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  1. Michel Leiris and the Origin of Postmodernism

    December 1, 2012 by Fan

    Michel Leiris and the Origin of Postmodernism


    Fan Zhang


    I. Framework: Poststructuralism, Postmodernism and Posthumanism



    “My sense of posthumanism is thus analogous to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s paradoxical rendering of the postmodern: it comes both before and after humanism: before in the sense that it names the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technological world … But it comes after in the sense that posthumanism names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human [becomes] impossible to ignore …” (Wolf 2010:102-103)



    Cary Wolf in the above quotation from her What is Posthumanism? (2010) evokes posthumanism, postmodernism and poststructuralism all at once without further deliberation on their relationships. This is a clarification I’m going to make now because it is crucial in establishing my central argument, the WWI origin of “post- isms”. With minimal understanding of all three concepts, I will closely follow her text.

    The word Poststructuralism doesn’t appear in the above text, yet it is not only implied but also essential to the idea of posthumanism. “Embodiment” and “embeddedness” Wolf uses denote the structural nature of posthumanism: it is a trinity of humanism in its broadest sense with animal (“biological”), technicality (or materiality) as well as an humanism in a narrower sense. This trinity have never been outside humanity and they interact horizontally. But the emergence of posthumanism as a conscious and active movement is a vertical or an historical event when the animalistic and technological aspects of humanism become “impossible to ignore” – here, the introduction of history into structure in Wolf’s argument is poststructuralist through and through. A close re-inspection of this text also reveals its extraordinary resemblance to a central poststructuralist text from Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference, a text I will refer to again later in the essay:


    “Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an ‘event’ … the concept of structure and even the word “structure” itself are as old as …Western science and Western philosophy – and that their roots thrust deep into the soil of ordinary language … Nevertheless, up to the event which I wish to mark out and define, structure – or rather the structurality of structure – although it has always been at work, has

    always been neutralized or reduced …” (Derrida 1978: 351-352, emphasis is mine)


    Derrida’s text begins with an “event” and ends with a structure that is “always been at work”. Wolf’s text twenty years later begins with structural “embeddiness” and ends with an “event”. The two texts have the same gist. Their difference is that of scale: in this particular essay Derrida devotes his attention to anthropology in general and Claude Levi-Strauss in particular in their contributions to the decentering practices; a revolt against ethnocentricism is the key. Cary Wolf’s text, in a way, is an expansion on these decentering practices from anti-ethnocentrism to anti-anthropocentrism.

    As a theory, posthumanism is built on the structure of poststructuralism. As a set of practices, it is not only “analogous” to postmodernism but part of it. Cary Wolf doesn’t feel it necessary to make this connection explicitly, but her references to postmodernism throughout the book prove the point, such as in her discussions of films (Wolf 2010:2469), architecture (Wolf 2010:3024), , Kantian aesthetics (Wolf 2010:3069), and social system of art (Wolf 2010:3123), etc.

    The above list also reveals postmodernism’s close relationship with art. This prompts me to sort out poststructuralism, posthumanism and postmodernism in a novel but systematic way. I will first present the following diagrams:


    (Figure 1) Chronology of the Tripartite

    poststructualism → postmodernism → posthumanism

    (Figure 2) Different Emphases of the Tripartite

    Poststructuralism: Metaphysics

    Postmodernism: Aesthetics

    Posthumanism: Ethics

    (Figure 3) Re-scaling (Reduction) of Posthumanism Issues to Postmodern Issues 





    reduced to

    reduced to

    reduced to


    Ethnographic other/ Nature / Artefacts

    Self / Culture / Art




    Figure 1 assumes there is a linear development of the tripartite, or to use a music or dance term with a beautiful double entendre, a “canonical” development – in music, a canon is “a contrapuntal musical composition in two or more voice parts in which the melody is imitated exactly and completely by the successively entering voices though not always at the same pitch and which either ends with a coda or begins over again” (Merriam-Webster); in dance, “certain dancers follow the patterns previously set by others who then change to new patterns” (ibid).

    Figure 2 assumes what is new. Poststructuralism is essentially a theoretical concern born out of structuralist linguistics and branched into anthropology and then philosophy, as documented by Jacques Derrida (Derrida 1978:351-370). Postmodernism is a more daring and more diverse variation in which artistic endeavours are particularly favoured – and art, as we know, is something between “thinking” and “doing”. Finally, posthumanism is a return from aesthetic frivolities to serious concerns. But this time, ethical practices become as central as metaphysical theories.

    Figures 3 concerns my current project. As I point out above, posthumanism is a far more ambitious project than either Poststructuralism and postmodernism. It is also a vague late development and not-very-well-defined field in which our intellectual and social activist pioneers are still testing the water, as our readings throughout the course could testify. But its central characters, I believe, are in line with poststructualism and postmodernism because they come from the same source. Those characters include an emphasis on textuality, the increasing importance of visuality, the ambiguous oppositions between self and others (in poststructuralism the other is non-Western populations while in posthumanism it is expanded to animals), the blurring boundaries between the high and low (art and artefacts, or Being and technological utility), the dynamic binarism of rationality and irrationality (or animality), the practices of decentering (across geography, history, species and metaphysics), etc..

    The operations useful in grasping the essence of a vague posthumanism, thus, are: (I) to reduce it in scale from more cosmological concerns to more “ethnographic” or humanly concerns; (II) to rewind it from the age of ethics to the age of hobbyhorse aesthetics or armchair contemplations; (III) to trace the common origin(s) of poststructuralism, postmodernism and posthumanism.

    As shown in figure 3, the particular operations I’m going to take are : (I) to trace the issue of animality in ethnographic other (or as we will see, also in ethnographic self) and artefacts while tracing technologicality in essential self and art – this operation is arbitrary (animality and technologicality are supposed to be on the same side against essentialism) but it is useful tentatively; (II) to focus on the concept of postmodernism which I believe is not only transitional but also a broader term that can be used to include both poststructualism and posthumanism; (III) to trace their common origin beyond 1960s, beyond WWII, to at least WWI, in particular, the Surrealist movement.

    Instead of grand linear narrative, true to the postmodern spirit, I would like to focus on a very particular individual and a set of very particular text+images and follow a highly digressive or decentralized course/discourse that brings me to Europe, Africa, and Indonesia. The timeframe expands from the last fin-de-siecle to this fin-de-siecle. The individual in question is the French surrealistic writer and ethnographer Michel Leiris. The set of text+images refers to a 1936 magazine article with surrealist artist Man Ray’s photographs of African art/artefacts from the famous Mission Dakar-Djibouti (1931-33) with commentary written by Leiris.

    Before embarking on my trip, first I need to return to Cary Wolf’ text to clarify two points.




    II .Questions and Their Theoretical Implications


    1. Three Origin Theories of Postmodernism


    The term “posthumanism”, according to Wolf, appears in the humanities and social sciences during the mid-1990s (Wolf 2010:53). However, it is rooted in the emergence of poststructualism and postmodernism in the 1960s’. A text of particular importance is Foucault’s 1966 The Order of Things which concludes with man’s disappearance from history, “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (Foucault 1994:387). The historical reason of mid-1990s exuberance is not given, but I tentatively locate it in the age leading to neo-liberalism.

    There is a second theory concerning the origin.

    Let’s pay close attention to a particularly quotable Montaigne text from his Of Experience: “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things”. In 1966, it appears in the chapter II The Prose of the World section IV The Writing of Things of Foucault’s The Order of Things (Foucault 1994:40). In 1978, it appears again in the chapter X. Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science of Derrida’s Writing and Difference as introduction (Derrida 1978:278). The full quote, however, should be: “We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things. We need more books about books than any other subject. The world is swarming with commentaries; of [original] authors there is a great scarcity” (Montaigne 2003:996). In the same essay, Montaigne also declares “I judge myself only by actual sensation, not by reasoning” (Montaigne 2003:1024).

    The scepticism expressed in the Montaigne text and its emphasis on embodiment and sensations distinguish postmodernism, poststructualism and posthumanism, hence the popular quote. I don’t know what prompted Montaigne’s scepticism, but there is a peculiar theory concerning the neo-scepticism appearing in the post-WWII France. According to this theory (proposed by one of my mentors), which I’m highly intrigued but without access to evidences (hence my omission of the source), French intellectual establishment’s attempt at evading the responsibility of war-time appeasement or even collaboration with the Fascists accounts for relativism, anti-science sentiment, and Third-Worldism which is said to be a geographical deflection of the domestic guilt. In other words, neo-scepticism is in fact an immoral disguise.

    I could not testify if this theory is right or wrong. But the Montaigne quote is as good to describe Foucault as to describe a much more senior member of the French intellectual establishment: the surrealist autobiographer, dream-recorder and ethnographer Michel Leiris who is from a post WWI age and from the Surrealist movement prosperous then. His writing also fits Cary Wolf’s aesthetics of posthumanism of “hybridity, perversity and irony” (Wolf 2010:56) more than perfectly. I’m thus proposing a possible WWI/Surrealist origin of postmodernism/posthumanism.



    2. The Question of the Sublime


          The question of Poststructuralism, postmodernism and posthumanism is the question of scale. The enriching in meaning of ethnographic other in theoretical and practical outreaching, the deepening of globalization and inter-connectedness of world system, and the technological translation between the nano and the meta all contribute to their development. Not surprisingly, the Kantian idea of the sublime, which is individual’s affective response to scale, is essential in “post-aesthetics”.

    Here I would only briefly point out Wolf’s inadequacy in rendering this Kantian idea via the route of Lyotard: “The sublime … is a ‘feeling’ that marks the incommensurability of reason … and the singularity or particularity of the world and its objects … this [kind of essentialism] is a price we have to pay …” (Wolf 2010:3094-3095). My criticism are two-fold: first, the sublime is more than a rational political decision one chooses to pay or not – it occurs in the moment of great spontaneity; secondly and more importantly, the sublime is more than a result of horizontal/structural opposition between the finite self and the infinite world, it is sparkled by the temporal movements of personal or collective history, as we will see in the discussion of Michel Leiris.

