suppose that if I am being honest, I feel like this last 25 minutes or so of the seminar was basically kind of  a “fail.” I hold myself responsible for this. But I would be interested in understanding if others felt the same way. I think I know the question I was trying to raise, but I do not think I did a very good job of raising it, and it may be, anyway, a question on which it is difficult to make anything like “progress.” I found myself wondering after class if there can just be situations where “sitting with” a difficult question – making no headway on the problem – can be understood as valuable intellectual labor. I am enough of a shill for “productivity” in all its forms (creativity, scholarly) that I must admit that this notion of just sitting fruitlessly in collective contemplative awkwardness is very hard for me to get excited about. The more I think about it, the more I start to feel that a lot hangs on this specific issue. Dealing with this will require an excursus – so much so that perhaps I should put it in a PDF and attach it here.

So what was the question we “sat with” anyway? Well, it was something like: “what-is/what-could-be the role of ‘communion’ in the work of history?”

So what does one mean by “communion?” Obviously the term is charged, and significantly overwritten with ritual/theological implications. But I still think it is the right word to wrestle with in this context. And that is at least partly because we are working, inevitably, in relation to a set of traditions that take the symbolic registers of “communion” very seriously indeed – and understand rituals of bodily incorporation to be significantly constitutive of the social body. In these contexts, speech itself – the ability to “tell the story,” the ability to serve as a transmitter of history – can be understood to be a function of these sacramental rites/gestures of communion. It may sound like I am merely talking about Judaism and Christianity here, and of course in some sense I am — but it was impossible for me to get several very powerful pre-Christian themes out of my head this week.

For instance, recall the extraordinary passage from book 11 of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus descends to the underworld to consult Tiresias. Before he can speak, Tiresias must drink sacrificial blood from a pit prepared by Odysseus himself. It is this blood ritual that gives Tiresias his voice and enables him to serve as a barer of the prophetic tales that will afford cultural continuity.

I am again, now, writing up these notes, feeling my way around for the same void to which I encouraged us to turn our attention in seminar. I am not exactly sure what it is I am asking us to look at. I admit that.

But I still feel like there is something over there.

What makes me think this?

Well, I dunno.

Maybe something like how strange it can suddenly seem that historians are simultaneously fetishically attached to archival documentation and passionate about their imaginative and empathetic capacities, even as, for some reason, we are exceedingly abstemious, as a rule, in our relations with the matter of the past. We very seldom eat of it. We very seldom bathe in it. We very seldom permit any co-mingling of our stuff and its stuff.

We read it. We cognize it. But between the document on the page and the idea in the mind we permit no obvious sequence of dematerializations and/or rematerializations. We are fundamentally ascetic. One might go so far as to say that, in the archive, the historian presents “a body without orifices.”

Don’t get me wrong. You can do plenty of perfectly good and interesting history by going into the archive with a pencil and paper (or a laptop or even a camera) and walking out again without having guzzled a milkshake of frappéd eighteen-century correspondence. And I did feel that, somewhere about halfway into this non-/semi- conversation, there was a vague sense in the room along the lines of: “Well, what’s your problem anyway, Burnett? We’ve got lots of perfectly good tools for doing history. Why don’t we talk about some of them, instead of talking about nine-headed scavenging history monsters who eat the dead and smear their bodies with feces in preparation for going to the library?” (for the record: I did not say anything like that in class…)

I take the point. But I did say we were going to try to think our way to, and indeed (of necessity) dialectically beyond the limits of the discipline as it is currently practiced – if for no other reason than to be clear on why we do do what it is we do do – and don’t do other things that have been done by other folks at other times and places who have themselves felt very strongly about “history.”

Becalmed together on a rudderless vessel sitting in this unattractive, featureless swamp, several of you gamely rowed, throwing out some non-insane examples of historical inquiries that “co-mingled” themselves with the stuff they were after: historians of ancient music who seek to play old scores on period instruments; historians of domestic life and culture who make and eat historical food preparations. All of which was very helpful. But there also seemed to be a general consensus that keeping one’s orifices mostly sealed up in the archive was probably all to the good.

Fair enough.

Juliane did gesture toward the importance of reenactment and other “immersive” historicizing practices for archeology, and we reminded ourselves that we are going to spend some time on this sort of thing when we do our week on reenactment.

