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1.What Image for the Death of the Witness?: Marc Nichanian Lectures in New
2. Searching for our place in history


1. What Image for the Death of the Witness?: Marc Nichanian Lectures in New

*By Aram Arkun*
*Mirror-Spectator *Staff

NEW YORK - Literary critic Marc Nichanian, currently a visiting professor of
cultural studies at Sabanši University in Istanbul, and formerly at Columbia
University, gave a lecture titled `What Image for the Death of the Witness?'
at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery here on February 3. This talk was presented
in connection with the `Blind Dates: New Encounters from the Edges of a
Former Empire' exhibition on the same day.

To understand Nichanian's talk, it is necessary to be familiar to a certain
degree with European philosophy and in particular debates over the past few
decades concerning the possibility and limits to `representation' in various
forms of genocides, mass murders and similar catastrophic events. Nichanian
in his previous works, in particular the volume *La Perversion
Historiographique *(translated into English by Gil Anidjar as *The
Historiographic Perversion*, 2008), came down emphatically on the side of
those who do not believe that it is possible to portray genocides and
similar such events in literature. He continued in this vein at this
lecture, examining what an image is and its relationship to the catastrophe
and survival.

After a warm introduction by Neery Melkonian, the director of the Blind
Dates project, Nichanian gave the outline of his talk, stressing his view
that a catastrophic event could not be accounted for through historiography
because of its odd temporal structure - not everything has yet happened,
that it will only be an event in the future. Secondly, historiography is
based on witnessing, but because the catastrophic event is the death of the
witness, it cannot be written about historically.

Nichanian spoke in front of an artwork by Aram Jibilian and Aaron Mattocks
using masks to present Arshile Gorky, or his `ghost,' at Gorky's Connecticut
home. The idea of a mask covering the absence of what it is supposed to be
covering led Nichanian to the concept of the death mask as the image of the

Nichanian then quoted from Siegfried Kracauer, a German-Jewish theoretician
of mass culture, who said that actual horrors, like the Gorgon Medusa,
paralyze men with blinding fear, and so cannot be looked at directly. We can
only look at images of them. The film screen (perhaps like the death mask)
is thus Athena's polished shield, allowing us to see, for example, events in
Nazi concentration camps. Nichanian explained that the image has an
apotropaic function but Krakuaer also gives it a redemptive component. It
redeems the real, the horror, by making it bearable and thus accessible.

At this point, Nichanian turned to the recent volume by Georges
Didi-Huberman, *Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz*.
Didi-Huberman maintained that the four photographs taken by sonderkommandos
at this camp refute the notion that genocide - in this case the Shoah, and
Auschwitz in particular - are unimaginable. Instead, we need to manage the
mechanism of images in order to know what to do with our memory. The image
is indeed testimony, and, Nichanian felt he would probably add, all
testimony is images. Didi-Huberman argued against those who felt that the
catastrophe does not belong in history, and against the postmodernists in

Naturally, Nichanian was opposed to Didi- Huberman's point of view and felt
that there was incredible resistance to acceptance of the idea of the death
or destruction of the witness. The nature of the catastrophe was the erasure
of the factuality of the fact through this elimination of the witness.
Nichanian expounded further: `The perpetrators knew that at the very core of
humanity was the witness, and the possibility of bearing witness.' The
survivors of such catastrophes have to deny the experience of the witness's
erasure or death (i.e. the witness within themselves is destroyed) in order
to go on living. That means in essence that the survivors have to deny the
very catastrophe they have lived through. Nichanian said, `This denial has
nothing to do with the denial of the perpetrator. It is a self- denial. You
know that the Armenians never use the word `Aghet' but they use the word
`genocide,' as if it were enough to name the event itself as a fact for it
to be what it is.'

Nichanian briefly noted that Armenians have a passion for the image, not
only as photographers, but also as novelists (e.g. Shahnur, Vorpuni and
Beledian). However, Nichanian avoided dealing with this issue during this

Finally, Nichanian turned to the work of Maurice Blanchot in the 1940s and
1950s. Blanchot was a writer and literary theorist whose work almost
obsessed Jacques Derrida, the French-Jewish philosopher and founder of the
theory called deconstruction. In 1955, in *L'espace literaire* [`The
Literary Space'], Blanchot referred thrice to the image. He wrote that in
literature, language was its own image. Secondly, the strangeness of the
cadaver is that of image. When the person was alive he was always changing,
but the cadaver no longer changes and so is the perfect image of the person.
Thirdly, once a utensil is damaged it becomes its own image; no longer
disappearing in its use, it remains pure appearance.

