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The Blind Spots of Enlightenment
by David Lloyd
The Blind Spots of Enlightenment: Tran T. Kim-Trang’s Ocularis and EkleipsisDavid Lloyd
It has often enough been noted that the concept of enlightenment relies on a visual metaphor. If it invokes at first an illumination of the dark, a critical shedding of light on the obscurity in which power lurks and dogma thrives, it entails no less a sense of the enlightened subject as an eye that penetrates that darkness. The critical illumination of the recesses of power and superstition that promises emancipation is itself bound up with a fantasy of power, specifically the power to see and, in seeing, to make clear. That the subject’s freedom is bound up with its mastery of the objects from which, in order that they may be subjected to visibility, the subject must be distanced, is entirely clear to Friedrich Schiller in his foundational work on aesthetics and politics:
It is nature herself that raises man from reality to appearance, by furnishing him with two senses which lead him to knowledge of the real world through appearance alone. In the case of the eye and the ear, she has driven importunate matter back from the organs of sense, and the object, with which in the case of our more animal senses we have direct contact, is set at a distance from us. What we actually see with the eye is something different from the sensation we receive; for the mind leaps out across light to objects. The object of touch is a force to which we are subjected; the object of eye and ear a form that we engender. As long as man is still a savage he enjoys by means of these tactile senses alone, and at this stage the senses of appearance are merely the servants of these. Either he does not rise to the level of seeing at all, or he is at all events not satisfied with it. Once he does begin to enjoy through the eye, and seeing acquires for him a value of its own, he is already aesthetically free....
Sight here, taking over as the exemplary sense from hearing, is situated at the summit of a hierarchy of the senses, organized around their gradual emancipation from their objects and therefore in line with the developing autonomy of the subject. Unlike touch or smell, in which the subject is subordinated to its objects, sight separates the subject from the object, endowing it with the mastery of form-giving power. That separated but inseparable couple, subject-object, is itself indissociable from an extendable set of hierarchical binaries: mind/body, form/matter, male/female, reason/madness, light/dark, civilized/savage and, of course, spectator /spectacle. What Schiller introduces to the familiar spatial map of opposed and antagonistic couples, however, is the temporal axis of development: the human develops from savagery to civilization in time with the subject’s capacity to separate from its objects and to prioritize sight above the other senses. Vision, at once the metaphor and the medium of enlightenment, becomes the mark of the subject’s freedom or autonomy. But the obverse of that construction is the corollary that the object of vision be subordinated to the subject, unfree and reduced to mere matter to be formed. The second corollary is that humans who have not risen to the level of superordinating sight are themselves in effect objects, subordinated to the gaze of a subject who becomes, as absolute non-object, invisible or transparent. The world divides racially, as Denise da Silva has put it, into subjects of transparency and subjects of affectability. The freedom of the enlightened subject is inseparable from the subordination of other, unfree subjects.
In Foucaultian terms, then, the Enlightenment institutes what we might call a “scopic regime” in which the subject is founded in its control of looking. For the “sovereign subject,” the former privilege of the sovereign, to gaze on his subjects, becomes generalized: the subject becomes “monarch of all it surveys.” This scopic regime is at once gendered and racialized. If women become the objects of the investigative gaze, the eroticizing gaze, the controlling gaze, the medicalizing gaze, these gazes are not to be returned: the scandal of Manet’s Olympia is less that it is the portrait of a prostitute than that she looks back, unperturbed and therefore perturbing, at the viewer to whose gaze she is supposed to be subordinated. By the same token, within the racial scopic regime, the colonized are denied the place from which to look back: the racialized “savage” becomes the object of the lens of the colonial archivist, of the ethnographer, of the tourist, subject to classification, stereotyping, to an investigative process for which the image has been, as Fanon suggests, that of a ceaseless “unveiling” that is intended to be at once revealing and emancipating. Again, in this regime, the colonized do not return the gaze of the spectator that peculiarly replicates their objectification by the relentlessly violent processes of colonization:
I began to distinguish the gleam of the eyes under the trees. Then, glancing down, I saw a face near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous, vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly.
If vision is the mark of the enlightened subject, blindness becomes that of the colonized.