    With my framework set up and two focal points in hand, I would love to move on to the discussion of particular objects in uncovering the WWI origin of post-isms.



    III. Objects: Man Ray’s Art, Michel Leiris’s Text, and Postmodernism

    1. Introduction


          The simple cover photo of Wendy A. Grossman’s Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens (2009, figure 4) serves as a fitting departure point to manifold digressions. It also leads me to an hypothesis of the surrealist origin of postmodernism.


    (Figure 4)




    2. People, Places, Objects, Photographs and Texts


    Shot in 1934 by the title artist, French surrealist Man Ray, the female figurine in the spotlight was collected in 1898 by German merchant, explorer and colonial agent Gustav Conrau in Cameroon. It represents an earth cult priestess known as twins mother “Bangwa Queen” whose ritual importance might be inferred from Marcel Griaule’s 1948 ethnography of Dogon mythology Conversations with Ogotemmeli. The ethnography was published more than a decade after Griaule’s initial contact with Dogon people in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti from 1931 to 1933. An album of the artefacts collected during the mission, however, were published by Cahiers d’art as early as 1936. Again shot by Man Ray in similar style to “Bangwa Queen”, those pictures were accompanied by Bois rituels des falaises, an essay  by the surrealist writer Michel Leiris who began his career as an anthropologist in the Mission Dakar-Djibouti but who never revoked his literary vocations. Ray’s photos and Leiris’ essay were intended as ethnographical documents, but both of them have since become objects of art criticism, not unlike the African objects appeared in the photos.

    3. Michel Leiris’ Text : the Sublime Reversed


    Here is a passage from Leiris’ Bois rituels des falaise:


    “ Among the Dogon … there is not, as in our industrial world, this divorce, this division (or better, this dispersion) of being and things in such a manner that, for better or worse, the work of art, cut off from its roots in immediate use, finds itself reduced, once it leaves the hands of its creator, to being only a diversion of aesthetes.” (Herbert 1998:183)


    “Divorce”, “division”, “dispersion”, and “diversion”. Admittedly through the fog of translation, the poetic and emotional strength of Leiris’ writing can still be strongly detected.

    The essay was written three year after the end of the mission in which a team of French intellectuals (ethnographers, artists, musicologists, linguistics) crossed the continent of Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea along the lower perimeter of the Sahara (Grinker 2010:285) and collected a huge amount of information and 3500 pieces of objects (Grossman 2009:114). Griaule and some other members on the team returned to the same region afterwards for further fieldwork. Leiris, however, besides writing occasional ethnographical comments such as Bois rituels des falaise, spent most of the subsequent years in Paris applying newly-acquired ethnographical methods to his writing of autobiography which was eventually published in 1939 as L’Age d’homme. Here is a typical passage from its English translation with an impossible title Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fiece Order of Virility (1963):


    “In 1927, visiting Olympia during a trip to Greece, I could not resist the desire to offer a libation of a particular kind to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus. I remember that it was a beautiful, sunny day, that there were many sounds of insects, and that the air smelled of pine, and I still see the intimate offering flowing down the soft gray stone. I had the distinct sense … that I had offered a sacrifice, with all that this word implies of the mystical and the intoxicating” (Leiris 1992:30)


    Susan Sontag, one of most prominent American Francophiles (and a friend of anthropology), observes in 1964 that the English translation is rather a puzzle: Michel Leiris was virtually unknown to American reading public – none of his some twenty books had been translated – but the book has no covering note and no author’s biography. What’s more, the translation doesn’t explain that the book was not a recent one but written three decades earlier (Sontag 1992:vii).

    Sontag doesn’t offer an explicit solution to this puzzle. Instead, she immediately jumps to the comparison of autobiographical practices of Michel Leiris and Norman Mailer both of whom in their writings talk about their personal weakness in great details, such as undesirable appearances, sexual impotence, cowardness, and various indecent acts (Sontag 1992:xii). Had she paid the close attention to the passage quoted above, Sontag would have predicted Philip Roth who details his sessions of masturbation in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

    Literary anti-hero is what connects Michel Leiris to Norman Mailer or Philip Roth. Or what connects France in 1930s to America in 1960s. But Sontag also discovers their differences: While Mailer is boasting his personal failures as a prerequisite to literary and public success, Leiris is using literature as a psychoanalytic tool to get rid of literature, to return to “real life” which to a significant extent refers to his sexual life.

    How do we position Africa in Leiris’ intellectual scheme? Is “Africa” literature or anti-literature to him? Is his fieldwork in Africa literature or anti-literature? Is his writing about Africa literature or anti-literature?

    Leiris’ idea of African art, as indicated by the above quote from Bois rituels des falaise, is a union of utility and aesthetics. It’s easy to detect that this is also his ideal of art in general. Africa embodies the conflation of writing and practice: the antithesis of literature and anti-literature becomes synthesis.

    His ethnographic trip to Africa also has double roles. It is anti-literature in that it is an escape from traditional literary order assigned to him by the French catholic society which he repeatedly shows his contempt. The “offering” of is semen on the Olympia mountain quoted above illustrates his longing for pre-Christian paganism in which he imagines that there is a union of body, materiality and spirituality. The same longing for primordial living inspired his African journey.  It began with Jazz music which first appeared in Paris in 1916. Leiris was impressed by the frenzies of Jazz that “makes us regret … most contemporary performances”, that inspired “impassioned frankness we inarticulately longed for”, and that introduced the first public appearance of Negros, “the manifestation and the myth of black Eden which were to lead me to Africa and, beyond Africa, to ethnography.” (Leiris 1992:108)

    Contradictorily, the African expedition is also thoroughly literary for him. In fact, it is not only an escape from European literary society, but also an escape from women, from his own body, and from chaotic metropolitan physicality exuberant in the city of Paris. 40 pages after the last quotes, Leiris in Manhood admits in great intimate details that what prompted his acceptation of invitation to Africa was his repeated sexual failures with various women:


    “Coming out of this limbo, advised by my doctor and convinced myself that I needed a more strenuous  life for a while, I seized the opportunity of making a long trip and went to Africa for almost two years, as a member of an ethnographical expedition.” (Leiris 1992:139).


    It was two years’ high chastity until he “fell in love” with a local Ethiopian woman. But it is still a literary affair rather than a love affair, because he didn’t really have sex with her – he initiated the relationship because he found the woman “[correspond] to my double image of Lucrece and Judith [Roman and Jewish heroines respectively]” (Leiris 1992:140).

    Leiris’ Africa and his trip to Africa are contradictory unions of literature and anti-literature. His writing on Africa possesses similar quality. British historian of photography Ian Walker compares Leiris’s anthropological writings, Bois rituels des falaise in particular, to his autobiographical practices – he finds a dialectic process.

    Leiris learned from the African trip the value of “messy” field notes and tried to apply the method to the observation of his personal life. The result is a dense texture of long twisting sentences with multiple sub clauses curiously similar to the style of Marcel Proust who had never left Paris. In turn, he utilized those dense sentences occasionally in  anthropological writings such as  Bois rituels des falaise to “give a sense of deep connection in Dogon society between geography and social structure, everyday life and rituals” (Grossman 2009:115).

    Walker notices in Bois rituels des falaise “shifts in tone and attitude between the cool accumulation of factual information and a passionate and indeed sometimes impenetrable poetic evocation” (Grossman 2009:115-116). He attributes the nuance to the double roles Leiris played: “The former is his response to an ethnographer, the latter as a creative writer and lapsed surrealist”.

    However, the more important point might not be “horizontal” split between two somewhat oppositional identities, which is structural and synchronic. What decides the shifting in tone in the text, I believe, is Leiris’s sojourning in Africa and being away from this sojourning experiences – it is essentially temporal and diachronical.

    Before we go further into Leiris’ change in tone in the text of Bois rituels des falaise, I would like to make a detour to the battlefield of Indonesia’s Atjeh region where the Dutch invaders were fighting the fierce local resistance. Our attention, again, is fixed on an album with the war-zone photographs shot by a Dutch photographer named Niuwenhuis. The companion text in the album was written by himself.

    A shifting in tone is noticed: before the final victory came, facing tragic carnage and imminent death, Niuwenhuis kept calm and a syntopical view of the battlefield as if he was a total outsider to the event. But when the victory was achieved, his writing – which basically are the notes from his fieldwork – suddenly becomes excited with a great sense of elevation (Siegel 2011:84).

    One interpretation of this change in tone, proposed by American anthropologist James T. Siegel in 2011, is that there is a uniquely Western sensibility of the sublime working in the situation. According to Kant, the sublime is a great feeling occurs when one has a narrow escape from death, and this is exactly what happened to Niuwenhuis when the Dutch triumphed (Siegel 2011:84).

    However, Kant’s interpretation of the sublime is a “modern” one that accords to the general philosophy since the Enlightenment in which a Western sense of aggressive progress and triumph are assumed. On its basis, I would like to propose an exactly opposite version of the sublime which sheds light on what is called “postmodernism” in anthropology and philosophy but “modernism” in art and music. It also sheds light on Leiris’ change of tone in Bois rituels des falaise which intrigues us.

    The modernist/postmodernist sense of the sublime, instead of a narrow escape or near failure, is provoked by a narrow survival or near success. In other words, death and failure, not life and success, become objects of desire or representation. This is intrinsically related to the aftermath of WWI with the collapse of Russian and Austrian empires. Not surprisingly, prominent attempts at creating new art form were often made by Russians, their expatriate community in Paris and Austrians.

    Superficially there is a preference for order and mechanic beauty in the chaotic aftermath: geometric cubism reaches a high point in 1916; Sergei Prokofiev wrote his neo-classical Symphony No. 1 in 1918; Arnold Schoenberg devised strict method of twelve-tone composing technique in 1921; psychoanalytic movement – a rational attempt at the irrational –  reached the pinnacle with the formation of The Committee 1922 under the leadership of Freud. But all those admirable quietude was probably only calm acceptance of what was inevitable. The intense silence is embodied in the photo” A heart-rendering group” depicting the 1927 reunion of severely mutilated veterans of WWI (figure 5).



