JEAN ANTOINE-DUNNE Reviews Gabrielle Hezekiah’s latest work on the Films of Yao Ramesar
Phenomenology’s Material Presence
Video, Vision, Experience
Bristol: Intellect, 2010.
Gabrielle Hezekiah’s work Phenomenology’s Material Presence is situated within a relatively new sub field of both Philosophy and Film-a field that examines film’s capacity to construct knowledge or to engender new insights into the nature of what it is to be human. Can film, as Noel Carroll posits, on occasion ask radical questions about the nature of human reality? Does it have the capacity to provide the kind of sustained argument or nuanced thought that one usually associates with philosophical discourse? Indeed where does film as philosophy fit into the institutionalized divisions of academia?
We can say, of course, that Film as a form of philosophical enquiry is as old as film itself. The first film philosopher is thought to be Hugo Münsterburg (1916), whose attempt to understand the nature of film as a unique art led to his understanding that film’s use of flash backs, cuts and close-ups showed its difference from the other arts. But the person who is most often acknowledged as the first aesthetician of film is Sergei Eisenstein whose questioning of film’s relation to reality, and life long belief that film could and does create concepts and whose engagement with montage as capable of shaping an intellectual discourse is at the back of a writer such as David Bordwell who is the initiator of the relatively new cognitivist film theory.
But even before the Russians sought to dissect film’s capacity to raise consciousness or to shape thought or to understand how cinema shapes ways of thinking, film had already self consciously, by its very genesis, opened itself to questions about the representation of the real. The great debates about cinema’s true destiny have evolved from its original link to magic (Melies) on the one hand and its reality effect on the other (Lumière).
However we look at it, film is a re-construction of the world and most thinkers of film seek to understand or reflect on the particular ways in which film’s capacity to hold onto concrete reality yet enables a mapping of psychological and perceptual states. The great debates about the filmic are shaped in the arena of the perceptual.
Gabrielle Hezekiah proposes that Yao Ramesar’s films perform a philosophical mode of enquiry and that enquiry is located within the specificity of Caribbean ritual, memory and acts of becoming.
This is by way of introducing Hezekiah’s importance to the as yet underdeveloped, under explored thing that is Caribbean Film Studies. There is no other work on Caribbean cinema that makes such connections between philosophical enquiry and film. Yet Caribbean critics have no doubt about the nature of literary enquiries into questions of humanity, being or spirit. We find discussions of the philosophical discourses of Wilson Harris, Brathwaite, Nourbese Phillips, Erna Brodber, to name but a few and our critics have long recognized Harris’s debt to Heidegger or Brathwaite’s referencing of Bergson through T. S. Eliot. However, despite the growing number of texts devoted to Philosophy and Cinema since Deleuze published Cinema 1: The Movement Image and Cinema 2: The Time Image in France in the eighties, there has been no sustained analysis of the kind of thought emerging from our film and filmmakers here in the Caribbean. What is more, while Caribbean literary discourse has positioned its writers and their work within the perspective of African and Indian thought and rituals as well as Modernist paradigms, there has been no equivalent sustained critical process devoted to Caribbean film or video. Mbye Cham’s 1992 work X/Isles. Essays on Caribbean Cinema remains the single authoritative text on Caribbean filmmaking.
I note this now because despite the fact that Hezekiah’s work entails a conversation between three Phenomenologists of the European tradition, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, what she is actually doing, as she states very clearly, is paying attention to the films themselves and their own material and spiritual presence. While she does not mention Caribbean thinkers and artists such as Wilson Harris or Senior her discourse evokes their presence in very seductive ways. The most immediate question that her book raises is the relation between these writers and thinkers and the work and practice of a filmmaker such as Ramesar.
Hezekiah situates Ramesar ‘s work initially within the context of the American avant garde, for example Maya Deyen, because Ramesar “offers dreamlike sequences in which a collective unconscious might be made accessible through rhythmic manipulation of vision”, but this is also a description of the work of a Caribbean writer like Wilson Harris whose manipulation of the visual achieves a spatialization of experience that allows past and present to co-exist and that enables access to a collective unconscious. It is also not unlike the visual processes of a work such as Zong by Nourbese Phillips.
For Harris, the visual opens portals into layers of experience and these act as openings through which the New World individual can arrive at consciousness. This consciousness infuses and emerges from land and river and sea and is very similar to Heidegger’s mystical conception of the consciousness that undergirds the materiality of the world. But what both Aubrey Williams and Harris access is a mystical understanding of the world that we might call a New World philosophy of being, sourced from Amerindian belief systems and attached to Amerindian conceptions of dream time. For Harris, moreover, the spatializaton of time and memory that is made immanent in the materiality of dance, for example limbo, allows an understanding of the ways in which Caribbean cultures interpenetrate and become fecund.