But this scopic regime, gendered and racialized in the relation of the subject it produces to its objects, is no less a disciplinary regime. We may recall that Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is, in the original, Surveillir et punir: to survey and punish. The architecture of the Panopticon that Foucault analyzes in the final section of that book suggests in the first instance that the very model of a successful disciplinary apparatus is one that is capable of subjecting its objects to an absolute visual control and regulation. The prisoner is not only the object who is always subject to being seen but also the one who does not see the one who looks: the prisoner is in effect blind to his surveyor. That blindness, the loss of the power to control seeing, functions to deprive the prisoner of subjecthood as the means to instilling in him a reconstituted, disciplined mode of subjectification out of which the possibility of a reformed and docile subjecthood might emerge. The blindness of the prisoner effectively reduces him to the sensory state of the savage in order to lead him step by step back from degenerate criminality to civil subjecthood. If, on the one hand, the Panopticon images an enlightenmment that dreams of a world completely subjected to the subject in shadowless illumination, where all the dark spaces of the map, the enigmas, the riddles, are cleared up, it equally images the discipline that enlightenment subjecthood entails. The eye must be taught to see and to see in this way, to see the object as subordinated, as an object of knowledge or possession or conquest, as, above all, separate from the subject that dominates it. Over and above the multiple, specific techniques by which the eye is schooled to see properly, one might say that pedagogy overall is a training of the pupil to see the world as that which is separate and set over against the subject. Pedagogy is a training in perspective, the perspective of the autonomous and rational subject, within which the order of the world is aligned with the order of reason. Between the order of things seen and the order of propositions about them, an ideal proportion is established.
And yet, in order to be this spectator, the spectator needs the spectacle to exist, as, indeed, the subject requires the object to be the subject. The counterpoint to the rational subjection of the world is the subject’s desire for the world. Just as capitalism endlessly, ever-expandingly, subjects nature to technology and to its own processes of rationalization for the production of commodities, the world subjected to the visual regime becomes the site of a proliferation of images, spectacles. And as the worker becomes, in Marx’s phrase, the “appendage of the machine,” so the modern subject as spectator or consumer of images becomes the appendage of the prosthetic technologies of vision. While this incessant demand for images bespeaks a condition of general alienation, it simultaneously invokes the displacing function of desire in the subject, the condition of always being a subject for another subject. In the same way, we are subjected to the images that make us subjects. Guy Debord summarizes this long historical process:
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.
The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be re-established. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation. The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living....
The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.
Thus the image that is an object produced comes to seem autonomous with regard to the subject whose autonomy the object as image had seemed to guarantee. It comes to function as another subject for the subject, an object of desire that objectifies the subject that desires it.
This dialectical fate was always already contained in the enlightenment’s vision. For the Enlightenment, whose vision separates the subject from its objects as the knower from the known, the eye is the highest organ of knowledge. But the eye remains an organ of the senses, a sensual organ, whose looking is rarely separable from the subject’s desires, desires that displace the subject from its ideal and separate sovereignty, undoing the discipline of its formation. This ambiguity of function is characteristic of all bodily organs, as Freud notes in an essay that forms a crucial reference point for Tran’s Ekleipsis:
The mouth serves for kissing as well as for eating and communication by speech; the eyes perceive not only alterations in the external world which are important for the preservation of life, but also characteristics of objects which lead to their being chosen as objects of love –their charms. The saying that it is not easy for anyone to serve two masters is thus confirmed.
Freud’s proverbial irony observes that the enlightenment attempt to discipline the eye to serve reason and autonomy founders on the fact that the eye is also an organ of desire. For him, the two functions – knowledge and desire – constantly displace one another, introducing trouble into the visual regime. Desire is the lord of misrule. At the same time, however, it may well be possible to be the servant of two masters: if it is through the spectacle that we are constituted as subjects, maybe it is not simply our subjection to discipline, but our very desire for images, the pleasures of looking, that make of us not autonomous subjects but subjects subjected by the peculiar pleasures of the panopticon.
