Marks, Laura. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham: Duke University Press. 2000.
I’ve been going to way too many events this past week (Chicago International Film Festival, why you gotta do me like that?), but I’m back in the saddle! We’re taking a break from the media studies list for a little bit this week, and so this time I’m reviewing Laura Marks’s book about the haptic potentials of film as part of my list on posthuman embodiment. Honestly, this is one of the lists that intimidates me most, since it’s the most theory-heavy out of the three. Let’s see if I can make heads or tails out of Marks’s Deleuzian approach to cinema and cultural identity!
Films and fossils and fetishes, oh my! This book started out ROUGH for me, but by the end, I think I’ve arrived at a pretty cogent understanding of what’s going on. Bear with me as I attempt to reconstruct it. Marks is essentially pushing back against a semiotic definition of film as a fundamentally audiovisual medium. There is much more to cinematic expression, she says, than what is said and heard. To try to analyze film entirely semiotically — that is, to reduce all cinematic expression to language — is to adopt a view of cinema that is always already colonized by Western logocentrism and the modern emphasis on rationalization. Her project in this book is to instead take up films and videos made by filmmakers who fall outside of official histories as recorded and archived, people whose cultural histories are effaced from a Western capitalist view of history. Specifically, she takes up what she calls “intercultural” films/filmmakers, which she loosely defines as people existing in-between two cultures (implicitly, between a marginal culture and a dominant one). She talks most about first- and second-generation diasporic filmmakers, but it seems that anyone who feels not quite fully at home in the culture in which they live could be included.
Representing those cultural histories that have been effaced from the realm of the visible seems like something that cinema would really struggle to do, given that it is an audiovisual medium. Not necessarily so, claims Marks. It is precisely at the limits of the visual that these films become most important. She draws on Riegl to talk about haptic visuality, or the idea that vision need not be only a “distance sense,” but can also be experienced proximally. We see the texture of a fuzzy blanket, for example, in a pre-semiotic way at the same time that we see it semiotically. Vision becomes like a second sense of touch here, bringing us into a much closer bodily relationship with the image on screen than simply one of symbols and their encoded meanings. This manner of visuality “impresses” itself upon the film, quite literally, leaving a haptic presence that is received by the viewer as such. It seems relevant here that Marks avoids saying the camera “records” anything, but instead insists that it “bears witness to” objects and events. Thus, the film is acting as a kind of haptic intermediary to bring the viewer (feeler?) into a kind of physical contact with the object. (Sidebar: this reminds me of a discussion of Japanese film theorist Hasumi Shigehiko’s definition of form as the boundary at which the material rejects human intervention. Basically, Marks is working on the idea that intercultural film’s potential lies at the limits of visual representation, the limits of the medium. I owe this thought to my friend W and his dissertation chapter.)
Things get weird when she starts talking about this in terms of radioactive fossils. Best as I can tell, what she means by this is that the histories getting expressed like this aren’t ones that are going to appear as “national/cultural symbols” easily recognized and consumed by a Western gaze. Instead, it’s in the form of personal, private objects that these histories arise. As a result, their presence and meaning might not be easily legible by someone outside that culture except as “difference” existing as a hole within their dominant culture, exposing its contingency. Marks seems to reject the view that these objects work as fetishes to mystify the non-West, and instead insists on them as radioactive fossils that get dug up out of the past and contaminate Western capitalism’s fantasy of its own inevitability while at the same time remaining stubbornly illegible to capital’s commodifying gaze. By the end, Marks has made the argument that even the “sensuous literacy” needed to be aware of these non-semiotic visual signs (she focuses a lot on smell and taste of diasporic foods) is culturally encoded, with the West being characterized by ocularcentrism. She is very careful not to make a nostalgic gesture toward the “primitive” cultures that supposedly are more in touch with the non-visual, instead simply claiming that we cannot wholly inhabit another culture’s sensorium when we have been raised in the Western sense hierarchy. Like learning a second language, we can never be “sense natives” to the non-West, but can only acknowledge and value the difference that exists between us while trying nevertheless to communicate across that difference.
I’ve already gone on way too long (this always happens when I try to summarize theory), but briefly, I want to think about how this book can be useful to me when my project isn’t really about intercultural film. For me, Marks’s argument does three things. First, it works against the separation of the senses, which I think is an important step in re-thinking our (my) basic assumptions about how embodied experience works. My conception of embodied subjectivity is one that is more fluid and indeterminate than the modern conception of a neatly differentiated, rationalized, and well-regulated machine, and Marks’s work with neuropsychology does a neat job of breaking down those functionalist divisions in the sensorium. Second is the idea that the organization of the sensorium is culturally encoded. This gets back to some of the questions I had as I constructed this reading list of, “How does race/ethnicity continue to matter in posthumanity” and, “How can we talk about embodiment without fetishizing an idealized or abstracted body?” Approaching posthumanism from within an area studies framework has meant that I’m constantly wondering where Japan fits in to all this. Finally is the somewhat cybernetic move to postulate material objects as “prostheses for memory” (a handy turn of phrase from page 201 of her book). To implicate the material world in the cultural sensorium — specifically as a vehicle for cultural history — is a move that makes the material matter not only at the level of individual subjectivity, but cultural, as well. While Marks is most interested in material fetishes of “traditional” culture, we could also ask whether/how this might get played out even within modern capitalist societies. She gestures toward this in saying that mechanically reproducible commodities aren’t perfect replicas of each other since they take on wear and tear (that is, an individual history) once they are in the world, but she never really pursues this very far. Could we link it up with Steinberg’s ideas about character stickers creating affective and character bonds with the objects on which they’re placed? Does cultural memory get encoded in a backpack with an Astro Boy sticker on it? Does Marks’s argument matter for the individual who simply feels alienated in modernity, or is it really only for marginalized cultures in diaspora? Those are questions it will take me too long to answer here, especially as we’re already well past 1,000 words. Whoops. Guess I’ll have to work on my ability to be more concise when talking about theory as I continue this blog…