The end of Representation

The end of Representation

I have taught a lot of great students in my (eight!) years in the anth department at Goldsmiths, and now finally it looks like my escape to full time graft in the Centre for Cultural Studies is going to be confirmed – yippideee (for better or worse – its gotta be easier than two half time jobs = 150%). Its also a time for somewhat wistful reflections, and, gotta say, things have been pretty flat for obvious reasons the past few weeks…

Anyway, fact is, I won’t be teaching the Representation course anymore, so thanks to Chris, Richard, Atticus, Lia, Carrie, Nick and Will who taught alongside. Thanks also to all those who wrote and made work – fantastic films and photography projects, multimedia and chaos performances – which were really the greatest part. So many good films – onwards and upwards. I cannot list the highlights here (too many), but I do play them over and over as recruitment devices at Open Days…

What I will do – and with heavy heart – is refer you to another piece of Imogen Bunting’s writing, done for this course. Part of the reason I am leaving anth is because of discussions with Imogen over many years (there is a New Cross band that sings ‘if we beat our heads against this brick wall for long enough eventually it will fall’ – nope, it did not). I had always hoped we could change the world etc etc, and I still do, but in anth its for others to do now… Imogen’s enthusiasm must be carried elsewhere.

I am posting (here) a piece that was written as what we call a ‘practice essay’ in Imogen’s third year at Goldsmiths. I had lectured on the films of Denis O’Rourke for nearly ten years and always asked a question something like ‘who spoke for who [or sometimes, who fucked who] in the Good Woman of Bangkok?’ (if you have seen the film that makes sense – Denis does not appear in the film, but its his voice, or is Aoi pulling his strings?…). Anyways. after this effort from Imogen I just had to retire the topic, even though there had been many good answers over the years. After this there was no chance of a better one being written.

There is a memorial for Imogen on 22 May in New York.


Thoughts on ‘The Good Woman of Bangkok’ or, A Critique of the (mis)appropriation of Brecht.

This essay was written as what we call a ‘practice essay’ in Imogen’s third year at Goldsmiths. I had lectured on the films of Denis O’Rourke for nearly ten years and always asked a question something like ‘who spoke for who (or who xxxx’d who) in the Good Woman of Bangkok?’. After this effort, I had to retire the topic as there was no chance of a better one being written. Imogen I miss you. Jx

Thoughts on ‘The Good Woman of Bangkok’ or, A Critique of the (mis)appropriation of Brecht.

Imogen Bunting

‘In any case the object is to fob us off with some kind of portable anguish – that’s to say anguish that can be detached from its cause, transferred in toto and lent to some other cause. The incidents proper to the play disappear like meat in a cunningly mixed sauce with a taste of its own.’

The ‘poetics of prostitution’ and the ‘ordeal of contact’ are the two faces of O’Rourke’s project of ‘documentary fiction’. His film, The Good Woman of Bangkok (TGWOB) is, he advises about, ‘prostitution as a metaphor for both capitalism and sexual relationships,’ or at least these are the flavours of his pseudo-Brechtian sauce. The meat, of the international division of labour, the economics of global capitalism , Australia in (post) colonial Asia, misogyny, imperialism, the list could go on…are, like O’Rourke’s implicit phallus, always awkwardly elsewhere. After all, in TGWOB, like all classic pornographic films, it is the phallus, (O’Rourke) that is the real star of the show. So powerful and omniscient that he need hardly appear in the film itself.

The confession, however much of an ‘ordeal’ it may be for the artist, can never be didactic. Implicit in the notion of confession is the process of absolution and in this is the very essence of Aristotlian catharsis which Brecht’s didactic theatre fought to challenge. This is not a negation of emotional response, but it is a strategic privileging of a critical response in order to recognise the possibility of change. It is only when the actions on stage/screen are alienatory, in order to re-present us to life, that we are able to glance a critical eye over highly emotive subjects. Above all, what we must avoid, according to Brecht, is a kind of emotional orgy in which the social and political consciousness of the audience is superficially purged by the cathartic experience of the performance.

