Nothing Happened: Charlotte Salomon and an Archive of Suicide

Nothing Happened: Charlotte Salomon and an Archive of Suicide

by Darcy Buerkle


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472118557
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 12/31/2012
Series: Michigan Studies in Comparative Jewish Cultures
Pages: 412
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Darcy C. Buerkle is Associate Professor of History at Smith College. In 2011–12 she held the Walter Benjamin Chair in German Jewish History and Culture at Humboldt University–Berlin.

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Nothing Happened

Charlotte Salomon and An Archive of Suicide

By Darcy C. Buerkle

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2013 the University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-11855-7



Trauma's Event

Let me stress that by the term "history," I mean "the past," to be sure, but also something other and much more.

— Hayden White, "The Historical Event"

IN TAKING SALOMON'S method as the basis for my own, I do still begin with a basic fact that she sought to make entirely and unavoidably incontrovertible, and that fact is the suffering and suicides of, principally, the women in her family. In Life? or Theater? suicide is bound up with the artist's efforts to make clear a cultural lie about women's lives that begins its corrosive violence long before any suicide. Her answer to the "why" of suicide is thus just as straightforward as it is multidimensional, evocative, and inconclusive in its magnitude. But her answer refers back, always, to what the artist perceives as the oppressive conditions of family life for women. And it is always self-conscious about the degree to which, just as answering the question of "why" is an impossibility, it remains a question that has to be posed nonetheless out of a commitment to interrogating what she sees as contemptible circumstances that are otherwise assumed to be entirely acceptable. Often the implication is that surviving such conditions is simply not possible and that even beyond their death by suicide, women are further diminished insofar as they are conjured primarily as tropes, rather than mourned for the tragedy of their deaths as individuals. Her paintings suggest a history that has been not only outside the margins of general narratives of the period but outside the margins of both "the acceptable" and "the knowable." In pushing these boundaries of critique and epistemology by bringing them into conversation with each other, Salomon's work enables a rethinking of the status of trauma as historical evidence.

In her work on the queer past, Ann Cvetokovich has similarly had to conceptualize alternative and expanded archives. "Trauma," she writes, "challenges common understandings of what constitutes an archive. Because trauma can be unspeakable and unrepresentable and because it is marked by forgetting and dissociation, it often seems to leave behind no records at all ... [and] it thus demands an unusual archive, whose materials, in pointing to trauma's ephemerality, are themselves frequently ephemeral." Insofar as my text serves as an archive of suicide that is launched by Salomon's, it not only challenges the range of an archive but it is also performative as it emulates Salomon's episodic, open-ended narrative style. This narrological and methodological decision is a matter not only of circumstance, but also of ethical principle in historical writing that simultaneously must and cannot fully reconstruct a story that is specifically contingent on an element of unreconstructability, of secrecy even. This focus on the archive, its evidence, and its writing, then, wishes to point toward a broader theoretical discussion and an intellectual and cultural history evoked by Salomon's work. If I draw attention to a past occurrence and its affects previously excluded from history's narrative, and I claim that it rises to the status of "event," what does that do not just to the historical narrative but to the notion of event itself? And what, in particular, will the specificity of gender and Jewish suicide as a visual problematic before 1933 mean for rethinking the "historical event"?

The assertions I make throughout this book emerge and benefit from historiographic interventions of the last thirty years: the proliferation of work on women and gender; the way intellectual history and critical theory increasingly engaged each other in the linguistic turn; the influence in particular of Foucault and Lacan; the vitality of memory and trauma studies, of related rigorous discussions of the status of the visual in history; and, more recently, increased attention to histories of emotion and affect. The first pieces of "evidence" in this study are Charlotte Salomon's paintings. Much of the other "evidence" is record keeping: statistics, police files, empirical studies, bare newspaper reports, obituaries. There are published and unpublished studies. I read these as evidence of trauma, and I read them for their historical content, but I also read them for their own ephemerality. This book insists on the relevance, in fact, of the ephemeral, even in the most concrete evidence. This section will be devoted, first, to explaining in more detail how I mean to complicate the very notion of evidence and, second, to situating Salomon's reception as its own evidence.

Trauma, Event, Method

In making suicide unavoidable, Salomon makes unavoidable an event for which evidence is scant. In so doing, she raises epistemological and methodological issues that exceed the narrative itself. She challenges the specificities of what constitutes "event." In the most common formulation, the historical event is discrete and connotes change, preferably institutional change, in history. Events, in this version, are discernible, apparent; events are always recognized as such. Freud's study of trauma complicated this direct access to the event, by suggesting that what causes change may or may not be immediately obvious. But in Freud the genesis of change was still findable.

As in historical scholarship, a central aim of trauma studies in its late-twentieth-century instantiation, has been the identification of the event that caused a shift. Early conceptualizations of trauma through Freud observed the victim in perpetual present/presence of the original shattering of what he described as the "protective shield." Accounting for the extreme event — mass violence, genocide, and the Holocaust in particular — pushed the epistemological issue that trauma studies introduced to the forefront of historiographic debate in the late 1980s and 1990s. Trauma's damage can offer only limited access to representational systems to describe the specificity of an event around which the psyche nonetheless organizes itself. After trauma, evidence became a compromised category in historical narrative. But this does not quite get to where I want to go and it does not quite get us where Salomon leads. Is there a way of thinking about trauma's evidence that exceeds, pushes beyond, the ubiquitous problem of the gap in memory that trauma studies has institutionalized?

