States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies

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University of Minnesota Press (2000)




excerpt concerns the work of Daniel Reeves, Edin Velez and Philip Mallory Jones

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Demobilizations: Anesthetics, Dreams, and Nightmares

However, verbal language and spoken testimonies do not hold exclusive rights to war traumas and the aftermath of war as it spreads through psyches and bodies, realigning them and disturbing them, reverberating into the future after the bombs have been dropped. Sounds and image traces do not retreat, but repeat in dreams and nightmares. They burrow deep, tunneling into the psyche, history, and archives. Wars leak into other languages besides speech; the image itself and its montage with other images speak. As Felman and Laub observe, "The breakage of the verse enacts the breakage of the world." (66)

There are many tapes and films about the aftermath of wars that draft alternative, nonrealist-based formal practices to demobilize the aerial attacks of the war machine. If the war machine has swept the image up into the air with sophisticated technology, these works skyjack various high technologies, such as video image processing, computer effects, multichannel installations, and optical printing, to excise the image from its speed-driven compulsion during war.

The archival and imagined visual remains of war are slowed down, reduced, shredded, separated, multiplied in an attempt to resuscitate the dulled senses and to establish new hybrid spaces between maker, the racialized others of war who had been figured as enemies, and a reimagined, restored geographic terrain.

Surveying the poetics of documentary, Michael Renov has uncovered a "repression of the formal or expressive domain." (67) He demonstrates, however, that the expressive and aesthetic potential of documentary has emerged in various historical works ranging from Man with a Movie Camera (1929) to Unsere Afrikareise (1967). However, these works mining the forgotten spaces after nations enact cease-fires do not only invoke expressive, aesthetic strategies to summon emotional responses and desires in spectators-a textual strategy associated with the avant-garde. In these works, formal interventions decompose the realist image to assault the racialized process of "othering" that produces enemies. These technical strategies and complex montages, then, chip and pound and excavate at the process of racialization, of othering, of hatred itself, jarring and jabbing into its dichotomies, its binaries.

Historically, demobilizations of war imagery to recapture the senses from the immobilizations of the shock of war and combat have emerged almost exclusively in postwar independent productions, as aftershocks reverberating within the filmic text itself. However, it is important not to overstate the case for this sort of work, as this strategy of immersion in the senses is exceptional and unusual rather than typical. Although many of these works have employed archival footage as visual verification of the horrors of wars, their editing and argumentation reposition the images themselves as inadequate explanations for immoral acts like the Nazis' genocide of Jews or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Often described as works with high levels of formal interventions into a realist-bound documentary language infusing war with emotion and subjectivity, these works in fact move beyond form and emotion by opening up the catastrophic event, the event beyond comprehension, to the senses of smell, touch, taste, and pain.

For example, in Listen to Britain (1942), perhaps one of the most arresting and understated propaganda films of World War II, the sound of tanks and bombs is drowned out by classical music played by soldiers. In each shot, the war does not overwhelm daily life, but becomes part of it: a man carries a helmet to work, soldiers play classical music or sing in music halls, tanks enter a shot of children playing. The excesses of war-the loud noises of bombs, the militarizations of daily life-are drowned out by singing and concerts, signaling the fortitude of the British to carry on. The sound track and visual compositions do not simply displace the war, they provide a new space to hear and see outside the war.

In Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955), the much-celebrated intercutting between black-and-white archival images of the Nazi concentration camps and color tracking shots of the postwar serene, parklike camps functions similarly, jarring each image out of spectacle. Night and Fog relentlessly annihilates the overdrawn spectacle of the camps and the Holocaust through a voice-over that reclaims imagination and resistance for those incarcerated in the camps and slaughtered. The voice-over supplies details and proximity rather than generalization or statistics, and this detail revives the sense of the internees: fingernails scratched on ceilings, hunger, fear, dolls and toys fabricated out of scraps.

Hiroshima-Nagasaki: August 1945 (Erik Barnouw, Barbara Van Dyke, Paul Ronder, and Akira Iwasaki, 1970) also recasts archival footage in order to move from the overwhelming scale of war into the body itself. Constructed from a Japanese cameraman's footage, which the U.S. government had suppressed for nearly twenty-five years-the film is structured as a series of visual contradictions between bombed-out buildings and the victims of the bomb: sequences of the destruction of buildings are followed by close-up shots of the victims in a pas de deux that moves the spectator from outside to inside, from space to bodies. (68)

Hiroshima-Nagasaki opens with a Japanese woman who survived the H-bombs describing her experience over shots of destroyed buildings, a landscape of near total destruction. The film thus begins not with the bomb, but with a survivor, marking her interior landscape as one that continues in spite of the annihilation of the exterior landscape. An atonal, avant-garde music track also propels this movement away from the visual spectacle of the images into a psychic space that reclaims the horror of the images.