    (figure 5)


    The eruption of the defeatist beauty occurred as early as 1887 when a young Gustav Mahler turned the cheerful nursery song “Frère Jacques” into a prolonged but gorgeous funeral march in his Symphony No. 1 “Titan”. In 1893, a St. Petersburg’s audience were stunned by the death finale of Pyotr Iiyich Tchikovsky’s Symphony No.6. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was published in 1915 in which the hero Gregor Samsa was eventually crushed to death. Those earlier examples of passionate expressions of defeat, however, make great contrast to the ethnographic (and Parisian) coolness to human misery as in Surrealist art such as Luis Bunuel’s mock documentary Las hurdes: Tierra sin pan, or Leiris’ autobiographical Manhood which amounts to a detached description of trivial humiliations he had suffered.

    Reversed sense of the sublime related to Mission Dakar-Djibouti Leiris participated six years ago explains this aesthetics of coolness. His personal failures in Paris very much proved a degeneratvie philosophy of history. The sublime feeling is produced – at least partially – by a gratifying sense of self-denying, because deep in his consciousness he knows that there are some people (Africans) in somewhere (Africa) that have been and still are producing original art with original beauty (African art). Continuing failures here and now justify the eternal triumph there and then – and that’s where and when his true self is still living in. This anthropological conflation of self with others is highly satisfying. There is a sense of immortality in the awareness of the spatial and temporal immensity of not just world but human world. The feeling is enhanced by the temporal proximity of “failure now” to “triumph then” when he wrote his autobiography immediately after he left Africa: he knows that he is still close to “there” and himself still close to “others”. This is the postmodern sublime.



    4. Primitivism


    The importance of the postmodern sublime lies in its ability to evoke self in other, often an individual self in collective other. This is ostensibly a spatial and discontinuous opposition between – in the Leiris case – a European self and an African other. But in essence it is also a temporal and continuous opposition between a primordial collectivity (as discovered in African ethnography) and an authentic individuality (as in art modernism). Their conflation is reflected in primitivism.



    5. Cahiers d’arts


          Two Dogon sculptures appeared in the 1936 issue of Cahiers d’art make an interesting comparison: the hermaphrodite rider has both his/her arms stretching overhead with two hands pointing to the sky (figure 6); the Dyougou Serou figurine, however, bury his face in his two hands.




    (figure 6)


    “We mustn’t understand those two works in isolation”, Leiris says in Bois rituels des falaise: we must defer to native connoisseurs – for them, the gesture of the hermaphrodite is an attempt at connecting earth and sky, while Dyougou Serou buries his face because he is in shame (Grossman 2009:116).

    Taken out of Leiris’ essay’s natural flow, this interpretation of those two artefacts hardly gives us more information than what is obvious to our own eyes, yet a slight familiarity with the French anthropology at the moment allows us to treat Leiris’ words with more seriousness: the “sky-pointing” explanation reminds us of Robert Hertz’s 1909 essay The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. The “shame” of Dyougou Serou, however, reminds us of Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli and Claude Levi-Strauss’s first major work, The Elementary Structure of Kinship System, published in the same year.

    Hertz’s essay intends to explain why the preference for right-hand is universal. His conclusion is that a religious preference for the concept of right dictates this bodily function. In establishing his argument, Hertz follows a Durkehimian logicality: (I) Right hand’s preeminence is a social fact, not a biological fact; (II) There is a universal opposition between the sacred and profane; (III) The concept of right is always associated with the sacred while the left with the profane; (IV). Human body is the microsm of the universe and reflexive of cosmology; (V). The cosmological opposition between the right and the left is translated into the preeminence of the right hand.

    In the essay, Hertz evokes biblical evidence to support the concept of the right’s sacredness: on the Judgement Day, God points out his right hand to the sky and left hand to the hell (Hertz 2009:96). This paragraph comes before Hertz links hands to right/left conceptual dichotomy, so it is circular logic. He obviously in the heat of writing forgot that the reason God uses his right hand to point at sky is that God is modeled after man. What interests us here is the comparison with Leiris’ interpretation of Dogon sacred figurine who points both his/her hand to the sky and who possesses two sexes – unlike God. There is an implied lack of religious and sexual dichotomy prevalent in the theories of mainstream French sociology/anthropology.

    Hertz’s circular logic mentioned above went uncriticised even now as far as I know, although his assertion of the universality of conceptual preeminence of the right over the left had be proven wrong as early as 1930s when his fellow Durkheimian and Sinologist Marcel Granet pointed out that the concept of the left enjoys more prestigious position than the right in China (Granet 2007:41-49). The general oversight, for me, indicates the spell of Christian essentialism still looming over anthropology and other disciplines of social sciences. This essentialism is what Michel Leiris wanted to overcome decades ago.



    The reason Dyougou Serou burying his face in hands in great shame is because he just had sex with his mother due to a lack of sexual partner. He is the first-born child of Mother Earth – in Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli, he is jackal the bastard child of Father Sky and Mother Earth. In that account, the jackal raped his mother because he wanted to get access to the secret of language (Griaule 2009:296). This detail of incest in mythology surpasses any saucy detail Michel Leiris provocatively wanted to share with us. In African mythology as represented by its visual arts, Leiris saw the deep meaning or great value he might have articulated himself.

    Claude Levi-Strauss, Leiris’ colleague from Musée l’Homme articulated the mirroring relationship between primitive art and modern psyche in his Effective of Symbols. In the essay, Levi-Strauss finds that the private thoughts and fantasies of neurotic patients analyzed by psychoanalysts is an extension of mythology in modern society where myth has no public venue (Levi-Strauss 1963:186-204). In other words, Michel Leiris’s messy thoughts and personal life suddenly had mythological significance – and African art satisfactorily gave him much needed evidence. In African art, he finds the middle ground between the private and the public.

    6. May Ray’s Photographs




    Leiris’s text is often dense. May Ray’s photos, on the other hand, often look simple and transparent. In the 1936 issue of Cahier l’arts, there are in total eight photographs (Grossman 2009:117). Besides the hermaphrodite rider and Dyougou Serou, there are masks and locks. The combination of text and pictures looks like just another magazine article. But careful inspection of Bois rituels des falaise, as we did above, and Ray’s photo, sheds lights on something extraordinary.

    The most unusual thing about Man Ray’s photos is its intensity despite its being still life. The Dogon objects are dramatically lit, often from the side. The background is complete dark, like the unlimited universe. The light travels across part of their surface to create rich contrast and texture feel.

    The aesthetics demonstrated in those photos makes stark contrast with the claim Michel Leiris makes in Bois rituels des falaise that lookers should contextualize the objects to understand it. Decontextualization is exactly what Ray did to give those objects – and pictures – powerful appeal to unsuspecting magazine readers. But it fits very well with the style of Leiris’ intense text. It also strays away from the neutral lighting typical of most ethnographic photos of the time.

    The deep focus and drama of Man Ray’s pictures reminds us of another passage from Robert Hertz’s The Preeminance of Left Hands:


    “ … in the Indo-European domain, the community forms a closed circle, at the center of which is found the alter … where the gods descend and the graces shine … outside it stretches the vast night, limitless, lawless, full of impure seeds …at the periphery … the right shoulder turned towards the interior … on the one side, there is everything to hope for, on the other, everything to fear. The right is the inside … the left is outside.” (Hertz 2009:96)


    Hertz’s text gives mystic and sentimental feel to objects. It also translates body into objects and then into space and finally into religion.

    It is worthwhile here to make digression to Levi-Strauss’ 1958 essay Do Duel Organization Exist? from his Structural Anthropology. In it Levi-Strauss proposes what he calls the concentric dualism. As opposed to diametric dualism which is an opposition between two equal parts and which corresponds to restrict exchange, concentric dualism is the opposition between the periphery of a circle and its core. Levi-Strauss builds up his argument from native village arrangements, and then incorporates layers of ethnographic data on other aspects of native lives, finally reach a universal symbolism. Levi-Strauss, who is good at lifting small details from other people’s papers and then developing them to a full-scale thesis, doesn’t mention Hertz’s turn-of-the-century article but its influence is clearly there.

    There are three key elements in the concentric dualism: (I) individuality as represented by the lonely core of the circle; (II) religiosity or sacredness of the individual – in a concentric village, the center is always sacred (and also reserved only for unmarried men); (III) the need for external space: unlike equal binary form in which the opposition is defined by two elements against each other, concentric dualism is defined by the space between the individual (the core) and the collective (the periphery), as well as the vast space beyond the circle.

    If we return to Man Ray’s photos, we will find the African artefact in the center is not the only object in the picture – the dramatic lighting and darkness emphasize the space around it. Space is also an object that was photographed. His aesthetics highlights individuality, religiosity and spatial expansion crucial to the establishment of individuality and religiosity.

    The objects in the pictures are decontextualized, but this act of decontexualization allows us to re-contextualize them with higher sense of sensitivity. What the object contextualizes, however, is not Africa but Europe – and anthropology, which is born with the heightened sense of individuality in the age of nation-state building, missionary work and colonial expansion. All those elements are embodied in Man Ray’s deceivingly simple photographs.


    IV. Conclusion by Way of Two Vignettes



    1. The Derrida Moment: Decentering and Postmodernism



    Jacques Derrida deeply understands the connection between anthropology and new sensibility. In his 1967 essay Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Science in which he pays tribute to anthropology and Levi-Strauss, Derrida advocates the decentering of the structure – in other words, the core of the concentric structure should leave the center and go outside the periphery to the “wildness”. He points out that this process of decentering is only possible with the advent of anthropology where we find “others”. It pushes the essentialist Western philosophy in general and metaphysics in particular back to deep history, turning a horizontal grid into a vertical pole. From one end of the pole, Europeans are able to trace back the origin of philosophy to proto-philosophy which is incest taboo discovered by anthropologists (in particular Levi-Strauss who in The Elementary Structure of Kinship System calls the incest taboo pivotal to the nature-culture division).

