Contributed by Marcus Yee
Umbrella terms and their (in)commensurables
What does one say when one speaks of the ‘traumatic histories of Southeast Asia’?
Bringing a panoply disparate historical events into focus, the Asian Film Archive’s programme Poetic Justice: Personalising Politics on Screen wagered the politics of commensuration. These historical atrocities in Southeast Asia included the Thammasat University massacre in Thailand (1976), the disappearance of Indonesian poet-activist Wiji Thukul (1998), the Lynas rare earth plant controversy in Malaysia (2012), the 13 May Incident and the detention of political activists in Singapore in the 1950s. In River of Exploding Durians (2014) by Edmund Yeo, three political events in the region were abbreviated through the device of classroom skits, namely, the killing of Liliosa Hilao in the Philippines (1973), the exploitation of sex workers with the Karayuki-san during the early 20th century, on top of the Thammasat University massacre.
In the umbra of the sign—traumatic histories of Southeast Asia— historical and contextual particularities are gather together, kept safe and dry, insulated from the tempest of political weather, such that one only sees the fronds of an upside-down bloom from afar. The umbrella finds its architectural ingenuity as movable shelter, wherewith the mass availability of the technology in the 18th century meant that the lone umbrella could traverse bravely under grey metropolitan skies, joining a stream of hundred others. The ubiquity of the umbrella therefore revealed new territories for maneouvre, by which traumatic histories, unspeakable and unspoken in their respective nation-states, could circulate gingerly in the worst of domestic political Unwetter. River of Exploding Durians for instance, is banned in Malaysia. In Singapore, under the sheltered safety of the umbrella term, Yeo’s feature film could find relief from the political tempest in his home country.
The newfound condition of transnational mobility, brought about by architectonics of the umbrella term, is dependent on the conundrum of the equivalence, only to be glimpsed upon when the sign is examined on its own terms. Here, I am evoking a specific cultural history of the object: the umbrella as the quintessential accessory for gentlemen in polite society in 18th century England. The umbrella term, like the gregarious gentleman, has a careless capaciousness in his ineluctable tendency to speak-for. It is a tendency observable in the classroom skits of traumatic histories in River of Exploding Durians, which were appraised in many commentaries of the film. Even as the skits achieved its pedagogical intention for its audiences, both within the film and in actuality, I question the seemingly arbitrary selection of these historical events that were represented without any basis for comparison. Apart from the innocence of students, one telling scene was a projection of archival footage from the Thammasat University massacre and the complicit spectatorship to state brutality was crudely reproduced. As though Southeast Asia, itself a relatively unproblematised umbrella term, is a bottomless pot to soup artistic content out from—the shrewd gentility behind the umbrella term rears its ugly head.
An examination into the politics of commensurability does not deny the possibility of comparison. The charting of historical complexity, to draw connections and trace affinities, demands the de-singularisation of these events. As the recent appropriation of the umbrella in the 2014 Hong Kong protests revealed, the mass-available security afforded by the technology in pro-democratic resistance should not be devalued. The conundrum however, lies in the costs that belie the equalising force of abstraction. Andreas Huyssen calls this the “globalisation paradox”, where transnational media circuit both enable experiences of catastrophe to find new collectivities, as they risk the erasure of historical specificity, with a now universalised and universalising model casting a long shadow over such historical events. With images of trauma now flowing and mounting with exhilarating acceleration along the transnational film-festival circuits, becomes the temporalities of memory, mourning, and reconciliation, delinked from historical specificity.
Just what is it that makes political art so
Another provocative commensuration found itself in the Benjaminian problematic of the “aestheticisation of politics”. Viewing Poetic Justice, one would be sorely disappointed by the films if one expected sloganeering, demonstrations, clashes with the police, or other conventional forms representing political dissent. Instead, audiences were steeped into the rabbit-hole dream-logic in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By The Time It Gets Dark (2016) or the lumbering restlessness of Wiji Thukul in Yosep Anggi Noen’s Solo, Solitude (2016). Despite historical referents, all the films make no claim towards the fidelity of the record, self-consciously steering away from conventional documentary truth in favour of fictionalising techniques. The mantle of authenticity and meaning is understood in relation to affective truth. The perennial problem however, is a commensurable criterion, if any in the first place, between politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics. Or, following the film programme’s phrasing, whether fiction filmmaking could ‘do justice’ to difficult histories. On such a commensuration, Rancière answers that there is none.