But the fact remains I can still reach dimly toward an obscurity about which I cannot say much. But that still feels significant nevertheless: we steer clear of practices of communion in our form of history; we do not “drink blood” — not of our ancestors, not of our surrogates, not of our victims (do we even have those?).


(Although perhaps I’ll actually leave the last word to Don DeLillo…)

[Bibliographical note for further reading on some of these questions: Luise White, Speaking with Vampires;  Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics – DGB]



More poetry is said to come from Wisconsin than from any other state in the Union. (4/10/1856)

In Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy, the author presents us with what we would traditionally understand as unmediated primary sources, bookended by an introduction and conclusion with explicit explanatory power. Lesy recognizes that something happens in the space between the living and the dead, between the captured image or preserved newspaper clipping, and the historical narrative. He describes this process as “as much an exercise of history as it is an experiment of alchemy.” Despite the unconventional approach to storytelling, Lesy is really just doing the critical work of a historian working in our time – a well-known, yet little understood stretch of the past has been settled and sorted with a set of explanations – transition from rural to urban life, industrialization, population changes, the turn of the century and the arrival of American modernity. Lesy is not satisfied. In the story he tells, he allows the people of Black River Falls to appear through interpreters Van Schaick and the Coopers. He addresses us in the second person as well, telling us what we need to know before we begin, as though one is being led by the hand, in person, on this death trip.

In some of the photographs, however, there is laughter. There is movement, captured in the ghostly hand that was clearly aloft when the image was captured – it was alive, as its owner was. No more.

What to do with these people, then? Lesy presents us with their crisp dresses, their homes, and their horses, and tells us a story of “ten years of loss and disaster” – and then, with a pivot that made me laugh out loud at its audacity, presented us with the facts:

“Here is a different kind of information about either the state of Wisconsin, or the county of Jackson, or the town of Black River Falls between 1890 and 1910. In 1890, the median population for counties in Wisconsin was 19,121 …”

I laughed because Lesy was jolting us back into the world that seeks to explain the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in America in terms of demographics and economic shifts. “You were clearly moved by what I presented you with just now,” he seems to say, “but here! Some of you might prefer this.” The turn to a statistical explanation for the desolation of rural Wisconsin is not a mere gesture, however – it is a bringing together of modes of understanding the past that allow us to situate the chaos of suicide after suicide, tiny coffin after tiny coffin, inside of a set of political doctrines and sociological interpretations of how scholars living in this time used disease, sexual proclivities, the changing lived experience of Americans, and the emerging rural/urban dichotomy to explain reality.



Insanity – poverty

Insanity – religious


Delirious insanity


This book also reminded me of the Edith Wharton novel Ethan Frome, in its depiction of rural life, entrapment by circumstance, and desolation. The book ends with the following lines:

“There was one day, about a week after the accident, when they all thought Mattie couldn’t live. Well, I say it’s a pity she did . . . if [Mattie] ha’ died, Ethan might ha’ lived; and the way they are now, I don’t see’s there’s much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; ’cept that down there they’re all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues.”


What can we make of the fact that the cross-dressing Frank Blunt/Alice Morris has been plucked from Black River Falls by historians of sexuality? They will be part of a forthcoming exhibition, called Butch Heroes, by the artist Ria Brodell at the Gallery Kayafas in Boston.


Joseph Roach’s book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance is the only work this week that I was comfortable reading. Not because it was a conventional academic work, but because it was the only work which featured acts by people that were intended (even outside of the presence of a photographer or documentary crew) to be seen. On their own, and by way of contrast, Wisconsin Death Trip and The Look of Silence felt like profound violations. Lesy is careful to remind us that “these writings transformed what were private acts into public events” – and this had a healing quality, by allowing people to share their grief with one another. Nonetheless, by the sources’ copiousness and newsprint sterility, we are tearing back the veil on a person who has since dissolved into the earth.

A Look of Silence was filled with beautiful colours and quiet moments between loved ones, but also forced us to participate in a man’s grief (and his mother’s daily chores, and his father’s bath, and his children’s playtime, and his brother’s disembowelment) as spectator and sympathetic eye. Both this and Wisconsin Death Trip are deeply moving and crucial works, but I got the sense while sitting with both of them that I wasn’t supposed to see what I was seeing. It felt like an intrusion.

