Prolific evidence of unbearable atrocity is, sadly, nothing new. But varying-sized screens and rapid-fire media platforms have made difficult images unavoidable across the globe — from cell phone videos of police brutality, to footage of mass shootings, to photographs of migrant detention centers and drowned refugee children surfacing ashore. Is our current moment unwatchable? It certainly seems that way.
When Susan Sontag published Regarding the Pain of Others in 2003, however, there was a feeling that shocking images still possessed the power to rouse belief and expose injustice to the light of day. “Let the atrocious images haunt us,” Sontag urged, insisting that no image is truly unwatchable when it retains the potential to provoke moral outrage and prompt viewers “to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers.” But where can we find political traction today in response to the sprawling maelstrom of visual atrocities that we now consume as part of a habitual media diet?
While social media users lock into their airtight echo chambers, and white supremacist trolls and conspiracy theorists alike routinely disavow the documentation of homicidal violence, it appears that evidentiary truth has fallen victim to cynical reason. Call it an effect of “fake news,” or simply patent denialism, it is clearly a symptom of the broader decline of belief in traditionally refereed sources of journalistic news and expert knowledge. This is precisely what makes our current moment unwatchable — not just the excess of indigestible images, but the pervasive lack of faith or hope that an encounter with these images will be of any consequence whatsoever. The unwatchable represents the aesthetic condition of a political moment in which the future looks bleak, unavoidably catastrophic, and increasingly uninhabitable.
It is, in this way, distinct from the postmodern condition. When Fredric Jameson famously wrote that it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” he was commenting on a society that voraciously extracted commodity value from every possible event or style. From war and genocide to fine art and classical architecture, there was a smug sense that anything from the past could be appropriated by the empty, financializing drive of multinational capitalism. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius? Print it on a tote bag! The ravages of settler colonialism? Adapt it into a nostalgic television Western! The aftermath of imperialist conquest and geopolitical violence? Serve it up to hungry tourists as heritage sites, where you can buy your very own memorial trinkets and take authentic local snapshots, all for the low cost of carbon-guzzling airfare! Albeit repugnant, these formations of postmodernism were not necessarily unwatchable — though their material consequences were too often unwatched: cloaked and concealed by the glossy mirage of simulacrum and pastiche that sustained belief in financial capitalism’s seemingly limitless potential for resource extraction and profitable development.
If the world is more emphatically unwatchable, this turn has been paradoxical: cynical resignation coexists with intense emotional reaction, and heightened skepticism about the truth-value or transformative potential of images has emerged alongside the resurgence of political activism via digital media.
So what sorts of affects and actions can the unwatchable evoke? This was the driving question of our recent book, Unwatchable (Rutgers University Press, 2019), which we co-edited with Laura Horak and Gunnar Iversen. Shortly after the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2016 United States presidential election, we invited 55 writers — including scholars, critics, artists, teachers, and activists — to contribute a 750- to 1,500-word think piece on a media object they each deem to be “unwatchable.” Their items of aversion ranged from images of political violence (war, genocide, torture, nuclear catastrophe), to schlocky Hollywood Oscar bait (biopics, “precious” auteurist flicks, and glib tearjerkers about solving racism), to “extreme” art cinema by provocateurs such as Catherine Breillat, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noé, and Lars von Trier. As their essays make clear, we’re a culture of hate-watchers — we cultivate deep investments in the things we most passionately despise.
Why do we feel so beholden to detestable, even malicious objects? Lauren Berlant explains this perverse phenomenon with her concept of “cruel optimism,” describing our desire for a future that offers us diminishing returns and even preys on our affective attachment to ways of life that actively prevent us from thriving. For example, the “cruel optimist” lives precariously, perhaps making ends meet through unstable, piecemeal gigs, deriving enjoyment under social compulsion through gamified forms of “leisure,” all the while subscribing to ideals (e.g., social mobility, equal opportunity, job security, “the good life”) that scarcely exist in practice. This is how we’re strung along to keep on living an increasingly unlivable life.
As a political gesture, confronting the unwatchable asks for more from the future than chronic precarity or inescapable cruelty. Instead, it demands that we face Medusa head-on. Only by refusing to misrecognize the unwatchable — as anything other than a dire symptom of our catastrophic times — can we debunk the medusan fallacy and imagine a different way forward. The unwatchable, as both a critical concept and a portent of our future, provokes us to build a transformative new politics in the ruins of liberal optimism.
Such a reckoning with the unwatchable must happen on a radically collective scale. In our volume, Alenka Zupančič makes the crucial distinction between what she calls the “personalized unwatchable” (as a hallmark of neoliberal individualism) and the “objectively unwatchable.” While to each their own subjective trigger (images of sexual assault, suicide, graphic violence, and so forth), there must exist phenomena that remain absolutely intolerable. “This is the most concise definition of the ‘unwatchable,’” Zupančič argues: when “something that ought not (do so) melts into visibility.” Her primary example is Holocaust tourism, or the ontological obscenity of seeing former Nazi concentration camps turn into mass attractions (à la Jameson’s account of postmodernism). But her warning against allowing the unwatchable to “melt into visibility” has decisive implications for the political impasses of the present at a time when, in her words, “the world itself has become an unwatchable object or place.”
