Blackout: On Memory & Catastrophe, by Joan Grossman
Abstract: This dissertation takes a philosophical approach to the problem of historical catastrophe and memory, focusing on problems of memory failure. The "Blackout" as a traumatic failure of memory, seen through the lens of 20th and 21st century technology, is explored through crises of war and media. Through readings of Hannah Arendt, Jean Baudrillard, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Claude Lanzmann, Avital Ronell, Wolfgang Schirmacher, Paul Virilio, and others, the crisis of memory is placed within a framework of catastrophic events and their representation — from World War I through the War on Terrorism — in which power and time are increasingly accelerated and compressed through technologies of destruction and observation. The Blackout as a collapse of sense and meaning is seen as that which threatens the very possibility of ethical relationality.
This work looks at the Blackout from three perspectives: through media in which a proliferation of image and prosthetic, electronic memory have infused a sense of the world, while simultaneously eroding sense itself, displacing the ethical with the virtual; through national memory which has been constructed through the reinscription of disaster as progress, evolving toward perpetual war — the War on Terrorism — as that which effectively destroys both past and future; and through the figure of the idiot in Claude Lanzmann's film, Shoah, in which an allegory of disaster is constructed through a nearly imperceptible moment of an epic work, demonstrating an aesthetic that reveals the impossibility of seeing the catastrophe itself. Through Shoah, and a discussion of other aesthetic approaches to memory failure and historical catastrophe, this dissertation argues that just as silence enables language, so does the Blackout enable reawakening into ethical possibility. The failure of memory is finally seen not as the Blackout itself, but as the reinscription of history that has followed the Blackout, contaminated by media and the desire to restore the illusion of an unbroken history.
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