This dialectic of autonomy and subjection, for which the vicissitudes of the eye as organ of mastery and desire alike is the apt metaphor, furnishes the terrain for the paradoxical workings of Tran’s Blindness Series. The series is structured around a very evident contradiction or paradox, being a set of visual representations on the theme of blindness, literal and metaphorical. The series is one that uses visual media to deny the viewer sight, if by sight is understood clear insight into a phenomenon viewed as a totality of effects. The construction of the works in the series foregrounds instead the experience of fragmented viewing and of deliberate obscuring of the object, whether through motion blur, rapidity of jump cutting, or, as in at least one case, excessive lighting that ironically bleaches out the text on display. Such effects are not only visual. A characteristic strategy of the series is the presentation of visual materials together with voice-over, but in ways that force the viewer into the impossible predicament of seeking to maintain divided attention to a set of visual images and an audio-track that refers to an entirely different material. This technique refuses to allow the visual material to be illustrative of the spoken text or the spoken text to be a commentary on the visual material. This disparity between phrase and content not only disrupts the proper relation between propositions and their referents, but also forces the viewer to become aware of the way in which the multiple elements and foci of the works refuse to cohere, operating instead with the distraction of the viewer – a distraction that is not contingent or individual but constitutive of the work’s refusal to permit totalization or consumption.
This demand on the viewer’s distracted attention opens up a secondary contradiction in the form of the work, one contained in the almost oxymoronic phrase sometimes used of Tran’s work: “experimental documentary.” “Experimental” in this sense bears little or no relation to its meaning in the traditions of enlightenment, where experiment grounds an approach to the object that seeks through the consistent repetition of an experiment to reproduce and confirm results and to establish the truth of an object in the form of the laws or principles of its constitution. Rather, experimentation seeks to employ formal play, play with a range of possible techniques for representation, in order to disrupt the notion that there might be a natural presentation of the real, a proper and truthful transcription of the world that would secure both things and subjects in their places. Accordingly displacement, and especially the displacement of the position of the knowledge-seeking spectator, is at the heart of experimental documentary, disturbing the security of the spectator’s location in the visual field.
As is well known, the cinematic equivalent of the perspective of the narrator in fiction is the position of the camera: Hollywood constantly and with few exceptions secures the spectating subject in the “eye” of the camera, the position from which the gaze masters the world. If on occasion it disrupts that gaze, it is only to return the spectator to it by the end of the movie. But mass-audience narrative cinema is not the only medium that relies on such guarantees of the spectator’s positioning. The traditions of documentary, however radical its intents may be in terms of questioning or revealing the structures of power, largely secure their reality effects and truth claims precisely by operating through the same procedures. At a moment in which the political work of documentary is increasingly called upon in order to supplement news and information sources that have become steadily more corporatized and self-censoring, documentary lays claim in its form and content to an enlightenment function – the critique of autocracy, of secret government and of the interested monopolization of power and information. In an almost Kantian fashion, it “dares to know” and stakes its political efficacy on its belief in the critical capacities of an enlightened citizenry. The documentary cures the blindness of the citizen to the facts of the case with insight on which alternative action can be based. In order to do so, however, it requires that the reality effect of documentary remain unchallenged and that the viewer occupy a relation to the visual medium that is that of the enlightened subject. The visual regime of the work doubles formally the regime of empirical truth that the documentary seeks to establish.
Ekleipsis and Ocularis – Eye Surrogates are both experimental or pseudo-documentaries that treat materials that would be utterly familiar to the contemporary viewer of documentary film: the after-effects of the trauma of war and genocide and the ubiquity of the apparati of surveillance in contemporary society. In each case, however, the material enters into the form of the documentary, becoming an element of its technical determinants rather than the inert object subjected to a treatment. Ekleipsis purports to investigate the extraordinary phenomenon of one hundred and fifty cases of “hysterical blindness” among Cambodian women immigrants in Southern California who were refugees from the “Killing Fields” of the Khmer Rouge. Nonetheless, however much it invokes certain techniques of documentary, the film deliberately makes no effort to uncover new materials, producing rather a constellation of already existing elements, some offering explanatory frameworks, some historical background, but none of them permitted to assume a final position of authority or explanatory power. It mixes footage from TV news documentary , from the film The Killing Fields and other sources, with voice-over from various sources, including Freudian accounts of hysterical blindness, newspaper reports of the cases, and testimony from other survivors. Such a mix is in itself a familiar documentary technique, normally aimed at constructing a body of authority in which to ground the final explanatory framework of the film. Ekleipsis relies, however, on a formal organizing principle of jarring juxtaposition, rapid cuts, citation and constant repetition that may seem to emulate the traumatic effects of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal camps on their victims, inducing both psychosomatic visual disturbance and compulsive repetition. At the core of the film lies the repetition of a sequence of images, apparently all of Cambodia, in very rapid cuts, lasting initially scarcely more than a second, that resist any attempt by the viewer to master and synthesize them. Thus, an image of a bowl of rice is followed by a blood-stained bandage and that by a set of images from the work camps intercut by eye-glasses on a table (the sign of intellectuals for the Khmer Rouge) or female soldiers in training. This sequence is not identically repeated: as the film, progresses there are gradually longer holds on the images and slight variations in the sequence, zooms in and out on the object, and so forth. While this technique may seem to take on and elaborate the effects of visual disturbance caused by trauma, and to mimic rather than seek to cure or contain them by explanation, it simultaneously defies the conventions of documentary by frustrating the viewer’s will to gain access to an explanatory overview of the materials.
