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Camera Images and National Meanings
I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images that I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory.Memory is often embodied in objectsmemorials, texts, talismans, images. Though one could argue that such artifacts operate to prompt remembrance, they are often perceived actually to contain memory within them or indeed to be synonymous with memory. No object is more equated with memory than the camera image, in particular the photograph. Memory appears to reside within the photographic image, to tell its story in response to our gaze.
Chris Marker, Sans Soleil
Since its invention, the photograph has been associated with memory and loss. An early emphasis on portrait photography demonstrated the desire to fix an identity in the image, to have the image live after the individual's death.(1) Hence, the photograph evokes both a trace of life and the prospect of death. Roland Barthes famously wrote, "Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me ... is Death: Death is the eidos of that Photograph."(2) In its arrest of time, the photograph appears to hold memory in place and to offer a means to retrieve an experience of the past.
Yet memory does not reside in a photograph, or in any camera image, so much as it is produced by it. The camera image is a technology of memory, a mechanism through which one can construct the past and situate it in the present. Images have the capacity to create, interfere with,and trouble the memories we hold as individuals and as a nation. They can lend shape to histories and personal stories, often providing the material evidence on which claims of truth are based, yet they also possess the capacity to capture the unattainable.
However, the relationship of the camera image to memory and history is one of contradiction. On one hand, photographed, filmed, and videotaped images can embody and create memories; on the other hand, they have the capacity, through the power of their presence, to obliterate them. Some Vietnam veterans say they have forgotten where some of their memories came fromtheir own experience, documentary photographs, or Hollywood movies. The AIDS Quilt, as a means of forgetting the gaunt figures of people who have died of AIDS, often presents images of them as healthy and robust individuals. For every image memory produced, something is forgotten.
I would like to examine the role of the image in producing both memory and amnesia, both cultural memory and history. Camera images, still and moving, provide important evidence of the past and help define its cultural meaning. They offer incomplete but often compelling versions of the past that often eclipse more in-depth historical texts. They are also a primary mechanism through which individuals participate in the nation. Indeed, national stories are often mediated through specific camera images. This chapter addresses the role of camera images in the production of cultural memory and history through three well-known images: the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy's assassination, the television image of the Challenger explosion, and the home video image of the Rodney King beating.
Remembering the Image
When Chris Marker says the images he filmed "are my memory," he is invoking the common conception of the photographic image as a receptacle of memory, the place where memory resides. What does it mean to say that an image, which remains caught in time, is the equivalent of memory? One of the most fundamental characteristics of camera images is their apparent fixing of an event at a single moment. Yet it is precisely this quality of the camera image that distinguishes it from memory. For, unlike photographs or film images, memories do not remain static through timethey are reshaped and reconfigured, they fade and are rescripted. Though an image may fix an event temporally, the meaning of that image is constantly subject to contextual shifts.
A photograph provides evidence of continuity, reassuring in its "proof" that an event took place or a person existed. Though it is commonly understood that photographs can be easily manipulated, this knowledge has had little effect on the conviction that the camera image provides evidence of the real.(3) One seemingly cannot deny that the camera has "seen" its subject, that "it has been there." One looks through the image to the "reality" it represents, forgetting, in essence, the camera's mediating presence. Thus, the camera image testifies to that which has been.
In Ridley Scott's 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner, replicants (cyborgs with four-year life spans) are given photographs depicting childhoods they never had. The photographs provide evidence of their humanness, prove the existence of mothers and fathers and childhood homes, record birthdays celebrated. These photographs establish "fake" memories for the replicants, their designer Tyrell explains, to compensate for their emotional inexperience. Yet the images do not simply render the replicants more docile and emotionally stable; they provide the replicants with evidence of their subjectivity. As Kaja Silverman notes, the fake memories of the photographs are constitutivethey construct the replicants as the subjects they appear to be, subjects with childhoods.(4)
The emphasis on photographs as providers of memory in Blade Runner has been discussed at length, precisely because of the anxiety it provokes concerning the veracity of memories and the role of camera images in their construction. The photographs in Blade Runner raise the fundamental question of whether one can ever judge a memory to be "fake" or "real" and what role the camera image plays in creating that uncertainty. How can one know, for instance, that all memories derived from photographs are not as "fake" as the replicants'?
In a certain sense, all camera images can be seen as "screen memories." Freud defined screen memories as memories that function to hide, or screen out, more difficult memories the subject wants to keep at bay.(5) Similarly, an image can substitute for a memory. The distinction between the image and the memory, between the screen and the real, becomes imperceptible. There is no "original" memory to be retrieved; it has already been rewritten and transformed. Freud noted that all memories from childhood may be screen memories:
It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.(6)
This distinction between the formation, rather than emergence, of memories is crucial. Does the photographic image allow the memory to come forth, or does it actually create the memory?