But hey …


As a counter to my own discomfort though, here is a quote from Adi Rukun from a NYT profile that ran in February, 2016:

“I honestly used Joshua to expose the terrible ongoing effects of the genocide today,” Mr. Rukun said. “I’ve apologized to Joshua for this, and I’ve apologized again for taking up his entire youth to express my mother’s pain and the horror of her stories.”

So maybe that’s all this is? Using one another to tell stories that matter to us?


The preservation of memory in performance in Roach’s book fits beautifully with the other two, less conventional texts for this week – re-enacting violence and posing for capture by a camera are both examples of what the left-behind do to make meaning. On this, Roach states: “Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure, I hypothesize, survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternatives. “

When the palimpsest that is culture along the Atlantic rim is seen through performance as enacted in New Orleans and London – Roach’s Cities of the Dead – ultimately we are left with humanity’s capacity to fill voids and smooth away all but the faintest trace. As Roach follows these various enactments of collective memory, and “unravel[s] the putative seamlessness of origins,” he allows us to hear what has been silenced out of what has been preserved (30).


Jean Barbot, detail, 1678 (from Rediker’s article below)

The idea of the circum-Atlantic reminded me of Marcus Rediker’s 2008 article, “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic Slave Trade.” In this article, Rediker investigates abolitionist claims that sharks followed slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean during the Middle Passage, to glut themselves on the captured Africans and sailors thrown overboard. In the bloody origins and interminably bloody present of the Atlantic world, the shark as terror weapon and powerful political image has a remarkable kinaesthetic imagination of its own.

This video strikes a markedly different tone, and so I will end with this.

It is of Swedish artist Jonna Jinton using the ancient practice of kulning to herd cows. Song, dance, and music are sites of precisely the sort of cultural reproduction Roach calls surrogation. Are the cows participating in this process too, a process of orature as conceived of by Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: “He is a sweet singer when everybody joins in. The sweet songs last longer, too”? (Roach, 11-12)

Cows do not have a literature against which to juxtapose orality, of course – and this is the least of the problems with this suggestion.

But how do they know to come when called, as their bovine forebears did? Perhaps the explanation is a simple one, but in the interest of preserving the magic of this video, I am not going to look it up. Please don’t tell me if you know.


Did you notice, we spent a lot of time this week looking into people’s eyes?

I will report back tomorrow, but I am praying and praying that I don’t have nightmares.


In Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, Joseph Roach discusses the use of effigies and surrogation across temporal divides (the living surrogating for the dead) and, perhaps more critically for his work, across racial divides (the colonized mimicking the colonizer, and vice versa, in a bid to obviate each other’s place in a society where multiple races sometimes appear as excess). In laying the groundwork for discussing the role of surrogation in multi-racial encounters from the 17th century to the 20th, he discusses the increasing segregation of the dead from the living and the close relationship between performance and effigy. His brief discussion of the modernization of cemeteries and his chapter on theatrical funerals resonates with research I’ve done on modern cemeteries as sites of solitude, introspection, and creation of the modern self, which I am trying to work back through in Roach’s terms.

Roach’s definition of performance is embedded in his definition of effigy: “Effigy’s similarity to performance should be clear enough: it fills by means of surrogation a vacancy created by the absence of the original” (36). (This definition allows him later to discuss a host of performances—rituals, parades, slave auctions—as being fundamentally intertwined with thoughts about death and continuity, even when these are not explicitly addressed.) Performance is defined by substitution. He writes explicitly about the performance of burial rites, where it is often easy to identify the substitution of the surrogate body for the decaying body. But he does not write about the new kinds of performances that came about because of the physical separation of the dead from the living. Today in the West we increasingly seem to accept this separation, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, regular visits were made to the newly introduced cemeteries, both specifically to visit loved ones and more generally to stroll around and contemplate life and death. (An excellent book on this topic is Richard Etlin’s Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in 18th-Century Paris.) Roach writes that “modernity itself might be understood as a new way of handling (and thinking about) the dead” (48), yet the relationship of the modern self to the dead as seen through the cemeteries is more complicated than simply turning a blind eye.

Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is generally considered the prototype for the modern (“segregated”) cemetery. It was trumpeted as a garden of the dead and, like public gardens at the time, from the beginning attracted visitors who wanted to people-watch (both the living and the dead). Augustus Pugin published several picturesque views of the cemetery in his Paris and its Environs (1833). One view, for instance, shows lovers in front of one of the most popular graves in the cemetery, that of Abelard and Heloise. The lovers recreate the romance of Abelard and Heloise’s story, but not the tragedy; as Roach points out, the creation of a memorial facilitates selective amnesia more than the maintenance of an oral tradition might. In Pugin’s engraving of the lovers, the performance act is clear: the living lovers are substituted for the dead. Several others of Pugin’s plates point to the grief voyeurism which was so titillating to tourists at Père Lachaise. In the case of grief voyeurism, the viewing itself begins to be part of the performance, as visitors expound on the sadness of the scene before them. The more celebrated affinity is perhaps between viewer and mourner than between mourner and dead.


Pugin vol 2 p 47-1.jpg

[I’m very interested in prints like this. They seem to distance the memory of the dead and allow for their inclusion within a domestic space, where pain is transmuted into memory. In its new guise as a sanitized memory, these images help bracket the pain of death away from daily routine.  Eventually unwanted reminders of the dead will fade, much as the ephemeral lithographs that contain these memories.] BL

One of the most prominent spectacles at the cemetery, alluded to by Roach when he talks about the hierarchical segregation among the dead themselves, was the mass burial of bodies in the fosses communes (common trenches). Two thirds of burials at Père Lachaise were in the trenches, and this mass burial horrified and fascinated bourgeois visitors. In the 18th century, when talks of a suburban cemetery began, some wanted to make it a democratic burial ground, but as Municipal Council member Quatremère de Quincy told the General Counsel, “No doubt death equalizes all men, but it is precisely the injustice of this leveling that should be rectified.” The result was a cemetery which accurately reflected—even exaggerated—social inequality among the living. Although two-thirds of Paris’s population would be buried this way, visitors consistently insisted on the extreme destitution of those buried in the trenches, melodramatizing their desolation (usually conflating financial destitution with friendlessness). The participants in the mass burials become performers who are presumably unaware of (or don’t care about) their audience. What is the substitution here? I read this previously as the substitution of the sentimentalized poor body for the bourgeois tourist body, allowing the tourist to displace anxieties about his own inevitable analogous performance. However, Roach prompts me to reconsider this when he writes about Betterton and his contemporaries, “[Actors’ roles] gather in the memory of audiences, like ghosts, as each new interpretation of a role sustains or upsets expectations derived from the previous ones. This is the sense in which audiences may come to regard the performers as an eccentric but meticulous curator of cultural memory, a medium for speaking with the dead” (78). This suggests the possibility that the (willing) viewer of a performance seeks continuity (with the mourner and with the dead, consciously or unconsciously) rather than distraction—a less cynical and more nuanced reading than my initial one.

Historian Jules Michelet was a regular cemetery flâneur as a young man and became a more purposeful visitor when his close friend, Paul Benoist Poinsot, died. He wrote extensively in his journals about visits to the cemetery, including the disinterment of his friend and, later, his father. Both Poinsot and the older Michelet were buried not in the common trenches, but in temporary individual plots from which they were exhumed after a period of ten or fifteen years (a cooling-off period which calls to mind the Sora afterlife). In both cases, Michelet viewed the decayed body (as was typical), reporting, for instance, that his friend’s bones had all come apart, including the fingers, but the head was intact with its beautiful white teeth, attesting to his friend’s good character. Upon the exhumation of his father, he found the opposite: the head was destroyed, but the flesh was mummified neatly, which integrity he also took as proof of moral superiority in life.

These particular experiences of communing with the dead clearly molded Michelet as a historian: as we read in Metahistory, Michelet wrote of his role as “exhum[ing] [the dead] for a second life” (Metahistory 159). Just after this part which White quotes, Michelet goes on to say that his goal is to create “une cité commune entre les vivants et les morts” (a common city for the living and the dead). While Michelet’s acts of ventriloquism themselves may amount to a traditional form/performance of history, his strolls around Père Lachaise and his direct communion with the bodies of the dead suggest that his primary experience of the dead may have been more what we have been calling Dionysian. (Wisconsin Death Trip appears as an attempt to manifest that same fascination/attraction/repulsion to the dead in a less traditional, more immediate way.)