Like Night and Fog, Hiroshima-Nagasaki emphasizes details that chart the senses, in an attempt to reposition the dropping of the bomb from the ground: images of permanent shadow inscribed into the wood, burned victims attended to in hospitals, kimono burns on a woman' body, hair coming out. The voice-over describes the sensory deprivation of the bombing: no one knew what had happened; fifty thousand people died; in the center, there was no sound. The film builds toward the body in pain; the voice-over describes how radiation sickness overtook the victims. Near the end of the film, the voice-over underscores the film's structure of contradictions between landscapes and people: "Vegetation grew wildly, stimulated by atomic radiation. . . . as people died, the city was covered in flowers." Like Night and Fog, in which the images of emaciated bodies bulldozed into piles is one of the last shots of the film, Hiroshima-Nagasaki also inverts the horror by ending with a shot of a nuclear explosion. In each piece, the most horrifying spectacle concludes the film, rather than opens it, an argumentative strategy in which the senses outlined earlier in each film infuse the image and consequently defuse its spectacle by positioning spectators within a new rubric of sensory attachment.

Susan Buck-Morss, in her breathtaking article "Aesthetics and Anesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork Essay Reconsidered," demonstrates how modernity has recruited visuality to blunt all senses, to anesthetize the body from all that is social and, eventually, political, aestheticizing war and anesthetizing people in a movement that is ultimately fascistic. War, the shock of battle, the factory system, narcotizing drugs, anesthesia for surgery all "numb the organism" and "repress memory."(69) Buck-Morss says, "Benjamin claimed this battlefield experience of shock has become the norm in modern life." The multiple injuries to the human senses "paralyze the imagination." (70) To resist what she terms a cultural domestication, Buck-Morss invokes aesthetics to redeem the political from fascism:

[Benjamin] is demanding of art a task far more difficult-that is, to undo the alienation of the corporeal sensorium, to restore the instinctual power of the human bodily senses for the sake of humanity's self-preservation, and to do this, not by avoiding new technologies, but by passing through them. (71)

Two tapes from the early 1980s, refusing the numbing shocks of civil war, embed this restoration of the bodily senses within their formal design as political action against the shock and numbing of war: Meta Mayan (Edin Velez, 1981), on the civil war in Guatemala, and Smothering Dreams (Daniel Reeves, 1981), on collective hallucinations propelled from war ideologies and psychic/physical wounds from Vietnam. These works use new technologies like video processing to redeem the senses, but also, beyond Buck-Morss, to reclaim racialized fragmentation of representations of war. The tapes create spaces outside, beyond, and after combat: Meta Mayan reclaims the landscape of Guatemala and the public communities of Indians, whereas Smothering Dreams recovers the psychic space of war indoctrination and combat wounds resulting from violent war ideologies and iconographies from a mass-mediated culture that inculcates violence and then genders it as masculinist.

Each tape initiates a withdrawal from war through performing reconstructive surgery on war images with high-end video imaging technologies. Here, the use of special effects technology to process the image (slow motion, reducing the images to letter-boxed shots like snapshots) removes the image from its indexical relationship to referents, where it stands in for Guatemalan insurgents or U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and reconnects it like tissue to its nerve endings of sensory perceptions of sound, smell, texture, touch. In each of these pieces, the image is not simply manipulated or processed, as an archival document or as a visual fact; instead, the image is resuscitated as living tissue, an organism through which the senses beyond sight are summoned. In this way, these tapes do not merely revive the subjectivity of war; rather, they attempt to transport the spectator to, or envelop the spectator within, a world not defined by logocentrism, geopolitics, governments, nations, causality, a world that the spectator must move through by means of the senses. In Buck-Morss's words, these tapes "undo the alienation" of war, untying it from its mooring in logocentrism, nationalism, and spectacle, letting it float in more multifarious, complex waters, where a range of senses can seep in, loosening up the narcotizing of the image.

Meta Mayan reclaims the senses from the dulling effects of the news, figured here as words that float above the senses and landscapes of Guatemala's civil war. A haunting image of a woman staring directly into the camera, slowed down, opens the tape, a visual dare and insistence of everyday life. Steam fills the frame, then fire, then close-ups of faces in a market, signifying an initiation into sensations. A news report in voice-over describes how Spain has broken off diplomatic relations with Guatemala after leftist peasants barricaded the Spanish embassy. The report concludes with the information that Amnesty International claims two thousand Guatemalans were killed in the last year, accompanied by the image of the same woman from the earlier scene walking, suggesting the fierce continuation of life despite death and torture, despite a civil war, despite developed countries' news media figuring an entire nation as guerrillas.

