The Spectacle of Lynchings in India

This blogpost addresses the ethics of representing the violence of lynchings through photographs/videos of the spectacle of lynchings.

On March 18, 2016, a group of men murdered two Muslim cattle herders who were on their way to sell bulls at an animal fair in India’s Jharkhand state. The attackers, all linked to a local “cow protection” group, accused Mohammed MazlumAnsari, 35, and Imteyaz Khan, 12, of selling the cattle for slaughter, then beat them to death and hanged their bodies from a tree. Imteyaz’s father, Azad Khan, said he watched helplessly as the attack took place: “I hid in the bushes when I saw them beating up Imteyaz and Mazlum. If I stepped out, they would have killed me too. My son was screaming for help, but I was so scared.” (Source: Report by Human Rights Watch)

The frequency and severity of such cow vigilante violence has been described as “unprecedented”. The surge is attributed to the recent rise in Hindu nationalism in India. Many vigilante groups say they feel “empowered” by the victory of the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 election. Extremist groups have led attacks across the country that have targeted Muslim and Dalit communities. 

Images of lynchings are then circulated all over the mainstream media and social media. I feel that these reports of lynchings inform support to the act of lynching and to create a state of constant fear amongst the Mulsim and Dalit communities. It is fairly common to find headlines such as “alleged cow smuggler lynched by mob” in Indian newspapers. Christopher Waldrep, in his comprehensive study of lynchings in America, notes how newspaper reports were critical in defining the rhetoric and narrative around lynchings. The social and political legitimation of vigilante justice made America a theatre of recurrent lynchings for more than half a century. As such, the spectacle of lynching was staged by and for the white communities and participating in it was a way to confirm the racial categories structuring American society through their enactment.

Exhibition, whether through the staging of the event or in the diffusion of texts and visual representations of the ritual means that the terror they inspire does not lessen over time (Harding 2017, 1). Such visual representations of lynchings means that the terror they inspire does not lessen over time. Lynching imagery burns itself into one’s consciousness, demanding explanations and eliciting counter-representations (Harding 2017, 1). Their diffusion also has the effect of spreading the terror that lynching aimed to promote. Therefore, it becomes important to consider Harding’s discussion about how the diffusion of images and reports representing lynchings enforce racial divisions on a wider territorial scale.  

Horst Bredekamp insists that: “A form of feedback has probably always existed between acts of violence like lynchings and their photographic diffusion, to the extent that photographs were considered as part of the execution and the fact of looking at them as equivalent to participating in that execution” (Bredekamp 2015, 212). Through representation, the lynching ritual helped fashion the mythology of race (Harding 2017). Although they are meant to take on new signification, museums, exhibitions, websites, blogs continue to circulate and exhibit such images. In America, they continue to inflict personal injury on African Americans, all the more so as racial divisions in America continue to be enforced through acts of violence. Responding at the start of the 21st century to the photographs collected in Without Sanctuary, Hinton Als writes: “I looked at these pictures, and what I saw in them, in addition to the obvious, was the way in which I’m regarded, by any number of people: as a nigger. And it is as one that I felt my neck snap and my heart break, while looking at these pictures” (Allen et al. 39).

In his preface to Rope and Faggot (1929), Walter White wrote, “Mobbism has inevitably degenerated to the point where an uncomfortably large percentage of American citizens can read in their newspapers of the slow roasting alive of a human being in Mississippi and turn, promptly and with little thought, to the comic strip or sporting page. The problem faced by artists and writers is that to represent lynching in any fashion is to contribute to perpetuating the cycle of terror, but to choose not to represent it is to leave representation in the hands of the racists (Harding 2017). After a thorough understanding of the context of lynching representation through the media in America, I began to see the uses and purposes of various kinds of lynching representations in India, within a trajectory of both Hindu majority’s enjoyment in viewing Muslim/Dalit spectacle and a tradition of forwarding political and social change and Muslim/Dalit collective identity. How can we imagine alternative ways of trauma representation rather than to depict it using the same tactics of repurposing lynching images?