By the end of the 19th century, cemetery-goers at Père Lachaise were extremely self-conscious of the performative implications simply of being in the cemetery. They continually imagined an audience to their own wanderings (I’m happy to talk about this more, but I’m getting a little long-winded here, so let me know if you’re interested in the many accounts of people-watching and self-consciousness in PLC), and their viewing itself was performative. Writing about Mr. Spectator’s performative acts of charity towards young prostitutes in Covent Garden, Roach writes, “Through the eyes of Mr. Spectator, the pedestrians behold as spectacle the performance of everyday life in a behavioral vortex, the staging of ceremonial practices within the architectural setting of a place marked by custom for those purposes” (90). The modern cemetery, in the 19th century at least, was a place marked for those purposes.

Roach allows as how “theatrical interments in 18th-century England… functioned as a prototype for tombs dedicated to the Unknown Soldier, those cenotaphs of the nominated double” (105). The actor is a stand-in for the present individual, as well as the past (allowing the conflation of the two in one body). Actors’ graves were some of the most beloved and visited in Père Lachaise. In the late 19th century, the actress Sarah Bernhardt designed and regularly visited her own grave, dressed in full mourning and in tears. Her grave was called out by journalists and tourists as being remote and secluded, but she was evidently performing for an audience; the seclusion is just part of the performance. Ostensibly curating what would be seen of her after death, she also used the cemetery as a living theater where she could draw attention to herself.


This last image is a press photograph of a woman mourning at Père Lachaise. Because it’s a press photo, it is explicitly staged. The woman in it is real, a living person, and unreal, acting a part. She is a self-made fiction, underscored by her gaze, directed down at her own body. The closeness of the frame, the inward-turned gaze, the obscuring of identity, and the positioning of her back to the camera, mirroring the reader’s likely posture, all contribute to her strength as a surrogate for the reader as well as a surrogate for the dead—a conduit from the viewer to the tomb.

Roach calls the cemetery essentially modern in its segregation of the living and the dead. While Père Lachaise, the quintessential modern cemetery, encouraged the communion of living and dead, it amplified the segregation of individual dead bodies (from each other) and the segregation of individual living bodies (from each other) in public imagination. It heightened the individual’s awareness of performance (both his and others’); at the same time the audience is invisible or imagined and therefore cannot act back on the performer except in the performer’s imagination. This calls to mind the echo-chamber of modern collective memory among dwindling collectives, as discussed by Wulf Kansteiner in his essay in Manifestos for History. As the audience dwindles, is modern performance impoverished or simply changed? Can collectivity be rescued from the echo-chamber, if we all inhabit analogous echo-chambers? As for the performance of communing with the dead, is it, or was it ever, more than the rehearsal for the reversal of roles that will come when the successor/ surrogate body becomes the succeeded body?


[And, in the vein of your last question RR, what happens to surrogation when former pathways to succession – already fraught and often interrupted – are explicitly foreclosed? I’m thinking here of colonial/European South Asian cemeteries (which I think Roach invites us into, opens up further still the space of the “circum-atlantic” when he discusses, on page 54, how the Surat tombs of the 17th/18th centuries came to inform Vanbrugh’s proposals for segregating the dead). In Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan (1825), Emma Roberts notes the “dreary character of the European burial-places in British India.” Over the 19th century, the colonial state could and did intervene in the rendering of cemetery landscapes, tombs, and monuments more suitable to the reproduction of imperial rule.

The postcolony, however, throws the imperial relationship between surrogation and succession out of joint. And as a result you see the emergence of organizations like the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, which was founded in the 70s, to deal with the “desolation and disrepair” of European graveyards, which, unlike in Emma Roberts’ time, cannot make a compelling claim on postcolonial governance.

