Sunday, February 03, 2008

Speculations on the Waiting Game

"There are photographers who encourage war because they produce literature.

"They seek out a Chinese who looks more Chinese than the others; in the end they find one. They make him adopt a typically Chinese pose and surround him with chinoiseries. What have they captured on film? One Chinaman? No ... the Idea of what is Chinese."

-- Sartre, "From One China to Another" (Eng. trans.)

Sartre mentions in his essay the movement from the eternal time of old China and the irreversible time of the new China; and in-between, a time of waiting. This is nothing other than the process of modernization, I think; and the philosopher's concern is with the poor under the processes of this modernization. Though we understandably tend to think of the West as the social force whose imperialistic ambitions have tyrannically tried to enforce linear, progressive time on the world--the same time, everywhere, regulated, rational--I think it is worth noting that for most of the history of 'the West,' its denizens by and large were never in on linear time. Time was cyclical (agricultural) for much of history, and indeed was characterized by its own sort of waiting--waiting first for Christ's Second Coming, and then secondly (telescopically) waiting for the promise of modernization's fruits. 'The Western Man' has been waiting for his promised dessert for some time now. The rational, linear time of progress had little to do with common human experience in the West, I think, until fairly recently. If the regions and peoples who comprise the non-West came later to the table, it is only because of the particularity of Western masters coercing their own first, and their more distant 'subjects' after.

It's this 'waiting' that signifies an important aspect of our mutual human condition in modernity. A pre-modern form of waiting would be seasonal, cyclical; it would "take as long as it needs to." Modern waiting is waiting for a point on the time table (a spot on the grid). Or it is waiting for a condition that is promised when a certain grid coordinate is reached--only that condition is constantly deferred, manipulated, dispersed.

The philosophical, political, and experiential significance of certain kinds of ennui in cinema rest upon this yearning for a promised condition (or an arrival at a given, conceivable, pre-arranged destination). The real, materially effective facts of this 'modernizing mission' are the substrate to, I think, at least some kinds of contemplative cinema. In Still Life we see a city slowly transforming before our very eyes: it is an open and obvious comment on social and historical change. But the meandering journeys of its two main characters, who are for most of the film just a few steps behind their comparatively more urban-progressive objects (in more modern contexts than their rural home region, I take it), exist as a kind of "waiting game," a slow pursuit of a goal, precisely because of the real sociohistorical facts of the surrounding society in which Jia has placed his story.

In another Still Life--Sohrab Shahid Saless' 1974 Iranian film--we see the remnants of a slightly older conception of time in the elderly railroad worker, whose isolation is punished by the demands of a society that has outpaced him.

In yet another Still Life--Harun Farocki's documentary on advertising photography--we see so much care placed into the appearance of the commodified object: this is the promise to the consumer, the perfect thing whose value you shall acquire when you pay money (i.e., the expanded duration of the transaction involves the earning, the buying, and the consumption). It's as though the purchase of goods is one of the grand narratives of waiting, one of the ultimate ends, justifications, for a specifically modern boredom. "The Idea of what is..."

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