    Derrida regrets in the article that anthropologists and philosophers still position them as objective observers and scientists. He calls for “play” as a way of decentering and getting rid of ethnocentrism. This article becomes one of the landmarks of postmodernism.

    But if we look closed at the underlying intellectual milieu in France since last turn of the century, we find late 20th-century’s postmodernism in philosophy and early 20th-century’s modernism in art is closely associated. All the “play” Derrida advocates Michel Leiris had already done with his text and Man Ray with his photography, which appears perfectly together in the 1936 Cahier l’arts. Derrida’ – and other postmodernists’ – typical style of switching between a scientific and objective coolness and long-winding and intense reflexivity is already there in the change of tone of Leiris’ writing and the mystic contrast of Ray’s photos – and in the very nature of those African objects which at the same time denote a scientific other and an artistic self.

    The question is whether Africa is really crucial to the whole postmodern project? Or is it just another “playground” or even mere metaphor?



    1. The Heidegger Moment: Richard Long in Africa



    Three decades after Leiris left Africa, around the same time when Foucault and Derrida emerged on the European intellectual stage, British conceputal artist Richard Long began his African trips in the 1960s. Unlike Leiris who was seeking a human connection, Africans this time were completed left out. Long’s focus was the African landscape. The relationship in question is that between his solitary self and the World. What he was seeking is an Heideggerian Dasein in silence: he walked straight line, putting stones in order to experience the temporal dimension of Dasein (figure 7), and he walked in circle in order to experience the eternal and structural dimension of Dasein (figure 8). Leaving humanity aside, he consciously followed what Heidegger calls “poetically man dwells” (Valdes-Dapena 2012).


    (figure 7)




    (figure 8)

          Is Richard Long’s art art? In concluding Letter on Humanism, Heidegger says:


    “The thinking that is to come is no longer philosophy, because it thinks more originally than metaphysics … However … the thinking that is to come can no longer … become … absolute knowledge [but] its provisional essence. Thinking gathers language into simple sayings …” (Heidegger 1972:265)


    In that sense, Richard Long was attempting at this kind of “simple sayings” and “provisional essence” in recreating an original artistic language. Posthumanism, following this interpretation, is not a process of denying humanism but a process of recreating humanism from scratch with materials old and new.

    Posthumanists could walk with artists such as Richard Long in their exploration, just like earlier postmodernists walked with Surrealists such as Michel Leiris. On their way, they might meet one or two solitary Africans doing the same.







    Clifford, James

    1998. On Ethnographic Surrealism. In The Predicament of Culture. Harvard: Cambridge University Press.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    1978 [1967]. Writing and Difference, Alan Bass trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Foucault, Michel,

    1994 [1966]. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books.


    Griaule, Marcel

    2010 [1948]. Conversations with Ogotemmeli. In Perspectives on Africa. R. R. Grinker, et. al., edit. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 292-301.


    Grossman, Wendy A.

    2009. Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens. Washington: International Art & Artists.


    Granet, Marcel

    2007 [1933]. Right and Left in China. In Beyond the Body Proper. M. Lock and J. Farquar, edits. Pp.41-49. Durham: Duke University Press.


    Heidegger, Martin

    1972 [1947]. Letter on Humanism. In Martin Heidegger Basic Writings. David Farrell Krell, ed. Pp. 210-265. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.


    Herbert, James D.

    1998. Paris 1937: Worlds on Exhibition. New York: Cornell University Press.


    Hertz, Robert

    2009 (1909). The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity. In Saints, Heroes, Myth and Rites: Classical Durkheimian Studies of Religion and Society, edited by A. Riley, et al. London: Paradigm Publishers.


    Leiris, Michel

    1992 [1939]. Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Richard Howard, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Levi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Montaigne, Michel de

    2003 [1592]. The Complete Works of Montaigne. Donald M. Frame trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf  “Everyman’s Library”.


    Rapaport, Herman

    1997. Is There Truth in Art?. New York: Cornell University Press.


    Siegel, James T

    2011. “The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901,” in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 76-96.


    Sontag, Susan

    1992 [1963]. Forward to the English translation of Michel Leiris’ Manhood. In : A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility. Richard Howard, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. vii-xiv.


    Valdes-Dapena, Antonia

    2012. Richard Long’s Passage as Line: Measuring Toward the Horizon, speech given at the AIA symposium “Making Space”.



    Wolf, Cary

    2010. What is Posthumanism?. Minniapolis: University of Minnesota Press. [Note: The in-text citations here refer to the book’s Kindle edition which gives “location” number instead of page number]














  2. Dasein in Silence

    November 25, 2012 by Fan


    Dasein in Silence


    Fan Zhang

          In Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), the Stalker, a village idiot, leads the Writer and the Professor to the forbidden center of an industrial ruin said to be the key to the individual happiness and human future. The two intellectuals are disappointed, agitated and argumentative, but the idiot falls into sound sleep by a creek. In the creek, submerged under the polluted water, there is an abandoned icon of John the Baptist. A black dog suddenly appears from nowhere, standing by the village fool in silence.

    The cinematic imagery sheds light on Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism. Let’s begin with Heidegger’s frustration at the limits of textual language:


    “… the questions raised in your letter have been better answered in conversation. In written form thinking easily loses its flexibility … it is difficult … to retain the multidimensionality … [by contrast] speaking remains purely in the element of Being.” (Heidegger 1972:219, my emphasis).


    Ostensibly concerning a mere technical detail of writing, the meaning of the passage might be deeply rooted in Letter on Humanism’s core idea, which I believe is the importance of a true essentialism, or, an authentic humanism (Heidegger 1972:227). For Heidegger, humanism as understood in Western philosophical tradition is a distortion of the original meaning of essence, because it is built on an artificial dichotomy of essence and actuality and a false opposition between soul and body (Heidegger 1972:229). When one pits essence against actuality, one diminishes essence and loses grip on it. But where to get hold of the original essence? It’s in language, “the house of the truth of Being” (Heidegger 1972:223). Two observations follow this proposition.

    The first is Heidegger’s colloquialism. Some of his unique terms such as Dasein (Heidegger 1972:229) are from spoken German. It is a technique used to bring philosophical language to its original meaning, but it also directs readers to the source of authenticity, the Volk. It’s noteworthy that Heidegger switched from Catholicism to Lutheran Protestantism in his late 20s. His philosophical stance on language, thus, might be seen in the light of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible to German directly from Greek, bypassing Latin. Unsurprisingly, Heidegger bemoans that “… Greek civilization is always seen in its later form and this itself is seen from a Roman point of view” (Heidegger 1972:225). He rejects humanism of a Roman origin.

    The second observation is that Heidegger’s emphasis on language excludes animals from the realm of essence, because animals are (arguably) without language. Heidegger was aware of this exclusion and its inherent dichotomy I suspect he wasn’t comfortable with. The solution he came up with, crudely speaking, is to treat animals as a lesser version of human, as opposed to treating human as an evolved version of animals. His evidence is philological: anima in animals refers to “soul” (Heidegger 1972:227) – what about animals, after all, are their souls. This is also seen in his understanding of Uexküll’s bee experiment – as dissected by Agamben (Agamben 2004:52) – that animals in their captivity is not without essence but just in a state of poverty (Agamben 2004:60-61) –their souls are “closed” by environment while human souls are elevated, with the help of language, to the totality of world. Agamben considers it “undue projection  of the human world onto animals” (Agamben 2004:60) and goes on deconstructing Heidegger’s thesis in terms of the open/captivity dialectics (Agamben 2004:65).

    It’s curious that Agamben doesn’t’ treat the open/captivity dialectics in terms of language. If we treat “open” as a consequence of language, and language one of the forms of communication, we are reminded of Alfred Gell’s African chimpanzee trap: its mechanism lies in its ability to arouse chimpanzees’ curiosity and induce their thoughts; when they decide to play with the net’s trigger, they are shot by the poison arrows (Gell 1996:26) and in turn caught. Here, the hunting ground (the ground of actuality) is also the symbolic ground (the ground of essence) for both hunters and chimpanzees. Essence and actuality are unified. Humans and animals are connected. Freedom of thoughts leads to both the caputure and the captivity of the body.

    Heidegger, thus, can be faulted for stopping at language – stopping at the doorstep of Art which has the ability to communicate in silence. Art, which depends on emotions and sensuality to communicate, is also inherently animalistic.

    This brings us back to Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s interesting that the three human beings appear in the film do talk a lot, but they talk gibberishes. They fail to communicate linguistically in their search for inner truth. The failure is partially explained by the intellectual division of logic (or science) as represented by the Professor, poetics as represented by the Writer, and faith/ethics as represented by the village idiot – we see the same frustration at the division in Heidegger’s Letter. However, for Tarkovsky, even the colloquialism of the village idiot, the language of the Volk, fails to move the two intellectual snobs who dwell much of their thoughts on their individual triumphs and vengeances. Language is a weak agent for the purpose of grasping essence, because it can be easily manipulated by the individual. At the two ends of spiritual connection, there is art, and there is silent affinity shared by the Stalker and the dog.





    Agamben, Giorgio

    2004 [2002]. The Open: Man and Animal. Kevin Attell, trans. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


    Gell, Alfred.

    1996. Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artwork and Artwork as Traps. In Journal of Material Culture 1(1): 15-38


    Heidegger, Martin

    1972 [1947]. Letter on Humanism. In Martin Heidegger Basic Writings. David Farrell Krell, ed. Pp. 210-265. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.


    Addendum: two reading questions


    1. Is there any religiosity in Heidegger’s critique of humanism?
    2. Imaging a city-country-forest ternary system where metaphorical transitions between the three levels are going on, where would you locate the Hedeggerian transition?