Nichanian felt that the temporal structure of the catastrophe is illustrated
in Blanchot's novel, *Death Sentence*. In the first part of the book, the
woman Natalie's death is interrupted, and she gets to live on one more day.
Catastrophe is similarly living with us but has not yet happened. It will
happen in the future as a past event. Denialists and historians obey the
call of the perpetrator and of history by calling for the impossible -
testimony and images. In those who survived the catastrophe, the aspect of
them that is the witness died as a result of the catastrophe. This is
reflected in Blanchot's Madness of the Day, in which a character loses his
sight but survives an accident. He is repeatedly examined about what
happened, but recounting his story would not reveal anything since
everything had long since been revealed. The character could not form a
story out of the events.

The insistence of the doctors asking the survivor of the accident to give an
account of the event that is similar to historians who ask Armenian
survivors to give an accounting of their own catastrophe and this creates a
`historiographical perversion.' The truth of the facts is an historical
truth, but this is an impossibility in the case of what most of us call the
Armenian Genocide. Nichanian feels that art and literature can find a
creative way to turn the perfect, because `dead,' image of the event (i.e.
the testimony about the catastrophe), into something live and worthwhile.

2. Searching for Our Place in History

*By Edmond Y. Azadian*

Almost a full century after the Genocide and 20 years after Armenia's
independence, Armenians around the world have been exploring the means to
meet the challenges of history.

Through a carefully-planned agenda, with far-reaching consequences, the
perpetrators of the Genocide have done such a thorough job that the
survivors and their succeeding generations have not been able to regroup and
develop a national ideology and a comprehensive policy to live as a modern
nation in these most turbulent times.

In recent months and years, several ideas and projects have been offered,
discussed and - inconsequentially left in limbo. All these movements seem
healthy signs of survival and only history will decide whether they are
viable endeavors or some steps that are too late and too little.

Some of the initiatives have come from Armenia and others are generated in
the diaspora.

One such initiative was the principle of dual citizenship, which the
Armenian government developed. Yet besides its sentimental value it hit a
snag. Every Armenian would like to become a citizen of Armenia after
dreaming about statehood for almost six centuries. But to achieve that goal,
citizens of many countries of Armenian origin, most of the time need to
renounce their current citizenship, because not all countries accept split
loyalties. That is perhaps why very few Armenians used the opportunity to
fulfill that historic dream.

The principal is still there, the opportunity is still open, should any
country begin minority restrictions or persecutions, Armenians in that
country may opt to return to the homeland and take up Armenian citizenship.

Another movement was developed in the diaspora to bring many factions under
one roof and to speak with one voice. That is an idea whose time has come,
because Diaspora Armenians have many opportunities to pursue the Genocide
issue and to engage in legal battles, attempting to take our usurped
national wealth from Turkey.

The diaspora needs to speak with one voice not only with Turkey, but also
with Armenia and with the international community. A movement, which began
on a sound basis, needs follow up. Unfortunately, the movement had as many
detractors as adherents, because a pan-Armenian movement may overshadow some
egos and marginal agendas.

Recently, Armenia's Diaspora Minister Hranoush Hagopian floated a trial
balloon during a visit to Los Angeles, proposing a restructuring of the
Armenian Parliament as a bi-cameral body, with a senate, including diasporan
representatives, allowing Armenians living abroad to have a say in the
government. Some quarters hailed the idea but others found it too hasty and
not well thought-out. Some homework had to be done, some surveys taken and
even a referendum held to find out if there was a place to amend the
constitution and to allow such a conduit into Armenia's internal affairs
Diaspora Armenians.

One important question remains to be answered: why was such a balloon
floated in Los Angeles and not in Armenia? The other question, which will
rise, is there a developed modality involving the diaspora into Armenia's
legislative system. Today Armenia's government, in order to win over the
diaspora, is showering rather profusely medals on meritorious and somewhat
less meritorious Diaspora Armenians and the minister of the diaspora is not
sparing her rich vocabulary to praise groups or individuals, sometimes
overlooking a sad history.

If such an approach will be used to elect or invite senators from the
diaspora, neither the individuals in question, nor anybody else will take
that kind of involvement very seriously.

Last but not least, a proclamation was released in Paris on February 4,
announcing the formation of a government in exile of Western Armenia. The
proclamation has been issued on official stationary of `the government of
Western Armenia.'

The proclamation has based the formation of the government in exile on
certain historic facts beginning with the document issued by the Russian
government on December 29, 1917 recognizing the independent government of
Western Armenia and ending with a declaration by the UN on September 13,

The question arises whether the formation of such an entity contradicts or
complements the other movements, essentially with the groupings who strive
to organize the diaspora.

Observing all these formations one can hardly envision a general picture.
Are these disjointed yet well- meaning activities or is there some
cohesiveness to them?

Sectarianism seems to have become too deeply entrenched into our national
psyche for us to be able to put together healthy ideas and come up with a
comprehensive formula to organize the diaspora and to empower it as an
extension of Armenia around the world.

Has the time arrived to find a common denominator for all these dreams and
projects or are we still exploring our place in history? And for how long?

From: A. Papazian