- Aesthetics of Memorialization: The Sabra and Shatila Genocide in the Work of Sami Mohammad, Jean Genet, and June Jordan
Of all the primary images of political evil, the one that has been consistently foregrounded by artists and writers is that of the massacred political outcast because such an image is the most visible and heinous spectacle of oppressive power. This study examines visual and verbal texts that offer extended reflections on the 1982 genocide of the civilians, mostly Palestin-ian, in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut, Lebanon: Sami Mohammad’s Sabra and Shatila (1982), a commemorative bronze statue in the round;1 Jean Genet’s Four Hours in Shatila (1983), his testimonial narrative about his visit to the two devastated camps immediately after the massacres; and June Jordan’s Living Room (1985), which contains poems that register her reaction to the genocide and the Lebanese civil war.
By examining the representation by the Kuwaiti sculptor, the French writer, and the American poet of the genocide in Sabra and Shatila, I attempt to bring attention to the ways in which commemorative art and literature conceive of their role in an age of media hegemony. Moreover, through the comparative perspective of the study, I attempt to reveal a spectrum of aesthetic strategies appropriated by politically motivated texts that are wrought by their memorializing impulses and are aware of their inevitable position at the margin of the corporate media empires. It is needless to point out that, in delineating this spectrum, I am pursuing a general overview rather than reaching a conclusive list of strategies. This study uses the word media in the narrow sense of daily journalistic news reports and television news programs, typically filled with advertisements, consumed by a vast number of heterogeneous readers/viewers, and managed by conservative mainstream press companies and television broadcasting corporations in the West at a time when cyberspace networks and [End Page 589] the new media technologies were still in a nascent stage. As the old centers of the media cannot hold, and multiple centers, with less hegemonic power, have emerged, it is timely to probe the aesthetic and rhetorical strategies pre-Internet corporate media have prompted in politically inclined art and literature.
The thesis that this semiotic-comparative study puts forward is that through the image of the Palestinian victim as the marginalized other, the works of Mohammad, Genet, and Jordan set up both a focus for the critique of what Jacques Derrida terms artifactuality (of which more later), as well as the imperativeness of a moral energy that culminates in new cognitive modalities that contest those fabricated, naturalized, and disseminated by the media industries. However, although the texts are politically in opposition to corporate media’s discourse on the genocide in Sabra and Shatila, aesthetically they are in tension with the formalistic techniques of both the televisual documentary footage and the photojournalistic picture. On this point, the study argues that the works discussed in it, above all, contest three media aspects: the rapid tempo of the televisual image sequence when the documentary footage is broadcast, the monofocality of the photojournalistic picture, and the auxiliary status of both. Moreover, the study maintains that in order to effect a layering of perception, which the accelerated tempo of the televisual and the monofocality of the photojournalistic dissipate, the texts, on the one hand, harbor a propensity for generic transference and, on the other, a predilection for decelerated tempos of image sequencing—Mohammad’s sculpture incorporates narrative elements, and since it is of a single fettered figure, and since space and form are the most important of its plastic elements, the sculpted climactic moment is tantamount to frozen time. Genet subsumes elements of sculpture and installation art in his text, and the tempo of his chain of images describing the massacred bodies is akin to slow motion. Jordan’s poetry foregrounds a satiric tone, takes a filmic/cinematic turn, and her tempo, varying between the moderate and the slow, achieves an alignment between the perturbing images subsumed in the poem and the time normally necessary to take them in penetratingly. Taking issue with the monofocality of the media, the works embrace...