  3. “Die Sitting, Die Standing, Die Making Art”

    August 5, 2012 by Fan



    “Die Sitting, Die Standing, Die Making Art” – Feng Zikai’s Artistic Life as Rites of Passage

    Fan Zhang



    In discussing the death rituals of Zen Buddhism, Ronald L. Grimes in his Deeply Into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passages (2000) notices Soto sect’s dictum “Die sitting, die standing” (Grimes 2000:224). The point of this dictum is to evoke a kind of ritualistic mindfulness that connects everyday life to death: “life is inextricably wed to death [here and now]” (ibid). In other words, the continuation of one’s life passage from one’s birth to (a prepared) death is embodied in the serious and continues attention paid to everyday life. Rites of passage, as Grimes also points out in the conclusion of his book, are acts at the same time embedded in and transforming ordinariness (Grimes 2000:345). Much attention in his study of rites of passage has been paid to performed acts, such as naming ceremony (Grimes 2000:80), comprehensive initiation education program (Grimes 2000:146), wedding invitation (Grimes 2000:211) and retirement party (Grimes 2000:324). However, art, a major component in the rites of passage in probably all great religions, is also crucial in connecting everyday experiences to the mystic passage from life to death. This essay intends to discuss the art of Chinese cartoonist and essayist Feng Zikai as his personal acts of rites of passage.

    Feng Zikai, born in 1898 to a gentry family, is a Buddhist layman (or “at-home” monk who marries but otherwise follows Buddhist way of life including vegetarianism). A popular cartoonist and essayist,  Feng is less known for his Buddhist engagement partially due to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s taking over power since 1949. Feng’s public art, however, is deeply imbedded in his private Buddhist sensibility. In many ways, his cartoons and essays are performed and performative objects mediating his life as a private individual and a public figure. They are also used by him, consciously or unconsciously, to commemorate his passage of life.

    An overview of Feng’s life shows that abstract doctrines have no strong impact on him, not atypical of Chinese literati (Dong 1983:35). Many of  his life-long Buddhist practices such as vegetarianism was not results of faith and discipline but visceral aversions to otherwise: “I have never been against eating animals on principles. The only few times I tried when I was a child, I would feel sick and depressed afterwards.” (Feng 1988:60). Similar sensibility is seen in his intuitive conception of  passage of time. In one of his earliest (and finest) essays, Gradual Change, Feng mediated: “Time for me is more magical than space. We can always hold on to tangible objects in space, limitless as it is. The efforts to grasp time, however, are always futile – and the only way to do is to see time in the calmness and tranquility of things and objects.” (Feng 1988:3, my translation).

    This desire to grasp the intangible time by tangible objects – and the awareness of its difficulty is the essential dynamics prompting Feng Zikai’s artistic engagement which I see as acts of performative rites of passage bridging the otherworldly and everyday life, or using Durkheim’s terms, the sacred and the profane. The key to this ritual bridging is Feng’s ability to see the extraordniary in the ordinary, to see the grand in the small and to see the serious in the humorous.

    Feng’s cartoon career began at a very young age. His initial artistic experience was closely associated with a Ming-Dynasty  drawing book Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manuel (Barme 2002:21) . One of Feng’s first attempts at painting occurred on his first day in the grade school when he was asked to draw from a superimposition of a  woodblock depicting Tang Dynasty sage Liu Zongyuan’s grand gesture after spiritual revelation. However, in tracing and coloring of this woodblock, instead of seeing profound spirituality, a young Feng found it amusingly resemble his father’s big yawn (Feng 1988:83).

    This episode occurred on his first school day would be completely mundane and trivial if the motif of this grand gesture/big yawn dualism doesn’t persist later in Feng’s art. In fact, Feng recycled the very imagery of the Sage gesture repeatedly later in his adult cartoons including the one entitled “I raise my gaze with a big yawn”  (figure 1, reprinted from Garme’s book). This recreation of the cartoon imagery, thus, can be seen as the recreation and preservation of an important moment of childhood memory – or using Grimes’ words, ritual enactment by selective remembering (Grimes 2000:191). If we view the first school day of a child as some kind of initiation rite in modern secular  societies, a salient observation would be: for ordinary people, initiation rites (as well as other rites of passage) are bestowed externally; but for artists, they can be self-motivated and occurred repeatedly throughout their lives – if they have the psychological needs to do so.




    Figure 1: (left) Sage Liu Zongyuan’s grand gesture, Qing woodblock; (right) “I raise my gaze with a big yawn”, by Feng Zikai, Shanghai, 1947.



    Initiation rites in the so-called “primitive societies” often held in a prolonged period of time and often repeated in different periods of a young person’s life (Newman 1982:239-286). If the first school day as a child is Feng’s first initiation experience, the second one, as far as we know, occurred when he was visiting Tokyo as a young artist: it came as an artistic revelation bestowed by the art of Meiji painter Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934).

    If the influence of the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manuel is somehow reactionary in that Feng saw unintended humor in seriousness, Yumeji’s art and personality are more sympathetically evocative: besides Yumeji’s casual yet articulated visual style, which was appealing to Feng, Yumeji embodied a new spiritual and social identity particularly attractive to the young man: he was aloof, not bound by strict social and religious order and an outsider of the master-student hierarchy essential to both Japanese and Chinese traditions (Barme 2002:56). In art, Yumeji crossed thematic boundaries of the Western and the East freely with one picture showing kimono, the other tuxedo. He was constantly juxtaposing and reinventing, yet he never truly betrayed the Eastern spiritual and artistic traditions when he constantly quotes Buddhist mantras and imagery in his creation (Barme 2002:75). His paintings always incorporates the art of calligraphy quintessential to both Chinese and Japanese art and spirituality.

    Again, Feng enacted his artistic rites of passage by adopting the Yumeji motifs repeatedly in his own art. One of the most popular Feng’s Yumeji adaptations is about the meeting of two childhood classmates: one is doing well and another goes down. This time, Feng recreated lyrical and sentimental depiction of life, something beyond mere humor (figure 2, reprinted from Barme’s book).



    Figure 2: (left) “Classmates” by Takehisa Yumeji, Tokyo 1909; (right) “Primary School Classmates” by Feng Zikai, Shanghai 1945.


    Rites of passage are traditionally collective but more and more individualized in modern societies (Grimes 2000:289). Is this individualism absolute? Feng Zikai’s art, if treated as attempts at individual rites of passage, is at the same time individual and collective – its collectivity is expressed in its connection to Feng’s milieu. Friends and mentors were important to him as to other neophytes.

    Feng Zikai, in all his life, was attracted to authentically eccentric people – not unlike his artistic endeavors that were often inspired by the profound but peculiar objects or people. The very first person he befriended in his boarding school years in Hangzhou was an odd young man named Yang Bohao who was considered by many teachers and classmates as mentally disturbed. In the obituary Feng wrote decades later for Yang, he related a story: Yang was often absent at classes, but refused to tell teachers any lie as suggested by other students: “I won’t say I’m sick, because I am not.” Yang took a shy Feng to excursions around the West Lake –  a major scenic place with cultural significance – searching for secret but interesting spots, against the school principle’s advice. He told Feng to “have a mind of your own” (Barme 2002:30). Feng would hold on to this idea to the end of his life.

    Despite the fact that Yang is an unknown in modern Chinese history, his obituary has since become a classical piece of literature often published in essay collections. The question can be asked is whether Feng’s writing of this particular obituary can be viewed as an act of self-imposed initiation rite that fixates a certain core value in his life? If the answer is positive, it again demonstrates that initiation is not an absolutely individual– there is definitely a fraternal if not collective dimension to it.

    The individualization of rites of passage, if anything, allows individual reformation of tradition as seen in Feng’s art concerning marriage and family.

    Neither wedding nor family life is a common subject in traditional Chinese art in which landscape has the supreme importance, but Feng consciously bring them into his cartoons. Although his marriage is an arranged one – and he never spent much time dwelling on the weddings or other ceremonies related to the union, Feng decidedly used his art to explore other dimension of family life often overlooked by traditions. In particular, in his art he treated women as equal partners in family life. In one essay on painting – completely unrelated to family or women – out of blue, Feng criticized a so-called tradition of Chinese husbands: they show a lot of familiarity with friends, neighbors or even strangers, but when they saw their wives in public, they tended to keep some upright distance, sometimes to the point as if their wives were perfect strangers (Feng 1988:138).  Feng responded with quite a few “family outing” paintings and cartoon (figure 3). Seeing in the light of rites of passage concerning marriage, the creation of those unique family paintings within the genre of Chinese landscape brings new substance and meanings to traditional rituals and social organizations.

    Figure 3: Feng’s unique “family landscape”.


    Grimes remarks that “there is no word in English for a ceremony that might mark the event [of giving birth]” (Grimes 2000:16). The birth rites are also scarce in other societies for a variety of possible reasons (Grime 2000:20). One possibility he fails to mention is the male-centric nature in all rites of passage. Initiation rites in pre-industrial societies often focus on boys (Newman 1982:239-286). Wedding is probably one of the only that have equal participation of women but even this ceremony sometimes features brides being “given away” to the bridegrooms by male members of her family. Giving birth, on the other hand, sees the alienation (or sometimes irrelevance) of men – even Grimes describes vividly husbands’ looking passively at their birthing wives from behind (Grimes 2000:16-18).

    Again, if we treat Feng’s art as conscious efforts breaking boundary of traditional rites of passage, some of his cartoons, while not depicting birth per se, shows children (especially his daughters) in the glory of their innocence (figure 4)

    Figure 4: A Bao (Feng’s daughter)



    Except for one Buddhist album, most Feng’s art is not overtly religious, but they often commemorate small things in his life. There is a certain refreshing humor or tranquility in every single piece of his art, but there is also a consistent sense of passage of time in it (figure 5)



     (figure 5, “Party is Over”)

          Feng’s struggle to grasp the intangible passage of life and time with tangible things defines his Buddhist spirituality and his art. His art, in itself continuing a very Buddhist mindfulness and almost animistic in that it focuses not on a single deity but on small things and occurrences, can be seen as individualized rites of passage that is not restrained by the individual’s actual age.  The art of Feng Zikai and its recurring themes, are acts and artifacts of a unique kind of rites of passage. The Soto Zen dictum, thus, can be expanded as “Die sitting, die standing, and die making art”.