This critical question applies not only to personal memories of childhood but also to collective and national memories induced by camera images. Freud not only suggests that memories are often formed or scripted at a later time but also elucidates the relationship between memory and fantasy. He defines memory as the object of desire, formed in "periods of arousal" to create a tangle of memory and fantasy within the individual. In analogous fashion, fantasy becomes central to the stories told in the larger narrative of the nation.
The image plays a central role in shaping the desire for cultural memory, specifically the need to share personal experiences. Indeed, the camera image blurs the boundary between cultural memory and history. Well-known images frequently become part of our personal recollections, personal (and "amateur") images often move into public arenas, and Hollywood docudramas can rewrite once personal recollections of "national" events.
At the same time, camera images are evidence of history and can themselves become the historical. Indeed, history is often described in image metaphors. The writings of Walter Benjamin are perhaps the most influential in representing history as an image.(7) In a famous passage in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Benjamin wrote:
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.... To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it "the way it really was" ... It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.(8)
For Benjamin, history is the image of a fleeting moment. The historical image announces absence, loss, irretrievability. Like a screen memory, it offers itself as a substitute.
The image Benjamin writes about in "Theses on the Philosophy of History" is an instant image, conjured up in a flash. It is the image of history arrested, a moment of historical rupture when everything stops and is irrevocably altered. This is history as the photographic image, history standing still.(9) Still and moving images shape memory and history in fundamentally different ways. The still image carries a particular power, in its arrested time, to evoke the what-has-been; it seems to have an aura of finality. Stillness is precisely what allows the photograph to be, in Eduardo Cadava's phrase, "the uncanny tomb of our memory."(10) The photograph achieves its moment of certitude in its evidence of death, its capacity to conjure the presence of the absent one.(11)
Yet the historical image is not only represented in still photographs. It is also constructed in the realm of cinematic and television narrative, as both drama and docudrama. The Hollywood docudrama is a central element in the construction of national meaning. The films of World War II, for instance, retain a powerful cultural currency; they provide popular narratives of the war that supersede and overshadow documentary images and written texts. Similarly, as I will discuss in Chapter 3, the history of the Vietnam War is being "written" not only by historians but also through Hollywood narrative films produced for popular audiences. These films are ascribed historical accuracy by the media and reenact famous documentary images of the war. They represent the history of the war, in particular to a generation too young to have seen it represented contemporaneously on television.
The historical television image would seem at first to evoke not a fixed history but, in its immediacy and continuity, a kind of history in the making. The essence of the television image is transmission. It is relentlessly in the present, immediate, simultaneous, and continuous. Hence, television is defined by its capacity to monitor (in the form of surveillance cameras) and to be monitored, to transmit images regardless of whether anyone is watching. The primary elements of television's historicization are repetition, reenactment, and docudrama.
The blurring of boundaries between the image of history and history as an image, between the still and moving image, between document and reenactment, between memory and fantasy, and between cultural memory and history is evident in the construction of national memory. Camera imagesphotographic, cinematic, televisual, documentary, and docudramaplay a vital role in the development of national meaning by creating a sense of shared participation and experience in the nation. It was the collective viewing of television images of the Gulf War, for instance, that made possible a "national experience" of the war. Similarly, the television image of the Challenger space shuttle exploding prompts a shared cultural memory of that event. Though the still photographic image is crucial to memory, and memory and history are often evoked by flashes of images, it could also be argued that memory most often takes the form of cultural reenactment, the retelling of the past in order to create narratives of closure and to promote processes of healing.
It does not follow, however, that the collective experience of watching "national" events on television leaves all viewers with similar and singular interpretations. Rather, in watching national television events, viewers engage with, whether in agreement or resistance, a concept of nationhood and national meaning. Benedict Anderson has written of the "imagined community" of the modern nation as being crucial to its coherence:
[The nation] is an imagined political communityand imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.... [The nation] is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.(12)
Anderson points to the tombs of the unknown soldiers as emblems of the modern culture of nationalism precisely because they are either empty or filled with unidentified bodies; the bodies they contain (either literally or symbolically) are defined solely by their national status. These tombs do not mark individuals, as do the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the AIDS Quilt. They are, in Anderson's words, "saturated with ghostly national imaginings." Similarly, when one views a "national" text such as a Hollywood docudrama or television coverage of an event of intense public scrutiny, one participates as part of an imagined audience specifically coded as American.
National events are often traumatic ones; we remember where we were when they happened. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, and the Challenger explosion, stand out as some of these moments of shock, experienced not as part of the continual flow of history but as ruptures in it. (Earlier events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the death of President Roosevelt, primarily experienced via radio, also produced a collective national witnessing.)
Psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulik call these kinds of memories "flashbulb memories" that "suggest surprise, an indiscriminate illumination, and brevity."(13) They find a correlation between the fixed memories of national events and traumatic personal events and suggest that surprise, extraordinariness (seeing an authority figure cry, for instance), and consequentiality (the effect of the event on their lives) are central aspects of this memory retention. These vivid memories evoke photographic ("flashbulb") moments in which history appears to stand still. Yet research on flashbulb memories has shown that, however vivid they may be, they often bear little resemblance to the initial experience.
Increasingly, Americans participate in the witnessing of history through camera images; "where we were" when it happened was in front of the television screen. Indeed, recent psychological research shows that people often misremember the moment when they first heard of a national catastrophe by reimagining themselves in front of a television set.(14) This particular mechanism of remembering, whereby we imagine our bodies in a spatial location, is also a means by which we situate our bodies in the nation. Photography, film, and television thus help define citizenship in twentieth-century America. The experience of watching "national" events, from the Kennedy assassination to the first moon walk, enables Americans, regardless of the vast differences among them, to situate themselves as members of a national culture. This experience is an essential component in generating the sense that a national culture, a "people," persists.
The Zapruder Film: From Still to Reenactment
When an image coincides with traumatic events of historical rupture, it plays a central role in the construction of national meaning. Abraham Zapruder's film of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963 (Figure 1) is perhaps the most famous piece of documentary film in American history. It is both a still and moving image icon: because the moving image was restricted from public view, for twelve years it was seen in public only as a series of stills. The Zapruder film represents history as a succession of individual frames sliding forward in slow motion, offering only fragments of clues to what happened. It is a secret image, hidden from view, imbued with a kind of sacred status, as if it holds within it an essential clue to the meaning of this event. Never before had a piece of film been so dissected (in this case, as a surrogate for Kennedy's absent corpse) in the belief that it contained the trutha truth existing somewhere between the frames.
In the Zapruder film, the limousine carrying the president, Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas governor John Connally, and his wife, Nellie, drives past the camera in a matter of seconds. Briefly obstructed by a stand of trees, Kennedy reemerges into the frame the moment after he is shot for the first time; the camera then witnesses the impact of the fatal shot and follows the car swiftly to the right as it speeds away. Jacqueline Kennedy, clad in a pink suit and pillbox hat, first cradles her husband's head, then crawls backward onto the trunk of the car, presumably to aid a Secret Service agent running toward it. The original Super-8 film presents a grainy color image, its detail blurred by motionan image that hides as much as it reveals.
The Zapruder film has its own history, and its cultural status has changed several times. It was shot on a home movie camera by Abraham Zapruder as he watched Kennedy ride by. Although an amateur, Zapruder, who ran a dress factory in Dallas, was a skilled cameraman. Richard Stolley, who purchased the film from Zapruder for Time-Life, has stated:
He thought the gunshot was a backfire, then through the viewfinder saw Kennedy slump and realized he had been wounded. "If I'd had any sense I would have dropped to the ground," he said, "because my first impression was that the shots were coming from behind me." Instead, he froze, screaming, "They killed him, they killed him," and kept his camera trained on the limousine and the bloody chaos inside until it went through the underpass.(15)
Zapruder sold the film to Time-Life for $150,000, which published still images from it the following week in Life magazine, without mention of Zapruder. By presenting "exclusive" photos, as if one of its photographers had been present, Life erased the film's amateur status. The footage was then locked away by Time-Life, which permitted only select viewers to see it (among them Dan Rather, whose success in journalism owed much to his proximity to this event). Some assassination historians contend that frames were reversed when they were printed in the Warren Report and that the captions and order for the frames published in Life were misleading.(16)
The Zapruder film thus has a different meaning as still images than as a moving image. The power of the film image lies precisely in its sequence of frames that appear to tell a story, a horrible story, with temporal precision. When Life publisher C. D. Jackson saw the film, he is reported to have been so disturbed that he had Time-Life acquire the motion-picture rights to it; although Life only needed print rights, Jackson wanted to suppress what the moving image showed.(17) Certainly, the sequence is much more palatable as a succession of still images. Indeed, its public release as a moving image in 1975 resulted in calls for another investigation. The relentless scrutiny of the image in both government analysis and public discourse has concentrated on precisely what its movement means: Did Kennedy's head fall backward or forward? From which direction was the bullet fired? This image retains power not only as the documentation of a national tragedy but also as evidence of the crucial role of the camera. The iconic power of these few film frames derives from what they demonstrate about the camera's technical ability to capture a crucial moment, to tell the story unseen by the "naked" eye.
