first published in
A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue
- A Critical Reader
Spector Books,Leipzig, 2013.
keywords: subalternity, cultural traverse, orientalism, labour of translation, approaching Other-ness
Reflections on Mario Pfeifer’s A Formal Film
Ranjit Hoskote is a cultural theorist, curator and poet based in Bombay. He is the author of Vanishing Acts (Penguin, 2006), Die Ankunft der Vögel (Hanser, 2006), and I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded (Penguin Modern Classics, 2011). He curated India’s firstever national pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2011).
The Paradoxes of Encounter I feel strangely, and productively, like an outsider when I view Mario Pfeifer’s A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue (2010). An outsider to the situations he delineates, many of the cityscapes and interior spaces he explores and the exchanges that he stages, although the film is set entirely in India and I am, technically, an Indian. Structured through several modes of encounter, including the anthropological probe and the abstractionist rendition, this cinematic adventure marks a series of engagements that Pfeifer had with India, specifically the city of Bombay in this case. The artist interprets the city and country here at various levels: as a transitional society; as a lifeworld inhabited by individuals of diverse cultural assumptions, economic aspirations and social desires; and as a kaleidoscope of strikingly diverse social milieux and urban topographies.
Pfeifer’s approach provokes me into asking whose reality it is that is being represented. It is not by any means an ethnographic documentation that points to an actual and settled world of social relationships. Rather, its episodic structure segues from one set of makeshift dialogues and transient relationships to another. In the space of a few episodes, for instance, the film transits from a barber and his client in the claustral space of the barber’s shop, to a marshy scrubland set between shanties and apartment blocks, where two migrant workers speak to one another across the divides of region, language and ethnicity, to another claustral space, an ophthalmologist’s clinic, where a patient and a technician, brought together on the occasion of an eye test, attempt to reach out to one another through professional, mechanical, stilted conversation.
Even as recently as ten years ago, it seemed politically appropriate for Indians like myself—scholars, critics, theorists, artists, authors and curators—to deploy a “strategic essentialism”, in Gayatri Spivak’s vivid and memorable phrase, and claim an authority by birthright over any representation of India or Indians.1 Having had subalternity imposed upon us by the mechanisms of a colonial empire, so the argument went, we had allowed ourselves to be coerced into a subjection to the images and narratives that others (typically, the colonizers) constructed around and about us. Through the process of colonial pedagogy, we had become those images, assimilated those narratives; we had twisted our lived experience and our understanding of our own subjectivity to conform to them. And therefore it was important and necessary for us to recover the agency of interpretation over our own lifeworld from the master discourse of Orientalism, the controlling xenographic and stereotypical tropes of exoticism and the picturesque. Today, such a strategic essentialism discloses itself as a paradoxically restrictive rather than emancipatory device. It forces the present and future into an immutable asymmetry carried over from the past, discounting any form of viewing that would bypass the tropes of Orientalism, or re-calibrate the terms of transcultural, transregional encounter.
I cannot claim a monopoly over the lifeworld that Pfeifer explores, because it does not belong to me simply because I happen to be Indian. In actuality, I have no particular social contact and no particular cultural affinity with the kind of protagonists who people the chapters of Pfeifer’s cinematic novel. At the same time, this lifeworld does not belong entirely to the artist either; although it assumes the series of shapes that his perspective imparts to it for the duration of the film, it leaks away at the edges of his frames. India is elusive: like the barking of the dogs and the thrum of various machines that punctuate the soundtrack, it registers a palpable sensory presence in this film, yet remains curiously out of reach. Like the two birds on the branch in the Upanishadic parable, one eating a fruit, the other watching the first one eat, I view myself viewing Pfeifer’s cinematic account and framing it even as it frames its episodes. The artist’s methodology does not exclude me by generating a sense of alienation; on the contrary, it provokes me into a state of curiosity, acting by allusive indirection. I am reminded of the marvellous image that Claude Lévi-Strauss developed for the work and fate of the anthropologist, always traversing other cultures, finding himself a stranger everywhere, even in the mirror, with every analytical step he takes being placed in doubt by the next: “As he moves about within his mental and historical framework, man takes along with him all the positions he had already occupied, and all those he will occupy. He is everywhere at one and the same time; he is a crowd surging forward abreast, and constantly recapitulating the whole series of previous stages. For we live in several worlds, each truer than the one it encloses, and itself false in relation to the one which encompasses it.” 2
The Labour of Translation
No one speaks in the ice factory. Labour is the only form of communication. All the workers understand the grammar of movement: the way in which a block of ice is to be hacked, hewn or splintered; the way it is pulled out of its metal mould-casing, swung towards the delivery hatch, and propelled on its way. No translation into words is necessary, in the arctic neon ecology of the ice factory. Nor do we need an annotation to tell us that these workers will remain framed indefinitely within the syntax of the factory, even while the blocks of ice are transported away, into the warehouses and refrigerators of their ultimate users; there, these solidified avatars of water will be exchanged for money, their utility in monetary translation.
