After Effects: Performing the Ends of Memory. An Introduction to Volume I

Caroline Wake


In 1983, Ronald Reagan claimed to have seen the concentration camps during World War II. When it became clear that he had not done so, that at most he had seen footage of the camps, the condemnation was swift and sharp. However, in her article ‘Performance and Death: Ronald Reagan’, Peggy Phelan takes a more generous approach, arguing that Reagan’s response opens up a profoundly paradoxical space in which to think through ethics, aesthetics, spectatorship and trauma. ‘Performance’, she argues ‘asks its spectators to become witnesses to events that are simultaneously real and indicative, simultaneously empirical and phantasmatic’ (1999: 118).

For this reason, there is a ‘profound ethical challenge and an important possibility in proposing that performance might provide a model for witnessing a historical real that exists at the very edge of the phantasmatic – events that are both unbearably real and beyond reason’s ability to grasp: events that are traumatic’ (118). The scene of Reagan’s false witnessing and the possibilities that Phelan sees within it go to the heart of this double issue of Performance Paradigm, which investigates themes of trauma, testimony, and witnessing as well as notions of liveness, mediatisation, and recording; ethics, aesthetics, and politics; empathy, identification, and imagination. More specifically, this first issue is dedicated to the figure of the witness – Reagan, Phelan, and all who follow – and the function of their witnessing.

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