The Traumatic Real in Foster

Updated: Jan 30



“Neither projection is wrong. Can they both be right ? Can we read images as referential and simulacral, connected and disconnected, affective and affectless, critical and complacent? I think we must and we can if we read them in a third way, in terms of traumatic realism.”

- Hal Foster, Return of the Real




The following ideas come from Hal Foster´s Return of the Real, a work which has inspiring my thoughts for some time now, and which I hope to absorb through a rewriting and summarizing of its contents.


Foster positions Andy Warhol´s works in „traumatic realism.“ His writings all an all seem to be a defense of pop art and appropriation art, which after 1960s continued to use representational images, while the rest of the art world moved on, the rest in turn sometimes hostile to pop art, appropriation art, and superrealism. I can´t help but draw parallels to the use of references in music, and the use of tonal references in contemporary composition. I´m quite curious to wonder if these ideas of trauma can apply to appropriation in music composition, and if quoted elements in music, far from reactionary, can indeed point to a traumatic present – to an encounter with the Lacanian real.

Foster summarizes previous interpretations of Warhol which, in line with most discussions of images post 1960, situate them either as representational or as simulacral. Simulacral is the idea that images only represent images, and that these images either have no original or have lost their original. The Warholian simulacral would mean that the images are just objects, that they don´t point to anything, and are only repeated and manipulated as forms. Pop art is often read this way. Foster quotes Roland Barthes who wrote, “what pop wants to do is to desymbolize the object,“ and furthermore, “the pop artist does not stand behind his work and he himself has no depth.“ The idea is that pop lacks depth.


The representational reading, in return, is that pop art and especially Warhol, chooses the images for a reason, and the associaitions we have with those images are subsumed by the work itself. The tragedy or suffering of figures like Marliyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Mona Lisa are implied. In other words, the images are not chosen indiscrimantely, they even need their associations with the things they represent in order to stand as works. Foster here quotes Thomas Crow on Warhol, “he was attracted to the open sores in American political life,“ suggesting that Warhol had political, or rhetorical intentions in his works. They are not simply empty forms and colors.


Foster introduces traumatic realism against this backdrop, essentialy claiming that Warhol is both and more. What is so interesting about the works is indeed the multiple readings available: “Neither projection is wrong. Can they both be right ? Can we read images as referential and simulacral, connected and disconnected, affective and affectless, critical and complacent? I think we must and we can if we read them in a third way, in terms of traumatic realism.”


How do we understand the repeated horrific images of Warhol, in works like White Burning Car III and Ambulance Disaster? Warhol wrote, “when you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn´t really have the same effect,” and further, “the more you repeat an image, the more the meaning goes away.” Foster sees in Warhol and his compulsive repetition a shocked subject, and both a contradictory situation in such works (exquisitely contradictory, I would add) that in the defense against trauma, through the repetitive desensitization, a second trauma occurs. Quoting Lacan, who wrote that the trauma is a missed encounter with the real, and borrowing Barthes´idea of the punctum (the real coming through in a work of art) Foster locates Warhol´s pictures, not as illusionistic, but as pointing to the traumatic real. Lacan writes, “The real cannot be represented, it can only be repeated.”


The repeated image, although attempting to screen us from the horrified image, points to a traumatized subject and creates the traumatic event again – not in the work, not in the world, but in us. (See Freud on traumatic repetition and Nachhaltigkeit) Foster: “The rupture is not in the image, in the world, it is in the subject.” Warhol´s repetitions serve to screen us from the traumatic real, but like Barthes´ punctum they rupture the screen of representation. For Foster, the real shoots out in moments and techniques of Warhol. He sees the real in the indifference of the passer-by in Ambulance Disaster. The traumatic real is found in the Warholian techniques, in “the stripping and streaking, blanching and blanking, repeating and coloring of the images.” The “pervasive blurring” of the image in Gerhard Richter´s Uncle Rudi also opens representation up to the traumatic real.

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