Ekleipsis sustains a corresponding disturbance of the relation between the apparently explanatory texts that compose its voice-over and the visual representations that reiterate throughout it. Only the most general thematic relations connect the soundtrack and the visuals. A seemingly authoritative if slightly accented male voice furnishes an interrupted discourse that offers a perspective informed by Cambodian cultural norms on the women’s condition; another, highly accented and affected to the point of parody, offers an account of Freud’s theories of hysterical blindness; a substantial book seems to present a timeline of Cambodian history that might explain at least the rise and violent acts of the Khmer Rouge but is reduced to illegibility by oblique camera angles and the over-exposure of the crucial textual areas. Monumental in its form, the book becomes redundant in fact and the historical text, scarcely legible at all, recedes to the margins of the documentary. Throughout Ekleipsis, the material texture of the representation of documents, whether visual, textual or audio, displaces their codifying function, while its rapid and seemingly entirely arbitrary juxtapositions deauthorize and dehierarchize every perspective, refusing to legitimate any given explanation or account. The desire of the subject for enlightenment succumbs to a condition analagous to that suffered by the Cambodian women themselves – an entire disturbance of the visual field.
The subtitle of Ocularis, “Eye Surrogates,” designates a technology that both prosthetically enhances vision and displaces it, indicating the contradiction that in various ways plays through both that work and the Blindness Series as a whole. In Ocularis, Tran notes that surveillance – both surveilling and being surveilled – has come to occupy a huge part of our contemporary social life, to the extent that, as the telephonically recorded and anonymous anecdotes about people’s interactions with the technology reveal, surveillance occupies a major place in our fantasy life. At one level at least, this work which, like Ekleipsis, presents itself from the outset as a critical documentary that elicits the desire for enlightenment, seems to pose less the question as to how surveillance dominates our lives as the question, why do we love surveillance? The fantasies that are recorded are both ambiguous and ambivalent, revealing their narrators’ anxious desires to gain control by surveying everything – the Enlightenment fantasy – and the longing to be surveilled. The fantasies of subjecthood and subjection appear as closely interlinked and as profoundly eroticized as they are suspicious, paranoid and guilty. But they are also for the most part predictable and mundane, revealing the ways in which the relation to surveillance technologies is, for the post-modern subject, an everyday and unexceptional experience – on the bus, at the ATM, in school or at work – surveillance appears ubiquitous and integrated. If, as one of the texts cited declares (in a peculiarly flourishing graphic script that seems to parody its authority even as it is cited), “Totalitarianism is, first of all, an extreme focussing of surveillance,” contemporary society shows a marked tendency to totalitarian practices and fantasies. Indeed, we hear (if indeed the voice-over holds our attention against the distraction of the captioned visual presentation of historical surveillance technology) security systems now rival tourism as a multi-billion dollar industry. Such items of information, which predate the massive upsurge in surveillance since 9/11, are at once soberly predictive and ominous, forecasting the extension of surveillance into the body: “the future of premises control belongs to biometrics,” remarks one commentary incorporated into Ocularis. What commenced in the nineteenth century in the form of fingerprinting and the identity photo extends already to the daily use by increasingly secretive corporations of DNA prints and retinal scans.