The Zapruder film thus changed over time from an amateur home movie to a copyrighted news image to a piece of legal and historical evidence to "evidence" of a conspiracy. This filmed image, so central to the American historical consciousness, so inseparable from the event itself, has played a particular role in symbolizing Kennedy's life and what is scripted in retrospect as America's loss of national innocence. The instant captured in this film is historicized as the moment when the country changed, when it went from being a nation of promise, good intentions, and youthful optimism to one of cynicism, violence, and pessimism. This historical narrative not only promotes a simplistic nostalgia about the America of the 1950s and the "Camelot" years of the Kennedy administration but also prevents healing from taking place. As Michael Rogin writes:
The widespread feeling that America began to fall apart after Kennedy was killed prolongs national mourning.... The unresolved assassination, combined with Kennedy's complicity with the forces suspected of doing him in, has blocked a national mourning of the president he actually was, encouraging the regression from what [Melanie] Klein calls the depressive position, where loss can be acknowledged and overcome, to idealization, splitting, and paranoia.(18)
The trope of America's losing its innocence at a precise moment is a well-worn one, a concept reiterated with Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and other events. The "regression" noted by Rogin is inextricable from the idea that the moment of the assassination, the instant captured by Zapruder, changed everything. In a certain sense, it is not possible to imagine the event in the absence of the Zapruder images. The film has become the event.
That the assassination, whether photographed or not, would be an ongoing subject of debate is incontrovertible. The existence of the film opened the door for scientific inquiry, but the sequence clearly has defied such analysis. The image withholds its truth, clouds its evidence, and tells us, finally, nothing. Science cannot fix the meaning of the Zapruder film precisely because the narrative of national and emotional loss outweighs empirical investigation. We cannot have, perhaps ultimately do not want to have, a definitive answer to why and how it happenedthe answer is potentially overwhelming. Hence, fantasies about what happened are as important in national meaning as any residue of the "truth."(19)
The Zapruder film, imbued as it is with fantasy and nostalgia, has also been rescripted in retrospect. For subsequent generations, it has become so synonymous with the assassination that some think it was seen live on television. In 1975 the film was first shown on television by assassination researcher Robert Groden and television journalist Geraldo Rivera. Inspired by the image, Ant Farm and T. R. Uthco, two media art collectives in San Francisco, went to Dallas to reenact the film for a videotape called The Eternal Frame (1976; see Figure 2).(20) In what they saw as an attempt to get at the "truth" (which was the image) and, secondarily, as an exercise in bad taste, they drove repeatedly through Dealey Plaza, with various members of the group (one in drag as Jackie) replaying the famous scene. The event they were reenacting, however, was not the assassination so much as the taking of the Zapruder film itself. Just as the image had been rerun again and again, the artists drove through the plaza again and again. Ant Farm and T. R. Uthco reiterate the primacy of the image by having artist Doug Hall, as the "artist-president" Kennedy, state in a speech:
Like all presidents in recent years, I am in reality nothing more than another image on your television sets.... I am in reality only another link in that chain of pictures which makes up the sum total of information accessible to us all as Americans. Like my elected predecessors, the content of the image I present is no different than the image itself. Because I must function only as an image, I have chosen in my career to begin with the end and to be born in a sense even as I was dying.
Uncanny in its presaging of the image politics of the 1980s and 1990s, The Eternal Frame is an attempt to produce a compelling simulacrum of the event. The "frame"which is, by implication, eternally rerunis primary here.
Yet in striving for macabre humor, these artists did not anticipate the power of mimetic interpretation and reenactment. Dealey Plaza is a popular tourist destination; people make pilgrimages and now visit the museum on the sixth floor of the book depository building, the point from which Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have fired the fatal shots. Rather than stand in horror, the tourists who witnessed the artists' performance wept, reminisced, and took photographs, apparently under the impression that this was an officially sanctioned event. For them, the reenactment was a conduit to participation, a cathartic reliving of where they had been. They made comments such as: "I saw all of it on television after it happened"; "It looks so real now"; "I'm glad we were here.... It was a beautiful enactment." Rescripting the film like the artists, they found pleasure in reexperiencing this moment of traumaone could even say that, despite its intent to the contrary, the parody had a healing effect.
The reenactment of The Eternal Frame had a small audience, and it has since been usurped by Oliver Stone's controversial film JFK (1991), which incorporated the Zapruder film itself. This docudrama contends, among other things, that the Zapruder film is a crucial piece of evidence that the conspirators who killed Kennedy had not counted on, thus accounting for its suppression. JFK focuses on the real-life efforts of Jim Garrison, a Louisiana district attorney (played by Kevin Costner), during the late 1960s to bring someone, anyone, to trial for participation in the alleged assassination plot. Eventually Garrison tried Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman, on charges of conspiracy but failed to win a conviction.
