This article was part of FORUM+ vol. 29 no. 2, pp. 30-35
I want to speak your body language, or against being
Ira A. Goryainova
A text on writing through the body, filming through the body, sensorial cinema, and corporality within the context of dominant ideologies.
Een tekst over schrijven door het lichaam, filmen door het lichaam, zintuigelijke cinema en lijfelijkheid binnen de context van dominante ideologieën.
Recently, I couldn’t switch off. Switch off my brain and distribute the consciousness out of my head and throughout my whole body. But this morning, when I emerged out of my sleep, I could suddenly feel my body and see it entirely. In its totality. I spontaneously began to visualize the structure of my skeleton, the rotational movements of the skull, the bending of the cervical vertebrae line. Ribs, pelvis. I thought about the colour of lungs; and what is it exactly, that which is located between the inner organs. Apparently, the cineradiography footage archive imprinted on my subconsciousness was leading me through this process of visualization. Back in the days, when scientists still didn’t know what röntgen rays do to our bodies, entire radiography films were made to study human interiors. I like the collision. Film and pain. Film and radiography were invented in the same year.
I pick up my phone and head towards what is picturesque in the space around me. The lemon trees. I film the earth, the trunk, the green leaves. My fingers between the leaves, my hand, the skin on it. The skin is mottled with a pattern, illuminated by the bright sun – that’s why it looks like it has been put under a microscope. I follow the movement of my hand. The hand is in front of an oil painting. There are two hands on the painting, one with a cigar. My hands on the painting portraying the hands of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht explains. I portray. In front of the painting is my real hand, illuminated by the sun. I like the contrast of living and non-living. I follow the sun on the wall. The bright geometrical shape of the window projected on it. At the top of the right corner there is a shadow of my fingers. Like clumsy young sprouts on the lemon tree.
I am often told to think about the whole before going into details. Create a timeline for editing. A narrative arc in the script. Fill in the entire composition with rough strokes on the canvas. Macroscope. Step back at a distance in order to glance and see the whole. Because I always go groping inside.
Body. Human body. Body of a child. Dead body. Sick body. Body in pain. Mutilated body. Body as an object. Body reduced to an object of desire. The body makes sound. Feels. Remembers. Body as a reservoir. Body that stores information. Bodily memory. Body as the point which separates past and future. Without the human body there is no human. A body without a human is a dead body.
A world out there not ordered into time frames is chaotic and unpredictable, it frightens, while the arc gives the viewer a sense of control. Anticipating the development of the plot gives illusory power.
A living body speaks. Talks. Tells. I want to learn to speak the body language of my interlocutor. Interlocutors and their cooperative principle of talking: ‘Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.’1 Yet, body language transgresses the organization of a conversation.
I realize that the necessity of switching between languages became a part of my modus operandi. My mother tongue. My first foreign language. The language of my second nationality. Visual arts as the replacement of my mother tongue in a foreign country. The audiovisual language. And finally, the very first one – the body language.
I sift what I write through an online translator and see what it can give me. But mostly, what it can take away. The body, however, cannot be abbreviated by a mediator. It doesn’t lie. It speaks out loud. Body to body. Sometimes without us even noticing it. We automatically imitate the expressions of others by simply watching them on screen. Without even having a clue of what we are watching. They say there are 43 muscles in the human face. That is more than the characters in any language I can speak.
Checking in with an old friend from Moscow. She is a director of photography. I ask how she is doing, what kind of shoots are coming up, and if there are none, what she is up to. Anna tells me that she is going to travel, since no productions are planned yet, and that the last scripts she got offered were all bad. Anna records an audio message and apologizes for not being able to describe in a nutshell what a bad script is. Her voice, filled with intonations, a rambling train of thought, and theatrical interjections enlightens me more than any logical description in a nutshell. I ponder: a film project is always discussed on the basis of a text. Moreover, the text of a script. And the script must be written in a certain form, style, font. Courier 12. It must exclude the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the characters, for the camera is not able to capture them, as they say. The script should have a narrative arc, a three-act structure, a conflict. Someone will say that there are films without it, but then they add that these are rare exceptions. Exceptions that prove the rule. Anna says that the director she most often works with has become different. He is drifting away from her. Or she from him? He too was offering her to make a film from a bad script. ‘About sex’, apparently being the director’s own interpretation of the plot theme. Two young female athletes are preparing for a competition. One sleeps with the instructor. Wins. In the throes of her betrayed honour, she throws away the trophy. I reply to Anna with a bold suggestion: forbid men to write scripts about women having sex or, at the very least, give them to women for revision. In a new ASMR2 message, she explains that the script was offered to the director, and why he agreed, she does not know. Anna then tells me that she would rather shoot author films, but… ‘on the verge of commercial ones’, and thereby she plunges me into the abyss of thoughts about the film industry, Das Kapital, and the art of the moving image.
