Tracing the Image, Imagining the Trace: Seeing Through, Looking Between, and Feeling with Muriel Hasbun’s X post facto

Sareh Afshar | New York University

One eye sees, the other feels.1
—Paul Kleé 

I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, I think.2
—Roland Barthes

Seeing, Not Yet Looking

What one sees upon encountering the colorless landscapes of X post facto defies simple recognition, consequently evading quick classification. The x-ray images—hand-selected by Muriel Hasbun from her deceased father’s archive of dental records—push the viewer’s imagination to its limits as the mind attempts to see beyond the haunting traces of the familiar residing in the uncanny depictions. It sees teeth, cavities, and fixtures that resemble black hearts on icicles, bolts missing nuts, mourning jellyfish, omniscient clowns, and broken fences with runaway scarecrows. Carelessly choreographed, the framed spaces seem on the brink of a gravitational imbalance; the objects within them on the verge of slipping into oblivion.

This slipping is the very act the eyes mimic, though unconscious yet as to the meaning behind the motion: these are images of trauma. The eyes prefer taking the painful fall to bearing witness to it—they fall upon one x-ray surface to the next, caught between what is present and all that is absent; between the contrast of the Barthean punctum piercing the first and last images, between “what [they] add to the photograph[s] and what is nonetheless there” (Barthes 1981, 55).

But how to unlock the secret of these images? It would appear the key to Muriel Hasbun’s X post facto is to be found not in slipping, but in staying with, performed through a movement in reverse: it is in the invisible trace drawn from the last image to the first, across the sepia surfaces that seem to scintillate still with the electromagnetic radiation of the x-rays that had penetrated the teeth, gums, and dental implant devices whose shadows they now portray. Like its title, an understanding of this curated x-ray series can only be arrived at after the fact of its experience, challenging our conventional modes of linear thinking and storytelling. It moves backwards and shows itself circuitously, along the spaces lying in-between—inside and outside the frames.

To the untrained eye, which can only see these images, the first radiographic picture in the series manifests as the densest of black holes. Through its anonymous marking with the ever-elusive X, it erases any traceable link escaping the subsequent images that could allow for the formation of a coherent, inter-pictorial narrative. The X at the center of this first x-ray functions as a gravitational core that pulls in spectators, their imaginations, and emerging thoughts, leaving a vacuum in its trace. This anonymous document turns all the radiograms that follow into such impersonal tokens as well, therefore leaving spectators with an oversimplified packaging of anonymous images with no political call—a false packaging that unravels at the speed of light when the spectator’s glance falls upon the last image. The unmarked, bright space at the center of this image sits in stark contrast to that of the dark, marked core around which the initiating picture of the series is configured, rendering its experience an entirely different kind. The bareness of this whitish space both reflects and opens room for reflection: it allows for a narrative, a structured event, to be slowly developed and revealed. Through this lens, we are challenged to clarify our focus beyond seeing—to looking, feeling, and, ultimately, thinking.

But not to thinking, feeling, and looking alone: the event here is the collective trauma of civil war. Specifically, the story is that of El Salvador’s 12-year internal struggle which claimed the lives of nearly 75,000 Salvadorans (Allison 2012). One that, for Hasbun and her peers, is recorded in the flesh. The “blank screen” proffered us is a space upon which to share the testimony of this trauma—shared, extended skin. This screen, in a not so different context, is vital to Dori Laub, who attests that trauma cannot be fully understood through its historical documentation. Rather, “knowing” is only achieved intersubjectively, with “the emergence of the narrative which is being listened to—and heard” (1992, 57; emphasis added).

With Laub’s claim, we are left with two factors to ponder, both of which seem to inhere in the selection of x-rays composing Hasbun’s X post facto. First is the role of the listener, the hearer, as “the blank screen on which the event comes to be inscribed for the first time” (Laub 1992, 57). What happens when the blank screen is not a speaking body per se, but a radiographic representation, a middle ground that needs to be enriched with the imaginative work of both its relater and its receiver? Furthermore, does the testimonial process of trauma even allow room for what is beyond its relater and receiver? In other words, can the blank screen Laub proposes be an entity separate from she who hears the trauma, and serve as the bridge between, in this case, the trace left by the silent survivor (the x-ray) and the imagination of the spectator—creating alternative modes of knowledge transmission for the subject of the archive?

The second point to deliberate—tied closely to the first—pertains to the distinction made between auditory actions: listening is not yet hearing. Trauma, in order to be known—be it by its victim or the hearer/listener—must be listened to, heard, and felt. For Laub, “[t]he listener has to feel the victim’s victories, defeats and silences… so that they can assume the form of testimony” (58). Photographs, however, do not necessarily deal in words. Even Roland Barthes lamented that “despite its codes, [he could not] read a photograph” (90), because like Maurice Maeterlinck’s Mélisande, it “cannot say what it lets us see” (100). Can we conceive of a testimony to trauma that involves no teller or hearer, but rather a show-er, a look-er? Can we not push our imaginations to hear, our “good” pictures to speak,3 and instead direct our creative capacities at tracing the narrative—the Barthean studium taken so readily for granted as a mere “encounter [with] the photographer’s intentions” (Barthes 1981, 27)—resounding amid these silent images that are in fact not photographs, though photographic in nature?

