The Intolerable Gift
Residues and traces of a journey...
In the church of my childhood, after Mass was said, people used to gather in churchyards where they would be treated to a one- to two-hour-long verbal visualization of "revelations" as experienced by such prophets as Ezekiel, Elijah, or Jeremiah. The telling of the visions, by the preacher/narrator, was in a way a literal attempt to make visible, through performance, what was fundamentally invisible. This was done without questioning the sanctity of the biblical stories. The visualizations were the vehicles for instruction or delight. Then, when the members of the congregation returned to their respective homes, informal discussions would take place. One such discussion that I distinctly remember is how Ezekiel saw visions of wheels and angels appearing in the sky. It is as if technology goes back in time to meet Ezekiel, and Ezekiel comes forward in time to meet the technology of cinema, and in both cases they refer to the turning of the wheels.
I would like to begin by asking your indulgence. What I have in mind in here is not the customary academic essay, but a more personal, indeed autobiographical, narrative. I want, in other words, to tell you a story - a story that, although it is based on my own experience and my own memories, also has significance for the questions of home, exile, and representation, and for the cinema itself. In telling this story, in sharing it with you, I would like to note the extent to which cinema is itself a shared experience in Africa. This shared experience, this notion of "the gift," is one of the threads running through my main story. In telling the story, in which my own mother plays a major role, I also want to examine those things that have always, to some degree, exceeded visual representation: the lived experience, residuals, the viscera.
I am interested in forms of knowing that operate within ideas of memory and within an oracular view of history that engages with observation, intuition, and self-reflexivity. I am referring here to people who travel in realms of ideas that we do not know much about.
My story begins with my recent visit to Ethiopia after thirty-two years of absence, a visit that affected me profoundly at a personal level, in ways that are not easily expressed in a typical academic essay. As a professor at UCLA, I have for some time written and worked on third world issues, on memory, on identity, on nomadic aesthetics, and especially third cinema and African cinema. I am supposed to be familiar with the issues of non-Western culture, and so on. I am, in fact, often considered to be a kind of non-Western subject within the academy. It was a depiction that I gladly even accepted and cherished. One of the many ironies of my story, then, is that upon returning to my place of birth, I discovered the extent to which I had actually become a reasonable facsimile of a Westernized subject, a version of the postcolonial type.
This Westernization was exemplified in my preparations for the trip. Taking stock of what I thought I would need for my visit, one of my first actions was to buy one of the most up-to-date video cameras that I could find, along with an appropriate number of videotapes. I also purchased a compact 35mm still camera and a miniature tape recorder, all of which I believed would help me to document my return, both for myself and for my children, who were to remain in Los Angeles while I was away.
At a more emotional level, I worried that the shock of suddenly seeing me again, after so many years, might be detrimental to my mother's health. I therefore took the precaution of telephoning members of my extended family and friends who would be able to prepare my mother for my upcoming arrival. I had often lectured to my students that "happy endings only happen in the movies, not in real life." I was truly afraid that fate had set me up for something terrible upon my return, that my coming home might turn out to be not a gift but a curse.
All my plans, all my attempts to script, organize, and arrange the narrative of my return broke down when I got there. From the moment I got off the plane, nothing happened as I had imagined. Upon seeing my mother again, it was I who was overcome with emotion; it was I who began to tremble as my eyes filled with tears, while my mother was all calm and smiling. The sight of my mother immediately stripped away everything of the past thirty-two years, and I went back, not only three decades into the past, but even further than that, because I returned to a time of childhood.
I went to Ethiopia on a private journey to interact with my family and community. On a personal level, I found that the community welcomed me and opened up to receive me as their son. And on a social level, I found myself thrust into a position I did not anticipate - cast as an elder in the hierarchy of the community. Immersed in the community's experiences, I was no longer simply an individual subject. Thus, I discovered myself in a depth of field that could not be found in any camera, a depth of field that was always deferred elsewhere, where the teller is never in the place of the telling.
As a professor of film and television studies at a major university, I was set up as the perfect film ethnographer. My recording technologies were supposed to serve as an aid to memory, as a tool or as a prosthesis. Such an idea is based on a very Westernized notion of technology - indeed, it is perhaps the very notion that allows the West to imagine itself as modern, as different from its "premodern," “non-technological" others. In such a notion, technology is defined as an instrument or tool that enables a human subject to know and control an objectified world. This implies, of course, a distinction between subject and object, a stance in which one stands at a distance from one's own experience and from one's own emotions.
When I was thousands of miles away in America, the camera seemed like a useful and necessary tool to capture impressions, experiences, and observations. My initial idea was that I would make a kind of home movie out of my visit. I had imagined myself to be outside my impending experiences, from where I believed I could document them with my camera. Yet when I lived the experience itself, when I came face-to-face with my emotional inheritance, I realized that the camera was superfluous.
I therefore recorded nothing with the camera. I did not need the magic of cinematic representation and scripted narrative to stand in for me; a whole different level of creating traces began to occur. It was my body that took over and became the catalyst for a different process of writing. I began to write internally.
