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Forgetting Lot's Wife

On Destructive Spectatorship

Martin Harries

Publication Year: 2007

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.

Published by: Fordham University Press


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Title Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

List of Figures

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pp. ix-x

List of Plates

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pp. xi-xiv

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Preface: Looking Back on Lot’s Wife

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pp. 1-4

Forgetting Lot’s Wife offers 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 the history I trace here all lead back to a biblical story, however: Lot’s wife, looking...

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pp. 5-22

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 the man who pursues the road...

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Chapter 1: Artaud, Spectatorship, and Catastrophe

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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...

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Chapter 2: Hollywood Sodom

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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...

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Chapter 3: Anselm Kiefer’s Lot’s Wife: Perspective and the Place of the Spectator

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pp. 76-102

In his narrative poem After 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...

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Chapter 4: Lot’s Wife on September 11, 2001; or, Against Figuration

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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...


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pp. 115-138


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pp. 139-150


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pp. 151-155

Image Plates

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pp. 156-163

E-ISBN-13: 9780823247387
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823227334
Print-ISBN-10: 0823227332

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 647876422
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Forgetting Lot's Wife

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Influence (Psychology)
  • Violence.
  • Suffering.
  • Audiences -- Psychology.
  • Spectators -- Psychology.
  • Memory.
  • Recollection (Psychology).
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