Mixing documentary footage and reenactment, fact and fictionalization, JFK attempts to establish the existence of a wide conspiracy by debunking many of the facts of the case against Oswald. The film centers on a group of shady figures in New Orleans with connections to Oswald, the anti-Castro movement, and an underground homosexual community. The focus of the film, however, is Garrison and his fervent belief that the truth of the assassination can be found through the American legal system. Stone invented "consolidated" characters and fictional scenes that he contended were "close to the truth," and he spent much of the ensuing debate about the film defending his facts and research.
The opening sequence of JFK has Kennedy arriving in Dallas and culminates with the motorcade moving through the streets. Intercutting historical footage with reenacted scenes of the crowd, the film builds to the moment of the shot but defers its image. As the shots ring out, the screen goes black, and viewers see its aftermatha flock of birds flying to the sky and fleeting glimpses of the limousine speeding away. It is not until much later, during the climactic courtroom scene, that the Zapruder film is shownin a new, improved, closeup version. The Shaw trial, which took place in 1969, was the first public screening of the Zapruder film. Thus, JFK reenacts both the withholding of the Zapruder film and its charged emergence as an historical image; the audience waits for the image, the moment of impact, again.
The official reason for the suppression of the Zapruder film was to protect the Kennedy family and, as Life's publisher concluded, to protect the American public from the disturbing moving image. In JFK, Garrison is portrayed as neglecting his family in his obsession with the assassination; it is specifically during the screening of the Zapruder film that he is seen reuniting with his wife and son as they sit and watch. The Zapruder film, of course, depicts the demise of the First Family, and JFK attempts to reinscribe the image of the American family shattered by tragedy. This convention of the film is underscored by its insistent indictment of homosexuals, for which it has been criticized by Rogin and others.
Much of the controversy surrounding JFK concerned Oliver Stone's audacity at playing the historian. Yet in their criticism of Stone media critics overlooked the power of his role as docudrama-maker. The meanings of the Zapruder film continue to shift each time it is reenacted, and mimesis becomes history. Indeed, the impressionistic style of Stone's film, with its mix of fact, fiction, and docudrama, is precisely what makes it a memory text. Like memory, the film combines fantasy with fragments of facts. The Zapruder film has the capacity to replace personal memories of the Kennedy assassination, to become those memories; JFK has the capacity to replace the Zapruder film. All subsequent depictions of the Zapruder film are irrevocably altered by its inscription in JFK. Like the films of World War II, Stone's docudrama may operate twenty years from now to encapsulate the story of the assassination at the expense of its documentary image.
In its transformation from still image to moving image to reenactment, the Zapruder film reveals the phenomenological relationship of the image to history and the role of the docudrama as a site of history-making. Reenactment as a historical strategy long preceded the television and film docudrama through the tradition of historical theater and fiction. However, the mass-media context of film and television docudrama amplifies the effects of cultural reenactment. Part of what makes the mimesis of reenactment cathartic is the anticipation of the event we know is coming. Our bodies wait for the moment of the shot.
The Challenger Explosion: Voyeuristic History
Although the Zapruder film is mythologized as a live television image, it filtered into the national consciousness slowly, through still images. The live images of history in the 1960s were the shooting of Oswald and the first steps on the moon, images produced by the rare live television camera. Television news images in the field were almost exclusively shot on film, and hence subject to delay, until the late 1970s. The television image of the 1986 Challenger disaster marked a turning point in the visual recording of American history, a transition from film to television. In contrast to the Zapruder film, a secret image that was restricted from the public eye in its original form, the television images of the Challenger explosion were unanticipated, unedited, and broadcast live (see Figure 3). These images were unyielding and distant yet relentless and voyeuristic. The blurry image of the cloud of smoke of the exploded space shuttle was emphatically a video image, an image of surveillance; viewers also watched Christa McAuliffe's parents and students, live, at the moment they realized that their daughter and teacher had just been blown up.(21)
The capacity of television technology to transmit images instantly via satellite implicates spectators in new ways. With the Challenger explosion, Americans were witness to a high-tech space-exploration spectacle gone awry, a tragedy with roots in the Cold War space race. The image of the explosion was endlessly repeated, the repetition itself forming a kind of reenactment. Voyeuristically watching the parents and students of Christa McAuliffe, Americans were pre-scripted to share their pride and enthusiasm over the fact that an "ordinary" teacher could experience space flight via U.S. technology. The mission was even timed to allow President Reagan to interview McAuliffe in space during his State of the Union address. As a public relations event, a nationalistic project intended to promote U.S. technology and give the average American a personal stake in the space program, the Challenger failed spectacularly.