The following paradox shapes the contemporary understanding of historical trauma’s images: it potentially offers invaluable knowledge of the event and, at the same time, it fails to do justice to the human magnitude of the traumatic event. What fulcrums this paradox is the deadlock opposition between the real and the artifice of historical narrative. The postmodern relativist resorts to already foreclosed arguments: all history is already fiction. To quote Rancière: “[The relationship between history and fiction] has nothing whatsoever to do with a thesis on the reality or unreality of things.” Writing history and writing stories are entangled in aesthetics models that render the presentation of facts and forms to be intelligible, constructing a shared sensorium.
Eden Junjung’s short film Flowers in the Wall (2016) provides luminous illustration of slippages in the logic of historical fact. The haunting narrative follows Dyah Sujirah coming to terms with the disappearance of her husband, Wiji Thukul, who is suspected to be a victim of political abduction during the anti-Suharto demonstration in Jakarta between 1996 and 1997. At the police office, Sujirah was unable to apply for her husband’s death certificate since the bureaucratic facts surrounding an absent death—the time and the place of death—elude her. Proper mourning is made impossible without the closure of death. Insofar that the real is already distorted and concealed by opaque sleights of state power, the logic of historical facts would not hold water without the logic of fiction.
With strict yardsticks of political evaluation, most of the films, with their protracted takes, modest mise-en-scène, would fail. By The Time It Gets Dark could readily be denounced as a fanciful excursion into metacinema, just as Green Zeng’s The Return (2015) could be brushed off for the lack of political bite. This said, the exercise of political evaluation is underpinned by regimes of identifying “political art”. As one director puts it without irony: there are two kinds of political films that exist: those made to be censored and the rest. Steering away from the false dichotomy in political evaluation, Rancière’s distribution of the sensible—the delimitation of visible from invisible, of sound from noise, of spaces and times shared by a community— offers an escape route to think about the political art without commensuration. “The dream of a suitable political art”, Rancière posits, “is in fact the dream of disrupting the relationship between the visible, the say-able, and the thinkable without having to use the terms of a message as a vehicle”. Crucial here is to frame ‘political art’ as an oxymoron, one that is held together, fragilely, by a tension “between the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning.”
Running with vermins of feeling
Nowhere in the films is the interplay of political legibility clearer than on the scene of affect. More specifically, on the scene of minor affects, following Sianne Ngai’s inventory of ugly feelings. Those that are ambient, ambiguous, Bartlebyan, and less powerful than classical political emotions, or less morally beatific than states like melancholia. Ugly feelings provide a vocabulary to understand the films on two terms: first, their self-conscious turn from political didacticism and second, the common stylistic language of long cuts, languid camera movements and suspended narratives. Anger, the political affect par excellence, was conspicuously absent given the lack of climatic action in the films. In its place were rats and possums of irritation, indecision, confusion, even non-feelings like indifference and apathy. What “personalising politics” entails is the reconfiguration of sensory presences vis-à-vis the political imaginary. Emergent is an alien sensorium, sticky and stultifying, one that sits uncomfortably with other newsworthy images under the umbrella term of the “traumatic histories of Southeast Asia”.
In the frame of feeling, Suwichakornpong’s By The Time Its Get Dark is a map of emotional withdrawal, tracing the contours of indifference around the Thammasat University massacre of 1976, an atrocity that saw brutality against student protestors by state forces and far-right paramilitaries. The historical event remains siloed in the culture of impunity in Thailand. Suwichakornpong’s filmic contours of the event are neither cartographical nor Cartesian, but are rather loops, detours and longueurs— closer to the Siamese conception of space anchored in the moral order of things, rather than the geophysical. The primacy of oral rather than the visual medium in these spatial practices of song, poetry or correspondence finds affinity to the film’s unhinging visuality. For one, the filmmaker made the firm decision to exclude any use of archival footage or images from the massacre, opting for reenactments and ethnographic interviews instead.
The film’s withdrawal from visuality is also accompanied by its emotional recession. Affective lack is pronounced with the filmmaker-character Ann, who interviews the former student leader Taew. Sparse with shot/countershot scenes of the interview process, the camera is instead framed on Ann, lending focus to the filmmaker’s negotiation with her own intervention into traumatic history. A prosthesis, her memory of the Thammasat University massacre is one that “circulates publicly, that are not organically based, but is nonetheless experienced with one’s own body—by means of a wide range of cultural technologies.” Prosthetic memory is not an automatic fit that slots itself into “one’s personal archive of experience”. Rather, it is the very artificiality and foreignness of the prosthesis that render her act of remembering dubious at best. This was forcefully articulated in a breakfast scene between Ann and Taew. As a disjuncture to the chalet’s morning tranquil, the caretaker surmised: “You should give it to her to write. She’s a writer. And it’s about her life. So it’s her story.”
