Nathalie Rachlin, Margaret McKenzie Distinguished Professorship in Modern Foreign Languages, is Professor of French at Scripps College, where she teaches French literature, culture, and cinema, as well as a variety of courses for Scripps’ Core Curriculum in the Interdisciplinary Humanities. She holds a PhD from Princeton University and MAs from Princeton and the Université Paul Valery in Montpellier, France. We interviewed her as part of our ongoing Spotlight on Faculty series.
Scripps College: In your teaching, the development of a new course can allow you to discover and relay new insights to your students—and these can be journeys you take together. Can you cite a recent example?
Nathalie Rachlin: In a recent course for Core called “The Pain of Others,” we start out with two essays. One, by Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (2002), is about visual representations of war and violence in our culture today and the effect that images have on the way we understand conflicts far away and our relations to them. We also look at another essay by the French philosopher Roland Barthes, La Chambre claire (English: Camera Lucida, 1980). It’s an essay about how to read pictures, but it’s also an essay about the effect that pictures have on us, the way they call on us, the way they call our attention to something—sometimes to something we don’t immediately see. This is a course in which I look at the ethics and politics of visual representation. How do we consume pictures, and how, in our world today, do pictures consume us? We used the recent example of the image of the drowned five-year-old Syrian boy whose body was photographed when he washed ashore the Turkish coastline: If you had been an editor of a newspaper, would you have published the photo? And, if so, with what caption?
SC: What about the study of the pain of others, then—what is the takeaway that students have in studying these visual representations and discussions about war, terror, loss, and violence?
NR: The line in Susan Sontag’s book, and I think the point she’s trying to make, which I agree with, is that in order to avoid pitfalls such as voyeurism, cheap sentimentalism, or an empathy rooted in the feeling that one understands or is a good person for being interested, one must learn humility. The line is: “can’t imagine, can’t understand.” It’s a hard thing for students: they think these documentaries are going to open up the world and answer the questions for them.
SC: Documentary film is one area of your expertise, and you have both studied and screened many in your classes. Has there been a film that has surprised you?
NR: It’s really a protean form—the film is adapted to the content, to the vision that the director wants to communicate. In order to make that vision clear, a new form has to be created. For example, one film that I show is by the Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, who uses clay figurines to recall his experience of the Khmer Rouge genocide in The Missing Picture (2013). The little clay figurines have been sculpted to represent the different characters, and they are displayed in a diorama. They do not move—only the camera does—and Panh intersperses the clay figurine scenes with propaganda film clips made by the Khmer Rouge, with the clay figures representing his family experiencing starvation, torture, and death. This is a very difficult story to tell. It’s very hard to imagine when you haven’t lived through that. How do you communicate something that is really at the limit of what can be represented?