The Spiritual Unconscious: indexicality, presence, and auratic images in contemporary Indonesia
Karen Strassler (Queens College-CUNY)
Paper short abstract:
Examining a genre of spiritually-charged images of a legendary spirit queen in contemporary Indonesia, I argue that images that “presence” supernatural beings require a rethinking of photographic indexicality.
Paper long abstract:
From its earliest days, the camera both provoked and promised to sate a voracious appetite for grasping the world visually. Yet, even as it became a buttress for positivist ideologies, the camera undermined faith in the powers of vision by revealing vast realms hidden from the natural eye, what Benjamin called "the optical unconscious." Nowhere is this potential to undermine faith in the givenness of the visible world more apparent than in images that purport to record the presence of supernatural beings. Examining a genre of spiritually-charged images of a legendary spirit queen in contemporary Indonesia, I argue that images that "presence" supernatural beings require a rethinking of photographic indexicality. Whereas the evidentiary basis for the camera's ideological status as truth-machine is its capacity to produce indexical traces, I argue that a different logic of indexicality is at work in spiritually charged images that act as mediums or conduits of spiritual presence and power. The simultaneously disturbing and titillating possibility of sensing the unseen via the photograph is registered in the popular discourse around the uncertain status of such images, which promise to reveal a "spiritual unconscious" at work within Indonesia's self-consciously pursued national modernity.
Reasserting presence: reclamation, recognition and photographic desire