When Ann sang to Taew during a candlelit blackout, the film teased the possibility of mending the tears in memory and generational rifts, pulling audiences into the tender sweetness of song, only to undercut the moment with the return of fluorescent lights. Leakages of feeling are plugged and Ann retreats into her shell. More darkly ironic was the reenactment of Ann and Taew’s first meeting played by domestically popular Thai actresses Inthira Caroenpura and Penpak Sirikul, who go through the same paces and delivering the same lines under glossy teledrama lighting. Any sentimentality to recuperated memory is severed with pasts infinitely modulated through cinema. Fredric Jameson diagnoses the “waning of affect” as symptomatic to “cultural logic of postmodernism”, in which “feelings […] are now free-floating and impersonal and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria.” The sense of the here and now is replaced by the aura of the simulacrum, which “endows present reality and the openness of present history with the spell and distance of a glossy mirage”. As to the displacement of categories of time with categories of space, the film’s exhausting simultaneity of diegetic, metadiegetic and extradiegetic times rendered the category of “non-linearity” feeble as the camera follows Peter, an actor who may or may not be a tobacco farmer, who lay in bed with his lover in what may or may not be a scene in another film—interpretation hangs on gossamer thread. In the shifting frames of reality in Peter’s husk of a life in a perpetual music video, what could be made out of his bloodless face of ennui? Where does this micro-affect come from and where does it go? This ambiguity of non-feeling, orbiting around the absent core of the massacre, is neither the euphoria of the camp sublime nor the high modernist expression of alienation, but rather, the slightest possibility of mourning.
At the colour correction studio, Ann, now played by another actor, comes to know of Peter’s death from a car crash. Her brows knot in disbelief, before her face crumples into folds of regret. The producer reminds her that the film is already halfway done. She irons out her unruly face, steels it and instructs her colour editors to carry on. Grief, a swell in the wave of feeling, never rises fully into its crest like the confrontation before the face of traumatic history, to which there is no adequate, commensurable response. The wave that never was instead ebbs into other minor affects, observable in the faces of other crew members in the studio: indifference, discomfort, irritation.
Apart from apathy, the contours that online Jameson’s “crisis of historicity” could be traced to the affect of restlessness. Inseparable from a perception of time that feels congested and stuck, restlessness could be interpolated to the subject’s incapacity to “extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organise its past and future into coherent experience”. In the two films Solo, Solitude and The Return, the logic of late capitalism was broadened with the thematics of state oppression. These restless bodies are namely Wiji Thukul, hounded by the Indonesian state and forced to flee his hometown in July 1996, and Lim Soon Wen, a fictional former political detainee who tries to adjust to present day Singapore after his release. For both characters, the experience of fugitivity rendered their once vibrant bodies, stirring and fuming with political outrage, into docile ones. Lim’s aged body, sapped of its vitality by long-term incarceration, is evidence of the state violence enacted onto politicised bodies. The body restless, moves too much, scratches themselves, paces up and down, looks around, sits down, folds their legs, unfolds their legs, shifts their weight. Restlessness, unlike anger, is a weak political emotion, disproportionate and inadequate when measured against the issue at hand.
Restlessness as the inability to remain at rest with a nervous mind persists in crumpling the distinction between the waking hours of day and night. During the day, Thukul is unable to muster concentration to read and write. Friends who harbour him turn his restless body into an object of pity (“I feel sorry for Paul [Thukul’s alias]. I think he’s bored staying at home.”), accompanying him out for walks, a haircut and drinks. In the evenings, insomnia sets in. While the sources of trouble are clear and manifold: being in exile, pining for his family, the inability to compose poetry; Thukul’s quiet agitation is marked by an affective opacity that is accompanied by the film’s reticent storytelling. Unlike anger that is object-directed, restlessness is a mood that is “objectless, or have near all-inclusive and undifferentiated objects”, an excess of intensities in every direction or none. What might be taken as inactivity to the bystander is rather, better understood as molecular hyperactivity with its intensities clogged and choked.
This feeling of congestion that accompanies restlessness, the inability to catch up with the flow of clock time, is apparent with Wen, who plods aimlessly through hyperdeveloped Singapore. Unlike the triumphant self-mastery found in 19th century romantic landscape paintings, referenced by the filmmaker, the cityscape mercilessly towered over Wen, displacing his alien body, now made acquiescent and docile. The restlessness of being out-of-time is most evident when Wen discusses his plans for a life after detention, whether in taking a holiday or teaching at a school, these plans rise and foam away into indecision, punctuating the film with endless postponements and deferments. Without the solace of historical closure, the restless subject is unable to organise, define and cohere time according to ‘schedule’, insofar as incarceration mandates bodies to a temporality outside of their own agency.