In this context, the McAuliffes' moment of realization became a shared national event. They were primary actors in the construction of an American myth about the family's sacrificing for the nation and mourning the loss of a child. In an essay on remembering Christa McAuliffe, Constance Penley notes that McAuliffe was chosen not because of her talents (there were many more qualified candidates) but, in essence, because of her ordinarinessand she knew it.(22) She was to be emphatically normal in space. Ironically, her story has almost completely overshadowed those of the other astronauts who died in the explosion. Her story also dominates the television movie that was inevitably made about the disaster, Challenger, which aired in 1989 and which begins, eerily, with McAuliffe (played by Karen Allen) rehearsing what was to be her message from space. Christa McAuliffe's narrative, designed to make Americans identify with her as an ordinary, non-astronaut space traveler, thus backfired, instead causing viewers to imagine their own deaths in space. Yet the image of McAuliffe's naivete and patriotic earnestness, chronicled in her biography, "I Touch the Future...," and in the Challenger movie, has to a certain extent restored NASA as the Kennedy-inspired symbol of optimistic promise for the future.
Both the Zapruder film and the television image of the Challenger disaster allow us to witness, yet they are central in the American historical imagination in part because they defer the meaning of what is witnessed. The Zapruder film does not tell us who fired the fatal shots and why, and the Challenger image does not reveal what happened to the astronauts. NASA has since acknowledged, for instance, that the capsule of the Challenger continued to climb for twenty-five seconds after the explosion and then descended for three minutes to the waterand that the astronauts died not in the explosion but at the moment of impact with the water. NASA has also acknowledged the existence of audiotapes of the final moments after the explosion, which it has, despite several lawsuits by media organizations, managed to keep secret. According to Time, the tapes reveal that pilot Michael Smith can be heard saying "uh-oh" and that among the last words heard is one astronaut saying to another, "Give me your hand."(23)
Moreover, a purported transcript of the tape, supposedly from McAuliffe's personal recorder, appeared on a private computer bulletin board.(24) This transcript supposedly documents someone yelling, "What happened? What happened? Oh God, no, no." Other voices say, "Turn on your airpack! Turn on your air!" and yell in desperation, and the transcript ends with a voice saying the Lord's Prayer. Haunting and disturbing but completely unverifiable, this transcript nevertheless speaks of a desire to know what the image defers and of the fantasy of bearing witness. The question How did they react to imminent death? becomes How would I react in the face of death? This desire and the fantasies it produces are components of cultural memory. In the world of computer bulletin boards, where information moves from one system to another, from private space to public space, cultural memory is shared, pushing at official history and the ongoing promotion of the space program as a civilian and scientific enterprise rather than a military one.
Does the American public have a right to this information? Penley argues that empirical evidence facilitates mourning. However difficult those details, we need to know them for mourning and closure. She notes that people continue to bring in from Florida beaches artifacts that they claim are refuse from the Challenger, although NASA says it has recovered all possible parts. These actsthe collection of objects, the construction of a fantasy of deathare rituals of mourning.
For those who remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, the Challenger disaster may seem less significant. But for those who were in school at the time, many of them watching the launch live as part of the promotion of the teacher-in-space program, it was a defining event. Studies have examined the trauma felt by these children, who generally remembered years later where they were when they saw or heard about it and who often identified McAuliffe with their own teachers. Some fantasized about themselves exploding or about the obliteration of their teachers (in both fear and wish fulfillment).(25) Christa McAuliffe's death is not only a public story but the subject of nightmares, sick jokes, and fantasies.
The memory of "where we were" when the Challenger exploded is, like all memories, a fluid memory of rescripting, reenactment, and imagination. Psychologists Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch interviewed a group of students the day after the explosion about their "flashbulb" memories of where they were when they heard of the accident and what their reaction had been; they then reinterviewed the subjects several years later. Not only did many of the students misremember entirely or in part where they had been but, when shown their initial recollections, they were still unable to remember them. Significantly, the study seemed to demonstrate not only that the "original" memories had disappeared but that students who had heard of the explosion in a variety of contexts later remembered that they first heard of it while watching television.(26) The insistent television image was thus highly instrumental in rewriting the memory script. As Neisser and Harsch state, "The hours of later television watching may have been more strongly rehearsed, more unique, more compatible with a social script than the actual occasions of first contact."(27)
By remembering themselves as watching the Challenger explosion on television, these students situate themselves within a "national" experience of the event, sharing the shock of its spectacular and tragic failure with a national audience. Ironically, though, the image that allows the public to feel as though it participated in the event does not aid us in mourning. Rather, we invest it with a truth it cannot reveal. It is the reenactment, the replaying, the fantasizing of the story that allow the mourning process to proceed and the event to acquire meaning. The Challenger explosion is rescripted as a loss of innocenceAmerica once again conceived of as a naive nation, one that believes unfailingly in its technology and feels betrayedthat is recovered through a figure of ordinariness. Through Christa McAuliffe the national trauma of the Challenger explosion can be smoothed over and subsumed into a narrative of patriotic sacrifice.(28)
The Rodney King Video: The Problem of Reenactment
Whereas the Zapruder film and the image of the Challenger explosion depict nationally traumatic events that would have had historical significance even without their respective images, the videotape of the Rodney King beating is an image that in itself created history (see Figure 4). It is also an image of the 1990s, during which the boundary between domestic and public space is increasingly being blurred as amateur videotapes move effortlessly into the public realm of popular entertainment, news, and history. This brutal beating of a black man by white police officers, captured on a home video camera, came to represent all race relations in the 1990s. This was not a "flash" of history or a moment when people registered "where we were." Rather, it was an image of the endless repetition of history, an "ordinary" image that became history.
