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The Line and the Letter
by Holly Willis
Originally commissioned and published by Video Data bank (vdb.org) for the collection The Tran, T. Kim-Trang Blindness Series, 2009.
The Line and the Letter: Tran T. Kim-Trang’s Video EssaysHolly Willis
Lines of text float against a milky white background, the words hovering just beyond perception and remaining images of text rather than words to be read. The images in turn embody a handful of ideas – about language, metaphor, communication and the ability or inability to see – all of which constitute the 10-minute video by Tran T. Kim-Trang called Alexia (2000), a term that designates “word blindness,” a condition that afflicts stroke victims and prevents them from perceiving individual letters. Rather than explaining the condition, Alexia instead enacts it visually, aurally, textually and discursively. The video becomes in all its formal attributes a means for exploring a nexus of ideas without culminating in a polemic or concise conclusion.
One of the eight videos that constitute Tran’s The Blindness Series, Alexia joins a much larger body of work dubbed “essayistic,” a term used since the early days of cinema to designate films and videos that follow in the footsteps of the written essay and the work of writers such as Montaigne, who eschewed the careful arrangement of a convincing argument in favor of loosely structured explorations. The cinematic essay boasts a long and venerable history, with some of the most respected filmmakers tackling the genre and crafting extraordinary films. The essay film has also served as the focus for a long list of critical articles describing and analyzing the form, including Hans Richter’s 1940 piece, “The Film Essay: A New Form of Documentary Film” and Alexandre Astruc’s “The Birth of the New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo” from 1948, which introduces the “camera pen” that has inspired countless makers. The video essay, while enjoying a shorter lifespan, nevertheless also claims a significant segment of overall video production and concomitant critical attention, especially from 1980 onward with the eruption of autobiographical video pieces offering insight into notions of identity and subjectivity.
Discussions of the essayistic in film and video often center on comparisons between written essays and filmed or taped essays, finding alignments especially in regard to form – essays, both on paper and in media, meander from topic to topic; they essai, or try something; they often deploy the voice-over of the maker; and they are personal, subjective, partial and poetic. Critics often compare the process of writing, a solitary act in which the writer uses a pen to translate the meandering of ideas onto paper, to the process of essayistic composition using a camera, where the tools of inscription become almost interchangeable. Despite attempts to codify the form, however, it remains slippery, resisting easy classification. Indeed, Michael Renov, in his essay “History and/as Autobiography: The Essayistic in Film and Video,” highlights the fact that essayistic works tend to “resist generic classification,” instead hovering between the binaries that distinguish narrative and documentary, as well as traditional documentary filmmaking and avant-garde production.
In “The Essay as Form,” written between 1954 and 1958, Theodor Adorno passionately defends the essay, dismissing the traditional German perspective that condemned the form’s hybridity and inviting readers instead to consider its particular merits. These merits include the fact that the essay is not concerned with universals, but instead cheerfully explores the particular and the local. “Its concepts are not derived from a first principle, nor do they fill out to become ultimate principles,” writes Adorno, acknowledging directly that the resistance to “ultimate principles” may prohibit the essay’s acceptance within the realm of a more stringently defined philosophical tradition. “It starts not with Adam and Eve but with what it wants to talk about,” he writes. “It says what occurs to it in that context and stops when it feels finished rather than when there is nothing to say.” Adorno goes on to note that for this reason, the essay “is classified as a trivial endeavor.”
Within this logic, Tran’s videos are trivial. They are not interested in first principles or grandiose claims. Instead, they function through the unlikely juxtaposition of topics and ideas, which bustle against each other in a rich mix of political questioning.
Tran’s videos are also not typical of many essayistic films and videos that rely on first person perspective to provide coherence. In his essay “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film,” Phillip Lopate writes, “It could be said that all first-person narration tends toward the essay, in the sense that, as soon as an ‘I’ begins to define his or her position in and view of the world, the potential for essayistic discourse comes into play.” He goes on to note that “first-person narration in film is complicated by the disjunction between the subjective voice on the sound track and the third-person, material objectivity that the camera tends to bestow on whatever it photographs, like it or not.”
Tran’s work, however, eschews the “I” of Lopate’s essayistic discourse, replacing it with a politicized “we” that emerges and becomes magnified through Tran’s lens. In some cases, the voices of others are heard, as in Oculars (1997), in which people were invited to phone in anonymous accounts of fears and fantasies related to surveillance and these voices are heard throughout the tape; in other cases, Tran’s tapes become collective in that the concerns she raises are inextricably social, connected to issues of race, gender and sexuality. Thus, while they are certainly Tran’s, once uttered within the essay structure of the tapes, the issues and questions presume a broader platform and focus, one that is grounded and specific, but bigger than the singular. Further, Tran is far less concerned with personal observation and how subjective musings conjure, describe or interpret the world, and more interested in a specifically critical essayistic form. While the idiosyncrasies that characterize the personal are certainly present, they reflect less on individual subjectivity and more on a politicized questioning, and the polemical stance of the documentary opens to the possibilities of creative reading. And indeed, Tran also provides a breadth of interpretive possibility, thereby placing an unusual degree of trust in – and commitment to – her viewer that is rare, even in the essay film.