Far from the nihilism folded into the “slow cancellation of the future” and besotted with failures past and present, the evocation of these traumatic histories unravels an emergent futurity. Immanent to the restlessness of delay and the possibility of mourning is the Blochian “not-yet conscious”, rendering these minor affects defiantly, in the category of politics.To speak of Southeast Asia as an umbrella, to represent difficult histories, this politicity remains ambiguous, incommensurable, even at times, opaque. The days of disquiet in Wiji Thukul’s lonely exile unintentionally fallow the soil of political commitment to come, leading to his fervent involvement in the Anti-Suharto protests and subsequently, his disappearance. In the lugubrious words of Thukul:
Take a breath and rest, oh words
No need to burst and flood
the silent and mute
Retreat to the womb
all the tears and decay
in silence that cuts
where people betray
and gag their own mouths
Take a breath and rest, oh words
We will rise again
Excavating trauma flees from the apparent, leaving one hanging over the limits of the sayable, the visible and the imaginable. It is perhaps in these draughts of silences that work should begin.
- Listing itself is an act of representing these historical events as equalised, horizontal and commensurable. As with the film programme and the film, this essay is admittedly inadequate as a historical account. This admission is not to shirk critical accountability since the essay invests in the problematic of ‘inadequacy’ of political representation, rather than to present historical fact. The onus remains on the reader to fill their own gaps of historical knowledge discussed.
- See Deborah Young, “‘River of Exploding Durians’: Tokyo Review”, Hollywood Reporter. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/river-exploding-durians-tokyo-review-743656 (accessed 11 September 2017) and Anthony Kao, “Review: River of Exploding Durians (Malaysia, 2014)”, Cinema Escapist. https://www.cinemaescapist.com/2017/04/review-river-exploding-durians-malaysia-2014/ (accessed 11 September 2017).
- When asked about the selection of these three historical events during the post-screening discussion, Edmund Yeo, the director unconvincingly related his current interest with little-discussed and difficult histories in the region.
- Andreas Huyssen, “Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia”, Public Culture 12, no.1 (2000): 24
- Robert Burgoyne, “Prosthetic Memory/Traumatic Memory: Forest Gump (1994)” in The History Film Reader, ed. Marnie Hughes-Warrington (New York: Routledge, 2009), 138.
- Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2004), 64-65
- Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas, “Introduction” in The Image and the Witness: Trauma, Memory and Visual Culture (Great Britain: Wallflower Press, 2007), 6.
- Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. 38.
- Ibid., 13.
- Ibid., 63.
- Ibid., 63.
- Sianne Ngai, “Introduction” in Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2005), 5-7.
- Ibid., 7.
- The obvious pitfall to this interpretation is the attribution of ‘Thai-ness’ set against Western modes of visuality. Regardless of whether markers of ‘Thai-ness’ or ‘Thai filmmaking’ could be derived from By The Time It Gets Dark. The modest proposition here is an alternative optic to make sense of the film’s peculiar spatial expressions. See David Teh, Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary (Singapore: NUS Press, 2017), 87-89.
- Alison Landsberg, “Prosthetic memory: the logics and politics of memory in modern American culture”, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1996, quoted in Robert Burgoyne, “Prosthetic Memory/Traumatic Memory: Forest Gump (1994)” in The History Film Reader, ed. Marnie Hughes-Warrington (New York: Routledge, 2009), 138.
- Ibid., 138.
- Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 21.
- Metadiegetic time refers to narrative time that is embedded within the diegesis, or the time of the story-within-the-story. On the other hand, extradiegetic time refers to actual historical events. Although in the context of By The Time It Gets Dark, these terms are of little help to the sweet suspension of the film’s temporal and diegetic confusion. With the film’s unfurling narratology, the audience must relearn to watch, leave behind strict delineations and bask in its ambiguity.
- Ibid., 14-16.
- Ibid. 25.
- Sianne Ngai, “Irritation” in Ugly Feelings. 179.
- pmilat, “Mark Fisher: The Slow Cancellation of the Future”. Filmed: May 2014. Youtube video, 46:14. Posted: May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCgkLICTskQ
- Poem by Wiji Thukul from Solo, Solitude, dir. Yosep Anggi Noen, 2016.
Marcus Yee (b. 1996) is an artist and writer from Singapore. His artistic research takes an interest in materialisms and their contradictions. He has participated in group shows in LUMA Westbau, Zürich; BANK Gallery, Shanghai, and in Singapore.
He is a regular contributor to ArtAsiaPacfic and Arts Equator and maintains an art-writing blog, Right Afters.