    Barme, G.

    2002. An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai (1898 – 1975). Berkeley: University of California Press.


    Dong Qichang

    1983. Jingru Zhongguo Renwen Shijie [Entering the Chinese Humanisitc World]. Beijing: Sanlian Press.


    Feng Zikai.

    1988. Yuanyuang Tang Suibi [Notes from Yuanyuan Tang]. Hangzhou: Zhejiang Wenyi Press.


    Grimes, Ronald L

    2000. Deeply in to the bone: re-inventing rites of passage. Berkeley: University of California Press.


    Newman, Philip

    1982. The Making of Men: Ritual and Meanings in Awa Male Intiation. In Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiations in Papua New Guinea. Berkeley: Uinversity of California Press, pp.239-286.



  4. Michel Leiris’ Manhood as Misread by Susan Sontag

    July 27, 2012 by Fan

           On June 12, 1961, a cool early summer day in Paris, a 28-year-old Susan Sontag jotted down in her diary a list of books she intended to buy:

    Michel Leiris, L’Age d’Homme
    George Bataille, L’érotisme
    Robert Michels, Sexual Ethics
    Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man
    Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity
    Brooks Adams, The Theory of Social Revolutions
    Jean Wahl, Défense et élargissement de la philosophie
    Le recours aux poètes : Claudel
    L’ouvrage posthume de Husserl : La Krisis
    R. Caillois, Art poétique

          The first entry, Michel Leiris’ L’Age d’Homme was crossed out, presumably after she bought it on a later day. It’s not known if she bought or read other books. Nevertheless, this list presents a coherent intellectual milieu enwrapping Sontag (and Paris) at the moment. Robert Michel, who wrote about sexuality, is also the founding father of moderation theory that leads to Christian Democrat parties in Western Europe. Thomas Torrance is a Protestant theologian paying attention to the relationship between science and theology. Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack tried to trace the essence of Christianity beyond the Roman world to the Greek world. Brooks Adams is a radical American critic of capitalism while Claudel is a conservative French poet with a penchant for ritual sacrifices. Wahl and Husserl are earlier existentialists from France and Germany respectively. George Bataille, Roger Caillois and Michael Leiris are all Surrealist artists associated with Marcel Mauss with different tendencies: Bataille focused on eroticism’s universal transcendence; Caillois, the founding father of gaming theory, tried to lead Surrealism out of narcissism to “play”, performance, and communal solidarity; Michel Leiris, the only full-time ethnographer in the group, experimented with the consolidation of mythology, ritual and autobiography-writing.
           Most of those writers flourished between the two World Wars, or, between the tragic aftermath and the looming uncertainty. This was a time when the familiar suddenly looked strange. The expansion of the colonial empire with its bureaucratic machinery and the influx of immigrants, especially those from Africa, on the other hand, made the strange and the exotic familiar.
          Another expatriate American, Ernest Hemingway, captured a total Parisian excitement at this particular moment in his little book A Moveable Feast. Sontag’s book list, written down some 40 year later, appears to be more fragmented – or may I say, “postmodern”. Nonetheless, a set of related key words or phrases can be dug out: Christianity; antiquity; poetics; self and others; mythology, ritual and ethnography; existentialism; aesthetics; Surrealism; eroticism; social reform.
          If I, as an outsider, take ethnographic liberty to speculate on things that might appear to be random and unrelated for those from inside, the concerns of those authors and books as a whole can be delineated into five threads: (I) an intention to trace modern European life to antiquity via Christianity – this is the temporal and self-contained line of inquiry; (II) a desire to expand outside the West – this is a spatial line of inquiry going beyond the self-constraint to the territories of others; (III) an tension between scientific objectivity and aesthetic subjectivity; (IV) a dynamic process from intellectual endeavours to socio-political engagement, and vice versa; (V) the interplay between the individual self/personhood and the world/worldview.
          Michel Leiris’ L’Age d’Homme is the only entry Sontag crossed out in her diary. From her review of the book published three years later in the New York Review of Books when its English translation (with the amusing title of Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility) first appeared in the US, she didn’t appear to have read other books on the list. In any case, she didn’t incorporate any of the five threads listed above into her analysis. Her reading is entirely rooted in her very own milieu, America in the 1960s. However, Sontag’s indifference to history is probably exactly what Leiris’s book is really about – it also explains why my assumed review of Michel Leiris’ book begins not with Leiris but Sontag.
          Let me outline (and sample) the actual contents of L’Age d’Homme, or as it will be called in the following pages, Manhood.
           Manhood is Leiris’ autobiography which he began to write in 1930 when he was 34. Quickly skimming through the book, a casual reader might well be puzzled and annoyed by torrents of trivial and banal details about Leiris’ rather uninteresting personhood and life.
          He opens the book by telling us about his unattractive appearances: average height, receding hair, big and protruding head that makes him look like a ram, small and hairy hands, legs disproportionally short, and hunched back. Sexually he is not abnormal – just cold and impotent and “not endowed”. He dislikes babies because “the diapers smeared with excrement”. Death intrigues him a lot more than life since his childhood. In fact, suicide fascinates him. The book is an inventory of his timidity, failures, boredom, lurid behaviours and physical injuries he suffered. But there are moments of absurd hilarity: when a 7-year-old Leiris accidentally cut himself, his panicking mother tripped herself in the living room and was unable to get up. His father was out-of-town and his bed-ridden uncle could do nothing but looking at the boy’s blood flowing on the floor while the boy himself was meditating with a certain coolness his own imminent death. There are also moments sacred profanity – or profane sacredness – such as when Leiris tells us that:

    “In 1927, visiting Olympia during a trip to Greece, I could not resist the desire to offer a libation of a particular kind to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus. I remember that it was a beautiful, sunny day, that there were many sounds of insects, and that the air smelled of pine, and I still see the intimate offering flowing down the soft gray stone. I had the distinct sense … that I had offered a sacrifice, with all that this word implies of the mystical and the intoxicating”

          Back to Paris from ancient Greek ruins, he tried celibacy in an asexual arrangement of ménage à trois, experimenting existential boredom by wandering around Parisian streets purposelessly with two friends (or rather comrades). But he finally was intrigued by a young woman named Kay. After a three-year relationship, Leiris decides that Kay is emotionally fake (not unlike Swann’s wife Odette in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu). More sexual misadventures, a fascination with the onset of Parisian black culture and Jazz music, and his psychoanalysts’ advice that he need to “get away from civilization” in order to cure his impotence, encourage him to join the famous Mission Dakar-Djibouti, an  ethnographic mission to the heart of Africa under the leadership of Marcel Griaule from 1924 to 1929. Upon return, however, Leiris discovers that Africa and Paris are one and the same. The only way to escape trivial follies, he declares in the end of the book, is to subject himself either to dream or to ultimate emptiness – death.
          Leiris’ story is not told in chronological fashion. Rather than a linear narrative of a life story, Manhood is a set of montage or collage. For already offended readers who were expecting a good (and morally uplifting) story, this is like adding salt to injury: bad contents badly written. For people who are willing to take a second or a third look at the text, however, the organization of the autobiography could be viewed as an intention to elevate trivial profanities of individual experiences to the height of sacred mythology. In fact, Leiris’ disappointing personhood and life are classically embedded in a system of cultural references. Leris and his milieu hold a belief that, as James Clifford points out, “… beneath the dual veneer of the real [there is] the possibility of another more miraculous world based on radically different principles of classifications and orders”. It’s this underlying set of classification and orders that turns autobiography’s banal details – indeed autobiographic writing itself – into a ritual performance, a rite of passage.
           Leiris delineates the life-cycle themes in Prologue when he put his trivialities under headings such as “Old Age and Death”, “Supernature”, “Infinity”, “The Soul”, and “Subject and Object”. The following chapter is entitled “Tragic Themes” in which he relates Goethe’s Faust, Wagner’s Parsifal, and Tales of Hoffman: he was able to connect, through his childhood memories, themes of Christian devotion (in Wagner’s case), pagan knowledge (in Goethe’s case) and vision and knowledge induced by intoxication (Hoffman’s tales are generated by binge drinking). The next chapter about Hellenic femininity manages to end with a section called “Brothels and Museums” – in other words, Leiris sees that the sacred and the profane are one and the same in pagan civilization (remember his seminal “offering” on Olympus?). But the subsequent chapters are entitled with Biblical heroines: Lucrece, Judith. However, the fascination with the sacred femininity is always accompanied by unfortunate incidents proving to Leiris that he is nothing but “the head of Holofernes’. He left for Africa, only to find the same gender antagonism.
          The biblical scale Leiris imposes on his trivial autobiography in this short book creates a certain ambiguity. This ambiguity is the entry point for future readers who intend to look beneath the surface. In fact, Leiris himself took advantage of this ambiguity to reframe the meaning of the book in 1940s. During that period, he was gradually more involved with Sartre’s political activism. In 1946, Leiris published what he considered to be the definite preface to the book, claiming the dark humours and “profound boredom” expressed in the book are actually not about Surrealist aesthetics but an inquiry into authenticity – the writing itself was a ritual performance of selfhood necessary in connecting the personal to political praxis. The book is thus a political statement renouncing Bataille’s aesthetic approach in favour of Sartre’s communalism. The autobiography, along with all its talk about suicide, is thus a ritual suicide of selfish selfhood.
          Those are not the impressions Susan Sontag got from the book: she considers it an exercise in anti-literature by clinically documenting the author’s mental aberration. Revealingly, she points out that the book’s English translation suddenly appears in the US in the early 1960s, the age of anti-hero. The book immediately became a bestseller despite the fact the unknown French author (even to the educated Americans) was not introduced in the translation. In the company of contemporary American writers such as Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, the shamelessness is all Sontag could see in Leiris.
          My reading of Manhood is neither the same as Leiris’ early Surrealist nor late Sartre-influenced interpretations. I also find Sontag’s interpretation crude and uninspired. In any case, it’s sufficient to say here that I have respect for any of those interpretations.
           The book, as the Michel Leiris intended, is a recreation of mythology. Mythology, as Claude Levi-Strauss contended, functions on different levels and intends to evoke multitudes of reactions. The writing of the book – and by extension, the reading of the book – is a ritual performance of a mythological text. A particular individual at a particular moment in a particular place gets his or her particular meaning. To fully grasp the gravity of this very trivial text, one needs to go back all the way to the five threads mentioned early, and it requires a major treatment.