How do we convey the critical significance of design in conceiving and creating democratic public spaces and democratic memorial spaces? What is the relationship between violence of racially motivated lynchings with the spectacle that is made out of the victim, that is also made available for public consumption in media? What arethe ethics involved in looking at images (in the media) of lynchings and trauma? How can performance of testimonials, as a form of protest, shape the relationship between survivor and witness? What can psycho-analytical theories tell us more about witnesses of such violent acts and what are the joint responsibilities of the survivor and witness?

The first time I looked at a photograph of lynching, I asked myself, “what am I to do with these images?” Roger I. Simon’s chapter (2000) helped me to process this concern as part of my own memorial landscape. He asks, “Does it make any sense at all to speak of a remembrance of “what has never been my fault or my deed? How might the memories of others be “remembered” as a wound that wounds me, that unsettles and destabilizes my own past and present?” Simon suggests that it is important to ask not only how selected stories are framed by existing social and technological systems of production and distribution but, as well, in what manner institutionalized discourses define what counts as successful and useful forms of attentiveness and learning in regard to such stories (Simon 2015).  

Roger Simon directly addresses such visual representations, as object lessons that run several risks. First of all, viewers may feel they need to look no further to understand the events rendered by these photographs, that historical violence requires only a personal empathetic response, and that the calamity that has occurred has now passed with little remaining consequence for contemporary life. Second, the stories of others may become consumable, remembered but then forgotten. Third, one may grasp the stories of others on terms defined by one’s own self-understanding. It is his belief that spectators will think that looking and having an empathetic response will be enough of an action to combat such violence that is still present in society. In response, he believes there is “a need for curatorial work that provokes viewers to move through and beyond engaging the photographs as historical referents that denote the ‘who, what, where, and when’ indexed by an image,” calling for an exhibition that might allow these images to “inhabit the present” (Simon 2015). Perhaps the problem is not whether to view images of atrocities but rather the system in which the viewing is done.

I draw inspiration from the art series by Ken Gonzalez-Day, that was sparked by anti-immigration rhetoric that directly led to an increase in vigilante activity along the U.S/Mexican border in the early 2000s.  Controversial and challenging on many levels, the project gave form to the historical erasure, or absence, of Latinos, Native Americans, Chinese, African-Americans, from historical accounts of lynching in the American West. By removing the bodies of the lynching victims (from the original lynching photographs), the project sought to resist re-victimizing those killed in acts of collective violence, and to create a discursive space that might invite viewers to consider, not only the crowd, but the larger social conditions that made such extrajudicial killings possible.

The “event” to which Erased Lynchings returns is a readymade historical paradox, at once there and not there. The question for Ken was how to approach this subject without re-spectacularizing the event and thus re-instancing it in the here and now. As Adorno pointed out to Brecht, the left’s representation of atrocities is a problematic affair because “when genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of [art], it becomes easier to continue to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder” (Adorno 1995). For Gonzales-Day, this crisis of representation is itself the work. The event is recreated as an absence of historical atrocity in the presence of what, on the surface, appears to be landscape photography. The viewer is put squarely in the position of erasure – there is no body for us to see and control with our gaze – we are at once, phenomenologically, put into the place of the subject of the work, both as the lynched (it could be me up on that empty tree) and the lyncher (it could be me in that lynch crowd).

The photographic paradox of the subject that Erased Lynchings implicitly evokes; a paradox that activates the death drive in the spectator’s desire to re-view historical events through the medium of photography. It is Barthes’ formulation that the pleasure/pain the subject has in viewing historical photographs indexes the death drive’s activation. For the desire to witness an event that occurred before one is borne, the desire to return to that very moment in time, is at once a desire not to be. “The life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History, its division,” Barthes claimed.  

“History is [thus] hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it – and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it. As a living soul, I am the very contrary to History, I am what belies it, destroys it for the sake of my own history(Salverson 2006).

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