Whilst O’Rourke’s film is undoubtedly ‘unsettling’, an ‘ordeal’, even sometimes a shock, it enabled the spectator to submit to its own grotesque and augmented pathos, rather than to examine, CRITICALLY and here Brecht would clarify, ‘and with practical consequences,’ the politics of prostitution as an industry, maintained by and because of global capital economics and neo-colonial politics. Whilst O’Rourke wants the audience to feel, ‘self-recognition and embarrassment’, the very issues he raises deserve/require more than for western film consumers (converted or otherwise) to wallow in the revelation of their own prudery.

What O’Rourke fails to address is the fact that for Aoi, prostitution is anything but metaphorical. Two distinct but interconnected points must be made here. Firstly, that the idiosyncrasy of Aoi’s experiences are lost in O’Rourke’s aestheticization of her. And secondly, that prostitution is portrayed by O’Rourke as, ‘a metaphor for capitalism’ rather than as a structural politico-economic neo-colonial form of exploitation. So, from macro to micro, O’Rourke tells us nothing much more than we (who?) already know about Australian/Asian sex-tourism. The ‘meat’ of Aoi’s story and of sex tourism as a particular example (not metaphor) of global capitalism are disguised by the sauce of the film itself.

This is not didactic.

O’Rourke writes how he wanted to, ‘resist the lure of earnest statements to the converted,’. Brecht writes,’ the new alienations are only designed to free socially-conditioned phenomena from that stamp of familiarity which protects them against our grasp today,’p192. There seems to be a discrepancy here. Whilst O’Rourke can be celebrated for not being moralising, prudish, dogmatic, evangelical per se, TGWOB seems at once contrived and titillating. It was grotesque and it was uncomfortable, and perhaps so it should be, but not merely in order that the filmmaker can become a martyr to his own cause. The emotions evoked by the socio-political issues of the film and their portrayal must be pushed through their own limit. As Spivak describes the subaltern studies collective trying to create a space of possibility from the impossibility of the subaltern voice. So, we might envisage a film about Thai prostitution which doesn’t make the audience feel before they think.

‘I am willing to talk, but you should not have doubts about my words. There is the image of the woman and there is her reality. Sometimes the two do not go well together!’ (a ‘character’ in Trinh T Minh Ha’s Surname Viet, Given name Nam)
The image of the woman (Aoi) and her words seemed to go very well together, as O’Rourke’s final edit showed a narrative of Aoi’s relationship with the camera changing through the course of the film. There seems to be a difference between the first time Aoi asked O’Rourke to stop filming, ‘I am eating. This has nothing to do with your film,’ and the second, when the camera really does stop (or at least that is what happens after the edit). Aoi’s confidence has grown, she is embellishing the power she sees she has over the outcome of O’Rourke’s work, and the audience begins to question the degrees of dramatisation, the ficitiousness, the staging, the manipulation. We are betrayed when we discover that the shots of Aoi on the bed which we see are the fifth take.

‘The difference between so-called documentary and fiction in their depiction of reality is the question of degrees of fictitiousness,’(Trinh T Minh Ha). The ‘staging’ of the ‘real’, challenges our boundaries of both. The fetish of authenticity is shaken by O’Rourke’s work in so much as the montage of interviews differ significantly from softly lit mirrored bathroom ‘soliliqueys’, to ‘casual’ and incredibly clipped dialogues. However, unlike the work of Trinh T Minh Ha in Surname Viet, Given name Nam, in which the close up shots and overlays of subtitles force the viewer to question both the objectifying lens and the overcoding of the interview, O’Rourke’s film seems to linger in the discomfort of confession, before, (and this is the critical point) the absolution.

The very visceral ontology of Aoi’s life is constantly subsumed by O’Rourke’s own, now fetishised, ‘ordeal’ of the filmic process. In the words of Spivak, ‘the other has been appropriated by assimilation’. O’Rourke aligns himself with Aoi, as he describes them as, ‘united in their shared experiences of helpless victimisation,’.
O’Rourke cites Brecht’s play The Good Person of Szechwan as his inspiration, ‘an ironic parable about the impossibility of living a good life in an imperfect world,’.
Interestingly enough however, there are significant differences between Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan and O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok. Whilst O’Rourke concludes his film with his own narration of Aoi’s statement, ‘it is my fate’, Brecht’s play concludes with the main character, Shen Te saying, ‘help’. This signifies a much wider separation in both (ideology?) and intent.