In some ways George Holliday's videotape of the Rodney King beating is the Zapruder film of the 1990s, although its meaning retains a different kind of urgency. Whereas the Zapruder film symbolizes a moment of national loss that prompted a nostalgic mourning, the King video signifies the relentless violence of the present. Whereas Abraham Zapruder's film was an exception as an amateur film that changed cultural status, Holliday's videotape was made at a time when video cameras are everywhere; indeed, in the riots that ensued in Los Angeles after the acquittal of the officers who beat King, home video cameras proliferated as much as news cameras.
Like the Zapruder film, the King video changed meaning when it became a series of still images. The defense attorneys deconstructed the sequence and effectively neutralized its violence by presenting it frame by frame. Like the still images of the Kennedy assassination in Life magazine, the stills of the King video reduced events to isolated gestures; blows became hands raised in anticipation, frozen postures without dynamic violence. These images made it possible to rescript King as a threatening and resisting figure and to refigure the beating as a reasonable attempt to restrain a dangerous suspect. Kimberle Crenshaw and Gary Peller write:
The eighty-one-second video was, in short, broken into scores of individual still pictures, each of which was then subject to endless reinterpretation. Then, since no single picture taken by itself could constitute excessive force, taken together, the video tape as a whole said something differentnot incredibly clear evidence of racist police brutality, but instead ambiguous slices of time in a tense moment that Rodney King had created for the police.(29)
In both the Zapruder film and the King video, the rupturing of persistence of vision, which allows viewers to fill in the gaps between frames in a moving image, changed the meaning. In the Zapruder film, the space between the still images rendered Kennedy's body movements and the direction of the shots ambiguous; in the King video, it rescripted Rodney King as the agent of his interaction with the police rather than the object of brutal and unreasonable force. What had been popularly seen as incontrovertible evidence of excessive police force when the videotape was first released became, in the course of the first trial, an ambiguous document that was used instead to prove that the police were vulnerable to and threatened by Kingan image of Rodney King "in complete control" of the situation, in the words of one juror. This ambiguity undermined assumptions about the nature of the documentary image. If this image was not evidence, then did visual evidence exist?(30)
Rodney King's reluctance to become a public figure, his every move under public scrutiny, is well known. Why, then, did the King video become a national image rather than merely a local one? At what moment did Rodney King's story become part of the nation's story? Not at the moment when the police beat him upthat incident was appallingly ordinary. Nor was it at the moment when George Holliday's camera was focused upon the incidentcommunity organizations in Los Angeles had been distributing cameras and gathering footage of the Los Angeles Police Department's excessive violence for years, but the media had never before been interested. Rodney King's story became the nation's story when news organizations across the country deemed it newsworthyperhaps at the moment when the mystique about video vigilantes coincided with concern over urban violence. The awkwardness with which King has become a celebrity is precisely attributable to the clash of this image's narrative with nationalistic themes. This is an image of rupture, and Rodney King can't be an American hero.
The Rodney King video shifted status during the Los Angeles riots, when a helicopter news crew videotaped the brutal beating of a white truck driver by four black men. From then on, the King video became one half of two images that defined a national issue: America at war over race. The amateur, low-to-the-ground image taken by George Holliday was replaced by the slick, omniscient view from the helicopter. This image does not show the heroic actions taken by four black strangers who left their home to help Reginald Denny escape and saved his life. The participation of television is crucial here; it was only after they saw him being beaten on TV that these people came to help Denny. Another reluctant public figure, Denny awoke in the hospital without memory of the incident and confused to find Jesse Jackson and Arsenio Hall waiting to see him.
This evolution of the image from a videotape to a series of still images to one of two symmetrical images is crucial in its national meaning. The anger that propelled the Los Angeles riots, an anger at the jury's interpretation of an image everyone had seen, was compellingly and gruesomely enacted in the reverse image of the four young black men beating Reginald Denny as he lay defenseless in the street. This image provided a collective relief in its symmetry with the King videoit somehow balanced the scales, somehow mitigated the troubling image, loaded with historical references, of a black man being beaten by whites. For many, the image of Denny's beating served retroactively to justify the brutal force evident in the King video.