But the practices of surveillance are not only ubiquitous and quotidian, it is their very function to produce a continuous map of the everyday: the video recording that is by now the familiar product of surveillance, instances of which are cut into Ocularis at several points, offers the viewer a homogeneous, real time documentation of space and time. Like one of Chantal Akerman’s films, it is realism produced to manic dimensions and, as do Akerman’s films, it induces the experience of intense boredom together with the constant if unappeased expectation of an event, usually an event that will be disruptive and violent, or potentially erotic. The combination of tedium and expectation (“anxiety and boredom” as one speaker in the film puts it) produces the desire for the event that would justify the paranoia that requires the surveillance in the first place; indeed, the expectation is the attenuated form of an objectless paranoia. For if surveillance has become integrated into the daily routine and spatial discipline of both students and corporate workforces, if it has become a regular technology of knowledge and power deployed in securing the corporate-military “strong” state of our moment, it is surely intrinsic to its deployment to cultivate in the subject not only the acknowledgement but the fantasy of surveillance. The desire of the subject is captured by a form entirely familiar to realist narrative, a fantasy of expectation: that rhythm of suspense and its partial satisfactions that transforms life into the Bovaryesque anticipation of an event, erotic or violent, that will not only redeem life from its tedium but, in its coming, retrospectively justify the subject in its increasingly generalized paranoia.
Ocularis plays with these dimensions of surveillance culture, commenting on interplay of anxiety and boredom that characterize it and subjecting the viewer to extended samples of uneventful surveillance film where the borderline between the fake and the real, the home movie and Big Brother, become blurred. With violent and ethically disturbing irony, which pushes to the edge the ambiguity of our expectant fantasies, the film displaces its constantly anticipated moment of violence until after its apparent end, playing under the credits a sample of Real TV video of the shooting death of a man in an El Monte pool hall. What at some level the viewer really wanted to see is furnished after the expectation of getting it has faded, thus redoubling the shock of its irruption and yet, at the same time, possibly legitimating the paranoid structure of the subject’s fantasies: see, I was right all along to be afraid – not least because what seems revealed in this sample is the violence of young men of color. The delay of the anticipated moment of violence, which is inseparable from the tedium of its banal everydayness, thus confirms with exceptional force the structure of a stereotype, that working class Asian and Latino men congregate in lethal gangs. At this juncture, Tran risks approaching the limit of the ethical possibilities of deconstructive sampling, raising the possibility that the effect of the sample is to confirm the self-evidence of its content rather than to frame it critically.
And yet, throughout Ocularis, the viewer remains uncertain of what is really there to be seen. As in Ekleipsis what is foregrounded is the difficulty of producing a total overview that would grasp its object with certainty, the difficulty of deciphering image and sound together. An excess of information (visual material, voice-over, textual materials) delivered simultaneously, overwhelms the viewer. At the same time, the dislocation of eye and ear, where the voice-over fails to correspond to either the text or the visual materials in their simultaneous presentation, effects a disturbing disjunction of the proper correspondence between signifier and signified that underlies the realist documentary genre. In turn, such dislocations, which might be momentary techniques aimed at disrupting established associations in the procedures of realist narrative or documentary, are denied resolution at the end of the film. Rather, this parodic documentary accumulates a body of disparate reflections on, reactions to, or uses of surveillance – some in the service of power and discipline, some appropriated to subversive and playful reversals of power. It retains a resolute ambiguity about the meaning and possible political functions of surveillance technology – which is, after all, the technology of the documentary itself. That ambiguity is as much formal or technical as it is thematic. For if the ubiquity of and the financial and erotic investment in surveillance might be rendered as merely “a symptom of how out of whack things are”, the emphasis of this experimental documentary is to foreground the out-of-kilterness of representation itself, of the very means by which that symptom might be displayed and illuminated, using the techniques and forms of representation that would be identical with those of surveillance. The gambit of Ocularis is to produce with the very tools of surveillance, of the scopic regime itself, forms of representation that defy the logic of control, rationalization and objectification.
By the same token, Ekleipsis defies the desire to resolve its problematic “case history” by fixing its subjects through an authoritative explanatory narrative. To be sure, numerous explanatory possibilities are posited, including ones that are culturally “sensitive” in ways that might seem appropriate or non-intrusive: one voice invokes a hypothetical Asian tendency to somatize emotional problems, or suggests that Asians suffer from an unusual degree of suggestibility; a culturally generalized hierarchy regarding physical contact is evoked to account for the effects of the trauma. At the same time, another voice proposes a Freudian possibility, that sexual repression led to an hystericized disturbance of vision – an explanation no less culturally loaded and fixing than hypotheses regarding Asian psychology. At yet another point, however, the voice-over remarks in passing how for psychoanalysis, hysteria must be seen not as a private, individual disorder but as the product of an unhealthy relationship. Thus, by extension, where psychoanalysis might conclude (as it began) precisely by pathologizing the hysteric, a feminist psychoanalysis would trace hysteria to a social and collective disorder, the dominative structures of the patriarchal family. In the context Ekleipsis explores, however, even such an explanation would not be adequate. For in the case of hysterical blindness that results from the spectacle and experience of trauma, the symptoms are not those of inner conflict, but are a response to an extreme and violent external and public violence. Indeed, as a final voiceover suggests, hysterical blindness itself is not the sign of weakness, not a sickness to be cured: rather, “the fact that we are alive and in the U.S. attests to our will to survive.” Any psychologizing explanation “insults our loss and underestimates the strength of our trauma.” What appears as sickness or disability from one perspective is read from another as a means, a means to survival and overcoming.
