Saturday, February 24, 2007

Modernisms of the Global South

From amongst today's left-wing comp lit of American academia, probably the two figures who've intrigued me and provided me with the most to chew on are Fredric Jameson and Franco Moretti, both of whom have written excellent work on cinema. For the benefit of those who know neither--

Jameson's The Geopolitical Aesthetic is a very highly recommended book which covers figures like Edward Yang and Aleksandr Sokurov, as well as Videodrome, The Parallax View, and 1980s Godard. I don't own Signatures of the Visible, and whenever I've looked at it in the library it doesn't capture my mind as urgently. Jameson is a Marxist famous for his theories about postmodernism (i.e., he is a theorist of the postmodern, not a "postmodernist" in any really meaningful sense of the word).

Moretti has at least two pieces in New Left Review on film, "Planet Hollywood" and "Markets of the Mind." Moretti is known for his rather brilliant, friendly antagonism to close reading and canonical study as the central tasks of literary studies--he thinks that if we are to say things about literature in general, we should not substitute the canon (a tiny fraction of a percent of all produced books) for the whole of literature/fiction--but neither would he endorse that we should go mad trying to expand the canon so that it becomes like the famous Borgesian map. Moretti says: "Reading ‘more’ is always a good thing, but not the solution [to certain problems of the study of world literature and literary history]." From the same article, "Conjectures on World Literature" (here):

The Western European novel: rule or exception?

Let me give you an example of the conjunction of distant reading and world literature. An example, not a model; and of course my example, based on the field I know (elsewhere, things may be very different). A few years ago, introducing Kojin Karatani’s Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, Fredric Jameson noticed that in the take-off of the modern Japanese novel, ‘the raw material of Japanese social experience and the abstract formal patterns of Western novel construction cannot always be welded together seamlessly’; and he referred in this respect to Masao Miyoshi’s Accomplices of Silence, and Meenakshi Mukherjee’s Realism and Reality (a study of the early Indian novel).
[8] And it’s true, these books return quite often to the complicated ‘problems’ (Mukherjee’s term) arising from the encounter of western form and Japanese or Indian reality.

Now, that the same configuration should occur in such different cultures as India and Japan—this was curious; and it became even more curious when I realized that Roberto Schwarz had independently discovered very much the same pattern in Brazil. So, eventually, I started using these pieces of evidence to reflect on the relationship between markets and forms; and then, without really knowing what I was doing, began to treat Jameson’s insight as if it were—one should always be cautious with these claims, but there is really no other way to say it—as if it were a law of literary evolution: in cultures that belong to the periphery of the literary system (which means: almost all cultures, inside and outside Europe), the modern novel first arises not as an autonomous development but as a compromise between a western formal influence (usually French or English) and local materials.

This first idea expanded into a little cluster of laws,
[9] and it was all very interesting, but . . . it was still just an idea; a conjecture that had to be tested, possibly on a large scale, and so I decided to follow the wave of diffusion of the modern novel (roughly: from 1750 to 1950) in the pages of literary history. Gasperetti and Goscilo on late eighteenth-century Eastern Europe; [10] Toschi and Martí-López on early nineteenth-century Southern Europe; [11] Franco and Sommer on mid-century Latin America; [12] Frieden on the Yiddish novels of the 1860s; [13] Moosa, Said and Allen on the Arabic novels of the 1870s; [14] Evin and Parla on the Turkish novels of the same years; [15] Anderson on the Filipino Noli Me Tangere, of 1887; Zhao and Wang on turn-of-the-century Qing fiction; [16] Obiechina, Irele and Quayson on West African novels between the 1920s and the 1950s [17] (plus of course Karatani, Miyoshi, Mukherjee, Even-Zohar and Schwarz). Four continents, two hundred years, over twenty independent critical studies, and they all agreed: when a culture starts moving towards the modern novel, it’s always as a compromise between foreign form and local materials. Jameson’s ‘law’ had passed the test—the first test, anyway. [18] [19] And actually more than that: it had completely reversed the received historical explanation of these matters: because if the compromise between the foreign and the local is so ubiquitous, then those independent paths that are usually taken to be the rule of the rise of the novel (the Spanish, the French, and especially the British case)—well, they’re not the rule at all, they’re the exception. They come first, yes, but they’re not at all typical. The ‘typical’ rise of the novel is Krasicki, Kemal, Rizal, Maran—not Defoe.