The meaning of the image of Rodney King's beating thus continues to shift, yet it will likely not be subject to the type of reenactment the Zapruder film underwent. There will probably be no television movie of the Los Angeles riots. The television series L.A. Law reenacted the uprising by having one of the lawyers lose his memory after being pulled from his car and beaten. This story of the innocent white victim, in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time, may be as close as television will get. Do the hyperdocumented, ultratelevised L.A. riots defy the docudrama form because the formulas of mimetic interpretation can't fit the story of four heroic young black people racing from their home to save a white man's life? Though docudrama reenactments of major disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes are standard television fare, the L.A. riots remain too difficult, too dangerous, for television movie formulas.
However, reenactment is a central aspect of the narrative of the L.A. riots. In the trial of the men involved in the Denny beating, several witnessesincluding Dennytestified to events of which they had no memory.(31) Instead, with the prodding of lawyers, they narrated their experience for the jury while watching videotapes of what their experience had been. That the video image became the memory was not new, but what was remarkable was that the court gave it legal and experiential sanction. To this day, the videotape is Reginald Denny's only memory of his ordeal.
In addition, the King video gained a new meaning when placed in a contemporary docudrama, Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992). Inserted into the opening credit sequence of the film, the King video represents the entire history of violence against American blacks and, as Malcolm X's voice-over states, the ways in which blacks are still outsiders in America. The videotape is no longer Rodney King's story but rather is the story of all disenfranchised black men. It is replayed not as a particular moment in history but as the emblem of an ongoing history, one that appears not to be changing but to be replaying constantly, repeating again and again.
The videotape of the beating of Rodney King and its counterpart image of the beating of Reginald Denny thus emerge as particular kinds of screen memories that provide evidence of memories that were never acquired, that never "existed." Irrevocably tied together, these images constitute elements of the cultural memory of the upheaval in Los Angeles, a strange symmetry in the national "experience" of the event.
The relentlessness of television thus operates in tension with the creation of nationally experienced events as moments when we register "where we were." This is no longer the shock of history described by Walter Benjamin, a flash, an arrested moment, a rupture. Rather, the history evoked by the Rodney King video is an endlessly replayed loop.
Yet it is precisely the illusion of continuous flow that is most problematic about televised "history." Television audiences never saw Rodney King's car chase or the desperate rescue of Reginald Denny. They saw snippets of violence with endless commentary, a partial picture with the illusion of completeness.
Reenactment and National Meaning
Thus, historical images are reduced either to still images or to reenactments. When Freud wrote about secondary revision, the process by which a subject revises and narrativizes a dream or memory in order to give it coherence, he was referring to the way in which memories are continuously rewritten and transformed over time until they may bear little resemblance to the initial experience.(32) Renarrativization is essential in memory; indeed, it is its defining quality. Photographs and images from television and film build on the traditions of lithography, historical drama, and the historical novel in retelling the past, but the cultural value of the camera image as evidence of the real shifts this reenactment into new territory of verisimilitude. The reenactments in docudramas can thus be seen not simply as history and memory's reinscription but rather as indicators of the fluid realm of memory itself. Docudramas smooth over historical ruptures, yet, ironically, it is often through reenactment that healing takes placea healing that necessitates forgetting.
Participation in the nation thus often takes the form of watching or taking part in reenactments. Many historical ceremonies involve the reenactment of battles, with participants sporting historical costumes. On the anniversary of D-Day, World War II veterans parachuted into France to reenact their war experience, reliving what was perhaps the most meaningful moment of their lives. Members of the Veterans Vigil of Honor camp out at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as if to guard it, replaying the codes of war. In the making of Hollywood war films, directors and actors do "battle" on location. Films such as Platoon (1986) reenact famous documentary photographs of the Vietnam War. In television movies, recent events, such as the FBI's standoff with Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and the O. J. Simpson freeway chase, are reenacted almost before they are over.
Reenactment is a cathartic means for people to find closure in an event. It is not clear whether this sense of healing involves an erasure and smoothing over of difficult material or a constant rescripting that, like memory, enables an active engagement with the past. Memories and histories are often entangled, conflictual, and co-constitutive. In the context of postmodernity, the slippage between real and fiction, between invention and recovery, is marked.
Yet there also is tension between individual processes of mourning and the simple closure offered by Hollywood docudramas, between the individual memory of traumatic events and their remembrance as national stories. Each carries different cultural meanings and implications. Though an individual may find closure in reenacting an experience, the reenactment of national events through the apparatus of popular culture offers venues for forgetting. The political implications of each are quite different. It is in examining the traffic of cultural events across the porous boundaries of personal memory, cultural memory, and history that the stakes of reenactment can be understood.