What I want to suggest, by way of conclusion, is that Ekleipsis and Ocularis, indeed, the Blindness Series as a whole, bear a similar relation to the technologies of power that they deploy and throw into disarray. For how is it possible to produce in a visual medium a series that is not only on blindness but which deliberately deploys disturbances of the visual field of the subject in its form as in its thematic material? How does a constitutive obstacle become the means to an alternative formal procedure? These questions seem to me continuous with those implied by the introductory section of this essay: How might one escape the dominative function of the eye in modern Western cultures, and the fascination of the alienating image that subjects the viewer? Tran’s video work suggests the sketch of a response even as, in some sense, the work itself performs that answer. In Ekleipsis, the very fixation of the traumatized memory that produces repetition becomes the stimulus to a non-narrative aesthetic in which vision is not devoted to exposition and domination, but to a more touch-like operation: a palpating, tentative, “experimental” approach to the object in its multi-dimensionality that does not seek its capture but a sense of its complex and ever-shifting contours. In such a procedure, the primacy and mastery of vision may well be displaced, unsettled, or thrown off, or absorbed by its objects. In a similar way, Ocularis deploys the technology of surveillance but puts it to the service of a disturbance of the visual field that suggests new modes of apprehending the world, alternative possibilities for aesthetic and epistemological pleasure, the possibility of accommodating other and multiple ways of seeing that are no longer devoted to the fixations of the subject. We may understand this procedure as an enactment of the tantalizing, tendentious suggestion of Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that against the fixation of the contemplative attention which the auratic work of classical aesthetics demands, the mode of distraction and habits of “tactile appropriation” which characterize the reception of “mechanically reproduced” art might furnish alternative political resources. Such a contention seems counter-intuitive in every respect, at least from the perspective of a politics and an aesthetics organized around totalization and subordination. But once we recognize the ways in which a post-enlightenment vision recruits both our pleasures and our desires for sovereignty to serve its disciplines, perhaps the possibility of making of what seems from there a disability, the inability to totalize, fragmentation, distraction or suspension, may seem to contain the potential for an alternative political aesthetic.
David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, works primarily on Irish culture and on postcolonial and cultural theory. His most recent books are Irish Times: Temporalities of Irish Modernity (Dublin: Field Day, 2008) and Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity: The Transformation of Oral Space (Cambridge University Press, 2011). His study of Samuel Beckett’s visual aesthetics, Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press, 2016. He is currently completing a collection of essays on aesthetics, representation and race. His Arc & Sill: Poems 1979-2009 was published by Shearsman Books in the UK and New Writers’ Press, Dublin, 2012. He has co-published several other books, including The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (1997), with Lisa Lowe and The Black and Green Atlantic: Cross-Currents of the African and Irish Diasporas (2008), edited with Peter D. O’Neill.
by Laura U. Marks
Mute GodsLaura U. Marks
Civilizations are built on agreements about what is figure and what is ground. Languages determine what merits attention and what should recede into the background. In a highly visual society, images embody these filtering qualities. Alexia: Metaphor and Word Blindness suggests there is not a great difference between word and image; rather, both arise from gesture. If the body is the ground, gestures arising from it become figures, at various removes from the body: the pointing finger, the spoken word, the diagram... The argument of this video essay is that meaning has a prediscursive and synthetic quality that cannot be reduced to the symbolic.