Hezekiah’s approach enables us to situate Ramesar within a well-established field from which Caribbean film has been too long orphaned by the paucity of rigorous critical attention. Ramesar is seen to be working in the tradition of Harris, Glissant and Brathwaite (the self in maroonage), Walcott and Kincaid. In other words ,within an aesthetic tradition that absorbs European forms but that also engages in specific and unique Caribbean discourses and modes of enquiry into the origins of knowledge: how do we come to know ourselves, what has shaped our ideas of self, what does it mean to be human in the face of dehumanizing narratives of history.
Hezekiah foregrounds the importance of sense perception as a means to an encounter with the essence of Caribbeaness. I use the word “essence” here in the sense applied by Hezekiah as Being or by Harris, as spirit. It does not imply an essentialised self that suggests blandness nor fixity of Caribbean identity, What Hezekiah, Harris and Ramesar engage in is an act of encounter with what Ramesar has called “Caribbeing” which I interpret as spirit /being in the Caribbean. For all, the Caribbean is a place of constant transformation, in the true sense of the transformative, as an act that is metaphysical, but which is mediated through the material.
Phenomenology as a method of enquiry would seem to be particularly apt in the context of the Caribbean. Phenomenology enacts a process whereby the accretions and silt of time as historically imposed on our perception of the world, our knowledge systems, can be evacuated. Phenomenology enables a conscious encounter with the present that is unhindered by those internalized assumptions and imposed presumptions about who we are, what our relation is to the other and our position within a global order.
Hezekiah’s meditation on film’s relation to the real centres on the encounter between seer and the thing seen through the act of the shaping of the concrete by the filmmaker. For her Ramesar’s documentaries, in particular Heritage: A Wedding in Moriah, Mami Wata and Journey to Ganga Mai are phenomenological enquiries that use filmic techniques to enable the camera to see beyond the historic shrouding of perception that has disabled the Caribbean psyche. The techniques employed by Ramesar, such as slow motion, pixilation, the close-up, movement in and of itself, the use of light and dark reveal the true essence of Caribbean being but do so as process, not as fixed substance or embalmed subject. These videos are revelations of processes.
What is being meditated on is the act of the unveiling, but it is also a meditation on something that exists and is beyond the embodied shapes that are available to sense. The evolution of consciousness is two fold, the consciousness that is inherent in the participants and the ritual performance and the consciousness of the viewer who is situated in quite distinct ways to the world that is opened up to revelation.
The first encounter on which Hezekiah meditates involves an act of recognition or memory as something that is in the present, but to which the viewer has access only through the gaps that open up and within which she situates herself; the second is through a situating of the viewer as a witness to the experience of possession or the act of Ex Stasis; and the third is a coming together, other than at particular moments of individual awareness, in an accord with the flow of consciousness which is an ascension into the fullness of being, an absorption into the rhythm and flow that takes in the human as an essential part of the fullness of Being in the world.
What is at stake in this essay is the transformation of our attitude to the world, through film’s capacity to make us see for ourselves what is truly there, through our own subjective re-constitution of the world before us. The perceiving subject, through the acts of the camera and the consciousness that enables these acts, is allowed to see in new ways through a bracketing off in instances of tired perceptions, and the focalization of the thing, so that its essence is revealed.
This is perhaps the most important function that Caribbean art and philosophy can facilitate-Film, as Hezekiah recognizes in Ramesar’s work, enables a Caribbean consciousness to take precedence over other ways of seeing.
Interestingly the three videos that Hezekiah addresses speak to the syncretic nature of Caribbean experience, and privilege memory as an act of creative appropriation of the past through the presences that exist in the present. Memory is both inside and beyond us, we re-cognize the self in maroonage, emerging from the deep recesses of the repressed psyche that video simulates and one might say, engenders. By video’s framing of fragments of reality we are made to enter into the space between memory and forgetting-to see the past as objective viewers newly reconstituted.
“Caribbeing makes the familiar strange” says the author on page 8. The videos are themselves acts of philosophical encounters, that search beyond habit (that great deadener) and move toward a new consciousness of the Caribbean.
In Hezekiah’s reading these videos allow an entry into the region of the unconscious or the layers of spirit that constitute the Caribbean (as Harris sees it) as a region distinct by virtue of its history and its intercultural, cross cultural, interracial mixing and merging and genesis.
Through acts of suspension we are allowed to meet, and ultimately briefly, enter into the “generative ground of Being”. Something I must emphasize that is deeply engrained in the work of Lamming, and the later Walcott. Like Ramesar and Hezekiah these writers seek to make the reader viewer and auditor, open to the experience of spirit and matter, spirit residing in matter, through acts of memory and memory as ritual, that become passages for the flow of past and present in the movement into the future.
Hezekiah’s underlying idea that video is an instrument of meditation that “serves as an interface between the bodies of artist and viewer, making a material connection which brings towards us a specific, embodied perception of the world” is crucial to our understanding of her project.
