Blackout: On Memory and Catastrophe

Joan Grossman,
Blackout: On Memory and Catastrophe.
New York and Dresden: Atropos Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9819972-3-0
US$16.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Atropos Press)

Philosophers from Aristotle to Jacques Derrida have attempted to theorize how individuals and communities recall and represent important events. In her book, Blackout: On Memory and Catastrophe, Joan Grossman builds on the work of classic and contemporary philosophers and uses their theories to explain the concept of blackout or “dead zones of memory” (p. 11). Grossman is specifically interested in the memory blackout that follows a catastrophic event. Throughout the four chapters of Blackout, Grossman notes that, while it may be difficult for individuals and society to pinpoint when and where lapses in memory occur following catastrophic events, it is essential for the world to fully understand the complexity of traumatic events. The text suggests that humans must attempt to overcome memory blackout and re-examine sites of catastrophe as a means to create a better and more ethical future.

To craft her argument Grossman utilizes her skills as a video artist, documentary filmmaker and recent PhD graduate in media philosophy from the European Graduate School in Switzerland. Much of Blackout consists of short excerpts and thoughtful analyses of philosophers like Hannah Arendt, Friederich Nietzsche, Paul Virilio, and many others. However, the text also contains brief descriptions of how memory and catastrophe are represented within Grossman’s own video art installations and a sharp analysis of the figure of the Idiot in Claude Lanzamann film, Shoah (France 1985). Grossman divides the text into four parts; the first two sections outline her conception of blackout and the institutions that affect the construction of memory in the wake of catastrophe, the third section analyses how memory is represented in Lanzamann’s film Shoah, and the final section examines the relationship between art and memory. By using this approach, Grossman weaves together a book that provides an intriguing understanding of how memories of catastrophe have been shaped and manipulated by multiple forces in our increasingly complex society.

Grossman begins Blackout by explaining that since the late 20th century and throughout the first ten years of the 21st century, there has been an increasing desire by historians, artists and governments to restore, reconstruct and remember the past. This social need to archive memories of past traumatic events can be seen through projects like the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University or the United States Library of Congress’s digital archive of the events of September 11. Yet, while these scholarly projects showcase a desire to document and remember the trauma associated with past events, they do not necessarily acknowledge that there may be aspects of catastrophe that can never be understood, re-represented or retold. Grossman points out that through art, artists can represent catastrophic events and showcase what she calls the blackout phenomenon.

Grossman utilizes Claude Lanzamann’s film Shoah to explain how art can be utilized to show the blackout of memories of catastrophe. For Grossman, Lanzamann’s film exemplifies the impossibility of fully representing the trauma of the annihilation of millions of people. To make this point, Grossman engages in a close analysis of a few seconds of Lanzamann’s film that shows a village idiot wandering around the background of a scene. Quoting interviews she conducted with Lanzamann and channeling several philosophers, Grossman concludes that the character of the idiot in Shoah is an example of how impossible it is to fully understand and remember traumatic events. She writes, “The idiot reminds us that much as we forget, we do not forget enough. That is, we do not forget everything and will never be as happy as he is” (p. 80). Grossman’s analysis points to several philosophical problems with memory and recalling the past. She states that just as catastrophe and trauma annihilates individuals, catastrophe also annihilates memories that can never be recalled. Grossman writes, “Such is the nature of memory, unsettled and incomplete: we are forever seeking its missing parts, reiterating the course of the remembered moment, jarred by its remediable abysses” (p. 83). Although humans are often the cause of trauma and catastrophe through the violence of war or terrorism, our cognitive minds are always searching for reasons, answers and justifications. While archiving past memories may help understand parts of the past, Grossman aptly observes that, as a result of catastrophe, humans will never be able to fully understand or represent all aspects of trauma.

In addition to this thoughtful analysis of ShoahBlackout engages the role that mass media and war have on the construction of memory. Throughout the four sections of Blackout, Grossman consistently makes that argument that in our technologically advanced world, our memories of traumatic events are given meaning and shaped by media companies who create a master narrative to explain the phenomenon. Instead of looking at catastrophe and attempting to fully understand it, media institutions are creating a visual, aural and textual cacophony of information that inhibits our ability to fully understand the complexity of traumatic events. Grossman writes, “The authors of history have traded in memory’s failed promise…the technologies of media and war have profoundly amplified the scale and scope of our powers to shape, narrate and remember history, with confounding consequences” (p. 9). Grossman expands on this concept by noting that media institutions are replacing “authentic expression with mass communication” (p. 27). Grossman is troubled by a global trend in the mass media, which simply manipulate our understanding of catastrophe to fit a master narrative that makes sense and seems to provide all the answers, rather than attempting to help us recognize all the complex aspects of a traumatic occurrence. This narrative doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the views, opinions and stories that may be emblematic or question the narrative that has been constructed.

Perhaps the most relevant and disturbing point that Grossman addresses in Blackout is the increasing role that media and technology have on people’s lives. As a result of an overabundance of mass media and social networking, individuals are beginning to live more and more in a virtualized world. Grossman states, “Relying less and less on our own overworked minds, the power of our memory is amplified by its electronic surrogates and increasingly infirm without them” (p. 21). Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube and other forms of new media are replacing older forms of exchange, and influencing the way we remember events. Grossman elaborates on this notion, writing that all forms of media “reminds us that we no longer have to remember an original experience, holding it close, retaining a sense of the moment. The moment returns eternally without regard to an original or distant time” (p. 58). However, it’s important to note that, while these new forms of media may provide more footage or coverage of an event, they are useless without having the proper context to fully understand their content. Grossman also stresses that 21st century technology may provide more information, but this information can be easily manipulated.

Blackout: On Memory and Catastrophe is an exceptional piece of media philosophy that engages key debates about collective memory, war and mass communication. Grossman channels the work of classic and contemporary philosophers, providing fresh insight into how their work can be applied to media studies in the 21st century. While Grossman does an excellent job analyzing and contributing to philosophical debates, one of the most intriguing aspects of Grossman’s book is her thoughtful analysis of Lanzamann’s film Shoah. However, throughout the text Grossman utilizes a strongly philosophical approach to understanding the construction of memory. Blackout is a refreshing read for media scholars interested in how mass communication affects the ways society remembers and represents wars and other catastrophes.

Thomas Salek,
New York University, USA.

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Thomas SalekThomas Salek recently graduated with a MA in Cinema Studies from New York University. He is currently preparing applications for doctoral programs in cinema and media studies. His research interests include how national identity and collective memory are influenced and represented in mass media.View all posts by Thomas Salek →