In this sense, Tran’s work points to a shift that took place in the mid-1980s and early 1990s as a generation of artists schooled in post-structuralist theory transposed critical thinking and writing into media, bringing along a fascination with text as artifact or material. To be sure, the use of text in art was not new, nor was it new to film and video. Many students, for example, would have encountered discussions of text in Conceptual art from the 1960s forward, and students of film theory would be familiar with the discussion of narrative and the politics of identification, and the ways in which text onscreen might disrupt the ceaseless suturing of story. Peter Wollen, for example, claims in a 1981 essay in October that “language is the component of film which both threatens to regulate the spectator, assigned a place within the symbolic order, and also offers the hope of liberation from the closed world of identification and the lure of the image." He goes on to explain how text can function disruptively: “A film is like a book whose pages are extended in time, to be inscribed with graphic signs. The project of a counter-language, then, is one which implies a transformation of the symbolic order of these graphic inscriptions, neither a refusal of ‘writing’ and a relapse into a realm of the image as such, nor an acceptance of the canonical codes of the dominant narrative cinema, the cinematic law, so to speak.” Wollen’s cinematic collaborations with Laura Mulvey attempted to find this middle ground, between the domination of the psychoanalytic realm of the symbolic and the chaos of the imaginary. Again, however, this model of expression falls short of explaining Tran’s mode, and her particular deployment of the essayistic in that it remains rooted in a resistance to cinematic narrative, which Tran avoids easily, in part through video and its history of medium-specific resistance.
Indeed, Tran’s use of text boasts a specific function in the context of academia, at once anchoring the notion of the essay to its heritage on paper and, by extension, its weighty significance within academia while also touting the potential opacity of the textual. Text onscreen in video gradually became rampant, sometimes polemical as in the early video Television Delivers People (1973) by Richard Serra, sometimes poetic as in the short visual poems such as Darling Child (1993) by Tom Kalin, and sometimes specifically intrigued by language and signification as in the video art of Gary Hill, whose Incidence of Catastrophe (1987), based on Maurice Blanchot’s “Thomas the Obscure,” features flowing, full-screen images of text on paper.
Tran has discussed her fascination with critical writing generally and its impact on the series. She notes that even before she began the first video, Alethia, in the early 1990s, she already had the eight-part structure in mind. “I was keen on structuring the series like chapters in a book,” she says in an interview with Abraham Ferrer. Further, the series was inspired by a show co-curated by Jacques Derrida in 1990 titled “Memories of the Blind,” and it concludes with Epilogue, a video that took shape around the death of Derrida in 2004. Derrida here designates not only high theory and post-structuralist thought, but also someone fascinated by the role of video and the word-as-image onscreen and the possibilities it opens up for signification. In his essay “Videor,” he writes “[Video art] is a ‘new’ visual art that ... appears to be one of the most discursive, and not only with discourses but also with textual forms that are heterogeneous among themselves, whether literary or not (Blanchot, the Gospels, for example), that seem to be altogether at odds with such a working, with what one thought ‘video’ art had to be.”
For Tran, the fascination with text is evident in the numerous examples of words on screen – Alethia, Ocularis and Ekleipsis all boast artfully rendered snippets of text, for example, and there are images of fingers passing across the bumps of Braille and in Epilogue, text is rendered in a font based on Derrida’s handwriting. Presented as an aesthetic as well as a communicative object, the text in these instances loses its easy transparency, becoming something to look at rather than to look through. Its meaning is doubled, enacting what D.N. Rodowick dubs the figural in his book, Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy After New Media. Among the several definitions Rodowick offers of the figural, he writes, “In a larger sense, the figural defines a semiotic regime where the ontological distinction between linguistic and plastic representations breaks down.” He continues, “This opposition, which has been the philosophical foundation of aesthetics since the eighteenth century, is explicitly challenged by the new electronic, televisual and digital media.”
Tran’s work and its continual return to the materiality of text refuses to accept the invisibility and transparency of the textual. The opposition noted by Rodowick, between the linguistic and the plastic, breaks down in her work, with the result that The Blindness Series bridges the philosophical and the poetic. And this is the territory claimed by Adorno for the essay. He argues that the essay, both in spite of and because of its “impurity,” demands respect, further noting that the apparent transparency and objectivity of a universalizing philosophy should be questioned. He writes, “The academic guild accepts as philosophy only what is clothed in the dignity of the universal and the enduring – and today perhaps the originary. It gets involved with particular cultural artifacts only to the extent to which they can be used to exemplify universal categories, and to the extent to which the particular becomes transparent when seen in terms of them.” For Tran, the particular never becomes transparent in order to exemplify the universal. Instead, like the text that flows from letter to line and back again, the particular comes to the fore to be studied and in turn, the video essay as essay brings the very structures of expression into relief. In this way, The Blindness Series gives us a new critical practice, one that is less Astruc’s camera stylo and its presentation of the maker and instead the politicized, deterritorialized and frequently collective form of enunciation that conjoins word and image, letter and line, and in the process, reimagines the essay in the terms proffered by Adorno 50 years ago.
Holly Willis is a Research Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, where she also serves as the Chair of the Media Arts + Practice Division. She is a co-founder of Filmmaker Magazine, dedicated to independent film, and was the editor of RES magazine and co-curator of RESFEST for several years. She writes frequently about experimental film, video and new media.
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.