Likewise, it would be very soundly hypothesized, the proliferation of cinema as we know it, both exhibition and production, which covered the globe in practically a decade, developed among similar lines. Films are likely to have also been a "compromise," dialogues or struggles between centers and peripheries. U of Chicago doctoral candidate Joshua Yumibe has an excellent article on "vernacular modernism" (pace Hansen) and an ethnographic travel film made in the 1920s where the Ethiopian subjects are many steps ahead of their European recorders' preconceptions, and consequently, perhaps, a few steps ahead of the Europeans themselves.

"[Abyssinian Expedition] shows [the expedition members] gazing at the seemingly strange world they have entered and trying to preserve those images so that when they return, they show them to others. However, the peoples they were trying to capture, image, screen, were not as naive as "primitives" were thought to be. Modernity had beaten the expedition there, and the Abyssinians already understood, perhaps even more clearly than the expedition, the political economics of global representation, and not only did they understand it, but they attempted to assert themselves through its vernacular appeal. They sought to use the expeditions own goals for their own ends: to present themselves and their histories to the world thus fostering a counter discourse within the film." (pp. 25-26)

I think the first decades of cinema are full of great stories, and heretofore unearthed possibilities, like this.

(By the way, do readers know that in Latin America, a great many of the early pioneers in cinema were immigrants from other European countries, not Americas-born and not necessarily Spanish, either? A curious tendency. Scholar Ana M. Lopez has an excellent scholarly overview that posits this fact, which is supported by whatever else I've read of early Latin American cinema.)

And what interests me even more specifically amidst all of these cinematic navigations and compromises is the question of resistance as it plays out through aesthetics. I feel as though the strictly "formalist" or "aesthete" stance toward cinema as an art form lends itself to the appreciation of works from Europe, the US, and a few countries in East Asia above all else. Commitment to rigorous, "serious" films from Latin America, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, I think, tends to be characterized by other writers in terms of political commitment well before any kind of aesthetic or formal interest. Yet I know for certain that absolutely great "modernist," "avant-garde," films have been made in Cuba, Brazil, Senegal, India... Would others agree with me to say that we'd be more inclined to first describe someone who would say they are foremost into "Resnais, Pasolini, and Jost" as a person of taste and aesthetics (and also but secondarily, also leftist), and if another person stated, "Rocha, Gutíerrez Alea, and Sembene," we'd be more inclined to say they were a committed radical viewer (and also but secondarily, with good taste). All six of these filmmakers I've mentioned are (were) excellent and very committed left-wing filmmakers. But grouping them according to the geographical parameters of 'North/Western' and 'South/non-Western' I am unable to shake the conviction that artistry appears to trump activism in the former group (even if it's not true), and the reverse appears to happen in the latter. (This "appearance" refers to how these filmmakers are themselves discussed by Western film culture, of course.) Presumably I'd want to help demolish that loose but strong binary through my own research & writing ... if it even exists, which I'd need others to confirm or deny for me.

In (English-language) film criticism, there are voices out there (Chuck Stephens [is he living in Thailand currently, or what exactly?], Köln-based Möller, et al.) who are doing great things in the consideration of 'periphery' both historical and contemporary. But I have only the vaguest ideas of who the great film critics are outside of the US, Canada, and Western Europe, what the great questions (or the formulations of very common questions) are ...

So a few questions for readers ...

What are some good resources (by which I mean things like DVDs, sure, but also cultural centers, websites, publications, critics) for cinema of the Global South--by the citizens of these nations, particularly--and especially if not exclusively, the cinema that can be seen as taking a deliberately resistant approach to the notion of cinema as a profit machine, whether it appears to be deliberately "aesthetic/apolitical" or "polemical/anti-aesthetic"? "Der OM" himself, Olaf Möller, once wrote about the mistake of Western cinephilia, our unwillingness to engage with what other cultures feel about their own art works/products even as we take an interest in those cultures (these years, for cinema, that means of course Iran, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand...). I'm trying to take this chastisement to heart, and in doing so I want to better reconcile my own interests in rigorous cinema and political commitment to people ...


Noel Vera said...

Hi, Zach--Westerners didn't just pioneer Latin American cinemas; they did in the Philippines as well. Producer Harry Brown, cinematographer Charles Martin, and writer Edward Gross released The Life of Jose Rizal (5,000 feet long, 22 scenes) on August 23, 1912; Albert Yearsley beat them by a day with The Shooting of Dr. Jose Rizal (500 feet).