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There is a desire in this above statement for surrogation, but there is no possibility of realizing succession “as it had been in former times,” no possibility of imperial reproduction. It seems that surrogation in this context involves a policing of // defense against other interactions with these spaces impelled by class and marginality like using the cemetery as a latrine, a home, other doings that make me wonder relationships to these spaces that are not necessarily premised on conscious intention. I read these unseemly uses of the cemetery as appearing to BACSA a “monstrous doubling” (to draw on Roach drawing on Girard) of the performance of memory through its very non-recognition…    TS]

[[I would be very interested to hear more about pre-colonial cemeteries/ burial practice/ visitation of the dead in this context. There were of course unscripted uses of PLC as well (as a place for illicit assignations, or perhaps most infamously, the rubbing of Victor Noir’s life-size effigy as a fertility talisman). But these were quickly incorporated into the script, as late 19th-century French literature is full of romances set there. See, for instance, Les Amants du Père Lachaise (1869), in which the heroine falls in love with the bust of a deceased young war hero. To her surprise (but not total disbelief) the dead hero begins a relationship with her by means of letters left at his tomb, in which he professes his idealized, pure love, corporeal interaction being out of the question. It turns out he’s actually alive and has been hiding out in the tomb, and when they end up together at the end of the book, their relationship somehow retains that air of perfection because of his association with the higher plane. I wonder if this is a difference between the literary and oratory tradition that Roach discusses? In the resolutely literary culture of France, marginal uses are incorporated into the tradition and made non-threatening. As I was reading, I wanted Roach to go into more detail about the use of pre-colonial tombs or about the Afro-Catholic funeral (61-63), to understand better the role of monuments/ place-making/ visitation in orature. In the case of the Afro-Catholic funeral in particular, the one-to-one surrogation reading (the loudest mourner is the surrogate who replaces the dead) feels insistently colonial/literary, and I wonder what it misses out. For instance, the Sora relationship to the dead as described by Vitebsky did not seem as easily to fit into Western literary conventions. Instead of one-to-one correspondences, the nuances of an everyday continuum/ gradient between dead and living might help us to think about the dead (history) in a different way (not focusing only on the dramatic shamanistic act, which does perhaps attract a Western narrative approach).

I’m so glad you mention Emma Roberts, because I was thinking of her too while I was reading this—in particular her explanation of the English (mis)understanding of the “jungle” in India. She writes,

“The term jungle is very ill understood by European readers, who generally associate it with uninhabited forests and almost impenetrable thickets, whereas all the desert and uncultivated parts of India, whether covered with wood or merely suffered to run waste, are styled jungles; and jungle-wallah is a term indiscriminately applied to a wild cat or to a gentleman who has been quartered for a considerable period in some desolate part of the country. Persons who are attached to very small stations in remote places, or who reside in solitary houses, surrounded only by habitations of the natives, are said to be living in the jungles.” (46)


(Illustrations from John Webber’s Views in the South Seas, 1808)

When I read the Roberts, side by side with pictorial representation of various colonial landscapes (Indian as well as “West Indian” and “East Indian”), I started to see everywhere a persistent (and not subtle) surrogation of native peoples for vegetation and of the “noble savage” for the “desolate” Englishman stationed far from home—and I kept thinking about that throughout the Roach (for instance, when he talks about the reinvention of Native Americans as “ideal characters” by Euro-Americans (188)). This reading of surrogation is satisfying in the way mediated history is satisfying (or in the way The Look of Silence is more palatable than The Act of Killing – cf. HL’s post below), and it is meaningful especially in understanding what the literary tradition made of colonial and post-colonial encounters, but it also feeds right back into that tradition…. -RR]]

For a project so concerned with quotation, with getting out of the way to let documents speak for themselves, Wisconsin Death Trip is an ostentatiously curated book.  Some of the author-editor’s juxtapositions work well, like the inclusion of relevant extracts from fiction by Glenway Wescott and others.  And yet most of the time, whenever I felt the author’s presence in the work, it was with a sense of annoyance that he wouldn’t follow his own recommendation and get out of the way.  This feeling became particularly strong against the book’s use of collage.  What on Earth was added to the meaning, the affective quality, or the artistic value of one of these austere photos by chopping it up or flipping it with a mirror image?  How could manipulating the images fail to detract from their power?  I felt this acutely in the image of a large group of children which was duplicated over itself in such a way that not every face remained visible.  My desire to see those faces was strong enough to provoke anger.

In a similarly perverse way, the organization of the text excerpts by chronology paradoxically disorganizes it, creating an impression of jumbled and disconnected scraps of paper and disrupting any conventional narrative through-line.  The occasional character who emerges through this confusion does so by sheer eye-catching oddity, as with the notorious window-smasher, who “uses cocaine liberally on such occasions, saying it quiets her nerves.”  What does it mean for the project that the only characters who are able to retain coherence, other than the ones like the photographer and the opera-singer who get narrative discourses of their own, are people who seem unusual?

