I often compare my method of working to that of a well-meaning freed woman in a Northern state who is attempting to delineate the horrors of Southern slavery with next to no resources, other than some paper and a pen knife and some people she'd like to kill.
– Kara Walker, American artist
As so many theorists and critics of new media argue, we are undergoing a cultural crisis of sensibility and intelligibility. The mobilized images of bodies characteristic of cinematic narration now fail to convince us of the objective integrity of those bodies. This insight into new media's origins in the wounded, fragile body is a great strength of recent media theory. Its shortcoming is a premature effort to achieve remediation. In our current crisis of mediation, some damage may remain irremediable. Media theorists must not neglect that some states of embodiment are ways of being wounded. And while wounded and injurious embodiment in principle can give rise to new media, it may be too hasty to treat the concept of "the body" as the starting point of a new mediacy. For the time being, the unmediated wounds manifest themselves as scarred and decrepit old media erupting from within the crisis of current media.
One contemporary visual artist at work in the territory of bodily incapacitation opened by the crisis of cinema is Kara Walker, who uses the most unexpected of old media: the cut-silhouette. This medium emerged into prominence as pictorial equipment for Johann Kaspar Lavater's physiognomic project and then spread into more popular use as inexpensive portraiture for the petit bourgeois home. It began to disappear, without ever having become a proper medium of art, as the physiognomic project of social typing was displaced by the photographic archive, and then it sank from view as photography became the dominant technology of bourgeois memory. Today the cut-silhouette is mostly a pastime for children. It does, however, retain a small adult following. In the United States, for instance, there is currently a handful of self-professed silhouette artists who ply their trade itinerantly, largely for a religious market where the archaism of the medium offers charm and comfort.
As a matter both of technique and aesthetic appearance, silhouettes take and fix the form of cast shadows. Like photographs, they are traces of their subjects, and Walker's use of silhouette is complexly connected to this memory function. As a fixing of cast shadows, the silhouette can be considered a proto-cinematic medium, but it is clearly not a technique of animation. If anything, it is a way of halting the flow of images that otherwise might give rise to the illusion of shadows in motion. This freezing of the shadow is crucial to Walker's installations because she mixes the fixed memory-trace with a stranger and more ominous memory function, stereotypical depiction that makes racialized identity the site of dynamically violent historical fixation.
The fixed cast shadows of silhouette thus become proxies for unimaginable yet unforgettable scenes of fantastic violence in which figures are embedded in memory with inescapable yet disintegrating force. The memory of, in Walker's case, African-American chattel-slavery constitutes a tradition of damaging mediations of identity which is inescapable for she who remembers. Here, to remember is to become fixed by, and hence to suffer, an unremediated history.
In Walker's art, this suffering takes on a dimension made familiar in the work of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein; she uses silhouette indifferently to fix bodies and body parts, clouds and shit, tears and weapons. In this fantastic space of unremediated history, the recollection of violence spreads itself across a dedifferentiated field of meaning. In Walker's art, "the body" is not a site of integration but rather an experience of persistent dismemberment. "The body" is no thing; it is, rather, what is defenseless against history.
To see how the continued vulnerability of historical bodies is the experience at stake in Walker's art, let me make one final observation. Walker casts her fixed shadows, as a film director casts actors, in uncanny narratives, half-dream and half-melodrama. In this way, she turns her figures toward reanimation, but only halfway, only in the form of a panorama, another proto-cinematic medium in which events unfold narratively but, unlike in cinema, without the earlier stages in the story disappearing from view in the later stages. The spectator may turn toward the next event, but the prior ones remain fixed for later viewing. In the panorama, the shadow does not get used up but rather, even as it plays its narrative role, lingers in anticipation of another story, another mediation. The shadow shadows the spectator. Relative to cinema, panorama is an old medium because in it shadows persist to reinforce the incompleteness of mediation. The first shadows in a cycle do not disappear as they get narrated; they are not simply remembered but, rather, dismembered over and again. One of the great pleasures of cinema (as an institution) is its power to make the flow of disjoint images cohere retrospectively from the point of view of the concluding images; cinema, in other words, rebinds the fragmentation of the mobilized body in the form of an ideal, hyper-authorized image with the power to serve as "the end" of the movie. By contrast, Walker's panoramas withhold the authority of any image to bind the fragmentation in question, thus leaving open the demand for a different scene of mediation.
This restless anticipation of an alternative mediation, especially in the presence of a mediating technology – the panorama – that is actually at work, accounts for the energy of Walker's silhouettes and, hence, for her claim that her severely restricted resources amount to paper, a pen-knife – and her anger. Defenselessness against history has, we may say, two faces. One is the vulnerability of having no proper medium while living in densely mediated history; the other is the anger that overflows in the moment of crisis and so becomes all too intimate. This anger, which Walker refers to as an artistic resource, has not been adequately mediated and, in that sense, has not properly entered history.
It is the shadow of what Walter Benjamin called "a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger." Anger, we might say, is the force of the dismembered body as it presses its claims against a history of mediation from within that same history. When we open up the concept of "the body," what we find, then, is neither fully intelligible narrative history nor mere matter that simply falls outside of history. With Walker, what we find instead is the urgent and intimate moment of inescapable memory where history becomes an embodied, wounding experience.
Gregg Horowitz is the author of Sustaining Loss: Art and Mournful Life (2001).