The Trauma of Nonrecognition

So far we have argued that Mabo - Life of an Island Man makes Eddie Mabo recognisable as a tragic hero. But this is only one form of recognition enabled by this complex film. The gap between name and face, judgment and historical subject, which the film seeks to conceal, also provides an opening for a second and arguably more radical perspective on the defacement of Mabo's grave. Unlike tragedy, which, as we argued, can mask historical specificity, g Walter Benjamin's philosophy of the image offers a way of understanding js this image of defacement as an aesthetic experience that jolts us into a his" torical form of recognition - that is, a remembrance of the traumatic history embedded in the name.

< Benjamin was fond of Karl Krauss's observation that 'the closer the look 2 you take at a word, the greater the distance from which it looks back'.32 u When we see our name, or the name of a loved one, perhaps, misspelled, « out of context, or, as in this case, defaced, the familiar name stares back at

< us like the face of a stranger. Constructionist theories of language tell us £ that what we grieve on these occasions is the loss of the concept of self. That

< is to say, the strangeness of the name exposes the arbitrariness of the sign. In Benjamin's philosophy of language the sign is never arbitrary. On the contrary, the inherent difference between name and thing made visible in moments of alienation, such as those mentioned above, reveals the fetishistic nature of words. Benjamin was fascinated by what he perceived as the 'magic of language': the way in which words and things interpenetrate and in time come to resemble each other.33 Following on from this, we could say that the gap between name and self created by the defacement of the name is an actualisation of the original loss of the particularity of the thing in its moment of coming into being as a name. And in this way, the severed name becomes what Benjamin calls 'a dialectical image', an image in which 'the Then and Now come together in a constellation like a flash of lightning' to illuminate current concerns.34

As a dialectical image, the cinematic image of Mabo's defaced headstone reveals the origin of the history embedded in Mabo. Here, the shock effect of the image of'Mabo' disfigured by swastikas and the word 'Abo' renders the name faceless and unrecognisable. The name is depersonalised. But it is also true to say that having been obliterated and estranged, the defaced name actualises the unspeakable history of defacement that attaches to this name - that is, terra nullius, the original non-recognition of Indigenous Law and culture. In this sense, the film is not only a historical record of race hatred but also a cultural form that enables historical recognition and public memory of Australia's particular history of defacement.

As a recurring image, the defacement of 'Mabo' takes the form of a traumatic experience. Cathy Caruth defines trauma as 'an overwhelming experience of sudden, or catastrophic events, in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, and uncontrollable repetitive occurrence of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena'.35 On several occasions in this film members of Mabo's family allude to the repetitive nature of the violence of non-recognition. In an over-the-shoulder shot we see Bonita Mabo being interviewed by a young television reporter at the Townsville cemetery immediately after the discovery of the racist attack. In contrast to the image S in The Australian, she does not appear tragic or pitiful. To the contrary, S she answers the reporter's banal questions in a steeled, almost automated S mode of response. When the reporter asks how the attack makes her feel, she o replies: 'It's like a nightmare, starting all over again.' In a following scene, S Mabo's son also implies that the attack on the grave is something already ° experienced when he explains how it has 'opened up old wounds'. History y and trauma come together then as we recognise the images of defacement in this film as a traumatic presence. This trauma is, as we see, unspeakable, and it is in its precise irruption in and disruption to language that the defaced name expresses or actualises the history of the effacing violence of non-recognition embedded in it.

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