- Are There Painful Images?Ernst Jünger and Beholding Pain in Photography
In his essay “Über den Schmerz” (On Pain, 1934), Ernst Jünger attempted to use pain as a vehicle for characterizing both modern life and the medium of photography as a means for detaching from pain. Jünger was one of the most divisive writers of the twentieth century, and his essay has been deemed puzzling and “idiosyncratic” (Meyer 226). “Über den Schmerz” shares many concerns with writers associated with the “Conservative Revolution” in Germany during the Weimar Republic, such as Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Ernst Niekisch, and Ernst von Salomon (Bendersky; Mohler). In his writings on pain, Jünger derided bourgeois values such as security, certainty, progress, and self-development, values central to the society and culture of the republic. Jünger argued instead for what he considered to be the dazzling, revelatory experience of danger, the spiritual and existential purposes of violence, and the higher truth of pain.
Jünger’s damning characterization of images of pain during the Weimar Republic often seems to get at a feeling from our moment, albeit now experienced in digital form: a “synchronicity of events, where images of luxurious comfort are interrupted by photos of a catastrophe simultaneously wreaking havoc on the other end of the globe” (On Pain 41). Due to the technology through which contemporaries viewed events, modern visual media, he claimed, are “sealed off in a unique way from the grip of pain” (31). Jünger’sreflections on pain, suffering, and danger raised a question in the 1930s, one that has lost nothing of its urgency in our own digital landscape: if technology brings with it the objectification of life and, hence, a near complete detachment from pain, is the photographic gaze nothing but a weaponized eye shielding beholders from the being of what could be glimpsed? Is it possible for a photograph to show pain? Or for the beholder of a photograph to experience pain? Or must a photograph (by virtue of the conditions of its production, presentation, and exhibition) always serve to distance the beholder?
While technology increases our distance to pain, nothing can eradicate it from our midst, a claim reiterated in Jünger. Always in our proximity, pain has long defined life yet in different ways, because of our variable attitudes towards it. In Jünger’s view of 1934, the most recent and stirring shift in the history of pain manifests itself in the figure of the “worker,” as theorized in Jünger’s book Der Arbeiter (1932). In a remarkable essay, Marcus Paul Bullock contends that [End Page 461] the new form of collective life envisioned by Jünger was supposed to introduce to labour “changes [that] are physiological and physiognomic; the workers’ bodies will be hardened and impervious to exhaustion or pain, their faces like masks of metal” (465). In linking Jünger’s writings on pain to Der Arbeiter, it can be said that in this culture, the body in pain would need to be treated as an object and mastered because it would otherwise undermine survival. While Jünger’s “Über den Schmerz” is a powerful period text, it is worth examining for a number of contemporary concerns. Foremost is the way in which it suggests the question whether visual artefacts give expression to pain or whether pain is always muted, removed from consequential connections to beholders.
The first thesis of this essay – which contrasts with that of Jünger’s text – is that a photograph can seem to want to draw on our capacity to perceive the pain of others; indeed, it can contain the power to unsettle beholders with pain’s being. Relying on assumptions about a beholder’s ability, it will be argued, the body in pain in the image can be enlivened. These assumptions rest on perceptions of the body shared by the viewer and the viewed, as well as possible viewing practices. W.J.T. Mitchell has proposed the idea of getting at an image’s vital sense of personhood, “to turn analysis of pictures toward questions of process, affect, and to put in question the spectator position: what does...