Whilst O’Rourke’s film is an ‘uncomfortable metaphor for the collective identity of the (post)-colonial Australian’ (Berry) precisely because the world is very much ‘imperfect’. Brecht’s play, as a manifestation of his experiments with didactic theatre (lehrstucke) is exactly about challenging the imperfection of the world. This is not idealistic so much as politically imperative. Brecht’s portrait of Shen Te is historically and poltically contextualised in order that the particular relations of power be made visible to the audience. From which point, more general critiques can be extrapolated and understood.

Whilst O’Rourke’s film is undoubtedly ‘unsettling’, an ‘ordeal’, even sometimes a shock, it enabled the spectator to submit to its own grotesque and augmented pathos, rather than to examine, CRITICALLY and here Brecht would clarify, ‘and with practical consequences,’ the politics of prostitution as an industry, maintained by and because of global capital economics and neo-colonial politics. Whilst O’Rourke wants the audience to feel, ‘self-recognition and embarrassment’, the very issues he raises deserve/require more than for western film consumers (converted or otherwise) to wallow in the revelation of their own prudery.

O’Rourke is right, we are all implicated in some way, and that is precisely why an analysis of the structures of this sort of exploitation that can be extrapolated from the ethnographic account are what is called for…

It would have been poetic perhaps to conclude this with some choice words of Aoi, extrapolated from O’Rourke’s text. However, this would be somewhat tokenist if not to say besides the point. The good guy’s don’t always get the last word, the meek shall not inherit the earth, and it is not their ‘fate’ so much as it is the workings of an exploitative global economy and imperialist politics. The subaltern here was certainly unable to speak, but perhaps creating that impossible space was never the point. If however, O’Rourke’s point was to challenge the preconceptions and petit-bourgeois moralising smugness of western documentary viewers, the method might more creatively and usefully been a more didactic, yes, Brechtian film, rather than the shock tactics of the theatre of O’Rourke’s confession.

It is tempting then, to end with Spivak, ‘The subaltern cannot speak. Representation has not withered away,’ but perhaps that sounds too fateful, too impossible.
Instead we return to the texts of the literary misappropriated, Brecht himself. Whilst Chris Berry suggests that we should, ‘rekindle the discomfort’, of the film in order to create something in the spaces it opens up, I prefer to call on Brecht who recognises the imperative of forging a narrative which is both ‘disconcerting but fruitful’, this is not the confessions of a white, middle class, male film maker and his ‘emotional imbroglio’. But it is the beginning of an experimentation with the possibility that, ‘there is such a thing as pleasurable learning, cheerful and militant learning,’ p73.

…and of course all of this is cheerfully inconclusive…

Imogen Bunting – for Anthropology, Representation and Contemporary Media. lect. J.Hutnyk, Dept Anthro, Goldsmiths 2001

"I am a socialist, I will infect you".

I remember someone at a Rally Against Capitalism saying something like this to gales of laughter. Its a quote that, well, remains amusing here under the hand of Hugo Chavez, who is currently visiting London and offering some of us cheap heating oil.

The shivers are not in the spines of those looking for a warm hearth however. Ha ha ha.

That said, I do want to note that I personally am not someone who wants to be identified as a socialist – my terminal condition is much much worse than that! Look out, I will try to sell you little red books, just like the Panthers did nearly 40 Years ago.

Lal Salaam.

Corporate Stones Pop Crack

Keith Richards is apparently up and about after his fall from a coconut tree, though The Sun reported yesterday that he’d had the hole in his skull enlarged. That’s his skull, not his skull ring…

Anyway, since he is apparently gonna be fine, now might be the time to sink the boot in a bit for his tolerance of that dandy Mick and the long long run of corporate rip-off that the Stones have perpetrated upon us for all these years with their tours sponsored by car manufacturing outfits and mega ticket prices hardly mitigated by the occasional ‘intimate venue’ gig ‘for the fans’ cos we love to do that sort of thing routine. Who am I kidding if I ever thought – shock, remember – that rock and roll had EVER been oppositional. The lyrics fo street fightin man were just that – lyrics. Never a call to arms, not while our fab five were kitted out in those awful fedoras and outfits that owe more to curtain fabric than to fashion…

So, though I remain a fan and Exile on Main Street is the best album ever and so on, I sure am glad you are up for more luxury holidays maaaan, must be so much satisfaction in knowing that riches buy the kind of medical technology that can rebuild you that fast.

