Chapter 7. Tools of Torment: Captioning Pain

The Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, writing about the liturgy of the Church in his time, worried that pedagogical opportunities were being missed. He wondered if there was just too little emphasis on the recalling of important historical events. Or else, he worried if these historical events in the Catholic and Christian tradition, drawn both from the Old and New testament, whilst recalled through the readings, narrations and the prayers, were nonetheless overshadowed by the other elements of the liturgy that had become too much a focus of our attention: the beautiful singing, and to a certain extent, the eye catching ceremonial dressings and various distracting liturgical performances. He wished specifically that the history of the Church’s struggles against various great difficulties might become better brought out through liturgical reforms, and the non-bloody re-enactment of the Lord Jesus Christ’s own bloody sacrifice and the priest’s offering at Mass of His transubstantiated flesh under the appearance of the host on the altar might be better performed or understood to bring out at once the horror of the event, as well its emancipative power.

Whatever we may think of his evaluation of Roman Catholic liturgy, the principles which drive his analysis and aspirations are worth considering: remembrance of history, especially histories of suffering and liberation, had immense pedagogical use for moral uplifting. He calls his “critical remembrance”, or anamnesis. Such anamnesis is not the scholarly and indifferent archaeology of the past with no critical value; instead it is the involved recollection that leads to personal moral transformation. Elsewhere, and in a related context, Schillebeeckx wonders if academics in ivory towers ever produce anything of significance for the moral uplifting of mankind, or whether in fact they could be in a position to.

New insights that truly introduce new moral paradigm shifts, he believed, were often really the contribution of persons on the ground, who are witnesses of some form of major suffering or atrocity, not those in the comfort of offices and universities. One does not derive new moral insights from theory. Rather, through the experience or witness of great suffering or serious wrong, one grasps that such an atrociously negative event as this “simply must not be!”: great suffering and serious wrong breeds moral indignation that lends itself towards protestation. One might not even at that stage have a worked out moral theory that gives credence to that protestation; quite the reverse, that protestation then inclines one towards a search for theories and ideas that could help articulate the moral indignation. Often, the search comes with the critical rejection of current dominant discourses, particularly those that nullify the wrong and worse, give cause to the relevant suffering. These new moral insights should then inform our other deliberation in a variety of practical disciplines, and inspire initiatives in law, economics, politics and policy making to name a few.

These kinds of experience he also labelled, “negative experiences of contrast”. The reason was that, whilst there is the intuition of grievous negativity, there was also an implicitly contrasting intuition of some positive idea or aspiration. Within every normative judgment that something was negative was also the aspiration for, and therefore an idea of, something better. Within the critical judgment is always embedded a kind of utopian projection of what otherwise could have been. This means, therefore, along with the experience of negative contrast, comes the grasp of what should be: and therefore what we should all bring about. The idea and conception of a better world or a better situation made itself felt, and imposed itself on us as a form of obligatory goal in direct tension with the horrors we now witness, and which we fully reject, criticise, and protest.

Not everyone however, has the privilege of witnessing first hand these horrific events. Which brings us to the question: is there a way to bring these negative contrast experiences to comfortable city folks like us? Schillebeecks thinks there is. Here we return to his criticism and aspiration for Roman Catholic liturgy. Through the narrative retelling of historical events; though in the past, recollection of these events of great negativity if properly done in the liturgy of the Mass have a similar and perhaps borrowed effect: we experience also the moral indignation that leads us to reject these negativities, and the implicit projection of the positive, that is, what otherwise ought to be. In short, anamnesis: critical remembrance.

Schillebeeckx’s analysis of critical history and negative experiences of contrast focus quite often on the negativity where life is lived without God, and histories of our own privation when God is absent remind us of a better world in which man walks once more in the presence of God, without shame, and without other forms of material privation, and without death. His reflections also often encircle theological questions and the reform of religious liturgy for greater pedagogical effect, but nothing prevents us from considering what may be called “secular questions” (even if any “secular” label is in final analysis unstable) or extending his insights on how negative contrast opens us to the moral in the direction of secular pedagogical instruments.

Indeed, it seems to me his insights into the anamnesis of history and its capacity for raising our moral consciousness suggest how photography could have immense value as a technology for inspiring contrast experiences. Taking pictures of great negativity in time and looking at them in the future, or revisiting photographic records of negativities in the past make present and visible these stories of suffering, as well as the implicit positive liberation that we ought to stretch out towards. Photographers who capture histories of suffering and struggles for liberation archive images for the raising of moral consciousness, and when remembered by future generations serve to orient them critically towards what is truly worth seeking and protecting, or rejecting and undoing. History however, is not always something too far back in time: yesterday’s evil is today’s past, urgently in need of recollection, and of protestation. Photographic journalists who detail the pains of mankind are our great teachers, and their cameras and prints compose our moral curriculum.

One more thing: sometimes the best photographers, ironically, make poor teachers. Walter Benjamin has written about the “beautification of misery”. When photography is done with great competence, so much so that the image becomes a great work of art, the subject matter is lost sight of. It loses its critical value; ugliness and horror becomes delightfully divine. It no more torments our conscience, and certainly will not inspire ethical reflection. Instead, we rejoice at the fine art, and are filled with vain admiration. To correct this, Benjamin suggests that photographers put a caption to the image, reminding the viewer of the theme of the image, highlighting the pain. Thus captioned, photography should continue to work well as an instrument of torment.


Jude Chua Soo Meng, “How Negative Contrast Experiences are Possible: A New Classical Natural Law Ethic of Human Liberation” Jaarboek Thomas Instituut te Utrecht 2002, (2003), pp 57-82

Jude Chua Soo Meng, “Taking Pictures with Negative Contrast: Edward Schillebeeckx OP, Critical Remembrance and Policy as Practical Reason” Jaarboek Thomas Instituut te Utrecht 2009, (2010), pp. 81-102


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