    Michel Leiris as an ethnographer of Dogon culture:

  5. Multiple Takes on a Single-Take: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark

    April 7, 2011 by Fan



    Multiple Takes on a Single-Take: Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark

    Fan Zhang

          The most talked about aspect of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2001) is its being the first feature film in history to shoot entire length in one single take. This is an unbroken 96 minutes of sight and sound, thanks to the new digital technology available to the filmmaker. This novelty is the focus of most popular reviews. It is also how this film was promoted in the market. Curiously, ten years since it received critical acclaims around the world, no one has followed suit. It remains the only major single-take film using this now old technology. This begs the question why?


    I. Spectators in Motion: A Museum View


    One obvious answer is its unique subject matter: the film is perceived by most as an ultimate museum tour guide. The single-take technique will only be suitable for this particular genre.

    A more thoughtful answer is its abandonment of montage, an essential narrative device perfected almost 100 years ago by another Russian filmmaker, Sergey Eisenstein.

    Both answers are valid. Both are also too obvious to be satisfying. We need to go beyond their truism – we need to use them as departure points to an inner reality that is far more interesting.

    Indeed, Russian Ark was  originally conceived as a museum documentary. A meeting was organized in 1996 with the newly appointed head of the film production division of Hermitage Museum Andrey Deryabin and the German producer Jens Meurer with the idea of finding a way “showing off this beautiful and important Russian museum in a film that can be shown around the world, not just concentrating on the economic problems of the country” (Meurer 2003). Sokoruv, as a preeminent filmmaker, was approached to direct the documentary. “You can utilize any part of the museum.” Deryabin told Sokurov (ibid). Instead, the filmmaker came up with the idea of using the entire museum to make a 90-minute historical drama in one uninterrupted take with a digital camera.

    The camera enters the side entrance of Winter Palace, now Hermitage Museum, with a small group of aristocrats who are attending the grand ball held by Tsar Nicholas II on February 13, 1903, known as the last Imperial Ball before the Russian Revolution. 96 minutes later, in one single take, the camera accompanies the same group of people exiting the palace, along with thousands of other guests. Between the beginning and the ending of the grand ball, the camera, which is also the invisible first-person character, following an anonymous 19-century French nobleman, walks around 33 halls of the Hermitage, “looks” at a number of artworks displayed, meets a legion of characters, and witnesses 300 years of Russian history. The change of location from one hall to another is integrated into the change of times, from Peter I, the founder of St. Petersburg who is credited with initiating Russia’s westernization, to Catherine II whose personal art collection brought from her native Germany is the foundation of the museum, to Nicholas I, who in the film receives of a Persian emissary who apologize for a previous assault, to Nicholas II who is going to meet his death in the imminent October Revolution. As opposed to the glory of the 19th-century, the 20th century history only makes a cameo appearance when the Frenchman and the camera accidentally step into a gloomy backroom during the WWII when the city of Lenigrad is besieged by German troops. The Soviet history is otherwise entirely omitted. The last fin-de-siècle is immediately followed by the next fin-de-siècle – a contemporary Russia represented by the new Hermitage Museum and its spectators.

    Clearly, we can treat the entire film as a kind of cinematic life group exhibition, a variation on the traditional tribal display that is “in tune with Boasian principles” (Jacknis 1985: 81) – and we, the film audience, along with the Frenchman and the camera, are the museum spectators (an interesting fact is: museum spectators appear in the film become part of life group exhibition themselves. Their conversations with the Frenchman footnoted the contemporary Russian society and culture – the lookers become the looked).

    This comparison is natural and intellectually unchallenging. But when watching the film with this reference in mind, I always feel that between an actual museum tour and Russian Ark’s on-screen tour there is something fundamentally different

    What is this difference? The origin of museum life groups in the 19th-century gives us some clues. Among them, there are the parlor game tableau vivant in which people reconstructed a scene fro m paintings or novels, taxidermy, waxwork and last but not least, theatrical tableau in which actors’ positions froze in large-scale circular panoramas (Grifitths 2002: 18).

    The visual dimension is the key: while all those representation is panoramic and horizontal, Sokurov’s representation in Russian Ark is vertical, or to be exact, a  perfect integration of the horizontal (space, objects and “culture”) and the vertical (time, life and “history”). This integration is achieved by the uninterrupted “walking” of the camera.

    One may argue that in a museum exhibition, spectators are walking too – and this act of walking between display rooms and objects can also achieve a sense of verticality, a sense of history.

    Yes, and no. The fundamental difference between a museum display and a film screening is: in the museum display, when you walk away from objects displayed in one location, although you can’t see them any more, you know they are still there. You can always walk back. There is an underlying sense of spatially separate externalities (Egypt, Greece, Italy, …), something that are always “there”.  In Russian Ark, when you (the camera) walk away from one scene, it is gone forever on screen. Spatial motion is reversible, at least ostensibly so. Temporal motion is not.

    This is not to say that the aesthetics of museum display is secondary to the aesthetics of film. In fact, it has paramount importance. If Russian Ark retains all its current content and form, only replaces the single-take with multiple takes, as almost all other films do, this will be a fundamentally different film. The awareness of film editing will cancel out the subjective feeling of “walking” in a museum. It will separate the audience from the camera. Audience will immediately identify the walking camera as the filmmaker who is manipulating the scenes by editing, not themselves. The film will become a relatively mundane historical reconstruction.  The strong sense of being there in history, which unifies the architecture and its interior, the objects and artworks, the people as life group and people as spectators, will be lost to just another celluloid dream. A strong sense of historical tangibility, fundamental to museum aesthetics, will be lost on screen.

    The new digital technology allowed new super long-take technique. The technique allowed a new aesthetics that unifies museum’s spatial motion and cinema’s temporal motion, in turn, unifies the opposite senses of permanence and temporality, materiality and immateriality. The question is: what’s the philosophical purpose this new aesthetics serves?

    As anthropologist Daniel Miller points out: materiality is all-encompassing – even philosophy can not do without materiality (Miller 2005: 43-44). So, the best way to answer this question, is first to return to the objects appeared – and not appeared in Russian Ark.

    The collection of the Hermitage includes both West European art and Russian art. The latter, however, doesn’t appear in the film. The guided tour on screen begins with the Raphael Loggia, a replica of the Vatican gallery, proceeds with the sixteenth and seventeen century Italian masters which are followed by Antonio Canova’s sculptures. It finally arrives at the Flemish, Dutch and Spanish art (Keghel 2008: 82). Between the appearances of those objects, the filmmaker reconstructed two types of scenes: the historical characters and events that demonstrate the European aspiration of Russia, and the contemporary museum spectators who respond to West European art in different ways: from indifference to superficial fondness to deep understanding and love.

    In the film, the first-person camera is constantly arguing with the Frenchman it follows. When the time-traveling Frenchman, who appears unexpectedly in the Raphael Loggia and surprised by its magnificence, asks: “Are we in Vatican?” the camera answers with anger: “Better than Vatican. This is St. Petersburg!”. Upon seeing an orchestra playing Baroque music, the Frenchman gasps in admiration: “Ah, Italians!” The camera anxiously answers: “No, they are Russians!”.

    Russia’s cultural relationship with Europe, or to be exact, Russia’s identification with Europe, is the main theme of the film. The Russian anxiety explicitly expressed in the film might reflect Sokurov’s philosophy of history: instead of a Boazian cultural relativism, Sokurov believes in an evolutionary universalism the highest stage of which is the European high culture. Russia is Europe’s legitimate offspring who has the right to claim its patrimony.

    Let’s consider the evidences supporting this hypothesis. Besides the careful selection of artworks shown in the film, the elitist view of Sokurov is also obvious in his filmography which includes documentaries and biopics of political leaders (Lenin, Yeltsin, Hitler, Emperor Hirohito of Japan) and artists (Shostakovich, Chaliapin, Tarkovksy, Chekhov, Huber Robert, Dostoevsky, Mozart, Tosio Simao and Rostropovich). He claimed that “my indisputable authorities are people of classical culture, who have no connection whatsoever to contemporary literary and artistic practice” (Sedovsky 2001).  Elsewhere, Sokoruv has made the comment that the October Revolution originated in mass movement is a catastrophe that broke Russia’ gradual evolution led by high culture (Keghel 2008: 77). The film’s very title “Russian Ark” suggests Sokurov’s conception of Russia as the cultural guardian of Europe.

    In sum, the European art displayed in Russian Ark expresses Sokurov’s historical hierarchy in material terms. The novelty of cinematic single-take, on the other hand, expresses his evolutionary universalism in aesthetic terms.

    Now we can attempt to answer this question on a philosophical level: why is this stunning film technique enabled by new digital technologies not widely adopted? My hypothesis is: in the postmodern age of cultural relativism (or multiculturalism), Sokurov’s philosophy of history is not and will not be widely accepted, not even in Europe. The appreciation of Russian Ark, thus , will stop at a superficial level. The film will be considered by most as just a novelty. The actual idea is overlooked. Ideas, however, are the strongest motivational force behind the spreading of new techniques and aesthetics. In the age of postmodern juxtaposition, single-take as seen in Russian Ark has little use.


    II. Motionless: A Pictorial View


    This reading of Russian Ark’ s single-take aesthetics, however, is my own. The artist’s intention may well be completely different, so it is necessary to know Sokurov’s view on visual style.