The fictionalized voices of the town gossip and the town historian invite discussion, but I’m not sure what I think of them. I would be interested to know what others felt about their inclusion, and what they added or did not add to the project.

My irritation with my aggressively mediated experience in Wisconsin Death Trip met its appropriate counterpart in my sense of relief at the mediated experience of watching The Look of Silence.  Unlike The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence features a main character who stands between the viewer and the perpetrators of mass murder, mediating the horror of the experience.  It was astonishing to me how much easier it was to watch and listen to the stories of the murderers when intercut with calmly disturbed reaction shots from Adi.  That one change made this movie infinitely less threatening to my own sense of equilibrium than the last.   

[I share some of your reservations regarding Wisconsin Death Trip. I also wondered what Lesy gained by manipulating these photographs. Nevertheless, art historian Geoffrey Batchen argues that this very type of manipulation allows a photograph to transcend its own historicity and advance toward a personal, emotional, and present moment. The photograph, Batchen explains, must undergo a physical transformation; this act pulls the photograph “out of the past and into the present” (Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance 94). I am not sure, however, if this understanding of photographic manipulation undermines or furthers Lesy’s intentions. At any rate, the intersections between history and photography are many and have been enumerated by quite a few scholars. I’m resisting the compulsion to include a number of these insights. Instead, I am only including two sentences from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida:

A paradox: the same century invented History and Photography. But History is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic Time; and the Photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony; so that everything, today, prepares our race for this impotence: to be no longer able to conceive duration, affectively or symbolically: the age of the Photograph is also the age of revolutions, contestations, assassinations, explosions, in short, of impatiences, of everything which denies ripening (93-94).] BL

A lot of the emotion expressed in our last class devolved on Joshua Oppenheimer, whose presence in The Act of Killing is so unavoidable.  How could he make this movie?  How was it ethical to interact in this way with killers?  How was it permissible to ask the questions he asked?  Who was more in control, Oppenheimer or Anwar, and which would be worse?  For me, at least, all of the sharp edges of these questions become comfortably dull as soon as someone steps on screen with whom I can identify without qualms.

The creation of a character is highly audience-protective.  Is this a bad thing?  What are the virtues of mediation?

I suppose some of the Socratic or Ironic appeal of the current mode of history is that it mediates so heavily between the reader and the source, putting history at a delightfully comfortable distance and always keeping it “in context,” i.e. in a firmly bounded frame on the wall to be regarded.  And yet the other part of its appeal must be in the artifice of being unmediated, of the author “getting out of the way” and letting the sources speak.  The theoretically unimpeachable belief that this getting-out-of-the-way is inadequate and incomplete never quite erases its appeal.

If historians are empowered to arbitrate between the dead and the living, to make a frame through which the past can be seen, the nature of the frame itself is always of paramount importance.  A Dionysian mode hopes to dissolve the frame altogether. But the two Oppenheimer films and Wisconsin Death Trip between them show the perils of attempting to break down that frame, and the deep discomfort that comes from the ways that attempt can fail.

I want to bring this into conversation with the idea of surrogation in Cities of the Dead, but I can’t quite make it work for myself yet.


In the spirit of the Roach book, is this the latest outcome of cirum-Atlantic performance?


[I appreciated this, which I did not know. If we are going to reach into popular music this week, the figure who belongs in the conversation beyond any other, I think, is the deeply troubling and remarkable Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. All the themes are there: surrogacy, necromancy, satirizing and apocalyptic riffs on circum-Atlantic slave theater, violent mummery, the drinking of “spine wine” from skulls — even excrement and selfhood (e.g., the immortal “Constipation Blues”).  Screamin’ Jay  was the original zombie bard: he was in fact run out of several venues during his career by irate crowds shocked by his rising from a coffin to begin his shows.  And all of this was in like 1952 [!]. Here below is one of the most controversial recordings.  It is hard to watch in certain ways (civil rights activists were dismayed by Jay’s routines, for reasons that will be obvious), but it belongs in the conversation, I think.  I wish I could find something better from the film archive of his performances, but I cannot:



Readings for the Sixth Week:

Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance

Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip (photos) (preface)


Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead


The Look of Silence