The recent work of queer and postcolonial scholars in trauma studies offers a valuable perspective from which to start. Trauma studies has posited a perpetual "present" of the traumatic "event" but these scholars instead argue for the possibility of trauma as a condition, or as the result of multiple events. Rather than focusing on the singularity of the breaking point, they argue instead for attention to infrastructures that produce and rely on traumatizing circumstances. Rosanne Kennedy, for example, elaborates on a move away from event-driven trauma theory through Frantz Fanon, while involving also the critical contributions of Dori Laub, writing that "to put Fanon's analysis into the language of trauma theory, it could be said that 'the deceptive psychological structure' of colonialism makes it difficult for the colonized to witness their own oppression." This is similar to Pierre Bourdieu's insight about symbolic domination — an insight that, notably, like Fanon's, cannot be divorced from the Algerian war but that, in Bourdieu's case, was not made in that context directly — in which he suggests that if symbolic domination succeeds, acceptance of a partial symbolic order is assured and social death has occurred. The psychic effects of social death can vary, but the salient insight for purposes of rethinking the idea of "the real" in relationship to "historical event" is that symbolic violence produces a psychic effect that the group in question may or may not thematize: "The effect of symbolic domination ... is exerted not in the pure logic of knowing consciousnesses but through the schemes of perception, appreciation and action that are constitutive of habitus and which, below the level of the decisions of consciousness and the controls of the will, set up a cognitive relationship that is profoundly obscure to itself."

If Salomon's work enables an archive of symbolic domination, social death, and its relationship to the rhetorical strategies for representing suicide, then it does so in ways that allow us to see suicide in the context of Jews, gender, and the limit experience of social domination in the early twentieth century. With "trauma" divorced from the notion of its reducibility to a single event but, rather, as in Salomon, a condition of life that the affected may find difficult to "witness" in a traditional sense, the event eludes precise measurement, destabilizes linear temporality, and calls the historical event as a discrete entity into question. Salomon calls forth this warped temporality in her sequences, rethinking the "logic" of suicide. In keeping with this theoretical commitment, and also with the way that Salomon thematizes time as necessarily malleable in order to access the history she wants to tell, each of the section titles of this book emphasizes a particular relationship to temporality as articulated in the paintings and echoed in the sources. Here — in Life? or Theater? and also for our purposes of reading and rereading insofar as it seeks to operate as an elaboration of the archive Salomon left us — trauma really is perpetual, repetitive. And time becomes Charlotte Salomon's interlocutor; it is the Other.

I want to emphasize once again, however, that it is the both/and of this situation that interests me. Salomon's work interrupts the relative seamlessness of suicide studies. And suicide studies — not unlike work on sexuality — reads almost palpably as efforts at containment. Foucault's emphasis on laying bare the disciplinary mechanisms at the heart of modern subject formation is a presupposition here. But a Foucauldian reading of suicide texts is not the whole of my analysis of those texts or even the point. Consideration of cultural and archival artifacts in the following sections of this book will be interested in the disciplinary mechanisms and their lapses, but I do not see these as being predicated only on the mechanisms themselves. With psychoanalysis I see such gaps as fissures through and by which an episodic glimpse of a sliver of subjectivity becomes visible. In other words, this study not only allows for but also relies and insists on the viability of aspects of history beyond our ability to map. If the "gentle and often invisible violence" that animated the historical body in this scenario is the subject, then this is a rhetorical matter with ethical implications for the reconstruction of violence. Those ethical implications are not answered only through the "reconstruction" of the incidence of suicide or its disciplinary, rhetorical rendering or, for that matter, Salomon's explicit attention to it, but rather they must be read refracted through all of these.

This is the site of the first and most basic claim I want to make, and — beyond the fact of suicide as Salomon presents it — it is also the most important: The discursive space of suicide is historical event. To those readers who either lived or read their way through the linguistic turn, this will not be a great shock. But I do mean something very specific. By discursive space I mean not only the language used to describe or study that event or its visual rendering; I mean, also, the affective space that that both the event and its representation demand. I will turn to the question of affect shortly, but, briefly, I understand affective space when it comes to suicide in two registers. First, the residual and unaccounted for realm in which the symbolic force to which the gendered Jewish body was exposed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is bound up with the "historical fact" of suicide and its multiple representational forms. Second, these forms are constitutive of the affect that accompanies them; they suppose the feeling that arises in the confrontation with the violence that suicide is in Salomon's story. Subjected to a range of disciplinary mechanisms constitutive of a generalizable, historical, affective situation in which the speakable and the unspeakable were prefigured and occasionally eluded, the early-twentieth-century suicide victim was shaped by such forces. That is, suicide happened and was made to seem as though it did not happen in Salomon's family. However, the situation, as I have already said but will repeat many more times, was not limited to Salomon's family but rather extends to the notion of women's suicide itself and, more generally, what I will claim as the strongly gendered nature of suicide's rhetoric. Reconfiguring "event" in this way requires a rethinking of temporality, of time and feeling in time, since "before" and "after" are no longer the most obviously relevant temporal categories when, in fact, something is said not to have happened. "Historical event" so reformulated accounts first of all — rather than last, as is more common — for the limit event, the event for which there was, before it happened, no imagination and in whose aftermath the imagination will strain. This is the cumulative crux of the matter here: accounting for the history Salomon enables is to move away from the idea that "events" are always recognizable, that trauma's narrative won't include time in which "nothing happened," or that an event — or trauma, for that matter — is reducible to a single referent. History in this register reaches for theory that will accommodate an elusive ephemeral just as much as it avails itself of more traditionalist archival artifacts.

