THE POWER OF IMAGE IN CONTEMPORARY DEMOCRACY
CAMBRIDGE: MIT PRESS (2001)
Using Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as a springboard, Israeli writer and professor Ariella Azoulay manages to construct a book of both profound theoretical weight and immediate social resonance. But Death’s Showcase is less concerned with how commodity culture marks a “loss of aura” or “authenticity” in the field of objects, than with what she asserts to be the true object of Benjamin’s eulogy: “a loss of place.” In the first page of the introduction Azoulay states that the book is about “the public display of death in contemporary culture,” and promises to anchor her discussion by referencing three typically modern sites: the modern museum of art, the television screen and the psychoanalyst’s clinic.
Azoulay may not be unique in her paradoxical claim that the aura of authenticity was born in the process of reckoning its loss, but Azoulay’s shifting of the site of loss from the work of art to “the place that displays it” seems quite new. Death’s Showcase focuses primarily on the culture and imagery of contemporary Israel, its recent history and contested identity, to demonstrate the real gravity of the change in culture that Benjamin foresaw–the shift from the primacy of the work of art to an economy of images.
In addition to Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger, Azoulay derives the theoretical basis of the book from such contemporary French thinkers as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. Yet her discussion always brings the point back down to earth, funneling the broad field of visual culture into specific case-studies concerning Israel’s “optical unconscious.” She explores at length Israeli artist Roee Rosen’s 1997 installation “Live and Die as Eva Braun” (Adolf Hitler’s mistress), which she claims challenged the limits of Holocaust discourse. She also takes a tour through the ‘place the city of Jerusalem occupies in the symbolic order,” including the Israeli occupation of the West bank. And in a stirring section of the book, Azoulay turns her analysis to the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. This chapter is built on the fateful relationship of three actors: Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Amir (Rabin’s assassin) and Ronny Kempler (an amateur photographer who capture s a video testimony of the incident). Azoulay also explores what she contends to be the conventional dissociation of the historical subjects of World War II the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
Perhaps the most telling phrase that Azoulay repetitively employs concerns Walter Benjamin’s sense that mankind’s self-alienation had, in his own time, reached such a degree that “it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” In the context of the book’s focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the lingering aftershocks of September 11, the assessment takes on a particularly forceful meaning. Well illustrated with photographic and video images that correlate with each of its 11 chapters, the books power derives from a combination of Azoulay’s intimate understanding of the complexity of her subject and the uncanny relevance the book holds for today’s global concerns.
Date published: 2001