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We all have images that we find unwatchable, whether for ethical, political, or sensory and affective reasons. From news coverage of terror attacks to viral videos of police brutality, and from graphic horror films to transgressive artworks, many of the images in our media culture might strike us as unsuitable for viewing. Yet what does it mean to proclaim something “unwatchable”: disturbing, revolting, poor, tedious, or literally inaccessible?
With over 50 original essays by leading scholars, artists, critics, and curators, this is the first book to trace the “unwatchable” across our contemporary media environment, in which viewers encounter difficult content on various screens and platforms. Appealing to a broad academic and general readership, the volume offers multidisciplinary approaches to the vast array of troubling images that circulate in global visual culture.
About the Author
NICHOLAS BAER is a collegiate assistant professor in the humanities and Harper-Schmidt Fellow in the Society of Fellows at the University of Chicago in Illinois. He is the coeditor of the award-winning The Promise of Cinema: German Film Theory, 1907–1933.
MAGGIE HENNEFELD is an assistant professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is the author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes.
LAURA HORAK is an associate professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of the award-winning Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908–1934 (Rutgers University Press).
GUNNAR IVERSEN is a professor of film studies at Carleton University. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of more than twenty books.
"By posing a seemingly modest question—what visual experiences in our media-saturated world are 'unwatchable?'—the editors of this remarkable volume have elicited an astonishing range of intensely felt responses. They reveal the most potent anxieties of our troubled times, forcing us to attend to what we cannot bear to witness directly."
— Martin Jay
"This thoughtfully curated anthology of short essays comes at a classical aesthetic problem with a fresh sense of historical urgency and from a number of truly new, often surprising directions. Radically extending the conceptual reach of its title, Unwatchable offers readers real traction on core questions in media and cultural studies surrounding taste, identity, and embodied experience as it navigates deftly across the dizzying landscape of contemporary spectatorship."
— Sianne Ngai
"A compelling foray into the bio- and necropolitics of spectacle, suffering, and violence. The short pieces in this weighty collection linger uncomfortably, highlighting the incommensurability of the unwatchable and the unthinkable."
— Jasbir K. Puar
"While many edited anthologies boast interdisciplinarity and intermediality, Unwatchable stands out for the astounding reach of the media and discourses marshalled under its theme. Its implications are manifold, evidence that 'unwatchable' is more than just an aesthetic category. Unwatchable’s editors suggest that the currently unobservable, whether expressly repudiated or involuntarily rendered invisible, will surely linger and haunt the public imagination for years—if not generations—to come."
— Film Quarterly
New Books Network: New Books in Popular Culture -- New Books in film podcast interview withNicholas Baer, Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak, and Gunnar Iversen
— New Books Network - New Books in Film
"Confronting the Unwatchable," by Maggie Hennefeld and Nicholas Baer
— Los Angeles Review of Books
"A substantial collection of essays, bristling with anxiety about the social impact of the kind of mediations broadcasting the news requires of us daily."
— Times Literary Supplement
"The tone of the writing is refreshing—sometimes experimental and at others painfully reflective. Readers embark on deeply personal and highly politicised journeys with contributors, recalling harrowing moments from cinematic, televisual, world, and personal history."
— Moveable Type
"Unwatchable is a powerful, potent collection because of its mission to crack our fingers apart just a little bit wider to see more of what we're averse to. Look for this book."
— Jump Cut
"The anthology is an impressive collection of essays written by over fifty scholars and artists working on issues in film and media studies from a variety of disciplines and professional (as well as personal) perspectives, each of whom attempts to struggle with sharing what it means for something to be 'unwatchable' for them. Researchers on related issues in film, media, gender, politics, and philosophy broadly construed will find much that is both new and old to consider anew and to reconsider, while those new to such debates may find another space within which to theorize."
— Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
"This anthology does nothing less than challenge us to grapple with the criteria and ramifications of the unwatchable. It does not offer any one-dimensional or easily digestible answers to the complex questions raised in individual contributions. Though its richness and variety, it instead makes possible a deeper understanding of the concept of the unwatchable, which has become a crucial category across global media and politics."
— MEDIENwissenschaft: Rezensionen
"A socially urgent and intellectually galvanizing book. Unwatchable opens up a vital critical space for sharing the burden of navigating the difficult, often painful terrain of the twenty-first century visual regime. Highly readable, and productively challenging, it is a book that will inform our discussions of the politics of watching (and not watching) for a long time to come."
— Journal of Cinema and Media Studies
"This is a volume edited by the discipline’s top scholars and featuring some of our most brilliant theorists. Film scholars will doubtless be citing the essays in this volume for a long time to come. I know I will. What is likely to impress students, and what this collection gifts so gorgeously, is its demonstration of the way theory and film alike can crack open the most pressing issues of our day and offer moral support and ethical guidance for thinking through a life lived as citizen and spectator."
— The Communication Review
"This book will find its greatest connections in studies of both the ethics and aesthetics of visual culture at its fringes."
— Communication Booknotes Quarterly
"Carefully edited to allow multiple voices and experiences to be in dialogue and sometimes challenge each other, Unwatchable shows how productive the unwatchable is as a moral and aesthetic category and also reveals that when it comes to these images, our watch has just begun."
— Aurore Spiers