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Contents

List of illustrations vii


Preface xi
Acknowledgments ixx
Introduction 1
1

The Memory of Images 24

The Memory of Things JJ

The Memory of Touch 127

The Memory of the Senses 194

Conclusion: The Portable Sensorium 243


Notes 249
Bibliography 259
Filmography/Videography 275
Index 285

Preface

Of the many cinematic images to which I return throughout this


book, three are most insistent. One is the image of a woman filling
a canteen with water, a memory-image that Rea Tajiri creates of her
mother in the videotape History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991). Another is the movement of a camera caressing the sur
face of a still photograph of the artist dressed in her mother's sari,
in Shauna Beharry's Seeing Is Believing (1991). Finally, there is the
blurry, tactile image of the naked body of the artist's mother in Mona
Hatoum's Measures of Distance (1988), as a voice-over speaks of her
longing to press her faraway daughter close to her heart again. The
similarity of these images struck me only long after I was convinced
of the works' importance. In each of them the artist, a woman, at
tempts to recreate an image of her mother that has been erased or
blocked through some movement of cultural dislocation. In each,
she creates the new image from the memory of the sense of touch.
These multisensory images stayed with me as I wrote The Skin of
the Film, imparting an urgency to the hypothesis underlying this
writing: that many new works in film and video call upon memories
of the senses in order to represent the experiences of people living
in diaspora.
The title of this book, The Skin of the Film, offers a metaphor to
emphasize the way film signifies through its materiality, through a
contact between perceiver and object represented. It also suggests
the way vision itself can be tactile, as though one were touching a
film with one's eyes: I term this haptic visuality Finally, to think of
film as a skin acknowledges the effect of a work's circulation among
different audiences, all of which mark it with their presence. The
title is meant to suggest polemically that film (and video) may be

xii

thought of as impressionable and conductive, like skin. I mean this


both to apply to the material of film and videotape, as I argue in
<D chapter 3, and also to the institution of cinema and cinema-going.
< I want to emphasize the tactile and contagious quality of cinema
PLH as something we viewers brush up against like another body. The
words contact, contingent, and contagion all share the Latin root
contingere, "to have contact with; pollute; befall." The contingent
and contagious circumstances of intercultural cinema events effect
a transformation in its audience. As hybrids, the works challenge
the separateness of cultures and make visible the colonial and racist
power relations that seek to maintain this separation. The works
pollute viewers' ideas of cultural distinction, implicating each of
us in them. In addition, as well as bearing meanings to the audi
ence, these works receive impressions from the people who have
seen them. Intercultural cinema builds up these impressions like a
palimpsest and passes them on to other audiences. The very circula
tion of a film among different viewers is like a series of skin contacts
that leave mutual traces.
The intercultural works to which this book is devoted share con
cerns with other recent movements in film and video, and thus
many of the issues I discuss are relevant to other kinds of experi
mental work. For example, the limits of visuality are a question
for many film- and videomakers. Embodiment and sense percep
tion have become concerns for many artists, and also issues in the
reception, theory, and criticism of film. Haptic visuality shows up
in other cinematic genres, such as feminist film and video, experi
mental film and video that deals with perception, and experimental
sexual representation, and indeed I would suggest that it is a grow
ing trend among artists disaffected, for one reason or another, with
optical visuality. Feminist work is closely concerned with the rep
resentation of the senses and embodiment; the key works I analyze
are feminist as well as concerned with intercultural experience.
Commercial film and television share some interest in the sensu
ous qualities that experimental works evoke. However, given their
constraints (to put it kindly), commercial media are less likely to
dedicate themselves to such exploration. Experimental and inde
pendent works often develop strategies that later get taken up in,
or stolen by, mainstream media. Thus the sensory exploration that
is newly being taken up by experimental and noncommercial film

