War, Constructions of National Identity, and Photography
From Firenze University Press Journal: Rivista di Studi di Fotografia (RSF)
The link between photography and war, particularly the First World War, has been explored in specific studies, both in Italy and in the other countries involved in the conflict. These studies, however, seem to have had, alongside their undeniable philological importance and historiographical reliability (despite the extreme difficulty of having to deal with a variety of widely distributed sources, documents and archives, which are hard to access), limited critical incisiveness, and few theoretical implications for the medium as a whole and, more specifically, for the influence of the medium in the construction of national identity.
Reflection on images of the Second World War, of the mass deportations, of the persecution of Jews and the extermination of war prisoners in the camps, resulted in a frequent questioning of their political function and of the visual paradigm behind their existence.
This led to a radical rethinking of the margin of visibility around the threshold of representation, of the relationship between ethos and eidos, and of the outcome, in terms of consent and dissent, of the policies of removal Tof the gaze (and memory) in the construction of Western culture. We need merely think of a work such as Images malgré tout by Georges Didi-Huberman, dedicated to the analysis of the photographic representation of the unrepresentable, namely the Holocaust, for confirmation of this.
This did not happen to the same extent for the First World War, for reasons that I cannot examine here. Here I would like to contribute some brief reflections on a rethinking of the great corpus of photo-graphic images from this conflict, the first phase of the European civil wars, as some innovative studies, including those of Isaac Deutscher, Ernst Nolte and Claudio Pavone, have shown.
From the perspective of critical anthropology, we can deconstruct the convictions sustained by immediate existential compromise, common sense (what David Foster Wallace calls “thinking in default mode”), and the opinions produced by power and communications systems and other disciplinary apparatuses that reason by different means and serve different purposes. In our specific field of interest, this is a discipline that should contribute to denying an a priori assumption of photography — namely, ontological definitions — from the philosophical point of view, and offer, once and for all, a historical point of view.
For anthropology, there only exist individual images and individual collections, concrete corpora of cultural and social determinations; these can be read in a relational perspective, according to complex co-ordinates which must always be re-identified, as they vary from time to time. This refusal of an ontological approach to photography (and to other types of iconic images), familiar to anthropology since the early work of Boas, is today expressed by scholars with a similar perspective, such as Didi-Huberman.
In firmly rejecting apodictic definitions of images, and in particular photographic images, he recalls the substantial aporia of the ontological option; he reminds us that if the image is “first of all, the image of something else, there cannot be an ontology of the image”.
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