Tran T. Kim-Trang’s “Blindness Series” is always working the border between the representable and the unrepresentable, or, we might say, between figure and ground. Within it Alexia is perhaps the work that most slips away from the visible, while asking questions about how meaning arises from figuration. There is very little to see: diagrams, droll sketches, and a haptic close-up of hands laboriously manipulating a punch label machine. These recede from view, in a technique Tran has developed throughout the series of frustrating vision, withdrawing objects from perception. Many of the works in the series express a particular embodiment—Aletheia privileges touch, Ekleipsis simulates hysterical blindness. For its part, Alexia seems sleepy, like a person who is trying to speak while still only half-awake. The notes of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” arrive with deliberation, one by one. Tran’s voice-over, slightly disguised as usual, is a low murmur that barely allows the words to escape. Black-and-white drawings of visual metaphors float groggily into view. Half-seen, as though through a veil, the punch label machine cranks out words with difficulty, as though pulling them from a half-conscious mind. “DO ... NOT ... MISTAKE ... THE ... FINGER ... FOR ... THE ... MOON.” Alexia is dense with concepts that hover just below its somnolent surface. Thus its form is a metaphor for a particular human dilemma.
Alexia plays a kind of sonic hide-and-seek. Tran utters complex quotations from Wittgenstein, Vico, Wheelwright, and other thinkers in the aforementioned deadpan murmur. Arriving to the surface of the video, the ideas burst like bubbles. Yet above and below the dry words, the grave, deliberate notes of the “Moonlight Sonata” seem to embody the sound of thought. This sonic contrast is one of the hints Tran drops that what appears to be ground is always ready to yield figure, while what appears to be figure is always on the verge of dissolving back into ground.
The charming, troubling sketches in Alexia are supposed to illustrate the intuitive quality of metaphor, both visual and verbal. Three objects or scenes, merged and indistinguishable, resolve into focus with superimposed titles naming them, inviting a mental game. What is there in common between a fish, a winding river, and a snake? Between a woman with jewels, a city street, and a city lit up at night? Intuitive connections surge up that take much less time to realize than to explain. Tran lifted these from a book called Understanding Visual Metaphors that seems to beg its own question. Apparently these sets of images were shown to participants for 90 seconds, first without words, then with the text description as in the video. Participants had to pick the two that were most similar. Usually, of course, they did much better when the descriptions were shown. The verbal metaphors spark the brain, but for me it is the goofy drawings illustrating them that incite emergent meaning through their idiosyncratic plasticity. The relationship between a watering can, a woman with long hair, and a hanging plant is more evident in the sinuous line used to describe long locks and dangling vines. And whatever there is in common between a drowsy person, a “droopy” house, and a living room must be argued by the biomorphic drawings. These funny metaphors remind me of the thought process of schizophrenics, with their word plays and canny pattern recognition. Schizophrenics enjoy meaning at the expense of communication: they extricate figures where normal people perceive nothing and flatten into ground what normal people accept as figures. People with regular brain function can also enjoy the intuitive connection that precedes, grounds, language, in the game of metaphor. Thus the metaphors also illustrate the struggle between cliché and invention.
Human communication is a fall from grace. Tran delicately tenders Giambattista Vico’s fable of the origin of language, which came into being like a thread stretched between gods and humans. Vico claims that gesture arose before speech, as well as spoken word and visual image, and that it was their prototype. Thus “pointing with the index finger is the most rudimentary form of signing.” Closest to the source of meaning in Vico’s fable are the gods, who communicate in hieroglyphs but remain largely mute. Then come heroes, who speak in metaphors and are halfway between mute and articulate. Then humans, who speak in prose and are entirely articulate.
So then language evolved from gesture to speech, from poetry to prose. “Metaphors have their source ... in their long-lost mythic capacity, the sense of the ultimate unity of internal and external experience.” This is spoken over diagrams of the development of alphabets from expressive glyphs to regularized symbols. There is certainly something ancient about signs that seem to have come into contact with the thing they represent, something that presupposes a connection between world, body, and language. Maybe signs were born as mimetic and gradually became more symbolic. As the poet-philosopher Gongsun Long (Kong Souen-Long) noted centuries ago in his “Discourse on Pointing at Things”, language tends to peel the meaning away from its objects—or as the Zen saying goes, “Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” Vico’s fable of the birth of language invokes a time when words and deeds were inseparably linked; humans’ fall from grace, he suggests, is to have lost that intimate, material core of language.