This is, we repeat, distinct from the postmodern condition. For Jameson, postmodernism had eradicated “any practical sense of the future and of the collective project, thereby abandoning the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm.” Yet such scenarios of catastrophe and cataclysm are no longer a matter of mere fantasy today. When average consumers can associate environmental degradation with the voracious appetites of unregulated neoliberalism, physical reality imposes itself between commerce and culture, or between financial capital and the logic of the simulacrum. Ecological catastrophe, perhaps more than anything else, is an emblem of the unlivable future foreboded by our increasingly unwatchable present.
Alex “Hayfever” Bush, a climate change scholar and labor union organizer, recounts her inability to watch footage of the Larsen C ice shelf — the fourth largest glacial mass in Antarctica (“about the size of Delaware”) that broke off and floated away in 2017: “I became aware of this impending event,” she admits, but “I refused to click on anything.” More than a personal trigger (like a gut-wrenching horror film), news coverage of climate change goads us to cover our eyes and duck our heads in the sand precisely because our individual correctives feel so futile and impotent. In other words, there is no personal, therapeutic remedy to climate change — no matter how ethical we are individually — because the only solution must be collective and structurally transformative.
Become a vegan, turn off your air conditioner, use public transportation, and recycle your plastics, but don’t mistake having a conscientious lifestyle for achieving a tenable way forward. To invoke Zupančič, the breakaway ice shelf ought not “melt into visibility,” but neither can it remain a hopeless image of desperate avoidance. Confronting the unwatchable opens up a third way, allowing us to envision new forms of seeing, modes of thinking, and spaces for public collectivity to stake out that vanishing middle ground between personal responsibility and powerful political action.
Is there such a thing as a collectively unwatchable image? It would be hard to imagine one — save staring directly into a solar eclipse. Everyone has their own threshold for representational violence, which clearly springs from one’s lived identity (race, religion, sexuality, gender, class, age, ability), embodied consciousness, and other experiential social dynamics. We use the first-person plural with that caveat, as both a necessary impetus toward political collectivity and as a tentative placeholder for marking the limits of universalism. While we must all go on inhabiting the same planet (Elon Musk’s fantasies of colonizing Mars be damned!), the understanding of what it takes to survive on this planet will feel worlds apart.
Yet the remedy to our unwatchable world should still allow for global, long-term modes of thinking that can transcend the unrelenting shock and visceral sensationalism of our current political and media environment. The seduction of the unwatchable is that it elicits an impulsive and defensive response. We turn our eyes from images of unrelenting horror (like Sandra Bullock blindfolded in Bird Box), even if doing so, at the same time, diverts us from our most embattled realities and prevents us from actively dealing with them. For example, when footage emerged in which 64-year-old Native American activist Nathan Phillips (playing his ceremonial drum) was seen facing off with 16-year-old Catholic high school student Nick Sandmann (wearing a red MAGA cap) — during an overlap of separate rallies near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on January 18, 2019 — stills of the encounter rapidly went viral. The incident itself became a linchpin for mediating dissent within an ideologically divided nation, as conservative commentators attempted to relativize the images, while Phillips’s defenders urged viewers not to disbelieve what they had seen with their own eyes. Overnight, it devolved into a cynically partisan affair, no longer a shocking incident demanding serious redress.
Melting into visibility, the still of Sandmann’s expression proliferated with every new essay or think piece touching on the controversy. It became impossible to log on to social media without encountering this photo of Sandmann’s face. The viral ubiquity of what was, for many, a viscerally unwatchable image also reveals the greater paradox of this category: the unwatchable often adheres to the very images that we view to excess, rather than the ones that remain unseen and thus untheorized. For this reason, it is all the more crucial to follow Saidiya Hartman’s call to “look elsewhere,” beyond displays of outward cruelty, “and consider those scenes in which terror can hardly be discerned […] to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle.”
Just imagine, if we’d been keeping watch over the dissemination of “fake news,” the obscene data privacy breaches, and the predatory trolling endemic to social media — rather than over the hot-button, click-bait sensationalism that litters its networks and platforms — our political situation today could be very different. As Shoshana Zuboff argues in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018), we arrived at this point of digital dystopia because the nefarious mechanisms of corporate and state surveillance were allowed to take cover in plain sight. Referencing the advertisers who now own all of our data, she warns: “They know everything about us, but we know little about them.” Meanwhile, our “sense of a predictable future slips away.”
This is why gut instinct and impulsive reaction alone are inadequate aesthetic responses to a pervasively dismal, disastrous, and unraveling world. As watchers of the unwatchable, then why do we keep doubling down on the same unending cycles of lurid peekaboo, looking askance in titillated revulsion, but opening the door to everything we cannot bear to confront? It is time to gaze at the horrors of the unwatchable head-on, keeping tally of its objective atrocities. Because there are worse fates to behold than Medusa’s.
Maggie Hennefeld is assistant professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
Nicholas Baer is collegiate assistant professor in the humanities and Harper-Schmidt fellow in the society of fellows at the University of Chicago.
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