and video is beginning to show up in mainstream and commercial


media as well.
Despite these shared interests, my goal is not to develop a comprehensive theory of embodiment and sensory representation in
cinema. These are areas of growing critical interest, to which this
book is a contribution. All of us hold knowledge in our bodies
and memory in our senses. Experimental and mainstream narra
tive cinema are increasingly interested in representing these kinds
of knowledge and memory. But for most Western cinema, these
sources are supplements to the many other representational re
sources it has at its disposal. By contrast, intercultural cinema needs
to appeal to embodied knowledge and memory in the absence of
other resources. Intercultural cinema has quite specific reasons for
appealing to the knowledge of the senses, insofar as it aims to rep
resent configurations of sense perception different from those of
modern Euro-American societies, where optical visuality has been
accorded a unique supremacy. A related difference between inter
cultural cinema and other kinds of experimental and mainstream
cinema is that it stresses the social character of embodied experi
ence: the body is a source not just of individual but of cultural
memory. Consequently, my discussion of embodiment and sense
perception is not wholly applicable to works in the individualistic
tradition of avant-garde cinema. For the same reason, it cannot be
imported wholesale to describe commercial cinema. I believe and
hope that the theory of representation that emerges by the end of
this bookauratic, embodied, and mimeticwill be appropriate to
many kinds of cinema other than the intercultural works I describe
here. It is, however, these works that have raised the stakes of such
a theory of representation, and it is from them that it developed.
This book's interdisciplinary approach draws on sources within
and outside film theory, including postcolonial theory, art history,
anthropology, feminist theory, phenomenology, cultural geogra
phy, and cognitive science. My argument is especially informed
by theories of embodied spectatorship, which have a lineage in
phenomenology and feminist criticism. Anthropological research
in the embodiment of culture, and the translation of cultural ex
perience through travel, also supports my contentions. Within film
theory, the work of Gilles Deleuze is an important unifying element

xiii
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S
S

xiv

throughout the book, worth briefly discussing here. As cinema theo rists such as Kobena Mercer (1988), Trinh T. Minh-ha (1989, 1991),
<D and Hamid Naficy (1993) have demonstrated, intercultural cinema
*2 is fundamentally concerned with the production of new languages,
PM and the difficult task of defining intercultural cinema rests in its
emergent character. Deleuze and Guattari's contribution to theories
of "minor" literature, and Deleuze's expansion to cinema of his work
with Guattari, inform my discussion of this process of emergence in
chapter 2. As a new people comes into being, they argue, new cul
tural forms are produced. Deleuze's rigorous terminology allows me
to carefully examine how intercultural cinema experiments with the
representation of cultural history and memory. These works' inten
tional obliqueness indicates their opposition to dominant, univocal
histories. I expand and critique Deleuze's theory of cinema to ad
dress specifically the postcolonial situation of intercultural cinema.
Deleuze's theory of cinema relies on the work of Henri Bergson,
and I return to Bergson in later chapters in order to begin to under
stand the role of the senses in cinematic representation and spectatorship. I will suggest that Deleuze's theory of time-image cinema
permits a discussion of the multisensory quality of cinema, given
its basis in Bergson's theory that memory is embodied in the senses.
This exploration branches from Bergson to phenomenology, and in
turn to neurophysiology, in order to explain how sense memory is
embodied. In addition, the theory of haptic visuality branches from
Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between the haptic and the opti
cal, which they connect to "smooth space," or a space that enables
transformation, and "striated" or codified space. Perhaps my basic
debt to Deleuze, and to Guattari, is for their model of thinking as
an open system, always ready to make connections where they are
most productive, rather than most expected. My engagement with
the many films and videos, as well as the written works, that have
inspired me is an attempt to make such rhizomatic connections, to
let my words and my ideas be productively pulled off course.
Of course, what pulls this writing most forcefully is the films
and videos themselves. The works I examine in this book are them
selves works of theory, many explicitly so. They are not waiting to
have theory "done to" them; they are not illustrations of theory but
theoretical essays in their own right. The works themselves have
developed a sophisticated argument for how cinema can represent