While humans have become increasingly talkative, the gods have become mute. A strange thing about our species' language is that the more it carries out its function of precise description, of crowding the universe with the verbal counterpart for every atom of existence—the more it does this, the more we become aware that realms of experience continue to eclipse the bounds of language. Lately it seems that language, and perhaps particularly the English language, is being deployed for infernal purposes. Terms for the gods and sweet emotions are twisted to generate names of patent drugs. Phrases and ditties that populate each English-thinking unconsciousness are being copyrighted so that we have to pay a corporation to use them. And the language of empire continues to invert the meanings of peace (war), democracy (plutocracy), and security (apartheid), among others.
We might believe, with the maverick neuroscientist Julian Jaynes, that the voices of the gods heard by Odysseus and others are no more than communication from one brain chamber to the other. But I would prefer to pretend with Vico that it is the gods themselves that gave us the infinite ground from which we might tentatively pluck figures--words, images, sounds, meanings. And confronted with the visual cacophony of petrified, useless words we humans have created, bristling like a forest of swords, the gods have retreated.
Yet metaphor, for Vico, like the mimetic capacity, for Walter Benjamin, remains the trace of godly grace in human language. A metaphor is a vestige of the mimetic capacity. Metaphors often originate in the body, where we feel the connection between the fish, the winding river it swims in, and the snake that wiggles like the winding river. Despite our fall, we can imagine that an echo of language’s divine capacity remains in profane language—when the gods pluck the taut thread of language, humans feel it reverberate. Or to speak in Vico’s secular terms—as these three languages arose simultaneously, “for of course it was humans who imagined the gods,” Tran quotes dryly—even as humans segregated poetic language from the prosaic, we perfumed our quotidian with the occasional whiff of poetry. Poetry is waiting to pop out at us from the most prosaic description. Consider this exchange between two of my family members.
Jan: Last night I saw a coyote.
Bill: Are you sure it was a coyote? Their rear end is higher in the air than their front end.
Jan: This one was even.
The poetry straining to emerge from prosaic language often finds the best escape routes in translation. For the shift from one language to another reveals the uneasy, thrilling space where meanings lift off words and attach themselves to things, where metaphors are more truthful than prose. My VAPE instructions, translated from Italian, transform my mosquito-smitten chamber into a loose space waltzing with the open air.
Each VAPE MAT ‘E’ plate is effective for 8 to 10 hours without loosing its effectiveness. It kills common and Tiger mosquitoes present in the room and keep them away when in the open air (balconies – porches – etc.)
Alexia approaches its second subject, word blindness, indirectly. A fictional character, while researching this condition among people with brain damage who can perceive individual letters but not words, or vice versa, writes with increasing alarm that he is beginning to lose his own ability to read. He finds he prefers to have words spelled on the palm of his hand. Tran mimics word blindness for the viewer with sheets of typed text whose deteriorated characters are almost impossible to read, or papers that are sluiced with water, rinsing the words away. This combination calls to mind Helen Keller’s learning to read when her teacher, Anne Sullivan, held her hand under the pump and spelled WATER on her palm. Keller learned writing in the most mimetic way, by learning to associate the object of knowledge and the symbol for it, water, through touch. Children now who have trouble learning the alphabet are sometimes taught to read using letters and associated objects they can touch, smell, and eat.
So the mimetic source of language tends to surge up again when its symbolic quality is weakened. At such times we remember to what degree the mimetic is the ground of the symbolic. And—in what is a tender point for this work and this series on blindness that are so steeped in ideas—the mimetic seems finally to be what makes life worth living. In the last words of the video, Tran reads softly the modest researcher’s writing in his journal: “I am thankful that my ability to read music is not lost. For what would life be without music making?”
By blurring language’s figurative quality and focusing on the mimetic ground from which it arose, Alexia invites a reenchantment of language. Not a refusal of language—for after all, most people want to communicate with each other and do not envy the schizophrenic’s isolated inventiveness—but a readjustment that would move us a bit closer to those imagined gods.
Laura U. Marks is a scholar, theorist, and programmer of independent and experimental media arts. She works on experimental cinema, the media arts of the Arab world, Islamic genealogies of Western philosophy, and the embodied, process-based analysis of information culture. Her newest book is Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image (MIT Press, 2015); she is also the author of The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Duke, 2000), Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minnesota, 2002), and Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art ( MIT, 2010). She has curated programs of experimental media for festivals and art spaces worldwide, including the Robert Flaherty Seminar in 2015. She teaches in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, where she is Grant Strate University Professor.