But what of the artist’s labour of translation, as he construes various relationships of thwarted desire and possible redemption in the limen of the cinematic image? The new housing colony confronts the marshland across which the newly tonsured labourer must walk. In a marginal zone, where rivalry over scarce resources often outweighs the imperatives of empathy and compassion, he asks for and receives water. Around the man who asks for water and the man who gives water, the express trains pass, conveying people, goods and materials from one node of the national economy to another: constant mobility, ceaseless translation, endless negotiation, passage from one state or being or scale of value to another.
A translation always produces new objects. It does not offer itself as an explanation for the originals it seems to be mapping. Nor does it simply reassemble the source experience, piece by piece, into the target experience. What is carried over is transformed radically in the act of conveyance. Pfeifer’s line diagrams of encounter—how the gazes shift, how the voices consort, how assurance is offered and accepted— embody the reserve quotient of the optimal, which rests beneath the chaos and violence of India’s social and political surface. They demarcate the ground of culture. For culture is not the residuum of tradition that is ossified in the form of custom; nor is it the canon that is legislated and protected by scholarship. Culture is what gets made in the intermediate, interstitial areas of interface between a lifeworld and its many translations.
What A Formal Film dramatizes most effectively is the complex relationship of the viewer as translator—whether the artist as first viewer or any number of viewers who follow—to the sensuous, discursive, refracted, represented presence of the Other, to a dramatic confrontation with alterity. Even as we view, we are constantly assailed by the question of how we shape what we view; of how we reshape ourselves in the light of what we are viewing; of how, in turn, our repositioning of ourselves results in a shift in our affective response to the film. As Ronald Inden observes in his benchmark critique of the various representations of Indian culture and society, Imagining India, from which this essay takes its title: “[T]he knowledge of the knower is not a disinterested mental representation of an external, natural reality. It is a construct that is always situated in a world apprehended through specific knowledges and motivated by practices in it. What is more, the process of knowing actively participates in producing and transforming the world that it constructs intellectually.” 3
In this context, Pfeifer’s sophisticated use of a subliminal Greek dramaturgy in the construction of the film as well as its disposition through the mise-en-scène of the exhibition is remarkable. Etymologically, the episode is not simply an instalment of a narrative as we now understand it, conditioned as we are by the usage of television programming; instead, it meant a parenthetical addition of commentary between two choric songs or, sometimes, an illuminating digression within an unfolding story. At any rate, the original temporality of the episode was not one of fluid continuity, but rather one of rupture and of rapture: the episode was a moment of startling experience breaking into the procedural routine of a story. With this insight in mind, we turn back to A Formal Film and see, not an attempt to encompass the vagaries of life in Bombay, but a crackling series of sensuously rich epiphanies: a head tonsured before us and rubbed down with antiseptic turmeric, as though being prepared for sacrifice; great bridges surging across monsoonal seas, linking an island-city to its tenuous moorings on the mainland; an ancient cave complex, once home to monks and anchorites, now backdrop to the efflorescence of friendship and love. We transit swiftly, without warning, from Devanagari to Roman scripts. Ekviradevi and Mahadevi glow briefly, divine symbols that manage an intriguing adjacency with the coolant pipes of the ice factory and the subdued blue glow of the laser eye surgery clinic. The two-thousandyear- old columns of the cave temple hold out the promise of eternity against the ebb and flow of the phenomenal world; the concrete columns of the sea bridge suggest the constancy of conflict with the unpredictable elements. The film is not a seamless series of parts building into a coherent and easily digestible whole, but rather enacts a trail of clues and symptoms in which science fiction and religion, theophany and apocalypse become entangled. Pfeifer wrestles, in this deeply meditative work, with questions that are vital and urgent to many of us, in an epoch of choices that take us beyond the territorial boundaries of our societies, the conceptual frameworks of our cultures: How can we embrace that which is different yet deeply attractive, without trying to shape it to our own taste; how can we refrain from violating the Other even as we take delight in it; how can we celebrate affinity without denying difference, when attending to the Other; how can we merge our horizons with those of the Other, and yet preserve the specificity of its predicaments; how can we retain self-doubt and yet situate the Other confidently in our experience of the world? From Plato’s great dialogue, The Symposium, we draw the compelling image of the self as one half of a whole, always pursuing its other, fleeing half, motivated by a desire for consummation, yet rewarded only with approximations, fleeting moments, images of consummation.4 If Mario Pfeifer’s A Formal Film is resonant with philosophical inquiry, it is also charged with a haunting, plangent erotics.
1 See Sara Danius, Stefan Jonsson and Gayatri C. Spivak, ‘An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’, in Boundary 2, Vol. 20 No. 2 (Duke University Press, Summer 1993), pp. 24–50.
2 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques trans. John and Doreen Weightman (New York: Modern Library, 1997), p. 504.
3 Ronald B. Inden, Imagining India (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 33.
4 See Plato, The Symposium, trans. Walter Hamilton (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1951).