embodied experience, and why it should do so. Indeed one reason XV


for writing a book about intercultural film and video is to catch up
verbally with arguments that these works have developed in audio- TI
visual (as well as verbal) form. As much as possible I engage with 2,
these films and videos as I engage with theoretical writings. I rely on CD
them to draw out and critique the ideas with which I am working.
Only rarely do I "critique" or even analyze them; instead I weave the
works into my argument as much as possible on the same level as
the written resources.
The reader will notice that many of the works I describe in this
book are quite wordy, what with the use of voice-over, dialogue, and
written text. This practice is partly drawn from the voice-over tra
dition in documentary, although the content of the voice-over tends
to be quite poetic or speculative. It is partly a reflection of the gen
eral, often deconstructive emphasis on language in experimental
films and videos of the period in question, the mid-1980s to the mid1990s. In addition, many works of intercultural cinema rely on spo
ken words to present cultural countermemories, through oral histo
ries, explanatory voice-overs, and dialogue. These works fall back
on words to say what they cannot show. Words suture the work to
gether in the absence of a stable, informative image or a linear story
line. Not only experimental works, but also dramatic narratives like
Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1992) often use dialogue pedagogically, to coax out the memories suggested in image and sound.
Voices, not only informative witnessing or testimony, but also casual
conversation, the texture of talk, and the simple presence of a clear
or incoherent voice in counterpoint to the image, activate cultural
memories. In some cases the words become more poetic, less an ex
planation of what cannot be imaged than an evocative layer of their
own, as in works by Shani Mootoo, Roula Haj-Ismail, and Seoungho
Cho. I find that many artists have been gradually shifting away from
this emphasis on language, as they grow impatient with the word
and begin to trust the sound and image to work on their own.
The Skin of the Film is devoted to sensory representation in inter
cultural cinema, but it does not undertake a detailed discussion of
the role of sound, important though it is. I acknowledge that I am
giving short shrift to the power of nonverbal sound to have mean
ing in ways that cannot be reduced to simple signification. Sound
can be uncanny, moving the listener in ways that cannot be easily

xvi

described or contained. Also, like the other senses, the use of hear
ing differs markedly from culture to culture. Characteristically, in
CD Western societies and urban spaces, sound is primarily an informa& tion medium (Rodaway 1994,113), and dialogue-centered narrative
CL. cinema reflects this use of sound. But sound can also be ambient
and textural: as I suggest briefly in chapter 3, sound too can be haptic. Music, talk, ambient sound, and silence are important to many
of these works and to the feeling of embodied experience they pro
duce. Yet sound in intercultural cinema is such a large topic that I
would not be able to discuss it effectively as a separate subject. It
has been provocatively theorized by several writers (for example,
Jafa 1992, Gabriel 1989, Masayesva 1995). Ultimately, the reason that
I tend to exclude sound from this discussion is that I am most inter
ested in meaning that lies outside the means of cinematic signifi
cation, namely, visual image and sound, altogether. I have chosen
to focus on the intriguing question of how film and video represent
the "unrepresentable" senses, such as touch, smell, and taste; and
of course sound plays a large part in the answer. Sound does come
into play insofar as it is experienced kinesthetically; for example,
the booming in the chest caused by deep bass tones, or the complex
effects of rhythm on the body. And ultimately the exile of the senses
of hearing and vision in my analysis is only temporary, for I will
return to argue that all the senses work together in the embodied
experience of cinema.
Cinema is not fundamentally verbal and thus does not carry out
lines of reasoning the way written theory does. Cinema exists on the
threshold of language, and language must bring it across in order to
have a conversation with it. As much as possible I attempt a kind
of writing that stays close to its object rather than analyzing it from
a distance, allowing the work in question to suggest the most ap
propriate response. This is especially the case with works such as
I discuss, whose politics and poetics are inextricable, and which
evoke a response that is simultaneously intellectual, emotional, and
visceral. As these film- and videomakers are developing cinematic
languages, so am I developing a critical and theoretical framework
to meet their work: my language, like theirs, is necessarily explora
tory and evocative.
In the case of emerging forms of expression such as those of inter
cultural cinema, it is important to be sensitive to the ways they

can convey meaning that do not find ready analysis in current film xvii
theory. The films and videos I discuss in this book have taught me
how to understand them (or to recognize the limits of my under^
standing), how to be attentive to their subtleties, silences, and sur- S,
prising visceral effects. Through engaging with these works, I have CD
found it necessary to understand how meaning occurs in the body,
and not only at the level of signs. The elements of an embodied re
sponse to cinema, the response in terms of touch, smell, rhythm,
and other bodily perceptions, have until recently been considered
"excessive" and not amenable to analysis. 1 1 will argue that they can
indeed be analyzedor, more properly, met halfway. Ultimately I
argue that our experience of cinema is mimetic, or an experience of
bodily similarity to the audiovisual images we take in. Cinema is not
merely a transmitter of signs; it bears witness to an object and trans
fers the presence of that object to viewers. The mimetic relationship
between viewer and cinema easily describes the relationship be
tween writing and cinema as well. Writing about these films and
videos requires imposing a form on them but also allowing them to
point beyond my words. I draw them into my arguments, but in the
end they slip beyond my use of them. They are critical works, but
the point of their criticism is to make room for something to emerge.

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