In internalizing my own images, I am now able, when the need arises, to show snapshots or tell vignettes of my trip to Africa, to keep reshooting it, renarrativizing it; that is, I can keep retelling the story and readapting it according to prevailing circumstances and situations, as I am obviously doing here now.
To voluntarily put myself, with camera in hand, in the position of the outsider, in the position of the intrusive other, would have been incongruous with my own theoretical tendencies and writings. It was as if my camera-stylo had somehow flipped around and pointed its eraser end rather than its writing tip. This was precisely because a film, as a representational record, is fixed and cannot be transformed. As my own experiences showed me, the memory of a lived experience is anything but fixed.
Because recording my experiences as film was not adequate by itself, instead of shooting the film, in a sense I began to shoot memory. But surely memory is not cinema, in the normally recognized sense of the term, because there is not a film there – it is zero, it reaches a ridiculous point of nullity. Yet for me it represented something more than could be conveyed on film itself. In this unique condition, technology, in the Western sense, is banished but the cinema remains. Cinema then becomes more than a tool, or a means to document and represent reality. Instead, cinema becomes more than the sum of its technology and its representations: it becomes a kind of transubstantiated cinema.
What is not on the screen, but falls through the gap of the splice between images, is the eminent world that is not represented. Here I am referring to what is forced out or exiled from the image by virtue of the splice. The splice, the ellipsis, reminds us that film engages us in a ritual of transubstantiation. It is what surrounds the image as the unstated.
The concern here is that cinema should not be seen solely in technological terms, dependent only on its apparatus. The concern is with the ideas and experiences of cinema: not only what cinema is technologically, but what it can be experientially. Cinema should not simply be images printed on celluloid, but what those images refer to - the memories, the lived experiences, the dreams, the unseen realm of myths and spirits that hovers beyond and between the images.
Cinema is an intolerable gift. But, first, what is a gift? Some argue that there is no such a thing as a gift. Others say that when one gives a gift one has an expectation of getting something in return at some point. In such instances, giving is mutually grounded in the notion of exchange. If the giver in some form or other is expecting something, even some kind of acknowledgment, then the idea of a gift is impossible.
Even when there is no definite expectation of something to be returned to the person who gives, there is nonetheless, in some ways, a societal obligation that the recipient reciprocate, by giving something in return. In other words, if there is an expectation within me of somehow having to reciprocate a gift, then the gift, in that sense, is already contaminated. The contamination comes not from the supposed gift but from the context, the milieu in which the exchange is made.
Still others argue that there should be no expectation or obligation on either side. If there is any kind of obligation to reciprocate then what has taken place is an exchange in some form or other. Is there really such a thing as a gift, anyway?
Before my departure for Los Angeles, my mother gave me two gifts that serve to suggest a different and perhaps alternative idea of gift. One of the gifts that my mother gave me is a little clay cup that I used to drink milk from when I was a baby. The little cup is a relic of my childhood. It is dependent not only on milk, but nourishment, sustenance, nostalgia and memory. Symbolically, the clay cup is in some sense the womb and the umbilical cord that ties me to my mother. The cup is made from the same earth in which my placenta might have been buried. There is this link to the earth, and that link is through my mother. The gift that my mother gave me does not presuppose anything in return. It is an incredible gift, where one does not expect reciprocity. It is an infinite gift.
The second gift that my mother gave me is a picture. Here is Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, standing in a high school classroom and listening, in his regal majesty. The image is informal and unstaged. The emperor is standing next to my shoulder. I am sitting at a manual typewriter. I am about to show the emperor how I can put words on a page. Everything is in this photograph. In a way, not only was I being prepared as a typist, I was also engaged in becoming a type-A person. The typewriter speaks volumes. It associates the emperor with an icon of modernization. It equates the authority of the emperor with that of writing. Writing is what I do in my professional life. The picture can also be read as a father-son relationship, sharing the same national and cultural context.
Surely it is a photograph that is seemingly very clear and very direct. Look at the photo again. Why is there so much awe and reverence written all over the face of the young boy at the typewriter. The irony of this image, however, is that a mere five years after the picture was taken, I led a university students' rally against the emperor's government in support of an attempted coup d’etat, which subsequently failed. Although the emperor was for technological progress, he was also keenly aware that political change has to come from within and be adapted to what was already within. He represented both tradition and change, whereas we, the students, imbued with Western intellectual traditions, were looking outward, toward Europe and America, for inspiration and models for revolutionary change. Memory is history read backward. Sometimes it makes you wish you could be old, and then grow younger, so as to understand the mistakes of our lives.
