by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Spending the last several years studying the thought of Emmanuel Levinas in relation to ethics and comedy has led me to Emma Willis’s 2014 Theatricality, Dark Tourism and Ethical Spectatorship: Absent Others, a book about ethics and tragedy written somewhat at the collision of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Rancière around questions of “infinite responsibility.” With only a slight hesitation, I am quite enthusiastic about Willis’s project.
Her book explores the theatricality and ethics of “dark tourism” provoked at several locations and through multiple events around the globe. “Dark tourism” (thanatourism)–visiting sites, situations, and reenactments of death and disaster (such as Chernobyl, Ground Zero, and various prison and death camps)–is a concept she takes up from several other thinkers to investigate in terms of its dramatic, affective, and ethical aspects. Through visits to Auschwitz in Poland, The War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek (The Killing Field) in Cambodia, or attendance at plays such as Dark Tourists and Lost in Our Own Land in New Zealand or Maria Kizito from Rawanda, Willis traces a connection between certain touring and theater going experiences. Following this connection, she argues, raises several questions about the relation among trauma, address, and audience, questions such as,
What is dark tourism and what might motivate it? In what sense is it theatrical? How might we understand the various roles that tourists take on in relation to the sites discussed? What kinds of theatrical practices speak to the dialectic of absence and presence [found in these situations] that this book seeks to read in ethical terms? (18)
These sites and performances–and the visitor or spectator practices associated with them, go to great lengths to recall (but not necessarily speak for) the people how have died or disappeared in these situations. In their techniques for involving an audience, dark tourism and dark theater, work to evoke those who have been lost. This conjugation of the dramatic, tragic, and ethical (sometimes moral) through the interplay of absence and presence, or more so, the absence almost made present through theatricality, almost arriving to meet the spectators/visitors who arrive to meet it, whose embodied presence, in part, evokes it, is at the center of Willis’s book. And this centerpiece of the presence of embodied spectators/visitors almost bringing about the arrival of the absent others signals the responsibility at stake in these encounters. Willis explains,
What I propose throughout the book is that it is theatricality that often underpins such an affect of arrival. An ethics of spectatorship to such sites might be said to begin with the acknowledgement that, despite an arrival that is never completed, and a lack of presence, we are nonetheless located within a shared ethical space. That is, by our own emplacement–our appearance–we acknowledge our responsibility towards the disappeared, towards those who have exited. Furthermore by our presence we are dramaturgically implicated in the ethical and representational breaches that mark the sites. (8)
Our embodiment as dark tourists and spectators marks our present relation with the absent others who cannot speak because they are gone. And, this very presence in the space vacated by the others marks us with a certain voyeurism but also with a certain responsibility, with a certain ability and necessity to respond. This relation marks the ethics of dark tourism and dark spectatorship. According to Willis,
The ethical claim that the absent other makes upon us inhabits a kind of ‘audible silence’, its terms are inassimilable and yet it requires a very real response. It is in the dialectic tension that arises from this positioning of the spectator as audience to the unspeakable that I suggest a point of ethics emerges. This ethics is affective and theatrical in character, and calls for an embodied attention to silence, suggesting that from such attention, the distant voices of absent others may be ‘heard.’ (13)
This dialectic between presence and absence is illustrated throughout the book as Willis tries to maintain the tension between aesthetics and ethics she knows haunts her analysis. Her own attention here is on “hearing” the absent other, on listening attentively and being affected by the absence that testifies for the ones who are missing. Such an attention to listening and to the aural (rather than visual aspects) of encountering and witnessing opens a space for her to challenge the voyeurism of dark aesthetics and recalls Levinas’s own description of the encounter with the other, whose “face speaks” and commands me, “thou shall not kill.”
At the same time, as much as she follows Levinas through the rest of the book, though, Willis remarks, she must contradict at least a portion of what he describes in his description of the ethics of the inter-human encounter. While she challenges dark aesthetics, she also contends with the “involuntary notion of ethical responsibility” she finds at the center of Levinas’s arguments about ethics (52). Willis seems to be seeking a third way by concentrating on what we share–“the ineffable quality of suffering” (55). Willis writes,
We exist in an interconnected, although geographically, culturally and politically differentiated, network of selves and others. The theatrical projects and memorial sites that I am most interested in stage the very tension of being both self and other, and of awakening to the responsibility that we bear precisely because of our relation to the other, not our separation from them. (55)
This shared “community” of “solidarity” is the foundation for Willis: the responsibility we bear precisely because of our relation to the other, not our separation from them. This relation is what provokes/should provoke our “commitment to justice” without reducing that commitment to recognition or thematization (55). This situation, ultimately, is where she finds the ethical/political possibility of dark tourism.
And yet, the problem here is while she puts Levinas on one side of this tension, she misses how he has already invoked this very difficulty in his philosophy. Throughout Totality and Infinity and other works, Levinas is clear when he describes ethical subjectivity precisely in terms of this tension. For Levinas, separation is the relation with the other, the relation with exteriority. According to Levinas, I am always already separated from the other; separation is our relation. And, that relation is precisely what causes the tension between the self and the other. I am provoked to kill the other (literally and metaphorically), but I am commanded not to kill the other (literally or metaphorically). It is not that we are first united in what we share and then we must bring ourselves to see or hear the other as unique. Rather, the other is always already exterior to me, and my Desire is to caught in this tension between recognizing and responding. If Willis’s claims for the ethics generated by the theatricality of dark tourism and dark spectatorship can begin to address this tension always already in effect in human relation as separation, then we might be even more able to consider “the condition of artistic testimony” she cites, following Jacques Derrida.
Throughout the book, Willis addresses these tensions between art and ethics, separation and conjugation, and Levinas and others until at the close, she returns to the encounter with Levinas fully and raises the question of relation (as coming together) again when she asks, after considering the morality and ethics of theatrical strategies designed to unsettle the audience to let them hear the absent other, “what space do they offer for connection, empathy, understanding?” Something about our relation with the other remains excessive, something of our “sympathy or love” (Levinas) “overflows” from this encounter with someone we do not and cannot understand or know. In fact, it is our desire to know and understand that require this very excess to epistemology and ontology, according to Levinas, explains Willis (219). Something there is to the relation that demonstrates our separation and our ability to respond. Can the theatricality and performance praxes of dark tourism and dark theater provoke such a responsibility? I’m not quite sure yet, but Willis’s book has me considering the possibilities evermore.
Brian Bergen-Aurand is the editor of the collection Beginning with Our Simplest Gestures: Levinas and Comedy (Duquesne University Press, 2017).