Film acts on our bodies through the dynamic interplay of sound and visual. It does this through the play of sense on the body of the filmmaker who transmits this play and thus intensifies our perception of the seen world. Christian, African and Indian rituals constitute the transmitted field of memory through sense.
The viewer is made to see from varying perspectives. These aberrant points of view in which she is made to see outside of everyday perception, enable several levels of visual experience (through shots from below, from above, eye level, through the close up, and in slow motion). They lead to looking at the world in “another way”. We are given the freedom to contemplate in “the aftermath of the perception of the object” often through film’s capacity to expand time (18). Hezekiah emphasizes the fragility of these moments of consciousness and contemplation “we slip all too easily into the natural attitude”, she says (11).
For the viewer the characters in the video Heritage appear to exist in a liminal space, between past and present, a place of memory and death. Bu this is also memory that remains a trace in the unconscious present.
In making this space of memory something that we appropriate, Ramesar is elaborating on and making concrete what has been central to Caribbean philosophizing. This is achieved by the use of micro rhythms, slow motion and sound that together shape the dream like quality of the work. The vibrations (trembling temporality) enable a sensation that the thing is broken up into its component particles, so that as viewers we become part of the process of the becoming. Heritage, by altering our experience of duration, draws the viewer simultaneously into an experience of pure perception and an experience of consciousness. We take up each interrogation and exploration of the camera as a “subsequent perception (or memory) by virtue of the fact that we have inserted ourselves in the gaps of the image and taken on the experience of memory. The gaps opened up are also closed by sound that jolts us into an awareness that we are looking at the screen (returns us to ourselves as viewers) but with something added-we see differently.)
More importantly, these images become the vehicles for enabling us to see the constitution of that perception of the present. I acknowledge that I am reading into Hezekiah’s work, but it seems to me that while she is speaking of the ways in which the creation of structures of memory enable the viewer to be absorbed into the act of remembering as if it is her own memory, she is also describing a simulation that one finds in works such as Walcott’s Omeros or even Brodber’s Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, where memory that is not ours enables acts of recall that open us up to the spectre or trace of the past of submerged consciousness.
What Hezekiah calls a paradoxical “experience of immersion” in a past that we do not remember, but which becomes an evocation of false remembering is one of the properties of film that literary writers find so seductive. It is, in my interpretation, an attempt to recoup memory from that void that is The Middle Passage, through the very fact of film’s capacity to mimic the process of remembering. Through the strategies of the camera, the use of particular looks and point of view, we participate in what Harris calls a collective unconscious. This occurs through acts of bodily identification (Hezekiah 35), through invitations that call out to us from within the frame, “and invite us to vision and we move forward to meet them” (38).
While Heritage enables a mapping of the processes of memory itself and engages the viewer in a mimetic appropriation of the act of remembering, Mami Wata is about ecstasy or being outside oneself and is a call to witness rather than to participate. The film moves towards the woman’s “transformative experience” which “alters “our own relationship to the space of the event” (43). This is, according to Hezekiah, a dwelling in the phenomenological reduction (43). This indwelling enables a “momentary crystallization” (a form of differentiation between ” the visible and the invisible”) through which the invisible becomes visible. The “Concretion of Visibility,” is a meditation on the call to witness an act of movement out of self. The consciousness that becomes visible, she says, is the very ground of the participants. There is no reciprocal gaze, because invisibility exceeds the limits of the body. In effect consciousness as excess meets the limits of our body and exceeds the limits of the body it inhabits.
The meditation on Being, Consciousness and Time brings the essay to full circle. It expands the conception of consciousness as something that cannot be measured in terms of linear time, but that exists as something stretching to infinity. Time is essence in Journey to Ganga Mai. It flows with the river, in the movement of the work; everything exists in the flow of time as duration. As viewers we are caught up in the flow until and other than in those decisive moments when we are framed by the look, and see ourselves as separate.
Ganga Mai does not induce contemplation but uses filmic techniques to engage the viewer in the flow of time in its passage to completion. It is a “leading back to oneself”. The video entails and shapes immersion, other than in occasional moments of an awareness of being seen. The world is drawn into the video, not kept outside it. The Dasein as openness to encounter becomes the project of the work and here Ramesar’s work and Hezekiah’s attains a mystical aura that seems to overlap most fully with the work of a writer like Harris, whose systems of belief have led to the creation of dream works.
It is through this last section that one arrives at the full impact of Hezekiah’s writing. It is a call to consciousness and it envisions the camera, the video and the filmmaker as capable of enabling new forms of vision.
This is not an easy work to read. It is born of meditation on the thought of perhaps four philosophers, and the work of a filmmaker whose experiments in seeing are conceived as acts of philosophical enquiry. One needs to meditate on what this work offers to arrive at new insights into the very nature of our encounter with time, and our perception of the reality of the Caribbean. This is a pioneering study and one that I welcome wholeheartedly.