Who is witnessing the destruction?

The point is ironically illustrated by some of Walker’s pieces that depict the biblical flood or people drowning. It concerns Jean Audran’s The Flood from the early eighteenth century, Joshua Shaw’s The deluge towards its close from 1813, and William Turner’s Slave ship (Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying, typhoon coming on), from 1840. The thematic relation between these and the flooding of New Orleans may be evident.

For my argument it is more important, however, that these pieces address, implicitly but powerfully, the question as to who is seeing and witnessing what in terms of apostrophe. The pieces seem to turn to another addressee, but they illustrate a structural issue that has become vexing in our own times, namely that they witness before us, and in turning to us, have blocked our own ability to witness. The only thing that may result because of this on the side of the audience is to remain stunned, or to seek some sort of relief in a public outcry.
The story of the Biblical flood may be known to many, although their numbers are much smaller in comparison to the deeply Christian societies of Europe and the Americas in previous centuries, especially in those times in which slavery was custom. Because God is dissatisfied with the perverse behaviour of human beings, he decides to destroy the world, saving only one family (Noah’s) and a couple of each sort of animal. These are all caught in a boat, so that after the flood life can have a new beginning. Iconographically the boat has always been seen as the church, the vessel that is the means of saving “our” souls. The question, of course, is to whom these souls belong. The question is of interest because all souls outside of the vessel will have to perish. In consequence, of course, those who are saved have no interest in this. With respect to this, Audran’s piece is paradigmatic.
In the distance, almost hidden by the grey of pouring rain, there is the boat. In the forefront people and animals are trying to save their lives, desperately attempting to keep their heads above the water or struggling to find the last piece of dry land. Now, who is witnessing this? If we take the situation seriously in terms of its own “present”, the only ones able to witness the destruction would have been the ones in the boat. Tellingly in this case, and contrary to the description in the Bible, the boat has windows. So a report would have been possible, and the depiction of the scene from the viewpoint of those who are saved on the destruction of others would have been highly interesting. Of course anybody outside of the boat could see the destruction taking place, but nobody could be a witness in terms of turning away, for there would be no medium to express it and no audience to turn to. One could argue that the witness would be God. But he would only have himself to turn to. So, who is witnessing the destruction that is taking place, turning to us and telling us meanwhile that it is a destruction that was deserved, for prominently in front there are two snakes – the symbols of evil in the Christian frame – writhing their bodies in order to escape their deserved punishment?
In the context of Walker’s After the Deluge, the elliptic reporter on this biblical destruction resembles the modern news media. They are presenting us with, for instance, scenes of destruction that we appear to be witnessing, whilst of course we are the audience addressed by a “witness”. Or better, we are “witnessing the witness” as James Polchin called it in his study of lynching photographs. And, in this respect, the situation may be even more perverse. It is more as if we are turned into quasi-witnesses by quasi-witnesses, and this has consequences for the audience that we, as a quasi-witness, simultaneously turn to. Currently, this materializes in the obsessive blogging, twittering, and phoning that takes place after a charged event. The process can be described as messages in search of an audience, an audience that might be then ever-expanding. Or it may be seen as a form of infinite regress, when twittering follows on twittering. Whereas the simultaneity of addresses in apostrophe splits up a situation, in terms of a charged moment, both media reports and the responses of audiences in these deeply mediatised times become events in themselves, almost covering up the event that caused it all in the first place.

Frans-Willem Korsten