French professor of literature Hélène Cixous argued against the traditionally regulated narrative writing and the impossibility to express one’s self through it. She juxtaposed it to écriture féminine, which is less organized, less dominant, less narrative, less oppressing, perhaps rhizomatic.3 Écriture féminine should be, according to Cixous, reminding us of the inadequacy and shortcomings of the existing one. Write through your body, speak with your body, for the body is exactly that into what you were imprisoned, that what you were reduced to.
Narrative is a tool for domination. Just think about the narrative arc. Try to conjure it up. This massive building of no practical use in the middle of a road. The smell of cement, concrete, and stone. War, blood, triumph. Come closer and look upwards to the petrified bulges of humankind’s great exploits and bravery. Celestials, warriors in uniforms/armours, and their trophies. A narrative arc is the organization, the ordering of a story through a kind of timeline. The time snatched from the jaws of chaos and ordered into a timeline is what makes our identities. One of the identity development stages occurs when the self exists not only in the present moment, but learns to remember itself in the past and to anticipate in the future. Two young female athletes were preparing for a competition. One slept with the instructor. She will win. In the throes of her betrayed honour, she’ll throw away the trophy. The narrative arc enables spectators to relate to the character’s experience. And to make this experience their own. A world out there not ordered into time frames is chaotic and unpredictable, it frightens, while the arc gives the viewer a sense of control. Anticipating the development of the plot gives illusory power. The promise of power. The making of power. Producing power. Selling power. Consuming power. Being power. At least for two hours. Good box office too.
(…) In this new film, sex is nothing but an allegory of the commodification of bodies at the hands of power. I think that consumerism manipulates and violates bodies as much as Nazism did. My film represents this sinister coincidence between Nazism and consumerism.4
Pier Paolo Pasolini about his last film Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom in a conversation three days before he was murdered.
I open the list of documentary films on a VOD platform and flip through the titles, or rather, the images.5 One of them immediately catches my eye and I open it, with the intention of scrolling through it. The film starts with music on top of a black screen. This ‘shot’ lasts for almost three minutes, attempting to mobilize my sensorial spectatorship through hearing instead of sight. Suddenly a screen, perhaps of a laptop – filmed by a camera – breaks the darkness. I see a reflection on the filmed screen – some undefinable space, room. It almost dominates the image on the screen itself, showing a face of an astronaut ready to take off into space. Cosmos. The visible pixels remind me of the digital construct of the image and of the fact that I am staring at the laptop too. The music from the previous scene, the audio of the science fiction movie, and some other noises are flowing like a monolith block through my ears. Audiovisual chaos. Cut. Three electronic musicians on stage. Cut. Female bodies dancing in front of a bright ray of light in the darkness. The movement of their torsos lays that bright light bare, making my pupils constrict and dilate a few times in a row. Next, the extreme close-ups of people dancing in a club are shown; and by this moment, I am already one with the screen. I merge with everything that happens on it. Cut. Silence. A face of a woman. My face stuck to hers. In the audio somebody whistles a melody, sometimes too loud. The woman’s face is illuminated by purple neon light. Her head turns from left to right, she smokes a cigarette. Her hair is fluttering in the wind, lit by red light, like tongues of a flame. A coy smile, a smirk. Thoughtfulness. A puff of a cigarette. An exhalation, sadness. Her face, unfathomable. Cosmos. For a second, I feel uncomfortable looking at her. I’ve never stared at someone’s face for so long. Some Spanish song is already winding down in the audio layer, and I hadn’t even noticed the passage of time. I didn’t scroll through it as I had planned.6
‘I realize that the tape has been using my vision as though it were a sense of touch; I have been brushing the image (…) with the skin of my eyes, rather than looking at it.’7 Through the journey of her book on embodied film spectatorship, philosopher and new media scholar Laura U. Marks argues that memory and meanings can be conveyed and perceived through body. Body and senses. She describes, for instance, two different modes of spectatorship: optic and haptic. The distant way of seeing vs. the proximate one, rather reminiscent of the sense of touch. It sounds familiar. It is close to me. The online translator adds ‘to my heart’. I don’t think about her argument, I feel about it. Marks writes about intercultural cinema. About traumas and phantoms. About things that are unsayable, for there are no means to talk about them. Buried deep in the bodily memory, they could never have been articulated properly. According to Marks, people belonging to two cultures, people in exile, the oppressed and discriminated, the ones who get no platform, or no representation of their voice, turn to haptic visuality and their senses to communicate.
Cixous and Marks share the same point of view on different fields: the body as a reservoir. As a conveyor of information. Looking at the screen, we instantly absorb the corporeal information into our own body. We mirror it within ourselves. Our perception is first bodily, only then cerebral. We learn to snatch time from the jaws of chaos and distribute it on a kind of timeline by means of mirror neurons. By seeing the other, we make ourselves. Mirror neurons are responsible for our empathy and therefore development, learning. Body to body – is the strongest power link there is.
Narrative is a tool for domination.