Your mention of Anderson's study of Noli is interesting, but when I clicked the link there's no mention of the novel in the footnotes. What did Anderson say, exactly?

As for resources, I don't know how much this will help, but this egroups on Rizal discusses his life and works and the two major novels (I much prefer the sequel to Noli, El Filibusterismo, which Gerardo de Leon, I thought, turned into a great film.. If you look around in that Rizal egroups website, you might even find a link to the online English translation of both Rizal novels...

Zach Campbell said...

Noel, thanks--by the way, I hope you drop by EL again soon because I hope to have some thoughts written on my first Lino Brocka film (I have a DVD of Mother, Sister, Daughter sitting right in front of me) ...

I was aware that Westerners pioneered a great deal of cinema in the colonized areas of the world. What intrigued me was that it wasn't necessarily Europeans from the colonizing nations who did it in Latin America, a fact that I don't yet know how to interpret. I won't have time today to track down my hard copy of the Lopez article, and when I'm not at work I don't have access to the scholarly database where it's located online, but I'll try to post an excerpt from Lopez.

Moretti does mention Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities) on Rizal in footnote #28: "Rizal’s solution, or lack thereof, is probably also related to his extraordinarily wide social spectrum (Noli Me Tangere, among other things, is the text that inspired Benedict Anderson to link the novel and the nation-state): in a nation with no independence, an ill-defined ruling class, no common language and hundreds of disparate characters, it’s hard to speak ‘for the whole’, and the narrator’s voice cracks under the effort."

There are several English-language Rizal texts on Project Gutenberg. I'm going to try to read Noli within the next month or two.

girish said...

Great and helpful post, Zach. Thank you.

I picked up Geopolitical Aesthetic a few years ago so I could read the chapter on Sokurov's Days of Eclipse soon after I'd seen it. But I've read nothing else in that book, or by Jameson. Or thanks for the suggestions.

Also (since you mentioned him re: Jameson), I'm curious about Yang's cinema. I've seen only Yi Yi, and noticed that superhappyfun has Brighter Summer Day (the long version) but haven't been able to see anything else by him. I'd like to scout around for his films and catch up with whatever I can find.

Noel Vera said...

Interesting. I'd like to learn more. Never thought people recognized Rizal outside of historian Austin Coates. Strangely enough, he's highly regarded by the Muslims.

Looking forward to your views on Brocka, negative or positive. I don't think that's his very best work, but I do like it, and I think it's a good introduction.

girish, did not like Yang's Mahjong--Tarantino on Quaaludes, was my impression. Afraid I saw only the short version of Brighter Summer Day myself. It's his best work, I think.

Jeff said...

Jonathan Rosenbaum (of course) has a nice piece about a Yang retrospective that quotes that Jameson book.

As for non-Western radicals, Hour of the Furnaces (1961?) is an epic and angrily political documentary from Argentina by Fernando Solanas. It not only updated Vertov's bold title graphics for a new generation of revolutionaries, but screenings of the film in Argentina became ad-hoc activist events. The audience was literally politicized on the spot (by some accounts, screenings were interrupted by the police or army). Of the three-parts, I think only the first exists outside of Argentina, and only in 16mm prints for exhibition. I guess that's not too helpful, but as Third Cinema goes, that film's a monster. Solanas was a true manifesto-type guy.

Jeff said...

oh yeah, i guess i've never posted before, so hello! i've been checking in periodically for the past few months, and always find something meaty to chew on. keep up the interesting work!

Zach Campbell said...

Girish, I've actually not seen Yi Yi (a dirty little secret), but I have seen The Terrorizer and A Brighter Summer Day, both of which are excellent. (I think I somewhat prefer Terrorizer.)

Noel, I think if anyone knows anything at all about Filipino literature (and probably not that many Americans do...), it's Rizal. Or Hagedorn. I inquired to a good Filipino-American friend of mine about Filipino literary/artistic modernism recently, and he basically shrugged. (As much as one can shrug though email.) His appreciation of modernism hews more towards Joyce & Kafka!

Jeff--I have desperately wanted to see Hour of the Furnaces for a few years now. I didn't know that prints of it were quite so scarce! Anyway, thanks for reading & commenting.

Jeff said...

I shouldn't have been so coy...I actually have a VHS of part 1 that looks terrible, but you can get the idea. I dubbed on the sly from a professor.

After some researching yesterday, I learned that Solanas is still active in Argentina, with a new film out in the past few years and even a run for political office. No info about the rights for HoF, but someone should get this film onto DVD...