Meta Mayan structurally decomposes objective news reports through the senses, filling the discursive space of war with the sensory, beyond words, experiences of the sounds of daily life. Images of a religious procession, men dressed in purple robes, swaying in and out of the frame, nearly floating, signify immersion in a world of textures and sounds. The tape deploys close-ups to resuscitate the senses, to move between the nerve synapses: in the marketplace, shots of cooking food, animals, clothes, hair, fabric, and the sound of voices not translated; outside a church, a woman swings incense, its smoke clouding over the screen. The tape moves between the marketplace and religious ceremonies, submerging the camera in the small moments of faces, cooking, walking in these public, collective events.

Composed of religious songs, drums, voices, and rainstorms, the multilayered sound track creates an open aural space that envelops spectators. With the extreme close-ups of people in the village and the rituals of everyday life, Meta Mayan does much more than insist on the transcendent daily lives of the Guatemalan people; it wraps spectators into its visual and aural folds, urging a way to stand beside, as Trinh T. Minh-ha explains it, through the senses.72 A 360-degree pan of the mountains and valleys contrasts with the extreme close-ups of the tape, a pulling away but also an integration _of the two landscapes, one of people, one of land. The pan is restorative _as well: it visually maps an integration of the senses as one that both surrounds us from the outside and fills us from the inside in a double movement. The woman staring and walking, in slow motion, is the last shot of the tape, paralleling the circular pan with a circular structure emblematic of the integrative process of the tape. Meta Mayan salvages the senses that news images destroy through a reclamation of the sensory modalities of the image. In this tape, the war is displaced by the reciprocal landscapes of daily life and land, and the descriptive attributes of the image are displaced by senses.

"The senses maintain an uncivilized and uncivilizable trace, a core of resistance to cultural domestication," pronounces Susan Buck-Morss. (73) Smothering Dreams works through the relationships among masculinity, war, and combat wounds by anatomizing archival images, memory traces, and reconstructions to resist the domestication of Vietnam in postwar discourse and iconographies. (74) Smothering Dreams restages the entire war in Vietnam as a working through of political, psychic, visual, and physical wounds, blurring their distinctions to explain war.

On one level, the tape performs an inquiry into an ambush of Daniel Reeves's platoon by Vietnamese in 1969, in which he was brutally wounded, by asking how male culture that sanctions fighting for young boys develops into war between nations, a movement from self as socially constructed to wars between nations as projections of distorted selves. In voice-over, Reeves explains the issue propelling the film's visual explorations: "One of the biggest turning points in my life was when I was wounded and survived an ambush." In many ways, Reeves's aesthetic strategy is not simply to restage the ambush to explore the reason he was wounded, but to use the concept of ambush-quick surprise, overtaking others, juxtapositions-as an artistic strategy.
Smothering Dreams ambushes images of Vietnam, both restaged memories and archival shots and narrative films, to unravel how they detour pain into male fantasies. Smothering Dreams, then, exorcises these images from their masculinist frameworks in order for Reeves to reclaim his physical pain as a combat veteran. It is through the wound that Reeves moves toward a recognition of how boyhood, violence, and nationalist wars conspire to destroy the senses. The tape tries to re-create the psychic space of combat pain for the spectator as well, not in the sense of having the spectator identify with Reeves, but in the sense of having the senses rewired to see war as destructive of the human psyche in a collective sense, a movement from the outside images of battle to the inside image-scapes of subjectivity. Near the end of the tape, Reeves clarifies this strategy: "I don't think the average person has any idea of what combat is like."

But Smothering Dreams also, like Meta Mayan, moves beyond the descriptive into the senses, materializing the dreams and nightmares of Vietnam, combat, and boyhood in images that can be not only repossessed, but reprocessed as traces of pain and distortion. The title of the tape suggests that the layering of these dreams of Hollywood action pictures, boyhood fights, masculinity constructs, and Vietnam combat smothers the self, suffocating it and cutting it off from the senses that would reject war. Reeves says in voice-over, "Running from one movie dream to another . . . repeating a hand-me-down war story."

The tape performs a pathology report on the war in Vietnam as it is reconfigured and restaged repeatedly within Reeves, in both the physical and psychoanalytic articulations: it tears into the image constructions around Vietnam to decipher how violence is aestheticized by the U.S. government and by Hollywood, and burrows into Reeves's own psychic registers to reconnect his dreams and nightmares back to his senses. In Smothering Dreams, testimony winds back into the senses, juxtaposing different temporal planes. The images trace what has happened in boyhood and during the war, while the sound track compels the process of healing from all the wounds by expressing them through both written language and visual language, an excavation of the past to mobilize it and alter it in the present.