These two items of discussion can be considered in reverse order—mimicking the action through which the narrative strand is woven into the images of X post facto—as we push past seeing to arrive at looking, and bear witness to the trauma at play. To see through the looking glass entails an attempt at uncovering the many dusty corners that remain hidden between self and image—and trauma, we are aware, “leaves, indeed, no hiding place intact” (Laub 1992, 72).

Looking Together for Feeling in Between

Listening is not yet hearing; seeing, not yet looking. If we accept the possibility of a strictly visual testimony to trauma, it is looking, and not seeing, that is in question regarding the testimonial process. Seeing is an act whose etymological grounding hints at a “following with the eyes,” an act which apes sans thinking as its imperative, while looking implies a seeking out, and in so doing reveals a desire, a need within the spectator. Hence, the practice of looking affectively binds the spectator with that which is sought out by her. It makes visible the vulnerability of the look-er, significantly leveling the ground shared with the traumatized show-er, rendering possible a more balanced relationship.

But who here is doing the showing, and whose trauma are we asked to bear witness to? Is the intersubjective bond formed between the look-er and the image, or the looker and the person behind the image? And is that person then, X post facto curator Hasbun, or the subject whose depicted dental records assign to us the role of forensic anthropologist?

X post facto speaks the vague language of trauma, the language—identified by Cathy Caruth as “the very link between cultures [of our age]”—rooted in the common “departures we have all taken from ourselves” in light of the ubiquity of catastrophe in contemporary history (11). Yet Hasbun also complicates Caruth’s assertion that the means of communication via this language relies on “what we don’t yet know of our own traumatic pasts” (Caruth 1996, 11; emphasis added) rather than that which we already know about each other. There are things of trauma that we can never know; these radiograms insistently cry. In her astute intermingling of personal trauma—her father’s death—with the national trauma of civil war—the turmoil that seized El Salvador between 1980 to 1992—and the trauma of the evidential failure of forensic archives in processes of identification—Janet’s lost smile—Hasbun calls attention to the dangers of oversimplifying the nature and functions of what we do, don’t, and can’t know of our traumas; finally arriving at the irreducible role of the body, flesh and bones.

What we do know—what Hasbun wants us to know—is a combination of the perturbing punctum lying latent in each image, and the shared studium stringing them together, as the narrative that can sustain scrutiny. The trick here is to relegate the punctum to the detail to curtail its ability to take over the entirety of the picture. Without so doing, each image stands alone with its one prickling component, singling out a personal trauma. It therefore becomes unable to account for the collective trauma—one relayed through the studium and embedded in the shared space between the serial images—and as a result of which they fail to bear witness to the “whole picture.” The whole picture is, without doubt, war. And what photographs of war show us, as Susan Sontag pointed out, is that “what war does,” it “dismembers” (8). Dis-membering is the work of war. If the images are left alone, and never come together, they only repeat the trauma they capture without ever fostering hope for remembrance and reconciliation. Evidently, Barthes was too hasty in disregarding the relative importance of the studium.

However, he was completely in the right when citing “affective intentionality” as that which the photograph is both reducible to and irreducible beyond (Barthes 1981, 21). X post facto is an explicit commentary on the ways in which the pains of war are etched onto bodies; lacerating and diminishing the surface, its wretchedness can leave tangible the memory of wounds while simultaneously making visible the wounds of memory. Other times, such agony adds extensions to the skin, and according to Hasbun, results in “a sea of sediment over sediment.” The same sediments—and sentiments—that layer and conceal serve as surfaces that reveal another one of the mechanisms through which the body remembers. In this way, these images parallel traumatic experience in highlighting the primacy of the body in re-membering the past.

Trauma, as a disorder of memory, is something that can bypass experience and preclude conscious registration; yet as Ulrich Baer reminds us, it does “register, with great force, on an individual’s mind and body” (10). Examining the x-rays in the records of her father’s dental practice, Hasbun initially found herself at the mercy of an ambiguous archive of anonymous documents. However, by shutting her eyes on the surface, by permitting the landscapes graven by the lives of her Salvadoran peers to rise into her “affective consciousness” (Barthes 1981, 54), she allowed the images to touch her and to become for her an emotional register through which to deal with the disturbing memories of violence, torture, and loss. It was by looking between herself and others from her country of origin, looking beyond the ghosts seen on the radiographic surfaces and venturing onto the mediated landscape of the “blank screen,” that she started to feel what her body had remembered all along.

