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  • Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art
  • Alex Rotas
Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art by Jill Bennett. Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, CA, U.S.A., 2005. 208 pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 0-8047-5074-2; ISBN: 0-8047-5171-4.

This is an insightful, timely book. The common notion that the particular experience of looking at art provides access to broader truths is a vague adage that does not take us very far. It needs opening up; just how does this leap from an embodied, aesthetic experience to thought occur? Bennett describes this as the link between affect and cognition in the visual arts, and this is the issue she explores in her book.

Art, Bennett argues (drawing from Deleuze), has "unique capacities" to trigger an empathic response from the viewer that, far from being an end in itself, ideally leads to thought and critical inquiry. The affective power of the visual is particularly demonstrated in the case of art that draws from trauma, which, as she observes, is traditionally defined as being beyond both language and representation. Nonetheless, traumatic experiences such as child sexual abuse, the tyrannies of war, civil war and political oppression, the Holocaust, and the events of 9/11 have provided artists with opportunities to engage visually and conceptually with difficult and painful arenas. In particular, Bennett charts the emergence since the late 1990s of the thematic category of "trauma art." Interweaving theory drawn from trauma studies, literary studies, art history, visual culture and cultural studies with detailed case-histories, she examines how contemporary art can "engage trauma in a way that respects and contributes to its politics" (p. 6).

Bennett's interest, however, is with more than a specific grouping of works and a particular politics. Her illuminating treatment of the artworks that form her case studies are reason enough to buy the book, but Bennett has a more ambitious aim. As a contemporary art historian, she sees her remit not as writing about the artworks that form the focus of her inquiry or with demonstrating what they mean, or what trauma is depicted. What interests her is how such artworks work. How does the particular "affective imagery" of art drawn from trauma engage us, she asks, and where does it take us? Unlike narrative film, visual art does not draw us into an emotional response with a traumatized subject. Equally, it does not elicit a specific "moral" response, although there are plenty of worthy artworks around that, in telling us what to think, certainly set out to do just that. Yet it is art's affective component, she argues, that paradoxically leads to critical thought just as it is through relinquishing any moral position that a particular piece can enable ethical inquiry.

This is a book aimed at a theoretically fluent constituency. Bennett's analysis embraces theoretical discussions of memory, testimony, subjectivity, pain, trauma and loss plus victim and stranger discourses as well as more art-related issues of representation and the relationship between visual and cognitive processes. It will, therefore, delight a broad, if sophisticated, readership. Nonetheless, its primary audience will be readers from art-theory/visual culture/cultural studies backgrounds together with those interested in trauma studies or postcolonial theory. Innovative, courageous and unashamedly attempting to push "the analysis of culture onto new ground," Bennett makes a powerful case for her central thesis that visual arts practice is generative rather than representative. Theory, she sets out to demonstrate, can be derived from visual domains and not just applied to them.

The ambitious remit of the book, however, is both its strength and its weakness. It is indeed, as the back cover proclaims, "written at the highest level," but this implies a readership that can keep up with dense yet often economically argued prose. Bennett covers a lot of ground in this slim volume. Rather surprisingly, the central notion of "affect" is never defined (or even discussed) and we are left wondering if the "affective experience" is synonymous with the "aesthetic experience," as Bennett herself implies toward the end. If so, of course, what exactly does this mean? And though keen to emphasize

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pp. 165-166
Launched on MUSE
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