Ahhh, and when did the Stones involvement with corporate culture first kick off? – I think we have it here – I thank Ted Swedenburg for this link to the Stones 1964 ADVERTISMENT jingle for KELLOGS Rice Crispies. We are talking breakfast cereals – surreal – snap snap – pop music – and the ring of the cash registers… and more…

Stop and stare:

Sunaina Marr Maira: Desis in the House

Sunaina Marr Maira: Desis in the House: “Desis in the House
Indian American Youth Culture in New York City

Sunaina Marr Maira

‘Desis in the House is what cultural studies ought to be. Sunaina Maira gets deep inside of the social and cultural worlds of second generation Indian Americans and illuminates the links between the local and global, history and nostalgia, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Maira’s perceptive insights into the complex and fluid styles, music, dances, desires and dreams of desi youth will force us all to think about cultural identities in new ways.’
– Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America

She sports a nose-ring and duppata (a scarf worn by South Asian women) along with the latest fashion in slinky club wear; he’s decked out in Tommy gear. Their moves on the crowded dance floor, blending Indian film dance with break-dancing, attract no particular attention. They are just two of the hundreds of hip young people who flock to the desi (i.e., South Asian) party scene that flourishes in the Big Apple.

New York City, long the destination for immigrants and migrants, today is home to the largest Indian American population in the United States. Coming of age in a city remarkable for its diversity and cultural innovation, Indian American and other South Asian youth draw on their ethnic traditions and the city’s resources to create a vibrant subculture. Some of the city’s hottest clubs host regular bhangra parties, weekly events where young South Asians congregate to dance to music that mixes rap beats with Hindi film music, bhangra (North Indian and Pakistani in origin), reggae, techno, and other popular styles. Many of these young people also are active in community and campus organizations that stage performances of “ethnic cultures.”
In this book Sunaina Maira explores the world of second-generation Indian American youth to learn how they manage the contradictions of gender roles and sexuality, how they handle their “model minority” status and expectations for class mobility in a society that still racializes everyone in terms of black or white. Maira’s deft analysis illuminates the ways in which these young people bridge ethnic authenticity and American “cool.”


Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 (pdf).

“Sunaina Maira guides us into the bog of nostalgia where beleaguered immigrants of color forge a memory that is at odds with their homeland, but also with the dreams of their home boys and home girls. An honest ethnography gives us ample evidence that nostalgia is a feint. Rather than leave us with this conclusion alone, Maira posits something called critical nostalgia, and you’ll find out what that is when you read this important book.”—Vijay Prashad, author of Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity”

I remember / je me souviens

I remember / je me souviens: “Wednesday, March 29, 2006
I remember wondering why Cinderella’s slipper didn’t change back at midnight. I still do.

posted by william 10:15 PM”

net critique � Blog Archive � Blog about endangered Delhi settlement

net critique � Blog Archive � Blog about endangered Delhi settlement: “Monica Narula of the new media centre Sarai in Delhi has written the following call about the eviction of a settlement in Delhi where one of Sarai�s media labs (called Cybermohalla) is based:
Dear friends,
Over last 35 years we have seen many an internal dislocation of habitations and life worlds within the city of Delhi. This is something that started with high intensity from the early 70s. Now the process of this internal dislocation has become intense and harder.
Nangla Maachi is a 30 year old habitation. It was made by its inhabitants over this period. It is along the river bank and next to Pragati Maidan (Progress Grounds). It has now become valuable real estate as it is prime land for new urban development fairly close to the centre of the city.
The process of its dislocation has, therefore, begun.
In Nangla Maachi Sarai/Ankur had set up a cybermohalla lab two years ago. Many practitioners have been through the lab.
Over these two years, diaries have been written by the lab practitioners and many of the entries have been about life in Nangla. These diary entries are also a way to stubbornly remind us all that Nangla was made into a lively, heterogeneous habitation by countless people�s efforts, and needs to be remembered for this creative act of making and finding ways of living together.
A recent entry reads – �Packing up and leaving from Nangla has begun.� The diary is now a record of a contested terrain of the violence of dislocation.
We have set up a blog in both English and Hindi, to share with a wider public the various diary entries of the practitioners. Do visit it, read it, circulate it, share it and link it further. Your comments and stories will be very valuable.
English language blog:”