The Intolerable Image

            “What makes an image intolerable? At first sight, the question seems merely to ask what features make us unable to view an image without experiencing pain or indignation. But a second question immediately emerges, bound up with the first: is it acceptable to make such images and exhibit them to others?” So Jacques Ranciere begins the chapter, The Intolerable Image (pg. 83) within his book, The Emancipated Spectator (Verso 2009). Ranciere spins this thread around and through the spectacle; that any imagery presented, eventually is subsumed within the spectacle and hence contributes to it thereby elevating (and at the same moment denigrating) the pain and indignation. The same goes for the critique of said imagery. Images become intolerable within this “ethical” framework of continuous spectacle. Yet the world is as it is, and must be considered as such, critically, not through the eye of revelation. How is this possible? He offers alternative presentations that do not elide the subject matter, do not stultify the viewer, and yet that can be made critically. One of which is the work of Alfredo Jaar, specifically that dealing with the horror of the Rwandan genocide, The Eyes of Gutete Emerita. This reference is remarkable in that within this work, the horror is not shown within an image though an image of a text describing the horror is manifest. There is no “intolerable image” and yet an image of something intolerable is certainly presented.

            On 9-15-2010, MSNBC headlined a Jim Gold report entitled “U.S. Cartoonist in hiding after cleric’s threat”. This covered the ongoing tragedy of the very real threat on the life of M N for having made a facetious, but critical suggestion on her blog. Being that Ms. N’s blog was very much akin to this very blog, I am actively opting for the alternative proffered by Ranciere. Little comfort there to yours truly (another kindred creator of images) since the methodology of that very alternative is precisely what resulted in a fatwa on the life of Ms. N. What M N suggested, that on some imagined calendar date (say September 31st, 2010) we should all draw the P M, couldn’t itself have been an image of M, since no image of the P M exists. Any image of the great P is considered intolerable by the P’s followers, a substantial percent of the world’s population. So Ranciere’s alternative to dealing with the unrepresentable, without its contributing to the spectacle, has proven in actuality (historically) to be intolerable.

            Within the chapter, Ranciere implicates the voice, the voice of authority, and not reason (with regards the subject matter) as being the determinant that resonates within the outrage of critiques of intolerable images. This voice speaks on what constitutes spectacle, what is admissible, how, when, etc. Within many languages, a distinction is made between an active voice and a passive voice (an active or passive verb, tense, etc.). The Intolerable Image inadvertently remains confined within the passive sense of (in)tolerance. Passive in that it is one that elicits outrage, critique, or sanction but not action. Ms. N’s sorrow lies with the very active interpretation of tolerance; that an active intolerance can result in bodily harm, destruction, and even death. Is the example of the work by Alfredo Jaar to be taken only rhetorically, only another contribution to the culture of spectacle? If not, what response ought we to make regarding the brutality foisted on Ms. N (without any insurance to cover her “not at fault” losses and the enormous costs of her re-identification)? Ought not it be an active response?

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