Notions of cause and effect, of the real and closure, however fantastical, have made possible the analysis of suicide in sociology, psychiatry, and history, even as such analyses can only operate by excising precisely the complexities with which Salomon asks us to engage. So, even as the study of suicide makes certain kinds of subjects unthinkable, it grants itself the appearance of general inquiry; it appears explanatory and thorough. These claims require the removal of elements that would complicate them. As I read it, in Freudian terms, the salience of the study of suicide has been guaranteed through Verwerfung (repudiation). Lacan elaborated on this idea and called it, instead, "foreclosure," connoting thereby the seamlessness of the psychic action that specifically expels. Foreclosure describes that which is cast out, as he writes, from the possibility of "symbolizations." Foreclosure indicates the arena to which we cannot but refuse ourselves symbolic access; it is the point beyond imagination. By relying on foreclosure, studies of suicide and representations of the act itself have operated at the expense of a (the) crucial affective dimension to which suicide clearly points, they have done so at the expense of suicide's victims and survivors, and they have done so at the expense of "the loss that can never be made good." In other words, the fantasy on which discussions of suicide in the modern period pivot has produced its own terms and conditions. Those terms and conditions have come at a price rooted in the assertive fantasy that there is such a thing as an answer to the question "why," and, also, that we will (can?) be satisfied with the answers. Through the slips and signs of foreclosure that define the terms by which we may and may not know about women and suicide, I try to make completely clear the terms of censorship that such evidence imposes. That becomes the task: to show the limits, to demonstrate how placing the limit in a particular place also means cordoning off categories of historical experience that were determined precisely by such censorship, and to show how that censorship points with uncomfortable precision to what it is we cannot know.

The issue, then, is not the individual case. I historicize the "experience" of suicide and its survivors as a rhetorical matter that cannot be unhinged from its status as possible or impossible event. In other words, my aim is not a matter of capturing experience as historical fact, but rather of revealing the limits imposed on the extremity of suicide as something that could be brought into language at all — limits that foreclose the possibility of certain suicides, especially those of persons that barely afford mention in connection with it. Access to history is thus barred by the operations of foreclosure that place the possibility of certain suicides largely outside language. Through rereadings of texts and expanding notions of archival evidence to accommodate the "experience" of the visual, foreclosures are thrown into such sharp relief that they begin to build a web of their own. The bar that forecloses language, also shapes imagination and thus takes on its own dimensions.


Excerpted from Nothing Happened by Darcy C. Buerkle. Copyright © 2013 the University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Section 1 First Foreclosures and Their Evidence: Traumas Event 15

Trauma, Event, Method 17

Affect, Event, Method 22

Trauma/Transcendence: Life? or Theater? and Its Public 25

Section 2 First Sights: On Seeing Suicide before World War I 51

First Paintings: Charlotte Knarre 53

Empty Space as Window/Empty Space as Figural Space 59

Nothing Happened 62

Charlotte Knarre Throws Herself in the Water 66

First Things/Next Things 73

Archive I Firsts, in a Series

Moehsen on Suicide by Drowning, Marx on Women's Suicide, Wabnitz on Suicide as Critique 77

Émile Durkheim's Suicide as Event 86

Helenefriederike Stelzner and Her Analysis of Two Hundred Cases of Suicide 103

On Student Suicide and "Mourning and Melancholia" 111

Section 3 Waiting to See: The Visual Rhetoric of Suicide in Weimar Berlin 139

Franziska I & II 144

Franziska I: Documenting Nothing, Again 144

Franziska II: Documenting Nothing, Again, and Then Once More 154

Archive II Berlin's New Statistics, Jews, Prevention

Before the Census: Raphael Weichbrodt and Some Others 163

Berlin's 1925-1926 Census: Jews and Suicide 167

Preventing Suicide 172

To the Letter: Notes on Writing Notes/Negotiations of the Grapheme 177

Striking Reasons: Suicide Records and the Visual Rhetoric of the Strike-Out 181

Noting (Striking) Suicide in Psychoanalysis 189

Anna O. 193

Dora 198

The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman (1920) 213

Section 4 Looking That Does Not End: Final Words 229

Frau Knarre: "Tonight or Never" 230

The Witness/Standing Next to and Stories of Origin 237

Feeling Gaze 240

P.S.: Postscripts 247

Final Words 250

Epilogue 253

Notes 261

Index 339

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