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Number 9: Winter 2013

Between Experience and Representation: Towards a Semiotics of Trauma

Robert Weiss

When he was a child the war photographer, Don McCullin, would have a piece of paper tacked to the kitchen wall on which he would be allowed to draw. He remembers, in a television interview from the 1970s, how after the drawing was taken down, a space remained, framed by spikes of many-coloured crayon: “empty pictures”, he recalls, “ with marvellous edges” (see Morris & Morris, 2013). A substitution had been made, not the picture, but its absence was being pointed to—framed up—what is usually filled in, remains uncannily empty. What is implied here, and what’s underlined in some of the other childhood experiences alluded to in Jacqui and David Morris’s film about McCullin, is that he was compelled to take up a position of one who is concerned with filling the frame, to replace emptiness with content and meaning. But why war? Why not portraiture? Why not as a watercolourist, for that matter? After all, these would also fill the frame, symbolically compensate for the emptiness he describes. The photographs McCullin made point to a type of representation that Roland Barthes describes as occupying both “spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority”, an uncanny meeting “between the here-now and the there-then” (Barthes, 1964: 44). Although Barthes speaks here about a photographic text, this temporal disjuncture might also describe something of how trauma operates. The young McCullin, in the spectral absences his drawings left behind, was confronted with the traumatic distance between experience and representation. He was to repeatedly place himself in the dark, traumatic heart of battle not only in an attempt to represent something of the suffering of others, but also to experience something of it himself.

The empty space, then, might be a traumatic, unfillable one, but inevitably all loss leaves its mark, becomes, somehow, re-presented. McCullin’s spidery crayon marks trace out an absence and a presence at the same time; the object is absent, but a part of the materiality of that object—an affective trace—remains. Seamus Heaney alludes to the potency of a space that can act as a marker of something absent when he speaks of a photograph of his uncle in an early poem (Heaney, 1966: 15). Removed from the wall, bound for the attic, it left: …a faded patch where he had been—/as if a bandage had been ripped from skin—/ Empty plaque to a house’s rise and fall. For Heaney, too, empty space traces out a memorial to traumatic loss.