Forgetting Lot's Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship

Forgetting Lot's Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship

Martin Harries
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Forgetting Lot's Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship
    Book Description:

    Can looking at disaster and mass death destroy us? Forgetting Lot's Wife provides a theory and a fragmentary history of destructive spectatorship in the twentieth century. Its subject is the notion that the sight of historical catastrophe can destroy the spectator. The fragments of this history all lead back to the story of Lot's wife: looking back at the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, she turns into a pillar of salt. This biblical story of punishment and transformation, a nexus of sexuality, sight, and cities, becomes the template for the modern fear that looking back at disaster might petrify the spectator. Although rarely articulated directly,this idea remains powerful in our culture. This book traces some of its aesthetic, theoretical, and ethical consequences. Harries traces the figure of Lot's wife across media. In extended engagements with examples from twentieth-century theater, film, and painting, he focuses on the theatrical theory of Antonin Artaud, a series of American films, and paintings by Anselm Kiefer. These examples all return to the story of Lot's wife as a way to think about modern predicaments of the spectator. On the one hand, the sometimes veiled figure of Lot's wife allows these artists to picture the desire to destroy the spectator; on the other, she stands as a sign of the potential danger to the spectator. These works, that is, enact critiques of the very desire that inspires them.The book closes with an extended meditation on September 11, criticizing the notion that we should have been destroyed by witnessing the events of that day.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4738-7
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Plates
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Preface Looking Back on Lot’s Wife
    (pp. 1-4)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 5-22)

    In 1936, this unnamed poem appeared in A. E. Housman’s posthumous collection,More Poems:

    Half-way, for one commandment broken,

    The woman made her endless halt;

    And she to-day, a glittering token,

    Stands in the wilderness of salt.

    Behind, the vats of judgment brewing

    Thundered, and thick the brimstone snowed;

    He to the hill of his undoing

    Pursued his road.¹

    This laconic poem by a laconic poet encapsulates some of the difficulties of reading the figure of Lot’s wife. The nameless poem does not name its subjects, Lot’s wife and Lot; it requires that the reader recognize the “glittering token” and...

  7. 1 Artaud, Spectatorship, and Catastrophe
    (pp. 23-40)

    The spectators imprisoned in Plato’s cave and Lucretius’s witness of shipwreck are perhaps the most canonical figures for spectatorship in aesthetics and philosophy.¹ While these figures, and especially the spectral watchers in Plato’s cave, continue their vigorous afterlives, the changed conditions of modern spectatorship also have demanded new critical models. Film’s challenge to familiar regimes of spectatorship and the increasing centrality of spectacular mass political forms make the 1930s a period of particular pressure in the history of spectatorship. That spectacle might radically change people was at once a conviction, and a fear. Antonin Artaud embodies these antinomies with force...

  8. 2 Hollywood Sodom
    (pp. 41-75)

    If Artaud imagines his audience as twentieth-century Lot’s wives, petrified by the spectacles it must witness, Hollywood films often imagine a different audience and a different experience: we take pleasure in looking at disaster. The burgeoning literature on the ethics of spectatorship for the most part assumes a liberal or cosmopolitan subject granted access to scenes of distant destruction he or she can do little about.¹ The pathos of a distanced sympathy, with varying degrees of identification and claims of political solidarity, marks much thinking about the problem of seeing carnage and destruction happening far away. But this massively mediated...

  9. 3 Anselm Kiefer’s Lot’s Wife: Perspective and the Place of the Spectator
    (pp. 76-102)

    In his narrative poemAfter Nature, W. G. Sebald describes a photograph of his parents, taken in a public garden in Germany on August 26, 1943. This photograph is the first entry in a chronicle that leads forward to a story of his own origins and backward to the hallucinatory interruption of an early modern painting:

    On the 27th Father’s departure for Dresden,

    of whose beauty his memory, as he

    remarks when I question him,

    retains no trace.

    During the night of the 28th

    582 aircraft flew in

    to attack Nürnberg. Mother,

    who on the next day planned

    to return...

  10. Coda Lot’s Wife on September 11, 2001; or, Against Figuration
    (pp. 103-114)

    On the morning of September 11, 2001, one of tens of thousands, from the corner of Bleecker Street and LaGuardia Place in Greenwich Village, I watched the towers burn, saw falling windows and small forms that even from that distance were unmistakably falling bodies, and saw the first of the two towers fall. I thought about many things as I compulsively watched. I thought, among other things, about Lot’s wife.

    In the afternoon of September 11, I was in line at a supermarket at the same corner. The line was long—people were hoarding—and I fell into conversation with...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 115-138)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 139-150)
  14. Index
    (pp. 151-155)