… Perhaps the most extreme case of film as simulacrum is the nature film. The creature under view stands for the life of its entire species in the undisturbed depths of nature, while it has in fact been trapped, manipulated, surrounded by equipment, and finally edited into a replica of what it might have been and done, but didn’t, or at least not in that order. Its image has been trapped, possessed, and, by our imagination, fertilised into a whole new organism of meaning. Film and photographic images are altered, recomposed, and transformed in many ways and yet still retain the sharpness of form and detail, the whiff of actuality, that allows us to continue in our happy pleasures of mistaking it for reality.
… In the past decade critics have been considering the nature of the post-Enlightenment self as it is visible in poetry and autobiography as well as other forms of expressivity. This self is a coherent, unified, self-aware agency, constructed both by the Christian discourses on the disembodied nature of the spirit and by the Cartesian ego that knows itself by its own act of thought. This thinking self is the product of a historically male, for the most part leisured, European bourgeoisie free from the bodily necessities of self-support and the deprivations of hunger or poverty. Thus, it has enjoyed the luxury of an imagined transcendence, mind detached from body and unencumbered by the particularities of circumstance, geography, and time.
… Writing about Victor Segalen’s travels in Tahiti and China, emblematic of a moment in Western culture, James Clifford noted that by the end of his life Segalen had lost faith “in the possibility of sharing other lives, of erotically possessing the other, of shedding a given identity.” Erotic possession. Penetration. Knowing the other. Intellectual and carnal knowledge. This universe of eroticism is suffused with power: taking possession, doing something to someone else. The (male) European subjectivity in search of the boundaries of itself.
My own experience of eroticism is closer to Eros. It is replete with difference, full of Yes. In touching I am touched, suffused by touch, and in the mutual movement toward each other I come to a place of no boundaries. I experience my self as the other; there is no possession in it.
In the movement of desire, in knowing, can there be the mutual experience of no boundaries? What can we know? For what is the pursuit of knowing? To know the other without knowing the self, without opening the self to being known, is truly an act of taking possession. The colonial legacy of lands and peoples taken possession of has fortified the boundaries — the heavily policed borders of the nation-state. These borders separate tribal and peasant villages, canonically the destination of anthropological study, from the postmodern urban subcultures that produce the film and written texts that cultural studies critically analyse.
In the section of Minima Moralia titled “Keeping One’s Distance,” Adorno cautioned that critical “distance is not a safety-zone, but a field of tension,” and this tension cannot be relaxed by a posture of relativity. Relativism, that “modesty” that is content to stay within whatever boundaries have been set for it, cannot, indeed, experience its own limits, cannot truly acknowledge all the many distances that attend knowing. Relativism ramifies boundaries by holding truths within them, while only the stance that clasps untruth to itself can “lead to the threshold of truth in its concrete awareness of the conditionality of all human knowledge.”
If all knowledge, all sedimented concept of human history, is conditioned, then that very history is our only guide, say the cultural critics, looking back to the immediate intellectual past and finding there, under the mask of universal and transcendent truth, the self-interested, (over)-determined, and limited point of view of someone on their way to becoming us. The development toward progress appears unidirectional. This is, of course, a crippling view. It condemns us to regard ourselves as the perpetual apex of history, and it makes it very hard to imagine difference in a nonhierarchical formation.
… We could with some justification regard anthropology as one arm of the incorporation into Western discourse of all that lay without it, as the intellectual act of subduing under logocentric oppositions the thought worlds of humanity, universalising our own pattern and putting all modes of existence, being, and doing into an ordered place within our own. We could say that anthropology has no alternative, since we apprehend the world with the intellectual tools of our cultural selves. But there is always room for new information. Is there the possibility in this meeting with the eternally constituted other of unsettling this discourse of incorporation?
… what happens when the film has in fact ridden out, seized, and possessed the other and brought it back to us to regard in the comfort of our living rooms (since most documentary film funding stands or falls on TV sales)? Does cinema, with its love of disguised repetition, render us incapable of broader acquaintance? Do the conventions of cinematic narrativity doom us to perceive the other only as stereotype of disowned aspects of ourselves? Does the projection of the cinematic aspect inscribe us with our own projected shadows in the mistaken form of the other?
A broadened acquaintance has more appeal than a trapped and possessed other. In this the phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas … may bring the crisis of representation, which is simultaneously the crisis of anthropology, to a moment of greater clarity. Levinas bases the encounter of self with other in a priority of the other. The self is in fact evoked and called forth by the other, whose alterity is thus not a subordinate term in an A, not-A logic but preexists in a semiotic field that constitutes subjectivity, variably, within it.
Under these epistemological conditions of alterity neither subject nor object can be fixed in a final totalising analysis. Alterity exceeds the capacity of the subject to grasp it in its entirety. Seizure and possession are transformed into awareness, excess, and movement. Conversation becomes the model for knowing in place of penetration or dismemberment.
… This is a philosophical orientation to social living that keeps us always in relationship, an orientation broaching on the contingent and permeable and quite far removed from the “egotistical sublime,” as Keats referred to the autonomous Cartesian self expressed in Wordsworth’s poetry.