- Ornamenting the Unthinkable:Visualizing Survival under Occupation
Repetitive, messy, and often hard to see: survival is rarely photogenic. Relative to spectacular scenes of violent dying or heroic living that comprise familiar images of military conflict, survival may look rather dull, if it appears at all. Militarized violence typically becomes visible in mortality, but survival blurs the distinctions between life and death in the precarious environments that war creates, thus eluding or confounding predominant visual modalities for representing war zones. Related to this, survival is often illegible in politicized wartime fantasies about life and death, an incomprehensibility rooted in its deviation from mythologized visions of living and dying. In part, mainstream news media may find it difficult to depict survival—and consequently, distant spectators may find survival difficult to envision—because it is ubiquitous and temporally expansive. Dramatic events lend themselves to capture in single-frame photographs or short film clips, while the ongoing task of surviving war lasts as long, or longer, than the conflict itself, a duration that is inimical to the narrative constraints of news media and entertainment genres.
Wartime survival is the maintenance of life in an extreme form of what Lauren Berlant characterizes as “crisis ordinariness” (2011, 10), a concept that encapsulates the everyday traumas and forms of precarity generated by the current global political economy. Structural violence nourishes crisis ordinariness, while circumscribing its visibility through corporate and state control of the media. Yet as generative as the idea of “crisis ordinariness” is, the “crisis” that modifies the “ordinariness” in this evocative phrase also risks overshadowing it. To focus too narrowly on abiding [End Page 171] crisis (or interlocking crises) is to risk overlooking the active, inventive, everyday survival strategies that crisis elicits, and the ways that those innovations mitigate the crisis that begets them. Shifting our gaze away from crisis, we look here to a visual document of livable forms of ordinariness that emerge in fissures within the protracted crisis of militarized violence.
Confronting survival in visual cultures of war often requires departing from ideological absolutes (for sometimes the work of survival is ugly) and fantasies about resistance (for sometimes the work of survival is primarily utilitarian). Instead, this visual departure opens up alternative critical, political, and spectatorial possibilities. Here, we consider the interweaving of survival, catastrophe, and ordinariness in the needlepoint artwork of Esther Nisenthal Krinitz to illustrate this potential. Krinitz, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland, juxtaposes the luscious materiality and pastoral settings of thirty-six fabric collage and embroidered panels with a visual narrative of surviving genocidal violence (Krinitz and Steinhardt 2005). Arresting both for its virtuosic level of detail and frank rendition of the occupation and attendant traumas, Krinitz’s needlework ornaments the conjunction of the horrific and the quotidian. This jarring combination confronts viewers even as the haptic richness and sensory elegance of her craft pulls us toward spectatorial pleasures.
Building on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s insistence on the importance of reparative practices that work to ameliorate the traumatic impacts of structural violence, we consider how the sensory lure of Krinitz’s needle-point grates against knowledge about the miseries these scenes depict (2003, 144). Reparative practices, as Sedgwick defines them, constitute the “many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture—even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them” (150–51). Through an exploration of the haptic and visual aspects of Krinitz’s reparative artistic practice, we argue that her creations visualize survival as a process of extracting sustenance from an imperiled material world. Critical attention to the reparative dimensions of this extractive work, in turn, reframes feminist studies away from a preoccupation with the victimization of women in wartime.
We locate our critical project at the intersection of apparently irreconcilable phenomena: indexical representation, militarized violence, and survival within war zones. In “Ornamenting the Unthinkable,” we address the surprising, and often unstable, recombinations that occur at this seemingly incommensurable junction. Before analyzing Krinitz’s work, we set [End Page 172] forth a conceptual framework for a feminist study of visual practices that depict survival in militarized environments...