The disjunctive editing in Smothering Dreams refuses to elaborate a narrative of causality by explaining war as a result of masculinist associations of power with violence; instead, its editing strategy follows the "uncivilizable trace" that circulates between history and psychic formations, between Hollywood iconographies of masculinity typified in westerns or war movies and Reeves's memories of his own childhood playing war.

Combining different historical eras and fantasies about the war in Vietnam, ranging from Reeves's boyhood play at his Catholic school to archival images of bomber planes dropping napalm, to a reconstruction of the battle in Vietnam where Reeves was wounded, to shots of military toys, Smothering Dreams's editing breaks open a space where causality is displaced by the visual and aural senses. Images of shattering glass punctuate the tape, a visual condensation of the psychic process of the tape itself, which shatters the smothering and numbing of war through shards of images that cut into emotional paralysis.

Another strategy to reconnect the senses to the image involves restaging and then inventing new zones between cultures as a space where the senses can be freed from their nationalized narcotization. By carving out new sensory landscapes within the works themselves, these works function as rituals of resistance. These works explore the problematic of how to visualize what cannot be represented-the senses, touch, feeling, taste, trauma-in order to fabricate an entirely different territory. On this aesthetic strategy that dislodges rather than confirms, Trinh T. Minh-ha has argued, "Strategies of displacement defy the world of compartmentalization and the system of dependence it engenders, while filling the shifting space with a passion named wonder." (75) For Trinh, displacement involves continual invention of multiple struggles, transversals, new subjectivities. (76)

This project of creating new spaces and landscapes outside of nations and between national borders resists geography; images and sounds displace locations and nations. The attempt here is to move the spectator into the senses but also beyond an individual subjectivity inscribed only within emotion and nation. These works fashion a collective subjectivity. Homi K. Bhabha has described this in-between space of displacement as a "third space": "The production of meaning requires that these two places be mobilized in the passage through a Third Space, which represents both the general conditions of language and the specific implication of the utterance in a performative and institutional strategy of which it cannot 'in itself' be conscious." (77) For Bhabha, hybridity articulates translation and negotiation between cultures. In film and video, this production of a third space is not simply a mixture of styles in the postmodern sense; its project exceeds aesthetic recombinations. It emerges as a newly forged and constantly developing political space where the traces of past wars mix with the contemporary moment to release new subjectivities and places for the senses. Hybridity, then, intensifies the senses because it is not linked exclusively to imagery or nation.

For example, Philip Mallory Jones's three-channel video installation Dreamkeeper (1989) displaces the guerrilla war in Angola, Jones's own apartment in Baltimore, and the drumming and dancing of Africans in a village from their identification as stereotypical markers of armed struggle, artistic solitude, and tribal ritual through the sound of African drumming infusing the entire sound track. The traditional drumming, a form of communication between distanced African tribes, provides an aural metaphor for the political process of the tape, which attempts to visualize communication between tribes on different continents of the black diaspora by supplanting a language of words with a less nationalized language of sound and image.

The installation exemplifies the construction of a third space as that which defies representation. It recaptures the senses by manufacturing a new place for spectators to occupy that goes beyond the images themselves: each of these image categories moves across each of the three screens, literally jumping out of the televisual space and the confines of the composition. The tape begins with a close-up of an Angolan villager, a soldier walking, and the moon on each screen. In other sequences of the tape, images of drummers, dancers, soldiers, and a bare apartment repeat on each of the three screens, signaling how the visual can traverse multiple locations, defying geography. In other sequences, images move across each of the three monitors, playing with the location of the image itself.

In one section, for instance, soccer players kick the ball across all three screens, rejecting the space between monitors as a separation or a border. In another section, a figure of a Westernized black man, presumably the artist Jones, walks across all three screens as he moves through the private empty spaces of his apartment. This movement across all three monitors is paralleled throughout the installation, with dancers in silhouette, villagers, and children on a teeter-totter.

By processing all the images, changing their colors and their density and even their position on each of the three monitors, Dreamkeeper disconnects images from geographic and nationalized notations. In this installation, high technology in the form of advanced video imaging, multiple monitors, and African drumming heard through advanced audio systems demobilizes images and wars. It recuperates the senses in those in-between spaces that separate images, sound, monitors, compositions, and countries as effective, productive hallucinations of a new world forged beyond nationalism, beyond spectacle, beyond realism.

Posted by permission of University of Minnesota Press and Patricia Zimmermann, this is an excerpt from States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies (University of Minnesota Press, 2000) © 2000 by Regents of the University of Minnesota.