    In an Artforum interview conducted during the 2001 Venice Film Festival, three months before Russian Ark’s shooting date (December 23rd), Sokurov said: “The film image must be created according to the canons of painting because there are no others, and there is no need to invent them. They have already been meticulously worked out and extensively tested by time. The director of photography needs to invent nothing; he has only to educate himself.”(Sedofsky 2001) The two-dimensionality of painting and film, according to Sokurov, is a restriction that gives artist freedom to concentrate on the main matter, “the moral dimension” (ibid). Thus, many filmmakers’ attempt to compensate screen surface’s dimensional limit with techniques such as montage (and now 3-D) is not absolutely necessary. In other words, single-take technique brought by digital technology allies film to painting, which Sokurov recognizes as a far more sophisticated art form.

    If Sokurov was indeed inspired by painting when he was conceiving the single-take approach in Russian Ark, would my previous interpretation be invalidated? Are critical interpretations necessarily external to artists’ intentions?

    Alfred Gell points out that artworks are “embodiments and residues of complex intentionalities” (Gell 1996: 37). He also declares that “anthropology shall be part of art-making itself, insofar as art-making, art history and art criticism are a single enterprise” (ibid). This is an advice I take into my heart, and this is a stand I believe Sokurov himself would have approved. In the Artforum interview, when asked about the discrepancy between his preference for pictorial flatness and his intention to create an edgeless feeling of sphere in his films, Sokurov simply replied: “Such theoretic questions are best answered by film critics.” (Sedofsky 2001) I would say those questions are best answered by anthropologists. With this in mind, I would like to move to a third interpretation of the single-take aesthetics.


    III.  World in Motion: A Historical View


    If we disregard the spatial and temporal motions of the camera in Russian Ark and all its philosophical implications discussed earlier, if we imagine that instead of our own bodies moving across museum and history (as the film wants us to believe), we are passive audience enwrapped by museum and history moving towards us (as what actually happens in a movie theatre), we can see that the long-take technique allows us to return to the origin of cinema: the recording of theatrical spectacles from a single and static point of view. We can also see what Sokurov did with the new digital technology is to revive an important Soviet ritual tradition: the reenactments of the Winter Palace seizure, although in a politically reactionary way.

    The most ambitious reenacting event was staged by the symbolist dramatist Nicholai Evreinov in November 1920, the three-year anniversary of the Revolution. It is a mass revolutionary spectacle involving a cast of eight-thousand participants and a 500-member orchestra. Sokurov’s on-screen “reactionary” spectacle eighty years later matches the scale, considering film’s ability to exaggerate: it involves 867 actors, a thousand extras, and three orchestras (Condee 2009: 174). But Evreinov’s protagonists are the proletariat mass while Sokurov’s are aristocrats and artists. Evreinov had 100,000 live Bolshevik spectators while Sokurov has “art-house” filmgoers around the world, a small population comparing to Hollywood’s audience. The only protagonist remains unchanging is the material existence of the Winter Palace/Hermitage museum, which probably is also the only remaining spectator of the rituals.

    The new single-take technique in the end of the 20th-century enables the revival of ritual aesthetics, which is also the essence of original cinema in the beginning of the 20th-century. Due to technological limitations, the earliest films were restricted to a single point of view, just like Russian Ark. As a result, filmgoers went to theatres for spectacles, not stories. In turn, previous knowledge related to on-screen events and imagery is crucial in establishing their meanings (Nowell-Smith 1996: 17).

    For audience, one of the greatest difficulties in understanding this film is not its lack of linear narrative, its incoherent dialogues (people are often murmuring in the film), and its lavish attention paid to objects, but to recognize who’s who and what’s what. Most of the historical characters – Peter the Great, Nicholas I, Nicholas II – was not explicitly pointed out. There is one figure often appeared suspiciously behind the Frenchman on the margin of the screen. He was never explained or developed, but people who are familiar with Russian history know that in the 19th-century, foreigners were often spied on by government agents. The dinner of the Nicholas II with his family looks tranquil and mundane to an innocent spectator, but the experience of the scene will be enhanced if one knows that this was the last dinner before he and his family were captured and executed by the revolutionaries – the actual seizure of the palace, however, is not shown in the film.

    One revealing detail in the film demonstrates Sokurov’s intention: the Frenchman asks a young man who is looking at El Greco’s The Apostles Peter and Paul: “Are you Catholics? Do you know the stories of Peter and Paul?” The young man replies: “No. I look at them because I like them!” The Frenchman is surprised: “How can you understand it if you don’t know the Scripture?!”.

    But consider the film’s intended audience: it was made to promote the museum and Russia overseas, not exclusively for Russians, then, what accounts for Sokurov’s singular approach?

    The answer is: Sokurov trusts his potential global audience’s intelligence, at least their genuine curiosity. He offers visual and cinematic pleasures. In return, he asks their creative appropriation of his art – and Russian history, just as Russians have creatively appropriated foreign culture.

    The true appreciation of a work of art requires active or even intense participation. So is the true acquisition of knowledge. Those are Sokurov’s own words:“Ideally, the filmmaker would never allow the viewer to comprehend or even perceive the image, at once, in its entirety … the viewer is never a passive contemplator, but someone who participates in the creation of this artistic world. All works of high art are built on confidence in the delicate consideration and intuition of this person. They always leave something unsaid or, conversely, say too much, thereby concealing some simple truth.” (Sedovsky 2001)

    In theory, Russian Ark’s single-take brings audience back to cinema’s static beginning, overwhelming them with ritual spectacles the meanings of which are shared only by some. In practice, it invites active engagement of global individuals: the lack of prior knowledge is not necessarily a weakness. It could be a strength.

    IV. An Attempt at Synthesis


          Russian Ark’s single-take aesthetics could be a way to convey artist’s unversalist philosophy. It could be a reflection of the artist’s visual aspiration. It could be a revival of the original cinema. It could be a parody of political spectacles. It could be all of them and more. Different contemporary anthropologists used different terminology in describing this kind of complexity. Alfred Gell’s “complex intentionalities” is more reflexive; Daniel Miller’s “plural materialities” (Miller 2005: 18) is more materialistic; Fred Meyer’s “complex sense of connection” (Meyer 1995: 84) is more psychological; Igor Kopytoff’s “biography of things” and its singulization in modern society (Kopytoff 1989: 80) is more sociological. Different as they sound, the essence of those concepts might be similar.

    The question is: how to synthesize those transient complexities and utilize the concepts mentioned above? How to take the multiple takes with a single-take? I believe, to achieve this goal we need to adjust our spatial and anthropology’s horizontal point  of view and go back to a vertical point of view for just a while. We need history and personal biographies – two aspects that happen to be what traditional art history and criticism are good at and what have been overlooked by modern anthropology. When anthropologists  are giving support to the art world by providing critical context to “artifacts” and revealing their complex intentionalities, as Gell proposed (Gell 1996: 36), we can also learn one thing or two from them. Here I would make an awkward attempt to incorporate art historian George Kubler’s concept of “prime objects” in my discussion of Russian Ark and its single-take aesthetics.

    Kubler in his The Shape of Time (1973) suggests to use the concept of “formal sequence” to periodize art history. A sequence is composed of a number of “prime objects”. Prime objects in a sequence resemble each other in forms, but they are not mere copies of each other but successful “resolutions” to a common historical “problem”. (Kubler 1973:31-61) For Kubler, there are open sequences: for example, African art and Western modern art belong to the same open sequence; and there are closed sequences, such as the classical Greek art. When history repeats itself, or when a problem hasn’t been properly solved, there could be a reactivation of an old sequence.

    From this point of view, Russian Ark’s single-take aesthetics – viewed by most film critics as a renovation – is in fact a reactivation of old sequences, if we consider it as an extension of the 19th-century Eurocentric universalism, as suggested by take one; or an extension of painting, as suggested by take two; or an extension of either original cinema or Soviet ritual tradition, as suggested by take three. My hypothesis is that the underlying “problem” of all those sequences is that of national identity, or nationalism.

    Sokurov in various places expressed his ambivalent views of  his fatherland. Sometimes he emphasize Russia’s uniqueness as different from the rest of Europe: “This theme [of death] … expresses the essence and value of Russian art. It is that which, I think, distinguish Russian art in its most honorable examples from all of world art, from Western culture” (Condee 2009:167). Death, indeed, is one of the major themes of his filmography. Sometimes he emphasizes Russia’s uniqueness as one of the brightest children of European civilization (Sokurov 2002), as this film demonstrates. Sometimes he was depressed by his Russian identity: “I’m very disturbed by the fact that I’m Russian, that I live in a society that has been mentally ruined along with its very real economic ruin. It hampers the creation of that special world where incentive comes from art, because it is not enough to create a harmonious work; it is imperative to keep it from being stifled by a society in the grips of hatred and disaster. Unfortunately, Russia is still in such a state.” (Sedovsky 2001).

    Ambivalent situation in history creates ambivalent art. According to Kubler, prime objects – or great pieces of art work, are always mutations of established but lifeless art: “A possibility for change appears with the mutant-bearing prime object, while a generally beautiful or distasteful objects merely calls for ritual reception or avoidance.” (Kubler 1973:40)

    There is this profound quality of mutant ambivalence in Sokurov, his Russian Ark, his expectation of its reception, and ultimately his philosophy of history. The film, although an reenaction of old traditions, doesn’t really demand automatic and uniformed response. In fact, Sokurov demands active and critical engagement of his audience. The film is also a conscious effort to debase the mainstream and ritual way of watching film, a consequence of consumerism. Sokurov creatively used new technology to reactive old aesthetics, in turn, to renew the spirit of history.

    We can go back to Sokurov’s Eurocentric universalism. We shall take it with a grain of salt. True artists don’t follow dogmas, not even good dogmas or politically correct dogmas. They may be standing on the wrong side of history, but they are facing real history with all their sincerity and seriousness. They will create a body of work despite their personal views, which may be the achievement of “complex intentionalities”.

    Complex intentionalites could be a prerequisite for all great art. It enables the artwork to travel through time and space, collecting different daily existences and experiences along the way, finally reaches the open eternality of world history, reaches the depth of philosophy.

    Even if there are not many followers of Russian Ark’s single-take aesthetics, with the spread and mutation of its intentionalities, it will finally gain momentum.




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