Theatricality, Dark Tourism and Ethical Spectatorship: Absent Others, by Emma Willis (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

Lisa Fitzpatrick


Emma Willis’s book opens with three provocative quotes from Judith Butler, Paul Lederach and Emmanuel Levinas, which become the starting point for this engaging and scholarly exploration of the human fascination with sites of genocide and disaster. The quotes issue a challenge to consider our ethical responsibilities for and to each other and the imaginative power that such a task demands of us; and its requirement that we think beyond violence and beyond our own short lives. Willis sees a role for theatricality in this challenge, which also demands a ‘thinking beyond’ and an engagement with absence. She sets out in this book to offer ‘an expanded understanding of the role that theatricality has to play in making available to us the lost voices of absent others in order that they may urge us beyond the horizon of our own time and experience’ (2). Butler, Lederach and Levinas’s demands for creative and ethical thinking in response to violence resonate with theatricality’s creative engagement with what is other than reality, its engagement with absence through representation, and its capacity to draw a community of spectators into moments of shared meaning-making. In this work, Willis draws upon a range of contemporary theorists and philosophers to explore the theatrical, ethical and spectatorial relationships in operation within sites of mass murder and catastrophe, taking as her primary material examples of curatorship and performance that memorialize the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the colonization of New Zealand and the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides.

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