It is in fact partly due to my involvement in the attempted coup d’etat at that time that I began my academic exile in America. It partially accounts for my long absence from family and country. This photo then becomes an image not only of the past but of a memory-image I have carried on, and also displaced. From my current position, this picture reenforces the idea that it is both past and other. It is also, of course, not other and not past, because although it might be a past represented, it is a present image - the time frame, identity frame, and national frame, all rolled into one. In a way, the image disintegrates as a hierarchy, because it is only a past representation re-presented in a new context, in which the power in the frame is no longer there. Yet it is still viable, it is still there, but it is being rewritten and reread in terms of its displacement. It is both there and not there, valid and not valid simultaneously, so it makes me very much cognizant of a past identity. It is at the same time intrinsic to who I am now, in how it cannot stay fixed. It is the epitome of the crossing over, this fluidity, that I wanted to capture, but these are also things that are the most impossible to capture.
My mother's two gifts, the little clay cup and the photograph, are intolerable gifts. Though they were forgotten, static and frozen images in my memory, through her giving they set in motion the residual associations buried in the recesses of my imagination. This notion of an intolerable gift suggests something that is simultaneously overcoming and needs to be overcome. I am attempting to make the gifts meaningful and endurable by re-transforming them and reactivating them as a more fluid memory beyond representation.
In any image there is always a picture of difference. Every image is a mask; it conceals another image. Any single image is in fact a compendium of several images that prepare the way in which each individual image is seen and read.
Let us read the image one more time. No matter what, images keep coming back - always as residues and as excess. The little clay cup, which is behind the photograph, is outside of the image-frame, and yet it keeps sneaking back into the frame of the photograph, in a disguised form, and in an invisible way.
The little clay cup acts as the mechanism that animates the photograph. We might go so far as to suggest that what is in fact missing in the photograph is actually contained in the cup, and vice versa. It is the cup, however, that captures and completes the picture. The little clay cup metaphorically serves as a lens or beacon, by means of which the photograph is understood. As a kind of lens, the cup sheds light on the photograph in order to cause it to have a kind of movement, and it also takes the stillness of the photograph and energizes it - it makes it move and gives it a sense of narrative development.
His Imperial Majesty is the authority in the image. The patriarchal impetus in the image is basically the emperor. He represents the institutions of the nation-state, which comes from the idea of a nation, which is missing in the photograph. What is happening in the picture is the transformation of the nation into the nation-state. Part of the photograph is, therefore, a commentary on the nation, which is invisible in the image, because it is my mother who is not in the picture.
That is partially what is happening in the picture. In many narratives of nations, it is the women who are symbolically the nation-the bearers of tradition and culture and the repositories of social and historical memories and its spiritual energy. The nation is the community. What is missing, and needs restoration in the picture, are the invisible women, who in being the outsiders, have always remained the African insiders. They are the unsung that makes the song.
There are all sorts of ironies here. The irony of ironies is that I went to Africa with the intention of making a Western film of the non-West, but instead of making that film, I received a different narrative, a different story that took the form of a gift. I was soon to discover that my mother has been shooting and editing a film all along. So just as I was about to leave for America, my mother said, "Oh, here!" And she gave me a film. She did not call it a film, yet it was far better than anything I could have made. Even if I had in fact shot a film, a good film, and given it to her, it would never have come close to the film that took my mother more than thirty-two years to make. If it was purely a Western film, she would have given me only the photograph. But little did I know that my mother has been living modern in the traditional way, She combined the two gifts so that they resonate to create something that was more than the sum of their parts, something that goes beyond the categories of modern and traditional, Western and African.
This gift was intolerable because it cannot be reduced to the terms of such categories, because it comes out of the lived experience of African women. It is intolerable because it can never be fixed in a particular photographic or cinematic representation, because it cannot be made a matter of material exchange. It is an intolerable gift because it creates a sense of having been given something that can never be returned. The intolerableness is that the gift itself creates a debt that can never be repaid. It is intolerable because it reawakens the residual traces of my return journey associated with the gift.
The representation of Africa is a gift of women. It is women who gave Africa the gift of their shared experiences: stories, musings, memories, and yes, cinema also. It is this gift that has often been forgotten, as I myself forgot it, thinking that I could stand outside it, recording and analyzing it from a critical distance.
If we acknowledge the gift, will it be less of a gift. Not really. Because the gift is just like an heirloom - it is to be forwarded, to be passed on to the next generation. Or to put it metaphorically, one can join the ends of a braided rope only by overlapping its strands. The gift, then, is not a state of being; it is continually enacted, lived, and performed.
In the gifts that my mother gave me, and which I am passing on to you, there is something that is represented and something that cannot be represented. This is why I have shown you the photograph but not the little clay cup. The photo can be materially represented, but the experiential charge of the cup, that part of my story and my mother's story, must remain amorphous, shifting as it is given from one person to another.
Africa as an idea is a flexible code, where we are all invited to navigate and narrate our own journeys, as we go along. You also must find, in your own journeys, the pathways to your stories, and to your hushed memories that come from the conjunction between your indomitable image and the little cup.
Finally, it is perhaps our bubbling memories that throw into relief our visions of home, out of which emerge all those residual meanings buried in the bigger landscape of "memory-spaces," which we incessantly reconstruct. These memory-spaces then can only serve a space away - a sort of space into which one can reactivate the rewards, consigned to the intolerable gifts of the autobiographical.