For many of us, at least one eye sees. How the other eye—the feeling eye, the thinking I—behaves, however, is integral to the forms of epistemology we can hope to cultivate and the ways in which our knowledge can be transmitted and distributed in less damaging fashions (i.e. through bodies and as recorded in the flesh). In-between, there is skin, there is feeling: if we look between the sign and the metaphor, look at the wound and not see through it, we can start to feel, notice, observe, and think. We can come to know ourselves and others across the endless stream and docile touch of affective skinscapes.

Thinking Bodies

Skin is what we show of ourselves and see of others, how we know and come to be known. Steven Connors suggests that the reason skin—in and of itself—figures so prominently in our current moment is due to “the multiplication of skin-surfaces… [and] signifying screens” (36) and not merely a result of its evermore visible presence in social representations. Identifying the photograph as “[t]he first such modern skin-surface” (36) he joins together the acts of touching and looking. Barthes too was fixated on the ways in which light operated as “a carnal medium, a skin [he shared] with anyone who has been photographed,” as well as radiations that “touch”ed the photographed body “to [his] gaze” (81). However, what both of these thinkers overlook in their meditations on the allure of the photograph is their own participatory role in this linkage, leaving all the work of touching and feeling up to the image, the photograph, the other.

So what about us, our role? With Hasbun’s work, we should ask: how do we participate in this give and take, this touching and feeling? Where is our knowledge inscribed—on our flesh, in our memory, or in our documents and archive? Can any of these forms truly outlive our physical bodies for long, and if not, what is being lost? Furthermore, is there a danger to this loss, or is this gradual erosion a necessity to the survival of our kind—the thinking animal?

Photographs touch us. They are—much like skin—not on the outside but rather go-betweens, linkages, modes of knowing and transmitting what we come to know. Furthermore, they can show the unspeakable, feel the unthinkable. They represent simultaneously the impossibility of forgetting and of remembering. The luminescent trace of a single moment of the world is all a photograph can capture, too short to ever fully remember, yet too real to ever fully forget. The only hope is to try, through photographs, to act like skin: skin feels, and therefore, it does not forget. Photographs should help us feel, hence think, subsequently aiding us to not forget.

But not to never forget: there is a difference, articulated eloquently by Susan Sontag, between the demands “Don’t forget” and “Never forget” (115). Critiquing the imbalance between the value assigned to memory—too much—and that allotted to thinking—not enough—she forewarns us of the burden of too much remembering. “To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited” (Sontag 2003, 115).

“We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds,” Kakfa once said.4 We construct narratives for the same reason: Kafka’s stories were for him a way of shutting his eyes on the evanescent, on what could not—or perhaps should not—be continually remembered. We take photographs of war to get through it: to exploit it, to ruin it, to end it. We take photographs of war to bring peace: to think about it. And to then, someday—in the most brittle hope that it doesn’t repeat itself again—work through the violence and pain. To tell stories about it and to bear witness to all the falls. To fill in the holes of teeth, body, memory. And, finally, to silence the missing past like the photograph it sits in: to hear—and here—the sounds of the present minus the constant buzz of retroactive noise.

Sareh Afshar is a doctoral student in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU. She holds a master’s degree from the same department, along with another in communication and creative arts from Purdue. Her areas of research include the aesthetics of everyday life, public affect and the commons, memory and trauma theory, and body-/bio-politics—matters that she situates at the intersection of death and desire and contextualizes within the landscape of post-revolutionary Iran. Presently, she is assistant editor at the journal of performance studies, TDR: The Drama Review.

1 A reflection made during his journey to Tunisia, found in Diary III (Klee 1964, 310). This entry was the third one he noted following the outbreak of World War I. A few entries later, he writes of abstraction: “The cool Romanticism of this style without pathos is unheard of. The more horrible this world (as today, for instance), the more abstract our art” (313).

2 Addressing his role as Spectator in encountering a photograph, Barthes discloses: “I was interested in Photography only for “sentimental” reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, I think” (1981, 21).

3 Of the photograph, Barthes writes that if “it speaks [then] (it is a “good” photograph)” (1981, 43).

4 Kafka said, and Barthes cited in his Camera Lucida (1981, 53).

Works Cited
Allison, Mike. 2012. “El Salvador’s Brutal Civil War: What We Still Don’t Know.” Al Jazeera English (31 May 2012).

Baer, Ulrich. 2002. Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

Caruth, Cathy. 1996. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Connor, Steven. 2001. “Mortification,” In Thinking through the Skin, edited by Sara Ahmed and Jackie Stacey, 36–52. London: Routledge.

Klee, Paul. 1964. The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918. Edited by Felix Kleé. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Laub, Dori. 1992. “Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening.” In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, edited by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, 57–74. New York: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.