When thinking about power, one involuntarily thinks of the state, not of the film medium. The state has a license for power. The state protects sovereignty; the state supposedly controls the economy. The state represents my interests in its own interest. It is the conductor of government policy into life. The government policy too can organize chaos on a kind of timeline in the narrative arc:
The discussion is (…) about being able to show who we are and what we stand for. About anchoring, safeguarding and propagating our Flemish identity.8
Body and power. Body and identity. When the state desires to control film, it exercises sophisticated biopower over its population. A kind of aggressive nudging. Biopower is to discipline the body, to control it, and to tame it. By plunging the spectator into a spectacle, created by the prescriptions of the state apparatus, the state subordinates it to its own ideology – it forms the spectator’s idea of his relation to the real world and to his own body.
I like Foucault’s description of disciplines, frames, boundaries, cells. Power in his description becomes visual. And everything that is visual gives me a promise of power. To control power. Power in his description abolishes boundaries, frames, cells. But power also creates them. Foucault’s descriptions are sometimes haptic:
The power which took charge of sexuality set about contacting bodies, caressing them with its eyes, intensifying areas, electrifying surfaces, dramatizing troubled moments. It wrapped the sexual body in its embrace.9
I am thinking about language again. About foreign language, body language, mother tongue. I think about switching from one to another. How could I portray it? Bertolt Brecht was talking about alienation – Verfremdungseffekt –,10 a technique designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement. My mother tongue though, refers me to the original остранение11 by Viktor Shklovsky. Defamiliarization leads out of the automatism of perception. Making something familiar unfamiliar is a trope that evokes different views and new meanings. When I type a text in my mother tongue, I like to sift what I wrote through an online translator and see what it can give. Alienating and estranging, familiarizing, and defamiliarizing. Make the language one’s own. Appropriate. Dislike. Estrange – like. I remember how I was learning foreign languages – everything seemed so poetic about it. So impenetrably beautiful. But as soon as I learn something, I make it my own. I like to exist in-between. I have to? The in-betweenness of multilinguistic existence. Fluidity. Elusiveness. The in-betweenness of senses and the modalities of perception. But then comes the power with its urge to discipline, frame, draw boundaries, cells, and box offices. Eliminating fluidity. Eliminating the alien. Disciplining the body. Body language does not contain the promise of power.
Checking in with an old friend from Rome. He is a director. I wonder how he is doing, what he is up to, and how he funds his films. In a nutshell, three days before his mutilated body is found in Ostia, Pasolini replies that the funding process is the normal one and that he has a producer for that. He says he doesn’t have problems since only Porcile and Medea were commercial flops. All the others did well at the box office. To be honest, I didn’t expect to hear this from Pasolini, but I don’t dare to say it. After all, he is one of my role models. Do you work totally within the commercial system? ‘Yes, totally’,12 he answers and thereby plunges me into the abyss of thoughts about the film industry, Das Kapital, and the art of the moving image. And about where on this scheme I should position his dead human body. Body is the point that separates past and future. Pier Paolo, did you know that present time in German is Gegenwart? Gegen is against. Wart comes from werden. Werden is will be. Or if we dig deeper in the language of the past, it is towards. Towards future, against future being. Against being, in order to be.13
Ira A. Goryainova
is a film director and audiovisual artist. The last four years, she has been conducting a PhD research on and through the film medium at RITCS and VUB. Her research Interdisciplinary Body focuses on corporality and power relations within different audiovisual environments.
- Grice, Paul. “Logic and conversation.” Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan, New York, Academic Press, 1975, pp. 41-58. ↩
- Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response – an auditory perception phenomenon, that causes pleasant tingling sensations in the back of the head, spreading as goose bumps across the skin of the neck and back to the limbs. ASMR video recordings became extremely popular with YouTube users, but are often misinterpreted due to gaining sexual connotations. ↩
- Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs, vol. 1, no. 4., 1976, edited by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, pp. 875-893; Cixous, Hélène. ‘Coming to Writing’ and Other Essays. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1991. ↩
- Celluloid Liberation Front. “The Lost Pasolini Interview.” Mubi, 17 January 2021, mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-lost-pasolini-interview. ↩
- A memo on choosing films: if supply exceeds demand, don’t read synopses. Choose by image. ↩
- Night Box by Paula Gaitán, 2015. ↩
- Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Duke University Press Books, 2000. ↩
- “Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF)”, Visienota 2018-2021, p. 3. Last consulted 29 January 2022 www.vaf.be/files/Subsidiedocumenten/visienota_vaf_2018.pdf. However, this is proving to be the new reality for a variety of European countries, oscillating between commerciality and identity. ↩
- Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1. The Will to Knowledge. Penguin Modern House UK, 2020, p. 44. ↩
- Brecht, Bertolt. “On Chinese Acting.” The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 6, no. 1, 1961. ↩
- Ostranenie – defamiliarization. Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art, as device.” Collections on the Theory of Poetic Language, vol. 2, 1917, pp. 3-14. ↩
- Celluloid Liberation Front. “The Lost Pasolini Interview.” Mubi, 17 January 2021, mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-lost-pasolini-interview. ↩
- This translation does not aim to be scientific whatsoever. ↩